Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★★

Quentin Tarantino wants you to remember. He needs you to remember. Perhaps more than any other working director, Quentin Tarantino is preoccupied by the past and what it means. The unkind interpretation of Tarantino’s films is that they are little more than clever, quirky pastiche—a haphazard collage of grindhouse pictures, spaghetti westerns, martial arts epics, and old network TV shows—a distillation of influences rather than a transcendence of them. But I’m not so sure that Tarantino would consider that an insult at all. His quoting and requoting of these old works, many of them low brow and obscure, are partly an effort to keep a sputtering flame alight. He cannot hold the memory of all these things inside his head forever, or else he risks the possibility that they die along with him. His films are in that way an act of cultural preservation. They insist that we remember our cultural past with more nuance and complexity than our haughty and pretentious cultural gatekeepers and tastemakers would probably prefer. I imagine that, in the final balance, Tarantino wouldn’t be too bitter if he was remembered as just an exceptionally talented archivist.

But, of course, he’s so much more than that. Look to his most recent films and you’ll see that Tarantino’s preoccupation with the past has grown far beyond a desire to merely remember the shape and feel of it—the music, the movies, the personalities, the sights and sounds that gave it life. Look to Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight, and you’ll find Tarantino is recently preoccupied with the substance of the past—it’s weight and import. These films are haunted by the mistakes and original sins of America that some would prefer to be forgotten or, at least, sanitized for modern comfort. The stain of slavery, the stifling oppression of racist and sexist bigotry, the arrogance and violence of post-war America’s self-mythologizing—Tarantino needs us to remember these things too, because there’s a danger in forgetting.

But whereas Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight were sweeping re-conceptualizations of our past, set in fictionalized times and places, and populated with fictional people, his new film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is a meditation on a real moment in time and the real people who lived it. Well, sort of. The year is 1969 and the place is Hollywood. It’s an unusual time in America, a dramatic turning point between the shiny idealism and optimism of the New Frontier 1960s and the cloudy cynicism and despair of the 1970s. That single year saw the moon landing and Chappaquiddick; Hello Dolly and Easy Rider; Nixon’s inauguration; the Summer of Love; and finally, yes, the murder of Sharon Tate. People no doubt sensed at the time that they were standing on the edge of a knife tipping toward great change. It’s just that nobody knew whose knife and what change until it was too late. Charles Manson was a fake hippy who exploited the openness and generosity of the counterculture to get power and influence. His disingenuous schtick was good enough to get him into the same room as The Beach Boys and Universal Studios, but not good enough to keep him there. So when it looked like the door had been closed in his face, he and his deranged followers forced their way past another door—Sharon Tate’s and Roman Polanski’s. They killed Tate and, with her, the dream of the 1960s. Quentin Tarantino was just six years old when it happened, but the Tate murder obviously left as profound and lasting a mark on his psyche as it did on Hollywood’s. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s attempt to marshal his encyclopedic knowledge of film and history to give that memory all the shape, feel, and weight that he can, so that we don’t forget.

FULL REVIEW AT: lewtonbus.net/reviews/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood/

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