Critic After Dark

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

(WARNING — Plot twists and story details explicitly discussed.)

FINALLY Quentin Tarantino’s mildly racist, markedly misogynistic, mostly masturbatory Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has hit Filipino screens and if all indications prove correct it will be a major hit. Maybe not as big a hit as Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame (which I didn’t like much either) but I do love the way folks have spun the popularity of Tarantino’s wankfest: as one of the rare non-sequel non-franchise pictures to open to good box office.

Which is funny because, 1.) the spin assumes box office truly madly deeply matters, and 2.) assumes (correctly in my book) that our standards have fallen so sharply that when something isn’t a sequel or a franchise it must be “The Second Coming.” Or in this case “The Second Self-Coming.”

You have to admit it’s handsomely done, down to the movie billboards, the ads, the cars, the road signs, the very plates used to serve food in the legendary Musso and Frank Grill. Several times the camera runs alongside Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) 1966 Coupe DeVille or Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) Karmann Ghia or Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate’s (Rafal Zawierucha and Margot Robie) MG TD as they careen down Hollywood Boulevard, Westwood Boulevard, the Marina Del Rey freeway. We see The Vine Theater playing Romeo and Juliet (opened a year before), the Vogue playing The Night They Raided Minsky’s. It isn’t so much a measure of Tarantino’s art as it is a measure of the size of the budget he is able to command (an estimated $96 million) and his willingness to pour it all on the big screen; it isn’t so much a showcase of acting fireworks as it is of Tarantino’s ability to attract the creamiest talents in Hollywood that Al Pacino, Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Bruce Dern, Damian Lewis, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell among many others are all happy to appear in his production, some not for the first time. Tarantino in effect is a gigantic movie and LA geek and wants to parade to us his collection — lovingly lit with a burnished glow by Robert Richardson — all immortalized on the big screen.

Part of that collection includes attitudes contemporaneous to the time, I suppose: Rick weeping at the sorry state of his career, his stuntman and Man Friday Cliff looking at the car attendants muttering “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans;” Cliff later having a face off with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), their one-on-one encounter ending in a “draw” (Bruce knocks Cliff down, Cliff slams Bruce against the side of a car).

Lots of ink pro and con splattered all over webpages about the scene, and whether Lee is an arrogant asshole or not, but arguably the most telling is a tale told by the real stuntman who grappled with Bruce Lee, two-time national judo champion Gene LeBell, who had been deliberately called in because Lee was said to be manhandling the stuntmen (he reportedly insisted on doing the sequences for real while the stuntmen insisted fake fighting is just as effective on-camera).

The story’s point? Lee realized that his jeet kune do style of fighting had a weakness — close quarters wrestling — and asked LeBell to teach him. LeBell was a ringer and the fight was a setup; Lee was humiliated — but learned from the experience.

Tarantino apparently wasn’t keen on introducing any such nuances to his fable; he was mostly interested in shits and giggles, and maybe pissing on the legend of his supposed idol.

As for the defense “it’s all in Cliff’s head!” — Oh please. If Tarantino meant to suggest that Cliff isn’t as badass as he’s supposed to be in the flashback then somewhere in the movie this suggestion ought to play a role in the plot; if he is as badass as he’s supposed to be in the flashback (turns out he is) then it’s meant to represent an accurate memory reinforcing the director’s point. Tarantino apologists be reachin’ ’yo.

(No gags about African-Americans, though; mustn’t antagonize the African-Americans — just made a movie a few years back [Django Unchained] that largely won over that demographic [years after alienating them — or at least the more discerning figures — with Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown].)

Then there’s the misogyny — the running gag that Cliff killed his wife, again played for shits and giggles (try watching it with a theater audience — the scene kills em’); the endless objectifying of Sharon Tate (long lingering shots over Margot Robbie’s body as she lies in bed, with a focus of course on the feet).

Even altering Sharon’s future — something he’s tried before in Inglourious Basterds (not a fan) and the aforementioned Django — somehow diminishes her. Part of the poignancy of her story was that it was a bright little flame abruptly cruelly snuffed out; take away that ending (the way Disney altered the endings to The Little Mermaid or The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and much of that poignancy is taken away.

Now misogyny and racism is often the darker underside of Tarantino’s true genre: not the western or the crime thriller or the revenge flick but the pulp movie. And I get it — enjoy my share of pulp, some of them Filipino (James Batman and Babaing Putik [Woman of Mud] anyone?), and a certain myopia to political correctness comes with the territory; otherwise you’re never going to enjoy any of the pictures.

I also get what Tarantino’s trying to do: a loving tribute to an age of studio-based filmmaking past, warts and all, done on his own terms in his own style, with a bit of mythmaking tossed in to keep the adoring Tarantino metacritics happy.

As for that mythmaking: Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel (Austin Butler, Mikey Madison, Madison Beaty respectively) enter Rick’s (instead of Sharon Tate’s) house; Cliff stands in the middle of the room drugged out of his mind on acid. Cliff sics his dog on Tex, smashes Susan’s face with a can of dog food; Tex charges with a knife which Cliff turns and buries in Tex’s thigh; he then stomps Tex’s head to a flattened pulp against the doorway threshold. Patricia tackles Cliff and manages to sink a blade (looks like a boning knife) in one buttock. Cliff gingerly touches the handle, looks at Patricia with dreamy smile, grabs her head, and proceeds to smash her face against a hanging rotary phone three times (phone cradle perfectly positioned to hook into her eye sockets), smash her face against a wall portrait twice (shattering the glass), smash her face three times against the edge of a marble fireplace and — for good measure — lower her to her knees to carefully smash her face against the edge of a coffee table.

Susan Atkins gets off relatively unscathed — mangled teeth and nose and all — till she stumbles into a pool waving a gun. Rick (who has been floating in the pool totally unaware) climbs out, walks into his garden shed, takes out the M2 flamethrower he once practiced on for a battle scene in a World War 2 quickie, and torches her to a sodden crisp.

Am I being too explicit? No more than the movie was. Have I seen worse pizzamaking? Well I have — Takashi Miike, Lucio Fulci, and early Peter Jackson (back when he was fun) come to mind, and you’d be a little surprised how gory Gerry De Leon and Eddie Romero can be in Brides of Blood and Mad Doctor of Blood Island.

Gore doesn’t bother me but it’s an unwritten rule in pulp filmmaking that we both (the filmmaker and the audience) know this is all unclean fun — that tits and ass and a bit of ultraviolence are bad for us but we see it because we want to see it, no other excuse (Well there’s the battle between good and evil but — fig leaf anyone?). Difference with them and Tarantino is that he moves heaven and earth to make the beatings palatable to us; I mean — these are the Manson killers! That was Sharon Tate, lovely bare feet and all, and Cliff Booth, war hero (though he did kill his wife)! The “God-damned fucking hippies” deserve the crotch ripping dog, the stomp to the head, the phone cradle hooking into the eye sockets, the lingering caress of burning gasoline! All for shits and giggles!

Yeah, I listened to the audience too, the sense that the hooting and stomping isn’t just coming from the hunched raincoat crowd (and I include myself) but from others who normally don’t enjoy such fare: the arthouse elite, the otherwise bleeding-heart liberal, the average middlebrow, all given license to applaud by everything that came before. That — and Tarantino’s hypocrisy — turned my stomach more than what I was seeing onscreen.

(Why, by the way, does Tex get the relatively conventional death by dog attack and foot stomp while the girls get phone cradle to the eye sockets and flamethrower? And why do I feel it warms Tarantino’s heart for people to have these kinds of discussions?).

I get the loving tribute but I’m not sure Old Hollywood would have dispatched the Manson killers quite that way — okay, Cliff was on drugs (there’s some question whether or not acid is effective when smoked, that maybe what he ingested was actually PCP, that it’s unlikely anyone can be that balanced and coordinated when high) but the mildly outré violence in my book is a betrayal of the best of those Old Hollywood values.

Give me instead a tribute from a real adult — Orson Welles, for one, whose Other Side of the Wind is a bittersweet exercise in muckraking and mourning of ages past, or Mario O’Hara, whose Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof) also focuses on the marginalized in the film industry — the has-been actors and stunt men — but in a poorhouse style ($60,000 shot in two weeks, as opposed to Tarantino’s near hundred million) far more appropriate to the subject matter.

Not saying I didn’t enjoy Tarantino’s latest, warts and all. It had its moments, especially when Rick has his umpteenth nervous breakdown, or Cliff sends his Ghia hurtling down the freeway, or Margot Robbie or Margaret Qualley flash their slightly soiled insteps. I came, I paid, I sat through the picture. For — y’know — shits and giggles.