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Wes Alwan from The Partially Examined Life podcast joins Mark, Erica, and Brian to discuss Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood in the context of Tarantino’s other films. Wes thinks the film is great, even though he’s not actually a Tarantino fan, and is working on a very long essay on it. We consider T’s strange sense of pacing, his comic violence, his historical revisionism, and casting choices. Is this a brilliant film or a fundamentally misguided idea badly in need of an editor?
Some articles we drew on:
- “On the Troubling Subtext of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” by Jen Chaney
- “A Battle For Creative Freedom: Why The Tarantino Backlash Is Bad For Hollywood” by Travis Bean
- “Tarantino’s Gruesome Revenge Fantasies Are Growing More Puerile and Misogynistic” by Casper Salmon
Wes’s essay on this topic isn’t done, but he’s written plenty of long things about the media and has recorded several episodes of his own relevant PEL spin-off show, (sub)Text: Get it all here.
This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network and is curated by openculture.com.
The scene with Bruce Lee that Brad Pitt thinks of while on the rooftop is a memory, not a fantasy. It’s backstory for characters and situations they mention in dialogue previously — and of course to make Pitt’s character seem tough.
Yep, of course you’re right, though I don’t recall us being confused about that. There is the strange issue of a flashback BEING a fantasy as in the character’s mind floating back to that moment in a way that typically comes off as cheesy or otherwise artificial. (I’m thinking of Wayne and Garth doing the flashback hand motions.)
I think the scene with Cliff & Bruce Lee is better thought of a retrospective fantasy, rather than as a memory, per se. First off it’s cartoonish (e.g. when Lee hits the car, its door gets crushed like it’s made of tin). Second, the scene’s not necessary to establish Cliff’s toughness as he also displays it at the Spahn Ranch when he forces the Manson family-member to change the tire he punctured. Third, the Bruce Lee scene stands in contrast to Rick’s retrospective fantasy of replacing Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” Rick is upset over the direction his career has taken and believes it should be otherwise; Cliff however is much more accepting of how things have turned out for him and is content to just be Rick’s dogsbody rather than desperately trying to stay in show-business or retreating into a fantasy of how things should have gone better for him (since in the fantasy, Cliff still gets kicked off the job by the stunt-director).
A few other points:
1) “70mm” was probably the film gauge used at the screening of “The Hateful Eight” which Erica attended. Tarantino made a big to-do about using this high-resolution format for the movie. As critics at the time noted, it was somewhat idiosyncratic since most of the film’s scenes took place inside a room, whereas 70mm is most associated with epics involving sweeping vistas.
2) Instead of thinking that Rick’s career is washed-up at the end of the movie, as Wes did, I agree with Brian that the ending is meant to show that new opportunities are opening for Rick. What favors this reading of the film is the fact that “Once Upon a Time…” is a Tarantino counter-factual, and in a Tarantino-Utopia, actors like Rick Dalton should be appreciated & spared from the scrap-heap in the manner that Tarantino did for John Travolta, Robert Forster & Christoph Waltz.
3) I also don’t think it’s quite fair of Wes to describe Cliff as a sociopath, inasmuch as he loves his dog, is attached to Rick, doesn’t take advantage of Pussycat, and puts himself at risk during his visit to Spahn Ranch to investigate whether something bad has happened to George Spahn.
4) Lastly, I think that Erica’s and Brian’s disappointment & confusion regarding this film was most likely due to their expectations for cinema generally. Tarantino (and others–Richard Linklater being the apotheosis) enjoy–and enjoy making–so-called, “hangout films,” the whole point of which is to allow the audience to linger on characters doing whatever it is those characters do. “Efficiency” & “effectiveness” aren’t virtues in this sort of film-making (especially when the latter is really just a way of saying “effectively using efficiency…”). There needn’t be a grand thesis in such films, much less a grand thesis which ought to be developed through quicker pacing & tighter editing. This isn’t to say that such films can’t be done poorly, much less that everyone need enjoy the genre. Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s a mistake to criticize a confection or an espresso for being low in protein & another essential nutrients.
I have to rage here. It is really a huge disservice for critics to comment in front of a huge audience about subjects that they are not qualified to comment.
I think I can guess why you all wanted to do this podcast, and why it might have seemed like a good idea, but the results are honestly quite horrible.
I believe Wes and Mark know better. The amount of poor criticism on the internet is suffocating. It saddens me to see you guys add to it.
I am not a Tarantino fanboy. I am a fan a visually beautiful film making, tight dialogue, and drama. I am therefore left with little choice but to watch Tarantino films and endure his violence and weirdness.
You guys failed to even mention several things that make this film good. The love letter to LA during the time period, gorgeous cinematography, nostalgic imagery that could bring you to tears.
Also Tate is meant to be an object in this film. To lament that she is not better developed better as subject, and to suggest an editor should point out this to him is maddening. Tarantino movies contain horrible sexism. Horrible! It can be as hard to watch as the violence! Without a shocking exhibition of sexism this movie would not contain the required elements of the genre. Criticising Tarantino’s sexism for longer than 15 seconds has to be way more nuanced than the typical liberal mode if you want to make it worth our time. Sorry this is meant to be constructive. I love you guys.