I spent the better part of last Friday evening with the new Quentin Tarantino picture, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, a film that anyone with even a mild appreciation of cinematic history really owes to himself or herself to see. Like every other Tarantino project to date (only more so), this one is about nothing so much as the joy and richness of the movies themselves. For those, like me, with a soft spot for American culture in the late 1960s, there may not be a more blissful 160 minutes spent in a movie theater this year.
That is, except for the violence against women, of which (one might say) there is slightly more than is strictly necessary.
For all his unheralded success—creative and financial—over the past quarter-century, Quentin Tarantino has always presented as a problematic figure in the Hollywood-industrial complex. Early on, in films like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, Tarantino was taken to task for his screenplays’ rather liberal use of the word “nigger” by white and black characters alike—a pattern that led admirers like me to half-jokingly surmise that perhaps he, like Rachel Dolezal years later, is under a mistaken impression of his own racial identity and privilege. (In fact, he identifies as a mixture of Irish, Italian and Cherokee.)
When he hasn’t been batting away accusations of racial insensitivity and/or appropriation, Tarantino has had to answer for his oeuvre’s general use of extreme, gratuitous violence as an integral part of each
film’s narrative arc—typically in the form of Mexican standoff-like confrontations involving guns, knives and the occasional samurai sword. (Not to mention the one-off deaths caused by such things as poisoned coffee, a black mamba snake and a Pop-Tart.)
That Tarantino has gotten away with this—earning critical adulation and impressive box office returns, to boot—is due, in great part, to the knowing, witty, near-cartoonish nature of that violence. Like country music, abstract expressionism or Boris Johnson, it almost dares you to take it seriously, ultimately earning your admiration and approval through sheer force of style.
More to the point, the dynamic of these bloodbaths is either to pit good guys versus bad guys—with the former always triumphing in the end—or to contain no good guys at all, and therefore no one to feel especially sorry for.
As such, despite the excessiveness of it all, the morality of Tarantino’s cinematic smackdowns has historically been fairly straightforward: A band of Jewish renegades massacres an auditorium full of Nazis, say, and we cheer them on because, hey, what’s more pleasurable and cathartic than sticking it to the Third Reich? Sure, maybe the job could’ve been done with 10 bullets instead of 10,000—plus or minus the flammable nitrate film that burns the joint to the ground, for good measure—but then who ever went to a Tarantino flick for sensibility or restraint?
Indeed, Tarantino’s sinister genius in these set pieces is to make them so perversely and deliriously enjoyable that we become implicated in them—accessories rather than bystanders, tacitly condoning the use of over-the-top carnage, against our supposedly better judgment.
Where this becomes uncomfortable—as it now has in two Tarantino films in a row—is when the carnage is visited by a strong man upon a weak woman. In 2015’s The Hateful Eight—spoiler alert!—there was Jennifer Jason Leigh being lynched by a gleeful, chuckling Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins. And now in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood—spoiler alert number two!—we have a set of Manson Family acolytes—barely old enough to drive—being mauled, burned and body-slammed by two of America’s most beloved movie stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.
To be clear: In context, all of those women had it coming. By this point in their respective films, they’d already wrecked unholy havoc unto others and were hell-bent on wrecking even more, given the chance. They are not passive, innocent victims. They have agency and, like many of their male counterparts, are unambiguously wretched people.
It is for that very reason that the audience feels licensed to revel in their messy, sadistic demise at the hands of men who are all-too-happy to bring it about. The net result is an auditorium full of people hooting and hollering at women being brutalized, and there’s just no way around the awkwardness of it springing from the mind of a 56-year-old man-child with #MeToo issues.
Lest we forget—as most of the culture apparently has—Tarantino owes the balance of his career to one Harvey Weinstein, the producer and sexual super-predator about whom Tarantino famously said in October 2017, “I knew enough to do more than I did.” While the director himself has not been accused of sexual criminality—and reportedly confronted Weinstein about his criminal behavior on at least two occasions in the past—he was, by his own accounting, ultimately an enabler of a serial rapist for the sake of preserving and advancing his own career.
The question—as it has been during the 22 months of the #MeToo era—is: What do we do this information? Outside of the legal system, how do we assign blame and allocate punishment for the systematic, grisly, institutionalized raping and pillaging of vulnerable women by some of the most powerful men in show business—and, in this case, for those who allowed it to happen and only apologized when they were cornered and had no other choice?
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is Tarantino’s first new movie since #MeToo began. I must confess that, although I was aware of his negligence vis-à-vis Harvey Weinstein—not to mention his recklessly pressuring Uma Thurman into doing her own stunt driving in Kill Bill, resulting in serious injury—I had somehow put them entirely out of my mind until the moment Brad Pitt slammed the Manson girls’ heads against the wall in the film’s climactic scene. And even then, I grew only faintly cognizant of how grotesque it was for a filmmaker with such a checkered relationship with the gentler sex—and supposedly chastened by the belated exposure of his longtime benefactor—to choose to conclude his movie by beating the living daylights out of a pair of women known primarily for falling under the influence of a powerful, dangerous sociopath.
It’s not a terribly great look—not for Tarantino, and not for the men in the audience (like me) who can so easily check their feminist wokeness at the door for the sake of entertainment—and the fact that nobody seems to give a damn suggests either that few hold Tarantino liable for the abominations committed by the producer with whom he worked for 25 years, or that #MeToo itself is on the wane in the public consciousness, as we return to the status quo ante in which men can do whatever they want and, because they’re famous, we let them do it.