Loin du Vietnam: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”

This blog entry contains spoilers.

Rick Dalton, the central character in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), is an erstwhile leading man who keeps his career afloat between pilot seasons by doing guest spots on a variety of weekly TV shows, typically playing the heavy. In the clips we see of Dalton’s cancelled western series, Bounty Law, he embodies the clean-cut masculine ideal of the 1950s and early 1960s, but when he arrives on the set of a different cowboy show a few years later, he finds that times have changed. The director tells him he wants to go in a different direction with Dalton’s appearance, giving him straggly hair, a thick Zapata moustache, and a hippyish suede jacket that would not look out of place on stage at Woodstock. Without being anachronistic, the director explains, he wants to find the point where 1869 overlaps with 1969.

There is an important point being made here about how movies and TV shows portray the past: No matter how historically accurate they purport to be, all costume dramas reflect the priorities of the time in which they were made (and Tarantino’s film is no exception). By the end of the 1960s, it was already anachronistic to make a Western like Rio Bravo (1959)—although this did not stop Howard Hawks from trying, with diminishing returns, in El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970)—because the world, and the audience, had already moved on. This is not to say, however, that Tarantino is a postmodern skeptic, for whom the past is unknowable; rather than foregrounding how our knowledge of history is always mediated through cultural texts, Once Upon a Time… suggests that, for Tarantino, forgotten TV shows and commercial movies, posters, pop records, comic books, and sensational news stories like the Tate-LaBianca murders are the past, or at least the only part of it worth knowing. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of Pulp Fiction (1994), Tarantino’s overall project here is “to evict real life and real people from the art film and replace them with generic teases and assorted hommages [sic].” In other words, Tarantino’s films displace knowledge of the world (discovery) with a knowingness about pop culture (recognition).

Less disciplined as storytelling than Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds (2009), though not as empty as Death Proof (2007)—which presumed an interest in long, devout conversations about obscure 1960s pop albums, trashy car chase movies, and French Vogue that I personally do not share—Once Upon a Time… has an agreeably rambling plot that, for most of the film’s 160 minutes, tracks the separate and largely undramatic daily activities of three characters over two days in February, 1969 and a third day that August in a manner reminiscent of two Los Angeles-set art films of the period, Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970). While Dalton (Leonardo DiCapprio), a high-functioning alcoholic, struggles to remember his lines on set and frequently breaks down in tears to the point where I wanted to shout at the screen, “Come on, son, grow a pair,” his former stunt man and BFF, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), picks up a member of the Manson Family who goes by the nickname Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and gives her a ride back to Spahn’s Movie Ranch. At the same time, in another part of town, Dalton’s new neighbour, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), goes to a movie theatre to watch herself in a mediocre comedy starring a frail-looking Dean Martin. As in Model Shop and Zabriskie Point, it is almost as if the sprawling layout of the city dictated a dispersal of the narrative, although the aleatory, quasi-documentary approaches of Demy and Antonioni evince a curiosity about the reality of 1960s Los Angeles and the counterculture that is nowhere in evidence in Tarantino’s film.

Despite the film’s meandering narrative and leisurely pacing (which, for me, are part of its charm), the characterization of Tate is disappointingly thin. It is not so much that Tarantino gives her so little dialogue, or that the film tells us no more about her life than we could read on Wikipedia (we find out a great deal more about Dalton’s fictional career, and even his reading tastes, than Tate’s), but that Tarantino has not made the effort to imagine her as a character. Tellingly, when Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), attend a party at the Playboy Mansion, the film privileges Steve McQueen’s (Damian Lewis) perceptions of their marriage over Tate and Polanski’s. Indeed, Tarantino seems even more uncertain about how to deal with Polanski as a character in the #MeToo era than he does about Tate: How can spectators sympathize with Tate while despising the man she is happily married to for a crime he committed several years after the story takes place? Tarantino merely ducks the issue by keeping Polanski offscreen as much as possible and giving him virtually no dialogue.

The film is also limited as a portrayal of the Manson Family. Indeed, it is surprising just how little we see of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), who appears only once in an early scene where he turns up unexpectedly at the Tate-Polanski house, which he thinks is still owned by record producer Terry Melcher. Given what a loathsome and boring person Manson was, his minimal presence here might seem at first glance to be in the movie’s favour, but as a result, the film fails to give us any sense of the Manson Family as a cult. Thus, the bulk of our antipathy falls on Manson’s followers—who were, after all, his victims as well. Tarantino even rewrites history to give the female cult members more agency than they likely had in real life: Just as four of Manson’s followers are about to go into Tate’s house on August 8, 1969, Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Mikey Madison) proposes that it would be more poetically apt for them to murder Dalton instead, and as they are walking up the driveway, Linda Kassabian (Maya Hawke) runs back to the car and drives off, implying that Manson’s control over his followers was less than absolute. The film also elides the fact that the real Manson ordered Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (an unrecognizable Dakota Fanning), as well as several other girls, to have sex with George Spahn (Bruce Dern) so that, in the film, they appear to have a consensual, monogamous relationship—and, oddly enough, the fictional Fromme and Spahn make a more convincing onscreen couple than Polanski and Tate. By fudging the historical record in this way, Tarantino makes it possible for spectators to enjoy the film’s climatic bloodbath—in which Atkins, Charles “Tex” Watson (Austin Butler), and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) get bludgeoned, chewed up, and burned alive—as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. (Did it make me feel good when Booth destroyed Atkins’ face with a can of dog food? You bet it did.)

Without minimizing the horror of the Tate-LaBianca murders, Reginald Harkema’s little-seen indie film Leslie, My Name Is Evil (2009) suggests that the media hysteria surrounding the trial of Manson and his followers represented a form of mass psychic displacement, wherein the crimes of the Manson Family served as a scapegoat for the even more spectacular violence then being perpetrated by US foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Notwithstanding Pussycat’s passing remark that people are being murdered everyday in Vietnam (she does not specify whether she is referring to US servicemen, Vietcong guerrillas, North Vietnamese soldiers, or civilians, implying that all of these deaths are morally equivalent), Tarantino’s priorities are the inverse of Harkema’s: Ultimately, the film wants us to despise Manson’s followers and cheer for the gruesome deaths of three of them rather than, say, the perpetrators of the massacre at My Lai—whom, unlike Manson’s followers, went largely unpunished. Rosenbaum has argued that Dalton’s use of a flamethrower to deliver the coup de grâce can be read as an unconscious allusion to the American military’s use of napalm against the people of Vietnam, which can only be represented in a displaced form, and given Madison’s Asiatic features, this interpretation seems inescapable. Released at a time when US influence in the world is in decline, due in part to the rise of China, Once Upon a Time… nostalgically harkens back to an era when American men proved their masculinity by incinerating yellow children.

Poutin’ in the Rain: Philippe Garrel’s “L’Enfant secret”

Filmed in 1979 but not screened until 1982 (according to Ben Sachs, because its director could not afford to have the footage processed by a lab), Philippe Garrel’s L’Enfant secret is what critics call “a transitional work,” acting as a bridge between the experimental underground films preceding it and the relatively mainstream narrative features that would follow. The film starts out in the mythopoetic mode of Garrel’s Le Révélateur (1968) and La Cicatrice intérieure (1972) with a mostly silent sequence of painterly tableau shots of a hippy couple in ragged clothing occupying an old farmhouse that resolutely refuses to cohere into a story. In one shot, the camera pans back and forth between the woman lying in bed, apparently nude under the sheets and with a frustrated expression on her face, and the man sitting next to her and looking equally sullen. Assuming we’re meant to take them as a countercultural Adam and Eve, it would appear that in Garrel’s version of Genesis the original sin is impotence. In any case, this couple is abruptly dropped from the film soon after and replaced with an even more flawed bohemian couple, Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc) and Elie (the late Anne Wiazemsky, in possibly her greatest performance), at which point the film develops — insofar as it can be said to develop at all — into a choppy, episodic, and finally inconclusive chronicle of the lives of two people who, from the start, seem incapable of being happy with one another, or anyone else for that matter.

Jean-Baptiste is especially unlikeable, drifting through the film like a chunk of inexpressive deadwood over a placid river. (Like Wiazemsky, de Maublanc got his start as one of Robert Bresson’s models but was not able to make the leap to professional acting, appearing in only one more film after this one.) Early in the film, he overdoses on LSD and winds up in a hospital psych ward in a catatonic state, although only the most astute observer could detect any change in his personality. (In a scene reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s films, the doctors attach electrodes to his temples and then stand around as if waiting for something to happen.) Shortly before entering the hospital, Jean-Baptiste approaches a streetwalker (Elli Medeiros), who tells him she has a young daughter. In response, he solemnly declares, “I won’t have children. I prefer revolution,” to which the streetwalker tactfully says nothing. Like many Garrel heroes, Jean-Baptiste is in revolt against the nuclear family yet he does not seem to have a clear idea of what should replace it. Similarly, Elie seems to oppose on principle any sort of stable relationship. Several years earlier, she had a son with an actor who refused to acknowledge the child and who now lives with the actor’s mother because Elie moves around too much to look after him herself. In one scene, she and Jean-Baptiste are having an argument in a park when it starts to rain, but rather than running for shelter, they remain sitting on a bench, as if avoiding pneumonia were hopelessly bourgeois. Ironically, this is one of the few scenes in the film in which Elie is not wearing a raincoat. In the end, for no apparent reason, she becomes a heroin addict.

In what may be the least convincing self-portrait of a director yet committed to film, Jean-Baptiste is making an autobiographical movie about his relationship with Elie and her son, Swann (Xuan Lindenmeyer), called, coincidentally, L’Enfant secret. Anyone who knows anything about the filmmaking process knows that it is exhausting, time-consuming work involving considerable organization, yet for the characters in this film, it appears to be a sort of hobby, like knitting, that can be picked up and put aside at any moment while they get on with the important business of sitting in cafés and talking about their relationship. The real purpose of the film within a film is to facilitate an overt, self-conscious narration in which the reality of a given event is frequently ambiguous. At one point, Garrel shows us the three leads walking together on a bridge during a day out and then replays the same shot as a flickering image projected on a wall, revealing that it is part of Jean-Baptiste’s film, while in another scene, Jean-Baptiste films Elie while being filmed himself by a second camera. Garrel also flaunts technical imperfections (overexposed frames, jarring axial cuts) so that it sometimes feels like we’re looking at dailies rather than a finished film. Occasionally, a tinkly piano theme drowns out the dialogue or the audio cuts out completely, foregrounding Garrel’s manipulation of the soundtrack, and throughout the film, titles flash on the screen — “The Caesarian Section,” “The Last Warrior,” “The Ophidian Circle,” “The Disenchanted Forest” — that are startling for their irrelevance. This is not to say, however, that the film lacks technique. Indeed, Garrel’s staging of the final sequence is masterful in its activation of offscreen space. Garrel films the characters through a café window in an over-the-shoulder composition that seems to align us with Jean-Baptiste’s point of view. But when Elie steps outside for a minute, we see her reflected in the glass buying some smack from a dealer across the street while Jean-Baptiste, who has his back to the window, continues sipping his coffee obliviously. L’Enfant secret is a beautifully crafted film about two profoundly uninteresting characters.

Fear of a Red Planet: Yakov Protazanov “Aelita: Queen of Mars”

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war, when a shortage of raw stock meant there were not enough domestic films to sustain the country’s movie theatres, foreign imports (particularly from Hollywood) swooped in to fill the void and would have a decisive influence on the first generation of Soviet filmmakers. Less formally radical—and consequently, more accessible—than the subsequent masterpieces of Sergei Eisenstein, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, et al., Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) nonetheless displays a sophisticated grasp of parallel montage and constructive editing, though its screenplay, based upon Alexei Tolstoy’s novel Aelita, or The Decline of Mars (1923), bites off more than it can chew. In the film’s first and strongest hour, scientists on earth receive an enigmatic message from outer space, and while working on a rocket ship to reach the red planet, a Russian engineer (Nikolai Tsereteli) retreats into elaborate fantasies involving the titular Martian monarch (the future director and Mrs. Dovzhenko, Yulia Solntseva), who sees the engineer and his wife (Valentina Kuindzhi) kissing on a sort of television set and decides that she would like to try it out for herself. Meanwhile, the engineer begins to suspect his wife of having an affair with a decadent bourgeois (Pavel Pol), who is far and away the film’s most appealing character—making it all the more lamentable that he largely disappears from the plot in the second hour when the engineer, a bumpkinish amateur detective (Igor Ilyinsky), and a recently demobbed Red Army soldier (Nikolay Batalov) journey to Mars, where the soldier incites a socialist revolution. The film’s early scenes, set in the final days of the Civil War, strike a delicate balance between pulp fantasy and social observation (in one sequence, the bourgeois and his reactionary friends wistfully recall the splendour of Tsarist Russia), but while the steep diagonals and winding pathways of the huge Martian sets yield some striking compositions, once the fantasy elements gain the upper hand, the story begins to lose its moorings.

The Road Not Taken: Kelly Reichardt’s “River of Grass”

Apart from the uncharacteristically dramatic and suspenseful Night Moves (2013), Kelly Reichardt’s films over the last twelve years have largely failed to impress me, so it was a genuine delight for me to catch up with River of Grass (1994), her even more uncharacteristic and long-unavailable debut, which is unabashedly interesting and often laugh-out-loud funny. The film tells the story of a dim housewife named Cozy (Lisa Bowman) who is living a life of quiet desperation in North Miami when she meets Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fesseden), a 30-year-old juvenile delinquent who by chance comes into possession of a revolver belonging to Cozy’s detective father (Dick Russell). One night, Cozy fires a shot in the direction of a black homeowner whose property she and Lee Ray are trespassing on, and believing him to be seriously injured or dead (he’s fine), they decide to go on the run but are unable to raise enough money to get themselves across the county line. Finally, after being turned back at a toll stop because they do not have enough money to get on the expressway, Cozy comes to the sad realization that she and Lee Ray are not really on the run, and even if they are, that no one is looking for them. Even before 1994, there had already been more than enough films about inept criminals doing stupid things in unattractive suburban settings—the shadows of Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970), Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973), and the early features of Jean-Luc Godard all loom heavily over this film—but what keeps River of Grass surprising and fun is the wealth of incidental details that are both totally unexpected and entirely convincing: Lee Ray struggling to light a roach and steer his car at the same time; the casual ease with which a woman returns the detective’s revolver when it slips from his faulty hip holster; the garish tube top the middle-aged motel manager wears when she promptly turns up to collect that day’s rent from Lee Ray. I was also amused by Cozy’s monotone voice-over, which is less knowledgeable about what happens in the plot than we are. Whereas Reichardt’s later films are often simply bland, here she pulls off the difficult feat of defamiliarizing the drabness of her characters’ lives and their surroundings, making them weirdly compelling.

Essential Cinema: Idrissa Ouédraogo’s “Tilaï”

A work of consummate mastery, Idrissa Ouédraogo’s Tilaï (1990) is a film so quietly assured that it only gradually dawned on me just how purposeful and intelligent Ouédraogo’s direction really is. Nearly every shot has its own arc, and although the film contains images of astonishing beauty, no shot is only beautiful as Ouédraogo’s staging and mobile framing are always in the service of the narrative, which has the starkness and simplicity of myth. In the opening sequence, Saga (Rasmané Ouédraogo) returns to his village after several years of wandering to discover that his father has taken his sweetheart, Nogma (Ina Cissé), as a second wife even though he had promised her to Saga. To make matters more complicated, Nogma is still in love with Saga, and when the community learns of their adulterous relationship, it falls to Saga’s brother, Kougri (Assane Ouédraogo), to carry out the death sentence against him. Despite some hints in the mise en scène that the story takes place after the arrival of the European colonizers (Saga, for instance, carries a rifle that ultimately leads to his downfall), we neither see nor hear of any white people and the characters, living in clay houses surrounded by vast expanses of nature, act according to ancient customs handed down from time immemorial, giving the film a timeless, mythic quality that is counterpointed by Abdullah Ibrahim’s anachronistic score, performed by a jazz trio, which suggests a detached, modern perspective on the characters. Clocking in at a lean 78 minutes and dispensing entirely with the sort of superfluous technical wankery that directors like Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñaríttu have built their reputations on, Tilaï is so focused and economical that it makes you realize just how much unnecessary bullshit there is in most other films.

First Immorality, Then Bread: Oshima Nagisa’s “The Sun’s Burial”

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has argued that Oshima Nagisa’s greatness as a director was “inseparable from his indifference to whether his films were likable [sic] or not,” and although it is too early for me to say, after just one viewing, whether or not The Sun’s Burial (Taiyo no hakaba, 1960) is a great film, it is doubtlessly one of his most radically unlikeable, systematically undermining any attempt the spectator might make to sympathize with its characters. An exceptionally mean and nihilistic yakuza story set against a backdrop of unrelieved squalor, this 87-minute feature has enough plot for a miniseries and, as in Oshima’s subsequent and equally estranging Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri, 1960), there are too many characters for the spectator to keep track of all of them on first viewing. Some of the more memorable rouges here, none of whom have any redeeming qualities whatsoever, are a teenage blood merchant who sidelines in prostitution (or perhaps it is the other way around) and who in one scene catches her father trying to peak up her dress while she sleeps, a demented right-wing agitator who believes the Soviets are planning to invade Japan in the next two years, and a lame pimp first seen choking a whore with his crutch because he does not want to pay for her to have an abortion while another prostitute sitting nearby pretends not to notice. The film is by turns funny and shocking but it is never very affecting; perhaps influenced by Bertolt Brecht, Oshima evidently wants us to take a detached view of these characters rather than getting emotionally involved, but to what end? Even granting the dubious premise that emotional engagement precludes critical thought, the film creates a world so unremittingly sordid that no cure seems possible. When the frenzied slum dwellers burn down their own decrepit shantytown at the end of the film, the fire does not purify anything or anyone; it just leaves a smouldering heap of ash and rubble.

Formulaic Thoughtfulness: Paul Schrader’s “‘First Reformed'”

Given that the central nugget of Paul Schrader’s biographical legend—the one fact endlessly cited in reviews of his films as if it explained everything about the man and his work, for better or for worse—is that he had a strict Calvinist upbringing and did not see his first film until he was seventeen, it is all the more dispiriting that, as a writer-director, he seems incapable of functioning independently of his influences. Indeed, to judge by “First Reformed” (2017)—which recycles massive, undigested chunks of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de compagne (1951) (a solitary priest keeps a diary while dying of stomach cancer and drinking copiously), Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963) (with global warming substituted for nuclear war and Victoria Hill for Ingrid Thulin), and Schrader’s own script for Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), itself largely derived from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) and Dostoevsky by way of Bresson—one might guess that he learned everything he knows about spiritual angst from watching European art movies. As in the Bergman film, Schrader’s protagonist, Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), is the minister of a small church where one of the few remaining parishioners is a young man with a pregnant wife who is driven to despair by the spectre of an impending apocalypse and takes his own life; the twist is that here the young man is an environmental activist, and his death pushes Rev. Toller to become more outspoken about the moral outrage of man-made climate change and eventually to plot a terrorist act. This at least is an innovation on Winter Light, where the possibility of any type of political action is simply not on the table. But while the theme of environmental collapse and a clumsily executed levitation fantasy both suggest the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, Schrader has not updated the Russian master’s reactionary sexual politics: The only roles for women he seems capable of imagining are as opportunities for carnal sin (Hill) or as madonnas promising renewal for the hero (Amanda Seyfried as the dead man’s widow). Also mildly innovative, if not particularly purposeful, is the film’s locked down camera style which largely eschews reframings, yielding compositions that are conspicuously decentred when they are not emphatically symmetrical. And despite its familiarity, the plot does manage to generate a certain degree of suspense, though ultimately Schrader winds up blowing it with an unsatisfying final scene—cribbed from Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), which Schrader wrote—that, in true Hollywood fashion, posits heterosexual romance as a solution to all the world’s problems.