Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

I went to a bar tonight after watching this film to sit and think on it for about an hour, and I caught the end of thursday trivia night. The winning team "Bar-Flies" won on a tiebreaking roll of the dice, after guessing the same exact number of original episodes in the 90s television series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as another team. As you have already guessed, both teams guessed "69." This doesn't really have anything to do with this movie (although, one might find, in the absence of an answer, one looks to the mold of cliche; the vacancies of the past are filled with the hermetic sealant of what has seemingly escaped history itself and become impervious to it-- in cinema the "star," and in story, the phantasy), but it was in the 45 minutes after trivia closed that I realized I have a TON to say about this film. Needless to say, I will not even attempt to be exhaustive here--I will instead basically reproduce and elaborate here on what I wrote/enumerated on the back of the customer copy of the check.

Charles Manson and Roman Polanski here are the same figure. Amending the concept of 'director' of Jean-Francois Lyotard, Manson self-effaces himself in addition to his mere exploit of effacement as direction--which, and this is pertinent here, is to Lyotard the political activity par excellence. (See the essay Acinema for the remarks touched upon here.) He is never around, except for that one moment in which he scouts, 'casts' even, and the effacement of violence, on the prefatory disavowal of cops and Vietnam, has to be violence, precisely because of Lyotard's second notion of recurrence and unity (to be sure, I am somewhat perversely stripping the economic modality of these concepts, though it is clear that production, the central flow of cinema (and capital) delineated by Lyotard, can easily be taken within the field of semiotics--i.e. sign-production [I'm thinking Eco] and signifying practices [Kristeva]).

For instance, the ideology of non-violence, in the signifying practice of formulating Hippyism around the unifying center of Manson, must efface the violence to its unity by introducing it as the necessary derangement, that is, taking it as a non-non-violence which thus permits the ideology (which on some level is the directive of the director) to perform violence, since at this point it is not violence, but non-non-non-violence. Here the disconnection from violence writ large (which in a certain sense follows from the partially correct point of the young hippies dressed in black, that of the problem of a mythic image-discursivity which conceals violence in violence) leads to murderous iconoclasm. The gesture of throwing off one's culturally indoctrinated clothing, that of 'counterculture,' is conflated with the revolutionary protest when really it is a fetishistic disavowal. The icons of the perpetuity of violence are killed rather than the perpetrators of violence. This double effacement which Manson represents, of himself as the origin of directives and of what is clarified as disunity -- the popular representation of violence, will remind us of another figure. That's right, Charles Manson, Roman Polanski, and Quentin Tarantino are the same figure. Of course they always were: they are all directors.

I want to return to that word I gave emphasis to earlier: prefatory. Like Hegel composing his famous preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, the preface always comes after the text, or body, so that it can lie about the text. It must provisionally say what the text will say, but it helplessly needs the fullness and full extent of the text, that is, for it to be oriented as a postface and for it to say anything at all. We see here, fittingly, the preface to myth come at the end: "Once upon a time in... Hollywood." And it is also the preface to a typology (genre) of violence. Sergio Leone's films with parallel names illustrate this too; the West, America, and now Hollywood: three sites to which these titular remarks disclose embedded historical violence (as myths do, situating the cultural as the natural) but only at the end. At the closing of the story, and at a retroactive, revisionist storytelling perspective. The terms of nostalgia, the myth-space for it to be prefatory in this sense, is set in that "Once upon a time..." preface, and nostalgia's violence is thus grounded in its very capacity to set the terms and provide the concluding remarks to an already-happened. So much for the 'pre' in 'preface.'

But we also have, and this is coming to an assertion about the "Tarantino" film at large to be followed by other hopefully shorter points, the ever-present preface to violence in these films. The so-called absurdity of Tarantino's violence is always due to the preface for violence, the prime directive, from "vengeance" in Kill Bill to "annoyance" here in this film, from the beginning being pre-redundant with its following action; in short, the terms of violence proceeding from itself, and again and again. And so, it is only with Tarantino that we become aware of the nonsense of justification. Take Cliff smashing the hippie's face a dozen times on household surfaces. One can, in the face of this question of justification, install a moralism at the foundation of the choice of the historical act under scrutiny, hence the retroactivity of 'preface' (and the Kantian ethical directives would have a similar function here). Or one can look to the consequences and construct a justification on the order of post hoc.

The film ends on the image of Sharon Tate alive, a seeming reversal of evil, a seeming affirmation of the Puritan Utopia of the Hollywood Hills (a gunslinger who kills baddies Loving Thy pregnant Neighbor), just tantalizing as the site for every drop of consequentialist justification, contains within it, again, the preface "Once upon a time in... Hollywood." Not to mention that what I take as the central point here is that the more unexcusable violence perhaps, is the retelling of the story of the Titanic, after all the parts come together and the glory of its achievement reinvigorated, just to have it miss the iceberg.
The problem of historical justification, anyhow, is that the prefatory ethicism or moralism approach must account for each and every thing proceeding from it -- this absurdity well illustrated in Taratino, of course -- and, in the consequentialist one, it must come to terms with the realization that the preface is always, only, even, in the outcome.

Cedric liked these reviews