[Spoiler alert for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood]
Are Rick and Cliff good guys?
At the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the people who killed Sharon Tate in our timeline instead decide to attack Rick Dalton, who was the star of a Western they saw from an early age. This ends poorly for the “hippy” family members, who are brutally killed by Brad Pitt and his dog. Rick cleans up with the flamethrower we saw him use at the beginning of the movie to burn up Hitler. The whole thing is executed in a way that feels good for the boys: Cliff Booth is wounded, but heroic, having done the heavy lifting (as usual) for Leo, who was floating in a pool for most of the incident. Dalton, meanwhile, is invited up the hill to Sharon Tate’s house, who in this timeline has not been killed (yet?) and whose company Rick revels in as the film ends, lingering on the mystery of what could happen in this house, with people who are dead in our timeline, now spared, and Rick, whose career and personal fortune has been resurrected. Cliff’s fate is uncertain, but we assume he will be well cared for.
So, are we to assume that Tarantino wants us to feel great about the boys? Is this movie a vindication of Hollywood, and the images it has inscribed into the minds of Americans from an early age for nearly one hundred years? In other words, is the film squarely on the side of Rick and Cliff as opposed to the Family members? If we are willing to read the film sympathetically to the family, the final fight scene is a brutal extermination. Each attacker faces complete humiliation, excruciating pain, and prolonged agonizing death. Meanwhile, this is the scene that finally delivers on the audience’s expectation for obscene violence from the Tarantino flick.
Why would we want to be sympathetic to the family? In our timeline, those people brutally murdered Sharon Tate and her entourage, also torturing those killed in the way that the assailants die in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. They died horrific, agonizing deaths; it was an atrocity. Yet just as we can see that this attack, though disproportionate, had its share of justice—by seeing that the “benign” social forces constitutive of Tate et. al.’s fame themselves were in league with darkness and depravity—so to can we see that the hippies in the movie are punished justly, but disproportionately. They are properly punished for what they did not do in the film, but for that which the people who the characters represent did in real life. These actions did not happen in the film, since the killing of Tate et. al. was diverted through the hippies’ choice to attack Dalton.
What if the hippies had a point?
Next, consider other aspects of the film. Pussycat, the hippy woman who gets a ride from Cliff to the Spahn Ranch, makes a remark about the Vietnam war as Cliff listens to a report on the radio about nearby murders. She is justifying the murderous behavior of her group by referencing the murderous nature of the United States government in murdering millions of people overseas. Cliff is dismissive of this point. Earlier in the movie, there is radio reporting about the Vietnam war, which is noticeable; to be alive while that war was ongoing: both incredibly immoral and incredibly unsuccessful. Here we have on display that Western Hero writ large: the war machine. If the US is the Sheriff, the military apparatus is the pistol, what carves the hero’s way through the tough and uncivilized wilderness.
And where did that instinct lead us, as shown in the film? The tough guy, macho fighter mentality, as typified by Cliff’s incredibly violent killing which supplies the bulk of the action at the end of the movie, lead to a country which was dominated by people who knew they had incredible power but lacked the wisdom to use it effectively. Their policies failed not only on moral grounds, but on their own grounds. It’s not really about “the hippies didn’t deserve it,” just like it’s not really about how Sharon Tate didn’t “deserve” what happened to her. No one really deserves anything; the question is why what happens is what happens. Hence, the question must be: why did the members of the Family become murderous maniacs? And what was the real impact of violent television programming for the American public in the post-WWII period? These are deeply ambiguous questions, the raising of which undermines the reading that Rick and Cliff are “good guy” type heroes. If they’re not that, what are they?
Rick is a striver. He had a known quantity as a TV star, and sacrificed it to shoot higher. He failed, but at the end of the movie he’s higher than ever, as an audience with Sharon Tate is liable to be life-changing for him. Meanwhile, Cliff is lackadaisical and is content to revel in his easy relationship with Rick; perhaps their arrangement will even continue as Rick moves on. Or perhaps Cliff’s injury will prevent him from being a stunt double. It’s unclear what will happen to Cliff, but it seems like he’ll be fine. Rick is very invested in how high he can climb, and is hard on himself for not performing as well as he can. This is because he wants to work out of where he is, to get back to being the leading character and killing other guest star bad guys.
A Tale as Old as Time
We can boil down much of Western culture to this presentation of Good Guys who take on puppet Bad Guys who can never really win. Glorification of heroes of course goes back a long way. This is mirrored in the wrestling terms Face and Heel. The Western man, the white man, is the Face of the system, while all others are cast as different versions of the heel. In this case, we have the hippies, who are a sort of traitor or thought criminal. Hippies are not down for the program in supporting the war effort, and undermine confidence in the military. They corrode public norms and threaten to entice young people into being different and bad. Hippies are associated with communism, and act as a kind of fifth column for the Soviet Union in the United States. Since they are potentially attractive to even the inner circle of power, the children of the powerful, they are especially dangerous.
Yet in this film, the hippies are set up as the Big Bad only to be unceremoniously eviscerated, stomped, thrown against the mantlepiece, gored by a ferocious dog, and burned with a flamethrower. Similarly, the hippies were set up as the Heel, or the Heavy in the stage act of the late 60s, and were a dominant force culturally with bands like the Beatles and the Doors displaying a clear rebellious and counter-cultural form of expression. We can read the hippy movement as the Heel in a different way: not as a true threat to the power structure, but as a threat to any movement against the power structure. Hippy culture is a double agent: not a force for radical change that can creep into the halls of power, but a honey pot, a simplistic anti-systemic movement to attract those who began to question the system and distract them from meaningful organization by popularizing drugs, sexual fetishes, and other diversions. We can see the complicity between hippy culture and corporate profit seeking easily when we consider how many “classic” songs have been used to sell this or that execrable product.
Seen from this critical perspective, the movie portrays two bad guys fighting it out: the movie star and his buddy, who typify the stupid arrogance of Western men in their standing in for their blundering civilizational power; and on the other hand, the misguided rebels, so lost in their enmeshment in mediatized images that they resort to brutal killing of the person, the image of society. For the hippies, Dalton is guilty because in him the system builds up in violent force and puts its most brutal crimes on display for all to see. The Western man sacrifices everything—his property, his honor, his family—to defend the corporation, the body of the Church of Western Whiteness. This image can take a different form for different European men, but there is a family resemblance of those who can fool themselves into thinking they are the best and having the imprudence to try and set the whole world in their favor, rewriting everything in accord to the measure of their success. The failure of the hippies, meanwhile, is that they try to translate their discontent into violence, even though they explicitly say right beforehand that the system itself taught them to be violent. What does it say about the audience, except to underline the tragedy that we watch such gaudy spectacles of violence instead of engaging somehow more directly with the violence present in our lives?
For if the hippies are misguided and vicious, and those in the movies are vapid and destructive, at least they are out there, doing something worth watching. Or so it would seem from our having watched the movie, and this being seriously considered as a work of art. If hippies murdering movie stars is the wrong way to fight the spectacle, what is the right way? It certainly is not what I, and what many other people are mainly doing right now: actively wallowing in the signs of our own discrimination and trauma (culture of “victimhood” increasingly present everywhere, even among the powerful). Everywhere we have simply turned our suffering into distracting and time-consuming diversion, accelerating the cycles of repetition which trauma has conditioned us into expressing.
At least Cliff is willing to smoke the acid cigarette; at least Rick is willing to walk up the hill and see what’s going on. Meanwhile, the hippies had it right to question the logic of the system, and seriously think about the implications of an all-powerful system with a faulty steering mechanism. Each side has part of the truth, and to me it seems that the point is to bring all this together. The problem is that it requires a two-fold sacrifice, either half of which seems highly unlikely:
- Sacrifice of victims of the shade of moral superiority; recognition of the moral neutrality of the crimes perpetrated up until now.
- Sacrifice on the part of the ruling classes of their property rights.
Both of these are required to set a new ground floor for human culture. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that we more forward, and hence the macho man must discover that in order to survive, he’s got to recognize all others as equals. Likewise, for the weak, who must see that the powerful are not categorically different devils, but are rather also human, molded by the same harsh school all humans have lived in.
As regards Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the upshot is that Rick and Cliff are not “bad guys” or “good guys,” but rather relatable and lucky members of a caste (movie actors/stunt men) within a caste (white men) who are caught up in a swirl of cultural and military forces they do not understand. Meanwhile, the hippies are obviously not considered heroes but they are not really villains either: they are the shadow of the dominant order, the cruelty and violence that get turned on anyone and everyone once the corrupting nature of our culture has fully taken hold in a vulnerable person.
We might be most inclined to compare the Family to those who murder others in mass shootings these days. Once Upon a Time can be read as a mass-shooting flick, where those who want to inflict a massacre are themselves massacred. Here, the lesson is the same: we, the people who are baffled and horrified by mass shootings, correspond to Rick and Cliff in the movie. We don’t understand how anyone could do that, but we’re caught up in the violence in ways we don’t understand. Meanwhile, the hippies correspond to those who have seen the abject despair and horror at the end of the road for our culture, and who experience the emotional and material events that can drive people to question their own life and wish to end others’. We may wish to affirm both sides, or else negate them: how can we bring together the activity and affability of Rick and Cliff with the critical perspective and rebellious spirit of the hippies? Or, how can we avoid the boorishness and complicity of Rick and Cliff along with the simplemindedness and pathetic nature of the Family?
All this of course pertains only to the dynamic between the hippies and the two male figures in the movie, and there’s a lot I didn’t get into. Yet I think I have shown that the film is an interesting document for reading our current moment of a faltering of Western morale, the rise again of communism and anticommunism, and the advent of mass shootings and violent actions of all kinds. The Manson crimes shown in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were an early but clearly related incident in a society at war with itself. That same war is still ongoing, with Tarantino become the king of counterfactual revenge movies. In the end, what are we reveling in, and what are we questioning? There seems to be an opening for a new heroism, one which is able to thread the needle between carelessness boldness, willingness to sacrifice and tender guile. Obviously, this endeavor is immediately beset by the problem that “hero” is itself now a contested word. It lies to us to pick up the pieces of our fragmented mythology and try to craft a new chapter of the story of the world.