It is 50 years since the hot August night in Los Angeles when the Manson gang slaughtered a pregnant Sharon Tate and her companions. It is 25 years since Pulp Fiction was released, became the biggest indie hit of all time (a record since surpassed), and established Quentin Tarantino as Hollywood’s most influential director. Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is based on the Tate murders of 1969. It is being grossly misconstrued by critics just as Pulp Fiction was a quarter century ago.

So entertaining was Pulp Fiction, and so brilliant in it were John Travolta and Bruce Willis, actors not previously known for their dramatic skills, that reviewers couldn’t help praising the movie. But they received it as a confection high on style and low on substance, failing to comprehend its moral structure, founded upon a unique cinematic interpretation of the two great traditions that underpin European and North American value systems, the classical Greek and the Christian.

One could argue that Tarantino asked for such responses by naming his creation for a schlocky paperback genre. But it is the job of critics not to take words and images at face value, but rather to dig beneath surfaces to excavate meanings that filmmakers themselves might only grasp intuitively. They botched that job comprehensively in 1994.

Authorial distance

These days, critics play excavator only to dig up artefacts that can be labelled “misogyny”, “racism” and “homophobia”. Since they are terrible archaeologists, they frequently miscategorise their finds. Consider, for example, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times, claiming that Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is a celebration of, “The good old days when cars had fins and white men were the heroes of everything.”

One of those “heroes” is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a star on the wane, once a leading man in Westerns but now reduced to playing the bad guy on television. When we first meet him (the spoilers begin here and don’t stop) he is being offered a role in a Spaghetti Western. The thought of filming in Rome makes him cry. Rick, who weeps frequently, is an alcoholic with disgusting manners, like a habit of expelling gobs of phlegm coughed up from his chain smoker’s lungs. Nothing in his behaviour suggests we ought to hold him in high regard, or mourn the passing of his type.

Rick hates hippies, and refers to a group of them at one point as “Dennis Hoppers”. Hopper was the producer and director of Easy Rider which, in the year Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is set, announced the birth of New Hollywood. It laid the foundations for Tarantino’s own success, and you can be sure he is aware of that. When Rick uses “Dennis Hoppers” as an insult, it would take a particularly obtuse mind to conclude Tarantino shares his attitude.The concept of authorial distance is covered in Literary Studies 101, but few of the leading film critics in the United States and United Kingdom appear to have taken that class.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

Another opinion we can be certain Tarantino does not sympathise with is Rick’s contempt for Spaghetti Westerns.The fading actor is contracted to work in Italy with no less than Sergio Corbucci, director of Django, a film that inspired the title of Tarantino’s own Django Unchained in which the original Django, Franco Nero, had a walk-on part. Rick’s view of Italian Westerns was common in 1969, but is shared by few today; most cineastes place Sergio Leone’s trilogy starring Clint Eastwood on par with John Ford’s classics.

A display of woke-ness

Identifying Tarantino with his characters is an objectively wrong interpretation given the data. Yet, performing that facile and cinematically illiterate manoeuvre opens the way for critics to display their woke-ness while eviscerating Tarantino’s “obscenely regressive” vision, as Richard Brody has done in The New Yorker.

Brody writes, “If only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties – then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place. There’s no slur delivered more bitterly by Cliff and Rick than “hippie,” and their narrow but intense experiences in the course of the film are set up to bear out the absolute aptness of their hostility.”

Counterculture era

The “Cliff” mentioned in the passage is Rick’s stuntman and gofer, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, in the best performance of his career), who is considerably more self-assured than his employer, though far less professionally successful. Cliff drives his beaten up convertible each evening to a trailer he shares with his pit bull Brandy while Dalton wallows in self-pity within his Cielo Drive mansion, where his neighbours are Roman Polanski, the toast of Hollywood after the success of Rosemary’s Baby, and his wife, the actress Sharon Tate.

Cliff is friendlier with hippies than Rick, and more open to their culture, including their fondness for psychedelic drugs. We first glimpse them as a group of angelic women foraging for food from trash cans while singing a hypnotic tune. The song is composed by Charles Manson, Charlie to his followers, who is plotting gruesome murder even as Cliff ogles a teenager among the dumpster divers, who flirts right back.

The gradually revealed malevolence of the hippie group is the main bone of contention between Tarantino and his critics. The New York Times’s AO Scott, mistakenly identifying Tarantino with his lead characters just like Brody and Mcnamara did, writes, “Tarantino’s anti-ironic celebration of the mainstream popular culture of the time amounts to a sustained argument against the idea of a counterculture. Those who would disrupt, challenge or destroy the last stable society on earth are in the grip of an ideological, aesthetic and moral error. Hippies aren’t cool. Old-time he-men like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are cool.” What is really irking the critics, though, is not Tarantino’s supposed rejection of the disruptors of 1969, but his disruption of certain fondly held liberal myths of 2019.

On the set of Rick’s latest gig playing villain, the television show Lancer, Sam Wanamaker, (who was for a time exiled to the UK for his Communist sympathies, another hint that Tarantino is far from setting up 1950s Hollywood as a Golden Age), director of the series’ pilot, asks the costume designer to create a look that is true to its time but also captures something of the present zeitgeist, 1869 meeting 1969, as it were. A tasselled jacket and fake moustache do the trick, while Rick moans about being unrecognisable behind all that hair.

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

Wanamaker’s proposition that period films are always also about the present serves as a comment on the period film in which it appears: Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is an intersection of 1969 and 2019. The two moments, with their distance in time and related chasm in beliefs, are the electrodes between which the film’s current of signification flows. Not only does Tarantino leverage the present to view the past ironically (as the Coen brothers have done in films like Barton Fink), he employs the past to question present dogmas, something much rarer in cinema. The counterculture of the 1960s being now ossified in liberal memory as a period of worthy idealism and sustained political engagement, any narrative that shakes up that comfortable configuration has to be condemned as reactionary by the establishment Left.

Take the scene where Cliff gives a ride to the girl from the Manson group he has been flirting with, named Pussycat. She offers him oral sex while he’s driving, an offer he rejects on the ground that she’s a minor, and he has no desire to go to jail for “poontang”. She thinks he’s a square, but in this respect the attitudes of 2019 are closer to 1919 than the counterculture of 1969. In the course of their apotheosis, the edge is taken off all belief systems. Whether it concerns Malcolm X or the hippies, the present liberal valorisation of the 1960s is based in large measure on forgetting. When Tarantino presents uncomfortable details, dogmatists resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance by branding him an uncritical nostalgist, when it is they who are the real victims of sentimentalism and nostalgia.

While it is trivially true that few hippies ever committed murder, making those in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood outliers, the narrative provides a necessary reminder that communes can easily turn into cults, and that freethinking mutates into servility with frightening ease. There is nothing illiberal about these ideas, nor does Tarantino’s nostalgia for the past, expressed as a commitment to analogue recording, a minimal use of visual effects, and the loving recreation of the streets, sounds and entertainment of 1960s Los Angeles, preclude a clear-eyed vision of the era’s limitations and drawbacks.

Charges of misogyny

The film constantly plays with our perceptions of its protagonists and, through that device, nudges us to question our preconceptions. In the case of Rick, there is a clear contrast between the macho gunslinger on screen and the insecure weakling off it. Cliff is a more complex character. He appears remarkably well-adjusted and laid back, but carries within him a propensity for extreme violence. He is called a war hero, but might also be a criminal who got away with murdering his wife. He keeps a gun in his trailer, and has trained his pit bull to kill. In a flashback, he picks a fight with a cocky Bruce Lee, and comes off better than the kung fu legend. He claims to have evaded cops successfully his whole life but also mentions working in a Texas chain gang.

Having dropped Pussycat off at the Manson Family’s abode, an old film studio where he shot westerns back in the day, he repeatedly hits a cult member for vandalising his car. The first punch feels well deserved but by the third, the beating verges on gratuitous.

That excess is evident during the climactic bout of ultraviolence, which occurs when members of the Family drive up to murder Sharon Tate and everyone in her home, but are diverted into targeting Rick and Cliff. After disarming the three intruders, Cliff smashes the head of one of the two women, Patricia Krenwinkle, against various walls and items of furniture. It could be because he is high on acid, but his violence again feels sadistic, though directed against somebody who by any measure aside from extreme pacifism has it coming.

Why has Tarantino returned to such brutal male on female violence, after the many indignities heaped on another villainess, Daisy Domergue in his last film, The Hateful Eight? The easy answer is misogyny. The label might be difficult to pin on the director of Jackie Brown, Death Proof and Kill Bill, but that hasn’t stop critics trying. The violence against women has been paired, in critiques of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood with the relative silence of the third protagonist of the film, Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie.

Time magazine even counted every line of every Tarantino movie to demonstrate that women speak fewer words than men in his cinema, which presumably makes him a woman-hater. The effort would have been worthwhile had Time offered similar data for his contemporaries like Christopher Nolan and Kathryn Bigelow. I’m certain Tarantino’s count of female spoken words would perform well in a head-to-head against any famed maker of action films. While we are at it, maybe we should tot up the number of words spoken by females in the Harry Potter series and conclude that JK Rowling is a dreadful sexist.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

The charge of brutality is more serious than the one about spoken words. My own take on it is that the very sickened response within us is what elevates those scenes. Tarantino’s films, not to mention franchises like John Wick, contain episodes of violence that exist purely for entertainment and gratification, and they are often far more explicit than the ending of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.

Few viewers flinch at the whipping meted out by Django to one of the Brittle brothers. Nobody feels disgusted at the carnage that claims Hitler at the climax of Inglorious Basterds. The sequences in Tarantino’s oeuvre which have induced something like nausea within me are the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs and the male on female violence in The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. As in the first case, where the person being tortured is a brave police officer, it is worth considering we feel what we do because the director wants us empathise at least partly with those upon whom the violence is being perpetrated.

Violence on screen and in life

The charge of loving to depict bloodshed on screen and therefore being responsible for certain manifestations of it in real life has hung over Tarantino from the day Reservoir Dogs was released. He has always pushed back at suggestions of a link between onscreen and offscreen crime, pointing to statistics that show no correlation between the two. In his latest film, though, he exacts a kind of revenge on critics who have condemned his cinema all these years.

The Manson gang members who have arrived at Cielo Drive to commit the Tate murders find themselves confronted by a drunk Rick who has been disturbed by their noisy rattletrap of a car and, stumbling out of his home bearing a blender full of frozen margaritas, rudely informs them they are trespassing on a private road. The group reverses to the bottom of the drive at which point one of them realises the individual they just encountered was Rick Dalton. They are starstruck at first, having grown up watching Rick on television, but a woman in the back seat suggests Rick is a better target than Tate. “We grew up watching TV. Every show on TV not I Love Lucy was about murder,” she says, “My idea is, we kill the people who taught us to kill. This is Hollywood. They live in pig-shit fucking luxury. I say fuck ’em.”

There’s a semblance of coherence to her speech, as there is to many bad arguments, but it is no accident that the first critique of cinematic violence in a Tarantino film is voiced by a stoned cult member bent on homicide.