Why change the past? Tarantino’s cure to tragedy

I am trialling a slightly different kind of article. This will discuss an idea in particular more so than it does review the content. This article looks at Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and how or why it decides to change the past.

The ‘Home Invasion’ Scene, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019).
Austin Butler as Tex Watson (left) & Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth (right)
Credit: Sony Pictures

When hypothetically given the chance to traverse time, a question that will often arise is; what would you do?

This is a question that came to me after first watching Once Upon a Timein Hollywood. It’s a question I think is especially important and relevant today in regards to reversing or preventing events from happening. 2020 so far has been a year in particular where the news has constantly been filled with tragedies in which we only wish could be reversed. This year aside, a common answer to the time travel question is preventing World War II and the heinous acts that came with it. However, why is this the go to answer for this question when time travel is brought up? Is it because it is the greatest atrocity in living memory and therefore we default to attempting to prevent it?

We’re aware of stories where responsibility and power is misused. We want to be moral by attempting to prevent a World War from ever happening. We have this idea in our heads that if we managed to stop the war before it had even started that it would right a wrong, or in a way, right one of the biggest wrongs there ever was. To be victorious without any loss necessary. The evil would never come about to begin with.

A scene from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019).
(left to right) Madisen Beaty, Maya Hawke, Austin Butler, Mikey Madison
Credit: Sony Pictures

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a film that decides to right the wrong of the Sharon Tate murders. So, why is this? What specifically about events such as these makes us want to fictionally fix them? Why change the past? Why change the past through film? Is it because we believe through film that we can get our own back on those who have hurt us? In our current state, the closest thing to time travel is recreating the environment that once was in film and on set, on screen. As a result, we decide if we had time travel we would right the wrongs of past years.

Is it because we feel an obligation when something is wrong to therefore make it right? Do films even make something like these murders right by fictionalising them with different and desirable outcomes? Do they really even give us anything of value other than a skewed account of the brutal truth? My personal view and one that I believe others share on Tarantino’s films in which he changes the past is to do with the idea of Catharsis.

Catharsis is used in order to overcome traumatic and emotionally draining experiences.

Catharsis is the purging of emotions. It allows you to reflect on an experience, looking it over, seeing what happened and allowing yourself to understand it and therefore overcome it. The etymology of the word Catharsis is the ancient Greek word Katharsis – with a K instead of a C. It simply means purification, or cleansing, or clarification and it’s all about moving on. So, this idea has been around for ages – literally. In 480BC, the Battle of Salamis occurred, a product of the Greco-Persian wars. The Greeks managed to get an upper hand on the Persians for the first time during the Battle of Salamis, winning it. The Greeks were significantly outnumbered, so this was an impressive feat.

Now, Greek theatre was big back then. One could make a comparison to theatre being the equivalency of something like the World Cup. The Great Dionysia, a huge festival, was put on for Greeks, from all over – well – Greece. They would come to Athens to celebrate, with the main event being plays – the majority of them being tragedies. The Persians was a play written by a Greek named Aeschylus specifically for the Dionysia. The play was about the aforementioned Greco-Persian battle at Salamis, but from the perspective of the Persians and their king, Xerxes.

An image from ‘Battle of Salamis 480BC (Persian Invasion of Greece) DOCUMENTARY
Credit: Kings and Generals (YouTube)

The purpose of this play was catharsis. Most of the Greeks viewing the play were very likely survivors of the Greco-Persian wars. The first performance of The Persians occurred a mere 8 years after the Battle of Salamis had concluded. Within the play Aeschylus shows the other side to the war, portraying the Persians, although as fools in many regards, also as real people and not just the enemy. It revealed the humanity of the war, with inclusion of weeping mothers mourning their Persian children who had died as soldiers to the Greeks. Although the Persian peoples were broadly humanized, Xerxes, the Persian king, was equally mocked. Aeschylus hyperbolically made Xerxes out to be a cowardly man child, who cries when he loses the battle.

So, catharsis is revealing and telling, and it allows to have this purging of emotions, for everyone. By exposing yourself to an event that has traumatised you and broke you in many ways, like wars and horrific murders do – it can be good to utilise fiction and artistic portrayal in order to come to terms with the event, to understand its intricacies and therefore overcome what once haunted you through experiencing it by means of this artistic lens of said traumatic event.

This is where the title comes in – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

This movie is a fairy-tale!  It’s a fairy-tale because we can’t change the past and we can’t correct wars and we can’t stop murders that already happened. So, it’s a fairy-tale, a pipe dream that isn’t possible, but desirable and can be used for the purpose of catharsis to course correct our own heads. Catharsis can make us feel better about an experience, or maybe not even better, but to simply understand it and therefore be able to move on.

The experience is what Tarantino creates so effectively. Where he could show the murder of Sharon Tate as a means to utilise catharsis, he does the opposite. He flips it on its head and gives us an ending we can get behind. He bends the rules of reality through fiction, a bit like how Aeschylus did all the way back when. Xerxes was made out to be a cowardly man child who ran all the way back to Persia after losing, crying and tearing his clothes off in shame. This is similar to how Cliff Booth (portrayed by Brad Pitt) obliterates the likes of the murderers, humiliating them and their attempts to try and take Dalton’s life. Both of these stories ruin the image of the person who tormented us, but still portray the event in a similar way so that we can experience overcoming it.

The thing is, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where crime, sin and death are real. We have desires to change the past, because we believe it could lead to a better future. Film has forever been a space of escapism , where fantasy worlds can allow for moments of catharsis and emotional exhaustion. It’s a way to process events that can feel unthinkable and turn them into situations where the opposite is the truth. So, the fact of the matter is that we change the past through film because it’s the only way we truly can in our current position. Film is utilised as the best alternative to a bad situation. At the very least we can witness the what if, even if it isn’t the truth. We can overcome, even if we can’t undo.

You can buy Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, HERE.

You can learn about the Battle of Salamis, HERE.

Click HERE for past reviews.

Adam Zak Hawley

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