Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

(Though they are clearly marked.)

• Significant that this is the first Tarantino period film set in his lifetime, specifically when he was six. Hollywood often seems to be seen through youthful eyes, amazed at the existence of the world itself, treating a wind-whipped convertible drive, the aural wallpaper of radio ads and snippets of songs both unknown and not (dig that inversion of "Mrs. Robinson") as the spectacle. How many sound-image combos in his canon are as exhilarating as Polanski's car blazing through town to "Hush"?

• In this respect he's working a sort of memory-based editing style for which preceding, more in-the-moment films would've had little use. Intercutting dislocates us from conflict, time, and space; drifting between Dalton and Tate's homes as if one stray thought begetting another; an actor's work creating dissociations between self and character; flashbacks within flashbacks (sometimes leaving ambiguous who's doing the flashing back); diegetic cues becoming non-diegetic and vice-versa at a moment's notice. Had he continued non-linear storytelling post-Kill Bill we might've been here earlier, but after 15-or-so years it plays as a major development.

• Cinema is there, but screens are mere part of a world* marked by immense textural detail. It's easy to be skeptical of Tarantino's 35mm fetishism until seeing this projected, where landscapes practically glow from within like a fond memory and lights almost register as explosions. 

*Other than an actress, playing Sharon Tate, watching the actual Sharon Tate in a movie of hers (both the real and "diegetic" Sharon Tate) as an origin story of the Tarantino ethos.

• This is a movie that understands:
a) You're never dumber or more casually funny — maybe those are one and the same — than when watching TV with a friend.
b) You'll rarely be sadder than on your last night with them. Not the last night you'll see each other or even continue a relationship — rather the finish line of the friendship as you knew it, the end of before and the start of after. Maybe that's why a Rolling Stones cue almost moved me to tears — the most affecting needle drop in his filmography outside Kill Bill Vol. 2 or Jackie Brown.

Anyway...

— ACTUAL SPOILERS —

• Basically the worst experience (short of losing a child I guess) is a film you're really grooving with dropping the ball. While I'd heard divisive things about Hollywood's ending without knowing for certain what follows, reading that it's of a piece with Inglourious Basterds made it easy enough to guess where we were headed. Whether or not that's an on-paper-bad idea... I'm tense as the movie turns encyclopedic, jumping from professional (posters, movie clips, behind-the-scenes footage) to personal (the dissolution of Rick's relationship with Cliff) to purely logistical (time spent at restaurants) to slightly ethereal (a notice of pregnancy-induced melancholy) to more granular (who was smoking a joint when). And historical precedent lets specters of violence loom larger than at maybe any other point in Tarantino's filmography. It's the long shot of Cliff walking his dog, the hippie car's lights slowly reflecting at the end of the street, the music played too loud to warn of an intruder — horror-movie stuff, an intrigue Tarantino doesn't consider himself above.

• I hazard to guess what is and isn't the self-reflection of someone I don't know, but as accusations of irresponsibly depicting violence, atrocities, etc. obviously get under Tarantino's skin I couldn't help seeing a very bright light shine on the Manson girl's justification for killing Dalton. Moreover I'm hugely impressed with the capitalization of audience awareness herein — read descriptions of the Tate-Labianca murders and tell me the girl's plan to force castration and cannibalism isn't a credible threat, think back on the multitude of groin injuries (cartoonish or not) in Tarantino's oeuvre and imagine he wouldn't go for it.

• The extent to which he does is astonishing. One could argue there's some cowardice in not depicting horrors as they happened, but as in Basterds’ Holocaust-reminiscent climax I found incredible evocation — essentially another Tarantino homage — in violence angrier and more contemptful than is his wont. It takes only a moment to recognize the foundation: history has already inflicted its pain.

• The sight of Brad Pitt slamming a hippie's head into a table is cartoonish; the close-up of their mangled mouth is not. A dog biting a scumbag's dick is funny; the sound of a young girl screaming in agony as that same dog eats her alive is not. And as I feel a fulfilled bloodlust from all ends I am still asking myself, two perspectives colliding head-on with pinpoint accuracy, how and why that is and isn't okay. I still don't know. The flamethrower, less ambiguous.

• However much it's a reach to say Tarantino has interests in the cosmic, Hollywood's factual futzing crystallized so post-chaos: Rick Dalton stands under the night sky of a cultural landmark he's just rewritten, but a) he won't ever know that; b) he's too myopic about virtually everything to appreciate it if he could. Cue the spaced-out "Miss Lily Langtry" from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, whose synopsis starts with "Saved from near death..."

• Fantasy is inherently impotent. It's a happy ending for them; we know it's dumb luck. The movie ends; the nightmare of August 9, 1969 doesn’t.