Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Metadrama, Spaghetti Westerns, and don’t forget about the flamethrower.

Warning: Spoilers!!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!!

Warning: Spoilers!!!

Everybody who’s heard of acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino knows about his signature style. Let’s play a game of word association. When I say Tarantino, what comes to mind?  I bet violence comes to mind. Practically all of his films include flamboyant portrayals of fight scenes, murders, stabbings, shootings, and people doing disturbing things with other people’s ears, to name a few.

Suspense and Surprise

This cinematic motif of violence emerges in so many different ways in Tarantino’s films that it’s difficult to generalize what his style is. But there are a few characteristics that immediately come to mind. First, Tarantino is especially adept at both suspense and surprise when revealing violence. Sometimes the director’s use of suspense envelopes almost the entire film, such as what we see in The Hateful Eight (2015), a movie that drips with the promise of ignition for two hours before the tension suddenly erupts in a gunfire of kinetic destruction. There’s the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), a scene which combines absurdity, hilarity, and can’t-look-away grotesqueness to create a memorable moment of suspense.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Probably my favorite example of Tarantino suspense is the film, Inglourious Basterds (2009)–not just one scene in the film, but present at multiple points in the story. There’s the opening scene between Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), where Landa slowly breaks the Frenchman’s will and the audience finds out why, with a memorable camera pan downward to below the floorboard of the house. Then there’s the “you don’t fight in a basement” scene, which adds on the suspense bit by bit, in an almost comically excessive way.

His films also thrill audiences with sudden moments of surprise and violence. Two instances that immediately come to mind are both in Pulp Fiction (1994). There’s one of the many bad things that happen to Vincent Vega (John Travolta) when he’s in the bathroom–the time he’s shot in Butch Coolidge’s apartment. And there’s the sudden traffic accident that frustrates Coolidge (Bruce Willis), when he’s trying to escape Los Angeles, a surprise that eventually leads him to, well, fightin’ in a basement.  There’s humor in Tarantino’s violence, and there’s moments of irony too. For instance, it’s a curious turn of events in I.G.B. when Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), who lectures others about losing their cool and breaking character, is the one who ultimately loses his cool and breaks his character.

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There are plenty of other well known characteristics of Tarantino films: the highly stylized language, the rampant cinematic homages that border on plagiarism or pastiche, his controversial use of racially invective language, his mixing of genres, his celebration of eras of film history, and his fascination with 1970s cultural in general. These are the watchwords of Tarantino debates in think pieces and coffee shop conversations.


But there’s one characteristic of Tarantino’s films that has become increasingly prevalent and deserves more attention, and that’s the metadramatic emphasis in his storytelling. I’m defining the word metadrama to mean films that focus on the art of storytelling. Metadramatic moments can happen in different ways: a play-within-a-play, references to other films, attention to the art of story-telling itself, and the breaking of the fourth wall.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Tarantino’s metadramatic moments, but they appear in both obvious and subtle ways. Perhaps the most obvious example–at least before Once Upon–would be Inglourious Basterds, a film where one of the characters is a Nazi sharpshooter. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) becomes a movie star of the Third Reich, making low budget propaganda films celebratory of war and violence in WWII from the perspective of the Third Reich. He gains his fame from his own exploits on the battlefield–sort of like Audie Murphy. Two other characters, both enemies of the Third Reich, run a movie theater in occupied France, and find out that they will be hosting the most important officials of Nazi Germany, including Hitler himself, for a screening of one of Zoller’s recent films.

These two characters take advantage of this opportunity to wipe out the entire top level of Nazi officials, generals, and politicians. As the audience (full of Nazis) is watching the Zoller film, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) and Marcel (Jacy Ido) will lock the doors and ignite the entire theater on fire, using old nitrate film. Alongside this action are U.S. soldiers, who are on a mission to kill Hitler and his top men, at the theater, and they don’t know anything about Shosanna’s plan. Tarantino’s audience–not to be confused with the audience in Shosanna’s theater–are waiting in suspense to see Nazis die, even as the Nazis in the film gleefully and anxiously watch Zoller pick off fictional representations of American soldiers on their big screen.

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There’s a mimetic similarity between Tarantino’s audience and Zoller/Shosanna’s audience that’s unsubtle and invites the audience to think about the implications of their own enjoyment of violence on screen. There’s also some kind of symbolism taking place in the fact that the nitrate film is the source of the violence in the theater. Perhaps a more subtle example of metadrama is the Lincoln Letter in The Hateful Eight, a letter that Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) claims that President Lincoln wrote to him. He uses this letter to disarm others and make people, especially white people, feel comfortable around him.

By the end of the film, we discover that the letter is fake, but that only invites a slew of questions: 1) why would anyone be willing to believe the implausible letter was real to begin with? 2) why did Maj. Warren feel it necessary to use the letter 3) why did the letter–which was a token of a story–fascinate people so much, and 4) why did they insist on hearing the story over and over? This is just a taste of Tarantino’s metadramatic impulses; there’s so many more examples, and none more than in his recent film set in the late 1960s.

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Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) tells the story of an aging Hollywood B-star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is either at the end of his career or in a lull; he doesn’t know, and to be honest, even by the end of the film, we still don’t know. Dalton’s been the star of Bounty Law (a fictional 1950s western tv show). He’s starred in several somewhat cheesy Hollywood films that even he instinctively apologizes for. By the time we meet Rick, he is feeling sorry for himself because while he was a legend, he was really a Shelly Long-legend, not a Leonardo DiCaprio-legend. By that I mean, his transition from the small screen to the big screen didn’t go quite as planned. Nonetheless, besides his run of hard luck, Rick’s got some things going for him.

He’s got his best friend Cliff, who is loyal and true to Rick. Cliff is his former bodyguard and current full-time gofer. Of course, the bodyguard has problems too; he’s self-destructive and manages to get himself into nasty situations, though he takes care of himself alright. He also maybe (probably) killed his wife. Rick and Cliff are a shady pair, and they’re managing in their middle-age to stay busy and relevant, if only marginally so. Rick still has work, but he plays the heavy now, always losing the fights at the end of the show rather than winning them. It’s time for a change, and he knows it.

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But all is not lost for our hero. He has two opportunities. One is that he has an offer to be the lead in several spaghetti Westerns–the catch . . . they’re Italian Spaghetti Westerns. But it’s work, so he’s considering taking it. The second opportunity is that he just happens to be next-door neighbor to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. As he says at the beginning of the film, one conversation, one party, one meet up with Sharon and Roman, and who knows, maybe he’s on the Hollywood A-list again. This is where Charlie Manson and his cultist-hippie-followers come into the picture. They have run-ins with the Polanskis and Rick and Cliff, and the movie careens at glacial speed towards an exciting violent kinetic ending.

As you’re watching this film, look for the Tarantino characteristics that I’ve described above. Watch for the suspenseful violence, the surprise violence, the “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” violence, and then the “I really should, but I can’t quite look away” violence. Look for the stylized language, the fascination with mid-20th century culture, the pastiche of genres, and his celebration of Hollywood culture.

There’s another characteristic of Tarantino’s–the historical revisionism, whether it be when fighting Nazis, killing Confederates, or in this film, telling the story of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, that you should look out for. This film portrays that story, but tells a very different version of it. It’s no coincidence that that film’s title evokes a fairly tale feeling (“Once Upon”)–a world that isn’t quite real. The title of the film is also evocative of another film, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a reference to a classic Western in a movie about a fictional Western movie star.

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This reference to an older Western is a metadramatic moment in the film, but just one of many. There’s also Tarantino’s references to his other films, including a rather obvious homage at the beginning to Inglourious Basterds. But it isn’t just these smaller metadramatic moments that matter; the film itself is metadrama. It’s a film about filmmaking, that remakes a famous story (of Sharon Tate and her gruesome ending) that we’ve all heard of.

As you’re watching this film, consider all of those characteristics and how they weave together, and how that makes meaning in this film about the art of film making itself. This film pulls together at least three of Tarantino’s major characteristics: historical revisionism, violence, and metadrama. I’ll let you watch it and tease out what it all means–at least for this blog post.

A few other points to think about as you’re watching the film:

  • Anton Chekhov is famous for allegedly saying, “‘If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” As you watch this film, remember Chekhov’s words, if and when you see a flame thrower.
  • The soundtrack really captures the late 60s feeling and turns this into not just a story about a few Hollywood stars, but a period piece. The attention to detail with commercials, clips of shows, scenery, and general mise-en-scene really pull this film together and create a time and place for the viewer to experience.
  • There are all kinds of nice surprises in this film, including a performance by Julia Butters as Trudi Fraser, a young actor with a promising career.
  • The cinematography is quite stunning, but that’s true for all of his films. There’s several first-person shots that connect us viscerally with the characters.
  • There are numerous themes in this film, which make it a bit more somber than your usual Tarantino film. For instance, Rick has to come to terms with his aging and his evolving career. Many characters must come to grips with change in their lives and in Hollywood.

Happy Viewing!

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