Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

The deaths of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steven Parent were an unimaginable atrocity. Murder is often senseless and cruel, but rarely is it carried out with such indifferent, inhuman barbarism. Nothing about this incident surpasses the loss of life, but it did become symbolic for an entirely different reason: it marked the end of Hollywood's golden age, which had been sputtering since at least the late '50s. No one could have imagined it would end like this, but with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we see the death throes of that golden age re-imagined.

A faded western star indignant and terrified at the prospect of being forced into second-rate imports as he confronts his own limitations in the face of greatly diminished audiences. His venerable stunt double suffering from the same attrition, relegated to the role of chauffeur and handyman, living with his dog in a tiny trailer a dozen miles removed from his boss' posh house on Cielo Drive. When they see that Tate and husband Roman Polanski have moved in next door, they see the fabulous new being ushered in: the former a burgeoning "it girl" thanks to the success of Valley of the Dolls, the latter a fresh-faced auteur riding a high from Rosemary's Baby. It couldn't be clearer that the culture was changing, and with it the audiences who used to flock to sprawling epics and selfsame Westerns. Rick's assessment, “It's official, old buddy; I'm a has-been”, was a sentiment shared by a great many actors confused, aged out, and unprepared for the counterculture of a New Hollywood.

That we know where this is going hangs heavy over the first two acts of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood without casting a pallor; in fact, we are treated to long patches warm, funny, and touching characterization, particularly where Tate is concerned. It's easy to dismiss her inclusion in the plot as perfunctory, but to do so would fail to embrace the charming, kind, talented free-spirit whose life was tragically cut short. While she is portrayed in full ascent, Rick and Cliff are both suffering; the former struggles with playing the heavy in someone else's show, while the latter can't find work more meaningful than repairing a TV antenna. All three occasion splashes of an incipient hippie culture; Dalton is forced to go swarthy in his new role, much to his chagrin, while Tate and Booth pick up hitchhikers, with quite different results.

- Minor spoilers below. -

When Cliff's jail-bait passenger directs him to the Spahn Ranch, once the site of some of his most rewarding work, the stage is officially set, and again, impending doom intercedes: while highly unlikely that Cliff will meet his demise seeking out his old, blind friend George Spahn, the close presence of murderers renders the suspense palpable. George isn't the blind one, they shout as Cliff stalks off. But his eyes are wide open. The western sets on which he once plied his trade have been hijacked by an army of Charles Manson's acolytes whom Cliff rightly perceives as trouble; the times are, indeed, a-changin'. The "family" have fallen under the spell of a con man, and do his bidding under the belief that they are free and enlightened. Cliff doesn't have a great life, but at least he embraces the reality of being Rick Dalton's gofer. Even if it means beating a hippie or two to a pulp to teach them some manners.

Speaking of which, Cliff's wistful flashback, where he pounds on a braggadocious Bruce Lee (much to the latter's astonishment), is one of a few indulgences Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can afford. At this point, it is old-hat for Tarantino to luxuriate in movie lore. In fact, he often gets so drunk in this pursuit that he repeatedly convinces audiences of his auteur status through the sheer depth of his erudition. Personally, I am rarely impressed. The Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchaineds, and Hateful Eights of the world are too literal, trivial, chatty, and frenetic to be much more than well-crafted riffs. The latter two particularly suffer from the absence of his longtime editor Sally Menke, who expertly spared us his excesses in the same way that Thelma Schoonmaker keeps Scorsese's sprawling epics from turning into slogs.

How this often translates is that the visual, thematic, and storytelling language of Tarantino's movies become stale in the same manner (but by no means as seriously) as the remake of Psycho, where an attempt at imitation is less flattering and more larcenous, as anyone with even the vaguest hint of a clue can see what is being done and why. It is the vogue of an IMDB trivia crawler that plagues both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained in particular, respectively a revisionist war movie and a revisionist western: in both, he not only subverts convention, but history itself. My excoriating question for both is simple: why? For the sake of fun?

I'm no prude when it comes to having a good 'ol time at the movies, but what happened to the humanistic moralism thumping beneath Reservoir Dogs that matured in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown? What's the point in re-writing history for a lark? Nazis and slave owners are easy, deserving targets for the sake of such entertainments, but in Tarantino's hands, these relatively simple plots veer dangerously close to white savior territory, both, coincidentally, through Christoph Waltz: though certifiably bad in one and certifiably good in the other, he single-handedly fights against a status quo he perceives as rotten, and won two Oscars in the process. In reality, wars were fought over both, and while the outcome of each was arguably just, nothing could replace the injustice wrought through the loss of life, not even turning Hitler's face into Swiss cheese with a barrage of bullets. By the same token, I had an inkling of where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was heading, but my big question revolved around the why of choosing to tackle this terrifying crime in what was sure to be an indelicate fashion.

It is here, in the most fantastical of ways, that Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton change the course of history.

- Major spoilers abound. -

Dalton's evolution grounds the story in the realm of reality: when faced with the impending doom of his waning acting career, Rick ultimately leans into convention, breaks its back, and makes it his own. His reluctant but forceful embrace of "the heavy" meanders into the anti-heroes that made New Hollywood movies like Bonnie and Clyde instant counterculture classics. Where at first James Stacy almost teasingly welcomes Rick to "his show" Lancer, he ultimately rides off on his motorcycle filled with the bitterness of an actor who realizes he was upstaged by a guest star. Rick's agent parlays this into a few Spaghetti Westerns, briefly extending Rick and Cliff's careers.

Then, the great confluence: August 8th, 1969.

Throughout his entire career, Tarantino has fought back against his perceived predilection toward violence; despite the attention-grabbing insistence that his violent films might beget violent behavior, anyone with enough gray matter to constitute a brain can grasp that violence is innate, and that its presence in art, religion, and history is a mere reflection of human nature. Movies are entertainment, and despite what may appear to happen, it is exceedingly rare that anyone actually dies on set, and any psychopath claiming they were "inspired" by some combination of art or pornography does so under the auspices of self-preservation, seeking anything to excuse their actions or allay their own personal responsibility.

This is what the fictionalized Susan Atkins does when she advances the logic that the Rick Daltons of the world "taught us to murder", and should pay accordingly. The reasoning is as thin as Manson's motivations for sending his four wraiths to Cielo Drive in the first place, and their decisions were not a result of some ultimate truth, half-baked mistake, or supernatural influence; these three stunted psychopaths made a choice to murder five strangers, one of whom was pregnant. Much like slavery, and the Nazi final solution, this calculated choice filled Tarantino with an understandable fury that he sought to avenge with extreme prejudice. He herein exacts that vengeance with Chekhov's dog and Chekhov's flamethrower.

The satisfaction derived from this is delectable, and not simply because it is comically violent; in the fantasy realm of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the lives of five innocents are spared while their would-be assailants get exactly what they deserve. Cliff Booth carries Rick Dalton's load, and Rick gets to deliver the coup de grâce. After fixating on the fact that his career is failing while the hottest couple in Hollywood has moved in next door, Rick overcomes his own limitations and inadvertently creates an avenue toward a bold new future.

Roman Polanski would later acknowledge that Tate's murder changed his outlook from a "boundless, untroubled sea of expectations and optimism" to one of "ingrained pessimism" and "eternal dissatisfaction with life". It was incisively indicative of the times. So raged the turbulent waters that changed an idyllic world of lighthearted creativity into reality's inescapably hard truths. Thus, when the gates to the Tate-Polanski household open for Rick Dalton, they might as well be the gates of heaven. The ensuing convivial chatter is absolutely the sweetest thing Tarantino has ever committed to film; five innocents are spared their lives, Sharon would have the chance to carry her son Paul to term, Rick could star in a Polanski film and find the newly heroic Cliff more meaningful work. Pursuant to the goals of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the notion that its golden age ends not in death, but with the promise of new life. If the realm of cinema is accepted as the place where we get to carry out our fantasies, that is a beautiful thing.

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