Once again, Tarantino averts his eyes from real horror

Celeb Hollywood director shows again, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that film is more important to him than the reality that films are about

Hollywood of the 1960s is the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’.  Ever since his first film ‘Reservoir Dogs’, Tarantino has been preoccupied with narrative plotting. In his best film, ‘Pulp Fiction’, he put together three intertwining stories dealing with a bunch of gangsters, restructured chronology to create a compelling artefact, but that film and the next one Jackie Brown were also rich in character and observation.

From the next film (Kill Bill Vol I and II) he seems to have lost interest in people and one is inclined to blame his status as a celebrity for it. Celebrities, because they become objects for public scrutiny, perhaps lose interest in people. His films after ‘Jackie Brown’, although containing brilliantly cinematic segments, are less enthralling.

In ‘Inglourious Basterds’, he had Hitler and the Nazi top brass assassinated in Paris during a film screening, as if to ‘re-plot history’. It was also a ‘tale of vengeance’ since Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers from the US army for what he was then doing to Jews!  

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is nostalgically set in the 1960s and its protagonists are a TV star named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his tough stuntman and driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton has attained fame for a series called ‘Bounty Law’ but he is in decline and has been playing bad men in cowboy films. He is now considering acting in a spaghetti western, once again as a bad man, although he is not keen on it.

Dalton lives in Beverly Hills and when the film begins, he learns that his neighbours on Cielo Drive are Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski, one of the hottest directors in the world after he made Rosemary’s Baby (1968). To readers not aware, Sharon Tate and several of her house guests were brutally murdered on August 8 and 9, 1969, by members of a hippie cult led by Charles Manson, when Polanski was away in Europe; as may be expected, this event animates’ Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, otherwise only exquisite nostalgia without a plot.

All that happens through most of the film is Cliff Booth dropping Dalton off at the sets and driving back while the star is busy getting ready for the shooting, stealing a surreptitious drink, and mouthing his lines. As indicated, the actual storyline involves the hippie cult preparing off-screen for their murderous assault, and Tarantino begins to suggest it by showing a girl (a cult member) waving to Cliff from a street corner each time he passes by. One day, he picks her up and drops her off at ‘Spahn Movie Ranch’ where she is part of the hippie commune to whom the police are ‘pigs’ and virtually everyone a ‘fascist’.

Incredible tension

The underage girl offers Cliff sex on the way but he declines. Cliff once knew George Spahn (Bruce Dern), who owns and lives on the ranch but is now blind. Tarantino builds up incredible tension in this scene where the hippies try to prevent Cliff from meeting Spahn. When he returns to his car, he finds the tyre with a knife through it and he responds by savagely beating the hippie responsible, and making him fix it. Tarantino is evidently not enamoured of hippies. 

But what makes all this so taut is the sense that Tarantino catches of political tensions building up in the sunny milieu. The scene with the blind Spahn willingly enslaved by the cult and tended to by a hippie girl also suggests good times gone sour — undesirables plaguing a once flourishing Hollywood locale. Tarantino builds up all this tension, directing it towards the fated Tate killings of August 1969. But as in ‘Inglourious Basterds’, he cheats fate; after creating expectations, he does not allow the gruesome events to unfold. Watching them might have been unpalatable but they still needed to be acknowledged.  

Tarantino’s films (including this one) are violent but here he is unwilling to handle an actual incident of great brutality. The Polanski residence was virtually soaked in blood after the carnage, the word ‘pig’ scrawled on the wall in human blood. In retrospect, it becomes evident that all of Tarantino’s violence is make-believe. The violence in ‘Inglourious Basterds’, for instance, is comic-book action compared to what Hitler actually did in WWII. My own sense is that Tarantino cannot countenance the world as it is and, instead of dealing with its actuality, tries to substitute it with cinema, or gets around it through film. 

Tarantino may justly be termed the cinephile among major filmmakers but cinephiles are generally those who approach reality through film since the test of a great film is what aspect of reality it holds up or explores. Tarantino is different (in his later films) in that film has become more important to him than the reality films are about, and he uses film to exorcise public memory of brutal happenings. He recreates aspects of the past meticulously and lovingly but then makes sure that the violent aspect of the past that committed it to public memory is itself excised from it, thereby reducing his efforts to innocuousness. But perhaps his films are only appropriate for a world living perpetually in the present.      

(The author is a well-known film critic)

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