Oscar, So Dark. Unlike 1917 and Jojo Rabbit, Quentin Tarantino’s latest Hollywood fantasy is a tragic misfire.
Three of this year’s Oscar contenders are ambitious fantasies based on real-life, historical violence. It must be emphatically stated that, unlike Joker, Avengers or even The Irishman, all three of these movies are based on proven, recorded fact.
On closer scrutiny, two of these films accomplish almost Olympian artistic originality and merit. Taika Waititi, in his film Jojo Rabbit, a visionary young Jewish director, skillfully navigates the deep, perilous waters between fantasy and violence in art. He narrates an incredibly sensitive and intensely compassionate odyssey around the swirling mind of a little boy who is poisoned against even his own mother by the toxic brainwashing of ubiquitous Nazi propaganda. As the child’s entire world crumbles around his tiny bedroom, he is stripped of his beloved swastikas, knives and slogans. The boy’s (and the viewer’s) eyes are slowly opened to the insanity and viciousness of the mass murder of one million Jewish children that has been systematically carried out under his little nose with our full collusion.
Waititi set out to accomplish a “PG-13” introduction for a generation left cold by documentaries and more traditional Hollywood approaches to the unapproachable, such as the oh-so glamorous trip to Auschwitz styled by John Williams, Universal Pictures and Hugo Boss, Inc. at their finest, courtesy of Oscar’s favourite Jewish advocate, in Schindler’s List. Arguably Spielberg went there twice. In fact, if we include his equally stunning – but also “very Hollywood” – Empire of The Sun. Thrice, if we include The Color Purple, but that awkward if noble effort deserves an article all to itself.
1917, directed and co-written by Sam Mendes, is a uniquely personal and intimate account, reaching back across a century and two generations from the director’s childhood memories of his grandfather’s experiences as a young soldier. This epic masterpiece also presents us with a still more familiar Hollywood genre, the War Movie, told now through the eyes of a new generation, in a genuinely new poetic form, with an authentic, 21st century cinematic paradigm. 1917 is, astonishingly, not so-much an anti-war film, of the Lewis Milestone, Jean Renoir or Stanley Kubrick variety. With genuinely heartfelt reverence to Steven Spielberg, it must be acknowledged that he has also visited this genre, and triumphed here, with Saving Private Ryan. But, unlike Spielberg’s message-across-the-battlefield epic, 1917 is a dreamlike fantasy, threaded through the extremely vivid truth of immeasurable violence and unquantifiable pain. A pro-duty, pro-youth, pro-truth, destination-not-the-journey project – it succeeds beyond any cinema-goer’s wildest, most terrifying expectations.
The third of the nine best picture contenders in this year’s highly unusual sub-category, despite spectacularly pitch-perfect performances all round, design and directing virtuosity, box office gold (other than China, for completely understandable and indefensible reasons), leaves one with an aftertaste as if one had just witnessed Weinstein-level pornographic or more accurately pornogenic, self-abuse. A period, glamourous, porno, snuff film?
Quentin Tarantino, its writer-director, whose reputation and ego are known, if not celebrated for, remorselessly feasting on innocent victims of hideous violence, ought to be not only chastened but publicly shamed and flogged. Except that such negative attention would only feed his voracious appetite for sensationalism. So once again he gets an undeserved acquittal.
When it comes to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (tremendous title, of course), there’s a twist (spoiler alert). The real-life victims of the historical events on which the film is based are, perversely, spared in his retelling of said events. Tarantino’s unquenchable thirst for blood and gore is instead assuaged by the lengthy, close-up delights of a flame thrower torching the soft, delicious flesh of the lithe bodies of pretty young hippies. The hippies of this movie, in real life, would have been the murderers of the beautiful celebrities so brutally ravaged in the Tate-LaBianca killings by the followers of Charles Manson over those warm summer nights of August 8–10, 1969 in the Hollywood Hills.
I have this idea that if they cut the whole Sharon Tate/Roman Polanski/Charles Manson subplot out of OUATIH, it would have been a much better film, possibly even a modern classic. The Spahn Ranch fantasy sequence, a wonderfully evocative re-imagining of the hippies in their habitat, could have even stayed in. I almost find myself experiencing that miraculous, Damascene conversion famously described by the magnificent Pauline Kael, wherein the art of the critic, once in a blue moon, is seen to be almost as serious as the work of the artists themselves. “I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both?” said Kael. “You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.”
The self-reflective nature of all art, not least movies since their very inception, is something that has haunted me since my earliest days as a film maker and increasingly so, over the past two decades that I have been teaching the art and technique of Cinema in Hollywood. I also wept during Lalaland, not least because it was so reminiscent of the French musicals of Jacques Demy in particular, of my childhood in Europe in the sixties and of my early years in Los Angeles. Any fleeting dissatisfaction I felt with Lalaland I almost instantly dismissed as ridiculously disrespectful and unfair, given the resourcefulness of the film’s conception and execution, the purity of its intention and the unchallengeable integrity of its purpose.
None of these claims, of course, could ever be made in defence of a single frame of Quentin Tarantino’s work. Nor, to be fair, would Tarantino himself ever presume to even pretend as much. QT’s latest venture up his own, albeit brilliant, alchemist’s echo chamber of visionary self-indulgence is, arguably, the most predictable and yet, also, the bravest. It is just such a massively tragic chapter in the history of Hollywood, that, in my opinion, he should have been big enough to leave that part out altogether. The overwhelming majority of his sizeable audience will never, of course, agree with me. I still feel, deeply, that QT, enormously gifted as he is, carving his immortal initials on Sharon Tate’s young corpse simply has no redeemable possibilities. And yet, even in this age of unimpeachable dictators, there is simply no conceivable justification, neither aesthetically nor within the grubby trajectory of Hollywood history.
On further consideration, if OUATIH were only the story of a struggling Western star desperate for a comeback and his loyal stunt man, who ferociously destroy drugged out hippies invading their house in the Hollywood Hills, it might rival 1917, JoJo Rabbit, maybe even the unparalleled Parasite! But no, Tarantino had to take it one step further and ruin it. It was not only repugnant but completely unnecessary, even the orgiastic bonfire of vanities that has lit the way of American Cinema from Griffith’s nauseatingly racist The Birth of a Nation and the excesses of Intolerance to Von Stroheim’s massively indulgent Greed, Hitchcock’s toxic and misogynistic Psycho or Kubrick’s leeringly twisted, if charming, Lolita.
Maybe Mr. Tarantino will follow up this latest hubristic flourish, dancing joyfully victorious all the way to the Oscars, hand in hand with Charles Manson’s ghost at the Governors Ball, with something even more outrageous and shocking? Maybe “Hiroshima Was A Blast!” or “9/11, the Musical”? I, for one, will not be holding my breath.
Daniel J. Nyiri was born in London. He is an executive, writer, film maker and educator with more than thirty years’ experience working in the entertainment industry in the USA, Europe and the Middle East.