In hindsight, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was one of the most luminous films of 2019, with an impossibly happy end that asked the question ‘what if the Manson Family members had entered the wrong house and ran into Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)? Upon its release, this end generated its share of controversy, as did in a lesser way the flashback fight scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Months later, we can see the director’s cautionary promise hovering between Cliff and Bruce, and Rick Dalton (Leornardo DeCaprio) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), that everyone gets to survive. The desire to rewrite as we wish for another turn of events currently waits for us as we wake each day. Revisiting this film invites us to change the narrative.
Brad Rhizome/Cliff Hanger
In September 2019, Yangyu and I were in Paris for John Sanborn’s Noneself, a new work commissioned by the Jeu de Paume for their virtual museum. I was there to give a talk on Sanborn’s self-portraits over the years in a number of video works while Y was documenting the evening. On an early Sunday morning, we went to a movie theater near Beaubourg and Lapeyronie (one of the finest sellers of coffee in Paris) to see Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We were about five to watch the film and after leaving the theater our initial reaction was a lovely one -at the time much of the media conversation either addressed the ending and its rewriting of the Manson murders, and the Bruce Lee/Cliff Booth fight- and beyond immediately stating how moving I had found the ending, I walked away simply thinking it was a stronger film than The Hateful Eight. I’ve since seen O/H over twenty times, and what ties me to the film is the Cliff Booth character, as pure a rhizome to make its way into post-critical cinema.
Tarantino has stated in interviews that the film’s foundation had its roots in a previous one, when one of his actors had asked the director if he wouldn’t have some work for the stunt double who’d been with him for years. The process had been smoother than what we see in O/H, in the scene between Kurt Russell and Leonardo DeCaprio’s Rick Dalton as he pleads for a gig for Cliff, suspected of having killed his wife. Tarantino had become interested in the bond, the ease and friendship between the two men and signals this from the start, with a set visit on Bounty Law, Dalton’s western series, in which Rick and Cliff are introduced -carry his load- in black & white .
The next scene reveals a key concept operating throughout the film.
Dalton at first appears to be an emblem of a shifting moment in Hollywood, with the crossing over into cinema of both television actors and directors and Tarantino suggests that Rick would not be moving within the same spheres as Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood. When Dalton goes to Italy, it’s to make a western with the ‘second’ best director of spaghetti westerns, Sergio Corbucci of Django fame. Outside of the Italian sequence near the end of the film, Dalton is a character with a limited area of movement, a perimeter made up of the space between his house in the Hollywood hills and the studios where he shoots, with occasional stops in bars and restaurants. Each time Rick gets to move, it’s because of Cliff who became his driver after the actor lost his licence for drunk driving. Which takes us back to that second scene, that will set Dalton on the road to Italy.
Cliff drives Rick to Musso and Frank’s Grill for a meeting with agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who has seen the future of the actor’s career and its name is Cinecitta. When they first meet, Cliff is introduced as friend and stunt double helping out because Rick’s car is in the shop. Schwarz remarks on what a good friend Cliff is to which he replies ‘I try’. He will repeat the line, his last one in the film, after he is placed in an ambulance, having saved Rick’s wife from members of the Manson family. Before it drives off, Rick pressed his hand against the back door window and says ‘you’re a good friend Cliff’/ ‘I try’. Afterwards, the gates of Dalton’s next door neighbors, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, open up (Cliff and Rick have saved Sharon Tate), and Cliff may have saved both of their careers. Just when there seems to be rupture, the rhizome reconnects to an earlier line.
As driver, as a symbol of L.A., Cliff always keeps moving, he is the rhizome in the narrative social drama of Hollywood, connecting the glamour and the seedy, the wavering conservatism of sixties television and California counterculture. Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s masterful shots of Cliff’s accelerations as he navigates on the freeway establish a weaving pattern that takes him down from the Hills to his trailer home behind a drive-in theater (in matching blue jeans, jean jacket, and blue convertible Karmann Ghia), from Dalton’s rooftop fixing a tv antenna to throwing Bruce Lee into the side of a car, from dropping his friend off at the studio to meeting much of the Manson Family at Spahn Ranch, until they get back to the top of the Hills as the movie closes. Cliff punctuates this threading with brief enunciations that tell the city’s other stories: when Dalton exits his meeting with Schwarz, he cries on his friend’s shoulder which sees Cliff tell him ‘Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans’, or at the Spahn ranch, when the young hippie girl who had offered to suck his cock tells him it was mistake bringing him here, he replies without a glance as he walks to the car ‘way ahead of you’. The first encounter with her occurs when she crosses the street with other Family members carrying a jar of pickles; Tarantino allows Cliff an extraordinary gaze that carries a potent memory of longing, that will later translate in his asking her how old she is (in a narrative in which Rick’s next door neighbor is the hot director of Rosemary’s Baby).
While watching the FBI tv drama Dalton is guest starring in, Rick asks Cliff ‘like the chewing gum?’ his character is busy with. We hear Cliff saying off screen, ‘strong’.
Tarantino reveals Cliff as something raw, yet a pure hybrid, Iggy Pop like with great genes: Cliff has a set of weights outside his trailer but he smokes, drinks beer, has bad eating habits, yet has Brad Pitt’s body. And a pitbull named Brandy.
In September 2019, Stephen and I were in Paris for John Sanborn’s Noneself, a new work commissioned by the Jeu de Paume for their virtual museum. On an early Sunday morning, we walked in a movie theater near Beaubourg and Lapeyronie (one of the finest sellers of coffee in Paris) to see Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We arrived right on time; the ads had just started. It was a small and cozy room with an audience of about 5 including us. We settled in the corner. Then this idea suddenly came to me, that it’d be nice to have my feet up on the seat. Two hours later, Margot Robbie had read my mind.
It was a touching scene to see the late “Sharon Tate” watching her own movie and noticing the audience’s reaction, as someone who’s too busy within the Hollywood industry and life to look back to it, and moreover, as someone who’s been away for a long time but is still there in the public memory of the tragedy, which gradually became an urban legend as the world moved on. No wonder people say that the film is such a love letter from the cinephile Tarantino. That one single scene connects the celebrity to the normality, and the other world to this reality. And of course there are Robbie’s nice dirty feet—how could there not in a Tarantino film?
In fact, that’s one of the few things that we knew about film director Tarantino— that his films were weirdly cool, witty, bloody, and came with a foot fetish. We, as in the Chinese kids like me who had just started to explore the film world off the theater screen with no clear process during their college years about a decade ago. To us his films immediately presented a Tarantino counterpart of the idea of Jianghu (‘rivers and lakes’) that we can’t be more familiar with. The loyalty and the bond of clan/family/gang/brotherhood, the tenderness of the man of iron, the wits and the sharpness are among the particularly appreciated characteristics between the skillful martial art fights or dizzying gun fights in a world of Jianghu, especially the one developed in literature and cinema in the 20th century. It would often be an anarchic underworld with competitions, disputes, traps, and coincidences, where and all disputes and differences are solved by the members in the circle of interest. In that sense, Tarantino’s films have so many connections to the Hong Kong gangster films or the earlier Wuxia films, and the stories about the Italian Mafia and Chinatown gangs would only be picked up later.
As time goes by, a larger picture reveals itself with more genre films and more knowledge about Tarantino. Nevertheless, for me, and I’m sure not just me, anticipating the signature moments of his aesthetics of violence, foot fetish, etc. in every new film is part of this gleeful experience. Then, deep down part of me will feel reassured and satisfied: I just saw another Tarantino film and that’s still the Tarantino that I know. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood those moments finally, significantly appeared during the Spahn Ranch sequence, which smartly deconstructs the usual depiction of gang fights, turning the beauty of violence into that of the calmness and righteousness of a very capable man’s economy of moves as he fears no violence. That, again, talks vividly to the Jianghu spirit.
Every big fight scene ends with a tender turn. When Rick Dalton talks with his neighbors and they invite him to have a drink together, feels like the ending of a bedtime story for adults. Stephen told me about the Tate murder as we walked out of the movie theater. Although I do have a vague impression of the Mansons, it was at that moment that I realized the connection and thus how sweet and healing the ending is that the neighbors that Dalton talks to were actually Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate through the intercom. That’s the wonder of cinema.