‘Once Upon a Time’ and the ‘What If?’ Power of Movies https://chrisonet.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood_MARGOT_QT9_77846R_rgb_jpg_qvZgZecf-copy-300x128.jpg

The title of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, immediately frames the movie as a fairy tale. One should not go into the film expecting a historically accurate depiction of Los Angeles in 1969, the Manson Family, and the infamous Tate murders—even though there are aspects of these things Tarantino takes great pains to depict accurately. 

No, this is a fairy tale, and it’s set in a mystical dreamland—Hollywood, 1969. It’s a movie that idealizes both the glamorous (parties in the Hollywood Hills) and the mundane (making macaroni and cheese in a Van Nuys mobile home), saturating everything in vivid color and widescreen relief. It’s a movie that pays homage to cinema itself: its history, genres, personalities, and—above all—its ability to do god-like things such as transcend place and time, intervene in acts of injustice, and provide glimpses of a one-day world where everything sad will come untrue (see Rev. 21:1–8). Fittingly, it’s also a film that has one doozy of a Hollywood ending. 

Indeed, its much-talked-about “what if?” ending (more on that later) reminds us that movies are an inherently eschatological medium. In their ability to traverse time—to “sculpt in time,” as Andrei Tarkovosky would say—and to “defeat death” by controlling their circumstances, movies present viewers with visceral brushes with eternity. Perhaps that’s why we love them. The dark caverns of movie theaters provide refuges of suspended time—“thin places” that evoke joy because they remind us of longing. 

And Tarantino’s film is nothing if not joyful. But in celebrating cinema’s “eternity-glimpsing” power, Once Upon a Time ultimately only stokes the fires of our desire for a better ending. The satisfaction of its ending is powerful, but provisional. We leave the theater pleased with the catharsis we’ve just witnessed—but then we remember it is fiction. Still, insofar as it inflames our longing for injustice to be addressed and death to be reversed, it’s a refreshing meaningful film.

How Movies Battle Death

A beautiful scene in Once Upon a Time shows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in an L.A. movie theater, watching herself on screen in a matinee of The Wrecking Crew (1968). But Tarantino does something important in this scene, because the Tate we see on the screen-within-the-screen is the actual Tate. As Tarantino cuts between the real Tate and Margot Robbie’s Tate, we are reminded of the artifice of movies—something the filmmaker is always reminding us in his over-the-top features. 

In their ability to traverse time and to ‘defeat death,’ movies present us with visceral brushes with eternity. Perhaps that’s why we love them.

But we are also reminded of cinema’s haunting power to arrest death. Because even though we know that Tate is gone—that her death came tragically soon after she released The Wrecking Crew—she is still there on screen. Flickering pixels of flesh and blood. Forever preserved as a vital, bubbly, beautiful 25-year-old. When we watch any old film and see a long-dead star in the prime of their life, it’s a momentary defeat of death—a reminder that even though “our bodies are buried in brokenness,” Christians believe “they will be raised in glory” (1 Cor. 15:43). 

This scene is a beautiful foreshadow of the film’s even-more-death-defeating ending. So here goes. Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film.

Expecting the Worst

Once Upon a Time had been billed as Tarantino’s movie about the harrowing Manson-family murders of pregnant Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and three others on August 9, 1969. It was a (straight-out-of-a-horror-film) home-invasion nightmare that shocked the world and abruptly ended the groovy idealism of the hippie 1960s

Knowing this is what the movie is about, and knowing Tarantino’s penchant for gruesome, over-the-top violence, viewers watch the film in a state of perpetual tension (as we do with all Tarantino movies). We know what’s coming. We expect the worst. There will be blood.

But from start to finish, the film surprises us. At various points we feel especially tense. When Brad Pitt’s stuntman character visits the Spahn Movie Ranch and encounters a creepy troupe of Manson Family hippies, we expect terrible things. When Manson himself (Damon Herriman) shows up at 10050 Cielo Drive (the house Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski shared) to scope it out, we fear violence. But there is no blood. 

Instead, the movie is joyful and carefree for much of its runtime, relishing the banter and glamorous exploits of its central Hollywood pair (Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio), who spend a lot of time in cool cars driving around a cool city, listening to cool music (the Mamas & the Papas, Neil Diamond, Deep Purple, and so on) on AM radio station KHJ. Still, the dread of the inevitable climax—Where is this all going?—lends an intensity to each otherwise-innocent scene, such that the mundane act of Pitt cracking open a can of “Wolf’s Tooth” dog food is terrifying. 

When the film’s inevitable violence does come, in the final 20 minutes of a two-hour-and-45-minute runtime, it’s as bloody and extreme as expected. But in perhaps the greatest “what if?” twist of Tarantino’s career (or any filmmaker’s career, for that matter), the violence doesn’t happen to whom we expect it to happen. Much of how Tarantino depicts the actions of the Manson family killers (“Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel) is more or less accurate—up until the moment when they enter the house. They don’t enter 10050 Cielo Drive, where Tate lives. They enter the house next door, where DiCaprio’s character lives and where Pitt is hanging out. And instead of brutally killing innocent people, the Manson killers are themselves brutally killed. 

Longing for Justice

Watching the Manson killers face their vicious, imaginary comeuppance in this way is unapologetically satisfying. As theologian David Bentley Hart observes, writing about the film in The New York Times (!), the scene “[gives] glorious expression to a perfectly righteous rage,” transporting the viewer into “some other order of reality, if only an imaginary one, where ethereal sweetness had survived and horror had perished.”

This sort of cinematic revisionist history—the unabashed indulgence in cinema’s “what if?” power of supposal—is not new for Tarantino. Django Unchained (2012) presents a justice fantasy of a slave (Jamie Foxx) destroying a plantation and its villainous slaveholding inhabitants. World War II epic Inglourious Basterds (2009) ends with a band of Jews killing off Hitler and Goebbels and scores of Nazis in—what else?—a movie theater. 

Don’t miss the significance of the movie-theater setting for the justice-fulfilling ending of Inglourious. Tarantino is making a reflexive statement about how movies can uniquely tap into our longing for justice and present pictures—however ephemeral—of right resolutions and good endings, in a world where such things are painfully elusive. He’s doing the same thing in Once Upon a Time, where the celebration of movie fantasy and the moral longing for justice are deliberately and movingly intertwined.

In this way, Once Upon a Time is one of the most redemptive films of the year. As Hart notes, “It is this moral longing for the counterfactual—for the total cosmic justice that history rarely embodies—that informs and animates the most truly redemptive forms of religious, philosophical, and social moral yearning.”

Tarantino is making a reflexive statement about how movies can uniquely tap into our longing for justice and present pictures—however ephemeral—of right resolutions and good endings.

Reversing the Curse

The final shots of Once Upon a Time are beautiful and haunting, callbacks to that “ghost of Sharon Tate on screen” scene from earlier in the film. We don’t see Tate alive and well, but we hear her happy voice through a driveway call box—a voice from another world, a substitute dimension of cinema’s making. As before, the preserved Tate is mediated to us at a few removes. Here’s how Hart reads the scene:

It’s an exquisitely poignant reminder that she is speaking from that alternate reality, that terrestrial paradise that evil could not enter, that otherworld where the evils of time are all undone. And then the gate opens, and the film’s protagonist is allowed to enter this (for want of a better word) heaven. Even then, the last glimpse the viewer has of Tate is from behind and above, her face turned away because, after all, she is there, not here.

To me it seems obvious that moral sanity requires that otherworld. If it’s real, somewhere and somehow (and I’m one of those fools who wants to believe it is), then it is also the only version of this world worth loving unconditionally, and the only form of existence worth trying to make concretely actual here and now.

Hart eloquently captures how movies, at their best, can give concrete pictures of that “otherworld,” presenting unreality in ways that weirdly feel more real than reality. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Lewis’s Narnia, or all manner of other fictions and fairy tales, the dreamscapes of movies feel truer to us than waking life. Why? Because they give stirring expression to the reversal we long for: the curse-reversing reconciliation and renewal that fallen creation (us included) needs. 

What if movies like this are not indulgent escapes from the real world, but important invitations to ponder, discuss, and point people to a more-real world?

Far from scoffing and dismissing the “what if?” fantasies of the narrative arts—like Tarantino’s masterful film—what if we valued them for reminding us that longing for a “what if” reversal of the curse is exactly what we should be doing? What if we saw these common-grace expressions as fertilizer for the soil of the gospel—the special grace of knowing the real Aslan, the man Jesus through whom the curse of death is replaced with the gift of eternal life (Rom. 5:12–21)? What if movies like this are not indulgent escapes from the real world, but important invitations to ponder, discuss, and point people to a more-real world? 

‘Once Upon a Time’ and the ‘What If?’ Power of Movies