The cars in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” come close to stealing the show. Given that the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt — both grizzled and a bit beaten up but all the more handsome for it — that’s saying a lot.
There’s some early Oscar buzz around both male leads. But what about the cars? Cars can have a darker side, too — especially the slightly grizzled, beaten up ones.
“Once Upon a Time” is more layered — and, in an unwitting way, more disturbing — than it initially appears. It is set in Los Angeles in 1969, so there are vintage cars everywhere you look. There’s a gorgeous old 1950s MG TD — a stately English convertible driven by Roman Polanski (played by Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). There’s the creamy yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville owned by the actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio). And then there’s the blue, beaten-up 1964 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, which belongs to Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt).
Oh, that Karmann Ghia. It’s lovely. I read that to help it perform in the movie as Tarantino wanted it to, he had its VW engine replaced with a pumped-up Subaru engine. The result, strange to say, is exactly what Tarantino’s films are like: cult cars souped up with new engines.
They’re exercises, in other words, in having it both ways: nostalgic and up-with-the-times; viscerally violent and glibly cartoonish; knowing and innocent. Tarantino’s casting of the Karmann Ghia expresses this duality in more ways than one.
I should stress at this point that I am in no way a “car guy.” I own a Honda CRV, and I can never remember where they’ve hidden the lever that opens the hood. But I do love beautiful cars, and whenever I see a Karmann Ghia, whether in a film or in real life, my heart breaks into a canter.
Yes, Porsches are gorgeous. Citroens are cool. And the great Italian sports cars are obviously unsurpassable. But Karmann Ghias — an unlikely combination of German (Volkswagen) mechanicals and Italian design — are simply the most beautiful cars ever built.
I know, I know, beauty is subjective. (Although it’s not so hard to find agreement on the proposition that Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie are good-looking.) But that’s precisely the point: A Karmann Ghia’s attractiveness is not absolute in any Platonic, archetypal way, like a Porsche or a Ferrari. Karmann Ghias are real. They’re invitations to fandom. They’re approachable. They’re affordable. And their shape is — to a degree that’s almost sublime — just right.
So yes, if I were Quentin Tarantino, setting my film in 1969, with his moviemaking budget, I, too, would be looking for just about any excuse to film a scene with a Karmann Ghia. I might even build my whole movie around it.
There was a moment when I thought that’s exactly what he had done. In one of the film’s indelible sequences, Pitt bids farewell to DiCaprio, hops into his Karmann Ghia, and drives home. Suddenly, it’s as if he were in a different movie, playing a bank robber with the cops in hot pursuit.
He’s not. They’re not. The whole sequence feels gloriously pointless, and — in classic Tarantino style — quite a few seconds longer than it needs to be. But the pointlessness is exactly what makes it so wonderful.
You could argue that the scene helps “develop” Booth’s character. You would dutifully point out that when acting as Dalton’s chauffeur, buddy and life coach, Booth drives his Coupe de Ville sedately, whereas when he is in his own car — the Karmann Ghia — he expresses his true calling as a stunt double: He appears to become a reckless lunatic, but he is actually very much in control. Both sides of his character get to shine in the film’s denouement.
But honestly, who cares about that? The real reason — the deeper reason — for the extended Karmann Ghia scene is the same as the reason Tarantino made homages to hard-boiled crime novels (“Pulp Fiction”) and to blaxploitation films (“Jackie Brown”); a revenge fantasy about Nazis (“Inglourious Basterds”); and a vampire Western (“From Dusk Till Dawn”). It’s the same as the reason he chose to cast the likes of John Travolta, Pam Grier and Christopher Walken in leading roles. It’s because he is a fan.
Tarantino’s main talent is and always has been the exuberant expression of fandom. He is a sort of hyperactive curator of personal pop obsessions. He’s just like you and me in this sense, only more so.
He tells stories, yes. But original plotting is not where his energies go. His real talent is to bring the irrational wildness of fandom to stories and subjects that in other hands feel exhausted, cliched or just dated.
Tarantino’s fandom is so uninhibited, it’s infectious. Spotting the references to his various obsessions is part of what makes his films so fun. But he is generous on this score: If you get his allusions, great. If you don’t, he’ll make sure you have a good time anyway.
His enthusiasm overwhelms objections and scruples. (Who else could get away with treating a subject as distressing as the murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate with the moral sensitivity of a teenage YouTube celebrity?) And it overwhelms reality.
But that can come at a cost.
Tarantino is happy for you to know that his father owned a blue Karmann Ghia. But the mental connection he would probably prefer you didn’t make when you see “Once Upon a Time” is between the Karmann Ghia and a trauma experienced 15 years ago by Uma Thurman — a trauma for which Tarantino last year publicly acknowledged responsibility.
In the final stages of shooting “Kill Bill: Volume 2,” Tarantino had asked Thurman, the film’s lead, to drive a blue Karmann Ghia down a sandy road at a speed with which she was uncomfortable. She had been told the car was not operating correctly after its manual transmission was changed to automatic. She asked Tarantino to get a stunt double to do it instead.
Tarantino insisted she drive, and the upshot was awful. The Karmann Ghia, with Thurman at the wheel, plowed into a tree. Thurman, who is convinced she could have been killed, has since described the incident as “negligent to the point of criminality.” She forgave Tarantino (he describes the incident as the biggest regret of his life). But Thurman maintained that the alleged attempt by Harvey Weinstein, Lawrence Bender and E. Bennett Walsh to cover it up was “unforgivable.”
I love Tarantino’s take on the movies. I love the energy behind his enthusiasms. And I share his crush on the Karmann Ghia. But his sensibility — which has been massively influential not just on the movies but on television and on the culture at large — also makes me queasy. I can’t say why, exactly. But it has to do with the way his films seem to wallow in the very confusions they create.
Tarantino gets away with his brand of boyish fandom both because it speaks to the childish fantasist in each of us and because we are, at the same time, adults. That is to say, we all have a healthy sense of irony.
We know it’s just the movies. We know the difference between a family and a cult. We know how to distinguish a con man from a candidate, an active shooter drill from the real thing, real news from fake news, real people from actors and actors from stunt doubles.
Because we do, right? We’re all clear on that.
I mean, surely we’re all clear on that?