I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood recently. It’s an interesting film that can be experienced on a few levels. On the surface, it’s pure Tarantino, and by that, I mean great musical soundtrack, attention to costuming, a blend of fact and fiction, looming violence and self-conscious parodying of television, film, advertising, and to a certain extent, the late 1960’s as a whole. It’s easy to chuckle at the film’s sardonic coda which rolls along with the credits that has DiCaprio pitching Red Apple Cigarettes in a black and white testimonial. The pitch of course is so out of touch with our contemporary health concerns and with our mistrust of celebrity endorsements, that it is hilarious even before the commercial ends and we see DiCaprio drop the cigarette in disgust and drop kick a life size cut out of himself for having a double chin. Similarly, it’s easy to enjoy a scene midway through the film in which a self-pitying DiCaprio fearing he is as washed up as the paperback bronco buster he is reading about is comforted by a startlingly precocious child star. And though some have pointed out the racial overtones of the scene in which Brad Pitt’s character takes on Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Lantern, it is hard to deny the visual interest of the sequence.
But I’m more interested in what the film implies about divisions in American society, whether Tarantino intended this or not. Quite clearly, the film illustrates the huge divide between rich and poor. This is seen most evidently in the contrasting home and lifestyles of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio’s television star) and Cliff Booth (Dalton’s stuntman and best friend played by Brad Pitt).
Pitt’s Cliff Booth and DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton
Dalton lives in the Hollywood Hills in a gorgeous home with a swimming pool (natch); posters/paintings of himself and his roles abound both inside and outside the house. Booth, by contrast, lives in a trailer home at the back of a drive-in movie theatre. In a scene detailing his grim existence, there is not much to choose from between the canned slop Booth serves his dog and the boxed Mac and Cheese Booth eats right out of the pot. While there is no glamour in Booth’s world, he still has access to television, which seems to unite all social classes in the film: movie directors watch it, the hippies in Charles Manson’s family watch it, and Dalton and Booth watch it too. Also interesting about Booth’s habitat is that for the first third of the film, we would never guess that he lives this way. He drives Dalton’s huge yellow Cadillac Coupe de Ville (a nod to Gatsby’s car perhaps?), spends time eating and heavily drinking with Dalton, dresses comfortably but respectably and has a sweet convertible himself, a VW Karmann Ghia. One of the themes of the movie is clearly appearance and reality, and Booth hides the reality of his dilapidated home life so well, we are shocked when we see where and how he lives, and later learn other dark facts about his past. But that is his job after all. He is a stunt man and gets paid a meagre fraction of what Dalton does to trick the audience into thinking Dalton is engaging in dangerous and death-defying stunts. The layering of artifice makes sense here as Booth represents pretense for the pretenders. In an early aside, the audience is informed that contrary to Dalton’s statement that Booth is his driver, Booth drives his car because Dalton has lost his license after repeated drunken driving infractions. Not only does Booth drop Dalton off at the movie studio and pick him up once the shooting day is done, but he also fixes things at Dalton’s luxurious home. Fittingly, we see Booth up on the roof, fixing Dalton’s television antenna, a nod to both how far technology has come since the sixties, but also to the central role of television to this film and to the enduring North American fact of rich guys hiring laborers to fix their toys so they can maintain access to escapism. So, Booth does the dirty work and Dalton gets the benefit. But Booth doesn’t seem to mind the exploitation at all; on the contrary, he seems to revel in it. If you can’t own your own Hollywood Hills home, the message seems to go, at least you can hang out at one doing whatever the owner asks. And the seduction of affiliation with the rich and famous seems to hoodwink the audience too. As I watched, my sympathy and interest was clearly with Booth rather than Dalton. What does it reveal about those watching that the hero of the film might be a hanger on whose ambition consists of getting drunk and avoiding jail? The exploitative nature of the relationship between the two main characters is furthered near the end when Dalton informs Booth that now that he is married, he will not be able to afford Booth’s services. It takes the film’s drastic and violent conclusion before Dalton seems to understand the value of Booth’s friendship.
But the division between the wealthy lead actor and the physical stunt man is not the only one that the film points out. There is a massive separation between the actors and “the Hippies”, and, in fact, the depiction of the latter is quite disturbing.
Perhaps Tarantino is simply viewing things from the perspective of the homeowners in the Hollywood Hills, but the Hippies in the film are seen as lazy, dangerous and criminal. And, yes, those in the Manson family who were involved in the Tate LaBianca murders were just that. And, yes, in Tarantino’s fictional world, Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski. But there seems to be something troubling to let the zombie group think of the Manson family be equated with all Hippies. You would never know by this account that most Hippies were peaceful and rejected conventional values like materialism, competition and exploitation. In a very lengthy scene in the film, stunt man Booth picks up a pretty young girl who is looking for a long ride to the ranch where Manson’s family has ensconced themselves. Booth seems curious as he used to film on the ranch and knows the owner. He goes to extraordinary lengths to check on the owner and puts himself at great risk in the process. The film admits of no middle ground between the brutal capitalism of Hollywood and the criminal manipulation of Manson. Of course, it is no wonder we end up siding with Dalton, Booth, Tate and the world of rambling pool parties and blenders of frozen margaritas over the weapon wielding and stoned out Manson family. Still, in the final scene when Dalton goes over to have a drink at his neighbours’ place, I felt a bit conflicted. Is this Tarantino’s message then: that the audience of Baby Boomers who used to fight for ‘peace, love and understanding’ have now withdrawn behind their gates where, whilst sipping Scotch, they commiserate with neighbours about the perils of the underclasses breaching their security? Talk about implicating your audience. With Tarantino, however, you wonder how much is intentionally intellectual and how much is just a random product of a dedication to lush visuals and sounds?
There’s another division too and it surfaces in the egotism of certain individuals. For Dalton and Tate are so immersed in their careers that they seem to have lost a genuine understanding of others outside their circle of fame. In a particularly affecting scene, Tarantino has Tate drive to a movie theatre where her latest film has just opened.
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate on the cusp of stardom
Tate admires her name on the marquee and her picture on the posters for the film, before asking for free entrance based on the fact that she is “in the movie”. I suppose one effect of this scene is that it humanizes Tate and we see her portrayed as awestruck by her burgeoning success as an actor; it’s as if she has to see the film in the theatre to believe that it’s really her up there on the screen. No one can accuse her of being jaded. This parallels a later scene in which Dalton and Booth watch Dalton’s guest turn on the tv show FBI as if they were kids watching themselves on television for the first time. In fact, Hollywood seems to inevitably promote insecurity as is evident in an intense seen where Dalton berates himself for forgetting his lines and screwing up a scene. It is no coincidence that Dalton warns his eight year-old co-star that she will face this identity crisis herself soon enough. Yet, this self-preoccupation and vanity has really forged a demarcation between Dalton and everyone else. Nowhere can this be seen with more force than in the film’s climax when a violent confrontation envelops his house while Dalton floats obliviously, headphones on, in his backyard swimming pool. It’s hard to take this scene totally seriously upon seeing Dalton’s reaction when he finally clues in to what is afoot, but the fact that his swimming pool is his retreat (perhaps another Gatsby allusion?) might hint that the endgame of retreating into a community of wealth is ultimately withdrawing into a community of one, where interests other than your own do not merit a moment’s attention.
There are other implied divisions too. For example, I cannot seem to recall a single line in the film spoken by a Black character. Perhaps I am forgetting the odd line or two, but surely one of the make-believe elements of this ‘Once Upon a Time’ tale is that Black people don’t exist. I don’t know if this speaks to the limits of Tarantino’s imagination or the complications that adding the dimension of race would produce for his film. But it is rather unnerving to say the least. Still another division exists between the glamour of feature films and the somewhat low brow world of television, with the Spaghetti Westerns of Italy finding themselves somewhere in the middle of the two. There’s also an interesting division between young and old that is unveiled in the car of the Manson family members who have come to Hollywood with murderous intent. When two of the older family members in the front seat are amazed that the guy who just chewed them out on the road was none other than Rick Dalton from Bounty Law, the two in the backseat who are too young to remember the show, treat their nostalgia with disdain. In fact, one of them, Sadie, moves from annoyance to a chilling thesis which states it is acceptable to kill the actors who are associated with the media because it was TV that brought killing into living rooms all over the world. Again, Tarantino seems to unfairly associate this extreme and irrational argument with young hippies who reject American conventions.
And one final thought on division in the film. It concerns the division between on screen violence and violence in the real world.
Dalton’s TV show, Bounty Law, sees his character get paid for killing wanted fugitives. Killing is his job and audiences viewed this as entertainment. Of course, what hangs over most of the film is the specter of the horrifying Manson family murders which gripped and terrified much of the world. Playing on the audience’s uneasy knowledge of the murders, which included the repeated and fatal stabbing of the eight and a half months pregnant Sharon Tate, Tarantino saturates the end of his film with a violence that is almost cartoonish in nature. It is undoubtedly a relief. Yet it shouldn’t obliterate the questions we must have about how we can be drawn so completely to the seduction of screen violence and be repulsed so thoroughly by the prospect of actual violence. How can we account for this dichotomy? How much Tarantino really wants us to wrestle with this issue and how much he is just using violence for cinematic suspense and engagement is an open question.
In the end, I suppose Tarantino’s genuine intentions are largely irrelevant. The film is worth seeing because it raises many questions. For me, those questions largely center on forces that divide us. And while some may suggest that the divisions belong to a period half a century ago, my fear is that they have compounded since then. The reckoning waiting for us might just make Manson seem an insubstantial nuisance by comparison. The film that looks back fifty years to our time might just be too dark to view.