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.

When this movie ended, I turned to the person I was with and asked, "That's it? It's over?" I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that 1. That was the actual ending, and 2. Two hours and forty minutes had just passed by. Up to its terminus, I was totally hooked into this story's slow-burn tension and creeping dark atmosphere, the hypnotic immersion wherein I lost all sense of time and place, the meticulous direction and period ornamentation, the transportive soundtrack, the interwoven subplots and characters hewn like a finely-crafted novel—the whole time I'm thinking oh man, I bet this is all leading up to something good! No doubt some kind of crossroads between the Manson cult and a Polanski sex party where everything will be revealed and make sense. I say, what a remarkable new direction for Tarantino, very restrained and studied, thoughtful and gradually paced, no overreliance on goofy humor or gratuitous violen—then suddenly my reverie is broken by that stupid-ass ending, the cord is yanked out of all these elements and all I can hear is Tarantino screeching in my ear: "HAH hah ha!! Betcha didn't expect that! Oh, you say you don't like violence in movies?! Well what about A MOTHERFUCKING FLAMETHROWER!!! Ah HA HA HA!!! Isn't that HILARIOUS? Are you SHOCKED?? GAZE UPON ME, YOUR IMPISH TRICKSTER GOD, AS I DANCE A MERRY JIG WITH MY CLAWS RAISED IN THE DIONYSIAN MOONLIGHT!!! Ah HA hA Ha HA Ha hA Hah HA HA HA!!!!!!"

Yeah, settle down, Puck. Nobody is shocked or moved by movie violence in 2019. It was the only part of the film the audience in my theater laughed at.

Which by the way, T, is exactly what I liked about your film up to that point; people were actually taking it seriously, including the consciously old-fashioned send-ups to lost media that you admire, and willing to take you seriously as a reflective artist. Usually these cues to the past tend to draw giggles from audiences, but everyone seemed willing to go along with your thesis that kitschy cultural artifacts have value, possess the capacity to inspire and deserve to be appreciated as meaningful, a thesis that I would wholeheartedly agree with. But that reverential tone was kind of undercut not only by the ending, but also the fact that you really make these films and TV shows look incredibly silly: generic crime shows and TV Westerns that supposedly only little kids care about, Saturday matinee action flicks (possibly with fakey martial arts?), "awful" Italian rip-offs, films the actors themselves don't seem to care about, etc. I doubt you made any converts here. It's perfectly fine if you want to make a full-on violent grindhouse picture, but you can keep it out of your refined rumination on lost Old Hollywood innocence, forgotten culture and real-life tragedy. It was much better just the way it was.

Speaking of losing converts, I realize that I might be rankling a few feathers here and that a lot of you guys genuinely love this. I completely understand why: this is a straight pipeline right from cinephile to cinephile, preaching directly to the choir the things they already know and agree with, without a story or message that will ever truly resonate with anyone outside the loop. Ironically, it kind of represents a lot of what I hate about modern movies and (here's where you unfollow) really boils down to pandering film hipster bs for me—it's all references and no substance; the filmmaker is cool because he knows and puts in the hip references, the viewer is cool for recognizing them, and never the closed circuit shall break. It's just a statement of what we're already supposed to know. What made those old, corny movies great is that they actually had the courage to try something that was all their own and risk getting laughed at (and many do), not just play it safe in cool detachment on the sidelines.

Because what exactly is the meaning here? I think the most generous interpretation is that this is simply a love letter to a great and bygone era of Hollywood that was/is in many ways underappreciated, populated by many unsung craftsmen who should continue to get the respect they've earned for their contributions. Rick might be a fading star, but he is a star who lives on to the people who care and matter. Okay. So Old Hollywood was neat. What else is new? This is kind of just commonly accepted and mawkish sentimentality echoed by every single film critic and writer who has a ever lived (Oh, just look at Sharon as she stares in misty-eyed wonder at the cinematic brilliance of The Wrecking Crew; how very sweet and affecting).

I didn't personally get anything more ideological than that out of the film, but a lot reviewers seem to be taking this as an indictment of "the day film died," generational decay and how all movies now suck. I don't think this really makes any sense. First of all, what happened after the events depicted in the film? The 70's, the decade Tarantino and his ilk worship. Was this moment the end of faith in Hollywood? The film industry was built on a layer of murder, rape and mob connections from the very beginning. Was it the advent of cynicism, darkness and the modern age of filmmaking? Those are the things Tarantino has based his entire career on (I don't easily see a guy like him existing pre-90's), and he's always been prepossessed by the desire to push boundaries and expand beyond a stodgy and narrow view of what's considered acceptable and kosher in film. Did counterculture ruin cinema? Counterculture created the best work of the 60's and 70's.

But just for the sake of argument, I'll entertain the notion that this is just a bitter old man bemoaning the death of Hollywood (skip this paragraph if you don't want to read a digressive and haranguing rant). News flash: Hollywood dying is a great thing for culture. It should have died years ago. Movies, like all mainstream artforms, have always been bubblegum prolefeed designed to callously squeeze a quick buck out of easy marks and turn a profit for the commercial entities behind them, nothing more. People know it's dumb, people like it because it's dumb, and people are allowed to like their own dumb stuff today just like Tarantino liked his dumb stuff back when he was a kid. If you want pure intellectualism and art, then go read a fucking book. This, of course, isn't to say that this historical tradition hasn't produced wonderful art; great art can be made from anything, and many of my favorite films are quite commercial and simplistic. But culture has predominantly come out of the underground for the past 40 years, the only consistent wellspring of creativity, subversion and diverse perspectives. Mainstream studios have long since outlived their usefulness as the most efficient producers of media and the gatekeepers of culture; everything will continue to become more and more decentralized over time and no longer beholden to conform to the same homonuclear standard and limiting formalism, and these are good things. Sure, independent outlets take a while to get going, but how long did it take to get to this illustrious golden age of film in the beginning of the previous century? Like 40 years? I'm glad that all the major studios are making now are blockheaded superhero flicks that I would never pay to see, the purest and most honest expression of what they were always destined to become. We already got our classics out of them, and we don't need any more.

But back to OUATIH. I can't have any emotional connection to this storyline at all, mainly because Rick is a completely unsympathetic protagonist. When it starts out, he's depicted as a phony, hacky playboy who just chases self-serving success, despite the fact that he'd be nowhere without his stuntman doing all the heavy lifting, and he has a moment of self-doubt about halfway through the film, but then when the film ends, he's basically the same shallow gloryhound he was before, chasing money and fame to continue his lavish lifestyle that we would all be lucky to have a small piece of. This is the guy we're supposed to commiserate with? To feel bad that he might be forced to sell his exquisite mansion and live off his considerable savings? His momentary doubt is the inception of character development, but not any kind of final conclusion. What does he really learn and what real obstacles does he ever overcome? I think Cliff would have been a much more compelling main character, since he actually fits the mold of an unsung hero whose sacrifices and dedication helped build the film industry (although even Cliff is iffy since there's that whole thing they offhandedly mention about him maybe being a murderer? so I'm not really what to do with him, either). And uh, just stating the obvious here, but is Polanski really the deus ex machina we want to hitch our wagon to?

The whole thing feels so half-baked to me, like a great novel that was only written halfway through, ending like a practical joke. Not just the inchoate stuff about Rick and Cliff, but also the commentary about movies, history and violence, other than that they're, like, totally cool. Two stars plus a like for the excellent look and feel of the thing, the soundtrack, the obvious passion and the very intriguing concept behind it all, proving that not every nifty idea that runs through your head needs to be made into a multimillion dollar picture when there are starving children in the world. Maybe just riff on it with your film friends at the next dinner party, instead.

Also, everything above is null if this is (as I suspected after the movie ended) maybe just a prequel and there's going to be a part two, in which case this is probably actually really good.

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