Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

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

This review may contain spoilers.

The scene that continues to reverberate through my mind is the abrupt flashback that implies Cliff murdered his wife. I think it’s the key to the film but every time I have a grasp on it, it slips through my fingers. It fundamentally alters the movie, recontexualizing what’s come before and charging what comes after. People around us laughed but it didn’t strike me as comedic. There’s this deeply embedded notion that, no matter how personal Tarantino claims his work is, he’s an ironic filmmaker. Maybe that’s why this scene comes across as funny to some? Maybe it is supposed to be funny, who knows! Tarantino’s a sadist who allows terrifying scenarios to abut comic sensibilities and watches us squirm as we try to parse the difference.

But more than simply subvert our conception of Cliff as a good dude, it clouds the celebratory violence of Hollywood’s revisionist finale. There’s no doubt that Tarantino presents the demise of the Manson murderers as unambiguously positive (which is apparently controversial?) but he complicates it by having Cliff dole out most of the violence. It takes one to know one. I’ve seen a few takes that view the bloodletting as gratuitously cruel as opposed to the righteous comeuppance of Basterds and Django, but I can only sympathize with that sentiment as it pertains to the connotation of a likely wife-killer murdering two women in grotesque fashion. This is, after all, “frontier justice”, as Oswaldo Moubray would say. (Then again, he’s really English Pete Hickox. Slippery.)

More interesting, to me, is Tarantino reconciling violence with violence. When the would-be murderers think of killing Rick Dalton as a means of rejecting but perpetuating the cycle of American screen violence, it’s some mixture of autocritique and doubling-down against critics á la von Trier’s The House That Jack Built. Tarantino is gassing us up by suggesting that movie violence could indeed bear real-world consequences and then immediately turns that on its head to rub our noses in it. The ghastly carnage is “very thirst-quenching”, as Mobray puts it, until Tarantino stretches it so far into the realm of Grand Guignol that we wince. Tarantino “killing” his critics? Anti-hippie conservatism? A reclamation of screen violence or evidence that we’re complicit in it?

Again, I think Cliff complicates the issue, rather than clarifies it. We imprint upon him because he’s Brad Pitt, he’s handsome, he’s a hardass, and he seems to be a good buddy. Yet, as with the twisty depiction of friendship here (there is a certain transactional dependency to Rick and Cliff’s companionship), all is not as it seems. He’s a war hero and a wife killer. He is a man of violence. Tarantino clearly laments this era and that there are few stars around anymore like these guys, but I also think in Cliff’s troubling violence he understands that there’s a reason why we left these men behind.

Cliff’s flashback on the boat (a half-remembered daydream, really) casts a pall over the film. So does Rick’s dismissal of his friend’s dark past, mirroring Weinstein’s predatory behavior and Tarantino’s long-standing association with him in spite of it. Cliff’s complex relationship with the audience is impossible to resolve because this situation can never be resolved. The ending is moving and hopeful but it’s a farce. Tarantino’s revisionism is an inversion of the liberties taken in Inglourious Basterds. With Basterds, he showed what cinema can be: a tool, a weapon. But with Hollywood, he confirms what it has always been—a fantasy.

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