Thursday, January 2, 2020
January 2, 2020: 2019 in Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
[2019—it’s been real, it’s been good, but it ain’t been real good. Actually, I’m not even sure I’d say it’s been good, but it has definitely been eventful. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of major 2019 stories I haven’t been able to cover on the blog, leading up to a few predictions for what’s likely to be an even more eventful 2020.]
On what nostalgia for a mythical golden age gets wrong, and what it gets even wronger.
There are various reasons why Quentin Tarantino’s films have generally not worked for me over the years, but the most relevant to this blog is that, as I wrote in this post on Django Unchained, I find his frequent and purposeful mis-representations of the past both frustrating and counter-productive. To be clear, as a huge fan of historical fiction I do not believe that creative works owe absolute fidelity to the past—and indeed I think many of the best such works aim to, as Catharine Maria Sedgwick describes her own artistic goals in the Preface to her historical novel Hope Leslie (1827), “illustrate not the history, but the character of the times.” So my problem with Tarantino’s portrayals of American history is not that they are factually inaccurate, but that (to my mind) they also get the broader histories, periods, and themes quite wrong. And wrong in ways that can have really destructive effects on our narratives of those histories—such as, for example, the contrasts between the heroic Django and just about every other enslaved person we encounter in the course of that film.
Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (which will likely have a number of Oscar nominations by the time this post airs), is once again purposefully inaccurate about the specific histories it portrays, this time (SPOILER alert) altering the course of history when it comes to the Manson family and their infamous 1969 murders of Sharon Tate and others. But my problems with the film’s depiction of history are once again on a broader (and I would argue deeper) level, and have to do with its thoroughgoing nostalgia for a pre-1960s golden age of Hollywood and culture. The films protagonists and heroes, leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), are relics of that golden age, struggling with all the 60s changes that have seemingly rendered them dinosaurs. Those conflicts come to a head in the climactic showdown with the Mansons, a battle in which not only do Dalton and Booth triumph over these (in Tarantino’s portrayal) exemplars of 60s cultural degradation, but they do so by re-asserting the style of heroic manhood that their 50s golden age featured.
I have a lot of problems with that depiction of the decade, but would boil it down to two significant errors. For one thing, Charles Manson and his cohort were themselves reacting against various 1960s trends, and could just as easily (and to my mind more accurately) be aligned with conservatives like Dalton and Booth rather than with those forces for change. At the very least Tarantino’s simplification of 60s counter-culture to this murderous cult is problematic at best. But there’s an even bigger problem with how he portrays that central conflict, and it’s this: the Daltons and Booths of mid-20th century American culture were largely fraudulent. Exhibit A in that argument would be John Wayne, the uber-masculine hero of so many 50s myths (and of 60s conservative backlash to the counter-culture) who was quite literally play-acting at an identity from which his life and career consistently diverged. Am I saying that I can imagine Dalton or Booth stating in 1971, as Wayne did in an infamous Playboy interview, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility”? Yes I am—but in any case, such moments should shatter our myths of these idealized 50s icons, myths that Tarantino’s film traffics in far too thoroughly.
Last 2019 review tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? 2019 stories you’d highlight?