Once Upon A Time In Hollywood's problematic politics: Beyond fan-boy admiration, looking at fault lines of Tarantino's film

Sahil Wajid

Aug 30, 2019 11:12:37 IST

Midway through Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, in a film-within-the-movie, Rick Dalton (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor struggling with alcoholism and afraid he is past his prime, cracks a joke as the villain in a Western series he hopes would relaunch his career. The joke is essentially a play on the name of an army regiment in British India, the 'Bengal Lancers', which another character (the late Luke Perry) claims to have served in. While off-kilter, the joke's still rather juvenile: which, by and large, could also be said about the nature of entertainment that Quentin Tarantino's latest offering provides. At best, that is. At worst, it could be said the film is at least a little misogynistic, and, unwittingly (or maybe not), pandering to regressive leanings. And, worse still, perhaps even racist and xenophobic ones. Which is a shame considering Tarantino has delivered more coherent, more intelligent fare in the past — and certainly more entertaining.

First things first, contrary to what had been rumoured and even reported before its release, this film is neither centered around the Manson family murders nor do they form its backdrop (even if the character of Sharon Tate does appear — but more on that later). Set in 1969, it is a re-imagining of Hollywood and its then-inhabitants.

The central plot focuses on the aforementioned Rick Dalton and his calmer, cooler, more laconic stuntman-cum-driver-cum-factotum, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), with a checkered past and a violent streak. There are long drives and also some very fast ones through lively LA, with an equally lively soundtrack capturing the various moods of the different occupants. There are sideburns and bell-bottoms, and there is (white) male camaraderie between the two principal characters.

And just to remind us further that it is indeed the sixties, there is no dearth of the more edgy signifiers of that age either: acid-laced cigarettes, promiscuous minors and dangerous hippies. Check, check and check. And then there is the trademark violence and gore (Tarantino’s beloved flamethrowers and hounds with a proclivity for human flesh make an appearance yet again), and that alone might be a good reason for the overly squeamish to stay away.

 Once Upon A Time In Hollywoods problematic politics: Beyond fan-boy admiration, looking at fault lines of Tarantinos film

The problem with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is not the violence — or at least not the violence alone

However, the problem with this film is not the violence — or at least not the violence alone. There has been no dearth of it, of course, in Tarantino's earlier films: remember the torture scene from his first feature, Reservoir Dogs (which in turn spawned the hit 2002 Bollywood rip-off Kaante starring Amitabh Bachchan among others)? Or the more recent Django Unchained which author Salman Rushdie enjoyed because he found the violence funny? Well, there's little that's similarly "funny" about the violence in OUATIH. Or about the film in general. On the contrary, it comes across as a tad problematic — on multiple fronts.

Firstly, the misogynistic undertone is hard to miss here: the character of Sharon Tate (portrayed by Margot Robbie) turns out to be the only 'good' woman in the film, with the rest of the female characters (with what little screen-time they have been accorded) alternating between shrews, minors trying to seduce older men, and the downright deranged with a penchant for violence. A pity then that this lone good woman (Tate) is portrayed as a somewhat vapid, self-absorbed one: when she's not swaying to Paul Revere & the Raiders tracks during the day, and prancing around at Playboy Mansion parties at night, she's admiring herself on a cinema screen as a bumbling babe opposite Dean Martin (in The Wrecking Crew, a critically-panned, witless comedy from 1969). Now this might well be Tarantino's idea of a female protagonist with depth, but by the end of the film, the viewer is left baffled as to why so much screen time should be devoted to so inconsequential a character — and one who barely says anything at all.

When confronted with a query at a Cannes press conference in May, about the lack of lines Robbie has in the film, a visibly riled Tarantino retorted he rejected "this hypothesis" and refused to answer further. His legion of fans — including some film critics — may, in typical knee-jerk fashion, simply dismiss all such criticism as a hypersensitive display of 'woke-ness', 'virtue-signalling' and what-have-you, never mind that such a defense amounts merely to unimaginative ad hominem and is, therefore, lazy and intellectually dishonest. Yet others, for whom any criticism of Tarantino seems to verge on "censorship", may hector us with the familiar straw man about his right to "artistic freedom" , as if it were the legality of his film's characters and depictions that was being called into question.

Moreover, the violence against women is problematic (in some ways, even more so than in his last film, The Hateful Eight). It is revealed early on in the film that Brad Pitt's character Cliff likely killed his wife and got away with it. While this is supposed to lend an element of danger to his persona, at the same time Tarantino also tries to ensure that this revelation doesn’t turn the audience against Cliff — via a flashback in which said wife is shown to be a nagging woman, taunting poor Cliff relentlessly. So, Tarantino essentially seems to tells us, the wife had it coming and that the probable murder-made-to-look-like-an-accident was therefore justifiable and we needn't worry about it. In a similar vein, one of said crazy-woman characters is served a particularly grisly, fiery end in the gruesome finale as she runs around emitting high-pitched, comical shrieks (even as my fellow-viewers in a Texas theater laughed and cheered, much to my horror).

The character of Sharon Tate (portrayed by Margot Robbie) turns out to be the only 'good' woman in the film

The character of Sharon Tate (portrayed by Margot Robbie) turns out to be the only 'good' woman in the film

Which brings us to the other problematic depiction in the film: that of the hippies. To put it briefly, they are portrayed, without exception, as a drug-peddling, pedophilia-condoning, fundamentally crazed bunch. While it may be argued this was a depiction of only Charles Manson's murderous cult (as opposed to hippies in general), the broader term 'hippie' itself is used as a slur throughout the film, with the protagonists wrinkling their noses in obvious contempt every time they utter it. With this in mind, there's little chance anyone could have walked out of the theater under the impression that Tarantino wanted the viewer to see hippies in general as anything significantly different from this collective depiction as sex-crazed troublemakers with drug-addled brains. So, while on the surface of it, Tarantino doesn't appear to delve into the political tumult prevailing at the time (the unrest had barely died down down after Martin Luther King's assassination and the passing of the Civil Rights act; while the Vietnam war was in full swing, effecting a sharp divide in public opinion throughout the country), he still ends up passing some commentary through said treatment of the hippies. It might not even be an exaggeration to say that this depiction of unmitigated hippie evil asking for some swift remedial brutality was perhaps more one-dimensional than even that of the Nazis in Tarantino's earlier Inglourious Basterds. 

Sitting in the theater and observing the positive reaction of many in the audience, I could not escape the feeling that the film not only seemed to take a dim view of the predominantly left-liberal counter-culture movement that the hippies were associated with, but could also appear — even if unwittingly — to extend its contempt to left-wing activism in general. It's a 'hypothesis' which Tarantino, if pressed, might well "reject", but the not-so-subliminal nod and a wink did seem to get through to many among the Texan audience, at least some of whom might have harboured similar distaste for what they might see as present-day versions of a dangerous leftist cult: The Squad, proponents of the Green New Deal, and so on. Throughout the film, as if on cue, they seemed to applaud raucously each time all manner of righteous violence was visited upon the crazy cult members. One such sordid sample: hippie punctures Cliff's tire for snooping around on their ranch; Cliff beats him to a bloody pulp and makes him fix spare tire; audience cheers. There's lazy entertainment of the B-grade variety, and this really wasn't much different.

There are not only no African-American characters in Tarantino's re-imagining of Hollywood, but the lone non-white character who does appear, Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh), is portrayed as a thin-skinned braggart who gets the humiliation he asked for. The character's chief provocation of declaring he could cripple the boxer Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), elicits mocking derision and a subsequent beating from the irreverent white stuntman, Cliff (Pitt). The scene was not only over-the-top enough to be straight out of a bad ‘90s Bollywood action flick, but also seemed outside the realm of possibility, considering the former's supposed real-life reverence for the latter. Indeed, it must have required some imagination on Tarantino's part — only the regressive variety. Because this was not just any random Asian character, but an actual historical figure who overcame many obstacles and did muchto counter Hollywood's stereotypical depictions of Asian men as emasculated figures and buffoons (like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's). But clearly, Tarantino doesn't think much of either those crippling stereotypes or of Lee’s significance as an Asian-American icon, on whom he heaps the ignominy of not only having the stuntman pejoratively call him a "dancer" before the fight, but also clearly mocks Lee by caricaturing his trademark cat-like vocalisations as he prepares to fight. It is a clear cue to the audience to laugh at Lee, and laugh they did. And then laughed and cheered some more as Lee is put firmly — and comically — in his place. As an Asian man myself — one of the few in that theatre — I cringed in embarrassment at these peals of approving laughter from the audience. (The scene has since prompted disapproval from Lee's daughter who expressed hurt at this depiction of her father, and more recently from others too; in fact, the scene in Tarantino's original script had been so over the top in its mockery of Lee that apparently Brad Pitt himself had to object and Tarantino was forced to alter it to its eventual form.)

The hippies are portrayed, without exception, as a drug-peddling, pedophilia-condoning, fundamentally crazed bunch

The hippies are portrayed, without exception, as a drug-peddling, pedophilia-condoning, fundamentally crazed bunch

What's ironic here, and what arguably made this scene even worse, is that Tarantino's white stuntman is supposedly defending the honour of a non-white icon (never mind that he and the journalists before him obstinately refer to the latter by his slave name a good five years after Clay became Ali in 1964 and insisted on being called by his chosen name) — only to mock and humiliate another. This way, of course, Tarantino can claim a position from which to deflect charges of racial insensitivity. All very well thought out — and all very disingenuous. But hey, as Tarantino himself would no doubt sternly remind us, this is supposed to be only fiction — nevermind that by this point one already suspects (a suspicion which the ending confirms) the film to be, more than anything else, a paean to the old glory days of Hollywood and its not so glorious ways, when white men hogged every inch of life on the screen as well as off it, cheerfully impervious to the further marginalisation it meant for everyone else.

So it's not a surprise then that in yet another scene early on in the film, Cliff (Pitt) says "Don't let the Mexicans see you cry" to a distraught Rick (DiCaprio) on the verge of tears, as the two of them approach the Latino-looking valets in the parking lot, making some in the audience titter loudly — which is no accident since they were meant to laugh at that. Now some might argue that this is probably an accurate representation of how the more privileged white majority in the sixties — even the well-meaning members — might have talked about foreigners from south of the border, and that, after all, this is supposed to be a film and not an exercise in preaching political correctness, but it's the fact that Tarantino wrote this line precisely to derive humour from this casual put-down (as opposed to providing any insight through it), which makes it regressive and, therefore, problematic.

Likewise, in one of the final scenes in which an intersection of all that's wrong with this film — misogyny and peddling xenophobic stereotypes — plays out, the character of Di Caprio's Italian wife, who essentially comes across as a bit of a dolt, uncertainly shrieks curses laced with a heavy Italian accent, which are intended to be a source of comic relief. Later, her comically rapid Italian perplexes the police translator, to provide yet more mirth to those inclined towards that sort of humour.

Actors Margot Robbie from left, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(From L-R) Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt pose for photographers at the premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at Cannes 2019. AP/File Photo

That said, the film has its moments: the films within the film; the precocious little child actor (Julia Butters) who gives Rick a lesson in work ethic; DiCaprio's portrayal of the actor battling with his demons and, in one memorable scene, his torment at not being able to remember his lines; Kurt Russell's cameo, and even Dakota Fanning's intensity during the precious little screen time she had — but those are few and far between and don't do nearly enough to make up for the film's bad politics. And while bad politics rarely makes for good art, even if one were to put aside the above objections, the film is still not a masterpiece (the box-office returns and some of the more fawning reviews notwithstanding).

Tarantino's abiding love of the Hollywood of yore is all very well, but the focus on the pastiche component here, via a plethora of inside jokes (there's even a dig at European film-making) and film and TV references, is a bit excessive — making the film seem a bit too indulgent at times. The movie's finale in particular, with its mingling of carnage and slapstick, comes across as both a crudely ghoulish attempt at humour and peddling mindless violence for its own sake — as if Tarantino was anxious to not disappoint the hordes who would come for the promised  gore. As for the re-imagined side-story involving Sharon Tate, not only is its link to the main plot tenuous throughout, the two stories simply never intersect (despite the ample freedom the script could have had thanks to Tarantino's choice of genre here being period drama, untrammeled by constraints that might have saddled, say, a more biographical film intent on staying true to real-life events). It leaves the viewer wondering if there ever had been any purpose at all to including Tate in the film, save perhaps to cash in on the hype and attention that stems from association with a sensational real-life event — which makes its inclusion seem, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, exploitative of Sharon Tate's unfortunate end. And for all his unapologetic love of B-movies and the days gone by, Tarantino should have been more mindful of this — and his film's politics in general.

Updated Date: Aug 31, 2019 10:18:13 IST