Once Upon a Time In Tarantino’s Version of Hollywood…
The film has a women problem and it’s not just Sharon Tate.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Full disclosure: I’m not a big Tarantino fan so I may not be the target audience for his 2 hour 45 minute homage to Hollywood of the 1960s. On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of this particular era of cinema, so I was thoroughly expecting to enjoy this film.
I’m such a fan of old Hollywood, in fact, that I follow a number of Instagram accounts that post clips and photos of classic movie stars. Because this year marks the 50th anniversary of Sharon Tate’s brutal murder at the hands of the Manson gang, her face appears regularly on my feed, silent and smiling — far more often than any other movie star. I find this mythologisation of Tate disturbing, flattened as she is to a symbol of innocence rather than a fully-dimensional human being.
Tarantino’s representation of Tate reminded me of my Instagram feed. She floats through the movie without saying very much at all. When we first meet Tate, she is dancing. Then she spends at least the first hour of a very long film still dancing: ethereal and angelic. With the exception of one stand-out scene, when she speaks it is usually to her husband Roman Polanski — and we can not hear what she is saying.
On being pressed about Tate’s lack of dialogue, Tarantino shut down the reporter rather than justify this creative choice. Actress Margot Robbie explained that she was able to “explore the character” without talking — although we never really learn much about the character at all. She is peripheral to the film’s two main characters: the washed-up actor Rick played by Leonard DiCaprio and his stunt double Cliff played by Brad Pitt.
A lot of time is also spent following Cliff driving around 1960s Los Angeles with no narrative purpose. Rick and Cliff remain entirely unchanged by the end of the film. Large chunks of Rick’s B-grade western films are interspersed throughout, but they are not coherent enough to form a sub-plot of their own. Scenes are unconnected to each other and there is rarely any pay off for any of the characters or story elements that are introduced.
Various popular figures of that era come and go — most notably Bruce Lee whose only scene makes a mockery of his arrogance and has him easily defeated in a fight by Pitt’s character. At times, titles are used to make sure we know who these famous people are. Charles Manson is briefly seen and then never again. Steve McQueen pops up to explain Sharon Tate’s romantic history very clumsily to the audience and then disappears.
For a filmmaker that has built his reputation on crafting brilliant dialogue, not a single exchange stands out. Various lines are repeated in flashbacks, as though we might not have caught them the first time around. Towards the end of the film, a voice-over narration arrives out of nowhere, to explain a rather pointless six months of events in a few minutes. Leonard DiCaprio acquires a wife, whose function is to be laughed at when she speaks in Italian (which really shouldn’t be that funny given that she is Italian, but it had the audience in stitches).
Speaking of women… Pitt’s character is easily the most charismatic of the film. And yet he is also accused of killing his wife, a character flaw that only seems to bother one female character (whose only role is as someone’s wife). In a flashback played for laughs, we see Cliff on a boat with a harpoon gun pointed at his late wife as she berates him for being a loser. There is no further reference to the murder — presumably because women who nag their husbands deserve what’s coming to them.
Cliff and Rick kill two more women as the climax escalates into extreme violence — which is the reason I find Tarantino films unwatchable. The only justification given for this tonal shift is that Cliff is on an acid trip, a plot device that comes deus ex machina. It also means that an entire scene in which Cliff brutally murders three members of the Manson gang, two of them female, was accompanied by shrieks of laughter from the audience.
Personally, I had to close my eyes so as not to see a woman having her face cut open with a dog food can and another be torched to death by a flame thrower — but my fellow cinema-goers seemed to appreciate these images. Never mind that the scene in question was based on the real-life Manson murder spree in which eight people were killed. I understand a film offering up an alternative version of history, but is it actually funny?
In the resolution to Tarantino’s fairytale, Tate doesn’t die and Rick finally achieves his dream of meeting his more successful neighbours. The implication is that he will go on to have a starring role in a Polanski movie— the Polish director’s subsequent crimes and exile are not touched upon. Perhaps in Tarantino’s fiction, these didn’t exist either.