Once Upon a Time…Quentin Tarantino announced he would direct a film “tied to the Manson Murders”.
When news broke, the public was divided. The announcement took people by surprise as an out-of-left-field choice.
Of all people, how could Tarantino’s stylings handle such a sensitive topic?
The answer is simple: he made a tragedy.
Here tragedy doesn’t refer simply to the true story at hand, but the decision to create a Tragedy in terms of genre, script writing and stylistic flair.
Once Upon a Time is simultaneously a fairy tale and tragedy; a love letter to all components of Hollywood.
This is not a straight adaptation of the Sharon Tate story. Tarantino has found a stylistic approach to tie his themes into the very form in which his story takes place.
This film feels like a modern take on a Greek Tragedy, a Hollywood Tragedy if you will.
What he’s created is something of a meta, stream-of-consciousness, unreliably narrated series of stories, all competing for the viewer’s attention.
“So, you hire a guy from a cancelled show to play the heavy. Then at the end of the show when they fight, its hero besting heavy. But what the audience sees is Bingo Martin whipping Jake Cahill’s ass. You see?” Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) exclaims to Rick Dolton (Leonardo DiCaprio), highlighting a simple technique Hollywood uses to champion a new celebrity at the cost of an old one.
Tragedy takes many forms, even the mundane life of a celebrity. After this meeting, Rick rambles to Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) that “they’ll never forgive me for getting the last season of Bounty Law cancelled” so that he could pursue a career in film.
This give and take between the artist and art is important to Tarantino. He’s always been the first to ask an interviewer – or the public – about their thoughts about the film’s meaning.
Today, actors and filmmakers rarely get the credit they’re due, but imagine when there was no social media, when extras or up-and-comers were left to make an impression on their own.
What is this odd relationship between celebrity and public? Between product and consumer?
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino assesses his own art like a therapeutic retrospective. His likeness is evidenced in all the characters, but especially Dolton whose fame is attributed to a Nazi killing film and a western (Inglorious Bastards  and Django Unchained  respectively), and fears he’s becoming a “has-been”.
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is the “tragedy’s heartbeat”. The film is special that it exists right on the cusp of two separate decades, two opposite pulls, and Tate is the literal embodiment of this sentiment.
We the audience know of her tragic fate, and so we feel the gravitas of the foreboding future as we watch, both for her and for Hollywood.
The entire first 80% of the film, before the SIX MONTHS LATER, is spent with a melancholy air.
The audience watches the self-destruction of the two ‘has-beens’ Rick and Cliff while simultaneously watching Sharon, a beautiful newcomer, rise up the ranks, all the while remembering where this story goes.
Simon Critchley, in his book Tragedy, The Greeks and Us (2019), argues that tragedy requires our subconscious compliance to actualise our fate, “the core contradiction of tragedy is that we both know and we don’t know at one and the same time and are destroyed in the process.”
What’s beautifully unique about this film is that the tragedy is shared with the audience rather than remaining the property of a protagonist.
The shared tragedy of the film comes from our own insight, our own version of history that the film slowly meanders towards.
Tarantino is in no rush. All they had back then was time and while the runtime continues to meander, the ending we have in mind continues to bubble and brew, all the while watching characters we love do absolutely nothing but kill time – time they’re unaware is running out (or so we’re lead to believe).
Critchley says, “what tragedy renders unstable is the line that separates the living from the dead, enlivening the dead and deadening the living”.
Throughout the film, death lingers behind all corners. Tarantino creates an incredible atmosphere from early in the piece, when we first see the girls from the ranch skipping down the street.
Even upon visiting the ranch – a gorgeous ode to Westerns – when the coolest cowboy possible, Booth, investigates hoping to find his old pal George. The whole scene drips with horror tropes. Even when Booth enters George’s room, we can’t tell if he’s dead or alive – a clever parallel to the characters who can’t tell if their careers are dead or alive.
The Manson murders was a turning point.
Suddenly reality became stranger than fiction. You no longer needed a movie ticket to witness murder.
The world was shocked by such a horrid act, that, like a car crash, it was hard to turn away, and Hollywood is, for one thing, reactionary.
This was the moment an era ended. The swinging 60s gave way to the paranoia of the 70s.
In her book of essays titled The White Album (1979), Joan Didion wrote that ’68 and ’69 were times that the idea of “sin” was truly being played around with – the idea that someone could “go too far”.
Upon hearing the news of the Tate murders, she explains, “one caller would say hoods, the next would say chains… I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
This may not be Tarantino’s most action-packed film – or even his funniest – but this has half a century’s worth of heart and soul.
Although the film may feel a little unconventional – or because of the tragedy, uneasy – it’s all in service of a bigger picture.
Born in the 60s, Tarantino has found a unique way to self-analyse and reflect on what he personally loves about an era gone by, whether with his own works or others.
He’s constructed a multi-million dollar, 160-minute experience of the Hollywood lost forever.
Yet in a way that feels natural, he has given this fairy tale a happy ending.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is incredibly cathartic, it feels as if it washes over you, cleansing you of all the tragedy in which you may feel.
After all, as Critchley summarises from the lessons of Gorgias, “tragedy is the acquisition of wisdom through deception, through an emotionally psychotropic experience that generates a powerful emotion.”
Siri, play California Dreamin’ by José Feliciano.
Hear Luke, Lucas Binns and Oliver Hales review Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Episode 4 of the Double Feature podcast.
Image by Rachael Sharman