Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★★



Akin to the glowing, indescribable light of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the stature of famed *and* infamous auteur Quentin Tarantino has long been a topic of ceaseless debate. While many tussle and fight over the contents of his esteemed filmography, just as many are comfortable in letting his mystery movie magic spread across the luminous space, observant in the functionality and panache of his cinematic exercises. There’s just nothing like Kill Bill or Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained; movies that commit thievery of content and spirit and yet find a delicate balance between tightly written clockwork plots and outlandish, inconceivable violence. Tarantino’s brand of filmic spelunking has brought tremendous acclaim all while limiting him to the fringes by his skeptics. His devious inner-impulses often drive the pacing of his narratives, sorting out sin via baptism by fire rather than melancholy, and they reckon with their subjects until the pot is boiling, leading to catharsis of messy, incomplete context. It is what his films, whether nihilistic (The Hateful Eight), heroic (Django), or tender (Jackie Brown), sprint towards, and they each tick on mortality’s clock - deliberately, ruthlessly counting down until the very end, when the celluloid stops spinning, the bulb is switched off, and the marquee flickers into the night.

Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is different. It marks the endpoint of Tarantino’s many obsessions and fetishes, and it remixes so much of the language he cemented as a style, but it never feels like a retread. Rather, it offers its two-man lead of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio a level of interiority unlike any film in current American cinema. These are not typical Tarantino chess-pieces moved and manipulated to his whim. Sure, my love for Daisy Domergue (The Hateful Eight) expands past the horizon, but I would never say any of Tarantino’s eccentric rogue gallery of characters and caricatures embodied a life of their own, existed past the boundaries of the frame, or wandered off into the California sun. They exist in the here and now of the movie, no more, no less. Never an issue, but always a question, one that will forever stake a claim in how Tarantino’s work is analyzed. In OUATIH, however, Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth, and Sharon Tate are just a few of the stacked ensemble players that have either intentional inspiration or direct historical reference. Their life and movements and smiles and tears are linked to the vaulted 35mm prints in studio warehouses, the biographies in Wikipedia pages, the matinee programming on TCM and public access. What Tarantino has created is simply a way to exist in this time. Labels like ‘hang-out’ and ‘self-indulgent’ are wrong for different reasons; OUATIH flickers onto the silver screen as a portal - a transitory connection between those big bright movie star faces and the people they once were.

In doing so, this is Tarantino’s most inwardly-crafted film yet. Never does a character talk too much or say too little. They are merely impressions; bodies caught in the same highs and lows that any movie-buff might find in their quest for the next big fix. Tarantino, just as if he had the power to bring Sharon Tate or Steve McQueen back from the grave, gifts them the opportunity to exist as icons and icons alone. They already lived and died as people, but it is here where Tarantino reminds us not to push cinema history aside, not to drift our gaze away from their art. By allowing them to live and breathe in his world, their life is prolonged, for Quentin and his audience. He, and by extension, us, doesn’t want to forget. It’s not a nostalgic film, necessarily – it’s vital, all-consuming, and loving, never once looking back with its memories, only forward to a hopeful coda. Tarantino can’t change a thing about how cinema has led to this point, but he can tread a new path with an emphatic ear and an acknowledgement of his own irrelevancy, his own fading twilight.

What Margot Robbie, Leo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and many others contribute is an understanding that the movies wouldn’t be the same without them, just as the many iconic, problematic celebrities that appear in the film’s canvas. They are determined to achieve a sort of legacy, as is Tarantino, for both himself and the haunted ghosts that populate every frame of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. For a film about the dream-factory, it’s less about the ins-and-outs of the movie business than hoping that people don’t lose sight of your legacy, and that they remember you for the right reasons. As in Ed Wood, “This is the one. 'This' is the one I'll be remembered for”, and what better film to highlight this than a sprawling, patient masterclass in historical subversion and fairy-tale tears. A real movie with a big, beating heart.

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