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Once Upon A Time ... in Hollywood requires prior knowledge of history. Is that bad?

Aug. 2, 2019 at 6:28PM

My 19 year old son and I were walking out of the theater after Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood and he was clearly dejected. “That was terrible,” he said to me, “I had no idea what was going on.”

Do you know who Sharon Tate is?


Do you know anything about Charles Manson?

A little.

This went on for a while and as we exited I started recounting the story to him. Explaining the history behind what was going on in Hollywood in the late 60s. The tipping point the Manson murders represented. The transition from Hullaballoo Hollywood creating wholesome entertainment to serious auteur cinema and the dawn of sex and violence making it’s way into our cultural gestalt. I saw the light bulbs go off. And by the end of the conversation he said:

“We have to go see this again.”

OUATIH is a fantastic film, one that many have accurately called a pastiche of pop culture as it existed in the late 60s. The movie nails the time and the place perfectly. It captures the pop culture gestalt in every way, right down to the movie posters, the gogo boots and the slick automobiles. The film’s portrayals of characters real and fictional creates a film mash-up that feels fully original. And Brad Pitt in a convertible listening to 60s nuggets on the radio? Give me that all day.

But the film does pose a bit of a problem. Or maybe more so a question: Should you need prior knowledge of history to enjoy – or even understand this movie, or any movie for that matter? I was listening to the Slash Film Podcast about OUATIH where one reviewer was really adamant about the requirement of prior knowledge really being a drawback. And yes, it’s true, like my son, you will likely be lost if you don’t have some knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the Manson Family and their vile actions on that August night in 1969.

But it got me thinking: Can you enjoy Z if you don’t know anything about the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis?

Can you enjoy Medium Cool if you weren’t up to speed on the Chicago protests during the 1968 Democratic convention?

Do you need to know the history of the French Resistance to understand Melville’s Army of Shadows?

I could go on and on.

The point is to complain about a film because you don’t know history is lazy. Films should entertain, certainly, but they are also infinitely educational. And really, not knowing who Sharon Tate is more of a “you” problem than it is a Quentin Tarantino problem.

The fact that Sharon Tate was brutally murdered along with four of her friends should be remembered. It should be something you know about. You should know that their deaths represented a cultural transition that sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry. Sharon Tate really never had a chance to let her light shine. And Tarantino wants to give her the due she deserves.

Tarantino’s entire film oeuvre is, frankly a wildly entertaining ride through history and pop culture references. He wants to entertain but he also wants you to appreciate cinema and have a deeper understanding of its history by sprinkling film references throughout. And it’s likely why in OUATIH he cannot stand to get one detail of it wrong (Okay maybe one thing, but that requires spoilers and I’d rather not go there.)

So be entertained, learn a little a bit and God forbid that you might have to Google something afterwards.

Once Upon A Time ... in Hollywood is currently showing in "glorious" 35mm at the Oriental Theater.