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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino

People love, and hate, Quentin Tarantino’s 1969-set drama Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. They each love or hate very different films. Before I saw it, I saw some people calling it misogynist because it depicts Sharon Tate, a victim of the Manson Family murders, as a sweet and hapless person, and others calling it feminist because it shows us a lively Sharon Tate who could do other things besides get killed; and still others calling it misogynist because it depicted the Manson girls unkindly (!). My friend Serg thinks it’s a reactionary film that presents movie-western violence as the solution to life’s problems. My friend Matt thinks it’s a sweet film about friendship. My friend Alice thinks it is an exercise in pure cinema, saying nothing at all about women, violence, or friendship. 

Does Quentin Tarantino deserve this level of scrutiny? Of course not. He is a weirdo. He nearly killed Uma Thurman making Kill Bill. But his film does deserve this level of scrutiny – which is only to say that we owe respect to the confused, tender feelings the film arouses in us. If Tarantino gets to have his name tangentially attached to these feelings, that’s his good luck.

However you read the film, it is beguiling. It focuses on a fading TV western star and his stuntman, who drift around Hollywood doing things. Rick, the TV star, gets a gig as a villain, blowing his lines but then turning in a great take. Cliff, his friend/double/factotum, fixes Rick’s TV antenna and has flirty, then scary, interactions with Manson girls. Sharon Tate drifts through the film, in counterpoint. The movie seems to bend toward violence, and it does get ugly toward the end, but the mood is finally otherworldly; you leave feeling as though you’ve seen a ghost.  

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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