Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★


Second viewing, one week later (score up from 70), and I’m happy to say a lot of my initial reservations—mainly w.r.t. the mismatch between the first two hours and the final forty-five minutes—fell to the wayside. Or perhaps more accurately, the film’s strengths became more apparent and its depth fully materialized, doing massive work to mollify my woes about the disjunction to the point where I could barely muster any dissatisfaction toward it. (Still not a fan of the Russell narration, though.) I noticed this time, too, that it seems Tarantino is not only aware of the (relative) incongruity, but that he deliberately punctuates it; before the “Six Months Later” cut to black, it almost feels like the film is coming to a preemptive closure. Cliff, Rick, and Tate all heading home after a long day, blissfully vaporizing alongside the Hollywood sunset, as if he were telling us, “Now, I told you that story to tell you this story…”

And, in a way, that’s kinda how the whole film works. It has a casually digressive structure, like that friend who tries telling you something but keeps trailing off on a bunch of tangents, gets lost describing trivialities in depth, and constantly shifts back and forth between various scenarios. So yes, I still think there’s a “Story A” and a “Story B” here, and (mostly) everything that happens in “Story A” is still superfluous to the everything that happens in “Story B.” (The only legitimate through-line I could surmise was Dalton’s battle against obscurity coming to an end, but that somehow seems like a mere wink and not really the film’s destination.) This time, though, I read the delineation as a calculated maneuver, and not just a flimsy, cobbled-together coda like e.g. DJANGO UNCHAINED. (It’s amazing, the amount of inexplicable clarity that can accompany a second viewing.)

Jordan Smith wrote a nice musing detailing his thoughts about the moral complexity of Cliff’s character, and I, too, find this aspect of the film more interesting than any other. He specifically mentions the flashback sequence of Cliff on a boat with his wife, and I paid extra attention to it this time around, because I agree that while it may ostensibly seem like another subversive attempt at black humor, it’s truly intended to influence our perception of Cliff. First thing I duly noted: It’s indeed a flashback within a flashback. The boat scene itself occurs during the discussion between Rick and Randy, and if we’re to assume the film operates directly/solely through its character and not with god’s-eye views, this particular evocation is a mental assimilation of Rick (or Randy), based only on hearsay of the events, without legitimate credence.

If we are to assume, however, that what we’re seeing is a god’s-eye view of the actual scenario as it actually took place (though we’ve been given no specific inclination it is) I think it’s interesting to note that Cliff’s harpoon—the one on his lap, aimed directly at his complaining wife—is clearly unloaded. I’m no salty dog, but I’m confident that when a harpoon is loaded, you can see the harpoon itself jutting from the mouth of the launcher. In this scene, there’s no harpoon loaded, and just before the flashback cuts back to present time, there’s a loud splash that can be heard. Given the meticulous man that Mr. Tarantino is, I can only believe the harpoon being visible unloaded was intentional. But so must’ve been the positioning of it in Cliff’s lap, aimed directly at his wife. These two things directly contradict one another, and the only solution I can come up with is that they’re meant to further obfuscate the truth. We don’t know how accurate the recount is, anyway, but who’s to say she even died via harpoon? Maybe he shoved her overboard. Then again, maybe she drunkenly fell into the water herself. Tarantino is wryly toying with us here.

But before the boating flashback was over, I noticed something else interesting. I had made a subconscious mental note of Cliff and Rick’s early trip to the bar (when Rick meets with Marvin Schwarzs for the first time), partially because it was a Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were on our first “date” in months without the boy, and an adult beverage would’ve really hit the spot. I remember watching Cliff slather Tabasco sauce into his Bloody Mary—followed up by the delicious crunch of a thick, alcohol-soaked celery stalk—and thinking to myself how great a Bloody Mary would’ve tasted just then. Only for it to finally strike me in the middle of that flashback: Cliff’s wife was sipping on the exact same drink, gigantic celery stalk and all. And sure, Bloody Mary’s aren’t exactly a rare bird, but they’re specific enough, and between the two drastically different scenarios—nighttime at a bar vs. daytime in the middle of the ocean—again, bridled by Quentin’s obsessive attention to detail, I can’t convince myself this wasn’t on purpose.

Why, though? Is it to be shrugged off as an inconsequential easter egg? Is Tarantino winking at the lore that killers will sometimes inherit traits of those they murder? Or is Cliff drinking in memorandum of his dead wife, allowing a moment of self-pity (it’s the only instance in the film he drinks something other than beer) and reminiscing with an old favorite of hers? Once again, the lack of clarity is by design, I’m sure, but I don’t think this detail is purely coincidence, and there’s something to be read from the way Cliff cheerlessly dribbles hot sauce into the glass or disaffectedly chomps the fat end of the celery. Whether you amass a sense of grief or guilt will depend on several other factors, though, all pertaining to which direction you believe Cliff’s moral compass is truly pointed.

Furthermore, as agitational as that scene is, there’s another scene that doubles down on the provocation: Cliff’s denial of sexual favors from a girl who’s unable to proffer evidence of her legal age. Not to pigeonhole criminals into a specific subset—that is, it’s perfectly reasonable that someone could be capable of murder and might also not be interested in underaged women; that someone is prone to abhorrent violence but not sexual deviancy (especially if they are currently treading thin ice)—but this exchange is, to my mind, the antithesis of the boating flashback, meant largely to round-out Cliff with at least some sense of morality, swaying the compass back to the “good” side. He may very well be a wife-killer but at least he’s not a pervert. (I mean…you get the idea.) He won’t be winning any medals for his oak-like deterrence but if this detail isn’t supposed to serve as a snippet of virtuous redemption for Cliff, however small, then I dunno what it’s for.

All this ethical skewing ties into the recurring meta-theme of spaghetti westerns, a genre which is narratively relevant in the form of Rick’s career redemption, but also functions through the spirit of the film itself. There are rarely “heroes” in spaghetti westerns, rather there are anti-heroes. Eastwood’s Man-With-No-Name wasn’t a model citizen with excellent moral behavior (regardless of his moniker as “The Good”), he was a man with questionable ethics who utilized dubious methods, but, comparatively so, he wasn’t “Bad,” either, and, more specifically, he fought against the “bad” guys, who were plainly worse than him. We can overlook his schemes to unrightfully steal reward money or the way he often enters foreign towns with a chip on his shoulder and guns blazin’ because, well, he takes down Angel Eyes who, for all intents and purposes, is decidedly more “evil,” in every sense of the word.

That’s Cliff’s role here. Whether he murdered his wife or not, the grayness of his ethicality is apparent. He’s a man who’s prone to violence, obviously, but he’s also capable of good things, like driving Rick around, fixing things around his house, and fending off the murderous hippies who try to invade it. I’m being flippant, of course, but the point is clear: Cliff has a soured, ambiguous reputation as a shady character, though his allegiance to Rick is born of legitimate care and tenderness. The child-like joy with which he’s ready to watch the latest episode of F.B.I. with Rick makes it hard to accept that this is the same man who will later obliterate a woman’s face with a can of dog food or another’s against a fireplace mantle (and a phone, and a table, etc.).

Which regroups with the Manson girl’s high-minded theory about movies and actors portraying killing as some sort of glorious deed, teaching youth that murder is fine, feeling that they’re due a dose of real-life reciprocity. And, naturally, in an extremely meta-commentative way, how are these Very Evil People thwarted? Gruesome, gruesome murder, of course. Is Tarantino being cheeky again, or is there a reason he, somewhat problematically, chose to silence violence with violence? (And not just any violence, but excessive, particularly gnarly depictions of it.) Is he arguing that violence is okay, if those at the receiving end of the stick are deemed evil people, not worthy of the life they have?

Not exactly. He obviously believes e.g. the Manson clan, in retrospect, deserved an awful, painful, and inglorious fate. (And, really, who doesn’t? I’m honestly find it a bit troubling that some people take issue with the markedly positive representation of their deaths.) But more than mounting some kind of self-reflexive statement about “fighting fire with fire,” so to speak, I simply think he’s highlighting that violence in movies and television are more or less innocuous to those able to separate fantasy from reality. It’s not simply by chance that Sebring and Tate are huge fans of both “Bounty Law” and “The Fourteen Fists of McClusky”—contextually violent programs (“…lotta killin’… lotta killin’.”)—yet have no difficulty parsing real-life and make-believe.

Tarantino expands that notion of fantasy in films beyond a display of vengeful violence, too, with a final scene that brought a glaze of tears over my eyes: Pregnant-and-still-alive Tate meeting her gunslinging neighbor for the first time in a moment wherein both Rick and Sharon feel equally star-struck at one another. But as heartfelt and compassionate as that closing segment is, when the words “Once Upon a Time…” appear, we’re somewhat abruptly reminded that none of this idealistic scenario is real, and just as films are able to portray acts of perpetual ugliness, they’re also capable of crafting impossibly affectionate situations—at the end of the day, however, neither of them are “real.” Movies are very much a temporary escape from reality and nothing more.

I have a lot left to say about this (believe it or not); I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and with only one of the characters (mainly Cliff). I still think there’s a ton of stuff to be parsed and dissected, but this is turning into an incoherent rambling of semi-tangential thoughts, so I need to curb it here. But, because I can’t resist, some final thoughts that I couldn’t work into the paragraphs above:

• Both times I saw this, each theater group let out audible sighs of melancholy when it appeared Cliff was dead (and his fate uncertain). This tells me that the audience is in Cliff’s corner, and he has successfully been deemed the “good guy” by viewers. Not going to lie, I find myself in that camp, too, and was internally upset when I first thought he was dead. But I have to ask: Are people willing to overlook and/or forgive the fact that he possibly murdered his wife because he prevented something horrible from happening? Have his past transgressions been assuaged because of an act of redemption? Are people merely rooting against the Manson clan, regardless of who’s on the other side? Or does the ambiguity of his potential misdeed become not as ambiguous through legitimate character development (and his clearly decent heart)? I’m starting to find myself in that latter camp.

• Didn’t have time to touch on Leo much here, but in my previous review I said he was “occasionally unconvincing.” No such problems on this revisit; in fact, his performance pretty much stunned me, and now I’m somewhat baffled at my earlier reaction.

• The same way Cliff absorbs the moral skewedness of the old western anti-heroes, Rick embodies that persona in a more “realistic” way in the context of the film. He’s starting to become a washed up television actor and these spaghetti westerns revitalize his career. Sounds like a very similar trajectory to Clint Eastwood had when he decided to star in Leone’s DOLLARS trilogy. Rick mirrors Clint while Cliff mirrors the character that Clint plays, making Rick and Cliff are sort of spiritual counterparts.

• I’m not positive, but this might be Tarantino’s funniest film? Can’t remember laughing so much at any of his other movies as did during this last revisit. Conversely, this is opening itself up to be one of his most layered and densely packed films, too, making for a wonderful marriage between superficial enjoyment and thought-provoking subtext. I like it.

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