Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a swoon of a movie. It’s full of so much beauty and menace and humor and intelligence that I couldn’t do anything but sit flattened while it rolled over me. In anyone else’s hands, the long middle section would have walked the room. In Tarantino’s, I just kept watching, helplessly. Eventually that long digression ends and you’re back in business, back in the place of childhood daydreams and nightmares. I was 7 years old when the Manson killings happened, a child up in Berkeley who, like all children at the time, heard words—Manson, Tate, the killings, something about words written in blood—before radios were switched off and mothers changed the subject.
Every generation has its crime that looms over the children, its details slowly making their way into their nightmares. Leopold and Loeb in the 1920s, the Black Dahlia in the ’40s. For my generation—Tarantino’s generation—the Manson murders were the crime that had the children’s attention. In Berkeley, we lived through Patty Hearst’s kidnapping—which everyone had some small connection to, and which dominated the city’s life—but when it was over, we went right back to Manson. It’s deep in our imagination. The justice critics, the ones who want to count up every movie’s sins against approved sensibilities, say that the film is nostalgic, a term intended to damage it. Only another artist would understand the way that Tarantino has deployed that potent force. Guillermo del Toro tweeted that the movie was “[chock-full] of yearning,” that it was “a tale of another time that probably never was but feels like a memory.”
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The justice critics aren’t interested in fictions that feel like memories. They want movies that adhere to their vision of the way the world should be. To them, the movie is too white, too violent toward women, and too uninterested in Margot Robbie, whose Sharon Tate has few lines. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody reviled the picture, calling it “ridiculously white.” But Charles Manson was a white supremacist, a fact that does tend to put a lot of white people in a movie. The majority of these white people are drugged-out sadists who live in filth, and scrounge in garbage, entirely repellent. And the Hollywood of the time was a deeply insular place from which progressive values flowed easily, but that never stopped to examine itself as a racially exclusive enterprise. Depicting it as inclusive would give the lie to the decades of hard work that have gone into changing that fact, work that is finally beginning to pay off.
As to violence against women, what can I tell you? If you don’t like it, don’t go to a movie about the Manson killings. Say what you will about Charles Manson; he really empowered women to pursue excellence in traditionally male-dominated fields. From armed robbery to sadistic murder at knifepoint, he put women in positions from which they had been traditionally excluded, and ultimately helped them to break that hardest, highest glass ceiling, the one that makes death row such a male purview. The Manson crimes became famous because of the savagery of the killings, the killers became famous because so many of them were women, and the most famous of the victims was a very specific woman, so particularly feminine—and at the height of femininity, the peak of her young beauty, and eight-and-a-half months pregnant—that her slaughter instantly assumed a mythic importance. Moreover, without giving away the ending, for many of us the violent scene that the justice critics hate was something we’ve been waiting 50 years to see. As for me, I closed my eyes during part of it, an option available to any ticket holder.