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I asked our producer-at-large, Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 graduate of USC film school, some questions about the new Quentin Tarantino movie, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. But he won't be the first priest to weigh in the movie -- Bishop Robert Barron already spoke about it:
With Bishop Barron's video under his belt, Father Kuna dove into my questions. Here's what he had to say ...
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't seen the movie, recommend you go do that and come back later.
Before answering the questions, it's important to reveal the ending, which is the key to understanding the rest of the film and most of the questions you ask. In much the same way that Tarantino's 2019 revisionist World War II film Inglourious Basterds poses an alternate ending to the fate of Nazi high command, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood messes with historical fact.
Three members of cult leader Charles Manson's infamous "Manson Family" invade the house of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). His stuntman best friend (Brad Pitt) and he dispatch the three in short order. Sharon Tate (next door neighbor to Rick, played by Margot Robbie) and her friends never meet their tragic fate. So, it's within this fantasy context that the rest of the film must be read. It's life as Tarantino wishes it were, not life as it really was.
Did you agree with Bishop Barron about the moral center of Brad Pitt's character?
I agree with Bishop Barron that Brad Pitt's character represents the film's moral center. But again, this is a story of how the director wishes how old Hollywood was, not as it actually was. Hollywood, in fact, was as bad, if not worse, in times of yore. I remember reading a Cineaste essay that producers took advantage of starlets as a professional perk since Hollywood's inception. So, I didn't believe Pitt's morally upright character as representative of Hollywood's reality. If the film were a real story, the scene would have been rewritten to where the stuntman takes advantage of the young lady and, if she proves to be underage, the studio covers it up.
What do you think was the moral message, if any, of the movie?
I would argue, because of the fantasy world Tarantino created, there really isn't a moral message to be derived from the movie. It's not reality. We can't therefore import a morality from a world that is self-conscious of its fantastical quality -- unlike, say fantasy films like The Wizard of Oz that are unconscious that they're fantasy.
The Manson killings have long fascinated America. How does Tarantino choosing to bring them back to the forefront at this time impact the culture, considering all of the mass killings that have happened since?
Charles Manson is only in the film for a bit. So I appreciated the film focusing on Sharon Tate. The last image of the film, a high-angle shot of Sharon Tate's driveway, shows a large stone pattern in the form of a cross. So, whereas a consciously fantastical film offers little in terms of morality for our everyday lives, it does lead us to think of another possible realm.
Where things did not end in a just way in the real world of 1969 Hollywood, there is perhaps another purgatorial realm beyond ours where things are meted out appropriately. Maybe the film itself plays a part in this supernatural process.
A previous pastor of mine was the priest who presided Sharon Tate's funeral Mass. When the film ended, I thought of the stories he told me, and I, too, offered a private Mass intention for Sharon. So that, for me, was the most profoundly impactful moment of the film.
Some reviewers have stated that Brad Pitt's character represents an older form of American masculinity. Do you agree with that, and how do you view his character's masculine code?
What's good for one time is good for all time. I'm not so much concerned that Pitt's masculinity comes from some old cowboy past. If it's a model for not taking advantage of starlets in order to counter the behavior of many modern Hollywood men in the #MeToo era, then you could actually argue old-time values are forward thinking.
Tarantino is an idiosyncratic American filmmaker. How do you feel this movie fits in with his other ones?
The structure of Tarantino's movies have evolved. While I enjoyed Pulp Fiction, I thought the non-linear approach was a storytelling device just for the sake of having one. Things became more sophisticated with the Kill Bill series. I didn't enjoy Volume 1 until after seeing Volume 2 and taking in the pro-life message of the whole story.
The Hateful Eight characters pass a crucifix on the road from the front side, a sign that they are not beyond redemption. The lengthy flashback shows the film's antagonists approaching the same crucifix from the backside, indicative of the wicked persons they are -- beyond the pale, if you will.
What impressed you about the film?
The construction of a fantasy world within historical events impressed me the most. That's what Hollywood is, after all, right, fairytale place to offer the world escapism from reality? Stories that begin "Once Upon a Time..." and end "somewhere over the rainbow."
Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.