Before I talk about Quentin Tarantino's new movie, I should get a few things out of the way:
1. If it is a film you are inclined to see, it is a film worth seeing without spoilers, so as not to take away from the ending, so I will endeavor to write this in a spoiler-free way. But this is hard to do, because:
2. Some of you - the ones who are like me, who have seen a billion movies and thought about them more than is considered normal - will, when you are warned by everyone under the sun that you should see a film without spoilers, so as not to ruin the ending, have a habit of almost reflexively guessing, as soon as you receive that warning, what the ending is. So in a way, the very word "spoiler" is a spoiler, just like being told a film has a twist ending; if you went into The Sixth Sense, for example, knowing there would be a twist, there's only one twist that makes sense; the only way to truly be surprised by the film would be to see it without knowing anything at all.
But for those of you who are like me, who think you have already guessed what happens at the end of Tarantino's new film, well - (spoiler alert?) you may be right,* but you should still see the film without knowing the exact details. Don't read the Variety article about the ending of the film, for example. You may want to avoid discussions, too, about the morality of the film's ultimate message, like the one I'm going to engage in after point 4, below. But you should, regardless of whatever I say, if you ever liked or still want to like the cinema of Quentin Tarantino - if you're not, like the Soska sisters, kind of in boycott mode because of his associations with Harvey Weinstein or his endangerment of Uma Thurman - see the film; I think I can promise you that, if you have liked what he does in the past, you will find a LOT of pleasure in what he does here.
3. ...and I say that as someone who has not taken unforced pleasure in a film by Quentin Tarantino in some time. I have tried to make myself like various of his films, have watched several of them more than once, and have even under some pressure (some internal, since I want to like stuff, you know?) convinced myself that yes, Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof and Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight have merits; but even if I can enjoy bits of all of these films, I have loved nothing he has done since Jackie Brown - still my favourite of his films, which I saw about half a dozen times theatrically first run and have watched a couple dozen times since. I haven't even really liked anything he's done since the Kill Bill movies - his most trivial entertainment, in many ways, but definitely films I was entertained by. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is by far his most pleasurable, fully-realized, fun-to-watch movie since those days, and a film I think people of a like mind will enjoy as much as I did. It is filled with love for the popular culture of yore; it is beautifully shot; and it has a very entertaining storyline, with an unhurried, confident pace that I appreciated. If I were to name my top three Tarantino films, in terms just of the pleasure I derived from watching it, I think it would be #2 after Jackie Brown. I really enjoyed seeing it tonight, and will probably see it again.
4. That said, enjoying something is not enough to proclaim its merits.
There's a passage in Robin Wood's Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan, and Beyond where he talks about the "issue" of pleasure. It occurs on page 146 of the revised edition. The book is a critique of the trends Wood saw emerging in cinema in the 1980's, which served, instead of digging into social problems as American cinema of the 1970's had done, to "paper over the cracks," to turn cinema into a mechanism for reassurance and entertainment. He has plenty of criticism of the cinema of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and their importance in creating a cinema of reactionary spectacle, reducing its viewers to a sort of childishness. It's very relevant to contemporary cinema, since what you get at the multiplex on any given day these days is exactly what he is railing against, but made even louder, emptier, and more obnoxious. But even though he does not respect or support the project of filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg, he makes a very interesting confession: he still enjoys their films, and notes that it is "particularly hard to discuss them seriously":
The films themselves set up a deliberate resistance: they are so insistently not serious, so knowing about their own escapist fantasy/ pure entertainment nature, and they consistently invite the audience's complicity in this. To raise serious objections to them is to run the risk of looking a fool (they're "just entertainment," after all) or worse, a spoilsport (they're "such fun"). I had better confess at once that I enjoy the Star Wars films well enough: I get moderately excited, laugh a bit, even brush back a tear at the happy endings, all right on cue: they work, they are extremely efficient. But just what do we mean when we say, "they work"? They work because their workings correspond to the workings of our own social construction. I claim no exemption from this. I enjoy being reconstructed as a child, surrendering to the reactivation of a set of values and structures my adult self has long since repudiated, I am not immune to the blandishments of reassurance. Pleasure itself, in fact, is patently ideological. We may be born with the desire for pleasure, but the actual gratifications of the desire are of necessity culturally determined, a product of our social conditioning. Pleasure, then, can never be taken for granted while we wish to remain adult; it isn't sacrosanct, purely natural and spontaneous, beyond analysis which spoils it (on many levels, it is imperative our pleasure be spoiled). The pleasure offered by the Star Wars films corresponds very closely to our basic conditioning; it is extremely reactionary, as all mindless and automatic pleasure tends to be. The finer pleasures are those we have to work for.Wood's criticism is pretty essential, even if you at times disagree with it (I once wrote an essay tackling his criticisms of David Cronenberg, where I disagreed with almost everything he said about Cronenberg's cinema; but in writing that essay, and in carefully reading his criticisms, I learned more about Cronenberg and his cinema than I ever got from reading the writing of any of Cronenberg's supporters). And of course, I am quoting this is because it is very, very relevant to the pleasure I just took at watching Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood.
If a film can be ruined for you by reactionary subtexts - if, for example, you had a problem with the fundamental racist subtexts of King Kong (so amplified in the Peter Jackson version, apparently unintentionally!) - or if you were (like Wood) disturbed by the apparent misogyny of The Brood - something I wish I could have gotten deeper into with Cronenberg, when I spoke to him - you might have some problems with Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. I've been enjoying reading Robert Dayton's comments on Facebook about the film, and how pissed off he was, ultimately, by what he took away as the message of the film, and I've got to acknowledge his points - that the film (ultimately, when you step back, having seen all of it) is "a 'guy' movie with cliched female characters and violence as a resolution." He also suggests (correctly I think) that a lot of Tarantino's decisions in the film are made in "response to his critics" - which is also my thought. There is a scene early on - as Dayton notes - where a woman's death is basically played for laughs. He has no problems making a hero of the man who kills her, and it's hard not to think of Uma Thurman, Harvey Weinstein, and such during these moments: "Sure, he/ I might have done some bad things, BUT..." He has another scene where a diatribe against the evils of Hollywood is put into the mouths of one of the murderous Manson girls. The film is a celebration of Hollywood, sure, but also a celebration of the most conservative side of Hollywood, with the Manson family being basically the only version of the counterculture given time on screen (there are no "good hippies" anywhere to be seen, and no one allowed to criticize our heroes or their values who isn't, transparently, a bitch or psychopath). In fact, there's no attempt at anything mature or considered; the more you think about the film, the more I suspect you will find it kind of contemptible, or at least deeply problematic.
But holy shit, it's entertaining to watch. That pleasure that Wood speaks of pours from every image. I think I have to still ultimately say no to the film, morally, politically, critically... but I have to admit, I loved the experience of watching it. I haven't had this much fun with a film whose politics I found fundamentally abhorrent I think since the last time I watched a Charles Bronson film. This is, seriously, the best film that Quentin Tarantino has made since Jackie Brown, and even if you, too, can't ultimately get behind it, there's a very good chance you'll have fun watching it. (Even Robert Dayton admits to enjoying the first 40 minutes or so...).
I will now issue a single fatal spoiler, referring to the asterisk above. I will put a big picture of Robin Wood's book beforehand. It's a great book. If you want to protect yourself from the real spoiler in this article, do not read what is below the picture.
Here goes (spoiler alert!):
*It's basically just Inglourious Basterds, with the Manson family as the Nazis; if that's what you immediately assumed would be the obvious surprise ending, yes, you are absolutely right. The film, just like the earlier one, rewrites history to provide us a happy ending, and it doesn't seem to do this with much in the way of irony or self-reflexivity; I don't think it's inviting us to, for example, ask about the way Hollywood lies to us about history, to reassure and comfort us; it is just lying to us about history, in a singularly shameless way, to reassure and comfort us, so we can be happy that Sharon Tate gets to have her baby and the bad guys get punished, without having even committed much in the way of a crime. The film is much more engagingly constructed than Inglourious Basterds, but it hinges on the same conceit. It would be particularly unfortunate if people saw the film without realizing what actually happened on Cielo Drive that night, since what you get in the film is complete and utter fiction, but... that's another topic. Presumably no one saw Inglorious Basterds who didn't realize Hitler was not machine-gunned by American Jews in a movie theatre, but I suspect a lot of people will enter this movie knowing very little about Charles Manson; they will leave knowing even less.
Note: the apology to Robert Dayton was simply because I used some of his words on Facebook without checking with him first, but if he minds, I'll write him out of this. I just wanted to tip my hat to him, and I agree with much of what he said.
(Edited to add: Mr. Dayton has said it's okay, and that he didn't just like the first 40 minutes, he loved them. His reactions are complicated, as are mine...)
(Also: jeez, you wonder what Roman Polanski will make of all this).