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The End of Aquarius and The Dawn of a Death Star: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

These days, reaction to a film overrides the work itself. Critical success depends on whether a filmmaker has ticked all the right boxes from a template checklist of criteria based on an HR manual outlining conduct and hiring practices.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest (and last?) film was under fire for its subject matter (a mostly fictional retelling of the Manson murders) even before it went into production, and has since taken hits on multiple fronts from the thumb sucking segment of the peanut gallery, convinced that the director is hiding a fugitive agenda at odds with their prevailing group think imperatives. Chief among them: A howling mob should be put at the helm of a film to ensure the audience is safely strapped into their car seats. As usual, Tarantino’s detractors are flinging birdshot at a master flame thrower.

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ not only defies any pre-conceived notion of a Tarantino film, but defies gravity itself as a transcendent, multi-dimensional mind fuck that unravels in the opposite of ‘real-time’ and re-directs consciousness itself.

The filmmaker in his most ambitious work to date, makes a quantum leap through the cathode rays of bad television and discovers a whole new galaxy. Tarantino’s slow-burning comedy places a clear line of demarcation between people who derive genuine pleasure from art, and those who see it as a chance to ‘call out’ the artist for perceived crimes against a trending Twitter hashtag.

They’re outraged because Margo Robbie isn’t given pages of lines to ‘explain’ her character, but tasked instead with illuminating an enigma from within. Up-and-coming screen Goddess Sharon Tate is mostly photographed from the neck up, demanding Robbie to act between the ears and replace dialogue with unadulterated sunshine. Tate is no ‘character’ but a once in a million-year solar event, ushering at the end of Aquarius, and the dawn of a collapsing death star.

These wilted arrow slingers are unanimously apoplectic that Bruce Lee isn’t portrayed as a eunuch ‘Oriental’ sage, but a drop-dead sexy dancer, cynically playing up his ‘other’ mystique to a bunch of honkies. It’s a risk, to be sure, but one that pays off as a clever plot device that gives lug nut stuntman Cliff Booth an entire backstory in one unreliably narrated anecdote. Cliff’s decision to take down the diminutive star is the catalyst event of his downward career spiral and the crowning cherry on his dunce cap. Bruce Lee is later redeemed in Sharon’s memory as her martial arts coach. We see him as a generous mentor, and all-round good guy, far removed from the arrogant pontificator who gets body slammed into a Chevy by a second rate stuntman.

They’re pissed because Tarantino views women in fight scenes as adversaries who require the same strength to take down as their male counterparts. They conveniently ignore the fact that it’s a little girl who provides the intellectual impetus for washed-up actor Rick Dalton to give the only memorable screen performance of his lifetime. Nor do OUATIH’s social justice critics seem to notice Tarantino’s clearly marked line in the sand that prevents Cliff from accepting a blow job from an underaged hitchhiker on her way back to the Spahn ranch. Cliff’s refusal is grounded in ethics, even if he cites the unwanted risk of jail time as an excuse. If anything, Cliff is pained by the proposition. He is guided by the same unspoken principle when he makes a safety check on the ranch’s blind and bedridden owner, and later when he pulverizes a hippy with a monkey wrench. If Tarantino has a message to mankind, it’s “obliterate fascists completely” and “don’t fuck with women”.

Tarantino presents the Mansonettes as a grubby mob of servile, mean girl ‘Sister Wives’ cut from the same cloth as his detractors, and led no less, by Lena Dunham. Like Manson followers, self-tethered to the prevailing orthodoxy, his critics most often amplify a message in unison with a self-anointed pack leader, determined to mete out punishment for any deviant interpretation of its gospels. Tarantino has broken the first commandment of ‘acceptable’ filmmaking by prioritizing vision over ‘voice’ to bring a screen legend to life.

Sharon Tate is re-imagined in radiant spirit form; the briefly glanced apparition seen from ground level as Manson slithers by the house on Cielo Drive. That moment she steps out on to her own front porch to glimpse the departing nightcrawler, she is Eve in the garden of evil, momentarily aware of an unsettling presence. She gives the beady-eyed stranger a nervous little wave, the first and only indication that she is saying goodbye to the other-world idyll of her canyon home, and to life itself. Cliff’s fate is similarly sealed when he makes an impromptu visit to the Spahn Ranch and incurs the wrath of its bloodthirsty inhabitants. Again, the camera is placed where a bottom dweller would lurk as Cliff shit kicks the Manson follower who has fucked with his car.

In defiance of the “male gaze” canard lobbed at directors skilled at lighting, Tarantino puts his mostly silent star behind the camera to capture eternity as a hologram playing out in an amber. It’s Sharon’s own gaze capturing her giddiest moments as evidenced by her solo trip to the cinema to see, or rather ‘experience’ herself on film. Dead Sharon hovers over all the proceedings as her swooping camera eye looks down on LA.

Her male doppelgänger, the more earth-bound Cliff Booth, shares the same view (and viewpoint) from the rooftop next door to her where he is fixing a TV antenna. Cliff is Sharon and Sharon is Cliff. Angel/Avenger resurrected to re-direct history as an unfolding, sublimely felt present. Cliff is literally ‘Heaven S(c)ent’ as the commercial jingle in the soundtrack suggests, played at top volume as he barrels down an LA boulevard in his boss’s fancy car.

Still, there’s evidence of an impending rupture that threatens the delicate membrane insulating Tate from her murderers as Mick Jagger sings “Baby, you’re out of time” as she heads home towards the hills. The song is an ominous reminder of the gathering storm ahead. “My poor old fashioned baby . . . “ The “out of time” refrain also underscores the intersection between a dawning era into the unknown, and the fossilizing remainders it leaves behind.

Steve McQueen, sidelined at a Playboy Mansion shindig, where Sharon Tate, Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass are doing an interpretive poolside go-go dance, looks suddenly past his prime slumped next to a stiffly coiffed Connie Stevens. The approaching middle-aged star and his Camelot-era companion are relegated to observer status. He explains the unconventional Tate/Polanski marriage to the still nubile brat packer – already a symbol of old Hollywood headed for the next decade’s game show circuit. They may not realize it yet, but the stoned, freewheeling celebrants are poised to upend old hierarchies, leaving Tinseltown’s old guard remnants at the bottom of its food chain, where second-tier stars like Rick Dalton struggle to maintain a foothold.

Once again, Tarantino plays fast and loose with facts to present a parallel cosmology made up of mostly dead and imagined stars. A greater truth is revealed in a can of dog food, and a pulp novel about an injured, down on his luck bronco buster. Nazis get blowtorched in a film within a film, and then in the film itself. Sharon lives.

Once doomed to be perpetually remembered and eternally murdered, Tate’s new existence under Tarantino’s direction is forever re-living the thrilling milestones of her own life, sidestepping fate and driving headlong into the Hollywood Hills. It’s hard to imagine a more principled premise than Tarantino’s take on the lurid legend of ‘Helter Skelter’ and his rescue of Sharon Tate from the clutches of collective memory. Tarantino’s ‘call-out’ critics seemed to have missed countless signposts leading away from Cielo Drive to OUATIH’s moral, another dimension center.

A version of this piece first appeared in the Chiesler

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Jennifer Matsui is a writer living in Tokyo and a columnist for the print edition of CounterPunch magazine.

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