If Quentin Tarantino ever makes the Star Trek movie he keeps yammering about, it'll get mixed up as his first foray into science fiction. Yet the truth is that at least two of its recent recent movies are best-known as examples of a special sub-genre of science fiction, the alternative history. These are all films that seem like they are set in the past (World War II, 1969, Hollywood) but only make sense when we realize they take place in parallel universes where history diverges radically from the actual past.
Inglourious Basterds ends with a rag-day Jewish militia, under the leadership of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), bringing World War II to a satisfying end by Assassinating the Nazi Elite, including Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, at a movie screening. For good measure, Raine and his henchman carve a swastika in the head of an odious Nazi "Jew hunter" who has been shouted in the last minute in the hopes of being rewarded by the Americans. This is, of course, wildly at variance with reality. The Nazi leadership class was decapitated by the Red Army. While some Nazis were criminals were punished, all too many escaped unscathed, especially since more than a few were recruited by the victorious powers who wanted their services as military strategists, spies and weapon makers for the Cold War.
Tarantino's latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood works on a smaller canvas but with a similar audacious ending, with Brad Pitt once again being recruited to radically age well-known history. In the movie, the infamous night where members of Charles Manson's cult killed actress Sharon Tate and others are unexpectedly cheerful denouement. The killers are thwarted by a fictional duo, cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt- double-turned-factotum Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
It's easy to chalk up Tarantino's playing with history as it's yet more proof that he's an irresponsible nihilist, somebody who crafts narratives simply for their shock value with no sense of loyalty to canons of accuracy and verisimilitude. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described Inglourious Basterds as "akin to Holocaust denial." Inglourious Basterds makes the Holocaust harder, not easier to grasp as a historical reality . Insofar as it becomes a movie convention – by which I mean a reality derived from other movies – it loses its historical reality. "
By the same token, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be regarded as insulting to the memory of the various real figures, such as Sharon Tate or Bruce Lee, whose life stories are distorted in the film , (Lee's family has complained about the movie's portrayal as a belligerent boastful loudmouth who easily gets bested in a fight with Cliff Booth).
Tarantino is not giving history but alternative history. One of the key functions of alternative history as a genre is to offer a commentary on real history. A famous example is Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), where the Axis powers win World War II. In the novel, the victorious Nazis and Japanese imperialists divide the world between them and carry out an arms race that threatens human survival. Cold War's absurdity
In a like manner, Tarantino's imaginary history is meant to cast a critical eye on actual history. The easy putdown of Tarantino is that he's offering gleeful revenge fantasies by creating scenarios where violence can be inflicted on easy-to-hate bad guys (Nazis, the Manson family, or, in Django Unchained slave owners) ,
Yet the thrill of righteous vengeance acquires a melancholy button when we realize that the stories we are seeing did not happen. The discrepancy between what should have happened and what we call it. At the end of Once upon a time in Hollywood you do not feel any happier that the fictional Sharon Tate survives. Rather you feel even more acutely the loss of the real Tate.
Both celebrants and naysayers of Once upon a time in Hollywood make a mistake in the film seeming nostalgia at face value. Richard Brody of The New Yorker did not like the film, writing that the film is a regressive reverie about "a world in which the characters, with Tarantino's help, fabricate the sublime illusions that embody their virtues and speech their failings-and then perform acts of real-life heroism to justify them again. "
Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic loved the movie as much Brody hated it, but she shares his view that it celebrates old-time Hollywood values. For Flanagan it's "a major motion picture in 2019 about a man with a code, a man who hews to the old values of the Western hero."
If you see the movie as uncritically nostalgic, then it will not be more than a dude-bros who dude-bros who swat down threats from various insurgent groups (people of color, nagging wives, and hippies) , But this is a one-dimensional view of a complex and self-searching movie.
Where Brody and Flanagan both go wrong is in overestimating how celebratory the movie is, and especially Cliff Booth. (My Nation colleague Stuart Klawans is much closer to the mark in calling attention to the way the film is an exercise in self-criticism on Tarantino's part).
As played by Brad Pitt, Booth of course has a lean laconic charisma. So he's a man of violence. In the movie other characters talk about rumors that he killed his wife, a murder that seems all too plausible. His two-fisted interactions with Bruce Lee and hippies are implicitly contrasted with the happy-go-lucky acceptance of Sharon Tate (who takes Lee as mentor and embrace a hippy hitchhiker she gives a ride to).
It's true that Booth (along with his buddy Rick Dalton) earns redemption by fighting off the Manson cult. But the fact that this has happened in reality makes this a bittersweet triumph. Just as Inglourious Basterds underscored how the actual World War II did not have the satisfying slam-bang climax of a war movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reminds us that action star heroics existed only on the big screen in 1969.
The title should be a clue. It's an allusion, of course, to the films of Sergio Leone ( Once Upon a Time in the West Once Upon a Time in America ). But it's also a reference to fairytales, to make-believe stories. Tarantino is playing a double game with his alternative histories: "The happy ending is in the movies.