Recently, I rewatched Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Mostly it was so that I could decide once and for all whether this or Knives Out was the best film of 2019. This movie is still awesome. I love how it looks. I love the acting. Like, even the people in small roles. I know Emile Hirsch is apparently a scumbag but he’s so great in his little role. The three Manson Family members who get killed are great, even if the one girl makes does the whole “freaked out hippie” thing to a slightly overwrought degree. This movie rules, and one of my main takeaways is a point I was making when I first saw the film due to a controversy I thought was overheated (like almost every controversy on the internet). Margot Robbie is great as Sharon Tate, her role is complex, and it is abundantly clear how much love Tarantino has for the character.
This got me thinking about Tarantino’s weird relationship with empathy and compassion. He’s a director who made his name for riffing on genre and culture. He took his grindhouse tendencies and brought them to the mainstream. I didn’t always dig that. I know if I go back in time to the mid-‘90s and try and hang out with cinephiles this will get me bad, but I’ve never really enjoyed Pulp Fiction all that much. I basically just enjoy the stuff with Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace. It’s a little empty as a movie. Tarantino doesn’t seem to care about too much. There is a whiff of nihilism to his filmmaking, and that’s not always a detriment. When you love gore and sex and violence like Tarantino, though, it kind of is.
Then, he makes Jackie Brown, which is a weirdly sweet movie. I really enjoy it. Tarantino has empathy for Jackie and Max Cherry, played by Pam Grier and Robert Forster. It’s a heist movie, but it’s also strangely a movie about people coming to terms with aging and with how their lives turned out. Tarantino clearly cared about his leads, though. It made the movie work way bette.
Then, Tarantino decide to channel his compassion through his bizarre, grindhouse lens. Aside from The Hateful Eight, of course, which is pretty much pure nihilism. Famously, in Inglourious Basterds he rewrites World War II. The climax is dedicated to Jewish folks killing Nazis. Every major Nazi is locked in a burning movie theater. Hitler is shot into goo by a machine gun. It’s gory and brutal, but it’s also clearly coming from a weird moral place within Tarantino. His whole thought process seemed to be, “Wouldn’t it have been awesome if the Jews got to murder the Nazis?” And, the way he filmed it, yeah, it kind of was.
Djngo Unchained doesn’t work quite as well, as Tarantino reach maybe exceeded his grasp, particularly for a dude who has been lose with racial slurs in his scripts in the past. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is where Tarantino is able to combine his empathy with his personal experience and his thirst to rewrite history with a vengeance. Yes, the movie ends not with Tate and company being killed, but with Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton violent murdering the Manson acolytes. Before that, though, Tarantino spends so much time adoring Robbie. It is genuinely so sweet to watch her go about her day. I love watching her watch herself in The Wrecking Crew. It literally brought me close to tears in the theater. Turns out it wasn’t just to get me attached to her before her untimely demise. It was just a love letter to Tate (and Robbie’s feet, because Tarantino is still Tarantino).
To many, empathy and rewriting the past in film so that you can violently dispatch with some of history’s greatest monsters don’t go hand in hand. That’s because most of us aren’t Quentin Tarantino.