Part II: Quentin Tarantino’s Latest Film – The Message of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino (T) is a fabulist. He makes movies. He does not depict real life. Nevertheless, in writing fiction in this genre, the tale is intended to provide a message to guide our behaviour. This is not how T is generally perceived. Most see him as portraying gratuitous violence. But the film deliberately plays with violence and, in doing so, violates and inverts the traditional Hollywood parable.

The film is a nostalgic throwback. In spite of the activity of the civil rights movement and President Johnson’s momentous legislation following the assassination of John Kennedy in the 1960s, the culture of Hollywood was generally blind to issues of race. Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical comedy, Putney Swope, about a black advertising executive does mock Hollywood’s white power structure, but T’s film follows the general Hollywood pattern of the time and absolutely ignores the fact that the Manson Cult was infused with racism. It believed intently that the purpose of killing whites was to blame the murders on the Black Panthers and set off a race war. The blindness to race is mirrored by Tarantino’s blocking out the issue. His nostalgic memory is very selective.

The film is also probably very personal. Does T anticipate his own obsolescence just as Al Pacino, as his agent, predicted the future for Rick Dalton? After all, Hollywood, T’s home turf, is a town that was amalgamated to be part of Los Angeles and Prospect Avenue was renamed Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood was also a name for the film industry itself as well as a term that evokes the smell and the taste, the feeling and the flavour, the spirit and the tone of Hollywood at the same time as it connotes the flash and vulgarity, indecency and bad taste of tinsel town. Hollywood is also the granddaddy of all the other centres of the film industry around the world – most famously, Bollywood in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), but also, to mention only a few of the very many metonyms inspired by Hollywood, Follywood in Columbo in Sri Lanka, Pollywood in the Punjab, Lollywood in Lahore, Wellywood in Wellington, New Zealand, and even, appropriately, Hillywood in Rwanda.

But T inverts the characteristics connoted by “Hollywood.”. For the vulgarity and obscenity are attached to the occupiers of the Spahn Ranch, the “hippy” members of the Manson cult. When an adolescent “Pussycat” is hitchhiking and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth picks her up, she takes him to the ranch. It turns out that Cliff once worked as a stuntman there. Pitt becomes suspicious. He knew George Spahn from the old days. He learns that the ranch is now occupied by hippie squatters who exchange sex with the owner (and others) as they serve as tour guides to inquisitive outsiders curious about the place where westerns were once made. Spahn, as it turns out, is now both blind and has lost his memory. Cliff Booth cannot restore either. But T can make a film that recalls that wondrous period of a purportedly innocent Hollywood.

Hollywood started as a ranch, the Hurd Ranch, in 1886. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hollywood became a town. Then the town was amalgamated with Los Angeles and, by the end of the 1960s was occupied by squatters, the dirty and immoral Manson gang and cult of hatred. Contrary to T, they blame movies for their adopting violence. T has dedicated his film career to proving that portraying violence is just entertainment. The problem is not Hollywood, but the vulgar and obscene and hateful people currently in occupancy. Hollywood itself has pure frontier origins.

The film is not just entertainment. It is a didactic parable, as I indicated at the beginning of my last blog. When one thinks of parables, those of Jesus may come to mind first, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (15:11-32). In this movie, Cliff Booth is the good Samaritan who has redeemed his early suggested sins (Did he really kill his wife?) by helping others – picking up strays hitchhiking on the side of Sunset Boulevard but refusing to have sex with an underage hippie. He is the one who goes out of the way to try to help the blind owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch who has been stripped of the control of his ranch, and left as a lost soul, an outcast even of the outcast hippies. He cannot even recognize Cliff and Cliff, in the end, cannot help him. But T can, at least for the “blind” audience for Hollywood films.

Cliff qualifies as a Good Samaritan, not only because he tries, but, in the end, succeeds in saving the life of his employer, whereas the priest preserving the authority of the past (Rick Dalton) and the prophet (the Levite) anticipating the future (T himself in a transvestite dress – Sharon Tate), cannot. Cliff, who lives in the present, can. Thus, Cliff provides a clear and unequivocal message of hope to the rabbi who asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” and answers through his actions that it is anyone nearby whom I live with, live next door to or just come across. In the end, Cliff fulfills his ultimate purpose by saving the soul of Rick Dalton who may lose his career as a villain in cowboy flicks but gains an after career in spaghetti westerns in Rome and, later, as an advertiser of T’s own fictional brand of cigarettes.

Cliff is Adam who leaves the paradise of the mansions at the top of the hill to enter a plebeian Jerusalem or real gritty Hollywood at the bottom, a Hollywood that leads further down, even below sea level, to a Jericho which will open the gates of creativity to the rest of the world. For the issue is not simply acting well in fantasy performances, but acting well in the real world. Cliff is the model of a redeemed man who now uses his command of extreme violence to bash to a pulp an evil female killer’s head. Brad Pitt does not simply portray a do-gooder, for that is not T’s or Hollywood’s version of a Christ figure.

There is also the parable of the two sons that prefigures the buddy movie, but in the biblical text always begins with blood brothers of very opposite character and roles, brothers who do not have each other’s back – Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. In the New Testament story of The Prodigal Son, the younger son is profligate, wasteful and extravagant, and, like DiCaprio’s character, squanders his money. In Italy, though Rick Dalton is a star and earns considerable money, his need for a luxurious home means he blows most of his earnings. In contrast, Cliff who earns little, has sufficient. However, unlike the Prodigal Son’s older brother, Cliff never resents offering a helping hand. Even as the two part ways, it is through Cliff’s grace that Rick Dalton will be saved, even though the latter can no longer live at the level of a wannabe Hollywood celebrity.

In traditional Judaism, there are two alternatives, absolute obedience to God or sin. However, in the paradise that is America, it is not obeisance that is supreme, but individualism. Actors say what they have rehearsed, or, at least, try to do so. But in real life, actors do rather than say. They do not rehearse but perform spontaneously. These are T’s true heroes, ones who can act in a real version of a spaghetti western in the showdown at the film’s end. Brad Pitt plays a real stunt man. At that moment, the Lord is the avenger of blood. (I Samuel 14:11)

This brings me to one unusual scene that puzzled me for quite a while. In it, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth either imagines or does get into a fight with Bruce Lee, the martial arts legend and icon of Hollywood. He is played in the movie by Mike Moh as a smarmy and arrogant bellicose boaster. (T claimed that Bruce Lee boasted that he could beat Muhammad Ali.) Why, either personally or cinematically, did T depict Bruce Lee that way? T in defending his portrayal claimed that Lee was indeed boastful, but those who knew Lee well, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, claim that Lee was neither boastful nor would he accept a challenge to fight. Evidently, Bruce Lee’s first rule was that, if challenged to a fight, don’t. Walk away. However, he did have a fight with Hollywood and campaigned against the racist treatment of Asians in Hollywood films. But this is not the Bruce Lee that T chooses to portray.

Why misrepresent a real person? Even if Lee had those boastful characteristics (and the evidence suggests that he did not), what was the point in the film of depicting him in the way T does? And given that he did, and given his repeated claims that his films are just fiction, why did he not just shut up rather than defend his portrait or, contradictorily, simply insist that it was a fictional portrayal and leave it there?

Bruce Lee represented choreographed violence, violence that was disciplined and controlled, violence intended to provide self-defence but, through an in-depth understanding of violence, is intended to avoid conflict and not turn it simply into a display of manliness. Shaolin is neither about either the conquest of nature nor the conquest of a frontier. It is totally the opposite of the type of violence put on display by T. It is not about a division of the world into good and bad guys where the aim is to kill the bad ones. Rather, the effort is intended both to protect oneself and also protect the attacker from harm.

Instead of the fast draw of a controlled murderous weapon of a gun through manual dexterity and simply hand-eye coordination, mastery of all the movements of the 18 main animals of Chinese iconography was required. One channeled energy to build strength and to use the strength of the other against one’s opponent. T’s version of violence is both simplistic and naïve, just as T’s film in his portrait of 1969 Hollywood itself is.  

For T, the problem of the Manson murderers is twofold. First, they never assumed responsibility for the use of violence but, as in hippy culture, pretended to be a movement of peace, brotherhood and love when the movement understood nothing of either brotherhood or brotherly love. Further, for T, flower power was a fraud and not just a fiction. Drug-addled adolescent women led by self-hating male patriarchs in flared trousers who then donned cowboy clothes as costumes to mislead tourists were T’s enemies. Hippies may have revolted against puritanical societal norms, but they did not do so in the name of a heroic tradition, but instead wrongly blamed that tradition when they reverted to the use of violence. The music of the Beatles, in particular, Helter Skelter, according to Manson, taught him and his followers to rise up and kill in the name of an anticipated race war.

T, thus, had two rival sets of beliefs, the murderous fantasies of the Mansons who were evil, and the competing ideologies of Eastern cultures in competition with Westerns. The cult of martial art was viewed as a rival fantasy, but one which an old western hero could best, except that he was fired as the eastern fantasy supplanted the western one. Who could anticipate that the murders on Cielo Drive and the ideology behind it would morph into a bushfire spread by white supremacist conspiracy theorists? Well, perhaps Joan Didion did in her essay, “The White Album.”

What seems clear is that T has created and dedicated his film to providing an alternative nostalgic retrospective to Woodstock, to the supposedly peace and love movement, to those who opposed the Vietnam War of which Cliff Booth was a veteran. Cowboy culture represented the essence of the American dream and not the hippies. Male bonding, true and unrequited love between males, was set out as the opposite of male-female equality. Far Eastern culture imported into America offered an irrelevant sideshow. The real enemies were those who professed to advance peace by putting flowers in the barrels of guns but, upon dissection, revealed themselves to be full of resentment against the alternative puritanism of Westerns that stood in real opposition to the prude puritanism of the eastern settlers of the United States.

T may make wonderful movies. T may spin parables about how the Western, and his central hero, Cliff Booth, were the real redeemed heroes of that bygone era. But he only can do so by spinning a fantasy that is:

  1. unable to overcome the contradiction that T is terribly proud that a film like Kill Bill supposedly can make a woman feel better about herself while arguing that violence in film has no effect on those who watch Hollywood movies and is simply a fictional representation;
  2. unable to overcome the contradiction between defending his portrayal of Bruce Lee while claiming that all his portraits are fictional;
  3. ignores his own disguise as a cross dresser through a fictionalized and idealized Sharon Tate and his belief in her resurrection through and in himself;
  4. his completely uncritical, actually un-self-critical and ahistorical understanding of his own work.

But he does make interesting films.  

With the help of Alex Zisman


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