In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a Quentin Tarainto kick lately. I marathoned all of his movies, including the ones he wrote but didn’t direct. I put together mini-reviews and production histories for each one of them. I wrote even more extensively about Jackie Brown and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and re-affirmed Inglourious Basterds to be his masterpiece. I’ve never gone so all in on a director like this for the site before, and by now I imagine some of you might be ready for me to move on to something else. Like, have I watched Amazon’s superhero satire The Boys yet? (I’ve started it, yes.) If so, do I dig it? (Yes, but I am starting to wonder just how many ways we can twist the superhero story before it starts to lose all meaning.)
An Iconic Film History, Tainted
Yet, I just can’t stop thinking about Tarantino, partially out of guilt. I just devoted literally thousands of words to dissecting his filmography because he is quite inarguably one of the most important filmmakers of my lifetime, but does he truly deserve that kind of spotlight anymore? While I missed the window on Reservoir Dogs, I was alive and aware during Pulp Fiction’s cultural moment. I remember what it was like when the definition of film fandom seemed to change overnight entirely because of Quentin Tarantino. I have rarely fully liked the man and don’t always dig his movies – in fact, until this past week I hadn’t even seen True Romance, Death Proof, From Dusk Till Dawn, or Jackie Brown before – but as a figure of some historical consequence Tarantino warrants plenty of consideration.
Having traced his entire career and delved deep into his oft-told origins, however, I am struck by just how much of his history is tainted. Yes, his ongoing tendency toward racial insensitivity and on-screen violence toward women is certainly problematic, but what is even harder to escape is the following: you can’t tell Tarantino’s story without also telling the Harvey Weinstein story. Until Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, a Harvey Weinstein-owned company had distributed or co-distributed every single Tarantino movie.
The Harvey Weinstein Of It All
Everyone at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 was talking about Reservoir Dogs. Putting in an ear-cutting scene and enough blood to make even Wes Craven walk out of your movie will do that for you. But there’s a big difference between being the most talked-about and actually having some willing buyers. For Tarantino, Harvey Weinstein was the one most willing to take a chance on Reservoir.
Miramax, to that point, was constantly cobbling together co-productions and often splitting US/international distribution rights with others. The company’s biggest hit by a factor of 2 had been 1989’s sex, lies and videotope, Steven Soderberg’s debut feature which casued a frenzy at Sundance and kickstarted the entire indie film movement of the following decade. Reservoir Dogs didn’t do anything remotely resembling that kind of business. In fact, it bombed domestically, only finding its life in Europe (they just really loved Tim Roth over there) and on home video. Pulp Fiction was a different story.
By 1994, Harvey had just sold Miramax to Disney for $60m but stuck around to keep running the company with his brother, and he used that new capital to invest in Pulp Fiction. Thus, Pulp Fiction became the first film fully financed by Miramax.
The reward: Pulp Fiction became the highest-grossing indie film of all-time, setting Weinstein up as a major Hollywood player for the next 20 years, first through Miramax and then The Weinstein Co. Harvey would win multiple Oscars and various other awards, but he only ever managed to top Pulp Fiction in terms of inflation-adjust ticket sales three times: Good Will Hunting, Scary Movie, and Chicago. His company, therefore, rarely had a bigger year than it did in 1994.
Something equally notable also happened in 1994: Harvey Weinstein attempted to coerce Gwyneth Paltrow into a sexual act in exchange for the lead role in Emma.
According to this USA Today timeline of Weinstein’s assaults, Weinstein had pulled a similar trick on at least 7 other women dating back tothe late 1970s. He would do it over 20 more times over the next two decades, with likely many more incidents which simply haven’t been reported yet. Several women in Tarantino’s orbit were victimized, like Pulp Fiction co-star Rosanna Arquette:
And Tarantino’s future girlfriend Mira Sorvino had it happen to her right before they started dating:
Tarantino’s line of defense has been that while he knew enough to do more he certainly didn’t know everything. Several of the actresses in his movies – including Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah – were once chased around by Harvey in a hotel room, and Tarantino’s solution was to extract some form of apology from the old man and an assurance that he wouldn’t bring that shit near his movies.
Flash forward to 2015 and Weinstein was hosting an engagement party for Tarantino and his fiance, Israeli singer Daniella Sick, as I previously detailed. Through the ups and the downs, the producer and director were still bonded like father and son. So, naturally, when Harvey was finally exposed as the monster he is Tarantino obviously had to say something.
Acknowledging his own failure to do more was, as Tarantino saw it, a critical step in the entire industry’s healing process. He told The New York Times, “I’m calling on the other guys who knew more to not be scared. Don’t just give out statements. Acknowledge that there was something rotten in Denmark. Vow to do better by our sisters.””
The #MeToo movement has existed long enough now that we are entering into a new phase: what happens when the accused and/or their accomplices return from exile and try to make a living in the entertainment industry again? The answer is still unclear. Louis CK’s shock jock-style comeback hasn’t gone well. Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix standup special, on the other hand, seems to be a step in the right direction.
Beyond that, there is a wide spectrum between an out-and-out sexual predator like Weinstein and Tarantino. But add on top of that the troubling story of the Uma Thurman-Kill Bill accident, which the actress has since forgiven Tarantino for, and I was sure there would be considerable pushback to Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
There absolutely was…at first, when it was still in pre-production. Sony gave himt the biggest budget of his career and ownership of the copyright, meaning that in as soon as a decade from now Sony will entirely relinquish the film to him. How does a guy who did so little to help so many women score a deal like that? Surely Sony was walking into a PR buzzsaw.
To my surprise, however, the controversy seemed to fade, replaced eventually by the rich specter of seeing a new film from one of our most important filmmakers. It was only at Once Upon a Time’s Cannes premiere that controversy popped back up, this time related to Margot Robbie’s comparative lack of dialogue in the film compared to her male co-stars.
There again – in his “I reject your hypothesis” – is the utterly arrogant, wildly unapologetic Tarantino we’ve always known. Robbie, when asked about this in a TotalFilm interview, argued it had all been overblown. “Obviously I do have dialogue in the film, but for the most part I’m kind of going through my day and I’m on my own and so the dialogue is limited in that respect. But there’s quite a lot of time on screen just being with her, whether she’s driving, walking or watching a movie.”
She was faced with a choice, and she chose working with Tarantino because it was one of her career goals. Seeing as how he plans to retire after his next movie, she might not get that chance again, and she certainly does the most with very little in the film.
The Once Upon a Time Hype
Caption: Notable: Robbie never actually shares the screen with DiCaprio and Pitt in the movie.
Even with that bit of controversy, by the time, um, Once Upon a Time arrived in theaters it didn’t seem to be met with mass resistance or boycotts. If anything, the Cannes dustup added to its appeal because it upped the “everyone is talking about this movie” quotient.
And instead of dredging through the Harvey Weinstein past, industry trades treated the film as an excuse to spin a so-obvious-it-hurts narrative, pitting Once Upon a Time and Lion King against one another as two obvious symbols of wildly different directions for film. The former is the past; the latter the future. One is a reminder of when audiences wanted auteur-driven, star-powered adult dramas, and the other simply confirms audiences mostly want pre-branded retreads which are nice to look at. The entire future of film depends on this very moment!
The true controversy, however, was waiting. Tarantino delights in making movies which stimulate conversation. He wants people to go out for dinner afterward and talk about nothing else but his movie. On that goal, Once Upon a Time certainly delivers.
Once Upon a Controversy
“Y’know, all my movies are surrounded by some sort of stupid controversy that is really only of the moment. Then cut to eight years later, you’re watching it on TNT. All right, so how fucking controversial is it?”Quentin Tarantino, quoted in 2017’s Tarantino: A Retrospective
So, we know where he stands. Still, between the problematic Bruce Lee fight scene, cartoonishly violent finale, puzzling implication that Brad Pitt’s character killed his wife for nagging too much, and Sharon Tate screen time controversy, Once Upon a Time isn’t exactly the kind of movie you passively consume and never think about again. Instead, it inspires rather passionate responses. Ruth, over at FlixChatter, penned a houghtful and concise rundown of it all. I heavily recommend giving it a read, though spoiler warning. The following is an expanded version of what I left in her comments section:
A Man Looking to the Past for Answers to the Future
I’ve been listening to and reading a lot of Tarantino interviews lately, and what’s clear across all of them is that Quentin feels more and more detached from where pop culture is going these days and he has absolutely no idea what to do about that. He doesn’t generally watch new movies anymore. He’s only just now catching up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s not a fan of streaming TV, though he and his wife are slowly making their way through The Americans. When he’s not making his own movies he spends most of his time programming the monthly schedule for his revival theater in LA, The New Beverly, and would rather catch a double bill of old 35mm films at his theater than go pay to see a digital projection of a new movie somewhere else. You can take the boy out of the video store, but then he’ll just end up owning his own movie theater, I guess, though that it is secretly also my dream job.
Add on top of that the fact that Tarantino’s mentor, father figure and biggest champion in the entire industry, Weinstein, is no longer in the picture and you really have all you need to know to understand Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. It is the work of man so scared of the future he’d rather escape into the past and recreate the Hollywood he remembers from when he was just 6-years-old, right down to using some of his own vintage movie posters to paper the walls in the background during certain scenes.
Since he was in LA in 1969, he remembers how much that year felt like a transition point, with New Hollywood about to take over the old studio system and the naive idealism of the 60s about to finally fall away to hard, cynical reality. He maintains that’s not why he picked 1969; he picked that year because that’s when Sharon Tate died and he knew he wanted her in the movie. However, picking 1969 feels like an obvious parallel for the type of turmoil and uncertain future facing the film industry – Silicon Valley about take over – and, in general, the world right now.
Sharon Tate as a Plot Device
This awareness of but also bewilderment in the face of change is also what drove him to select a main trio of characters caught the midst of an uncertain transition – the has-been TV star who really needs to go to Italy to start his comeback, his loyal stuntman who has no real plan B for what he’ll do if his boss’s career goes away, and the radiant starlet right on the cusp of superstardom. It’s no surprise that Tate ends up being the least developed of the three – she’s the furthest away from where Tarantino is right now in his own career.
However, Tarantino’s love for film is so absolute that I’m sure to him he couldn’t imagine a more fitting tribute than having his fake version of Sharon sit in a theater and watch the real Sharon in The Wrecking Crew – to be clear, Margot Robbie’s Sharon watches the real version of The Wrecking Crew with the real Sharon instead of them Forrest Gumping her into it over Sharon’s body – and smile with complete satisfaction as the audience around her laughs at her every on-screen pratfall. Sparing her an on-screen death and brutalizing her actual murderers is also part of that tribute, however imperfect it may be.
She’s ultimately less a character and more a symbol. Tarantino looks at her much the same way DiCaprio does the one time he actually glimpses her across the way in his driveway – completely transfixed by her stardom.
The Implications of Applying Inglorious Bastards-Style Historical Revisionism to the Manson Murders
When Tarantino killed Hitler in Inglourious Bastards it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. When he made mincemeat out of the racist slave traders in Django Unchained, again, more power to him. Those are demonstratively evil figures who earn the cinematic revenge he foists upon them in his signature exploitative cinema way.
Nazis are bad. Racists are bad. We get it.
But hippies/cult members, particularly 2 female hippies and a male ringleader who looks about as intimidating as a chihuahua? Killing them in comically exaggerated, but still, quite brutal fashion isn’t so forgivable, particularly when we’re already talking about a director with such a complicated history when it comes to his treatment of women on screen. It almost feels like a leader of the Gen X generation trying to metaphorically beat the shit out of those damn Millennials – i.e., the next generation with crazy new ideas – he doesn’t understand. I think he would argue it’s more about his deep affection for Sharon Tate and desire to minimize her killers, but its implications aren’t fully thought out.
Bruce Lee as a Plot Device
Tarantino clearly adores the guy as a cinematic icon. Uma Thurman’s iconic yellow suit in the first Kill Bill is a direct homage to Lee’s iconic get-up in Game of Death. Lee’s Enter the Dragon was the second kung-fu movie Tarantino ever saw. I don’t think he is intending to mock Lee or diminish him. All you need to do is listen to Tarantino talk for two minutes and you’ll hear so much bragging and ego-stroking that you can see where his depiction of Lee’s braggadocio is a tribute. Tarantino’s loves a guy he believes to be that arrogant, regardless of whether those who knew the real Lee think that’s an accurate characterization. (Spoiler: they don’t.)
But Tarantino didn’t even ask the Lee family for permission because he almost never asks anyone for permission to do anything. For example, he did ask for and receive permission from Sharon Tate’s sister, but he never reached out to Roman Polanski, telling Deadline:
“I didn’t want to call him and talk to him while I was writing it because I’m not going to ask him permission. I’m going to do it, all right? I don’t think he needed any anxiety and I didn’t need any anxiety as far as that was concerned.”
It was only once the film was finished that Polanski actually reached out to Tarantino to ask what exactly was going on. Bruce Lee’s family and friends didn’t even get that.
So, in the end, Tarantino’s version of Lee is just a storytelling device used to prop up Brad Pitt’s fictional Cliff Booth. Through that fight, we see how much of badass Cliff is, foreshadowing his ability to take on a bunch of hippies at the end. To Tarantino, I think, picking Lee as the guy who Cliff can hang with is a real honor because in 1969 he couldn’t think of anyone more formidable. Still, the effect is a fictional white character diminishing the power of a historical figure who just happens to be the film’s only character of color. It’s not a good look.
Lee’s daughter put it best recently when she said:
“I have always suspected that [Tarantino] is a fan of the kung-fu genre and a fan of things that kick ass in cool and stylish ways, which my father certainly did,” says Shannon Lee, who was 4 years old when her father died. “But whether he really knows anything about Bruce Lee as a human being, whether he’s interested in who Bruce Lee was as a human being, whether he admires who Bruce Lee was as a human being, I’m not really sure that I have any evidence to support that that would be true.”
A Past Imperfect
So much of film history is riddled with inequities and tales of wildly imperfect icons. Walt Disney was a union buster. John Wayne was a blacklisting Communist hunter who decades later proudly told Playboy “I believe in white supremacy.” Alfred Hitchcock was a misogynist posthumously accused of sexual assault. And just as we are re-examining our history as a country and debating the merits of maintaining monuments to Confederate leaders so too are we looking back at film history with a newly critical eye.
To some, this is absurd. Bill Maher, for example, memorably ranted against such historical wokeification, “Stop being surprised every time you watch an old movie or TV show and find some of the ideas in it are old.” Amy Nicholson and Paul Scheer, on the other hand, seem to spend most of their time on the podcast Unspooled – on which they watch every film on the AFI’s Top 100 List and talk about them – complaining that so many old movies have such antiquated ideas that don’t stand up to our new woke ideals.
Into this cultural moment arrives Quentin Tarantino and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. When you look back at his old movies, it’s hard to imagine a modern day director getting away with the kind of racially charged language Tarantino has used from literally the very first scene of Reservoir Dogs or making a debut feature with exactly zero speaking roles for women.
It’s hardly shocking, then, that Once Upon a Time isn’t passing the sensitivity test for some audiences. This is who this guy is, and while I still quite like the film I admit it isn’t sitting well with me the more I think about it.
We’ll only have one more Tarantino movie to kick around before he retires. After that – or maybe even before that – who knows, he might do a streaming show, play, or maybe pull a Paul Thomas Anderson and crank out fanboy music videos for bands he likes, though I don’t think Tarantino is connected enough to modern pop culture to even know who he’d want to direct.
Passion the Baton
However, I think he knows his moment is ending. In one of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s best and most-telling scenes, DiCaprio’s fading star Rick Dalton sits down to read a book on the set of his latest TV-western, and he has a rather illuminating conversation with an 8-year-old-actor-going-on-30 played by Julia Butters. She is far more mature, dedicated, and open to new ideas and concepts – call her “actor,” not “actress,” she insists – than her older, more experienced co-star. DiCaprio’s unease with how to actually talk to this girl elicits laughs, and it’s certainly implied that given the cyclical nature of the industry she’ll be on the outside looking in just like him in 15 years.
This very same girl later gives Dalton the ego-boost he needs, telling him his performance was the best acting she’d ever seen in her life. You sense that Tarantino would like the same. He wants us to tell him Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the best directing we’ve ever seen in our life. It’s not. Like most everything else he’s ever made, it’s chock full of cinematic flourishes and uncomfortable implications. In a remarkably down year for film, it registers as likely awards-bound and something that’s actually important, even if sometimes for the wrong reasons. In the end, it’s but the penultimate chapter in the career of a man with a complicated legacy and tainted history.
Sources: Tom Shone’s Tarantino: A Retrospective, Empire’s recent Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood cover story, Tarantino’s ongoing conversations with Amy Nicholson for the podcast Quentin Tarantino’s Feature Presentation, Tarantino’s interview on the Happy Sad Confused podcast