It’s the simplicity that makes 2019's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Quentin Tarantino’s boldest and most complex work. Honestly, I don’t know where to begin except to say it’s a damned good film. Tarantino does something new, one could say it’s a further advance beyond the restraints of postmodernism, but arguably Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s own version of Mulholland Drive. But where Mulholland Drive is a self contained narrative of dream and dreamer, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood exists in symbiosis with its audience. Tarantino is making a very direct argument about who we are, sitting in the theatre, watching the movie. It’s too big a statement to pass judgement on now, really, but I think he’s right. I hope he’s right.
In one scene, Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate stares at pictures of herself in a movie lobby, a moment that recalls Jean-Paul Belmondo staring at pictures of Humphrey Bogart in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless. Godard is an acknowledged influence on Tarantino—he named his A Band Apart production company after another of Godard’s films. A scene elsewhere in Once Upon a Time, where segments of film are abruptly cut out of a dialogue scene between Leonardo DiCaprio and another man, is straight out of Godard’s Vivre sa vie. But the moment in the movie lobby is a more interesting full circle moment—Belmondo’s character had stared at Bogart in admiration and contemplation of the mirror Bogart represented for his reality while Sharon Tate is literally staring at herself—or not literally, as Margot Robbie is sort of the professional version of Belmondo’s character, staring at the real actress.
Or shall we say gazing? Did you know Quentin Tarantino likes feet? There’re more lingering shots of female feet in this film than all of Tarantino’s previous films put together and I don’t think it’s an accident or even simply his way of telling his detractors to fuck off. He’s deliberately challenging the concept of the “male gaze”. It’s part of a more general point he’s making about how responsible people are for their own behaviour.
To say you don’t buy into the concept of the male gaze is not to say that you don’t believe women are ever objectified or portrayed in a manner reflective of the filmmakers’ misogyny. Claims that women were objectified long predate the concept of the male gaze when it was coined in the 70s by Laura Mulvey. Even her essay that is credited with introducing the term didn’t use it in the ways it is to-day typically used in conversation or criticism, interchangeably meaning either objectification of women or the reflection of male attraction in composition. What new element did “male gaze” bring to the table that “objectification” couldn’t cover? It placed an intrinsic guilt in men (implicitly discounting the existence of homosexual motive)—objectification is something done to the actor. The “gaze” is a more passive state, suggesting, in the term’s broadly understood meaning, that women being objectified is the inevitable consequence of their being photographed for or by men. Much as one can say Charles Manson was responsible for all the actions of the Manson Family.
Manson’s presence in the film, portrayed by Damon Herriman, who bears an eerie resemblance to the him, is minimal. There’s no attention given to the religious nature of his teachings or his professed belief in an impending race war—possibly Tarantino, who’s certainly pored over details surrounding Manson more than I have, has reason for doubting the authenticity of these stories about the nature of the Family’s relationship or structure. The important thing for Tarantino is how tenaciously the Family maintained beliefs that diverged from reality. For such a group, a motive for murder could be like the one he gives to Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) who justifies the crime of killing filmmakers and actors by saying that films and television inspired murder. So killing artists is a sensible way to prevent a great many more murders, like the ones being perpetrated in Vietnam. Is this an idea Atkins or the Family really subscribed to? I don’t know. The idea of art conditioning or brain washing subjects was certainly one subscribed to in critical theory at the time. Notably it’s something that Tarantino has faced in interview after interview throughout his career—doesn’t he think the violence in his films influences people to commit violence? He usually offers only a very blunt response in the negative. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood gives it pretty eloquently.
If you do firmly believe that art is directly responsible for murder, then of course you can justify to yourself the killing of artists. The belief in the morally corrupting nature of art is itself a moral self-corruption. Much like the beliefs of the Manson Family where the more they seemed right to themselves, the further they diverged from real, workable ideas of human civilisation.
As Oscar Wilde wrote in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray; “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.” For Sharon Tate or Rick Dalton, DiCaprio’s character who’s, in some ways, a doppelgänger of the actress, movies are wonderful things in and of themselves. When Atkins calls Dalton’s series, Bounty Law, “fascist”, in one sense she’s right—it’s about a man assuming the position of judge, jury, and executioner. But it’s also only a fantasy and the person actually dealing out death and judgement is Atkins herself.
Dalton and his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), aren’t portrayed as flawless people. There’s a rumour that Cliff has killed his wife and we see a flashback of a woman, presumably Cliff’s wife, unleashing a tirade on the quiet and possibly simmering stuntman. But we’re never really told if he actually killed her. But that’s kind of the point—Cliff is the film’s hero, Tarantino leaves it to us what we choose to believe about him, whether we value him based on the actions we witness or the ones we hear about.
Should Tarantino have avoided showing the beauty of the Manson Family members, lingering on shots of their pretty feet or the way one of them (Margaret Qualley) sticks her butt in the air while leaning on the car door to chat with Cliff? To do so would be to deny the reality of how important sexuality was in the cult framework—to shoot the members in ways that would suggest they aren’t attractive would be to deny the operative nature of that sexuality. It is, in fact, the opposite stance of the male gaze—the idea that beauty operates on the beholder rather than placing all culpability on the beholder. To some people, this is plain sense—a group of young hippies living together, of course sex is part of it. That’s human. On the other hand, when Cliff figures out the girl is underage, he has the power to say no when she offers to suck his cock. That’s a lesson a lot of men would do well to learn.
Above all, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like the Sergio Leone movies from which it takes its title, does not present reality but the elevating quality of myth, confirming us in our best opinions of ourselves without denying the ugliness—or beauty—of reality. The important things are scenes like the one where Tate is pleased by how the work she’s accomplished on film pleases her audience, or the simple, honest and lovely chemistry between Cliff and and Rick. The movie offers a fantasy that stands in unabashed opposition to reality, having a perfectly reasonable trust in the audience to know the difference and appreciate the fantasy for what it is.