How Quentin Tarantino Remixes History: A Brief Study of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

For more than two hours, Quentin Taran­ti­no’s Once Upon a Time… in Hol­ly­wood builds up to the Man­son mur­ders. Or rather, it seems to be build­ing up to the Man­son mur­ders, but then takes a sharp turn on Cielo Dri­ve; when the cred­its roll, the real-life killers are dead and the real-life vic­tims alive. Such revi­sion­ist revenge is of a piece with oth­er recent Taran­ti­no pic­tures like Inglou­ri­ous Bas­ter­ds, which ends with the mas­sacre of Hitler and Goebbels, among oth­er Nazis, and Djan­go Unchained, where­in the tit­u­lar slave lays waste to the house of the mas­ter. Long well known for bor­row­ing from oth­er movies, Taran­ti­no seems to have found just as rich a source of mate­r­i­al in his­to­ry books.

Once Upon a Time… in Hol­ly­wood “cre­ates a new sto­ry using exist­ing char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions, and many of them just hap­pen to be real.” So says Kir­by Fer­gu­son in the video essay above, “Taran­ti­no’s Copy­ing: Then Vs. Now.” The film’s large cast of sec­ondary char­ac­ters includes such 1960s celebri­ties as Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee, as well as count­less oth­er fig­ures rec­og­niz­able main­ly to the direc­tor’s fel­low pop-cul­ture obses­sives.

Also por­trayed is Charles Man­son and the ragged young mem­bers of the “Man­son Fam­i­ly” recruit­ed to do his bid­ding, as well as are their intend­ed vic­tims of the night of August 8, 1969, most promi­nent­ly the actress Sharon Tate. It is she, Fer­gu­son argues, who ties togeth­er Once Upon a Time… in Hol­ly­wood’s var­i­ous threads of fact and fic­tion.

Leonar­do DiCapri­o’s washed-up actor Rick Dal­ton and Brad Pit­t’s black­list­ed stunt­man Cliff Booth, the film’s main char­ac­ters, are whol­ly Taran­tin­ian cre­ations. 26 years old and preg­nant with the child of her hus­band Roman Polan­s­ki (a ver­sion of whom also shows up in one scene), the ris­ing Tate shares a méti­er with Dal­ton, and when the Man­son fam­i­ly come for her in the film, they end up face-to-face with Booth (much to their mis­for­tune), “but unlike both of them, she is a real per­son, and what is depict­ed of her is, broad­ly speak­ing, true.” Using these char­ac­ters real and imag­ined, Taran­ti­no “takes a dark, fright­en­ing, and just crush­ing­ly sad real­i­ty and gives it a hap­py end­ing with bru­tal ret­ri­bu­tion.” For all the post­mod­ern bor­row­ing and shuf­fled sto­ry­telling that launched him into Hol­ly­wood, the man knows how to give audi­ences just what they want — and some­how to sur­prise them even as he does it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Deep Study of the Open­ing Scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglou­ri­ous Bas­ter­ds

How Quentin Taran­ti­no Steals from Oth­er Movies: A Video Essay

Quentin Tarantino’s Copy­cat Cin­e­ma: How the Post­mod­ern Film­mak­er Per­fect­ed the Art of the Steal

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hol­ly­wood Exam­ined on Pret­ty Much Pop #12

Quentin Taran­ti­no Releas­es His First Nov­el: A Pulpy Nov­el­iza­tion of Once Upon a Time… in Hol­ly­wood

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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