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Watching television in public: Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is not how it ought to be

Watching television in public: Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is not how it ought to be

Seems this world's got you down
You’re feelin' bad vibrations frown
Well, open your eyes, girl, look at me 
I'm gonna show you how it ought to be

–“Good Thing,” Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Spirit of ‘67

In a late scene in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) teases Jay Sebring (Emilie Hirsch) about being ‘too cool’ to be caught listening to Paul Revere and the Raiders. It’s typical Tarantino flavor dialogue, commenting on some nearly forgotten piece of pop culture for the sake of validating or invalidating it’s “cool” factor– a nearly pointless exercise given that the number of times “Good Thing” will be streamed via Spotify in the coming weeks will likely be a thousandfold more than a few weeks ago. Tarantino has long been an uncool man with a keen interest in arbiting what is cool and what is uncool. Pulp Fiction was all about cool, and the most interesting thread in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is Tarantino embracing his uncoolness. There’s no way to make 60s television cool (even my beloved Adam West Batman–namechecked in this film more than once–is cool only by way of being a parody so dry and so uncool that it accidentally became hip). However, this is a film that not only overstays its welcome with a lack of story, but has an extremely off-putting treatment of women. 

The film’s main plotline is that of washed-up TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Eight years after his hit show, Bounty Law, was cancelled, Dalton has been relegated to playing the “heavy” (aka villain) in new shows, guest starring in episodes of The Green Hornet, FBI, and others. Meanwhile Booth is still employed by Dalton as his stuntman/gopher/handyman/best friend. Neither of them are particularly cool. Absolutely nothing is cool about Dalton, a man who is either deluding himself about his craft or on the edge of having a good cry over his career. Booth is only cool in the way that extreme apathy can sometimes be mistaken for cool. A prospective new agent (Al Pacino), cautions Dalton off his current career path, as viewers will think of Dalton as weak after seeing him get bested by the younger actors playing the shows’ heroes, reducing the chance that he will get cast as a star in the future. He urges Rick to go to Italy and make Spaghetti Westerns, which Rick deems as less worthy than making television. 

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Tracing Rick Dalton’s career over winter and summer of 1969 takes up most of the film’s runtime, and mostly goes nowhere. While some of the scenes are fun, and both DiCaprio and Pitt turn in good enough performances, neither of them have a true character arc. DiCaprio gets to show some decent moments of reflection, and his time spent with a child actress on the set of Lancer (Julia Butters), talking about the art of acting, and how the Western novel Dalton is reading reflects his current life position is a fantastic scene. Unfortunately, we also watch roughly a half hour of the making of Lancer, with Tarantino recreating or cinema-tizing late 60s television for reasons that aren’t entirely clear other than to showcase DiCaprio/Dalton as an actor. 

Tarantino, who once likened watching digital projections of movies in cinemas to “watching television in public” subjects the Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood audience to just that. Watching television in public. Because not only are there extended sequences recreating television filming, but there’s also several long scenes of characters sitting around and watching television. For a filmmaker so ardently focused on keeping film alive (and the screening I attended was projected off a 35mm print), this movie is an absolute love letter to 60s television. As far as I could take away, the larger point is some sort of “RIP monoculture” nostalgia trip, like isn’t it crazy that Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) and George Spahn (Bruce Dern) watched the same episode of FBI that Rick Dalton guest starred in? As far as I can tell, there’s no deeper point to be made other than celebrating the “good ol’ days,” which makes its retrograde treatment of women feel even worse. 

With his earlier films, Tarantino took his influences and remixed them, making homage-laden films that still felt fresh, but this feels as slavish recreation as sections of the new The Lion King in terms of recreating things that already existed. Especially when it is inconsistent. Or compare the way Tarantino treats Margot Robbie as Tate versus DiCaprio as Dalton. DiCaprio gets lovingly inserted or stars in recreated footage, while Robbie’s Tate only gets to watch the real one on a movie screen bare feet up. But more on that further down. It’s possible that this film is primarily aimed at those who remember this era, or grew up idolizing it. But where Death Proof made me excited to watch Vanishing Point, the tedious pace of this film doesn’t inspire me to seek out Gunsmoke or Navajo Joe. Where his earlier films pointed to their references in a fun and dare I say welcoming way. Pulp Fiction and Death Proof make you feel like you’re being taught to speak secret language. Hollywood is so steeped in a time and place that without a working knowledge of the Manson Family, it would be easy to not even understand why particular scenes are meant to be tense.

Hollywood feels like Tarantino trying to make a hangout movie, but the best examples of the genre are all about interesting characters and fun dialogue. While the writer/director is known for both, this film has none of the depth of his best work, and the dialogue feels like an imitation of his own, better work. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are so passive as characters they barely seem to exist, underlined by the fact that neither of them experiences any real change over the film’s long running time. And if that is the point, there’s not enough interesting material here to justify how much time the film spends with them.

The other major thread in the film is following Sharon Tate around. Literally. For example, we watch her drive to a part of LA, walk by some movie theaters, into a bookshop, then back to the movies so she can watch the real Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew. There’s so little information or character placed into this minutes-long sequence in the film that it gives ample time to reflect on why it is in the film in the first place. It’s a sequence that takes five minutes to accomplish what could have been said in two. There’s also a thread about the Manson Family lurking in the background in an obvious example of real life being a metaphor, but these two aspects highlight the film’s major issue when it comes to women.

I am legitimately shocked that Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is from the same director as Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and Death Proof. Yes, behind the scenes, Tarantino’s interactions with women on set have been troubling. But while his films have often had somewhat of a leering lens (especially when it comes to his well-documented fetish-like attachment to ladies’ feet), that was at least balanced by other aspects of the characters in those films. The only woman in Hollywood not routinely sexualized or reduced to a nagging stereotype is the 9-year old actress played by Julia Butters. Every other woman in the film is more or less objectified. Their value comes from their bodies and the way they look aesthetically, from Sharon Tate to Cass Elliot (Rachel Redleaf) to Dalton’s Italian wife Francesca Cappucci (Lorenza Izzo). Not only does it feel extra problematic because several of these actresses are playing real people, but there’s a sense of meanness that underlies it. And both Tate and Cappucci are beautiful women shown loudly snoring while they sleep, as if Tarantino can only remind us they are human through the use of their bodily functions.

Comparing how Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) describes the relationship between Tate, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Jay Sebring at a Playboy Mansion party to the way Karina Longworth describes them in her excellent podcast You Must Remember This is striking. Longworth doesn’t claim to be a dispassionate narrator in her podcast. She fully acknowledges and comments on the exact point of view McQueen espouses, but never objectifies Tate in the process. And while this criticism could be dismissed as McQueen’s view and not the film’s, Tate, Polanski, or Sebring’s characters never get the screen time to comment, leaving the writer/director’s point to come through McQueen’s mouth.

However, this rampant objectification is most easily seen with how the film treats  the Manson girls, routinely derided as hippies in the film. Booth picks up one of them, a hitchhiking Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and gives her a ride to Spahn Ranch. On the way, she offers oral sex and he declines because he doesn’t believe she is 18.  Based on this and Booth’s assessment of the situation at the Ranch, women in this Hollywood exist as children until they are old enough to be sexualized, which is when they become manipulators and users of men until they are old enough to marry or be disposed of. Watching One Upon a Time...in Hollywood it is as if Tarantino’s adoption of well-rounded, complex female characters was merely something to remix, a way to give freshness by way of subverting tropes rather than an ethos that is core to the filmmaker. This aspect of the film is the most troubling and most damaging, robbing any sense of fun I might have had watching the film’s climax, a play at violent comedy, but which only became more disturbing as it went on, since hippies cannot be as categorically demonized or dehumanized the way Nazis can (even before factoring in substance-altered mind states and possible mental illness). It changed my lack of engagement with the film into outright anger. 

As a technical exercise, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is wonderfully realized. And with all the driving, it would be fun to be able to explore the world of 1969 Los Angeles that Tarantino has reconstructed. If only there was anything else redeeming in this film. “Well, open your eyes, girl, look at me/I'm gonna show you how it ought to be” takes on perhaps its darkest meaning by the time the picture is complete, substituting hangouts and objectification of women for an investigation into any of the many interesting subjects. Revisit Inherent Vice or Echo in the Canyon instead.

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood opens in Philly theaters tonight.

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