'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' and the Fantasy of Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Still 10 - Publicity-H 2019
Sony Pictures
The filmmaker may never make a feminist masterpiece, but there is room for his brand of escapism so long as others have space at the table, too.

[This story contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.]

The films of Quentin Tarantino might be best known for their explosive violence and quick dialogue, but in identifying what makes the filmmaker so distinctive, the quintessential word might be "fantasy." Tarantino films are more akin to daydreams than reality, set in a technicolor world where both quips and knives are always razor-sharp.

Kill Bill is a revenge fantasy. Inglourious BasterdsDjango Unchained and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are all alternate history fantasies. In every case, extreme, stylized violence is the means through which Tarantino reaches a satisfying, rose-tinted ending — where Beatrix rides off into the sunset, Hitler gets gunned down at a movie premiere and Sharon Tate wakes up the morning of Aug. 9, 1969, with a bright future still ahead of her. The trademark violence is how he gets there, but fantasy is the motive, the bottom line.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has seen Tarantino praised in some corners for the film's impeccable craftsmanship and sumptuously immersive world-building, but criticized in other corners for its treatment of Margot Robbie's Tate and for turning Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee into a joke.

Being a master of fantasy is both Tarantino’s greatest strength and most problematic quality. Fantasy is escapism at its most effective; Tarantino has a way of making films that suck you in. He is also a middle-aged, straight white man, and his fantasies brought to life reflect this. Fantasies are both deeply personal and unfiltered, not made with consideration for how they might make other people feel or concern regarding potentially problematic content. They are shaped only by what their creator desires and finds pleasing, without thought for impression or subtext or consequence.

Watching any of Tarantino’s films, there are at least a handful of alienating moments when I suddenly feel pushed out, struck by the notion that this movie isn’t for me, a woman of color. Then the moment passes, and I’m drawn right back in.

When the credits roll and the lights go back up, those moments can’t just be swept up and tossed away. Yet, the enjoyment of the experience can’t be written off, either. If a movie has a few problematic elements, does that mean that by enjoying the film, and enjoying it openly, you’re supporting its problematic elements? Does that make you part of the problem? 

I have asked myself these questions walking out of several Tarantino pics, but it was only after seeing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that I finally was able to reach a certain peace regarding my feelings towards the filmmaker’s work. Yes, there are several of his movies I enjoy, and I’m done feeling guilty over it. Enjoying a good Tarantino flick doesn’t make me a failure of an intersectional feminist. 

The key to this realization had less to do with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood itself than the slate of trailers that came before it in my screening, in which more than half — Harriet, Jojo Rabbit, Queen & Slim and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — were projects directed by women and people of color. While Tarantino is never going to make a feminist masterpiece or a poignant commentary on race, ultimately, there is room for his brand of fantasy, and for audiences to enjoy that brand of fantasy, so long as others have space at the table, too.

Identity inherently shapes fantasy. The fantasies that have made it to the big screen throughout movie history have overwhelmingly been crafted by white men, people who check the same demographic boxes as Quentin Tarantino. But as of late, there are signs that the film industry is taking steps towards a more inclusive future, and that’s good news for everyone, Tarantino fans included.

Ciara Wardlow is an entertainment writer living in New York.