Once Upon An Alternate World

by Christy Dena


This piece contains major spoilers for the film Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019).


It was 3 January 2020, when I sat in the Astor Theatre to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. It was actually near the end of the film that I come to you. The film was building up to the Sharon Tate murder that actually did happen on the 8th August, 1969. I felt myself tensing, getting anxious. But … then … it didn’t happen. The murder didn’t happen. And in that moment I felt relief and I felt brave. I felt freed from the story of this violent, senseless, world.

As a design activist, I wanted to know how Tarantino did this. How did I go from feeling sad and anxious about the inevitability of this world, to feeling emboldened to continue the work of change? It’s not that Tarantino was trying to inspire revolution. I don’t know his wishes. But his craft did contribute to this experience, and I can draw on it and apply it anywhere I like. Thankfully, there was something with me at that screening that unlocked what was going on. A book.

I didn’t physically have the book on me, but I had read it and knew how to read what was happening. I experienced what Nitzan Ben Shaul describes in his book Cinema of Choice: Optional Thinking and Narrative Movies as a kind of thinking that generates new reasons, consequences or solutions to real life problems.[1] Specifically, it was the divergence from a known outcome in history that produced this pleasurable cognitive state. The film “evocatively [implied] the course of history is ultimately unpredictable and different feasible outcomes may lead to alternate futures.”[2] The world is not set in stone.

Ben Shaul backgrounds this argument by saying many movies are designed for us to expect resolution and closure. But there are also others that offer these alternative trajectories and different perspectives — opening up our expectation of what is possible. We don’t assume there is only one ending, only one path, only one way to be. I need things like this in the world. I’ve had plenty of times when I thought I couldn’t pay the rent, and I was scared and anxious about the inevitable notice to vacate. Then a late-paying client suddenly makes good. I’ve had plenty of times when I thought everyone was against me, and then someone I don’t expect reaches out. I think about how many people believe life is just about going to work and earning more money and status. They can’t conceive of radically changing their social and biosphere relations. I, and the world, need more of these alternate trajectories.

This is why I was keen to bottle what Tarantino had done and share it with others. Now, there are a few different narrative strategies that facilitate optional thinking. Ben Shaul talks about multiple narrative tracks (Sliding Doors), perspective shifts (Rashomon), alternatives to previous works (Belle de Jour), and then there is alternate history (Inglourious Basterds).[3] We’re here about the latter.

The thing is, it’s not that an alternate history automatically facilitates optional thinking. The novels, films, and games about the Nazis winning, for instance, are alternate histories that keep things the same. I don’t feel enlivened by them. I don’t feel more is possible. So what is it, then?

What I found is that the pleasure of the divergence from history worked in this film because it was designed to get me to want it but not expect it, not even think it was an option. The film gave me cues along the way to expect the inevitability of the murders. It cued the exact closed thinking that optional thinking is the opposite of, and then delivered the welcome surprise. And I’m torn about this.

There is the emotional design of characters who we don’t wish to see perish violently — characters we like, who are somewhat naïve, and don’t have it coming. Then there is foreboding horror. There is the ominous nature of the Spahn Movie Ranch, which Cliff (Brad Pitt) stumbles into after giving a girl a lift. The set, cast, cinematography, music, sound design, dirt and stares are “scary” and “creepy,” as Taratino describes it.[4] It is a “fucking ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’” moment, as editor Fred Raskin described it. This sequence sets up the dark nature of the Manson family and their capability, and therefore likelihood, to kill.

But the strongest part of the set up for the counterfactual surprise is the last thirty five minutes of the film. It begins with a narrative voiceover (Kurt Russell) describing the characters and actions. This narrator is omniscient, and so they’re telling us details about the characters’ thoughts and events that take place. They do this as if reading from a police transcript. In some ways it feels like a re-enactment. For instance, the narrator tells us that Sharon (Margot Robbie) has been joined “by Voytek Frykoswki, an old friend of Roman’s from Poland, and his girlfriend, social worker Abigail Folger, heiress to the vast Folger coffee empire.” These are two people who were killed in the actual murders, but we don’t have to know that to feel this is real.

Indeed, the narrator’s reporting style, and the subtitles giving us the exact time, all give what semiotician Roland Barthes called “effet de réel” (“reality effect”).[5] They say “we are the real.[6] Real, as in, the kind of real that is inevitable and outside our control.

The narrator tells us: “That night, Sharon, her two houseguests and, naturally, Jay, all went to the West Hollywood Mexican restaurant landmark El Coyote.” The narrator then tells us, “Not only that, it was later reported that it was the hottest night of the year….” So, our mind goes, we’re moving into fact now, we’re moving into history. Then the last part of that narration, “and it made her feel especially pregnant, in all the worst ways.” After being lured into a factual mindset, the narration cues our thoughts of the worse things ahead for her. It bonds fact with fear.

Author’s screenshot of a shot from Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.

The times on the screen work as a countdown, and builds the belief that these events have already taken place. The future is already written. The first time given is 12:30, when Joanna (Rumer Willis) arrives with her baby. Joanna says to Sharon, “Oh my gosh, you’re about to pop!” And when Sharon is eating she says, “I’m about to burst.” I couldn’t help thinking gory thoughts about what is about to happen to her. 3:00, 5:00, 7:00, 8:32, 10:16. It’s coming. 10:16 is when Sharon and her friends return to the house. Abigail (Samantha Robinson) sings a song about getting mad, lies, a baby, and being up and then down, and then she retires at 11:04. It is at this point when a character on a TV show says “And now it’s time for what I know you’ve all been waiting for. A little fan fare please [trumpet].”

We’re sympatico—the film tells us it knows what we’re thinking and we’re reading the film right. It is now 11:10. Sharon is in her comfy clothes. Then it is 11:46, when Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff arrive home by yellow cab.

It’s all coming to a close, as the finality dialogue cued us to think. At the beginning of the sequence, Rick talks about his work with Cliff, saying “So when this whole European journey is over, I think we’ve… We’ve reached the end of the trail, Cliff.” The narrator later says, “It would be Rick and Cliff’s final rodeo.” And then, as “both men know, once the plane touches down in El Segundo, it will be the end of an era for both of them. And when you come to the end of the line with a buddy […] getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

Then the music begins, it is Rolling Stone’s “Out of Time.” During the song, Cliff picks up his dog. The receptionist says, “Bye!” to Cliff, and “Bye, Brandy!” We don’t have to consciously register this death prose for it to seed in our minds.

The final time given is 12:03.

This entire inevitability sequence sets up our anticipation, even trepidation, and not hope. But then in the last few minutes it gives it. Even when all the signs point to the worst happening, the worst doesn’t. And I think the world might really turn around. More people will help create a radically different world. But what I’m torn about is spending so much time thinking things will not change. I know all this build up worked to give us that great optional world burst, but I want that moment to be the whole story, to be my whole life.




[1] Ben Shaul’s full definition: ‘“Optional thinking” refers to our cognitive ability to assess or to generate diverging, converging, or competing sequences of optional reasons for, consequences of, or solutions to different life problems.” Ben Shaul, Nitzan (2015 [2012]) Cinema of Choice: Optional Thinking and Narrative Movies, Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books, 2.

[2] Ben Shaul, Cinema of Choice, 16.

[3] I first hinted at the design in Tarantino’s film and various narrative design strategies in my speech ‘Expanding Our Sense of the Possible in Narrative Design,’ (https://medium.com/p/cef1af8dc38).

[4] Quentin Tarantino in Thompson, Anne (2019) “Quentin Tarantino Says He May Recut ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ to Make it Longer,” IndieWire, 23 May, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/05/quentin-tarantino-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-recut-longer-cannes-1202143936/.

[5] Barthes, Roland (1986 [1968]) “The Reality Effect,” The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 141-148.

[6] Barthes, “The Reality Effect,” 148.




Christy Dena is a writer-designer-director of stories in many artforms, whose non-fiction writing has appeared in publications such as Cordite Literary Review, ABC, ABR, Meanland, The Conversation, British Science Fiction Association’s Vector, Electronic Book Review, Writing Queensland Magazine, Queensland Writers Centre Connect, and Real Time. www.ChristyDena.com

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