Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ½

Inglorious Basterds opens with the title card: “Once upon a time... in Nazi-occupied France”. To the charitable critic, this evocation of fairy tales immediately announces that Tarantino’s take on World War 2 is an imaginative recreation, a cathartic revisionist tale which privileges the fantasy logic of cinema over than the dry facts of history. To the rest of us, it’s an easy way for Tarantino to deny responsibility for the offensive images he puts on screen. If he is openly crafting cartoonish fantasies based on recycled genre movies, then plantations, the Nazis, concentration camps, etc, are reduced to fictional elements he can play around with little regard to the real world implications. This tactic is repeated in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, a film which wears its artifice on its sleeve so that Tarantino has free reign to drastically warp characterisations, events, and timelines to serve his own ends.

The most egregious of these manipulations in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood lies in Tarantino’s portrayal of the Manson family. In reality, Charles Manson was a white supremacist who adopted the surface signifiers of the hippie movement to lure in and brainwash vulnerable, disenfranchished youths so that they might do his bidding. The attack on the Polanski residence wasn’t the endpoint of a vicious counterculture waging war on American values, as portrayed in Tarantino’s film, but part of a calculated plan by Manson to ignite a race war. The true motivation for the Manson murders – to commit a horrendous crime, frame the black panthers for the attack, and hence heighten tensions between African Americans and the police – is completely elided by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film, in fact, treats Manson himself as a structuring absence, and so the onus for the crime is shifted onto his followers, who are primarily coded as sexually uninhibited, aggressive women who spout vaguely leftist rhetoric without fully understanding it. It’s telling that the only mention of the Vietnam War comes through the mouth of Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, a caricature whose naive social activism is immediately laughed off by Cliff. The climactic assault is staged not as part of a calculated plan, but rather as a split-second decision made by these doltish hippies, who, in a substance-fuelled haze, indulge in some half-assed theorizing: “We all grew up watching TV, you know what I mean? And if you grew up watching TV it means you grew up watching murder. Every show on TV that wasn’t I Love Lucy was about murder. So, my idea is we kill the people who taught us to kill”.

The monologue is explicitly played for laughs, as if the notion that media violence is in any way connected to actual violence is so self-evidently idiotic that Tarantino need not even bother deconstructing it. A thorough exploration of this topic is beyond the scope of this review, but suffice to say it’s a complex and thorny issue that should not be dismissed so glibly by one of modern cinema’s most prominent practitioners of on-screen carnage. As a side note, this is an especially strange angle for Tarantino to take, considering that Inglorious Basterds is a film – one some level – about the role that state propaganda played in the social conditioning of Nazi soldiers (which is not to say that it handles this topic with any sensitivity or nuance).

It’s a grotesque way to rewrite the Mason legacy – taking liberties with certain details is one thing, but deliberately misconstruing the ideology which lead to an era-defining mass slaughter is quite another. The real Manson, the crafty misogynist and racist who wanted to cleanse the United States of what he perceived to be interlopers, was in fact far more closely aligned to the mentality of Cliff and Booth than he did to the social revolutionaries that they – and Tarantino – express viscous contempt towards. Tarantino’s film echoes the wrongheaded belief that post-war America was an idllyc place which still represents America at its greatest, and that the traitorous activism of the sixties somehow spearheaded the degradation of Western society.

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