Arts - Winter 2020

Alternate Universes

Quentin Tarantino has, over the course of his career, reimagined the art of filmmaking

By Jerome Charyn | December 2, 2019
Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, the former stunt double of Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, in Quentin Tarantino's most recent film. (Andrew Cooper/ Columbia Pictures/ Everett Collection)
Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, the former stunt double of Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton, in Quentin Tarantino's most recent film. (Andrew Cooper/ Columbia Pictures/ Everett Collection)

If Brad Pitt doesn’t break your heart in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s most recent film, nothing will. Pitt portrays Cliff Booth, the stunt double of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the former star of the Western television series Bounty Law. Popular in the 1950s and early ’60s, Bounty Law was canceled because of Rick’s lack of any lasting allure. Now, nearly a decade later, it’s Cliff who holds together the chaotic pieces of Rick’s shattering persona, Cliff who “carries the load.” Rick’s driver’s license is suspended, so Cliff serves as his chauffeur—and his squire. But Rick isn’t much of a knight. Rather, he’s a crybaby wallowing in the tattered remains of his career. And Cliff is a complicated squire.

Unable to land a job—stunt coordinators don’t “dig the vibe he brings on the set”— Cliff is also rumored to have murdered his wife. Though never charged with that particular crime, he is still a pariah. “That’s the last cop’s jaw I ever broke,” he admits, remembering the two weeks he once spent on a chain gang. His violent streak often gets him into trouble, but his gallantry is of a kind seldom seen in Tarantino’s cartoonish male characters.

Cliff is the one legitimate hero in a landscape fraught with ambition, fakery, and horrendous evil. We’re in 1969, the year of the Charles Manson murders. Manson clan members weave in and out of the narrative, evoking a sense of dread that’s outside Tarantino’s usual range of comedy. They’re like locusts that belong to the living dead. In the film’s most harrowing sequence, Cliff escorts Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), one of the Manson girls, back to Spahn Movie Ranch, where Manson and his family have been living for the past two years. Cliff is familiar with the ranch. It’s where Bounty Law was filmed. In one spectacular shot, we see the clan members lined up like figures out of a lost Norman Rockwell painting, staring at Cliff with masked venom. Absent is that familiar Tarantino playfulness—we fear for Cliff’s life. He won’t leave the compound without first seeing George Spahn, the owner of the ranch, an old friend from the days of Bounty Law. In spite of the clan’s resistance, he does get to meet George (Bruce Dern), a blind man who loves to watch television, and like the squire that he is, Cliff has to battle his way out of the ranch.

Although Cliff chauffeurs Rick around in a pristine Cadillac Coupe de Ville, his own car (probably one of Rick’s castoffs) is a battered VW Karmann Ghia. We watch him ride from Rick’s ranch house in the Hollywood Hills to his trailer behind the Van Nuys drive-in movie theater, where he lives with his pit bull Brandy. Tarantino is almost a voyeur here, examining what his own life might have been had he remained a clerk in a video store or the stumblebum actor he was destined to become, until the startling success of Pulp Fiction in 1994.

Yet Rick Dalton does have his moments. We witness a sly charm as he sits with a child actress (Julia Butters), both waiting to do a scene in a Western soap opera. At eight years old, she is far more professional than he is. She won’t eat with Rick, she says, since eating lunch before a scene makes her sluggish. And she won’t tell him her real name. She performs “a tiny bit better” when she doesn’t “break character.” His own acting quickens following this encounter. “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” she whispers after they finish their scene, and Rick starts to cry.

John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, which made Tarantino’s career, earning more than $100 million. (Miramax/Everett Collection)

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood serves as a prequel to Pulp Fiction, a film that redefined the possibilities of cinema and continues to reverberate. One early influence on Tarantino was Jean-Luc Godard, the French-Swiss filmmaker (born in 1930) who turned American B gangster films into bitter, funny fairy tales, such as À bout de souffle (1960) and Bande à part (1964). But the filmmaker Tarantino most resembles is Orson Welles (1915–1985). Welles came from a patrician midwestern family and was considered a genius by the time he was six. He seemed to live without a sense of boundaries. He captured radio in the 1930s with his booming voice, frightened half the country with his “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and stripped theater down to its bare essentials—then rebuilt it into whatever baroque or barren world he wanted. The Boy Wonder appeared on the cover of Time magazine at the age of 23. He went out to Hollywood a year later and worked on Citizen Kane (1941), as producer, director, star, and co-writer with Herman Mankiewicz; it was the first studio film that defied the studio system, inventing a visual grammar and syntax for cinema that Hollywood had never seen before. Louis B. Mayer and the other Hollywood moguls believed in strict, linear narratives, and Kane was a sarabande of moments and set pieces—flashbacks within a flashback. We have no idea what is coming next. Though the moguls tried to destroy Welles because he had dared do a film about William Randolph Hearst, the “myth” of Kane was more powerful than the moguls themselves.

In the process, however, Welles was irrevocably wounded. There are all sorts of tales of how he destroyed himself—with the help of Hollywood. But the fact is that after Kane he really had nowhere else to go. He would spend the rest of his life looking to recapture the vitality and the poetic innocence of his first feature film. It couldn’t be done.

Still, Welles would influence every serious filmmaker—including Scorsese, Bergman, Fellini, and Kubrick—for the next 50 years. He had no real inheritor, however, until Tarantino came along and shifted the landscape all by himself. How did it happen? Born in 1963, Tarantino quit high school and went to work at a video rental store in the Los Angeles suburb of Manhattan Beach. He also studied for five years with Allen Garfield, a character actor from Newark who opened the Actors’ Shelter studio in 1985. As Garfield’s first pupil, Tarantino wrote rambling monologues—riffs—some of which would reappear in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tarantino’s first film, and in Pulp Fiction. Reservoir Dogs had its cult followers, but Tarantino probably would have fallen into obscurity if it hadn’t been for Pulp Fiction, the first independent film to earn more than $100 million.

If Kane invented its own grammar, Tarantino revised that grammar in his own wild way, taking us down a rabbit hole where there is no such thing as a beginning, a middle, or an end. The “text” of Pulp Fiction is never stable, solid, or safe. Characters are shot to pieces and reappear in another scene; women wake from the dead. Words take on a totemic power, almost defy the images on the screen—sight and sound are reversed; we have to “see” with our ears and “hear” with our eyes if we want to survive in that rabbit hole. Tarantino doesn’t use storyboards—“because I can’t draw,” he once said—but according to Oscar-nominated film editor Tatiana Riegel, who worked as his assistant editor on Pulp Fiction, Tarantino imagines each shot before he ever begins shooting, and that’s why he wastes so little film. “He had the whole movie in his head,” she told me. “Nothing moved around” in the editing process.

In 2004, Tarantino completed the second volume of Kill Bill, a movie reimagined in the guise of a spectacular video game, in which a former assassin takes revenge on her own tribe. In the production notes for that film, Tarantino wrote,

I have said many times that there are two different worlds that my movies take place in. One of them is the ‘Quentin Universe’ of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown—it’s heightened but more or less realistic. The other is the Movie World. When characters in the Quentin Universe go to the movies, the stuff they see takes place in the Movie World. … Kill Bill is the first film I’ve made that takes place in the Movie World. This is me imagining what would happen if that world really existed, and I could take a film crew in there and make a Quentin Tarantino movie about those characters.

But no crew could rescue three more recent films, which feel like self-inflicted wounds, filled with wonderful moments that sink into historical farce. In Inglourious Basterds (2009), Brad Pitt plays Lieutenant Aldo “Apache” Raine, the head of a Jewish-American commando unit prepared to scalp as many Nazis as possible. Aldo has a constant swagger and a one-dimensional smile that’s utterly removed from the lithe, catlike ruggedness of Cliff Booth. Django Unchained (2012) features a former slave (Jamie Foxx) in the pre–Civil War South who morphs into a Marvel superhero and destroys an entire plantation, called Candyland. Tarantino has mined or mimicked every imaginable genre, and The Hateful Eight (2015) seems like an Agatha Christie whodunit that unfolds at a stagecoach stopover in the midst of a snowstorm in the Wild West. The cinematography is breathtaking, with brutal fields of white in a barren landscape. But its tale of revenge is chaotic and never touches us. As members of the eponymous Eight are poisoned or shot, we hardly miss their presence.

None of those misfires damage Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, as Tarantino returns to the Quentin Universe of Los Angeles. Like Welles, he is also something of a wunderkind. The Manson murders took place when he was only six, and they must have defined him and dug deep into his sensibility. If so, Tarantino isn’t alone. The satanic slaughter at 10050 Cielo Drive crept into the consciousness of the entire country and ended the idyllic idea of a “hippie revolution.” Manson was here to stay.

Much has been made of Margot Robbie, who plays Sharon Tate in a whimsical fashion in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Certain critics are outraged that she has so few lines in the film, and that Tarantino presents her as a “sexual cipher.” But Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic realizes that there’s a good reason for this: “We didn’t know her. All we knew were the facts of her murder and of her impossible beauty.” Tarantino presents this impossible beauty on the screen, and the dread that surrounds Sharon Tate. We are aware of what awaits her. She’s a gorgeous wraith in the film.

Tarantino creates his own wondrous storm in the Hollywood Hills, with an ending that few of us could ever have predicted. It’s far more perverse than the wayward fantasy of Hitler dying in a movie house, as in Inglourious Basterds. It is the night of August 8, and members of the Manson family arrive at the residence of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. This is the former home of the record producer Terry Melcher, with whom Manson previously had dealings. Melcher had refused to offer Manson—once an aspiring singer and songwriter—a recording contract, so Manson decides to exact a kind of random, helter-skelter revenge. “What did Charlie say?” cult member Tex Watson asks. “Go to Terry’s old house and kill everybody in there.” But there’s a sudden twist of fate. Rick Dalton happens to live right next to Polanski and Tate. And as the Manson family members arrive, Rick can hear the cough of their car’s broken muffler and rushes out of his ranch house, enraged.

Tex, the leader of this little task force, recognizes Rick. He used to watch Bounty Law as a child. He even had a Bounty Law lunchbox. Now the clan members decide to disobey Manson, choosing instead to slaughter everyone in Rick’s ranch house. “Make it witchy,” Tex says.

“I’m the devil,” he says on entering Rick’s house. “And I’m here to do the devil’s business.” But the devil’s business is done to him. Cliff happens to be inside with Brandy the pit bull, who tears away Tex’s crotch, while another Manson follower digs her knife into Cliff’s thigh and he beats her brains out. In this bit of cinematic revisionism, it’s the Manson clan members who are slaughtered. Meanwhile, next door, Sharon Tate survives.

Tarantino seems to revel in each gory detail of this final scene. But how are we meant to react to this bloodlust? Several critics have called the scene “transgressive,” and rightly so, but I still rooted for Cliff. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood isn’t a modern-day Western; it’s a horror film disguised as a fairy tale. And the Manson family members are witches and warlocks who would have murdered Rick at their compound if they’d had the chance.

I’m not sure Tarantino’s sense of history is only “one inch thick,” as Anthony Lane suggested in The New Yorker. Tarantino isn’t rescuing Tate from her fate out of some cinematic whim. Perhaps he’s revealing the randomness of history itself. And what about Cliff? The loyal squire, who’s been shot as well as stabbed, doesn’t ask Rick to accompany him to the hospital. “Come visit me tomorrow,” he says. “Bring bagels.”

That’s the mark of Tarantino—the kind of delicious patter we saw in Pulp Fiction. Like him or not, he’s our most inventive filmmaker, breaking every rule there is  to break. His Movie World is, alas, the world we live in—a seductive circus where more and more of us are on parade.

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