First Response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 2/2

Part Two: Tarantino’s representation of women

To continue my exploration of expectation in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, (my critique of the ranch scene can be found here) I would like to discuss an aspect of the film that received a lot of traction in the run-up to its release and occupied commentators afterwards.

During the film’s promotional tour at Cannes Film Festival, a clip from Once Upon a Time’s press conference went semi-viral. It featured a journalist asking Quentin Tarantino about Margot Robbie, having been in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and I, Tonya being given few lines as Sharon Tate in this film. The clip can be seen here. Tarantino unequivocally ‘rejects [the] hypothesis’ and Robbie answered that she ‘appreciated the exercise’ of using alone-time on screen to construct a character as opposed to being presented always in relation to or through interaction with others. This did little to convince some commentators upon the film’s release, including Clémence Michallon at the Independent, who concluded that Tarantino’s lack of dialogue for Robbie was indicative of Tarantino’s male gaze subsuming everything, which was both ‘insulting’ and ‘boring’.[1]

This has been a sticky issue in my thinking about the film. I am, as many of you aware, a big advocate for women being given nuanced, interesting characters in film. Having said that, I am not a strict disciple of the Bechdel Test, whilst I appreciate its importance as a basic bar for storytelling and representation on-screen.[2] (For the record: this film does pass the test). I really enjoyed Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, but it’s true that Robbie does not say much and this is slightly uncomfortable: Sharon Tate does little more than put music on, drive around in a delightful Porsche and dance about. I can absolutely appreciate the criticism; however, I think this is, ultimately, a simplistic argument, given the self-reflection at work in the film and because of the way in which Tarantino uses the film and its setting to play with history and expectation.

Similarly, I think it is important to highlight that having dialogue in a film does not necessarily save women from poor representation (see my footnote on the Bechdel test). The journalist at Cannes suggested The Wolf of Wall Street as a film where Robbie was given plenty of dialogue to work with, and yet Martin Scorsese’s representation of her was sexualised beyond belief. Robbie was front and centre of Suicide Squad as Harley Quinn, and yet here too she was hyper-sexualised and Zac Snyder gave her little to work with beyond that. Michallon at the Independent makes the case that in Once Upon a Time, Tarantino uses Robbie as Sharon Tate to convey a deified form of femininity: ‘a luminous, kind, generous angel of a woman whose heart seems wide open to the world. It’s a flattering depiction, for sure, but it’s also terribly reductive […] a lifeless, perpetually cheerful doll’. I would argue, in the first instance, that the fact that we see these former attributes as reductions is a damning indictment both of the nastiness we tolerate in society and the way in which we accept being open-hearted and kind as completely unrealistic. Sharon Tate was described with reverence by the likes of Mia Farrow and was famed for her generosity and kindness, there is no reason why this should not be significant in Tarantino’s representation of her here. Secondly, I would like to argue that through the film’s use of history as a fluid play-thing, Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate were not reduced within the narrative of the film, and that in more ways than focusing on one female character, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood waves in an empowered cohort of women and womanhood.

One of the most important parts of Michallon’s argument is that Tate does not experience any kind of personal growth and that ‘watching people just live is boring’. Of course, this is an extremely personal assessment: I happen to be an enormous fan of films where not a lot happens and what we are offered is an in-depth character study. What is so ironic about this claim, however, is that in real life, we cannot watch Sharon Tate live and we haven’t been able to since 1969. This is singularly important in the film. We might complain that not a lot happens because she spends a day on her own and she doesn’t talk to anyone, but there is some joy in watching a woman on a solo trip to the cinema (an exercise I would recommend all women indulge in/challenge themselves to at one point or another), enjoying time with her friends, dancing and having fun and preparing for motherhood when we know in real life that Tate was robbed of the chance of being able to do this. Furthermore, we are offered nuance in the dialogue-less-ness: in her interaction with a female hitchhiker, Tate drops off the woman, wishes her all the best on her ‘adventure’, thus suggesting that she spent the majority of the journey listening to someone else’s story; we are offered actual footage of Sharon Tate in the cinema that Robbie’s Tate watches, forming homage, an opportunity for self-reflection and, for us, a melancholy funhouse mirror of reality. It is an echo of the fact that this film plays with history, something that will be completely apparent by the end of the film.  Alternatively, although Tate is depicted as loving and loveable, the interpretation can be made that she displays smugness, vanity and happy-go-lucky privilege in her life as a white, blonde, beautiful woman; a kind of flip-side to the open-heartedness and generosity that some find so problematic. One way in which I think the film could have been improved is if Tate had had some kind of hand in killing the hippies in a badass, heavily pregnant way. And yet, just maybe, the best thing to do for a character who in life was a victim to such appalling violence, was to keep her removed from it.

pregnant

This is where bittersweetness seeps into the film: we know that in real life, she does not survive that night in 1969, and neither do her friends. When she offers Rick Dalton the opportunity to come into her house after the pool party of hippy carnage and the end titles begin to materialise on-screen, we know that we have reached the fairytale territory that only Hollywood can give us.[3] Primarily, it is Tate in the position of power: she is the one who could be a useful contact for Dalton, who spends most of the film choked up and flailing about, and not the other way round. She is the valuable, influential and powerful contact to have in the industry, not the male television star.  Additionally,  and similarly to seminal Tarantino revenge film Inglourious Basterds, which re-writes the history of the Second World War with Hitler and his cronies getting an epically fiery bloody death at the hands of escaped Jew Shosanna, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood we are offered an alternative reality where Charles Manson’s blood-thirsty hippies don’t butcher Sharon Tate,  but get their comeuppance at the hands of Brad Pitt and a cute dog, and Sharon Tate herself is in a position to offer help and support to Rick Dalton in the loving and kind way that we have come to expect from her. Tarantino offers us a moment where history was very different: where bad guys are punished, the good survive and everything should have been OK.

And yet, despite the satisfying end that is put to the hippies, the heroics of Cliff Booth and his dog and the hilarity of the flame-thrower in the garden shed, the ending here is poignant and sad, as opposed to the jubilation and bad-assery of Inglourious Basterds . The camera lingers on Tate, Dalton and Tate’s friends from afar, as they introduce themselves and discuss the attack. Their conversation is barely audible, and the camera stays put, almost from a high CCTV angle, as they slowly follow one another into Tate’s house. A lot of space is created between the actors and the camera and, ergo, the audience watching. It enables us to sit within this strange liminal space where we can enjoy and revel in what we have just witnessed; but the distance cultivates a sense of knowing; a knowing that this did not happen. Tarantino wrote that Sharon Tate stayed alive and continued to live her beautiful life, but we know that she didn’t, murdered as she was in the most horrifying and violent way. Pertinently, the camera then stays on Tate’s Porsche and the other cars they have in the driveway, using the visual metaphors to reflect the power of the Hollywood machine to re-write and re-create things as we want them to be. Hollywood is itself a vehicle for change, for creativity and for embracing life over destruction; or, at the very least, offering the façade of that. It has a twofold power to reflect change and to exact change; to re-write history but also to ensure that the future is safeguarded. Ultimately, in this case, Sharon Tate can only stay alive in the movies.

Hollywood’s role in the film is developed and explored in numerous parts of the film, in particular with regard to the representation and role of women. Importantly, and as mentioned in my critique of the ranch scene, Cliff Booth does not have sex with Pussycat, the underage hitchhiking hippy with impressive underarm hair, in his car. This is not what she expects or, perhaps, what the audience may expect, particularly as this is a dynamic that has pervaded the film industry for as long as Hollywood has been functioning. Harvey Weinstein was a producer and collaborator with Tarantino for every single film he has written and directed, so the significance of this scene cannot be overstated.

Trudi

Similarly, one of the shining stars of the film comes in the form of Trudi, played by the delightful Julia Butters. At only 8 years old, Trudi almost steals the film and her character is one of the standouts amongst a cast of standout performances. Her endearing and academic approach to the craft of acting is refreshing, powerful and leaves Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton’s a gibbering, insecure wreck. Indeed, his entire self-worth on the set of the Western they are shooting together boils down to what Trudi thinks of his performance and his ability to achieve the performance, in particular through knowing his lines. In the scene where he gives himself a rollicking in his trailer, he mentions Trudi, berating himself to not show himself up in front of her. She, because of her commitment to her work, her ability to interpret and understand story, her thorough approach to research and her interest in the wider industry, is made out to be a force to be reckoned with. As with the subversive ranch scene, where Tarantino constructs the difference between psycho-killer hippies and the misunderstood, kooky youth, and thereby critiquing snowflakism, in Trudi we see the highest hope for future generations in film and beyond: doing their research, speaking their minds and not limiting themselves to who they think they should be. At the end of a long scene they shoot together, Trudi, who we know at this point Dalton completely respects and admires, tells him that he just put in the best acting performance she has ever seen, and Dalton immediately chokes up. His belief in himself completely stems from the way in which he is perceived by this precocious, wise and talented young girl and he can barely contain his emotion at having shone in her eyes.

As such, I believe that the argument that women are reduced in this film is not a very convincing one. Sharon Tate does not speak much in the film, it is true; but her role in the film, sensitively portrayed with the respect of Tate’s family in mind as much as for Tate herself, is to celebrate life and the power we have to construct our own narratives. If she had been killed at the end, then she would truly have served as a lifeless doll; but she lives, and she is glorious. She is not part of the overall plot because the plot is about two menopausal men trying to stay relevant. Robbie’s Tate does not have that concern and has ample time to while away the time, with added luxury of being on her own, both during the film and, thanks to the film’s revision of history, we can assume after the credits have rolled. To compound this, we have Trudi, a bright spark for the future who has plenty to teach the struggling Rick Dalton; and a man in Cliff Booth who respects the boundaries of power, age and experience by not taking advantage of a young girl. Tarantino has never shied away from giving audiences strong female characters, but in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood he provides a much more subtle offering, playing with our expectations and using a variety of characters and dynamics to do a great justice to the women of the film and the actors who play them.

 

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino’s male gaze in ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ isn’t just insulting – it’s profoundly boring’, The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-quentin-tarantino-sharon-tate-margot-robbie-lines-a9061446.html [accessed 12:05, 19th August 2019].

[2] The Bechdel Test, created by Alison Bechdel, suggests that to pass a basic representational threshold, films must have more than one female character, the female characters must speak to one another and the female characters must speak to each other about something that does not involve a man. Of course, many culturally celebrated films do not pass this test, but then neither do films like Gravity, A Star is Born and Arrival, in spite of the lengthy screen-time afforded to women and where the quality of the female characters is exceptional. Equally, there are many female-centric films where women have plenty of dialogue and on-screen time, but their lives and conversations revolve around men.

[3] I want to add here that the irony of Dalton proclaiming earlier on in the film that he is ‘one pool party’ away from Roman Polanski and then fighting a hippy with a flame thrower in his pool becoming his ticket to friendship with Tate, is just hilarious.

In defence of ‘mother!’

WARNING: contains spoilers

Earlier this year, the infamous Razzie awards- the annual mock awards show that coincides with the Academy Awards- announced nominations for the year’s worst films. As per usual, and quite rightly so, there was space in the nominations for the likes of the Transformers, Fifty Shades and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. This list, however, also saw the questionable inclusion of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’, a film that is a far cry from the vapid, passable films it shares company with. The nominations the film received for Worst Film, Worst Actress, Worst Actor and Worst Director come off the back of a deluge of criticism that the film received upon its release. The Razzies as an awards show aren’t designed to be taken too seriously; but they indicate that an almost general consensus has been reached that this film is a pretentious, soupy shock-fest of little substance and poor performances.[1]  In tabloid magazines, such as Grazia, Jennifer Lawrence has been ordained with a certified career blip because the film did not reach the box office heights she is used to with the likes of The Hunger Games and X-Men. In addition, the relationship between Lawrence and Aronofsky, which developed and then fell apart after filming, also became offal for the entertainment press. [2] In the meantime, ‘mother!’ was downplayed and over looked by critics, awards bodies and guilds, with the challenging issues that the film raises seemingly ignored.

This is not the first time that a dark, challenging female-centric film has failed to be acknowledged by the cultural establishment, for example Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton, or Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Nymphomaniac led by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg respectively. Some might argue that we don’t need to worry about this, because the likes of the Academy Awards, BAFTAs and Golden Globes aren’t necessarily worth respecting as they are so ‘weirdly subjective’ anyway, in the words of Cate Blanchett. These awards bodies only acknowledge films released at a specific time of the year, and only seem to celebrate films that reaffirm the Hollywood, film-making dream, rather than challenge it: see the recent successes of Argo, The Artist, La La Land, Birdman etc. Yet, when complex films about women are in such short supply, it is frustrating that brutal, stonking, belters of films are pushed to the fringes of small arthouse cinemas. Where are the column inches for Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey or Sean Baker’s The Florida Project? I am not arguing that ‘mother!’ needs to be universally liked. The fact that it has managed to both enthral and revile audiences is, in my opinion, much to its credit; any film that rattles people to a state of unrest on either end of the enjoyment spectrum suggests that it is worth paying attention to. However, I would like to make the case that far from being the shambles that many critics and commentators would have us think, ‘mother!’ was one of the best films last year, shockingly timely and, in the opinion of Mark Kermode, a film that will ‘impress’ the further away you get from the initial ‘oppressive’ experience of viewing it.[3]

mother!’ offers so many different readings, but I think the most significant is the film’s critique of the concept of the female muse. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, ‘Mother’, is constantly referred to as the ‘inspiration’ for ‘Him’, Javier Bardem’s egocentric writer. This is because her time is consumed with nurturing their house and home. She is referred to as ‘inspiration’ again by ‘Him’s’ publicist, the ‘Herald’ played brilliantly by Kristen Wiig, and then by the multitude of people who come into their house before all hell breaks loose. I argue that it’s the treatment of ‘Mother’ as this symbolic, abstract figure that enables the violence brought upon her by everyone in the house. The arguably mild micro-aggression displayed by ‘Him’ at the beginning of the film, such as his constantly inviting all and sundry into their home, not listening to ‘Mother’ and making a mess and expecting ‘Mother’ to clean it all up, paves the way for others to do so, and worse. This manifests when ‘Him’ and his ‘guests’ ignore her, in particular when two slam themselves repeatedly on the sink and rip it off the wall and when strangers begin to paint her walls a different colour; when a male stranger propositions ‘Mother’, he refuses to take no for an answer then calls her a ‘cunt’(a scene practically lifted from the Everyday Sexism blog or the Bye Felipe Instagram account); and when the braying crowd, who have killed her baby, start to violently beat her up and only stop when ‘Him’ tells them to. The idea of a woman serving passively as ‘inspiration’, as a beautiful muse, feeds the idea that women, particularly when confined to a domestic space, do not have subjectivity. Instead, they are vessels and symbols for men to fetishize in the name of creativity. It is the denial of a whole, complex personhood that results in a woman becoming a patriarchal doormat. Not being listened to may seem like a simple annoyance, but the more people ignore her, the more danger ‘Mother’ is in. She is drowned out by the throngs of people who invade the home, before being owned, used and abused by them all. The ringleader appears in the form of ‘Him’.

Nowhere is this seen better than when ‘Mother’ is breastfeeding her newborn son in a boarded up room that keeps the intruding guests out. In a film of claustrophobic close-ups, the shots of ‘Mother’ and her suckling baby feel softer, calmer and intimate whilst the bond between mother and child begins to strengthen. All the while, however, ‘Him’ looms in the background, watching them unblinking, unflinching, determined to show the child off to a hallway teeming with his ‘guests’. He does not care that ‘Mother’ has only just given birth, he does not care that she wants to keep the child safe and out of sight, he does not care that she wants to nourish and sustain him; he only wants to feed his own ego and vanity. In the end, he waits and watches with frightening menace, taking his opportunity to take the child from her when she inadvertently falls asleep. His entitlement can only come from viewing his wife as unequal to him: she is at times revered as a vague yet divine source of inspiration, but this also makes her vulnerable to whatever violent and aggressive whims and desires he is able to act upon her and her body.

mother-2017-005-jennifer-lawrence-hands-wall

As a result, ‘mother! is an explicit warning of the danger posed to women who are reduced to an abstract, symbolic concept instead of respected as multi-faceted, interior beings with their own thoughts, ideas and desires. The ‘muse’ figure is essentially a dehumanised figure and the consequences for the woman, as shown in this film, are nightmarish. The final twist of the knife comes at the end of the film, where the narrative circles back to its opening scene. Instead, however, of Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘Mother’, calling ‘Baby?’ to ‘Him’, it’s a new incarnation of a different woman in the exact same position. It suggests that this whole torturous experience is undeniably about to happen all over again. It would appear that men like ‘Him’ always have a second chance, they are redeemable. Women, on the other hand, do not have this privilege, but are merely inspirational fodder to be exploited again and again, one after the other from the patriarchal conveyer belt. Of all the characters in the film, the one who seems to understand this the most is the scene-stealing Domhnall Gleeson’s ‘Oldest Son’. In a frantic scene, ‘Oldest Son’ kills his younger brother in a fit of rage because he doesn’t believe that anyone in his family genuinely loves or values him, asking ‘Mother’ if she understands.  Later on, he returns to ‘Mother’ alone in the house and tells her, ‘You do understand. Good luck’.[4] This tense, quiet scene foreshadows all of the horror to come and the ‘luck’ ‘Mother’ will need to navigate through it. Additionally, it is immediately of no comfort that ‘Him’ appears to enfold ‘Mother’ in his arms; she is undoubtedly within the belly of the beast, deep in the clutches of her abuser.

domhnall gleeson

Whilst the film’s violence has been condemned by many, it is the rejection of a woman as a dispensable image to inspire men that feels so timely. Within Western art, women have all too often played the role of a figurative muse for men, with horrible consequences for their emotional wellbeing. You just have to look to the experiences of Elizabeth Siddal, Edie Sedgwick, Marianne Faithfull, Amelie Gautreau and Uma Thurman, who all suffered from the acute power imbalance at play with the men who ‘revered’ them and for whom they provided some sort of ‘inspiration’. Importantly, this film marginally pre-dates the allegations reported against Harvey Weinstein, and the increased, renewed scrutiny of men like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Quentin Tarantino, Louis CK and many others who work in the creative industries and have allegedly abused women. With the subsequent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that have flourished in the wake of these allegations, the production of art will undeniably have to change. Women can no longer be used as mere muses and inspirations for writers and directors. What is ironic, however, is that such a reading of progressiveness can be taken from ‘mother!’ when Darren Aronofsky has come under criticism for his allegedly manipulative and ‘abusive’ practices: his direction triggered a well-documented panic attack from Lawrence during the process of filming, he banned bottled water from the set of Noah (2014)which led to Emma Watson falling ill, something he recommended she should ‘use for the scene’, and allegedly separated Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis to play them off one another during the filming of Black Swan (2010).[5] It is wildly frustrating that a film that critiques the patriarchal disposal of women in the name of creativity, is allegedly practised by the film’s very director.

It is also as a result of this that we have to be careful about completely embracing the film’s apparent environmental agenda. Aronofsky said himself ‘I want to make a film about Mother Nature. I wanted to make a film from her perspective’, and it is an interpretation that has been picked up by Mark Kermode and Naomi Klein. [6] Aronofsky believes he has made a film that presents ‘Mother Nature’, through allegory, suffering the horrors that human beings reap on the natural world, i.e. her. Whilst I am in favour of more texts that critique environmental destruction, climate change and take aim at the over consumption of selfish, ignorant human beings, using the figure of ‘Mother Nature’ to do this is unhelpful and dangerous. ‘Mother Nature’ is perhaps the most mythologised, idealised version of femininity ever thought up. She is a ‘mother’, she ‘brings life’ and she is ‘cruel’, all stereotypes constructed about/for women that are projected onto the natural world. ‘Mother Nature’ is, ultimately, a vacant, arbitrary symbol, representing bags of patriarchal dogma and we need to be critical of that. What is frustrating is that reading the Earth as a woman feeds into the problematic negation of subjectivity that the film does so well to portray. Indeed, focusing on a figurative ‘Mother Nature’ undercuts all the work ‘mother!’ does to critique the presentation of women as abstraction. It is so ironic yet, perhaps, unsurprising that Aronofsky, given his dodgy history of abusive practice towards his actresses and partners, encourages us to think of Earth embodied as a woman. This should serve as an enormous reminder to us that we must not limit our interpretations of texts to whatever the writer/director may or may not have intended.

In its presentation of the danger posed to female muses, ‘mother!’ is radical and unflinching. Art, in all its forms, is barbaric if it is leeched from or comes at the expense of the subjectivity and personhood of those close to the artist. Importantly, Aronofsky is not exempt from this and we must approach his diagnosis of his film as about ‘Mother Nature’ with a large, healthy amount of critical scepticism and a copy of Roland Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’. Nevertheless, ‘mother!’ is an important film because it does so much to highlight that this construct of the ‘female muse’ is a dehumanising, unsustainable abuse of power. It is a performative, disorientating film that bombards the senses with unrelenting noise and visual horror, but that does not mean that it is a mess that lacks any political awareness. I would encourage as many people as possible to steel up some nerves, get a bottle of gin ready for the credits and watch this film. It deserves to be given some critical attention because its presentation of gendered power imbalance in art is so unfettered, so immersive and so appropriate in this era of #TimesUp. It reminds us that film should not just be reassuring, escapism; we need films that challenge us, hold up a mirror to the dynamics at play in the world around us and to give us the impetus to ask one of the most important questions of all: ‘what are we going to do about it?’.

[1] ‘Film Review: mother! is a pretentious mess’ http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170914-film-review-mother-is-a-pretentious-mess

[2] ‘Jennifer Lawrence set to end things with Darren Aronofsky?’, Grazia, https://graziadaily.co.uk/celebrity/news/jennifer-lawrence-set-end-things-darren-aronofsky/

[3] Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio Five Live http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05g6x9d

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vhra0KrIfs [accessed 28th May 2018].

[5] ‘Why Do We Let “Genius” Directors Get Away With Abusive Behavior?’, https://www.buzzfeed.com/imransiddiquee/hollywood-abusive-auteur-problem?utm_term=.bj3Gjm8QO#.hjrxNYnr3,  Imran Siddiquee, Buzzfeed [Posted on 25th October 2017, at 11:55 pm]; ‘Emma Watson fell ill on Noah set after Darren Aronofsky banned bottled water’, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/17/emma-watson-noah-darren-aronofsky-banned-bottle-water, Ben Child, The Guardian, [Posted on 17 February 2014, at 12.48 GMT]; ‘5 Things You Didn’t Know About Natalie Portman’, https://www.vogue.com/article/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-natalie-portman, Maria Ward, Vogue [Posted on 20th August 2016 at 11:00].

[6] Naomi Klein contacted Aronofsky to note how ironic it was that the film was released whilst Hurricane Irma left a trail of devastation in the Caribbean and on the mainland USA. Also note later on Jennifer Lawrence’s description of her breakdown due to her immersion in the scene being ‘too much’, compared to Aronofsky’s satisfaction with the events that occurred during filming.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyZVUC5jeVw&t=162s [1:13, accessed 8th March 2018].