Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (photo stolen from IMDb)
A friend I used to hang with in Cleveland once said, “It was the worst thing anybody ever did to anybody.”
Referring to what for decades has had the marquee title, The Holocaust. An event, in only the past century, that is too horrible to believe.
Except it really happened.
When I heard of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history Inglourious Basterds and sat through its interlocking vignettes, its fantasy of revenge on the evildoers, I had reservations. The macho avengers, including horror director and now actor Eli Roth, set my teeth on edge. The smog of hate motivating everything put me off. Why? Not because the Nazis didn’t deserve what they got. They did. So what was my problem?
I just saw it again, on Netflix, and had less of a problem, even noting with special interest how two Basterds, who don’t know they’re going to die in Shosanna’s own holocaust of the evildoers, play their parts with such unmitigated malice as they mow down Germans fleeing for the (sorry, Krauts) barred doors. Eli Roth’s face, lips compressed in boundless rage, are right for the scene. Who – especially someone Jewish – hasn’t imagined such a revenge?
It doesn’t wipe out what really happened, though. And that can seem a problem.
There’s something else to consider, though I wonder if such reservations ever bother Quentin.
Trauma survivors, people who deal with victimization and violence, wind up, if they’ve really done the work, at the threshold of (that dread word) … forgiveness.
I keep seeing interviews of people who were in the camps, who saw loved ones shot from behind like sheep, their bodies falling into mass graves. Makes your blood boil. And yet the refrain of their testimony tends to be about loving every day they have left, and having no room in their hearts for hatred or bitterness or recrimination.
I want to tell Tarantino, “Thanks for feeling for us, but we’re past that.”
I guess, bless him, he’s not.
Mel Brooks treated the Nazi menace best by “laughing them into eternity” in The Producers. That was how he explained himself to Jews who scolded him for “making light” of the outrage.
“There’s no getting back at the Germans,” he said. But comedy offered a catharsis.
Violent revisionist revenge is a fruitful avenue for storytelling, certainly film making in the Tarantino mode. Scratch that; nobody but Tarantino tells this kind of story.
He’s done it again, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film does its own bravura take on one of the worst horrors America ever witnessed. Tarantino presents this to us on the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders. None of the reviewers said it diverges from what we read in the papers August 1969 … but they were vague.
I saw it.
Near the end I wondered whether the climax would document what happened to that poor pregnant actress and her friends.
I’m not telling either.
What surprised me, and what stays with me now, and even disturbs me on the outer edges of my analytic mind, is the negative framing of people referred to as “hippies.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m no hippie. In fact, I often have wished I’d come up in the fifties rather than the sixties and never done drugs.
But I still think hippies accomplished something good. I watch Woodstock and know the hippie generation created, in one miraculous moment, something it would take millennia to reproduce, if it’s even reproducible. Watching the musicians revel and play with such transcendence, the crowds swaying, gives you hope for the world. Though I was no hippie – I was too neurotic, too soured, needed too much privacy – I appreciate that moment, that contribution to our world. Those hippies were beautiful, the best Americans.
In Tarantino’s new movie, hippies are the ones responsible for killing Woodstock. We may extrapolate, if a little sloppily, to the Altamont murder by Hell’s Angels, to make the larger point. No sooner did Woodstock happen than those two events cancelled the dream, murdered “The Sixties.”
We needed Tarantino’s new movie to make us realize how strongly we felt that treachery. Hunter Thompson wrote about that moment when we felt the wave roll back, the dream dying. Now we have this.
I have never liked Brad Pitt so much as I liked him as Cliff Booth, a big-hearted bust-out stunt man. There’s talk about an Oscar for Leonardo DiCaprio; I say they’re both due a statue.
There’s something to relish here. Tarantino is not inviting you into any political manifesto. He just fires your imagination, using backdrops that have never been used before. He has a way of stirring up the hostile or negative elements of our memory and shaking us out of those tepid, naïve stereotypes. And he’s right. He’s aesthetically correct in taking us there.
There is a place in our collective psyche for revenge fantasies. I found catharsis in both Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Living through these historic times in this madcap fashion invites us to make our peace with the horror. That’s what you have to do with trauma.
After Tarantino’s climax had screened and it was all over, I sat alternately stunned and confused. I wondered whether it was any good.
As I left my seat and found myself floating, as if drunk, to the exit doors, I knew Tarantino had done another magic trick.
He’s offering us a violent fantasy, yes. But also a way out of our pain.
Just for a moment … which is all a movie is.