Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time

Art work by Danielle Pajak Illustrations

I feel compelled to record my experience watching Tarantino’s latest film. I haven’t been keeping up with all the controversies surrounding this film, so you must forgive me if I speak like I am out of the loop, because I literally am. On top of that, I didn’t even know what the Manson Family Murders were until I decided to go watch this movie. (History isn’t my strong suit.) Reading the history of this terrible tragedy was mind-blowing and awful. I simply had no idea something at this level had occurred which had such a significant impact in Hollywood and America at large.

I’ve also not seen a Tarantino film in a long time. The last movie I saw of his was Django Unchained in theaters, which I enjoyed. I am not studious of his filmography, by any means, only having seen Inglorious Bastards besides Django. I respect and admire his abilities, which are exceptional, but I would not necessarily call myself a Tarantino fan.

I say these things so as to give some context for the complex thought process I had about this film. Namely, there are three levels to my experience: what I experienced personally while watching it, what I thought Tarantino was communicating through this film, and what Tarantino actually was communicating through this film. They seem to be contrary, but also interwoven at the same time.

The first section of the movie that takes place over those two days where we follow Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (and intermittently Sharon Tate) through their lives was the section of the film that spoke and moved me the most. I thought it was absolutely genius, powerful, and resonate. I was shocked at Tarantino’s subtlety — I wouldn’t have even known I was watching a Tarantino film! I mean he always wrote intense and complex dialogue for his characters, but this soaking in the lives of these three characters — methodical, intentional, with immaculate visuals (everything GLOWED with color, texture, and 60s aesthetic!) — is something I would not have come to expect from him. I thought I was watching some cerebral high art film! Yet once the movie fast forward those six months when Rick and Cliff come back to Los Angeles and we collide into that explosive climax, the mood and attitude of the movie changed. I was like, “Oh. Oh Yeah. This is a Tarantino film.”

Yet, even still, in my mind I was trying to make sense of all the events and how the violent climax fit within the context of the film. It was a friend, who had watched the film with me, that pointed out that we were supposed to relish or enjoy the violence done to the Manson family — thus why it was so gratuitous in its application. That was like a record scratch moment for me. We were supposed to enjoy that?? To me that did not make sense to what Tarantino had built in the entirety of those first two days!

Rick Dalton to the rescue! Gotta love me a problematic disaster son!

Namely, what I thought Tarantino was painting was a satirical, but resonate commentary that was an indictment against Hollywood and the idealism of that time period. I thought he was making a statement about the classicism, cronyism, sexism, and racism that was going on behind the scenes — behind the gloss, glamour, and the machismo of those who were the most powerful in the industry. I thought he was making statements that the Manson Family murders were birthed from out of that self-entitlement culture and, perhaps, the demonization of the hippie movement. I mean the Manson Family depicted in the film were such caricatures, and I thought that was intentional — especially within the context of the whole spaghetti western motif — which I thought was being used to highlight this idea. This idealized and simplistic concept of “good and evil” — the roguish American cowboy vs the mustache twirling villain — our swaggering heroes vs the deranged hippies! I saw him as setting up Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton as examples of how America perceived (perhaps still perceives) itself, as he and Rick Dalton become the heroes in the end — but heroes made from Hollywood’s delusions of grandeur. The gratuitous violence a way of exemplifying the absurdity of it all, especially at the end when Rick Dalton is talking to Jay Sebring. The both of them have a casual and neighborly conversation about almost being murdered in their beds and Rick Dalton using a flame thrower on one of the girls. It is darkly comedic, but I thought that was the point.

Moreover, if we look at the characters of Rick, Cliff, and Sharon Tate specifically, they aren’t depicted in a heroic light. I understand that Tarantino creates morally grey “heroes” in his films, but within this movie the context is different. As I said, I believed it to be an indictment against the Hollywood elite — the rich and famous living their lives completely out of touch with reality and the people around them. Sharon Tate is depicted as ditsy and oblivious, such as with Jay Sebring (the man she was previously engaged to) hanging around because he is still in love with her. She goes around dancing and smiling and laughing as if she is a 60s maiden in a flower child’s dream having not a care in the world. Rick Dalton is basically a petulant man-child and drama queen who throws temper tantrums, drinks himself stupid, and doesn’t even fully appreciate that his friend is basically his Mom, taking care of him and making sure his life remains easy. Cliff Booth is a little more alarming of a character, as it is heavily implied that he did kill his wife, an arrogant loner type who seems kind of like a psychopath. Then we are given that lovely scene where he is driving Pussycat back to the ranch, and she offers to perform oral sex on him while he is driving. Cliff Booth refuses, but he refuses on the terms that she is underage! This implies two things, 1. He is only opposed to her doing this because it could literally land him jail. (Huh! Not for any other reason, Cliff? Like maybe it being morally depraved??) And 2. If she were 18 then it would have totally been fine! (Yes, my dear, you can’t perform oral sex at 17 on a complete male stranger in a car, but one year later it’s totally legit!) Cliff Booth is kind of a douche-bag. What a knight in shining armor to come to the rescue of Sharon Tate in the end, right?

All of these character traits and moments as we watch these three characters go about their lives, I saw as intentional — that we weren’t supposed to be rooting for them (necessarily), but it was a disparaging (but definitely not unsympathetic) look at the time period, 1960s Hollywood, and its royalty!

One thing that stood out to me was the foot imagery in this film. It was very intrusive visually and in your face. There were characters propping up their feet and jutting out at their feet at the audience. To me the connotation was negative. It gave me the impression of carelessness, arrogance, childishness, flippancy — these feelings further exemplifying this idea of self-entitlement of the characters depicted.

Now, with all this being said, as I mentioned, I also had my own personal experience while watching this film. As I was watching Tarantino paint (as I perceived) this damning image of America, Hollywood, and society’s elite — I did not feel anger or repulsion or cynicism, but I was overflowing with love and compassion. I pitied these people, and I was drawn into their very real and deep issues as human beings. That is why I loved the first two hours of the film, because I saw him as showing them as they were — human. The Hollywood “elite” aren’t these idealized, unapproachable, untouchable “gods and goddesses”, but real men and women who struggle with insecurity, emptiness, existential dread, selfishness, violence, and arrogance. They are people who desire to be loved, to have that validation and affirmation from others. They are people who hold darkness and ugliness in their hearts and have no outlet for truly understanding it. My favorite moment of the movie was when Rick was talking with the little girl Trudi, and over the course of the conversation she completely disarms him and turns him into a blubbering mess, as he begins to realize through the connection of the Eazy Breezy novel that he was reading how much he can relate to the character and his own fading sense of self-worth and loss of purpose in his life and career. Not only was the moment clever, but it was poignant and powerful, and spoke to the humanity within Rick. This is lovingly climaxed in the scene where she whispers to him that he did the best acting she had ever seen. My heart! 🥰

There are plenty of other examples of the characters humanity — such as Sharon Tate sitting in the theater basking in the validation and joy of the audience responding to her role in the movie or even a scene where we just watch her sleep and snoring for a bit. Then of course we come to feel for the friendship between the characters of Rick and Cliff, as it is shown to be genuine and relatable, and we — somehow, despite it all — are rooting for them, feeling for them, and empathizing with them. We do want them succeed in some absurd sense, because these characters are neither gods or devils, but are humans. They are us. And I thought that was so beautiful.

“When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

However, as we come to the grandiose and violent climax, I begin to see that there is a different melody within the narrative — namely the fact that we were supposed to be cheering on as Cliff smashes a young girl’s face in and Rick torches a young girl alive. (Yikes! To me that is just so ugly and wrong, but sure, Tarantino — you do that!) Essentially, this is a Tarantino film complete with his quintessential revenge fantasy — revenge against the Manson Family for the lives they had taken in such a horrific and brutal fashion.

I ended up listening to a Podcast interview that Tarantino did with Empire (Listen here), and in it he was describing some of his thought processes while creating this film. He described this film as “metaphorically saving Sharon”, and how he had such a strong connection to the very last shot — where we see the four survivors alive, Sharon inviting Rick into her home. He used words such as “touching” and “emotional”. I realize now that he was literally doing what the title of this film implies — telling a fairy tale! It is revisionist history all for the purpose of trying to metaphorically right a terrible wrong. In the interview, he describes it as “cathartic”.

Now, I should have understood this from the beginning considering Inglorious Bastards dealt with revisionist history and Django was a story that was very much like a fairy tale. However, in my opinion, those concepts worked far better in those films, flowing more naturally from their narratives. Whereas it felt oddly placed within this sprawling and ambitious story, which for the most part, didn’t seem to be depicting a Hollywood that you would get all warm and fuzzy about. And while I don’t believe his depiction of Sharon Tate was completely negative, it definitely wasn’t positive or flattering. He describes her as a “friendly ghost haunting the movie in a lovely way”. That wasn’t the impression I got from the film while watching it.

Now, I am all for artists doing what they do, telling the story they want to tell, and it seems like Tarantino is an ardent fan of Sharon Tate and the movie The Wrecking Crew that she starred in and was depicted within this film. I can understand how personally he would feel a sense of catharsis in trying to save her, as well as bringing her killers to justice — or at least his version of justice.

I am also all for the old westerns and the fun, campy heroism depicted in the shows and films at that time period. (I mean I am a huge fan of the original Star Trek after all.) I believe there is a lot that is positive about those times, and valuable things that we have forgotten that we would do well to remember again. There is always the good and the bad in every age. However, Tarantino’s vision for this film feels pretty shallow within the context of history and comes across as self-indulgent and out of touch. Not that some of that is wrong, per se, all artists are self-indulgent in one form or another, but it kind of leaves me feeling like: “That’s it? That’s really what your 3-hour epic film was about?” Seems rather anticlimactic and not to mention emotionally immature. To take “revenge” in that gratuitous fashion is not “justice”, but is juvenile and morally reprehensible in of itself. Brutalizing killers who brutalized others isn’t how we go about righting wrongs, but actually perpetuates that very violence that one wishes to eradicate. Obtaining catharsis from mutilating human beings isn’t exactly what I would be encouraging creators (or film goers) to aspire to. I think we should always strive for higher thoughts, self-betterment, and emotional maturity — most especially in our art and storytelling.

“Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” — 1 Cor 14:20

Now, despite what may be coming across, I do actually still love this film — well most of this film. I found it to be an immersive and stimulating experience, and it is obvious that Tarantino wanted to get across the humanity of his characters and tell a story that would be emotionally affecting. I do think it is the best work Tarantino has done, and could very well be considered his magnum opus. And it certainly has given me a lot to think about. Perhaps despite Tarantino not telling a more thematically rich story, it would instead spark thematically rich discussion, which could be almost just as good.

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