Does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Cross The Line? | The Big Picture


Hey! In case you didn’t read the beginning, today’s
show is about the new Quentin Tarantino movie and it has spoilers in it – if you haven’t seen
the movie and/or don’t want to know the big twisty stuff yet… this ain’t the episode
to watch right now. Last warning. Okay! Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is the new hit
movie from Quentin Tarantino and, as expected, it came with some controversy – but unlike
literally everything he’s made before this time… In fact, right up until it’s not Once Upon
A Time In Hollywood is (graded on a “curve” against the other Tarantino films) probably
his “tamest” work in terms of content: Not as much colorful profanity, not as much
violence (though there is some) much more drama than action and much more long atmospheric
“people driving classic cars around late-60s Los Angeles listening to classic rock” wordless
stretches to balance out the banter – plus, most of the obligatory obscure movie references
are integrated much more organically than usual because it takes place in the film
industry of the past directly. So instead, this time what’s gotten people
into an uproar and choosing up sides is less about the visual content than it is the narrative content
– specifically the fact that the film not only takes place in the past but during a
very specific period, intersects with the lives of several prominent real-life figures
of that period and (remember, I did warn you about spoilers) that it gradually reveals
itself to be a work of alternative-historical fiction… in other words, that the “Once
Upon A Time” in the title isn’t just there to be cute. Set primarily during three specific days spread
across 1968 and 1969, the main character is Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Rick Dalton,” a
once-famous TV cowboy actor who, largely because of the changing tastes in style and leading-men,
is having difficulty in transitioning to the big screen as anything other than a typecast
B-movie tough-guy increasingly reliant both on and offscreen on the backup of his best
friend and stunt double; Brad Pitt’s “Cliff Booth” – an veteran possessed of near-superhuman
physical abilities and shady past. Rick also happens to be living next door to
Margot Robbie as real-life actress Sharon Tate, here as in reality a rising next-big-thing
star hot off the success of Valley Off the Dolls, wife of then-celebrated young filmmaker
Roman Polanski and essentially a walking symbol of the hip, cool new Hollywood Rick is desperate
to ascend to but clearly was not meant to be a true part of. Other real-life figures of the time either
appear as supporting characters or get name-checked, including Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, various
fixtures of the Italian exploitation film business… Oh! …and also of course Charles Manson and
“The Manson Family” – the deranged cult L.A.-area transient grifters squatting on
the dilapidated movie ranch where actors like Rick and Cliff once worked and who, in the
real-life version of events, attained terrible infamy with the home invasion murders of Tate,
her unborn child and several others at their home in 1969; an event which shocked the nation
and is often framed by pop-history as both the moment where American culture turned hard
against the 60s “Flower Children” demographic (Manson wasn’t actually a “hippie” of
course, he was a white-supremacist with a delusional fantasy of staging murders to trigger
an apocalyptic race war – but that’s another show…) and also sometimes as the official
“point of no return” for the traditional Hollywood studio and star-system mystique
– i.e. the spectacle of a young actress viewed by many as the next big All-American “it
girl” movie star dying in so horrible a fashion amid the general collapse of interest
in traditional studio star-driven movies of the time. But in Once Upon A Time’s version of history
– that’s not what happens. Instead, the Manson Family killers get distracted
on their way to the Tate house by recognizing Rick from TV and decide it’d be more interesting
to kill a TV cowboy instead… and Cliff (who, earlier in the film, had encountered The Family
at the ranch and knows what they’re about) or at lest suspect such, basically beats them to death with his bare
hands because he’s a roughneck antihero with a potentially-dark past played by Brad
Pitt in a Quentin Tartantino movie and Rick is… not those things, but he does own a flamethrower. The killings are thwarted, Tate and her friends
survive without even having to find out that they were ever in danger in the first place and it turns out
they’re fans of Rick’s, implicitly winning him access to continued life in the Hollywood
A-list after all. Happy ending! …I mean, maybe? Charles Manson himself is technically still
out there and we never do find out if Cliff is actually guilty of the bad thing he may
or may not have done in his past – but, Tarantino movie. Anyway! As you might gather, once critics and early
audiences were done picking their jaws up from the surprise finish, many began to question
whether or not using real-life murders for a twist like this is in incredibly poor taste
– particularly considering the uniquely misogynistic brutality of Tate’s butchering and Tarantino’s
not exactly tactful history with violence against women as a plot device. It’s an interesting an uncomfortable question
that I’m not sure really has an objective answer – especially since these “alternate-history”
what-if takes are where Tarantino’s extremely latent talent for something like introspective
self-critique tends to come up. One could argue that it’s gauche to appropriate
real world tragedy for what amounts to a happy-ending revenge fantasy, an argument that was in fact
made about both Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds – both of which
carried the additional concern of appropriation i.e. what claim does Quentin Tarantino – a
white writer/director originally from Knoxville, Tennessee – have imagining historic revenge
fantasies for crimes against Black and Jewish people? On the other hand one could just as easily
argue that such persons have greater claim to say whether or not the appropriation is
in fact offensive or even appropriative in the first place: Tarantino’s “interesting”
relationship adjacent to Black American movie culture is already practically its own entire
field of film study, and he himself was so (uncharacteristically) concerned about possibly
crossing a line in Basterds that he consulted on specific aspects with Jewish colleague
and star Eli Roth and his family – with Roth’s father Sheldon eventually penning an editorial
for the Jewish Journal comparing the film’s use of historic fanaticism to the “Emotional
History” of Biblical recitation at Passover. In that context, one might look to Tate’s
sister Debra, who was consulted on the making of Once Upon A Time and has been very approving
of the film over all; particularly Robbie’s performance as her sister and Tarantino’s decision to
focus on her day-to-day ordinary life instead of celebrity encounters or work along with
extricating her completely from the murders – which was apparently the deliberate point
i.e. a righting-of-wrongs fantasy that doesn’t simply let her survive but also prevents The
Manson Murders from overwhelming, becoming or even touching her story so that Sharon
Tate’s life can be about her life again; an approach of… I mean, let’s be honest – disconcerting maturity from Quentin Tarantino, from a certain point of view. Then again, the flip side of that is that
while Tate is no longer a dead body in the history of August 8-9, 1969; she’s also
no longer a central figure of the story – instead it becomes the story of two fictional cowboy
heroes (and a dog) who “save the day” by violently slaughtering three almost hilariously
outmatched attackers – two of which are much younger women. And while there’s a compelling magnanimity
in the idea of Tarantino (at least symbolically) returning agency to this alternate-timeline
version of Tate, this also feels like a happy ending for him: In this timeline, The Mansons
don’t get to taint the idyllic if cheesy Los Angeles vibe of then six year-old Tarantino’s
youth… …and instead of signaling The End For Real
of a Hollywood where Old School Movie Heroes like Rick Dalton could be the stars (driving
them into the wilderness of Spaghetti Westerns and B-movies where they’d become cult-icons
to be loved and eventually resurrected by nostalgic Gen-X ironists like Quentin Tartantino
– in case this was all too subtle) two guys like that save the day, potentially meaning
an entirely different pop-culture history. One perhaps more preferable to Tarantino’s sensibility. Plus, if one takes Tate’s sister’s word
as close to definitive, then similar consideration ought go to the wife and daughter of the late
Bruce Lee, who’ve criticized the late martial-arts legend’s depiction in the film (from a story
and character perspective, while praising the performance of actor Mike Moh in the role). Lee appears in two flashback scenes in Once Upon A Time, one based in reality where he trains Sharon Tate in
kung-fu for her fight scene in the The Wrecking Crew, and another made up for the
film where he and Cliff have an impromptu sparring match several years before the main
storyline on the set of The Green Hornet after Cliff takes exception to Lee’s claim that
he could defeat heavyweight champ Cassius Clay (then not yet named Muhammed
Ali) in fight. In the scene, where Lee first comes off as
a cocky, self-assured showman, he at first easily knocks Cliff down but then gets thrown
himself after they start throwing hands – with the fight effectively being stopped in a draw
by show producers before we can find out who would’ve actually won. (According to Mike Moh himself, he had the
same concerns but was of the opinion and acted the scene in the context that his Lee would
have won the next round). Obviously, given the literally god-like status
Bruce Lee holds in the martial-arts community and pop-culture in general, a lot of fans were
unhappy to see him depicted as anything other than unbeatable (which is clearly the point
– using audience’s cultural foreknowledge of Bruce Lee as a force of nature to establish
Cliff’s nearly-superhuman physicality for later) which also feels like a deliberate
flex by Tarantino – you can feel his encyclopedic film-nerd excitement at the chance to correct
people that, “Ya’ know, well actually guys at that point in his career even Lee would later say he
was too hotheaded and didn’t always win – he was only two years out from demonstrating
the One-Inch Punch for the first time in the Americas in public and the fight with Wong Jack Man, had only been about that much time in the past he hadn’t yet opened the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute or developed Jeet Kune Do, yet he wouldn’t even become
a superstar in Hong Kong for another five years! So, ya’ know.” “Violence is everywhere in our society, ya’ know it’s like even in breakfast cereal man.” [groovy beach music playing] Film writer Walter Chaw; however, writing
for Vulture, describes enjoying the film as a serious fan of Lee’s personally invested
in portrayals of Asian men in mainstream film – and that while he understands the Lee family’s
objections (especially given that many audiences and critics have mischaracterized Moh’s
spot-on replication of Lee’s outsized mannerisms and screen-affect as a kind of parody) he
views the portrayal as similar to that of Robbie’s Tate: Re-humanizing a pop-culture
figure whom history has transformed into something of unknowable, untouchable icon. (Chaw also notes the apparently true fact
that, prior to the capture and confession of the Manson Family, Lee’s self propagated “superhuman” image was so pervasive even in Hollywood that Roman Polanski briefly suspected him of having
committed the Tate house multiple-murders himself – which is much more bizarre than anything
present in Once Upon A Time.) …Yeah. Kinda heavy stuff! Like I said, this is tough because it’s
hard to have a fair definitive answer: I don’t find either of the big historical flights
of fancy in the film to be morally objectionable, and I’m not trying to push you listeners in one direction or the other, but I understand why others do, and I recognize
no standing to say either of the opinions of family members in this case are right or
wrong in their view. This is why historical fiction is always hard
to parse critically, because it forces us to confront how much we take for granted with
“normal” history narratives in film in general – but people should be able to hash these things out and have disagreements about it without it descending into an all-out war. And, this time because it’s about story, and content, and history and interpretations rather than onscreen violence or onscreen sex it seems to be mostly civil. That at least is a nice change. I’m Bob and that’s The Big Picture.

38 Replies to “Does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Cross The Line? | The Big Picture”

  1. The useful question shouldn't be whether or not it crossed the line but how it crossed the line.
    Did it elegantly and gracefully leap over or did it stumble and trip.
    Let you said in the past Bob context is everything
    I haven't seen the film but if it's in line with Tarantino's earlier work is was probably handled well.

  2. Wait . . . I'm going to guess . . . No. Be right back after the video.

    Edit: So the answer is no one knows huh? And it's not like Tarantino hasn't used similar elements thematically before. Well then . . . .

  3. It was a lame movie imo. The first and definitely the last Tarantino movie I have and will ever see lmao 😂

  4. I thought the movie was pretty good. Better than most to come out this year, QT knows what he’s doin. Crossing the line though? Nah.

  5. "BRucE lEE is INViNciblE!!!!!"
    Put Bruce Lee in a modern setting and teh legend will fail to meet the man itself. Modern heavyweights like Brock Lesner would literally eat him alive lol

  6. The Lee thing is also Tarantino calling his shot. Pacino very early on gives a whole speech about the Hollywood trick of bringing in an old badass and having the new kid win the fight to establish his cred. Tarantino wants you to see the artifice

  7. All overthinking aside, I immensely enjoyed Pitt and his pit bull (hehe) beating and mauling the would-be Manson clan murderers to death and preventing the horrors that happened in reality. It felt so good that I was grinning ear to ear.

  8. I absolutely get what Moh’s saying about portraying Bruce as though he would have won the next round.

    The scene in question had Lee thrown into a solid steel car hard enough to make a dent the size of a mini fridge, get back up immediately, reset his dislocated bones in a single motion, and go back to fighting as if nothing happened.

    That’s fuckin’ badass, and I don’t see why everybody got so up-in-arms about that fight.

  9. I never really figured out how to square away the ending of Inglorious Basterds. I never LIKED it, but I wasn't sure how far to go, as in whether I should criticise it for, in this era where many believe the Holocaust never happened, creating a movie where the Holocaust… never happened.

  10. Qt Paedo lover blaming the child for having sex with polanski. Shot movie with Bruce Lee daughter was outraged with how he was portrayed

  11. It's just about empathy, if Tarantino had taken the time to approach everyone who's family members and loved ones were involved, carefully explained his motivation and intent, then I'm sure not only would creative understanding be reached but possibly through the dialog he'd have an even broader knowledge for his movie, but king nerd knows best, so no.
    Ultimately if anyone did a "revisionist history" film about Tarantino but didn't speak to him about it, and it featured Sally Menke being represented badly in his eyes after her tragic passing, I'm 100% sure he would lose his fucking mind about it, but his ego doesn't let him see own poor behavior being reflected back at him.

  12. I think we all now know Roman Polanski's judgement isn't exactly the best, so him suspecting Bruce Lee isn't a surprise.

  13. It doesn't cross the line in terms of the subject matter. The title of the movie tells you exactly what is in store for you and Tarantino treats the subject matter respectfully.

    His fetish for feet however, (dirty hippie feet in this case since it's 1969's Hollywood), is out of control. I'm talking out of focus feet in the foreground for minutes worth of the runtime. Dude is not holding back anymore.

  14. I went into the movie nervous that I was getting another Hateful 8,and a tasteless interpretation of the Manson Family murders. Instead, I got exactly what the title suggested. I left the theater smiling.

  15. I guess what goes around comes around. I doubt in Dragon The Bruce Lee story, the family of the man who in the film causes Bruce Lee’s paralysis was happy at the portrayal

  16. another historical change that might have happened would be Roman Polanski not getting convicted of Child Rape. Meaning he never would have run off and would continue making hollywood movies. Quentin has also defended Roman from this in the past. It probably didn't have that intent behind it but it stopped me from truly enjoying the movie

  17. Imagine how people would react if there a movie that stripped away all the overwhelming legacy to tell a more human, personal story about jesus. I bet that story could be interesting to tell, but good grief, i wouldn't want to be anywhere near that flame war 0_o

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