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Can Quentin Tarantino Not Dance?

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)


Viewers with good rhythm might have noticed something a little off in Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019). The Sharon Tate character played by Margot Robbie sways and dances to music throughout the film, yet several times she is slightly but noticeably out of the pocket. This is sometimes so slight that it seems to be an editing or syncing problem, having nothing to do with Robbie or Tate, but it is still jarring to those who notice it. Those scenes have a tendency to proclaim their own grooviness; to announce that one is groovy while dancing badly would seem to be an un-groovy thing to do. More importantly, it has a small but not trivial effect on the characterization of Tate. It’s not simply that she can’t dance; it’s that the lack of precise rhythmic continuity between her dancing body and the song suggests that she’s someone who has no real feeling for the music she obviously enjoys. She happily hears the music, but her listening is blithe; she indulges herself fully, as all music-lovers do, but the pleasure is coarse. She lacks, in a word, elegance, or soul.

This inarticulateness at the level of the body is something Quentin Tarantino has been aware of in the past; he made a point in Jackie Brown (1997) of showing Bridget Fonda drumming along to music with a coarseness and unmusicality that matched her character’s. But here no point other than the innocence and effortless charm of Sharon Tate is being made. The film envelops her in such fondness and wistful esteem that to make such a point would be callous. What is surely an accident, therefore, nevertheless implies an interpretation of Tate that aligns with what has been said by others about the supposed misogyny of the film. That Robbie wasn’t given enough lines should not be troubling to moviegoers who know that silence can be as meaningful as speech in the movies. The silence of characters who have been given few lines gives away, in principle, nothing about them, but the movements of their bodies reveal everything. When Sharon Tate is out of sync with the music, we know something we were not supposed to know. It is this revelatory power of the body that Tarantino seeks to deny in this film, blinding himself to it in the process.

This can be seen in the music itself. Music literally moves us, and so a film that fears the body fears music. When Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) cruises through LA, Tarantino can’t bring himself to pick a song for the montage. He opts for the stylish choice instead: spliced scraps of songs off the radio, lasting a few seconds each. Hearing clips of songs in succession readily suggests the absent-minded surfing of the radio, or the loneliness of metropolis driving, but it carries no emotional power; the snippets are too short and carved-up to take hold. This is an appeal to the mind, not the body. The mind responds to the concept while the body remains immovable. As a student of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), Tarantino knows that loneliness or dissipation can be evoked by beautiful music as well as by the ugly; songs that are not allowed to stretch themselves out or assert their own integrity are ugly. They are reduced to noise. It may be catchy and familiar noise, even beloved noise, but it is noise nonetheless.

Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

Jackie Brown was a triumph of music editing, cutting songs short and bringing them back again, weaving them in and out of each other, always with feeling and tension, whereas this film feels cluttered by comparison. Its songs move us to the extent that we are moved by clutter. And it should be admitted that many of us, in 2019, are: one of the anachronisms of the film is the sense that 1969, in terms of cultural noise, is no different from today. One almost expects someone to pull out a smartphone, the way the movie treats its music—and by extension its silence. Tarantino’s films used to have moments of genuine respite; when Cliff Booth gets meditative after climbing a roof, taking off his shirt and opening a beer, the camera is almost immediately distracted, zooming away from his torso, cutting to flashbacks, shifting to the house next door. There is one part of the film that sounds like a different time, rather than merely looking like one, and that is the brief silence of the opening credits. It feels sumptuous and purposeful, not quiescent, matching the camera’s lush, slow zoom, but the spell ends as soon as we realize that the point-of-view is shot from the inside of a car: Tarantino immobilizes us from the beginning.

He does the same thing to his female actors. In Margot Robbie’s best scene, discussed below, she sits. Ten-year-old Julia Butters sits, with a relatively large book in her lap. Lorenza Izzo, as the Italian wife of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, is forced not only to sit when she is at her most animated and expressive, but to speak Italian, without subtitles. The actress playing Abigail Folger sits at a piano in her pivotal scene, and plays it poorly. The best female performance in the film—Dakota Fanning’s—takes place almost entirely behind a screen door; otherwise, she also sits, at the television. The Manson Family women in general have bodies that seem to stiffen and droop at once, zombie-like; at times they are filmed in unnatural horizontal or single file lines, like hippie soldiers, a decision that conveys isolation or regiment even when they’re given the space to expand.

The odd-performance-out here comes from Margaret Qualley’s brazen Pussycat, which at first glance seems quite physical. It is not surprising that Qualley is a trained ballerina, not only in the control of her body, but in the mannered and even prescribed quality of her movements. One suspects that this talented actress, who has real exuberance to boot, has been over-directed: “bite your lip,” “slouch this way then cross your legs,” and last but not least “put your feet up.” What a different feeling the scene would have had if she had thrust her feet in the camera of her own accord, not to speak of getting in Brad Pitt’s lap. Her wordless routines with Pitt have the air of an ancient sign language: her motions are more foreign than surprising; we know what they mean, but they are heavily accented; they have a mustiness that paradoxically bespeaks puritanism; one feels, most of all, that her idiosyncrasy is not her own. (In Pulp Fiction (1994), Maria de Madeiros makes the same flat, then clasping hand gesture to Bruce Willis. Qualley didn’t get it from her.) You can’t stage-block the eccentricities of someone’s body, at least not with any truth or surprise left in the actor, but Tarantino tries, and his quick, possibly hasty cuts away from Qualley after the desired movements are performed only confirm his fear of her body. What appeared to be physical is anti-physical, a rejection of her sexuality by way of a false, preplanned, and controlling embrace of it.

Lena Dunham, Margaret Qualley and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

Tarantino’s control of the female body does not stop at sex; he apparently wants to canalize the liveliness of women itself, their vividness and spontaneity offered up as snapshots only. This extends to the treatment of Julia Butters, for what could be more vivid than a child? A film that fears the body fears children. If you want to douse the light and life of a child, a good way to do it is to have her play a method actor. What you are doing is exchanging that light for a certain abstract charm, appreciable but not astonishing in the way that any alert child can be. That Butters is undeniably cute does not mask that she feels some discomfort with her own solemnity here. Her sternness is more convincing than her pity, but her very slight boredom with it all is more convincing than her sternness. The boredom is a sign of constraint; she seems happiest when being thrown on the floor. She is not even allowed to whisper in DiCaprio’s ear: she leans in, miming the action, but out comes a voice of normal volume. It is hard to say what this choice means but it is symbolic of a film that finds it difficult to be quiet. It is also worth noting that Butters is not the only child in the movie: the film fears Sharon Tate’s pregnancy, too. In maybe the worst line of the film, the (male) narrator announces that she felt “especially pregnant in all the worst ways,” essentially defining pregnancy as a sickness rather than something men will never understand, a privilege and mystery of women. Perhaps Tate did feel pregnancy to be a burden, but then let her say it.

The pregnant body of Sharon Tate is not presented as her only blemish, either. Margot Robbie is attractive, for instance, as the camera glides her sleeping, undressed body, but the focal point, to our surprise, is snoring; her sensuality is entertained but discarded so that a bodily function can be played for laughs. The body is a joke: if we momentarily felt desire, we are made to feel foolish. Lorenza Izzo snores too, which is to say that the snoring is merely thematic, having nothing to do with Tate. Functionally, it calls attention to the humbler fact that women sleep at all: another act of immobilization. When Izzo’s character is knocked out from taking sleeping pills, Cliff Booth tells Rick Dalton to go “lie naked with that fine creature.” And as if to distract us from the implication, when a man sleeps in this film (George Spahn), it is not clear that he has not been coerced to do so—by women. When Izzo’s character sleeps in this film, rape is on the table; when Spahn sleeps, it’s because he has to stay up late to watch TV that night. Yet the world of the movie seems to want us to take George Spahn’s vulnerability more seriously than Izzo’s more pressing vulnerability, which is, after all, signified by a tossed-off line of dialogue; Spahn’s appearance is the climax of a visit to the Manson Family.

When women are awake, they too watch TV; but unlike the men, they are occasionally shown to be in thrall to it. Cliff Booth’s TV is already on when he gets home, and he has the freedom to watch or not watch it, playing with his dog and making dinner in the meantime. Dakota Fanning’s character, however, watches TV like she’s on life support. When she answers the door, she is so intense, so weird, so wired, it’s as if a TV popped out of her neck. In a similar way, Margot Robbie’s inner life as Sharon Tate is evoked by the screen and only by the screen. It is touching to watch her go about her day with such sunshine, but the point, that she is a sweet and simple girl, gets old; we tend to want signs of higher life even from the simple people in our lives. Going to the movies to watch yourself on screen is perfectly understandable, but it is not that different from looking at yourself in the mirror: we all do it, but we don’t really want to watch others do it. Dalton and Booth do the same thing, but when they watch TV, they talk back to it. Their commentary is creative: they give something of themselves that wasn’t there before; the show they see is not the show others saw. Tate, however, goes to the movies to see the movie others see; she wants to be carried along by the movie and its audience; she wants to feel it happening to her. This is not creative, it is passive. All Robbie can do in this circumstance is make faces, and those faces for better or worse are not ambiguous or complex; they say only one thing at a time, telegraphing self-conscious, relieved glee without, say, thoughtfulness or shame. When her looks are so clear, so right-there, so un-needful of interpretation, it’s as if her face has been muted, reduced to the status of any other body part.

It is not a coincidence, then, that her face is not the only part of her body to be featured in that scene. It is often said that Tarantino has a foot fetish, but the interesting thing about it is how un-erotic it tends to be: the feet are not well-lit; they are often out of focus; when they are in focus, they’re dirty. The camera never caresses them, never lingers; like the pop music cut short, Tarantino won’t give us the time to begin to share his desires, let alone savor them. The foot motif only indicates a fetish, to which it will not yield. The effect is thus one of eeriness, not arousal. It is a continual reminder to the viewer that such a desire is out there in the world (in Tarantino): it is like having pornography flashed in one’s face; it is a kind of assault. This may sound hyperbolic but it is made clear, even confessed, in the black-and-white sequence of the great and misunderstood Death Proof (2007). In any case, the point is not that Tarantino feet should be sexier. The point is he couldn’t do it if he tried. His fear of the body prevents it. By hinting at desire instead of exploring it, Tarantino keeps sex at bay, reducing it, ultimately, to decorative self-reference. Tarantino’s “foot fetish” is merely Tarantino finding a way to make women’s bodies be about himself. One could almost say that in this film he prefers female feet to female faces: Margot Robbie is not sitting alone in that theater—Quentin is there too.