[Essay] Once Again, the Western — Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

Ten years after actress Sharon Tate and four others were brutally murdered in her home by members of Charles Manson’s Family, Joan Didion wrote in The White Album (1979) that many of the people she knew in Los Angeles marked the day—August 9, 1969—as the end of the Sixties and all it seemed to promise. Fifty years later, the Cielo Drive murders, as they are often called, provide the context for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and supposedly penultimate film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019). Though the film spends much of its nearly three-hour runtime only circling the infamous murders, they are never far from the unfolding drama of the fictional men placed, not quite at Sharon Tate’s doorstep, but next to it.

I grew up a white male in Texas in the late 90s and early 2000s, which is to say that I grew up on Tarantino’s films. Inglourious Basterds (2009) was my favorite, and Django Unchained (2012) followed, for a time. At 18 and 21, my age when each of those was released, I bought into their simple morality: kill the Nazis and slaveholders. I have since learned to doubt violent, indulgent revenge as the ultimate expression of justice. Neo-Nazis roam the streets while the president encourages them to “stand by,” speculating that they are “very fine” people. Though their violence certainly manifests physically, their brutality is more often made real in insidious forms, from the executive gaslighting to unregulated Internet forums. Tarantino, who in many ways remains seen as one of America’s boldest filmmakers, likes to live in a past where the Nazis announce themselves with swastikas instead of anonymous message boards, where the white supremacists own plantations instead of seats in the government. To approach the present in a meaningful way would be Tarantino’s true challenge, but he contents himself with a past that never was.

Actor Rick Dalton, played by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, worries that his career in Hollywood is drawing to an end, proclaiming himself a “has-been.” In a rowdy and—at times—touching subversion of the male Western hero, DiCaprio cries on-screen and rages in protest of the stone-faced cowboys of yesteryear. Throughout the film, Dalton’s inability to come to terms with his fading star reads both as an exposé on celebrity and an autobiographical sketch of the director, who has manufactured an impending end to his own work by calling this his next-to-last project.

Once Upon a Time is Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood, and in some ways its nostalgia for the Sixties plays like Didion’s own wonder at the end of a decade that promoted progressive ideals and hope in the possibility that they might endure. The film plays like one long summer day, with both audience and director aware that the sun must set, even as the characters deny it. As the plot slowly creeps toward the night of the Cielo Drive murders, Tarantino prolongs the moment, indulging his particular, unashamed panache for nostalgia worship: rock-and-roll blaring through the speakers of muscle cars, meta-fictional Westerns, radio ads for tanning lotion and Ray Bradbury read-alouds. The director is surely contemplating the end of his own career alongside his characters, and wants to roll the tape a little longer.

If none of these artifacts of the Sixties seem particularly tied to the ideals of progress, of course, that is because Tarantino unencumbers himself from the politics of the era he idolizes, and thus, idealizes. In AMC’s hit drama series Mad Men (2007-2015), the mainly white men working in an advertising agency in the 1960s largely ignore the politically charged atmosphere surrounding them, only commenting on the protests when they interrupt business or in casually racist conversations at parties. The show functions like a history lesson with pinpoints in time, imperfectly showing how men in high rise apartments would have talked about Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. 

But in Once Upon a Time, Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, exist apart from the politics of the day. Black people do not exist in the imaginative landscape of Tarantino’s Hollywood. For a filmmaker whose previous films delved into race, receiving as much praise as they did criticism, this absence is palpable. The only explicit reference to race is when Rick begins crying in a parking lot, and Cliff shoos him to the car, saying, “Not in front of the Mexicans.” Alongside a representation of Bruce Lee, maligned by many including the late actor’s family, Tarantino does not seem to cower from race as a theme so much as he seems no longer interested. That his audience seemed not to notice this absence might tell how much they ever cared about the commentary in his films.

In Didion’s estimation, the Black Panthers and college protests of the era revealed to her that Black radicals were serious while white radicals seemed merely bored. There’s something to wrestle with that might speak to us now, but Tarantino wants only to deal in Sixties memorabilia: a garage full of vintage cars and records, a circumstantial run-in with a cult leader, and callbacks that echo into the 21st century, even if those echoes ring hollow. The film’s hippies, who are all portrayed within Charles Manson’s Family, are reduced merely to caricatures, ignoring the larger cultural movement that propelled them. Rick frequently curses them as “the goddamn hippies,” and Cliff eventually stumbles on Manson’s Family Ranch, where he discovers a slovenly group of cult-like stoners and eventually beats one in the first hint of the violence to come. 

Manson might still be a household name, but a quick glance at many film sites around the film’s release revealed a number of viewers who did not know about the Cielo Drive murders before seeing the movie. Although vaguely familiar with his connection before watching, I had to read several articles and conspiracy theories to contextualize the film. Stumbling from one site to another, I learned within an hour that, in the real history, conspiracies about Charles Manson’s desire to cause a race war abound. At one point, he blamed the Black Panthers for the Cielo Drive murders. In a bizarre and perhaps parallel fantasy of racist transference, Tate’s husband Roman Polanski briefly accused Bruce Lee of the murders. But Manson appears only briefly, preserved as an icon rather than a character to wrestle with in any meaningful way. His passing cameo imports nothing substantial, rendering him a nostalgic reference point devoid of historical weight. Without context, Manson seems harmless, detached from his era while serving as a callback to it, valued equally with “Mrs. Robinson” and aviator shades. Polanski, too, skips town before becoming real, and Lee is a mere caricature rather than a tragic star ignored by a Hollywood that did not take seriously his talent or what he signified for Asian actors on screen.

In Tarantino’s configuration, these figures are peripheral, treated as givens, while Black Panthers—and Black people at large—simply do not exist. In contrast to his previous two films, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight (2015), both of which focused wholly or in part on race, Once Upon a Time is a fairytale where white cult leaders figure only as cameos and Black characters not at all. I have to wonder if Tarantino read Didion’s estimation that white people seemed bored during an age of protest, and where he sees himself in relation to them. 

Unless we go to film school, we never receive a formal education on how to watch movies. Biopics shown in history class seemed as good as the truth, and everything else fell easily under fiction. Before I began to really consider what I was watching, I viewed films as unmarked by time, detached from reality. A lot of details slip through in this way, and we can ignore what might teach us, often dangerously so. In Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020), Cathy Park Hong writes that Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is marred by its setting in a fictional island town where no people of color exist while the Civil Rights Movement was occurring elsewhere. Not only are Anderson’s films often marked by their whiteness, but he takes great pains to avoid any kind of confrontation with an “other” in his teenage fantasy. At the age of 21, I was too taken by the film’s color palette to recognize its empty, pale center.

Tarantino has certainly never been a history teacher, always gleefully ripping American stories to shreds and reassembling them as grotesque collages. Indeed, he captures some of the true American spirit by rendering its violence apparent, more gruesome than we care to remember. But in saving the violence for the final scenes of Once Upon a Time, his mirage is laid bare, the magician left awkwardly naked. The cherry-picked history becomes a phantom haunting the movie, and Tarantino’s career at large. He was so busy showing us the bone beneath the blood, we forgot to ask where the heart was.

One fantasy that pervades Tarantino’s imagination is that of the Western figure, most prominently as conceived in the mind of Italian director Sergio Leone. The latter’s influence has long been apparent in Tarantino’s films, from major narrative arcs to title cards announcing the arrival of characters. Although Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), released in the U.S. just one month before the Cielo Drive murders, obviously serves as both namesake and spiritual predecessor to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, very little has been said about what exactly Tarantino has lifted from the film.

In the former, Jill McBain arrives by train to Flagstone, a fictional town in the Old West, to meet her new husband and start a new life. Just before her arrival, however, Brett McBain and his children have been killed by Frank, played by Henry Fonda (the bad guy, “for once,” wrote Roger Ebert, as Rick Dalton is warned to avoid doing in Tarantino’s film). Jill takes over her husband’s Sweetwater property and sets about finding the reason for his demise.

She eventually discovers that Frank was after Brett’s fortune, as Frank knew of Sweetwater’s economic promise as a flagship town where the railroad would soon pass through. Jill begins to make her own plans for the town while Frank works to remove her from his path. Cheyenne and Harmonica, her supposed protectors, do help her, though they desire her as a sexual object and pose a threat to her safety, as Cheyenne introduces himself by way of forceful entry into her house while she is still convinced he is her husband’s killer. He tells her that she reminds him of his mother, “the biggest whore in Alameda,” and at one point encourages her to let hardworking men “pat [her] behind” because “they’ve earned it.”

Although the film centers men battling over the land and the woman as synonymous with property, the woman—and the land—do not bow to them. “I don’t look like a poor, defenseless woman,” Jill says, a protest to the Western’s trope of the damsel in distress. In a scene rife with misogyny, Frank captures Jill and ties her to a bed, but she then plays to his desires and expresses sounds of supposed enjoyment. Frank doubts her sincerity—this encounter obviously not being consensual—and asks, “Is there anything in the world you wouldn’t do to save your skin?” She replies, “Nothing, Frank,” indicating her performance as a tactic for survival. Despite the film’s representation of rape culture, Jill still reads as clever, fearless, and smarter than the men—both heroes and villains alike—at every turn.

Curiously, in Tarantino’s update, he never gives Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, the same chance to save herself. She spends a day out on the town, picking up a hitchhiker, purchasing a book for her husband and making small talk with the shopkeeper, and laughing along to her own movie during a matinee showing. Early criticisms of the film pointed out how little she speaks in a movie that sort of centers around her death. When Tate’s would-be murderers arrive at her house on the night of August 9, they opt instead for the neighbor’s residence, after learning that Rick Dalton—Western hero of their youths and now representative of all that is wrong in money-hungry America—resides there. Tate does not learn of the action until the attempted assassins have already been gruesomely killed by Dalton and Booth.

In Tarantino’s fairy tale, Tate never gets close to the danger, perhaps because in his imagination, a woman free from all distress is better than a woman who has to get involved. In this way, Tarantino seems to be responding to the current #MeToo movement, his thesis that women should not have to feel that they are in danger. But what Tarantino misses in this response is that, like Jill McBain, they are already in danger, the moment they step off the train into the world that men have created—not literally, but imaginatively. It is not that men can be heroes, but that we so often see ourselves as good men before committing evil acts. The truth is not that Tate avoids danger altogether, but that she confronts it, not because it is heroic, but because she has no alternative fairy tale that exists in reality. The appropriate course of action for men is not that we save the woman from the bad guys, but that we start to see all men as creatures of a culture we were born into but must evolve from, into roles not heroic, but better. 

When allegations of sexual assault and harassment by Harvey Weinstein came to light in 2017, Tarantino admitted that he had knowledge of the events in the 90s through his then-girlfriend Mira Sorvino, but he accepted an apology from Weinstein which he later regretted. In a 2017 statement, he admitted, “I knew enough to do more than I did.”

Tarantino continued to work with Weinstein, however, and once again confronted the producer after Uma Thurman told Tarantino that Weinstein sexually assaulted her. Although he banned Weinstein from contacting Thurman for the remainder of production on Kill Bill (2003), Tarantino knowingly worked with a man whose violence toward women was well-documented. Thurman would go on to detail the injuries she sustained in the course of filming Kill Bill, when—at the behest of Tarantino—she drove a car that crew members were concerned about and sustained lasting injuries. Tarantino apologized 15 years later, though she said the apology did not fix the permanent damage to her neck or knees.

Around the same time, in 2003, Tarantino would appear on The Howard Stern Show and say that the teenage girl who Roman Polanski drugged and raped was a “party girl” who “wanted to have it.” When audio of the interview was uncovered in 2018, Tarantino did what he had allowed Weinstein to do: he apologized. Polanski’s passing appearance as a character in Once Upon a Time notably plays like Manson’s—he leaves the frame quickly, without scrutiny.

So, too, do all of the men on Tarantino’s playground, most vulgarly apparent in Brad Pitt’s role as Cliff Booth, which later won him his first Oscar for acting. In an extended flashback, Booth recalls a time when a director did not want to work with Booth because of rumors that he killed his wife and got away with it. The flashback is interrupted by another flashback—layers of memory covering for one another—where Booth’s wife is shown complaining about him on a boat while he holds a harpoon. Though the scene does not go so far as to show the actual violence, the implication is made clear: she talks too much, so she is silenced. Booth murders her, and spends his life evading the consequences, protected by his friend Rick and the entire Hollywood establishment.

In a time when two-thirds of the murders of women are carried out by a partner or ex-partner, as reported in Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me (2014), Tarantino spoofs male spousal violence and employs it as a plot device. The joke, that some women talk too much and get what they deserve, is severed from condemnation and serves as yet another hint that Booth is capable of even greater violence. Stated plainly, the film’s male antihero exacts violent revenge on his wife and, later, another woman, and gruesomely. That the first one is offscreen does not matter; as viewers, we can use the latter example to fill in the gory details.

Before I saw the movie on the night of its release, I sat with my spouse in the theater bar. A man next to us struck up a conversation and asked if we had heard that this movie was not like any of Tarantino’s previous movies. I had not heard this, but the man went on to say how surprised he was that Tarantino would forgo violence, his signature device. In reflecting on the Cielo Drive murders, Didion writes, “I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember no one was surprised.” But to me, the biggest shock of Tarantino’s latest film is not that it is mostly free of violence: it’s that the violence takes so long to inevitably arrive. Its commencement in the final twenty minutes is not an unexpected reversal of the film’s tone but wish fulfillment for both audience and director. It cries out, Finally, blood! 

Tarantino undoubtedly studied this tragic year in Hollywood history at length, yet he failed to take heed of Didion’s words when choosing what he mocked: “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.” Or perhaps he saw his choices as twofold: either Tate is murdered or she is saved, but to be saved there must be a man and other women must be sacrificed. Booth bashes one’s skull in. Dalton uses a flamethrower to incinerate her. 

I thought back to the sheer number of bloody murders of Nazis in Inglorious Basterds and slaveholders in Django Unchained. To aim so high with historical villains, only to take cheap shots at women indoctrinated by a white male cult leader—something was off. It was not so much that the latter killings were empty of meaning, which they were, but that they rendered all of the previous ones obvious in their own emptiness: it’s easy to murder from this side of history. What of the history we’re living now, where white nationalists run their cars into protestors, or open fire on them? We know this story too well, yet on screen white men go on killing, their violent delights our supposed entertainment.

Tarantino’s nostalgic romp through the dying light of the Sixties is everything we expect from his films: absurd humor, iconic actors clearly enjoying themselves, an increasingly sustained suspense in anticipation of graphic, overindulgent violence. It also has a sinister undertone of misogyny, which seems not only expected of him but has nearly become a moot point, one that fans and critics are too bored or unwilling to discuss. Or worse: to even notice. Paraphrasing Linda Kasabian, who served as the lookout during the Manson Family murders, Didion writes, “Times passed, times changed. Everything was to teach us something.” Perhaps, here is what Once Upon a Time finally teaches me: I have learned to doubt the man holding the gun, claiming to be the hero. I have learned to doubt the man who writes the violent ending with a shrug, like there is no other recourse but to get on with the damn thing.

When Django Unchained was released in 2012, Tarantino classified it as a “Southern,” a new take on the Western that would use a Southern backdrop to deal with the history of slavery and other evils. Whereas Django and, to some extent, his next film The Hateful Eight, address histories of slavery and racism, Once Upon a Time is content to deal with white male anxieties of obscurity. A film-length ode to Westerns, it perhaps unintentionally captures the pale heart of the South that the West is inextricably linked with. 

White male anxiety about an impending age where his place is not solidified is nothing new, and it can even be found in the final scene of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. As Harmonica (good guy) and Frank (bad guy) converse before their final battle, their morality converges in a telling moment as they watch the train tracks being laid in Sweetwater, the times allegedly coming to replace them. 

“So you found out you’re not a businessman?” Harmonica quips to Frank, whose dreams of riches have finally been squashed.

“Just a man,” Frank confesses.

“An ancient race,” Harmonica relates.

It is difficult not to read this dialogue as a conversation that Tarantino and other white male directors are staging—however unintentionally—across the Western landscape of Hollywood. Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) has been the source of much debate for its portrayal of a white male who is bullied and struggles with mental health issues, then finds his meaning through random violence against others.

Phillips, famous for The Hangover trilogy (2009-2013), says that he decided to move away from comedy because, in his words, it is difficult “to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” Phillips’ comments stem from an anxiety that white males are being called to account for misogyny, racism, and a host of other ills represented in their films, but rather than treating these criticisms as an opportunity to grow, Phillips made a movie about a troubled man who can’t cut it as a comedian so he entertains as a killer. Conversely, Tarantino set out to make a film where white men remain heroes, however circumstantially.

 When members of the Manson family decide to kill Rick Dalton and company, Dalton and Booth are drunk and enjoying themselves in Dalton’s home next door to Sharon Tate. Dalton floats in his swimming pool, listening to music through headphones and drinking a large margarita from a blender. Booth, meanwhile, takes a trip through an acid-laced cigarette that he has been saving for a special occasion. Drunk, high, and disoriented, Dalton and Booth fend off the Manson family and kill all three intruders through face-smashing, burning, and the help of Booth’s menacing dog. Booth’s earlier hint of a violent streak is finally made real.

In this subversion of the true story, Sharon Tate is having a normal, albeit stressful, night, since she is pregnant and August 9 is the hottest day on record that year. While she is confined to a feminine role, Dalton and Booth are somehow just sober enough to take care of her would-be killers, mirrors of Cheyenne and Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. But whereas Jill McBain was busy building a town while the men fought it out, Tate is about to have a baby, which continues undisturbed thanks to Tarantino’s two hapless heroes.

Through his murder of one of the Manson girls, Dalton’s concern that he has no place in the future of Hollywood is finally alleviated. Al Pacino’s character, a director who sends Dalton to Italy to film Spaghetti Westerns, warns early on that he will soon be playing the villain in all future roles if he does not make certain career moves (Tarantino’s own worries are most apparently on display here). In the end, though, Dalton saves the day and earns his redemption as a Western hero, or a hero in a fading West. Tate invites him into her home, opening the gate and admiring his courage. With this invitation, Dalton gains access to another level of celebrity previously unavailable to him: his place is solidified, his anxieties quelled. He enters an up-and-coming starlet’s home, her future confirming his.

Though Tarantino’s most glaring influence in Once Upon a Time is Sergio Leone, the ending reminded me of another Western altogether. In John Ford’s 1958 film The Searchers, consistently ranked among the best films of all time, John Wayne is engaged in a vengeful search for the Comanche tribe who captured his niece. Wayne’s character—loyal to the dissolved Confederacy—does not even want to save Debbie and is mainly driven by his racist hatred. 

In the iconic ending to the film, Debbie returns home safely and the family enters the house, but Wayne stands in the doorframe, held back by some invisible force. The final frame lingers as he turns around and slowly walks away. In a 1993 review of the film, Louis Black of the Austin Chronicle wrote that the ending is “framed in a doorway into the house you and I live in, the house of civilization, the house Wayne can’t enter.”

But, really, Wayne can enter the house. He just chooses not to, which is not the same thing as being unwelcome. His white male anxiety—I’m not welcome here—is only confirmed by his own actions, and not by anyone shutting the door in his face. Tarantino’s ending presents a contrasting image: the Western hero enters through the once-closed gate rather than walking away from the open door. Tarantino rewires The Searchers so that men know there is another route to civilization, but it still requires they act heroically to save women and avoid the topic of race at all costs.

It struck me, when reconsidering my longtime affection for Tarantino, the half-life of his films. In Inglorious Basterds, Pitt plays the Nazi-killin’ hero. In Django Unchained, DiCaprio plays the slaveholding villain. In Once Upon a Time, hero and villain converge, their slates clean in time to become happenstance heroes in the end. Like them, Tarantino and Philipps feel dread over what they consider to be their impending obscurity, the moment when history will see them as villains instead of heroes. Perhaps neither is fit to make a film about our contemporary moment in politics because they avoid confronting a troubling anxiety they share with white nationalists. I know it has become cliché, overquoted, yet Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight still rings in my ears: “You either die a hero or live long enough…” Well, you know how it goes. It might still teach us something, as Didion would charge.

On a larger scale, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood asks what would have happened to the spirit of the Sixties had Sharon Tate and her friends not been murdered. What would have survived? While the murders marked the end of the Sixties for her friends, Didion did not really feel they were over until 1971, when she and her husband moved to the coast. Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood wonders if its supposed golden era would have ever ended, had Tate survived because a few men were in the right place at the right time to do the right thing. Manson might have remained peripheral, while movies continued to show us what we wanted to see in ourselves—that is, the best. Not lessons to learn from, but myths to uphold. As I used to want so badly, before I grew up.

Still others mark the end of the Sixties a year earlier, in 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Maybe it’s telling that the end of a supposedly progressive decade was marked for many by the murder of a white female film star, rather than a number of prominent Black activists. Maybe all of the competing narratives of the Sixties—the Civil Rights Movement, the Western film genre, the Cielo Drive murders—have something to say to one another, a pattern that could be formed by the way we account—or don’t account—for them. Maybe history classes will someday show Tarantino movies. After all, they capture our historical amnesia so well.

Didion felt her entire life had told her there was a narrative structure to life, but the murders, the political moment, and her own personal illness had thrown this notion out the window, and “all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.” I remember, watching Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, how much I was enjoying the film, wrapped as I was in its self-gratifying sequences and self-assured meanings. Much later, as nostalgia gave way to the expected, irreversible violence, I looked again at the picture before me—the pieces arranged as they were—and wondered what it still might teach me. What I would have to ignore to go on believing this myth. How utterly empty it all would leave me, absent of meaning, of content, of truth.

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Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX. He is an MFA student in Antioch University’s low-residency program, where he works on the Lunch Ticket staff. Alongside Cristina Rodriguez, Ben co-hosts Book Cult, a monthly virtual book club featuring indie titles and author chats. His work appears in The Adroit Journal, New South, No Contact Mag, and FreezeRay Poetry, among others. He can be found on Twitter @blewellyntaylor.

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