Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★

This movie took a long time to not really say much. Or maybe it took too little time say a lot. I’m not really sure. 

All the pieces are here for a Tarantino movie, so why doesn’t it feel like a Tarantino movie? There’s the dialogue, there’s the hanging out in a car, there’s the the pop culture hyper-literacy, there’s the long takes, there’s the vinyl, theres the awkward dancing, there’s some of the violence, there’s the “is that kinda racist?” moments, there’s the feet! So I ask once again. Why doesn’t it feel like a Tarantino movie? For one, though all the aspects are here, they call less attention to themselves for the most part. All of his trademarks become subtle. And he denies us the sense of constant urgency that we’re used to. Which feels odd when going into the movie that a lot of us knew involved Sharon Tate and Manson in some way. There’s peculiarly un-Tarantino moments like when Tate walks past a movie theater, goes into a bookstore, walks up to the movie theater again, and admires the poster for her own film. There’s a lax feeling to it all followed by the strikingly poignant image of Tate absorbing the audiences reaction to her performance (I loved how they kept the real Sharon Tate in the film, but replaced Steve McQueen with Leo. I think it adds to the self-reflective meta commentary on the myth building of filmmaking...I am so sorry for writing that sentence). 

Historical revision isn’t new territory for Tarantino. He used the gambit back with Inglorious Bastards to quite a shocking effect. Reaching for it once again feels a bit tepid. It’s like when Bob Dylan plays his hits live nowadays. It’s familiar but his voice is miles from what it used to be and he’s even switched up the instrumentation. I’ve heard this before but I also...haven’t? When Hitler’s face was being filled with metal, there was an unrepentant sense of glee. When Cliff was smashing that girl’s face into the phone, it just felt kinda off. There’s that classic Tarantino violence, but why does it feel less cathartic? Strictly speaking from a narrative perspective, we haven’t been acclimated to the monstrosity of the Manson clan. The catharsis has to come from our prior understanding of the events which I bet is vague for most people, myself included. In Inglorious Bastards, yeah we already know that the Nazis are evil, but at least we’ve got to spend some time with their particular brand of cruelty, making the finale that much more visceral. In the case of Sharon Tate, it feels much more like a futile scream into the void. A reverie forced into existence with unsettling violent perversion. It’s a tonal shift not unexpected, but also one that doesn’t feel earned. We’ve met the Manson clan, but they remain something of a placeholder for the actions they committed. Actions that are indefensible. But I’m reminded of the kangaroo court scene from M where the vicious killer has a moment of humanity explaining the urges he feels he cannot resist. In that moment, nothing he’s done has become justified in the slightest. But he’s become a human at least. Isn’t that the danger of treating Hitler or nazis like some abstruse boogeyman? Evil incarnate devoid of context? That doesn’t mean looking at him with sympathy, it means looking at him as something that can be recreated within certain ideologies. And this isn’t to say Tarantino necessarily humanized Nazis in Inglorious Bastards, but we at least we shown enough of their M-O to get to know them. Context doesn’t make things easier to swallow but it does makes them feel more complete. And context is not one line before the action goes down (i.e. let’s kill the people on TV who taught us how to kill).

What is the point of changing the narrative? What feeling does erasing that culturally accepted end of an era moment evoke? For me it was terminal melancholy. I guess that’s the problem with fairy tales - while they bring you to a place where magic happens, they subsequently remind you that it’s not how real life works. Tarantino knows this, obviously. The score for the final scene where Rick is walking up the driveway to meet Sharon Tate - when the eras of Hollywood finally build a bridge between themselves - is quite eerie, almost befitting of science fiction, the entrance to a new reality. Then it settles into a melody that is oppressively somber. And then the credits roll. Less a love letter to Hollywood than the legal notepad scribblings of Hollywood’s therapist. We tell ourselves the stories we want to hear even when we know it’s a lie. Rick wants to be what he pretends to be. He longs to be the hero, instead of the petulant man-child he is shown to be capable of when he is forced to be the villain. And Cliff is the man who remembers himself suavely fighting Bruce Lee but stops us before we can see what happened to his wife (This is going off the theory that the scene is not a flashback per se but Cliff’s remembrance, and the memory within the memory is still from Cliff’s perspective). Our leading men may seem cool, but they’re each quite broken if you look at them from a certain angle. Even more so, they resemble qualities of their actors to a startling degree.

While the ending feels concrete insofar as it has defiantly altered history, there’s an overarching sense of ambiguity. Rick and Cliff left off ending their professional relationship. Cliff has remained stagnant in terms of character development, and Rick has reverted back to simply playing the hero, only this time for Italian audiences. He likes the myth. And so do we.