A caveat: I haven’t actually seen Once Upon A Time yet. But I have studied Tarantino.
His most recent film has generated a lot of controversy in the last several days, primarily for its portrayal – or mis-portrayal of late actor Bruce Lee. Lee’s close friend, Kareem Abdul Jabbar tweeted about the film yesterday, "Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants," the former NBA star wrote. "But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being." This follows more vocal complaints from Lee’s wife earlier this week.
Let me say this first: from everything I’ve read about the film, these complaints aren’t inaccurate as far as they go. The Bruce Lee character in Tarantino’s movie is nothing like the man himself. By all accounts, Lee was a kind, generous man, creative, gifted in several ways, a loving husband and father, who overcame adversity while remaining humble, and who helped to change racist perceptions in the West. From what I’ve read, the Lee in this film is none of those things.
But to make that observation is to miss the point entirely: Tarantino’s point, not just in this film, but in all of his films – the one artistic message he seems determined to return to again and again, and so let me say it in bold, is that MOVIES ARE NOT REALITY. We want them to be. Lots of times we pretend they are. But they just aren’t. Period. The end.
Pulp Fiction’s title gives this away: what happens in the film isn’t just meant as fiction; it’s supposed to be the most contrived sort of fiction, the kind put out in cheap, sensational novels. It’s fiction that’s distorted in such a way that it gives readers and viewers a false pleasure. For example, random events happen throughout the movie that seem to have no relation to one another, and then, magically, they all get tied up nicely in the movie’s ending in a way that is immensely satisfying. That’s about as far from reality as you can get. But again, if you missed that fact then you didn’t bother to read the film’s title on the way to your seat.
Django Unchained has its title character wreaking righteous and impossible revenge on a 19th century white slave owner. Inglorious Basterds kills Hitler at the end. Anyone who thinks Tarantino is trying to “portray reality” has seriously missed the point. If there’s one thing he wants us to see it’s
Life = one thing Film = something else
And I cannot stress this enough: he’s not making the point subtly. He’s done everything but stop a film right in the middle, walk out on to the screen, and say directly to our faces: “Hey, just so you know, this is a film, and it’s totally fictional.”
There are a lot of negative things that might be said about Tarantino. His failure to speak out loudly enough about Harvey Weinstein either before or after Weinstein was outed as the worst kind of sexual predator, probably chief among them. And you don’t have to agree with his artistic message, though for me it may be the most important argument made in cinema at least since Citizen Kane.
But complaining that he doesn’t accurately portray a real life figure like Bruce Lee just doesn’t make any sense. In fact, it only reinforces Tarantino’s point. “What? This Bruce Lee is nothing like the real guy? You mean movies aren’t real life? Scandalous.”
In fact, there’s a reading of Tarantino’s film that indicts those very complaints as the real source of the problem. Every time you walk out of one of his films and say, “that wasn’t the way it happened,” he hopes you’re one step closer to realizing the truth: that NO movie shows what “really” happened. I think if we’d all just get that he could stop making movies altogether. But we just never seem to.
I left Bohemian Rhapsody more convinced than ever that Freddie Mercury was a rock god. But guess what – it was just a movie, it wasn’t real. Yeah, the movie showed Mercury’s flaws, so we think to ourselves, “Wow, it’s being really honest.” Nope. That’s a trick. Movies are still movies. Life is still life. We can’t understand all that Mercury – or any other human being – is in two hours.
Tarantino KNOWS that movies are fake; we as the audience still haven’t quite figured it out. I love Neil Degrasse Tyson, but his tweets on the scientific accuracies and inaccuracies of every sci fi blockbuster are ridiculous. And to complain about Tarantino’s portrayal of Lee is only more of the same kind of ridiculousness. It only makes it more clear that we haven’t figured this simple principle out. Of course Lee wasn’t like this character. He also wasn’t like his character in The Green Hornet or Enter the Dragon, or any of the other films he made during his stellar career. He was a flesh and blood human being. The real travesty, in some ways is that we insist on seeing him as an icon, that we can only seem him as a “star.”
Abdul Jabbar, and others actually knew Lee, and they’re driven by a nobler, loving impulse to protect their friend’s memory, and I respect that. That impulse comes from the right place. But in some ways they are actually doing Lee a disservice, a disservice Tarantino, in his complicated way, is trying to correct. For better or worse, the famous Lee, the one who made those movies, the one portrayed in biopics like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, the one worshiped and adored by millions, is a lie, a total fabrication. Lee was a man. Flesh and blood. He had good days and bad days. Maybe he picked his nose. Maybe once in a while he was grumpy. Maybe one time he forgot to feed his dog. Most of us never really knew him, and that’s a shame, because a human being is so much more than a celebrity. A celebrity is something we’ve invented. It isn’t real.
Marilyn Monroe had to die because none of us understood that fact that the Marilyn Monroe we knew wasn’t real, and even Monroe herself had lost the real person somewhere along the way. And I mean that in an almost literal sense. The person she was simply no longer existed. She was this image, this invented thing, even to herself. Elton John, whose own life was the subject of a recent celebrated movie, captured this fact about Monroe’s celebrity poignantly in “Candle in the Wind.” It isn’t just that Hollywood “whispered into your brain, […] set you on a treadmill, and they made you change your name.” It isn’t that “Hollywood made you a superstar,” the “toughest role you ever played.” The most telling line in that song comes at the beginning, when the speaker admits, “I never knew you at all.” No one did.
We justly celebrate John’s tribute for what it says about how Monroe’s celebrity took her life, and took it long before her death. But for whatever reason we haven’t yet caught on to the fact that Tarantino’s films are saying the same thing. For better or worse, movies manipulate us. Eddie Murphy used to have a bit about how dangerous it was for a black man to be outside a theater when a Rocky film let out, all the testosterone flying in the air. We walked out of Inglorious Basterds on the same kind of high, because Hitler had been blown up. And we liked that. We wanted that. It wasn’t real, but it made us happy. But if we didn’t stop and think about that reaction – that a movie gave us something so obviously unreal and it made us happy as though it actually had been real – then we missed the point. Those complaining about Once Upon a Time are missing that point as well. And after all, what more can Tarantino do? Once again, he’s put it right there in the title. Once Upon A Time isn’t THIS ISN’T REAL, but it might as well be.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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