I had read on some film site that before Quentin Tarantino made his latest movie dealing with the Manson murders, he showed the script to his friend Roman Polanski so as to not be insensitive. It portrays Polanski’s likeness, the Manson family brutally murdered his pregnant wife, this became perceived as a defining moment in the “end of the 60s” in the public imagination, and so on. But Polanski was fine with the script, and it’s easy to see why.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is possibly the first true “post-#MeToo movie.” Ostensibly about the Manson murders, it twists it up in true Tarantino fashion, with the historical setting playing no more than a flexible, contingent context for his real, eternal subject: the meta-reflexive enjoyment of movies.
And so, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood postulates, “What if the Manson murders didn’t happen?”
The answer it gives it that we’d have a universe in which we wouldn’t have to worry about Roman Polanski drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. We could still have the innocence of the 60s, we could still “make them like they used to.” We could still have Steve McQueen pointing out to us starstruck fans the mythic heroes partying at the Playboy Mansion—see these gods that walk among us! Look how they dance so naively to “Son of a Lovin’ Man” by the Buchanan Brothers. (Polanski and Tate dance apart, in tune with the swinging spirit of the times, and no one is touching each other, nothing so subversive as the joint McQueen smokes.) We could enjoy the great works of art, the great works that give life all meaning, without having to deal with their unfortunate byproducts—that the free-love counterculture would actualize itself in the Manson Family, that all the cherished icons at the Playboy Mansion really are just as sleazy and evil, that the whole world is ruled by a cabal of billionaire pedophiles and showbiz is as complicit as the rest. We can enjoy Chinatown like we always wanted to, without worrying about what went down at Jack Nicholson’s house. We can enjoy the rest of Tarantino’s Weinstein-produced body of work.
This is the grand arc of Tarantino’s career: trying to reclaim this enjoyment. There’s a nobility to it, I think, inasmuch as there could be said to be any “American patriots” left that aren’t Nazis. For the hyper-postmodern cyberpunk dystopian imaginary we now live in, the late 60s is a classical age, a renaissance that produced the best art and the best heroes, California mid-century modernism might as well be the Parthenon and spaghetti westerns might as well be Sophocles. But to call Tarantino’s nostalgia outright “fascist” and so on betrays sloppy imprecision. (And, superficially, the fascists now look to the 1980s, whereas the liberals look to the 1960s—what about the leftists?) Tarantino doesn’t, say, zealously cosign the genocide of the Native Americans, but you would never catch him agreeing to do away with “cowboys and indians” as a cultural signifier in the virtual world of cinema. He rightfully opposes the widespread murder of blacks by the police but embraces racism as cultural signifier from which we as “disinterested” observers derive aesthetic enjoyment (pervasive in his other movies, probably most notoriously in Django Unchained—but this latest entry is an exception in that it has no mention of the n-word at all…).
Anyway, there’s certainly something uncanny about Tarantino’s notoriously suspect politics—the foundational American settler violence is disavowed in a literal sense but embraced and deified in a virtual sense, we can accept the violence so long as we get our movies in the end… Perhaps what unsettles the woke critics the most about Tarantino is that his art project is actually intuitively understood by most Americans, despite however “avant-garde” the formal structure is—the studios give him rare final cut privilege only because his particular style resonates with audiences, they know he won’t really fuck it up, and even his worse entries, like The Hateful Eight, aren’t as embarrassing for the studio as, say, David Lynch’s Dune.
Tarantino’s movie is pure ideology in the sense that Mullen’s tweet is. They postulate the value of art as something that retroactively justifies all the fucked-up, oppressive relations that produced it. Political action is worthless, you won’t get the classless society, you won’t get the Hollywood without the structural sexist coercion—but at least you can get art, just make them like they used to make them. Give us the only possible “pure” thing, the thing that sets itself beyond the grime of the material world and in the ecstasy and innocence of the ideal. This is not an “innocent” position, but rather the complete opposite.
Behind the happy ending—the cultists break into actor Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) house on Cielo Drive where they are brutally/hilariously killed by stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his pitbull Brandy, and Dalton’s flamethrower after the bros get wasted on their “last night out;” neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) survives and invites Dalton into her house, the film ends as he walks up the driveway optimistic he’ll get some great parts in future Polanski movie, “Once upon a time…” comes up on the screen, credits roll—is a cynicism that is almost sublime in how egregious it is. Yes, Tarantino knows this is not what really happened, he leaves out all the nasty parts, not just the murders, but the shady underbelly of Hollywood itself, the rampant sexual abuse in an industry where beautiful women are as desirable as they are disposable, and so on. The movie deals with these in a purely virtual sense: it deals with them precisely in how it doesn’t deal with them—after all, it’s “Once upon a time…”
This winking dialectical switcheroo is the essence of what could be considered either infuriatingly stupid or genius about the film. There is so much to be said about the Manson case and what it means in the context of the 60s zeitgeist that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is necessarily a missed opportunity. But on the other hand, who is Tarantino to probe the psychedelic depths of man’s depravity? Tarantino is an artful director but never a “deep” one, and the truth of the Manson cult requires depth, a depth that has not been reached by anyone on the subject, other than perhaps Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (which preceded the murders by a couple months). Tarantino can deal with it on his level, the level of endless surfaces, on which Manson is repressed, a traumatic Real that can’t be approached directly but has to be circled, even and especially if history has to be rewritten.
The moral vindication of Hollywood occurs in a scene in which Cliff Booth, the stud stuntman and receptacle of all the macho mojo that Rick Dalton has lost, gives one of the Manson Family girls a ride back to Spahn Ranch. In the car ride, she offers him a blow job; he asks her how old she is, and when she can’t prove that she’s of the legal age, he refuses as a matter of principle. Who is fooled here? This I found to be particularly obscene, so obscene that it can’t be read as anything other than as an allusion to “all that other stuff” that got left out, the grotesque seediness of Hollywood that remains entirely virtual in Tarantino’s world, but is all too real… Tarantino wants us to imagine the “good,” “nostalgic” Hollywood (the Los Angeles of soapy pop Paul Revere & the Raiders rather than the Doors and whatnot) even though we are all aware that it is necessarily a lie. Roman Polanski did all that bad stuff, Harvey Weinstein did all that bad stuff, and Quentin Tarantino would be kidding us all were he to moralize about it. In other words, Cliff Booth actually accepts the blowjob from the girl, we all know this, but we don’t know that we know it, we cannot see this, it is too unbearable, the scene depicts the necessary fiction to protect our enjoyment, the enjoyment that Tarantino considers sacred.
In the car before the murders are to happen, we see the Manson Family members preparing themselves for the event. They tell themselves that they have been raised on violence in movies, and now it is time for them to kill the people who taught them to kill (the people who make movies). They are then dispatched in the most slapstick manner—they cannot escape the “cunning of reason” of the cinematic gaze, the cultists were the instruments of historical/artistic Necessity, mere tools employed in the realization of something they themselves despised, no matter how well-planned things are, somehow they will find a way to go wrong, and so on. How else can we read this other than as an endearingly cynical defense of Tarantino’s own work? (Recall an old interview with Tarantino with someone scolding him for making violent movies, asking something along the lines of “why do you make such violent movies?” to which he answers with childish indignation, “Because it’s so much fun, Jan!”).
The tension that builds throughout the film with the expectation of the Manson murders is suddenly dissolved with the cultists ill-fated last minute change of plans. In a footnote in Less than Nothing Zizek describes the passage from Lacan’s “dark” seminar X on anxiety to the “playful” seminar XI on the four concepts of psychoanalysis: “comparable to that of Shakespeare’s late plays, Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Wagner’s Parsifal, after the lowest point of despair (Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods), the mood changes, we enter a fairy-tale space where problems are magically resolved, where the tragic deadlock dissolves into bliss…” Is this not what happens when we see Booth’s pitbull ripping Manson Family member Tex Watson’s (Austin Butler) dick off and the subsequent reconciliation of all the problems in the movie that were never really problems in the first place?
That Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has the acclaimed critical reception it does in the wake of #MeToo shows what difference the movement made: Not much at all. The show must go on, “you can even fuck the kids in private… just… make movies that aren’t just marvel bullshit.” Even Jean-Luc Godard at his most politically woke gets recuperated into Tarantino’s endlessly self-reflecting images. But no matter, maybe we aren’t Brechtian revolutionaries after all, since even Brecht himself would’ve been #MeToo’d.
At its core, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is just a buddy comedy of the friendship Dalton and Booth have; Dalton goes to Europe to find his mojo and get his career back on track starring in spaghetti westerns, naturally bringing Booth along as his stuntman. Successful, Dalton comes back with a hot European wife, signalling the end of their close male friendship. But when they get back to LA, Dalton puts his wife to bed so he and Booth can spend one more night on the town, one more night for the boys, in spite of everything, the same promise of something like “Cum Town,” (the podcaster scene partying at the Playboy Mansion, Steve McQueen pointing out Chapo Trap House and others…) un-woke and post-woke like Tarantino, we see Dalton sitting in his pool drinking a margarita, headphones on, oblivious to the Manson Family intruders … what could he be listening to?