Tarantino’s Love Letter to Trump

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During his 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump recycled a campaign slogan used several times before (by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). However, when Trump used it, the slogan took an ominous turn. When Trump or his supporters call out to “Make America Great Again,” Voice of America argues that it doesn’t “just appeal to people who hear it as racist coded language,” but that it also directly appeals to “those who have felt a loss of status as other groups have become more empowered.”

You know, white people…and specifically white dudes.

In case you still aren’t sure about the racist connotations of the campaign slogan, here are a few highlights from an article on the topic by Marissa Melton

  • Donald Trump “won the election on one word, one word only. And that word was ‘again,'” Daryl Davis says. “When was ‘again?’ Was it back when I was drinking from a separate water fountain? Was it when I couldn’t eat in that restaurant over there? … Make America Great Again — before I had equality?”
  • President Bill Clinton is on record as having used it during his presidential campaign in 1991, although not as an official slogan. Yet, in 2008, while campaigning for his wife, he noted: “If you’re a white Southerner, you know exactly what it means, don’t you?”
  • Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who now works to help other white supremacists leave the movement, says the slogan fits into the alt-right’s efforts to make its message more attractive by toning down the rhetoric. “That was a concerted effort,” Picciolini says in an informational video for Vox news. “We knew we were turning more people away that we could eventually have on our side if we just softened the message. These days with our political climate we see a lot of coded language, or dog whistles.” (Picciolini’s use of “dog whistle” refers to a subtle message meant to be understood only by a particular group of people, like a whistle pitched high enough that a dog might hear it, but a human would not.) “Make America Great Again?” Picciolini asks rhetorically. “Well, to them, that means make America white again.” 
  • In June 2016, a Tennessee politician even put that on a billboard. Rick Tyler, running for a congressional seat in mostly white Polk County, Tennessee, explained that his “Make America White Again” billboard was meant to evoke the mood of 1950s America, when television shows idealized the image of the happy white family. 

Ah yes, those good old days, when, to quote “Those Were The Days,” the title song for the problematic television show All in the Family (CBS, 1971-1979):

Guys like us we had it made, 
Those were the days, 
And you know where you were then, 
Girls were girls and men were men, 
Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again, 
Didn’t need no welfare states 
Everybody pulled his weight, 
Gee our old Lasalle ran great, 
Those were the days…
People seemed to be content. 
Fifty dollars paid the rent. 
Freaks were in a circus tent. 
Those were the days
Take a little Sunday spin, 
Go to watch the Dodgers win. 
Have yourself a dandy day 
That cost you under a fin. 
Hair was short and skirts were long. 

You remember All in the Family, with the famously racist Archie Bunker, who would absolutely be wearing a MAGA hat if he were around today. The show that was supposed to critique racism in America but instead offered comfort and amusement to racists all over the country who felt seen. Racists who, similarly, yearned for the good old days, when cars were grand and freaks stayed away and hippies didn’t have long hair and women wore skirts, long skirts, which meant they could not do any kind of physical activity, but that was okay, because “girls were girls,” and girls don’t need to do any kind of physical activity, anyway. They just need to smile, look pretty, clean the house, and make some babies.

As things intensify for the next presidential election, and CNN tries to pit “moderates” against “progressives,” and no one can quite agree on how to get rid of student loan debt or whether to have single payer health care, everyone on “this” side of the aisle agrees that Trump is a problem, that his message is built on racism, and that he and Archie Bunker are relics from the past best buried six feet under.

Well, except for the fact that Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, seems crafted to embrace those “good old days,” when people “seemed to be content,” and by people I mean white dudes — and everyone loves it.

Much to my confusion, most of the people I know who jump at attention whenever Trump sends out one of his dog whistles are cheering Tarantino’s three hour long love letter to “the good old days,” which seems weird (at best) and horrifying (at worst). Just how deep-seated is America’s racism and misogyny? Just how much do we really hate freaks and hippies and women and basically anyone who isn’t a white dude? How much MAGA is really going on, without the conspicuous red hats?

I’m not going to talk about Tarantino’s derivative filmmaking technique, how he steals liberally under the guise of “auteur theory,” how he has not developed at all as a director since Reservoir Dogs, or how he is a better screenwriter than director, because that’s been done elsewhere, at length.

The focus of my fury is something entirely different. The focus of my fury is the overwhelming similarity between Trump’s racist and misogynistic messaging and that embraced in Tarantino’s latest, and the fact that somehow many people that would critique the former are cheering for the latter.

I recognize that some of my problems are specific and some are institutional, but all are infuriating, especially for the lack of attention they are receiving in this particular context.

As I watched the blank check provided to Tarantino unravel and spiral, meandering from one expensive and overly long scene to the next, countless moments that served no point, that brought no meaningful action forward, in a movie that is easily an hour too long, that is arguably a prolonged prologue until the film’s jubilant last twenty minutes, I couldn’t help but think about Andrea Arnold.

Arnold is not the first woman in Hollywood to lose creative control over her own project–she is even hardly the first person–but she is a recent example of how Hollywood persistently silences female authorial voices. Arnold was brought on to direct season two of the Showtime television series Big Little Lies. However, without her knowledge, the footage was re-edited to conform to the directorial style of season one as established by Jean-Marc Vallée.

As Chris O’Falt writes in an article on the topic for Indiewire, “When HBO and the show’s executive producers were unwilling to wait for Vallée, who had committed to Sharp Objects, to shoot season 2, the creative team behind the show collectively decided to hire Arnold, whose work they believed that Vallée and his Season 1 team could easily shape into the show’s distinctive style in post-production.” They just forgot to mention to Arnold what they were doing, because, of course, why would they?

So while Arnold slaved away at her season, only to have it taken away from her without her consent and re-edited in order to fit some other guy’s aesthetic, Tarantino is allowed to spend $90 million on a film with no plot, a film that seems entirely designed to revel in our subverted expectations. You know, our expectation for a narrative.

While this speaks to larger institutional problems in Hollywood, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it come to the unrelenting misogyny in Tarantino’s latest. A quick list, in case you blinked and missed it:

  • The character of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) repeatedly has to prove who she is. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), however, even after his career appears long gone, is instantly recognized and, despite his anxieties about that fading career, still seems to have power and agency. So much so that he has a working flamethrower at the ready.
  • Sharon barely has any lines of dialogue throughout the sprawling three hour film. Rick never seems to shut up.
  • When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) picks up a hitchhiker, we get to hear their entire conversation, even the uncomfortable parts. When Sharon picks up a hitchhiker, we don’t get to hear any part of their conversation. Why should we care about two women talking?
  • Sharon Tate is often barefoot and smiling. That’s pretty much the extent of her character. Needless to say, we get lots of shots of Rick’s and Cliff’s manly shoes.
  • There is a brief reference to Cliff’s wife, whom he may or may not have killed. We get one odd scene with her, shrew-like, harassing him, but no further explanation. Maybe there were a couple more scenes but Tarantino just couldn’t fit them in within three hours? The message I got from it is that it doesn’t matter what happened to her. She was annoying, and it’s good that she’s dead.
  • Similarly, when Rick gets married, his new wife breaks up his bromance with Cliff and seems to be little more than an added burden for which he needs to provide. Other than shrieking in Italian, I’m hard pressed to remember any actual lines of dialogue she got to deliver.
  • And yes, there is a dude who is beaten up in the movie. Tex (Austin Butler) is actually beaten up twice, but it’s okay, because he’s a “fucking hippie” or a “hippie asshole” (depending on what line of dialogue you want to reference), aka has long hair, aka might as well be a girl because he sure isn’t making America great again.
  • There are a couple other women in the movie, but if they aren’t heavily sexualized (and even if they are) they are beaten up horrifically, including one disturbing moment where Cliff, as he describes it, burns “her ass to a crisp.” Even more disturbing was the audience applause when aforementioned woman was set on fire, or when other women are beaten repeatedly until their faces cave in.

The movie, in case you missed it, is an ode to the great (white) American male, to the days when men were men and women were women, and that meant that you knew where you stood, and if you were a white man, that meant you could stand anywhere, and if you weren’t, you might as well be dead. The only way to get those days back, it seems, is to buy a red MAGA hat. Oh yeah, and vote Republican.

Bruce Lee’s daughter has already spoken out about the disparaging portrayal of her father in the film. As Shannon Lee said, “I understand that the two characters are antiheroes and this is sort of like a rage fantasy of what would happen… and they’re portraying a period of time that clearly had a lot of racism and exclusion…I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.” She also adds, Tarantino might be trying to make a point about how Lee was stereotyped, “but it doesn’t come across that way.”

Do you know why it doesn’t come across that way? Because there is no alternate portrayal of Lee, because the scene is designed purely for audiences to cheer as Lee is thrown into a car, because in this movie, only white guys win fights. White women and minorities–they don’t win fights. They barely exist.

The terrifying aspects of Trump’s political messaging is precisely how effectively it resonates–either explicitly or implicitly–among the American public. After hearing yesterday’s crowded theater erupt into cheers when an Asian man is beaten up, when Mexicans are the butt of a joke, when women get their faces broken open or their bodies set on fire, after hearing rave review after rave review of a film that is basically the theatrical adaptation of the “Those Were the Days,” I am even more afraid. If we want to get rid of man in the White House, it seems like we have to begin by looking in the mirror.