Now that the Academy Awards sweepstakes for 2020 is in full cry, with the Golden Globes functioning as a kind of stand-in for the Iowa Caucuses in the tea-leaf-reading business of trying to guess what picture is going to win the golden statuette, it seems to be a good time to have a semiotic look at Quentin Tarantino's latest entrant into the annals of Hollywood cool. Keep in mind that the purpose of such an examination is not the same as that of a film review: how well a movie does what it does is not equivalent to what it signifies. After all, the epic critical and commercial failure of Cats, the movie, has been due, one might say, to a massive, across-the-board wardrobe malfunction, not to anything that it might signify culturally. Conversely, a film can successfully accomplish what it sets out to do, winning commercial and critical acclaim along the way—as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has certainly done—and still pose interesting problems from a cultural standpoint. And that is something Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, as well.
While it isn't what I wish to focus on here, it would be remiss of me not to mention the most common semiotic critique of the film that I have seen so far: that is, the way that it celebrates the days when men were men and completely dominated the entertainment industry. While I'm a little surprised that I haven't seen any mention of the way that this rather archetypal male buddy flick appears to be a self-conscious effort to reproduce the star-power of Robert Redford's and Paul Newman's collaboration in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which (coincidentally?) was released in 1969 (the time frame of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Tarantino's nostalgic homage paid to a perhaps not-so-bygone era has certainly not gone unnoticed.
But what really strikes me here is what Tarantino does with history. Yes, I know that we are forewarned: the "once upon a time" in the title not only alludes to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, it also clues us into the fact that this is a fairy tale, a fantasy from which we should not demand historical accuracy. And after all, Tarantino is famous for playing around with the facts, having already created such revisionist revenge fantasies as Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. So deciding to completely rewrite the history of the Manson Family and the Tate-LaBianca murders is quite in character for Tarantino, whose audiences have come to expect this sort of thing from him.
Well, no one ever said that Hollywood is a history department, and I am under no serious apprehension that anyone is going to walk away believing that the Manson murders did not take place. The reversal of history presented in the movie is so total that it does not present the problems that ostensibly "historical" films that get the history wrong do. As I've said, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, not a documentary.
Still, when we pull back from the film to look at the context (or historical system) in which it appears, a somewhat less reassuring significance begins to loom. For this is the age of "fake news" and conspiracy theories, a time when large groups of people, quite deliberately, invent their own "truth" (what Steve Colbert has satirically called "truthiness") from which they cannot be shaken, no matter how much evidence can be produced in contradiction to their claims. So while there is no risk that the fantasy presented in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will ever be taken seriously as a historical text, its substitution of a wish-fulfillment for the grim facts of history is very much in keeping with the times. In this sense, the movie is a sign—a symptom, not a cause—of the postmodern tendency to regard historical truth as something that is always open for negotiation, with reality itself, as Jean Baudrillard always insisted, being nothing more than a simulacrum of a simulacrum—indeed, one might say, a Hollywood movie about Hollywood movies.