Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

3.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood's indebtedness to Jacques Demy's Model Shop (1969), which QT programmed in a retrospective he co-curated prior to his film's release, hasn't been explored as much as it should. It dictates the aesthetic approach of much of the first two hours: Like Gary Lockwood's love-struck architect, George Matthews, in Model Shop, Brad Pitt's alluringly butch stunt-man, Cliff Booth, spends a good deal of OUAT…IH contemplatively driving around Los Angeles highways and side streets, the sounds of the city and the radio his only accompaniment. (He also lives in a trailer situated, like George's abode, beside a pumpjack.)

Demy's aural tapestry includes classical composers (Bach, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov), music by the psychedelic rock group Spirit, and the occasional radio broadcast, including a climactic one about potential peace talks in Vietnam that powerfully complements the mood of mortality that hangs over the film. QT goes for fannishly encyclopedic deep cuts and period advertisements; the end credits audio citation of the '60s Batman series illuminates the ways in which he wants to have his camp vigilantism and eat it too. It's QT's usual MO: Transmute bad taste into "good" taste — except here it's become "no" taste. A garish vacuum. A gaudy abyss.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood panders to the desire to not be where we are. To myopically embrace fantasy. To take up residence in what wasn't. By contrast, the world isn't something to elide or wall off in Model Shop. Despite life's oft-unfathomable traumas and regrets, you must engage. The one-day-and-night affair between George and Cécile (Anouk Aimee — reprising her lead role from Demy's 1961 debut Lola, her character now posing for leering photographs to make ends meet) is a delay of several inevitabilities, both short- (George scrambling for money to pay off a debtor; Cécile doing the same to get back to her son in France) and long-term (finding a purpose in life that doesn't crush or kill mind, body and spirit).

George's actions feel like a last gasp of youthful idealism. The world-weary Cécile is far beyond that, the dreams of stardom she harbored in Lola now dashed and the man she loved lost to another — as it turns out, to Jeanne Moreau's gambling-obsessed Jackie Demaistre from Demy's second feature Bay of Angels (1963). Demy's extended universe isn't an excuse, as in QT's, for blithe allusions, be it to faux-cigarette brands or the Vega brothers. When characters cross sprocket holes, they genuinely hurt each other.

Demy, like many a European artist gone west in the '60s and '70s, lets the times seep into his film. George gets his draft notice midway through, and soon after remarks that this is the first time he can recall fearing death — typical for Demy, it's a statement so sincere and earnest it touches the sublime. "Death" can come in many forms, of course, and when George discovers Cécile has absconded back to Paris, the world buckles in a different way. Demy captures. But he also conjures. The final fade-to-black, swallowing up a devastated George as he inarticulately yet poetically observes that "a person can…always try, you know," cuts like a knife to the aorta. QT, blunted and stunted, settles for a tin can to the schnoz.

Model Shop has its flaws, chief among them a leading man who, in the words of my own beloved, is a black hole of anti-charisma. Lockwood has the right physical look for George, but his reedy voice and squinty/stoned gaze is more often than not above the movie rather than of it. (That it doesn't prove completely detrimental is testament to Demy's intricately wise and warmhearted ethos.) The moment that moved me most in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is likely accidental, though I'm sure QT is aware of the minutiae that inadvertently informed it: When Cliff/Brad agilely jumped up on the roof to fix a TV antenna, baring that perfectly sculpted fifty-something chest of his, it called to mind a young Harrison Ford plying his pre-stardom trade in carpentry/construction. Ford was Demy's first choice, quickly vetoed by the studio, for George in Model Shop. For a moment, I caught my own blissful glimpse of an alternate reality. "If Only…"

Keith liked these reviews