Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Tarantino mythologizing marginal ephemera, building monuments to the also-rans: serialized television shows like The F.B.I. and Lancer instead of Easy Rider, bands decidedly less cool than Jim Morrison like Paul Revere & the Raiders. Or rather is he demystifying Hollywood lore? Fairy tale nostalgia, history written by the losers. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood usurps Jackie Brown and Death Proof as Tarantino's most shapeless and loose feature. During it's runtime we become more acquainted with the rhythms of driving around a lived in 1969 Hollywood than clear characters or clean morality. Tarantino's ideas-as-characters approach is largely obfuscated, here the minutia is king. No other film of his, save Jackie Brown, has this much interiority to it.

The closest summation of the main players is the stage of their métier: Rick in the twilight of a career facing obsolescence, Cliff on the wrong side of his 50s antiquated in both profession and side hustle, and Tate contemporary in every way with burgeoning star power. Its centerpiece, its harmonious core, is a sequence in which the three characters separately navigate their uncertain present. A detour for viewers to shed notions about what Tate represents to history, now she’s mincing off to a theatre in the early stages of what is sure to be a lengthy career, flirting with celebrity. Can she get in for free if she's in the movie? Still needing to convince people that, yes, she's in The Wrecking Crew, she's in Valley of the Dolls too! No, not Patty Duke. No, not Barbara Parkins either.

“Delicate" doesn’t describe any of Tarantino's work for the past two decades but the balance this scene strikes is undeniably so. Our knowledge of what ultimately, tragically happened to Sharon Tate governs our entire perception of her. Her large absence from the film heightens this brief joyous effervescence. As we feel an overwhelming desolation, Tate simply watches her own movie (deliberately Margot Robbie watches the real Sharon Tate on the silver screen, a further blending of performer and performance). Robbie feels her way though such a complexly emotional scene deftly. Reciprocating other audience member's laughs, other beats draw a subtle flash of embarrassment or gratitude. But Tate gets to, finally, be Tate. The sweetest tribute imaginable. Though her absence somewhat serves the film, Robbie's performance and Tate's vivaciousness begs for more screen time, desperate for as much agency as Tarantino willfully hands to DiCaprio and Pitt.

Where Hollywood truly suffers is when Tarantino rehashes old tricks and past conventions. An obtrusive Kurt Russel narration emerges to guide the audience through a juggling of times and places. That same utilitarian fire found in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained reappears, rewrites history. Revenge fantasy once more. And then there are times when Tarantino can't help but step on a rake and urgently recall some of his worst past tendencies with his, oh let's call it, knotted past with fetishistic behavior. If he is demystifying lore the Bruce Lee scene is worth examining for its complexities. But does Tarantino succeed in respectfully untangling Lee's infallible, deity-like aura? Maybe in some sense, but it's tough to wrestle with the laughter heard in the theatre as he does his signature vocalizations. However, most bizarrely of all, is the glib inclusion of a nagging wife's murder on a boat. In a film of specificity one's mind wanders to Natalie Wood, so why does a film that thrives on respecting Sharon Tate's legacy perhaps use Wood's as a punchline? Hollywood is clearly demarcated as fantasy (it's why Lee's digression is admissible) however for this to be read as a moment of levity or critique the groundwork is far too flimsy.

In some ways it's sad that this isn't Tarantino's final film, it really would be the most apt way to end a career obsessed with film. It's done with a poise not felt in his work in at least a decade. A film about the end of an idealistic era, where studio produced Westerns had a future. As a text it's his most obtuse to date. The whole thing could read like a metatextual comment on the now, specifically if one is of the mind that Tarantino is one of the last "voices" to conjure a consistently meaningful opening box office draw and discourse in the face of Disney monopolizing the market share. Just as Pitt and DiCaprio are last bastion, capital A, A-listers. Or, more cynically, one could read this as a rage-filled text, indignant that anything changed at all, those damn hippies.

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