Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 | 8 minutes (2,183 words)
At the start of Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 best seller about the 1969 Manson murders, there’s a “Cast of Characters.” The list includes all the people who investigated the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends and the “family” to which their murderers belonged. Their “casting” is a crude example of how the dead can be appropriated by the living for our entertainment. “The story you are about to read will scare the hell out of you,” the book promises in its ’70s twang. Tate and all the others who died so that tagline could live hover behind the whole enterprise like unnamed specters.
Quentin Tarantino was only a child in the late ’60s, an innocent among Hollywood’s innocence lost. His latest film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, is set around that time, and he calls it his “most personal,” a “love letter” to Los Angeles. “I think of it like my memory piece,” he recently told Esquire. “This is me. This is the year that formed me. I was six years old then. This is my world.” In Tarantino’s ’69, a paunchy Leonardo DiCaprio plays a stuttering, aging Western star named Rick Dalton, who alternates driving around the city with his hotter stuntman Cliff Booth — Brad Pitt, somehow better-looking than ever — and drunkenly weeping in his trailer over his waning career as the hippies and film auteurs elbow him out of town. Bubbling up through the narrative like champagne effervescence is newcomer Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), not saying much, not doing much, her sun-lit beauty coming off as little more than a contrast to the storm ahead.
Tarantino explained that the film’s “good-hearted spirit” is supposed to leave the audience asking how Manson fits in: “It’s like we’ve got a perfectly good body, and then we take a syringe and inject it with a deadly virus.” What he didn’t explain was that he had the antidote: that in “the Quentin universe,” he interrupts Tate’s death, preserving her like a butterfly in his own showcase of history. But we kind of knew that already, because it’s what he always does. Tarantino is the god of his own nostalgia, fossilizing what he remembers of his past into a signature masterpiece, narrowing history into a vehicle for his own edification.
Tarantino is always the deity on the right side of history. This is the guy whose revisionist World War II film had a group of Jewish “Basterds” felling the Nazis and whose revisionist Western had a slave setting fire to a plantation called Candyland. Any way he cut it, the Manson family was going to be fucked. What’s surprising is how much their reanimated victims are screwed in the process. I don’t know what the 1969 Hollywood was really like because I wasn’t around, but Tarantino’s version, as far as I can see, is a sepia-tinted land of meandering bromances, this one between an actor who isn’t doing as badly as he thinks he is and a stuntman who may have knocked off his wife but draws the line at banging a hot underage hippie. It’s a place where it’s really hard to make out anyone’s persona because even though this is supposed to be the kind of movie that is relaxed enough to let us just hang out with its heroes, it’s also Quentin’s universe and he takes up so much space that none of the characters has quite enough room to stretch out. This is nostalgia built on nostalgia, and in the end it plays as an old white dude resuscitating his rose-colored memories just because he can. I kept wanting the camera to start following the Mexican waitstaff instead, because I already know Tarantino’s story, the white conservative view of a past that served guys like him and no one else, especially not that bouncing blond whose husband was a perpetual cheat. “This is a movie about the time people have in mind when they say, ‘It was a different time,’” writes K. Austin Collins at Vanity Fair. “I’m talking about the people making excuses for their behavior during that time, mind you — the people treating ‘It was a different time’ like an alibi.”
On the outskirts of this sprawling halcyon fantasy you’ve got Manson’s creepy commune under the guardianship of a pueblo frock–wearing Lena Dunham, who seems to understand the cultish love-in implicitly — the way she hugs Margaret Qualley’s young Manson girl from behind is less doting than stifling. All this weirdness is no match for Pitts’s Hawaiian-shirt-and-shade bravado, which has him suddenly, burlesquely, pounding a doofy member of the hippie brood to a pulp in a homicidal overreaction to a slashed tire. That splatter scene foreshadows how this dirty, shoeless group of encroaching stringy-hairs will, under Tarantino’s eye, be no match for two old white guys who — even high — can beat the shit out of them. All to save the life of a blond babe who, as real as she is on the movie screen within the movie, is plastic as flesh gets under Tarantino’s direction. Do the Mansons exist to make these men heroic, or do these heroic men exist to snuff out the Mansons? It’s not clear, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is a world in which Steve McQueen — who Tarantino uses merely to deliver some reductive exposition about Sharon Tate’s love life — and maybe even Rick Dalton could make the seamless move to movies without the bother of a mass murder to ruin it all. That DiCaprio and Pitt are so inviting points to something richer, but the movie itself never cashes in. I kept thinking about how much more I liked the alligator hurricane movie.
Ten years ago, when Tarantino was promoting his first revisionist period piece, Inglourious Basterds, he told Rotten Tomatoes, “On this movie there’s one real big roadblock, and that’s history itself.” But he found a way around it: himself. “What happens in this movie didn’t happen in real life because my characters didn’t exist,” he said. “But if they had, this could have happened in real life.” This is the problem with Tarantino; history doesn’t come first, he does. The nuances of the past and the particular experiences of the lives within it are less animate galaxies than inanimate pawns for his set. And what is his set? Per The Ringer’s Adam Nayman, writing specifically about Pulp Fiction, but describing any number of Tarantino’s films, it’s a “mix of playful parody and endless, circular philosophizing … it penetrates and rides some kind of adolescent wavelength.” The result is vintage symbols and tropes stripped of their origins and reconfigured into a generic Tarantino-town of crackling conversations, absurd aggression, popping soundtracks, and mega and meta-plottage, all of it marinated in the kind of cinematic knowledge you need a film degree to fully follow. There’s a lot of tension and even excitement, but if you’re not someone who has any sympathy for Tarantino’s personal interests — Spaghetti Westerns, exploitation, kung fu — the lack of emotional depth is like being forced to listen to a sugar-tweaking little boy giving you a blow-by-blow account of winning a video game you’ve never heard of.
Because of his fetish for film history, Tarantino has a particular propensity for casting his idols in his films, which has given him the reputation as a filmmaker who resurrects careers. But does he? Or is he just taking them out of the curio cabinet to play with before reshelving them? John Travolta was rescued from the land of talking baby movies to channel his name-making moves and boneheaded charm from Saturday Night Fever and Grease as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. The scene in which he twists with Uma Thurman’s vampy Mia Wallace in a retro diner to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” is one of Tarantino’s most iconic. And, yes, it’s cool as fuck. It’s always cool as fuck, from the soaringly sweet Daryl Hannah retrofitted into a white eye patch ready to stab the Bride in Kill Bill to antihero Snake Plissken, aka Kurt Russell, repurposed as Death Proof’s Stuntman Mike, an aging stunt double who wrecks his cars (and the chicks in them) for kicks. There’s a lot of meta-casting here, subverting these stars’ DNA for his films’ purposes, but there’s also a level of arbitrariness. Tarantino revealed in one interview that he initially planned to make Melanie Laurent’s Inglorious Basterds character, who wields her own cinema house as a weapon to wipe out a whole bunch of Nazis, into “a real badass,” but realized he had already done that with Thurman’s Bride. That piece of trivia points to how his characters can skew more type than human. It also explains why so many of them don’t go on to do much after he “resurrects” them: They are rolled out to fill in Tarantino’s fantasy and imprinted with his signature rather than being given the space to express their own. Christoph Waltz continues to reproduce this copyright to torment 007, but many others have not.
There is one exception: Jackie Brown. It makes sense that the 1997 crime thriller is considered not only one of Tarantino’s best films, but also his most mature. Though it’s set in the present, it packs more history than his period pieces — and more heart. This is his only adaptation — it’s based on Rum Punch, by Elmore Leonard — so it is not entirely indebted to Tarantino. His two leads, ’70s blaxploitation star Pam Grier and counterculture Medium Cool hero Robert Forster, carry the past in their bones. Neither is distorted into some contemporary cool version of an abstract concept; they’re allowed to just be on-screen. Because of that they have room to live in their own contexts, to play off each other without Tarantino interrupting like a kid trying to get his parents to pay attention to him. What you are left with is history informing the present, rather than the other way around; an homage that’s not lorded over. Apparently this suits Tarantino’s work more than it suits him. “I learned something after I did Jackie Brown — and don’t get me wrong, I love Jackie Brown,” he told The Village Voice in 2009. “But when it was all over — even when I was making it — the fact that it was just a little bit once removed made me a little bit disconnected from it. That’s why I haven’t done another adaptation since then.” Tarantino is game for going back in time but only if he’s Doc Brown, in charge of the time machine. When we fall all over ourselves to praise the history he recreates in his own image, we are ourselves regressing, back to a time when the male ego conquered all.
The ending of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood has a bunch of cops working a crime scene, but this time the dead bodies belong to the Manson family. “I ain’t gonna die, it’s not my time yet, man,” injured stuntman Cliff tells Rick before being carted off in an ambulance. It could just as well be Tarantino talking, the filmmaker who keeps threatening to quit but keeps coming back with more of the same. As Nayman writes, “He has steadfastly refused to change, and in the process, he’s become not only a part of the establishment, but an institution in and of himself.” The man who calls himself “an academic at heart” is a film critic’s filmmaker because of this — he plays into all the myopia and insularity of the cinema geek (Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood keeps striking me as the kind of movie that needs to be watched alongside its MFA thesis to be enjoyed).
But even though Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood just scored Tarantino his biggest box office opening ever, he’d know better than anyone that that number is riding on history. It’s coasting on the memory of a fresh-faced, hyperactive young cinephile from 1994, the one who is now 56 and playing the same old tune that takes us all back to the time before Harvey Weinstein buried himself, before Disney ran the film industry, when a 31-year-old movie nerd could win the Palme d’Or for his second feature. That the times they are a-changin’ is signalled by the fact that Tarantino’s latest was nominated for the Palme this year but lost to Parasite, a South Korean comedy-thriller directed by Bong Joon-ho. Another genre filmmaker, his magnum opus is about a poor family that attaches itself to a richer one, a chemical reaction that results in a class-rage explosion. “Bong’s movie may be the angriest, most confrontational thing I’ve seen in the competition,” wrote Justin Chang in The Los Angeles Times, “the rare parable of haves and have-notes that connects viscerally as well as intellectually.” The 2019 Cannes jury chose not a movie by a god who rules the past, but a mere mortal who senses the future in the present.
* * *
Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.