Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood Is Far From Woke

by Lonnie MF Allen

Warning: if your view is that the world has become too PC or sensitive you may want to piss off right now. Oh, and spoilers!

Quentin Tarantino’s 9th and penultimate film, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, opened last week to nearly universal critical acclaim and from what I’ve read is a box office hit. But after seeing it on Sunday night at a full theater, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I saw a shitty movie.

The timing was probably bad for me. I had just finished exhibiting at a convention, Indigenious Pop X, which I sat in on a panel that ended with a harrowing performance by Greg Deal and his daughter, wherein she read off a multitude of names of missing and murdered indigenous women. Leaving that convention where I heard thoughtful and important issues of people of color, to then watch a movie that ends with shocking violence against women and the words “Mexicans” and “beaners” as jokes were, at the very least, annoying.

I’ve been a Tarantino apologist in the past because his stylings and encyclopedic knowledge of film is often used to such effect that I always wanted to believe the best of him because of his talent and for things like casting a woman of color in a lead role or calling out John Ford’s racism. But with each passing film since Jackie Brown, I’ve consistently liked him and his films less and less. 

In the summer of 1992, I was in high school and had just rented a little known indie film called Reservoir Dogs on VHS, and the store owner asked me what I thought of it. I went into great detail about the sharp script and pared-down staging. Basically, I thought it kicked ass in a smart way. My enthusiasm and knowledge were enough to land me a job at the video store.

I moved to Denver for college and one of my earliest jobs was working for the Mayan theater. Employees were sometimes allowed to screen movies so I got to see Pulp Fiction in the theater before its wide release. At the time, I thought it was the closest thing to perfect film.

Controversy has always been part of Tarantino’s films, and early on, it was primarily for his use of violence. I dismissed that outright in the beginning, feeling that was his rebellious middle finger to bourgeois and conservative Christian sensibilities.

Considerably less defendably was Tarantino’s liberal use of the N-word. Taking bong hits in my college dorm after Pulp Fiction came out, my roommate showed me an article about how Jules Winnfield (played by Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Fiction was the most badass character in the film until it came to Quentin Tarantino’s cameo where he famously utters the line, “Dead N***** storage,” and Jules demures.

Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) gets a good what for from stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

While the N-word isn’t used in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (a small wonder), there is a scene where Brad Pitt’s character, out of work stuntman Cliff Booth, meets a loud-mouthed parody of Bruce Lee (brilliantly played by Mike Moh) and proceeds to throw the lithe fighter into the side of a car. Perhaps if Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood was a stand-alone film, this would’ve been amusing to me as an Asian-American although Cliff imitating Lee’s fighting noises brought back memories of schoolyard taunts for me. But thinking about it in the context of Kill Bill, where a caucasian woman handily beats hundreds of Asian fighters as well as their assassin Asian female boss played by Lucy Liu, and ultimately defeats the villain (played by David Carradine cast as the lead in the TV show Kung-Fu that Bruce Lee pitched and Warner Brothers later stole), it seems Tarantino’s belief is clear: white people are better fighters than Asian martial artists.

But the subtext of white supremacy is nearly tertiary in Once Upon a Time to the outright misogyny that Rich Juzwiak talks about in detail on Jezebel and to the true villains in the film, hippies.

I would be hard-pressed to make the case defending the Manson cultists or hippies in general— which with hindsight seem like a movement with an inflated belief of their social importance and a healthy dose of white privilege. But in the context of the film, the hippies are a stand-in for the decline of the days when men were men and did tough-ass men shit. Brad Pitt’s Cliff is one of those men. Cliff is noble in part because he accepts his social station in life, nevermind that he committed uxoricide (she was naggy). He lives in a mobile trailer behind a drive-in theater, while Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a Hollywood leading man who is past his prime lives in the upscale Hollywood hills. This acceptance of one’s social status was antithetical to the socialism growing in the hippie movement after the McCarthy era crackdowns. Particularly Yippies sought social equality with civil rights and early criticism of war spending.

The hippies’ ideas of social progression in Tarantino’s film are nearly nonexistent and they are reduced to cultists who are hairy-arm pitted Lolitas seducing or trying to seduce hardened but good men or tripping college dropouts postulating that growing up with television violence wasn’t good (who then plan murder) and deserve the most gruesome of deaths.

With Margo Robbie as Sharon Tate in one the lead roles, do you have any doubt you’ll see her feet in this film?

Tarantino film style is synonymous with the ‘70s aesthetic, and in Once Upon a Time, we see his true love lay not in that era’s real-world happenings but only in the decade’s pop culture.

For those who don’t know, Sharon Tate (played by Margo Robbie), and her friends were gruesomely murdered by the Manson cultists in 1969. Similar to Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino literally creates revisionist history for fictional entertainment in Once Upon a Time. 

In his rewrite of history, Tate’s death is avoided because she lives next to DiCaprio’s fictional Dalton when the Manson cultists drive up to her home to murder Tate. Dalton tells the druggie murderers to get away from his place when he sees them lurking out in front of his home. Dalton gives an extra tirade to one of the girls for the grievous sin of being a young woman stink-eyeing the protagonist. Afterward, the rebuffed kids become enraged, and their target is changed to Dalton himself. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt’s Cliff has returned from a walk to Dalton’s home while Dalton has gone out back. Cliff is surprised by the invaders while high and feeding his dog. The young cultists are unsuccessful in their plans and meet their demise in typical Tarantino violent/funny fashion, and Sharon Tate is spared from her real-world death in the film. Do you catch that? Two aging Hollywood white dudes (being artistic stand-ins for Tarantino himself) save Sharon Tate, the wholesome non-dirty, no hairy armpit, no women’s lib, go-go dancing darling.

Tarantino’s coaching of skill from all his actors, his masterful picture framing, and his witty dialogue are just some of the things that still make him such a talented filmmaker. It was nice to witness a true auteur tangentially evidenced in the brevity of his end credits scene (nowhere near the time suck as it is waiting for the end of Marvel movies). But even separate of social context, the film played at a more meandering pace than his earlier work and I wish he didn’t foist his foot fetish so prominently.

If you want to see two old (albeit still good looking) white guys kicking ass, besting the most famous Asian martial artist, and beating the shit out of dirty hippies in a movie, this is probably the most artful one to see. But after nearly thirty years, a filmmaker that seemed to me like such a rebellious DIY outsider of the ‘90s, now just seems like an old man completely uninterested in the real world, instead, telling us about the good ‘ole days of America and Hollywood, and how he wants these young woke kids to get off his lawn!

Lonnie MF Allen made his start in comics in the ’90s DIY zine culture. Since then, his work has appeared in The Westword, Birdy, and Out Front magazine. He has done comic book writing for Image Comics, and was named one of Westword’s “100 Colorado Creatives.” He has won a DiNKy award for the best Colorado Comic, and was called one of the best cartoonists around by the Denver Post. He regularly illustrates for the Colorado Sun and both illustrates and art directs for Suspect Press. His latest project, Chrome Seoul is a Korean cyberpunk comic book series.

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