Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

My primary issue with the review format of popular film criticism is how it often eliminates the “I” subject position. The form asks the reviewer to take as objective of a stance as possible, state what a film sets out to accomplish, and evaluate to what extent it’s successful. If a review gets too subjective, so this conventional logic goes, it’s easier to dismiss as mere opinion.

Funny, then, that we never ask films to do this. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The more a film adheres to formula, the less effective it can be. If, however, a film is personal—if it’s perceived to come from an individual rather than a template—it’s applauded. I note this as a way to address how Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is best understood by invoking the subject position of the spectator, because the film demands that personhood be accounted for by history. This is something lacking, even absent from Tarantino’s tedious procession of historical revisionism that encompasses his last three films. In those works, the genre template is akin to a sandbox for Tarantino’s jejune pleasures. Hollywood, though, considers how the personal basis of historical reckoning necessitates an admission of personal traits. In short, the film laments the rise of resentment as a governing form of the self. Once resentment becomes an ethos, it, per the film, ruins the separation of pop culture and politics.

This is unabashedly Tarantino’s vision of what constitutes a memory, of how the phantasmagoria of celluloid flickering through a projector garners the power to eliminate the outside world. At least, until it doesn’t. That’s what 1969 means here; it’s a moment that cinematic spectacle would no longer be held separate from the real. For Tarantino, whose frustrations can only manifest in cinema as violence, the basis of the anger is distilled into a simple escapist idea: the figures of mediated heroism become the unwitting avengers for the helpless, the weak.

Tarantino respects, above all, people who work for a living, especially for those whom perfecting a craft is a central component. The valorizing of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, flip sides of conservative masculine types, evinces this pathology. Their whiteness, while not unimportant, seems less essential than their willingness to protect what they believe they’ve earned with time. Of course, both are fuck-ups in any idyllic sense. Rick lacks the dedication to craft of his 8 year-old co-star and drinks himself to sleep each night; Cliff is slinking toward probable homelessness. Yet they endure and strive in ways that retain Tarantino’s prized character trait: dignity.

Yet, the subject position of the spectator must trouble these notions lest they become fascistic. Here’s where the film offers its most provocative ideas. By rendering the Manson Family (and “hippies” in general) as reactionary—as anti-establishment grifters—Hollywood invokes contemporary questions of representation, canon formation, and cultural gatekeepers. It’s invoking, though, is not a reflecting or a consideration of these questions beyond the limited, macho subject position of Tarantino’s own. To what extent it needs to be—or how Sharon Tate, as both biographical and filmic figure, might complicate that—is something Tarantino is not prepared to answer in a definitive way. What‘s clear is that the perceived loss of historical knowledge, for Tarantino, stems from harebrained understandings of the past. That is, proclamations that emanate from a fundamental place of narcissism. The paradox here is apparent, given Tarantino’s own narcissistic cinematic worldview. But it’s also the case that his narcissism stems from absolute immersion in something outside of himself. In short, the devotion to oneself through a capitalist form of production is ethical and mature; the wallowing in oneself through signifiers of both action and purpose is fundamentally adolescent and lost.

Tarantino has made a film that, politically speaking, closely aligns with the views of a Bill Maher, a self-professed liberal who nevertheless rails against “Social Justice Warriors” as tearing the country apart, and equally denounces things like “political correctness” while offering only flimsy ideas of what those things constitute. Tarantino has done much the same here in offering up the Mansons as meat for his two studs to grind. But Tarantino also so clearly, genuinely feels the loss of this LA—his personal, secular paradise—as emanating from a larger social failing to consider differing viewpoints. If Hollywood is profound, and it consistently has the depth of feeling to be so, it’s as a rebuke of all forms of reactionary thought. Its hypocrisy, then, is that it espouses the self as the inevitable center of social consciousness. If the film cannot escape this vortex of contradictions, then it’s just as well, because no given time and place can ever truly be made sense of in toto. To do so, would necessitate the elimination of the self.

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