Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Quite appropriately, my 1000th review on Letterboxd is the most challenging one I’ve ever written, a piece that I’ve been working on over the course of eight magical viewings and twenty-three maddening months. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an incredibly easy picture to watch, and a surefire favourite of mine on entertainment value alone, yet its sunny vibes and smooth aesthetics disguise a tangled mess of dark shadows and rough edges. It’s ugly and beautiful and mean and kind and comforting and complex and shallow and superlative and just as maddeningly contradictory as that verbal hodgepodge would imply. My appreciation of it grows with every rewatch, but so does my apprehension, and I’ve steadily found myself questioning the film as much as I adore it. That’s an awful lot of questioning, because I adore Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

That probably doesn’t mean much to most of you. After all, it’s a widely acclaimed movie from a skilled filmmaker. What makes my adoration so impressive is that I haven’t outright loved a Tarantino movie since his gorgeous, woefully unsung Jackie Brown, which was released to little fanfare way back in 1997. I proudly and firmly champion it as his only masterpiece, but to my delight, Hollywood recaptured and reworked a lot of the things that make Jackie the stunning, special film that it is: warmth, humanity and a semblance of naturalism. 

Warmth. Pulp Fiction’s opening credits kicked off with a waving gun and screeched obscenities; Hollywood’s start with a painted smile and the chirping of birds. When the music finally kicks in, it’s ‘Treat Her Right’, whose title is a mission statement for the film’s depiction of real-life murder victim Sharon Tate (mission accomplished? ehh, more on that later). The story soon starts proper and within minutes our protagonist Rick Dalton is stuttering and stammering and eventually crying in a parking lot. He coughs and fumbles through words and bears deeply rooted flaws and anxieties. He’s not the usual QT caricature. He’s human. The genuine tears don’t detract from this largely being a comedy, however, but Tarantino forgoes graphic violence and whizz bang nastiness and instead finds the bulk of his gags in gentle dog humour and kind loyalty. Marvel (hehe) at the way he portrays someone fixing their friend’s TV antenna as a heroic act: Cliff Booth leaping onto Rick’s roof like Captain America — swiftly, smoothly, with associated woosh effects. The shirtless reveal seals it. 

Beyond Brad Pitt’s abs, beautiful art is everywhere: painted on walls, flickering on television screens, blaring from car radios. Jackie Brown also loved car radios, cutting between different songs in different cars with different people, using the juxtaposition to seperate the members of the diverse ensemble into their own moods and motifs. In Hollywood, Tarantino cross-cuts to connect his characters, creating an interwoven tapestry of humans tied together with the transcendent thread of art. We move from Sharon Tate purchasing a book to Rick reading one, while a match-cut flicks from Rick imagining himself walking through a classic piece of cinema (The Great Escape) to Tate walking to a physical cinema, one where she’s the star. We see Al Pacino’s good guy manager watching F.B.I at the same time Booth and Dalton do, kindly calling a director pal to get the latter a leading role (everyone watches ‘F.B.I.’, even the hippies at the ranch). In Tarantino’s playground, art is a universal force that ties all together, and that’s just lovely. 

The very experience of watching the movie feels tied together, thanks to technical form so tight that Tarantino is able to create a perfect flow for his rambles, assembling production values that are the prettiest and richest of his entire career. Robert Richardson’s cinematography looks expectedly fantastic, awash in fine grain and honey-coloured hues, the camera precisely navigating the environments in ways not just impressive but expressive. Note the jump across the 180° line when Pacino flips Dalton’s view of his career on its head, and the subsequent zoom that closes in on Dalton’s face as his options do too. In a later shot, the overhead camera watches Dalton anxiously drifting in his pool, before pulling up and flying over to the Polanski residence where the notorious director and his wife Tate eagerly hop in their car on their way to a star-studded party. Two worlds in one shot. Richardson’s lens and Fred Raskin’s edit also serve Tarantino’s newly-returned interest in quasi-naturalism, constantly collecting little lived-in details — sunlight illuminating fingerprints on Rick’s glasses, smoke and dust hovering through backgrounds, a whole scene devoted to the magically mundane process of preparing dog food and Mac & Cheese, and a euphoric montage of neon lights turning on as the city comes alive at night. 

The sound design is similarly meticulously arranged and wholly enveloping, highlighting the ear-warming hum of those neon lights, the soft breeze that blows that golden dust. The car radios play the bulk of the soundtrack in-universe, accompanied by authentic ads for manly cologne and womanly tanning lotion and kitschy movies at a cinema near you. Playful details are likewise tantamount: Booth’s milk carton making a metallic gong sound as he puts it down to fight Bruce Lee, the woosh-woosh-woosh of poles whizzing by the camera, the swish-swish-swish of an acid-addled Booth waving his arm with high fascination. 

So much of the film is devoted to details, which is sure to alienate the average plot-dependant viewer anxiously waiting for the Manson cult to start doing some slaying. And yes, the film could be two hours or one hour or a super compact thirty minutes, but why would you want it to be? The film’s dawdles are often its biggest delights, vital in transporting the viewer into a wider world that lives and breathes. Cliff and Tate’s seemingly useless visits to drive-in theatres and independent bookstores are the scenes that convince us these characters continue to exist outside the (loose) machinations of the (looser) plot. Then the plot tightens up, and so does the pace. 

After two running time hours and film-time days of slow drift, we cut to black. When we fade back in hairstyles have changed, careers have progressed and a title card reads: ‘Six Months Later’. August 8th, 1969. A forebodingly historic date. Whereas two days previously took two hours, now half a year has whizzed by in a second, and we’ve arrived at the judgement hour. Kurt Russell starts narrating, pushing us from moment to moment, continually pointing out the exact time to give the distinct impression that we’re watching history. The Rolling Stones sing “Baby baby baby, you’re out of time”, as Tarantino turns a banging tune into a screeching symbol of impending doom. A TV newsreader dramatically proclaims “and now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for”, while Cliff smokes his long-awaited acid cigarette, mumbling “and awayyyy we go.” The movie was incredibly slow, but now it’s racing too fast. The film is about people ambling through life until the threat of death (literal, cultural, professional) comes speeding to their doorstep. Well, Rick and Cliff’s doorstep, to be exact. 

Charles Manson’s criminal cohorts kick down that door and surround the acid-baked Cliff and his canine companion, but what was a real-life horror sequence next door becomes a howling comedy in this house. Pitt’s nonchalant wisecracks, drugged-out cackles and crazed, wide-eyed stare are the stuff of acting legend, bringing the house down on every viewing, whether it be in a cinema or my actual house. Then the would-be murderers are brutally dispatched — stabbed, bashed, mauled, set ablaze — in a set-piece that finally releases two and a half hours of pent-up tension and Tarantino’s trademark violence, eliciting uncomfortable cheers from audiences who just woke up. The enemy is defeated, more wisecracks are made and Rick, just seconds ago framed between the keep-out bars of the Polanski residence’s gates, is welcomed into the arms and home of a very-much-alive Sharon Tate. The credits roll. It’s a cathartic, crowd pleasing hoot, or is it?  

My biggest problem with Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained doesn’t inherently lie in their history-flipping finales, but the simplistically upbeat tone after the fact, which feels too flippant, too naive. Hollywood doesn’t share that flaw. There’s no triumphant western anthem, no meta Aldo Raine joke. The soundtrack is Sharon’s disembodied voice through an intercom and a melancholy music cue. The scenery is a repeated variation of the crane shot that previously took us from Dalton’s house to Tate’s, but instead of finding a smiling Robbie running towards the camera on the way to a party, we get a top-down view from behind that renders her small, faceless. Within no time at all they greet each other and go into the house, leaving an empty driveway behind them and the onscreen words “Once Upon A Time...”. Those words are an explicit confirmation of fantasy; a sad, desperate “what-if?” It’s kind of devastating, yet in a way that paradoxically makes the finale even more fun, freeing it from the specific moral uncertainty that could muddy one’s enjoyment. 

This conclusion serves everyone pretty well (cast, crew, audience), except, one could argue, Margot Robbie, who doesn’t get the acting showcase usually associated with screaming and crying and dying. Yeah, Robbie as Sharon Tate doesn’t get much to do outside of dancing, smiling and talking sweetly (all of which she does with aplomb), but her character is at least of vital importance. While her immediate purpose is to be a Manson-foreshadowing red-herring and a smooth-talking, successful contrast to the stuttering, struggling Rick, there’s something kinda nice about the role’s simplicity, when viewed in a vacuum. By distilling Tate into a source of pure, simple sunniness, he’s effectively shattering her reputation as a brutally-slaughtered murder victim and — for a brief moment — reclaiming her image as a sweet, shining star of the screen. His Sharon is innocence incarnate, a fitting characterisation considering how frequently her murder has been referred to as the death of innocence in la la land (the thinness of her role is iffier, however, when viewed amongst the other women in the film). 

The film makes a further point of depicting innocence: when Cliff is offered oral sex by a young woman, he not only asks for her age but demands proof of it, a gesture likely written in response to the modern media flurry of Hollywood sex crimes. And yet, Tarantino still decorates this scene with the creepy song ‘Hey Little Girl’, and the film’s ostensibly rose-coloured Hollywood doesn’t remotely convince. After all, the film still poses the possibility that Cliff may have murdered his wife and got away with it, an element that never really goes anywhere and seems like a counterintuitive move against both Cliff’s (otherwise flawless) likability and Hollywood’s innocence. If Tarantino is pining for Hollywood as it was, then he’s pining for a broadly white-male industry rife with scandals and toxicity of its own. Numerous elements counter a realistic portrayal (the title especially), but if his constructed vision of ‘69 Hollywood is a favoured fantasia, an object of nostalgia, why is Bruce Lee (one of the very few people of colour, by the way) an arrogant, inaccurate jerk, why is Rick so damn rude and why is Cliff a potential wife-killer? Why should we miss all that? 

Tarantino balms some of the film’s wounds by seemingly acknowledging his filmography’s iffy spots, like in the Western TV segments which lightly poke fun at the gobstopper dialogue and overwrought acting moments that have marred Tarantino‘s films in the past — DiCaprio‘s hammy facial expressions and line deliveries, tearing at a chicken drumstick = literally chewing the scenery. Alas, never one for ideological neatness, Tarantino muddies this as well. Sure, he parodies the history-burning excess of Basterds’ finale, yet the scene doing that also sets up Hollywood’s own fiery revisionism, which implies arrogance as well as auto-critique. Arrogance and ignorance are the typical overarching flaws in his pictures, and for all the laudable occasions he sidesteps them here, there are other moments in which he embraces them. See how he changes the antagonists’ motivation from “white-supremacist Charlie said so” to “killing the people who taught us to kill” [on film and TV], as if equating those who criticise his own onscreen violence with real-life murderers (before having those ‘dumb critics’ brutally slaughtered for the audience’s enjoyment). Ouch. I’ve barely even touched on the problematic representation of women and people of colour, among other flaws, which have been analysed much more eloquently by far more knowledgeable writers than me (K. Austin Collins and Melissa Tamminga, especially. The latter’s piece is an essential, gut-wrenching work of film criticism). 

And yet, I do love the movie. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more vivid example of the transportive power of cinema, of the mediums ability to sweep you away and plant you in another time, another place, another reality. It’d be the ultimate comfort movie if thinking about it wasn’t so uncomfortable. I adore everything about Tarantino’s latest cinematic-monologue except for so much of what he’s actually saying, which veers from substantive and self-aware to shallow and incoherent. But the self-aware substance narrowly wins out for me, especially its threads of human warmth and friendship persevering. 

“You’re a good friend, Cliff.” 
“I try.” 

These are the last words spoken between the leading pair, and they’re beautiful, a clear echo to the last lines in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, a (superior) source of inspiration: 

“I just wanted to tell her that I loved her. I just wanted her to know that I wanted to try to begin again. You know what I mean? That I was, I just wanted her to know that I was going to try. Yeah, it sounds stupid, doesn't it? But, I can, you know. I mean, I personally can. Always try, you know. Yeah, always try. Yeah, always try.” 

I’ve barely been on Letterboxd this past year because, well, it’s been a tough one. My first feature film crumbled mid-shoot. Friendships were lost. The world around me continues to be ravaged by all kinds of medical, political and environmental disasters. I’m better now, hence my return. Still, life gets pretty bleak, aye? But I’m going to try. We can always try.

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