Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★½

It is easy to object that QT only makes movies because he can, but at the same time we can all agree that cinema would be in better shape if it was anything other than already cherished intellectual property driving its production — even the discursive bloat of tired provocateurs. True, subverting audience expectations can only ever be marginally better than their slavish commitment because they both share the same target and even point of departure, but if marginal improvement is what we have available, then who's going to stick their neck out for marginally worse? The endless resurrection of hallowed property can only ever be viewed and constructed in deficit — oh a remake/reboot/adaptation? let's make sure this isn't fucked up too badly — whereas with the egotist we're always open to being charmed or even impressed.

There's also the fact that the unexpected occasionally comes in what you in your heart genuinely least expect: case in point, as it stands, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is very good. Tender, funny, and mournfully sad. Even the director's worst offer redemption where more serious artists settle for fatalism, and this follows suit. One important difference is in the way it reveals redemption as a private, near holy moment performed for no one in particular, and another is in the denial of generalised audience catharsis via cinema: a desert drive-in whose blue lights dance through the night sky but never quite reach the vampiric pumpjacks and caravans of human labour is his best and most revelatory image, and speaking of sucking blood from the earth, the peripheral status he gives evil is more the lived-in panics about the 'people in the hills' glimpsed in present tense throughout Neil Young's On the Beach than the bourgeois safety of serial killer fetishism in the time of the true crime podcast.

Pitt's alluring at a distance and frightening up close, while DiCaprio for the first time stirs physical sympathy from shrill bluster. And none of this even touches on the extent to which Robbie carries the film with and even through a loving embodiment of the spectator's distance. (Count this as the second time the guy has the guts to make you cry instead of snigger). The violence is dull, obligatory, but that in itself feels like something, and really it's not the return but the very presence of Tate's spectral voice cast from a fictional intercom that forces us into confrontation with irreversible loss, and a glimpse of a failed future. Elsewhere his 'revisionism' equates to dress up; here, in the pain of something like a seance, there is hope.

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