Let Us Compare Mythologies
“Lately,” says the moon-faced Manson Family member Susan “Sadie” Atkins in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, “I’ve been expanding on this one idea.” Indeed. Along with Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), the recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood constitutes the third entry in a woozy triptych dealing with what is sometimes, incorrectly, called “historical revisionism.”
Without indulging the pedantic urge to digress ad nauseam, historical revisionism constitutes an attempt to reinterpret the historical record as such. Tarantino’s recent films, while situated in discrete historical epochs—Europe during WWII, the plantation-era American South, and Hollywood’s 1969, respectively—pursue no such lofty aims. They are fictions. And while fiction can certainly be guilty of surreptitiously advancing a more sinister revisionism (see: Gone With the Wind, which has long been accused of perpetuating certain Confederate-sympathizing “Lost Cause” myths), no reasonable person with even a passing familiarity with the historical record could be duped into actually believing that, spoiler alert, Hitler’s head was blown off on the balcony of a Parisian cinema, or that actress Sharon Tate survived the events of August 9, 1969.
Rather, it is useful to think of these films as interventions. They weave fiction around fact, or vice versa. Hollywood’s two buddy-buddy protagonists, flailing TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his probably mariticidal stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), circle around its female lead, Margot Robbie’s bubbly, radiant Sharon Tate, whose irrepressible joie de vivre cuts cleverly against the audience’s expectations of her as some doomed victim. (Claims that Robbie’s character is mistreated by the screenplay, which affords her relatively few lines of dialogue, strike me as superficial, forgetting that film is a visual medium, in which one can learn more about Tate, or Tarantino’s vision of her, by observing her in her element.) While the Dalton-Booth plot lines only briefly intersect with Tate (or, for that matter, Charles Manson, who is only fleetingly figured onscreen), Hollywood aspires to a different kind of pas de deux, stoking anticipation as to how, exactly, fact and fiction will intersect.
This is the function of interventionist fiction: it revises not the historical record but the spirit behind it.
In this way, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood dovetails with another recent work of grandiose American historical fiction, James Ellroy’s This Storm. The second entry, following 2014’s Perfidia, in Ellroy’s “Second LA Quartet”—which itself follows his earlier interlinked historical novel cycle (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz)—This Storm begins on the eve of January 1942, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and follows an expansive cast of cops and crooks scrambling to profit from America’s entry into World War II. Abounding in bracing cynicism and violence, This Storm recalls Hollywood in its commingling of history and fabrication. In once passage, LA police sergeant Dudley Smith (a veteran menace of Ellroy’s fictions) beats the snot out of real-world filmmaker Orson Welles, himself depicted as a pervy pornographer purveying stag films for fascist dress-up parties.
Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, This Storm feels like an intervention. That is: the story, and its expansive rogues’ gallery of crooked cops and addicts and bayonet-brandishing fascists, flicks at the general narrative of America’s involvement in World War II. Typically, as conjured from the fuzz of historical memory, that narrative runs like: World War II was a moral conflict, which the best of the best chucked themselves into, whole-hog, and were in turn bound by blood, the greatest generation, and so on. What Ellroy offers is not an alternative but an addendum, in which global conflict, unfolding across seemingly clear ideological lines, enables not bravery or dignity but shameless opportunism and mind-melting depravity. The war, for Ellroy, doesn’t awaken our noblest instincts. It enables our worst.
This is the function of interventionist fiction: it revises not the historical record but the spirit behind it. When Tarantino depicts, in full-blown gory excess, a platoon of Jewish-American soldiers exacting bloody vengeance against Hitler and Goebbels, or a black slave razing a plantation before the outbreak of the Civil War proper, or a margarita-drunk TV cowboy torching a Manson follower, he’s not trying to rewrite history. After all, can anyone reasonably believe that the Civil War itself, to say nothing of institutionalized racism writ large, would be undone by the destruction of one plantation? Or that the horrors of the Holocaust would be avoided by the assassination of Hitler? (Remember that Tarantino was smart enough to figure the absence of Heinrich Himmler, the chief architect of the Nazi extermination camps, from the climactic bloodbath as a plot point in Basterds.) Or, for that matter, would the interruption of Sharon Tate’s death halt the historical procession of the other Manson Family murders that both immediately preceded and followed it, or the general “Death of the Sixties” narrative these murders encouraged? No.
History has a way of calcifying into myth. Its nuances and wild complexities are condensed. It becomes, as Don DeLillo put it in Underworld, “a single narrative sweep, not ten thousand wisps of disinformation.” Fictions like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and This Storm force us to consider the wisps—the “What Ifs” that hang like loose threads frayed from some larger tapestry. They encourage the consideration of motive forces.
What Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers is not some drastic overhaul of history, but the cathartic thrill of agency. Along with Django and Basterds, the film understands and articulates the want to intervene in something as looming and mighty as the forward rush of history itself.
History has a way of calcifying into myth. Its nuances and wild complexities are condensed.
I have little doubt that Tarantino’s latest film is, even in just a very literal-minded way, conservative, in the sense that it exalts the past and its bygones heroes, whether redundant stuntmen or iridescent Hollywood “it girls.” But there is a melancholy undergirding this conservatism: a sad idea that, no matter how violent or self-satisfying their interventions, these heroes cannot change the course of history. Compare Tarantino’s approach with a considerably more asinine recent hit, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, in which a gaggle of superheroes engage in a complicated plot to travel back through time in order to undo a galactic genocide. Of course, they win the day. Tarantino’s tack is more fatalistic, perhaps, but feels nonetheless deeply true. Even when individuals assert themselves with detonating brutality, they nonetheless shrink in the shadow of history itself, belittled by forces and power and structures and whole rhythms of time’s unfolding that feel outside of their control.
In one of Hollywood’s most memorable scenes, Robbie’s Tate slumps into a seat at a Los Angeles cinema to watch her own performance in the Dean Martin-starring spy caper The Wrecking Crew. As we watch Robbie luxuriate in the amusement of her fellow filmgoers enjoying her performance, we see Tate herself onscreen: the real, historical Tate, not Robbie’s interpretation. This scene is intercut with another sequence in which DiCaprio’s Dalton imagines himself in the Steve McQueen role in The Great Escape, with Tarantino seamlessly dropping his star into that film’s footage. The juxtaposition of these two moments speaks to Hollywood’s fundamental concern: we are able to imagine “what if,” but when those dreamy fantasias evaporate, we are left with the reality of what is.
In this way, the violent, cathartic fantasies of Tarantino’s recent historical-ish trilogy allegorize the very function of fiction itself. They intervene in matters of fact not to rewrite the record, but to remind us that stories are the spaces where we consider alternatives, rework our real-world mythologies, rethink history, and expand upon ideas.