Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

Incredibly fascinated by how much better the film played this time around than it did three years ago when I saw it in the theaters. I wasn't bothered by the Bruce Lee scene because it comes and goes rather quickly. I still think it's a rather telling example of Tarantino's limited perspective though considering he chose to frame Lee in the very reductive scope of a shit stirring upstart.

It's not untrue that Lee was a confident guy and he liked to be cocky, but the specific real stuntman Cliff Booth is a riff on and the fight the film is referencing went slightly differently in reality. A writer tracked down and talked to the real guy Gene LeBell about the movie and essentially LeBell being world class in judo, the showrunner wanted him to embarrass Lee a little bit to make him take it easier with the other stuntmen. LeBell abided, grabbing the much smaller Lee and carrying him around, until he let him down.

Of course Tarantino isn't using that anecdote verbatim, but by repurposing LeBell's story for his fictional Cliff Booth he's reducing Lee's stature as a man to a caricature. Lee was cocky, he loved to fight and spar, but he was also a contemplative guy and he made friends far more than he made enemies. To just show him stirring shit is only showing one side of him and I think the film could have at least given him one another scene where he got to show his more personable side. There is a very quick shot of him sparring with Sharon Tate, but considering it's just a glimpse, I didn't find it to particularly balance the fight scene.

The frustrating thing about the critiques of the fight and the way Lee was used in it is that so many people have been hung up on Lee "losing". Like the man wasn't some superman, he was a small dude, he could totally lose to another fighter due to size alone. Showing dimensions in him is far more important than whether he got embarrassed in the fight or not. Tarantino's motivations are a bit dubious though considering he initially wanted Cliff to win the fight instead of ending it early as a draw. The stunt coordinator and Pitt talked him into doing the draw, because they didn't feel like it was right that Cliff would beat him.

He has also reacted to the criticism of the scene in pretty much the worst way possible considering he's
doubled down and dug his heels in. He called Lee arrogant and overrated and it kind of seems like he has more of a grudge against the man than just pure reverence. Like in my marathon I rewatched Kill Bill and in Vol. 1 it did feel incredibly peculiar that the Crazy 88 wear Kato masks and Kiddo is donning Lee's yellow jumpsuit. Years ago those were neat nods to iconic elements of film history, but now they feel far more superficial and honestly fetishistic in their use.

The funny thing is that even after saying all that, I still enjoyed the scene. Mike Moh does a great job playing Lee and he gets some very funny lines which he delivers perfectly. The scene itself isn't bad, like hell, he could have even lost the fight. The fact that he gets nothing else except than that scene is bad to me and it's something I can't help, but think about even though in the moment the scene comes and goes pretty quickly and it doesn't really bring down the experience with the film.

I mostly love how Sharon Tate is used in the film. It's a brilliant framing device to introduce her as a character who essentially exists in the story to create an anticipation for the ending, which everyone who knows the real tale is expecting to happen, until it then doesn't. However I would say that her character could have used a moment or two of small conflicts where she would actually get to assert herself. I love that she basically spends the film vibing and enjoying life, but she had a very complicated life and especially the marriage to Polanski, so it would have been extremely interesting if we had gotten something a bit more than just the lightest of touches with her.

The biggest thing that bothers me is that by primarily showing the Manson family members and only showing a glimpse of Manson, the film is also omitting the racism driving Manson and by extension his followers. The man was a manipulator who took an advantage of easy marks. To not show him and how he influenced his followers is to leave their followers counter-culture musings to be taken at face value. There's nothing ironic about Dalton ragging against hippies and Booth sneering at their communal lifestyle. The two fucking the trio up at the end is about as big of a wish fulfilment fantasy of a certain type of person as it gets and I kind of feel like perhaps the movie shouldn't have just expected people to know the full extent of what was going on with the family, otherwise it's hard to avoid a bit of a conservative bent with it.

The reason why these problems aren't the types that took away from the experience is that they're not really even what the film is about. The Bruce Lee fight is just one scene and all the Mansion is largely just a backdrop and then the climactic scene. The film is a meticulous construction of the descent of a certain type of an actor in their late stage career and I love what Tarantino does by creating a two-sided depiction of one persona with Cliff and Dalton.

The fact that Cliff does all the work and gets stabbed with the three Manson killers and then Rick comes in and torches one of them, even though she was already beaten to such a point that she was probably done is flat out hysterical. These bits exist everywhere in the story when Rick is shown to be basically a manbaby who constantly has to rely on Booth's help in every way possible when it comes to handyman work, stunt doubling, chauffeuring, emotional support. Rick's face is everywhere and yet Cliff remains invisible.

Rick flies first class with his wife back to America and Cliff flies coach. The film puts so much emphasis on how Rick is a face and Cliff is a body and I guess there isn't really a better way to simultaneously give credence to actors like Rick Dalton while also delivering an ode to the stuntman. The biggest aspect of this is probably that Cliff doesn't have aspirations to reach higher than he's at. He knows he's the body and yet he has no desire to be the face.

He's somewhat shafted when it comes to being taken for granted because let's face it, he's the help. Rick talks lovingly about Cliff, but he still exists in a certain context where he really isn't an equal even though Rick calls him more than brother, less than a wife. The moment he doesn't have money to pay him anymore, their relationship is over because they are an employer and an employee and that's what delivers that ode to the stuntman. Cliff being content while being shafted, made him easy to sympathize even though Rick isn't exactly a bad guy in their dynamic.

What probably impressed me the most about the film is how it didn't really have any weak parts in filmmaking and especially the story's pace. Django's tacked on fourth act and Hateful Eight's overly indulgent insistence on repetition stick out like sore thumb, but in here the film flows by smoothly. I loved the languid pace and the way the film entertains you in the moment while creating that anticipation for the ending and when that expectation was finally paid off, the twist was glorious.

To see Cliff be an unsung hero for the entirety of the movie and then see him get his moment was cathartic as hell and the fact that even then, even outside of the screen, in a real situation, Rick comes in with a more outlandish move that really doesn't do anything and he scores the points as the face while Cliff as the body has to take off to the hospital. The way Tarantino really played with anticipation especially how Cliff's and his pit bull Brandy's relationship had been established made me feel chills when Brandy was ready to charge the intruders, but Cliff signaled her to wait. When he finally gave the attack signal, the shit went down and what ensued was probably Tarantino's most well crafted and most satisfying action set piece.

And then the cherry on the top, Rick meeting Sharon as a result of the invasion, which pretty clearly spelled it out that Rick's going to have a career resurgence due to his burgeoning friendship with her. However more importantly, even though I think the film could have done more with Tate's character, the idea of creating something fictional like this where a victim of a tragedy gets to live on in song is just beautiful.

I'm done with my three day Tarantino marathon and since I'm not really into creating lists out of rankings because I like to keep my list tab very minimalist and clean, here's how Tarantino's features rank for me:

1. Pulp Fiction
2. Inglourious Basterds
3. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
4. Jackie Brown
5. Django Unchained
6. Kill Bill Vol. 1
7. Reservoir Dogs
8. Death Proof
9. The Hateful 8
10. Kill Bill Vol. 2

Block or Report

Tuomas liked these reviews