Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 20, 2019

Quentin Tarantino, Eileen Jones, and the perils of film school theorizing

Filed under: Academia,Film — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Eileen Jones

The first inkling I got that Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was grist for the university film department mill was a comment by FB friend Greg Burris:

So I was thinking about the film. DiCaprio’s character is the linchpin. He’s a mess, full of doubt and loathing and insecurity. But he has two doubles full of confidence and alpha-white male security. The first double is his screen persona, and we clearly see the difference between his pathetic self and his macho alter-ego in the scene where he keeps forgetting his lines. When he is in character, he is bold and strong, but when he breaks character, his nervous stutter returns. DiCaprio’s second double is Brad Pitt’s character–the working class hero. Nothing fazes him. Not even Bruce Lee! Pitt is like a 1969 version of his character from FIGHT CLUB. He is the macho, suave, uncomplicated, masculine ideal–a mythic image required by both films’ neurotic protagonists (Norton in one, DiCaprio in the other).

It continues in this vein, top-heavy with interpretation but very little effort made in judging the film as either art or entertainment. When I read his post four days ago, I made a mental note to myself that he must be either a film student or a film professor. Going back just now to retrieve his post, I discovered that I guessed right. He teaches at the American University in Lebanon, with his web page stating that he “a film and cultural theorist whose work focuses on race, media, and emancipatory politics, particularly in the context of the U.S. Black freedom movement and the Palestinian liberation struggle.”

I had no plans to mention him in this post but when I spotted a FB link to Eileen Jones’s article on Tarantino’s film on Jacobin in the same vein, I decided to offer some thoughts on the kind of approach both film professors take (she is a lecturer at UC Berkeley) especially when some potshots I took at her this morning aggravated Ron Cox, a political science professor who must have felt defensive about my admittedly rude remark about academic film theory:

Another reason to hate Jacobin. What its resident film critic Eileen Jones has to say about the Sharon Tate character in Tarantino’s latest. The ecstatic representation of utopian possibility? You can only write such bullshit when you have a job as a lecturer on film at UC Berkeley:

She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Ron remonstrated with me:

A lot of people I know, who live and work far away from the university, love this film, for many of the same reasons expressed by the critic. I tend to agree with her, though I liked David Edelstein’s review better. With all due respect to you, Louis, not every one who disagrees with you is a shill or tool of institutional conformity. I like a lot of what you write, but disagree with just about everything you said about this film. I judge a film based on how I feel when I watch it. That means: am I “into it” or not, and then I try to strip out everything else, including what other people said about it. I was “into this” all the way through. Loved it.

I told Ron that he is entitled to be “into” Tarantino’s film. As I tried to make clear in my review, I was “into” “Inglourious Bastards” and every other film he made up to that point. My reviews are not intended to warn people off from Hollywood films, for that matter. I usually go the entire year ignoring them until November when I get a batch of screeners from publicists to influence my vote in the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Up until that point, my reviews are heavily focused on documentaries, foreign-language films and American indie films that tend to be neglected.

Let me now turn to Jones’s article that will allow me to make some basic points about film journalism. To start with, it has to be said that Jacobin is an academic journal in many ways even though it is not behind a JSTOR paywall. Like Jones, most of its contributors are either professors or grad students. Of the five featured articles on the Jacobin website right now, four have been written by academics and the fifth is by Meagan Day, a Jacobin staff writer. (That does not included Jones’s article that appeared on August 6th.)

Titled “Go Ahead, Take the Adventure of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”, Jones’s article is a defense of Tarantino’s film against the attack made by people on the left, including The New Yorker Magazine’s Richard Brody who Jones quotes: “If only the old-line Hollywood people of the fifties and sixties had maintained their pride of place — if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties—-then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place.”

In my own review, I did not try to judge the film’s politics since that is a fool’s errand when it comes to Tarantino. Brody’s review was not nearly as vitriolic as that of the unnamed critic cited at the beginning of her review who reviled it as “just another white man’s nostalgia film.” As it happens, that’s just a made-up quote by Jones. You can’t find any review with such a formulation. In fact, of the 15 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who deemed the film “rotten”, not a single one attacked it from the left, including mine. For example, Gary Kramer of the left-leaning Salon (even if slightly) complained mostly about the violent ending that was “more graphic and over-the-top than it needs to be.”

One can understand why Burris and Jones would find so much grist to chew over in this film since the subject matter is film itself. It draws a distinction between the classic Hollywood westerns and a new era that is marked by the arrival of Roman Polanski, who lives next door to the has-been actor Rick Dalton, played by Leo DiCaprio. Here’s Jones sinking her teeth into the film metanarrative:

The same turmoil that’s diminishing Rick’s fame is creating opportunities for upcoming stars like his next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and European new wave talent like her husband, Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), whose hit film Rosemary’s Baby has taken Hollywood by storm. There’s a certain controversy about the way Tarantino conceived the third lead role of Sharon Tate, with its relative lack of dialogue. But the character of Sharon is key to the impact of the film. She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Since Tarantino was six years old in 1969, I am not sure he understood the period well enough to represent his Sharon Tate character as “the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility…opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval.” That sounds much more like Jones’s projection of her own analysis on a inkblot test of a movie that most critics regard as more ambiguous than Tarantino’s usual fare. As for Jones, who was probably born after 1969, you have to wonder what gave her the idea that “social upheaval” had anything to do with Sharon Tate. I am reasonably confident in describing Tate as the typical Hollywood starlet who would end up seated next to Johnny Carson talking about her next film as opposed, for example, to Jane Fonda or Jean Seberg who took courageous stands in favor of peace and Black liberation that very year.

For that matter, Tarantino has a squirm-inducing scene in which Tate shows up at a theater showing her latest film and inveigling free admission from the ticket clerk and manager since she is in the film. She sits in the audience enthralled with her scene in the movie. If you extracted this 10 minute portion of the film and showed it to people who knew nothing about Tarantino, they’d probably conclude that they were watching a complete airhead.

It is difficult to pin down what Tarantino was trying to say about American society or film, a function of his knack for writing screenplays that come from the gut rather than the brain. Given the ambiguity of this latest film and its filmic subject matter, it will likely be discussed in film departments all across the country when the fall term begins.

Ambiguity is made to order for film theorists. In 1930, William Empson wrote a book titled “Seven Types of Ambiguity” that became a handbook of New Criticism. Poems were not studied to see what made them work as art but what hidden message they concealed. New Criticism was made to order for modernist poetry with TS Eliot, WB Yeats and Ezra Pound offering up works that defied easy explanations of the sort offered for Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Even if New Criticism no longer enjoys the hegemony it once had in the literary world, its precepts seem to have been adopted wholesale by film theorists.

Pop Culture is especially made to order for the leftwing film theorist since its hidden meanings might be excavated in order to raise social consciousness about the class struggle dagger concealed in the velvet glove. With millions eventually going to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, just imagine the impact the film will have on the uninitiated if the buried meaning Jones mines from it is true:

Such lively film history do-overs have had a pop kinship with left-wing cinema since the 1920s, when Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov sought to demonstrate as kinetically as possible how films could imaginatively manipulate representations of contemporary as well as historical reality, in part to show its malleability and embolden a revolutionary vision of the world. This new take on 1969 in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, which emphasizes the opening up of radical possibilities instead of closing them down, helps us reflect on the way we’ve received that landmark bit of history through media up to now. And it evokes our own discouraging state of affairs in 2019, also a time of stubborn stasis resisting immense turmoil in the culture, as well as what looks like bad prospects for the survival of the movie industry.

Grouping Tarantino with revolutionary Russian filmmakers of the 1920s is utter nonsense. Eisenstein and Vertov made films that championed socialism. They never would have worked for someone like Harvey Weinstein. Jones says that “this new take on 1969” opened up radical possibilities rather than closing them down. Really? In the final scene, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) takes a woman in Manson’s gang and bashes her head against a brick wall until her brains spill out while Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) uses a flame-thrower on another. Is this supposed to represent “radical possibilities”?

In Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto”, the radical movement of the 1960s is covered in a single page out of 400. The idea that a contributor to Jacobin can extract some sort of radicalism out of a Tarantino film that is a mixture of nostalgia and hyper-violence is another sign of the magazine’s myopia. I can’t imagine what these people think about 1969. At least when I was their age, I was fortunate enough to listen carefully to what people like Farrell Dobbs and George Novack said about the 30s. They, after all, lived through it.

All I was expecting out of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was a good time. Judging by the 90 percent empty seats in the Cineplex I attended, I suspect the word-of-mouth is not that great.

Let me be brief about my own approach to film journalism. For me, the screenplay is essential. I hearken back to Aristotle’s “Poetics”: “The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place.” What is the plot in Tarantino’s film? For the better part of two hours, a couple of Hollywood professionals sit around reminiscing about the good old days. Afterward, one of them runs into a member of Manson’s cult who takes him out to the ranch where they are based. Suspicious of the “hippies”, he checks in on the old man who it belongs to that he knows from the days when he worked as a stunt man on films made there. In the final fifteen minutes of the film, he smokes an LSD-laced joint and gets stoned. In such a state, he still manages to get the best of 3 Mansonites who have barged into Rick Dalton’s house rather than Polanski’s next door. That’s about it.

As for Aristotle’s emphasis on character, there’s virtually none of it outside his two leading men. Maybe there was more of it in the offing in the original script. According to the actor who played Charles Manson, “He did cut quite a lot out of the film. The stuff I got to do in that was lighter and more of a fun tone…” Manson? Fun tone? Maybe it was just as well it was left out.

As I said in my CounterPunch review, not a single character other than the two male leads has any kind of substance. The Manson cult is lacking in character development, except for the under-age nymphet that the stunt man drives out to the ranch. Even in her case, she is monotonically offering up her body to him like a sex robot they use in Japan.

Jones is not bothered by the insubstantiality of Manson’s character: “Tarantino’s Manson makes only the briefest appearance early on near the Tate-Polanski house, looking for Terry Melcher, but he haunts the film via the periodic reappearances of his followers acting on his instructions as they thread their own dark way through the narrative.” This is deeply problematic. In “Inglourious Basterds”, the counterpart to Manson is a Nazi officer played by Christof Waltz who is essential to the film. His sneering, self-justifying but always captivating manner is the perfect foil for the band of heroes who, unlike Cliff Booth, know exactly what their goal is—to save humanity, not just drive off hippie home invaders.

Once Tarantino decided on this plot, he might have found himself out of his depth. To turn the Manson cult into flesh-and-blood human beings rather than grotesque monsters would be a real challenge. If I had written the screenplay, I would have spent a lot less time with the camera trained on the nearly homoerotic bonding between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The film would have gained a lot from showing exactly how Manson was able to turn women into his willing slaves through his warped charisma. By elevating him into a more significant figure, the final showdown might have had more power. But that’s just me. I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter, only a blogger. I prefer it that way since I would never want to make the kind of films The Weinstein Company produced, no matter the pay.

4 Comments »

  1. Jones’ comparison to the Soviet 1920s filmmakers sounds like a bone thrown to the Jacobin audience. It’s curious that she does not pick up the fact that Sam Wanamaker was a blacklisted film maker who was finally allowed back. It would be more interesting than an oddball reference to Soviet cinema avant-garde types. (Not to mention that Eisenstein and the Russians adored D.W. Griffith and the opening sequence of Intolerance,)

    By QT showing Wanamaker directing the TV show and wanting the Dalton character to act differently, Wanamaker is helping to save his career and preparing him in a way for the New Hollywood and the final shot that Jones rightly understands as key to the entire film when Dalton and Stone finally meet. If you understand Wanamaker’s history and why OT references it, it fits with her analysis of the scene with Dalton and the kid, which I think she nails quite brilliantly. It’s one more sly reference in the film but one I happen to like.

    Comment by HH — August 20, 2019 @ 10:23 pm

  2. Ooop, QT. Also I can’t remember if Dalton and Tate (not Stone, got my Sharons mixed) meet or whether they talk on the intercom. I think they talk on the Intercom.

    Comment by HH — August 20, 2019 @ 10:26 pm

  3. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody is “people on the left”? The only left review I’ve seen of this movie was on WSWS.

    Comment by Chaz Bo — August 21, 2019 @ 11:07 am

  4. Less Tarantino, more Kaurismäki.

    Comment by S M Johnson — August 23, 2019 @ 10:01 pm


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