Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 16, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 16, 2019

After being sorely disappointed by Quentin Tarantino’s last two films— “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained” —I decided to wait for a studio screener of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in November. This is when I customarily get freebies from studio publicists hoping to influence my vote in NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December. But when I discovered that the film had antagonized some people on the left, I decided to get a senior’s ticket to see for myself what was going on.

Tarantino has the distinction of being the only filmmaker whose entire corpus I have seen. Since he has made only 8 films in the past 27 years, that’s a relatively easy task. Unlike Woody Allen, who churns films out like they were made on an assembly line, Tarantino takes his time. As for time itself, you can say that it erodes the talents of even the greatest artists. In the case of Hollywood legends like Woody and Quentin, the erosion process combines with their control of every aspect of film production to degrade the quality of the product. Who would dare say anything about the Emperor’s New Clothes?

After Tarantino left The Weinstein Company in the aftermath of #MeToo’s spotlight on Harvey Weinstein and joined the Sony Corporation, he was guaranteed full control over “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. That’s too bad because someone might have vetoed the film’s co-star Brad Pitt playing a stunt man whose claim to fame (or infamy) was killing his wife and then being found not guilty in OJ Simpson style. Why was he cleared, you ask? You won’t find the answer in Tarantino’s film. Maybe he lost the pages of his script answering this question one morning on the way to the studio and forgot all about it.

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16 Comments »

  1. “That’s too bad because someone might have vetoed the film’s co-star Brad Pitt playing a stunt man whose claim to fame (or infamy) was killing his wife and then being found not guilty in OJ Simpson style. ”

    Why would this have made the movie better? You just assume it would have without stating why. Moreover, you clearly weren’t paying attention in the film because it’s RUMORED that Pitt killed his wife, it’s never made clear that he actually did. The scene on the boat where he may have killed her is sufficiently ambiguous. Moreover, in an era of #metoo, deleting from history, and pretending male violence towards women wasn’t (and isn’t) prominent in Hollywood, would be egregious and a rewriting of history. How do you not know this?

    As a matter of fact, many of your complaints about the film pro-actively desire QT to rewrite history. Why?

    “Dalton probably cringed at the idea of having such a mustache because he doesn’t like “beaners”, nor does he like native peoples, repeating the infamous words at one point, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
    Perhaps the only excuse that Tarantino could have made is that such a character probably had such views in 1969 and was not inhibited from making them in public. When Spike Lee complained about all the characters using the word “nigger” in past Tarantino films, you heard a similar defense. Those expecting Tarantino to make films geared to the sensibility of oppressed peoples will be sorely disappointed.”

    People will only be disappointed if they have such shallow film analysis as you. Did you see Kill Bill Vol I-II? You claim you have. It’s a movie where a female blonde effortlessly takes on the role of a samurai warrior, proving the previously entrenched sexism in the industry and culture. Did you happen to catch Jackie Brown, where QT substitutes in a middle aged black female as the star of a heist film, capable of outsmarting the DEA, ATF, and local police? Again, he did this effortlessly, leading one to wonder why middle aged black females are not depicted as movie stars with cunning more regularly. Perhaps you also missed Django Unchained. You claim you saw it and killing slavers is too easy. However you forgot that it’s a movie where a black male, and a slave, just so happens to effortlessly be the star of a cow boy western, a genre previously filled with only white male (and Republican) stars. Again, QT inverted the genre effortlessly, astute films critics like you (sarcasm) failed to notice (not sarcasm)! Maybe you also missed Death Proof, a film in which a group of young girls successful turns the tables on their horror protagonist and defeat him at his own game? Again, not the standard in the genre. QT is perfectly capable of making films geared towards the sensibility of the oppressed. You should know this since you claim to have seen all of his films…

    Without wanting to spoil the film for others, this claim is transparently false:

    “More to the point from a cinematic standpoint, the scene adds nothing to the overall plot, which I will address momentarily. It could have been cut with zero effect on the narrative arch.”

    There is DIRECT overlap between this scene and the final confrontation scene at the end of the film. Think about it.

    “It turns out that she is part of Manson’s cult and Booth is more interested in what she is doing at Spahn’s ranch than in having sex with her (he tells her that he doesn’t sleep with women under 18, a sop to the women watching the film who have become fed up with predators like Harvey Weinstein or Roman Polanski.)”

    Or it’s part of the intentionally ambiguous evidence QT explicitly provides to show that Booth may not be a wife killer or an indecent human being (further backed up by his treatment of Spahn, and his care for his dog and existing friendships over material possessions).

    “As for Tate, she is played by Margot Robbie as a brainless nubile ingenue whose chief pastime, when not acting, is listening to bubble-gum rock and dancing the Frug at Hollywood parties. Once Tarantino decided to make a film that was centered on the Manson cult, he didn’t bother to make Tate a more rounded and complex character.”

    I’m sorry, did you even watch the film!? Before she does any of her bubble gum rock dancing, she purchases a first edition copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles, a novel she has just finished. Sure it’s not as difficult a novel as Tom Jones, but it’s also no walk in the park like Harry Potter.

    The rest of your review analyzes the films purely in terms of ad hominem memories. Which is silly and a grade school fallacy, everyone knows the art produced, and the producer, are not identical. Seeing as you claim to have taken a course on Shakespeare (dubious with this sort of analysis), you may want to reflect on the fact that if we resurrected Shakespeare today and ran Trump’s platform by him, Sanders’ platform by him, and finally your preferred platform by him, no doubt he would side closest to Trump. That doesn’t matter. His works remain masterpieces.

    You, however, have assessed QT’s film strictly in terms of content, which you find wanting for spurious reasons as shown above. However, you have not analyzed the film in terms of form: craft, editing, directing, lighting, etc etc etc. Probably because, regardless of QT’s character (virtues and vices included), the film is well executed in form, regardless of content. But to accede that point would impinge upon your preferred politics, which is hardly a basis for analyzing beauty. Instead of targeting the average IQ of the audience, you may want to look in the mirror.

    Comment by CB — August 17, 2019 @ 10:30 pm

  2. I’m sorry, did you even watch the film!? Before she does any of her bubble gum rock dancing, she purchases a first edition copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles, a novel she has just finished. Sure it’s not as difficult a novel as Tom Jones, but it’s also no walk in the park like Harry Potter.

    So she bought a copy of Hardy’s novel. That doesn’t change the fact that she is nothing but eye-candy in the film.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 18, 2019 @ 12:00 am

  3. She bought it after saying she had read it, then commented on the story, and decided she wanted to buy Polanski his very own copy.

    Way to dodge all my other points…

    Comment by CB — August 18, 2019 @ 12:31 am

  4. She bought it after saying she had read it, then commented on the story, and decided she wanted to buy Polanski his very own copy.

    It is only in your fanboy imagination that this determines her character. Sad, really.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 18, 2019 @ 1:05 am

  5. He does depict ST as a moron. The book scene was designed to absolve him of criticism almost in a lawyer-like way. The scene of her in the movie theater is painful. QT often likes very strong women characters but not here. Actually the strong women characters are in the film but they are in the Manson family and they are rather terrifying. I think he had a screenwriter idea of drawing the distinction between two kinds of hippies, the gentle airhead type of hippie woman like ST and the sinister bad evil hippie woman like the Mason gals. But the Manson women have depth while he reduces Tate to an absurd caricature, really an embarrassing cartoon. It’s a real botch. Like a dumb Charlie’s Angels sort of botch.

    The Pitt did he or did he not sub-plot is also bizarre and another botch. I think he may have been playing with the Natalie Wood death on a boat which is so famous in Hollywood. But it’s really bizarre in the context of the film. The stuff with Pitt and the dog is really dumb as well. The ending is a kid’s cartoon of violence. The film has its moments and you see IMO flashes of greatness in the extended scene at the ranch but it’s a really flabby film that can at times be beautiful visually and never boring to look at. The recreation of LA is phenomenal. But it’s ultimately an artistic misfire.

    IMO the most fascinating aspect of the film is the unexplored class dimension. The movie star and the stuntman have a strange relationship in that the stunt man lives the life that the somewhat whiny movie star plays on TV. But the stunt man and the movie star never question the complexity of the relationship and the fact that one is making tons of money and the other is living in something close to poverty in his trailer dump. Yet it is the stuntman (the working class guy) who lives the actual life of aggression and danger that the movie star depicts.

    I think QT makes the stuntman look more sinister with the ambiguous murder claim (it’s not a prolecult film after all) but it’s botched. Pitt’s real double is not LdC but Tex Watson. The fact that BP doubles for the movie star seems normal because both of them are so unaware of the glaring contradictions between reality and make believe. This is the deeper mistake in the film because while he shows the differences between reality and image with contrasting someone like LdC on and off the set and compared to his “double.” he fails utterly with Tate and shows her “real” life as if she lives in a hippy-dippy movie and not as a credible character. So when she is watching herself on screen, she does so with almost no sense of irony. In his depiction, she’s a fan of her own myth and thus a dolt. So he botches an oddly Marxist take on the society behind the society of the spectacle on the one hand while reducing Tate to a spectacular image watching her own image.

    It really annoyed me when watching the film and it seems almost a deliberate attempt to degrade her IMO. I though it really inexcusable at the time because I assumed the end of the film would follow more historical lines. But in the end, in a sense it’s the LdC character who “wins” by weirdly getting invited to move up the food chain occupied by Tate/Polanski. Plus he ditches his working class “buddy” along the way, who just happens to help save his life and the life of his new airhead wife, his poor man’s doppelganger for Tate. It’s LdC’s triumph in that he’s now moved up a notch in the spectacle while Pitt (his past) vanishes, perhaps back to another prison term in Texas.

    It’s a very screwy movie in many ways and a great looking failure that, paradoxically, is often fun to watch as the images are so iconic and much of the acting is so good and some set scenes (Pitt and the young girl also comes to mind) are so internally compelling to watch.

    Comment by HH — August 18, 2019 @ 3:33 am

  6. You didn’t say if you liked it or not. How many stars do you give it?

    Comment by Max Power — August 18, 2019 @ 11:38 am

  7. I really liked parts of it and thought the look was brilliant and the acting strong. The Charlie Manson girl in the car really pops as well. Still, it’s second rate QT so it was a disappointment. I would like it much better if the ending wasn’t so disappointing and he didn’t make so many sappy choices. Overall a let down but he fell from a high level. Hateful Eight was a misfire and this is his second misfire in a row. So three stars but worth seeing as he still can make some great set scenes and look.

    It has weird charms as well such as having so many scenes in cars. Shooting scenes in cars without looking fake is really hard and he pulls it off brilliantly. But what I really like is that because if you live in LA, you spend so much time driving that he managed to convey the feel of living in that city and driving. It’s something seemingly minor but I thought it wonderful. So there are some odd gems in that film. But why does he waste so much time on recreating the black and white look of old TV shows? It’s clever once, it’s tedious more than once.

    NYC is so iconic starting with black and white films. LA is much less defined in part because it is so sprawling. When I say I really like the look, I also mean he captures something about the feel of that city which is hard to do. He has flashes of genius even in things that don’t quite work.

    Comment by HH — August 18, 2019 @ 1:40 pm

  8. Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t allow you to use stars. It is either “Fresh” or “Rotten”. I rated this as rotten.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 18, 2019 @ 1:53 pm

  9. In quantum Rotten Tomatoes, it is in the superposition of both “Fresh” and “Rotten.” But when actually viewed and with the wave function collapse, its local position turns out to be “Ripe.”

    As an obscure aside, a note about Stan Brakage, whom I think you made a reference to some time ago, Stan Brakage was heavily promoted by Jonas Mekas in the mid-late 1950s. Mekas championed Brakage to trash Maya Deren as outdated and in a way he was right. But viewing Deren is a pleasure while watching Brakage is a chore.

    I never knew this back story until some moons ago when I heard a talk on Brakage by P. Adams Sitney (a Brakage fan), who located the rise of Brakage and Mekas’ role in selling him to the avant garde. Mekas was looking at things like abstract expressionism in painting and he wanted something similar in cinema, which he thought was stuck in the backwaters of 1930s Man Ray surrealism. Brakage fit into his larger ideological project. Mekas was a great guy (as the Barbara Rubin doc shows yet again) but Brakage split the avant garde from the kind of dialog with a larger audience that Deren and Kenneth Anger wanted to reach.

    Anyway, Sitney’s explanation made a lot of sense to me.

    Comment by HH — August 18, 2019 @ 7:22 pm

  10. Based on your review, I went to see this movie today. I thought it was really good. I give it four stars (out of five).

    Comment by Max Power — August 18, 2019 @ 7:53 pm

  11. The Velvet Underground is THE NYC band.

    The Doors are THE LA band.

    But no Doors in the soundtrack?

    Imagine a long tracking shot of Pitt driving at twilight down from the Hills into the city with Morrison hitting it and with the great guitar run:

    One of many QT mistakes.

    He could have had a shot sequence for the ages and threw it away. Instead he went for something much more weak.

    I like Paul Revere and the Raiders as well but come on . . ..

    Comment by HH — August 18, 2019 @ 11:47 pm

  12. HH,

    The characters of this movie are decidedly anti-hippie. Keeping with that, there was no hippie music. Also, The Doors’s music is dark, and this movie is more upbeat.

    Comment by Max Power — August 19, 2019 @ 10:56 am

  13. The Doors were a rock band just like the other rock bands on the soundtrack. Archie Bunker and Dick Nixon would call all rock music “hippie music” just like anyone with long hair would be seen by them as “hippies.” They wouldn’t call “hippie music” dark because they didn’t even consider it real music. If you wanted real music, you listened to Sinatra.

    LA Woman is a rock song, not a hippie rock song. The Doors were influence by blues and jazz genres.But they were a rock band. There is no such thing as “hippie music” as a specific genre. In any case, LA Woman is a rock song. There was counter-culture music that covered a wide variety of bands from the Doors to the Beatles to electric Dylan and it was all rock but it had some different forms. I’d say one form was “psychedelic” and the early Grateful Dead was the embodiment of that sound. But even the Dead by Workingman’s Dead had moved on. The Doors covered a wide range of influences with blues being central to Morrison and jazz to Manzarek.

    The film tries to show the counterculture influence throughout Hollywood in the late 1960s in dress and style and the sense that the older stars from the 50s/early to mid-60s are becoming obsolete as the “cool” hipsters represented by Polanski are starting to take over. Those old Westerns that were such income makers in the early 1960s like Bonanza and Gunsmoke that appealed to the vets from WWII were losing steam fast.

    iMO, Hollywood only produced one great movie that can be called a “hippie” movie although I would call it a counterculture movie and that was Easy Rider and that was simply because Hopper and Fonda were more turned in as young people themselves. The era represented by the LdC figure was becoming extinct and that’s why he’s filled with anxiety not just with his age but with his image. That’s why he dreams of being invited to a party with Tate and Polanski.

    IMO QT is aware of all this but only in a really confused way. He likes the old masculine image of Hollywood with its B Westerns and mediocre war shows (Combat) and mostly mediocre war movies and manly men. But he’s torn himself like Hollywood at the time over the cultural impact of the 60s. He’s in many ways a conservative who wants to be nostalgic but really can’t convince himself either.

    The real earthquake in Hollywood at that time was Easy Rider, a film that totally baffled Hollywood of yore and helped launch the last creative gasp of that system with the rise of Coppola, Scorsese, etc. until Spielberg can around and the studios could go back to printing money and making films and TV shows for the mindless. Just like LA Woman is excluded in QT world, so it Easy Rider. Also you would never know that Tate married Polanski, one of the great young directors of the time who was a product of experimental cinema after fleeing Poland. That was the guy Tate married. Instead, she is shown watching one of those dreadful Dean Martin/Matt Helms films as if she were a child looking at her own reflection.

    Comment by HH — August 20, 2019 @ 12:07 am

  14. HH,

    You’re a big The Doors fan, aren’t you? I never liked them. Their first album was their best, and it wasn’t very good.

    Regarding “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” though, this was a feel-good movie, where good triumphs over evil. If the Manson family hadn’t murdered Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski probably would not have gone on to have sex with a minor. There is a direct line between the Manson family killings and #metoo. Think about it.

    Comment by Max Power — August 20, 2019 @ 10:30 pm

  15. Here’s the list of songs via Rolling Stone.

    https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/inside-tarantino-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-soundtrack-864276/

    Totally forgot that Tate mentions the Doors!

    Paul Revere and the Raiders, “Hungry” (1966): For a brief period, this Northwestern band rocked the organ and the Revolutionary War outfits and embodied an American Invasion pop-garage sensibility. “It just made sense that they were there,” says Ramos. “We hear Sharon say, ‘Don’t tell Jim Morrison you’re dancing to the Raiders!’ They never had the coolness vibe of bands like the Doors, but they were a good pop band.”

    “Hungry” is featured in a scene in which Tate (played by Margot Robbie) meets Manson for the first time. “It’s a cool, creepy song,” she says, “and it matches the moment perfectly.” The Raiders were chosen for a specific historical reason: “Terry Melcher, who was Doris Day’s son, was their producer, and he lived in the Cielo Drive house [where the murders took place] and had a connection to the Manson family.”

    No idea that Melcher produced the Raiders.

    Comment by HH — August 21, 2019 @ 4:10 am

  16. > It could have been cut with zero effect on the narrative arch.

    That’s what’s curious. This was a film with a lot of good elements, but a lot that of stupid stuff that could be cut and still have enough for a standard feature length.

    Comment by Aaron — August 21, 2019 @ 6:53 pm


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