ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
I didn't actually watch this again, but I've been continuing to wrestle with the ideas in it, and I wanted to put my thoughts down in a more concrete way. What is the significance of Tarantino's historical revisionism & the erasure of Sharon Tate's murder?
On the surface, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a story about friendship, about two men in the twilight of their careers and maybe of their relationship; a level deeper than that, it's about an entire generation in its twilight years, about the end of the 60's and the start of the 70's and the way America changed during that time period.
So what if we take Sharon Tate as the symbolic center of the film instead of Rick and Cliff? It becomes more about redeeming a tragic character, about reversing the tragic crime that lead to her death. It's like Inglourious Basterds, but about a single oppressed person instead of an entire group of oppressed people. But what if we take this perspective one level deeper: what does it mean to erase Tate's death symbolically?
Insofar as Tate represents the previous generation (she's not a fading star like Rick, but she's most closely associated with Polanski, a clear symbol of the past) and the hippies represent the future, this reversal appears as a desire to return to the past and to resist the future. The representatives of the past are the protagonists; the representatives of the future are the antagonists. The hippies are even portrayed as demonic, "devils sent to do the devil's business," and while there's no assertion that "all hippies are like this," there also aren't any positive characterizations of the budding hippie movement—it's only represented by members of the Manson Family.
This is what has been bothering me about the movie: rather than being about a changing of the times and a celebration of that progress, it fixates on one negative instance within this epochal transition and expresses a desire for regression. All I want is to side with Pussycat when she screams, "George isn't blind, you're the blind one!" but I have trouble doing that the more I think about it. This is not a film that wants to go forward, it wants to go backward, and I'll be the last person to say that America's in a great place right now, but when you're playing anger over the deaths in Vietnam for laughs, maybe you're not on the right side of history.
Just to be clear, I'm not totally sure I buy this reading, it's just something that's been bothering me, and, like I said, I wanted to get it down in writing. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts.
Thanks to Andrew for talking through some of this with me.