Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★★

I've been tweaking this for weeks, but I don't have the time to put in the revisions that I want. Anyway, here are my most immediate reactions to this film.

Luc Moullet’s statement that “film cans and sewer holes are always the same shape” speaks to cinemas role in expressing the uncomfortable libidinal investments of the social milieus that produce them. Uncomfortable, even unspeakable, such desires correspond with the anxieties and traumas of their day. The term “exploitation” as a cinematic category always struck me as smug; that these films alone were exploiting the libidinal energy that is inextricably tied to social transformations. As a genre, exploitation reflects the ghettoization of the low, designated by a hypocritical high culture that denies the very same things that animate its own subconscious dwellings. Tarantino has of late become preoccupied with drawing out these hypocrisies and crafting treatises on power that are messy and give you little to hold on to. He uses the tradition of exploitation that self-consciously stages revenge fantasies for the powerless. Real world structural oppression is symbolically suplexed, as if by Barthes’ very own wrestlers. Blaxsploitation and the rape-revenge films are knowingly unrealistic, a momentary salve of escapism for those of us who know all too well the score of material reality. The critique that these films re-write history are de rigueur at this point, and used to prop up the axiomatic position that Tarantino doesn’t respect history, merely makes a joke of it, or can’t tell the difference between cinema and reality. As if the two can be distinguished. Exploitation is messy and ideologically incoherent. It’s often defined by contradictions that cannot be read neatly into a left/right hermeneutic. This alone makes them fascinating objects in today’s climate that requires film to reflect precisely one’s political substructures.

Exploitation stages erotic anxieties coupled with violence. One is encouraged to revel in the original horrors that produced the revenge fantasies. The difference is in the way we exceptionalize the new victim; the powerful who has now become the powerless. In Death Proof this demarcation is as clearly drawn as the film’s two-part structure. The first part is lecherous, voyeuristic. The sexiness of the lap dances. Those legs. And then the destruction of the women’s bodies which still fetishizes those same necrotic limbs. And then the second part gives the revenge while still allowing the voyeurism. The gaze shifts but the investments remain. An all-woman collaboration of self-confident and skilled motor action and brutal humiliation of the sex-crazed murderer in broad daylight. Inglorious Basterds, as Nazisploitation, was castigated by a pernicious policing of visual morality that found its fictional rendering of sacrosanct historiographies of the Greatest Generation to be in bad taste. Such critiques often missed the part about how the slavish devotion to photo-realism and hegemonic narratives of national character have made the World War 2 combat film the most heinous form of exploitation, the kind that pretends to be something more. They rewrite traumatic history for the current regimes of power. This is true of both Spielberg’s underrated Saving Private Ryan as well as Terrence Malick’s overrated The Thin Red Line (they’re almost the same film, ideologically speaking, but Spielberg knows how to make cinema). The virtue signaling bromides of these stuffed and starched prudes missed one of the most savage critiques of American imperial power. Tarantino staged a Russian doll of shifting global hegemony, all while exploiting Jewish helplessness at the totality of an agency-annihilating mechanized genocide. The Nazis stomp around like Hans Henrich von Twarowski’s Reinhard Heydrich from Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die!, painting gargantuan portraits in vein attempts to write themselves into history. Meanwhile the fading British Empire gets staged through a frumpy interlocutor, a bureaucratic mouthpiece for a Churchill tucked neatly into the background, soon to be dismissed at the war’s conclusion. And the American command is merely a disembodied voice coming in on the horn; directing grunts to fold Nazis into the imperial pursuits of the Pax Americana that’s about to take shape. Operation Paperclip is so removed from the writing of history that we don’t even get to see it. The heightened visuality is inversely related to its actual hegemonic power.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is exploitation. The question is what kind? As my wife pointed out, this film isn’t the generalized revenge fantasies of anti-black racism, the enormity of the Holocaust, or of patriarchal rape-revenge, but rather it is known in its hyper-specificity. The names have not been changed to protect those involved. In imagining the fantastic survival of Sharon Tate and company alongside the punishing revenge against the Manson Family, one must ask: who’s fantasy is this? The answer is easy: the rich. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a stark look at the American caste system and its libidinal revenge fantasy articulates the perverse powerlessness felt by those in power. The fantasy alternate history is inextricably tied to the knowledge that these people were brutally murdered. The exploitation revenge becomes one about class: Cliff (the only real cowboy in this whole shootin’ match) doesn’t just re-enact a revenge fantasy, but protects the sanctity of the gated community. The horror that reverberated from the Manson Family murders was not just from their brutality, or the gruesomeness of the blood bath graffiti, but in showing that the private sanctuaries of the rich could be penetrated. The security was gone forever. In sadistically murdering the Manson Family, the wealthy Hollywood mythmakers recover that security. They un-rape the class war. Cliff obligingly restores this sanctity. But what is he rewarded? Like a sycophant, a wounded doggie, he supplicates himself to Dalton while Dalton ascends the drive of the Tate-Polanski home (the voice box a nice riff on the distance of power used in the ending of Inglorious Basterds) and rejoins the ranks of the in-crowd.

But it’s how Tarantino stages this revenge that most interesting. It’s not Sharon Tate or Rick Dalton, the wealthy superstars, but another lumpen who does the dirty work of murdering members of his own class. Its Cliff Booth. At the end, Cliff is driven away in an ambulance after sustaining serious damage. Like the supplicant class traitor he is, he reassures Rick not to come see him right away, even after being fired by his “friend” when it’s no longer suitable for Dalton’s finances. While Cliff’s ride descends, Dalton ascends. He walks up the long walk to the Tate-Polanski residence. Is this his fantasy? The distanced overhead crane shot and the bittersweet, ambivalent soundtrack from a Spaghetti Western never lets you forget what just happened. The images of Tate’s survival are inextricably tied to the knowledge of how brutally she really died. And the discomfort of the murder revenge scene still lingers.

Let’s rewind for a sec and talk about Cliff. He is the cop that patrols the gated community. He’s an amalgamation of blue-collar labor: handy man, chauffer, body guard, and police. Tarantino has always been interested in the servants of masters. Hit men, bank robbers, army grunts, bounty hunters – always working for some shadowy master. But there the companionship is upfront – except for Manson (which I return to below). Cliff is an attack dog, like his own dog so neatly highlights, a supplicant to power. And like the police his primary duty is to keep those of his own class in line and out of the way. Tarantino stages this as a constant dialectic between fantasy violence and “real” violence. The world of Hollywood is a world of fabricated violence (not stylized) because the film shows it is incapable of responding to the fabrication of violence with “real” violence. It would have only been a stylistic or tonal shift, indicating different consequences. The film mentions this several times. The primary point of its representation is the Cliff / Dalton combo – Dalton is self-obsessed, his struggles are contemptable, personal demons wrapped up in desires for maintaining fame and fortune (the music when he almost got the part in The Great Escape, that’s the depth of his concern) while Cliff is the real leading man (the sexiness on the roof) the real fighter, the real villain/killer. Even Sharon Tate is self-obsessed with image and fame: a rich woman trying to get into a theater for free (75 cent ticket whereas poor shabby Cliff spends 50 cents on an acid laced cigarette).

Cliff’s function in the film raises for me the debate over police in revolution. I’m reminded of Pasolini’s “siding” with the police against the student protests of 1968. Of course, Pasolini didn’t really “side” with police over protesters, he repeatedly denounced police brutality as the militant arm of the state. However, he raised questions of such nuance that are often disallowed in communist revolutionary discourse, namely that the police are, for Pasolini, the sons of the poor and of peasants, which capitalism arms and directs toward their own people. In the contemporary U.S., the context for which Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is really reflecting, the slogan “all cops are bastards” represents a critical rejection of the idea that police can be either reformed or radicalized for the left. Spike Lee’s defense of BlacKKKlansman reflects this. His remarks about needing the police to collaboratively work through our current state was rejected in predictable fashion as neolib, bourgeoisie, centrist-liberal brain damage, and whatever other fundamentalist slogans suit the interlocutor in question. This isn’t to say that I’m arguing for a rehabilitated leftist embrace of the police. Fuck no. But rather that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stages the complexities of this question for a revolutionary hermeneutic.

This film is class politics exploitation. Cliff is a cop, all Cliffs are bastards; a class traitor and brutal enforcer of the rich (40% of cops beat their wives, Cliff likely murdered his). These elements are drawn in sharp contrast by the parallels that Tarantino goes out of his way to make between the only other poor characters in this: the Manson Family. Both live in the shadow of the film industry: Cliff behind an old movie theater in a filthy trailer, the Mansons on the Spahn ranch were the fake violence of Dalton’s phony western was filmed. Cliff’s loyalty to Dalton is mirrored in Cliff’s relation to his own dog, a master/servant relationship, and the dog is also a trained killer. The friendship—or companionship—that is cast aside when it serves Dalton is hidden under bonding rituals of masculinity, but just like cops it reveals how the power and mobility they’ve been granted is only to serve a ruling class. Cliff protects a gated community from other types of poor people. This can be seen in the depiction of the Manson Family, especially their car.

The visuality of the automobile is central to the depiction of the Manson’s as class invaders. Dalton and Cliff travel in privatized bubbles traversing long distances. The Manson’s have to hitch – its quite a distance – and they have a communal car, an “asshole” that is the only filthy car in this imagined Hollywood, belching fumes from a farting muffler, packed with people. Their poverty is communal, unlike Cliff’s individualized poverty at the service of the rich. What’s interesting with the Manson’s, and by extension the film entirely, is the notable absence of race. For Tarantino, this is exceptional in its absence: no n-words, and no black people at all. It’s a white world. Even more interesting is the scrubbing of race from the Manson Family. The murders were staged in the hopes of igniting a race war. But instead we get dumb, slutty women (plus Tex), who seem to embody a kind of braindead leftist cultural theory for Tarantino. By removing the racism of the Manson’s, they become hippie counter culture punching bags, nasty cultural analysis (“the fascists on TV”) which renders the real-world images of the Tate murder into a revolutionary violence that is only despicable. But then again, their murders were so heinous that I’m not losing any sleep over watching them get their faces mashed to a pulp. The climax is uncomfortable. Does Tarantino use the Manson’s as stand-ins for a generic leftist politic? My own reading might be confused here: they scream at cops and call them pigs, but the film's cop par excellence is our boy Cliff.

Despite being long and slow, the film is an endless series of fracturing. Clips of shows and movies, an endless stream of content, all fractious, we never finish what we start before the culture folds into the next thing. Like Godard, real life of the film world erupts into, disrupts into products, commercials, the way characters pour drinks, crack open beers, light cigarettes. Godard shows images like an anthropologist: the environment his subjects inhabit, consumer products become artifacts, here they are woven into the fabric of reality itself. The characters don’t know the difference, they’ve lost the critical distance of Godard’s camera-eye. Maybe the audience has too, but I’m warry of that critique, because it’s too often lazy and self-serving. As Homer Simpson once put: “everyone’s stupid except me.”

To be clear, I’m not trying to extricate Tarantino or his films from a serious critique. However, I do think 90% of the analysis of his work is bargain bin culture studies that reduces complex moral structures to coherent political allegiances that can then be admonished. I think bell hooks said it best with her description of Pulp Fiction as “cool cynicism,” a term which holds space for Tarantino’s brilliance as a filmmaker while calling into question his apolitical tendencies. Yet, I don’t think Tarantino is a nihilist. But his films are not entirely subversive. They are messy, which makes them fascinating. He has completely metabolized a visual culture built on status that is imbricated in visual histories, and he churns them out into postmodern expressions of horror and pleasure. I can’t think of a more honest American filmmaker in this manner. But I don’t need his work to reconfirm my own political beliefs. I stand by that he’s creating important ruptures that can be read as critique, but one that simultaneously reproduces hegemonic notions of power. But I can’t think of a more crucial American filmmaker that so preternaturally reflects the linguistic and political breakdown of the current era of American culture. We’ve inherited a useless taxonomy of political terminology that glides across the sphere of ideology, one where individuals and their beliefs move with the fluidity of data and commerce in a schizophrenic system.

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