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.

I've only seen this once so far yet it keeps growing in my mind. Rewatching Inglourious Basterds made me appreciate the eerie mirroring of Shosanna and Sharon Tate's final appearances. In Basterds, we see Shosanna from beyond the grave, her giant face mocking and laughing in glorious vengeance as her actual self lies dead in the projection booth. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the film follows its grim, black-comic violent climax with a coda of sweet relief when we hear Sharon's voice on the intercom and see her walk out of her home. As she does so, however, the camera is already floating away in a rising crane shot, and we only see the back of her before turning away. Shosanna lived on in cinema though she died in the film's diegetic reality; here, Sharon survives in her film's reality, but the director cannot ignore that the same is not true of our own.

I've always credited Tarantino with being more thoughtful and reflective than others, and perhaps even he realizes, but I don't think he's ever made such a quietly mournful moment. It provides the perfect bookend to the earlier scene, drawn out for an exquisite, almost excruciating amount of time, of Sharon going to a showing of The Wrecking Crew to see herself in it. As she sits in the theater near the front, the audience entirely behind her, we see the slow ripples of laughter and applause that build for her performance, a supporting role in one of Dean Martin's most moribund contract pictures. The quality of the film doesn't matter, only the ever-widening smile on Sharon's face as she hears the crowd's approval of her, a sequence that takes her work on its own terms and frees her from a twisted immortality in which she has lived forever only in the notoriety of death.

Following Tarantino's two most clumsily articulated political statements, OUATIH is startling in its ambiguity. From the hotly contested flashback from Cliff's POV that may or may not be entirely honest about his ability to flatten Bruce Lee, to the question of whether he really killed his wife, Tarantino has never presented his protagonists on less cool, immediately compelling terms. Rick's petulant self-pity has been coded as mid-life crisis and fear of obsolescence, but it is manifested in childish whining and codependence that makes him comical (those saying this film longs for the days where men were men or what-the-fuck-ever should really limber up before they try to reach like that). And even the usual Tarantino showstopper is mysterious here: the visit to the Spahn Ranch is one of his most sinister scenes, yet its reveal does little to resolve either Cliff's fears or the viewer's understanding of the situation, and even Cliff's assault on a smug Manson hippie lacks the usual cathartic violence that releases the tension of Tarantino's extended buildups.

This is Tarantino's most expensive, opulent production, yet for all the exacting production design, I think this is the QT film that least fetishizes its milieu. Tarantino films Hollywood at its lowest point, not yet at the moment of its creative rebirth, and his view of LA and its outskirts is haunted. So much care has gone into filling the frame with appropriate cars, buildings and signs, yet this is a film defined by its absence, a fitting choice for a movie about a desperate attempt to regain something that will always, no matter one's ability to rewrite history as fiction, remain lost.

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