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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Punches Straight Down

Movies Features Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
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(Note: This article contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood .)

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is an immaculately crafted world all of its own, evocative of feelings he’s never explored before, with shades of tenderness I didn’t think him capable of. It’s also one of the most strangely regressive and nakedly self-indulgent movies he’s ever made. It sits atop some rancid subtext, taking shots at people who, while they are historical figures, still represent tensions and power dynamics that live and bleed today.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a good movie by any standard you could measure it against, the result of years of a skilled filmmaker honing his abilities. Tarantino is nevertheless getting a pass from just about every reviewer I’ve read.

He treated Bruce Lee unfairly and in a way that is racist and it was not a dream, guys.

The scene burning up the interwebs is a flashback involving Brad Pitt’s stuntman, Cliff, and Bruce Lee (a portrayal by Mike Moh so spot-on in look and manner that Lee’s own daughter has conceded it was a good likeness, even as she has expressed hurt at the scene as a whole). Cliff remembers a time when he was on set with a bloviating Bruce Lee, whose boasting he scoffs at. Lee picks a fight with him, and the two trade a few blows. While Lee does knock Cliff on his ass once, Cliff slams Lee into a car door and their best-two-out-of-three knockdown fight is interrupted by the director’s (justifiably) pissed off wife.

It was really instructive, listening to the parts my mostly white Central Illinois audience was laughing at: Moh’s eerily accurate recreation of the intense vocalizations Lee always made in films, or the part where, when somebody shouts that Cliff was “beating the shit out of Bruce,” he tries to play it cool by saying, “Nobody beat the shit out of Bruce!”

People have written on this scene to defend Tarantino’s choice to portray Lee as a strutting braggart and a speechifying lecturer, which were both well-documented aspects of his personality. You can argue that it’s okay to send up a historical figure, but the issue is that encouraging folks to chuckle at Bruce Lee is not the same thing as, say, scoring a joke off of Napoleon Bonaparte’s height. Lee faced deep-seated racism in Hollywood, and despite showcasing incredible talent and training a generation of movie stars in martial arts (yes, including Sharon Tate in exactly the way the film shows), he only became truly famous posthumously when Enter the Dragon debuted.

For extra points, he calls Lee “Kato,” always with a sneer, as if to remind him that no matter how big he might think he is, he’s still just a sidekick, which is precisely what he and generations of Asian actors have faced and continue to face. Some of the online conversation surrounding the scene has posited it might be a daydream or the like, but there’s nothing about it that indicates it’s anything other than a straightforward flashback. Is it really that unthinkable that Quentin Tarantino might have, you know, filmed an insensitive scene?

Stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo has revealed that the scene was originally supposed to be longer and to end in Cliff defeating Lee, a prospect that was so ridiculous to Pitt and Alonzo that they reportedly saved Tarantino from himself and lobbied to truncate the fight to the version now in theaters. Apparently, though, Cliff was supposed to win with a cheap shot, which would have been an unbelievably bad look.

Take a step back and think about it: Brad Pitt’s character laughing off Lee’s Eastern martial arts in exactly the same way they were being laughed off during Lee’s lifetime, and in exactly the same way they still tacitly are in every movie where the straight-laced Western hero stomps a bad guy who is using tricky Eastern kung fu moves by just sucker punching him.

My screening of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was packed and eerily silent most of the time, but you can bet there were guffaws when Bruce Lee got fucking owned.

Charles Manson and the Family weren’t “fuckin’ hippies”—they were a militaristic cult.

The list of men born in the 20th Century with more written about their lives than Charles Manson must be a short one indeed. There are conflicting stories, long arguments to be had about the real significance of the cult he gathered on the Spahn Movie Ranch, the violence he spurred them to commit, and the time in which it happened. So I’m not the only one to offer this viewpoint: He wore the trappings of the hippie movement because they were convenient, but he was no hippie.

At the height of his influence over The Family, Manson had cultivated an us-versus-them ethos that looks exactly like the ugly fascist organizations that today stand in complete opposition to what the hippie movement ever stood for. It’s well-documented: See if you can find the real-life interview clip where a gun-toting Lynette Fromme (a nearly unrecognizable Dakota Fanning in the film) straight-facedly declares that if anybody opposes the Family, “we’ll kill them.” Had Manson been transplanted from the America of 50 years ago to the America of today, he’d have found no shortage of costumes to wear. For Manson, it was about manipulation and control, and a ready supply of young ingenues to revere him and do his bidding.

Regardless, the moral guardians of the time were ready and waiting to associate him with the hippie movement. Moral panic and fear-mongering followed in The Family’s wake, and contributed to the decline of hippie counterculture. You can’t put all of that on Manson and a couple nights of murder, but the fact he had a hand in destroying that culture also means it’s strangely vindictive to have Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters repeatedly refer to the Family members as “fuckin’ hippies” as they kick their asses. The Family members who show up in the film aren’t dressed as or acting like hippies when they attack. It arises from an ugly sentiment completely unrelated to the actual crimes the actual Family actually committed.

And that ending…

I was afraid Tarantino was going to do exactly what he did, and what The Haunting of Sharon Tate already beat him to: Rewriting history in precisely the way he did in Inglourious Basterds, by killing the bad guys in as over-the-top a manner as possible. In his earlier feature, he imagines Hitler dying in a hail of machine gun fire in a burning movie theater, a sort of historical catharsis. OUATIH takes the same approach in a way that is jarring after more than two hours of lingering in a perfect recreation of 1969 Hollywood, a paean to drive-in theaters and neon signs and big Cadillacs, every stretch of silence filled with a needle drop or an ad jingle.

The movie veers into alt-history in the last ten minutes as Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel all spontaneously decide to murder DiCaprio instead of the occupants of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s house. Pitt’s character sics his dog on them and then proceeds to murder them with his bare hands. Atkins meets her end when DiCaprio just walks out of his pool shed with a flamethrower and cooks her—in fairness to Tarantino, I guess he did put it on the mantle in Act One.

Tarantino’s movies have dispensed with bad guys in far more gruesome ways over the years. Scalping Lucy Liu or blowing the dick off a slave plantation ranch hand both seemed to be proportionate responses, though, where this is cruel and graphic in a way that might feel cathartic if you know the history, but even then lets off the real culprit and doesn’t make sense in the context of the movie we just saw.

Atkins died in 2009, California’s longest-serving female inmate at the time. Krenwinkel and Watson are both still very much alive, notable for the occasional news item that mentions their parole has again been denied. It seems likely the courts will never forbear in light of what the Family did, but those same courts also assigned blame for it to Charles Manson, who in the world of OUATIH is still out there somewhere when the credits roll, even as the young people he manipulated into murder have been mauled by a dog and had their faces bashed in.

In a film with hours of parallel narratives and several contrivances to get us to that final jarring scene, our heroes don’t lay a finger on the manipulative white male cult leader at the root of all of it. Instead, an actor who got away with killing his wife belittles an Asian icon and beats some women to death in a 161-minute film where bare feet dominate the frame for uncomfortably long stretches.

The movie was good, if you want a tone poem in sad remembrance of a bygone time and place that is every bit as soulful as something like From Up on Poppy Hill, and if you can overlook an awful, awful lot.


Kenneth Lowe is a big Lee Marvin fan. He’s a regular contributor to Paste Movies.

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