Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

Orson Welles famously said that a Hollywood studio was the biggest electric train set a boy ever could have and one of the joys of cinema is watching the boys, and the occasional girl, indulging their interests and even their whims by realizing them on screen with all of the resources at hand, whether it is Coppola recreating an Italian stage play or the Kefauver Hearings in The Godfather, Part II, or virtually anything in the Coen Brothers’ later catalogue. It is a substantial part of this film’s appeal as well. The loving evocation of 1969 goes well beyond the standard detail of most period films, not only with whole freeways being shut down to accommodate armadas of classic cars and infusing the soundtrack with the sorts of songs and commercials and audio that only someone who remembers the time would even know existed, but in weaving the pop culture of the day into the storyline. And while all of it is fun and well done its very excess could be the film’s largest fault, albeit a pretty minor one as things go.

I did not know that much about this movie going in, only it’s stars and its setting and that it somehow involved the Manson Family. Given that and Tarantino’s history it might be horrific and tasteless or an elaborate practical joke, like trumpeting The Hateful Eight for its Ultra Panavision 70 mm, when it turned out to be mostly a static, essentially, drawing room drama. I hoped it might be Tarantino’s Dunkirk, i.e. a film from a manifestly talented director with whom I had gotten progressively more disenchanted because of his persistent concentration on things either uninteresting or objectionable, that redeems him by omitting some of his fetishes and presenting other of his pet ideas in a more thoughtful (or in this case, more satisfying) form and finally evincing a little humanity in the process. And he did it. This stands with Jackie Brown as a mature, adult work with some real emotional weight. The sequences involving Sharon Tate are respectful and touching and the effect is to make her murder feel all the more tragic. The resolution is pure Tarantino, for good and for ill—mainly in its execution for the former and its conception for the latter. I found it more satisfying than other similar instances in his films, which might be morally dubious if viewed through a certain lens, but which I can justify to myself on the basis of context and presentation.

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