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.

There are two extended scenes in OUATIH from Rick Dalton movies, one of which is a WWII movie in which he kills Nazis and the other of which is a Western, which seem to me to be curious stand-ins for Tarantino's last three movies. Full disclosure: of those three, I have only seen Basterds, so I can only talk about that one. I hated Basterds when I saw it and though it was a good few years ago now- I didn't even have Letterboxd at the time- I think my opinion would probably stay the same. With Basterds and, I'm assuming, with his two Westerns, Tarantino was doing a pastiche not of the WWII time period, but of the WWII movie, and what it came out looking like was paradoxically both reverent and condescending, a desire to emulate Tarantino's cinematic idols while also attempting to "improve" the charms of the B-movie with his self-consciously slick and self-aware dialogue.

So now, Tarantino is doing an actual time-period pastiche, and his love for the era is clear (compare the needle drops in this to say, I, Tonya, and it's not hard to determine which director has the more extensive pop culture knowledge), but these meta-pastiches are interesting. Personally, I can't help but see them as embarrassed apologies, or justifications perhaps, for the earlier movies; "see, this, this is what I was trying to do!" And perhaps he knows the extent to which he didn't succeed, that in his attempt to improve on his idols, he inevitably produced a cheap imitation.

We are, I think undeniably, living in the era of the pastiche. For whatever reason (a growing sense of hopelessness towards our collective future? Possibly), we are endlessly cannibalizing the cultures of America's past, mostly from the decades between World War II and the 21st century. These cultural pastiches will generally revel in the aesthetic excesses of an era only to pull back, and declare solemnly that bad things happened in that era, too. In this way, we are able to both get off on a nostalgia kick and console ourselves that we're fine right where we are, thank you very much.

It is, then, Tarantino's boldest move, in OUATIH, to bulldoze, first effortlessly and then desperately, through literally any inclination to display the "bad parts" of the 60s. He knows we know the score, the Summer of Love burnt out on a bad trip, then came Alamont and Watergate and yes, the Mansons. But what if it didn't? What if, through movie magic, we could save Sharon Tate and kill Squeaky Fromme? Could the 60s then go on forever, this idyllic good-vibes 60s where movies and TV, "irony" all but an unknown word, still possessed the corny sincerity of innocence?

Well, it left a bad taste in my mouth when they killed Hitler in Basterds and this ending leaves an even worse taste, but maybe that's the point. Tarantino seems to be asking his audience (and maybe himself) how far they're willing to indulge him to keep the fantasy alive. The most disgusting moment comes when Tarantino asks how many times he can get away with showing a man bashing a woman's face into a wall, provided he's established that the woman is the real-life murderer of a pregnant woman. I found most of that scene repugnant and generally full of shit, and was suddenly reminded of everything I dislike about Tarantino, that is, his childish and arrogant way of trying to see how much he can get away with if he entertains you first (and of course he does get away with it, over and over). And then, the kicker, the title card appears, recontextualized by the events we just saw, it becomes "clever" in an eye-rolling "geddit?" sort of way, and I'm suddenly reminded of how I felt after Basterds- that is, that I was getting fucked with.

I know I'm giving mixed signals about this movie right now so let me try to clarify. In theory, I find the ending of Hollywood fascinating. In practice, I find it crass and juvenile. Before the Manson family comes to kill Rick and Cliff, one of the girls gushes that media taught them to murder, so they should murder the media. An obvious reference to criticisms that have dogged Tarantino throughout his career, but what does it actually mean in this context? Is he refuting the claim, showing the way violence can lend us catharsis from our personal and cultural traumas? Is he, via the brutality of the violence, finally accepting these criticisms are essentially correct, but goddammit, he just can't help getting off on it? Some movies thrive off these kinds of contradictions, but Tarantino just feels too much like a snake oil salesman for this to sit perfectly with me. Still, this is, from what I've seen, the closest he's ever gotten to laying all his cards on the table.

But maybe my feelings are so conflicted because, like Tarantino, I *do* dig the fantasy (in fact, I think my friend Gus's excellent review is so enthusiastic about the ending precisely *because* he hated the rest of the film). From Rick's emotional breakdown in front of a precocious child actor to Margaret Qualley's hippie hitch-hiker Pussycat moving her arms and legs like a Fleischer cartoon to Sharon Tate silently miming her on-screen character's kung fu, with comically oversized glasses and (of course) bare feet propped up on the seat in front of her, Hollywood finds its pleasure in the goofy, corny, humanity of its characters. Tarantino suddenly reminds us what a gifted director of actors he is and the attention paid to the physical quirks and movements of his actors here is part of what makes them so enjoyable to watch. A funny quirk: Pitt is shorter than DiCaprio in real life, yet always seems to be dwarfing him in the film.

So I dunno. I've said before of David Lynch that he'd be a terrible director if he wasn't so good, and Tarantino's fatal flaw is that he isn't always so good. He's easy to hate from a lot of different angles and sometimes (often?) he even deserves it. He'll get some flack for this one and he'll deserve that too, but he'll deserve the praise as well. This is, for all my reservations, pretty solidly the best thing I've ever seen by the guy.*

*I have only seen Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, the first Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, and about half of Death Proof.

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