Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch
With Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino chooses a precise point of time in Hollywood history that allows him to become that greedy kid at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The stomach expands and expands until it explodes into a smelly – but perversely therapeutic – aftermath. The result is a director’s cut: a rare kind of uncompromised, arrogant, affectionate, reckless, overlong and obsessively immersive “movie’s movie” that operates as both intimate personal expression and pulpy public ode. The balance is thinly concealed, with the film all but internalizing the sunset-tinged retroness of its (golden) era: Tacky dissolve flashbacks, two-paced narratives, garish sound cues, loopy camera arcs. A character looks blankly into space before we go into a memory, a Woody-Allen-ish voiceover fills us in after the narrative jumps forward in time, a producer talks about some movies in a meeting so that we can see customized snippets from them.
The setting – Los Angeles in 1969 – enables Tarantino to simultaneously indulge in all of his favourite cinematic fetishes. He uses his fictional protagonist, a washed-out TV star named Rick Dalton (DiCaprio, in peak-DiCaprio form), to satiate his bloodlust for obscure pop-culture references, ‘60s moviemaking, Sergio Leone classics and period Hollywood. He uses Dalton’s stunt double Cliff Booth (an adequate Brad Pitt) to access the other side of L.A. and satiate his thirst for adrenaline-fueled rides, creepy faces, musical interludes, senseless gore, cadillacs and dark set pieces. He uses their bond to give flesh and blood to the Hollywood Hills tour map. He uses actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) to expand his alternate-reality multiverse and build upon his foot fetish. He treats fiction (Rick, Cliff, a Manson member named Pussycat) with the dry rhythm of fact, and fact (‘60s celebrities, the Manson hippies, Tate and gang) in the flowery language of fiction. But there is a method to Tarantino’s madness.
Instead of going plot-heavy, I suspect Tarantino brings ‘60s Los Angeles to life with great detail and care so that we sense the spirit of what was at stake
There’s a shot in the trailer in which DiCaprio, as fading star Rick Dalton, is moved to tears when a child actor compliments him on a scene. This moment isn’t played for laughs in the movie, yet there’s something strangely funny about it. Vulnerability is a rare beast in a hypermasculine Tarantino universe, which is perhaps why the sight of an emotional middle-aged man is amusing for how real it feels – or how seriously a male character takes himself – within a world of alternate reality. Think Joseph Goebbels quietly choking up when Adolf Hitler praises his filmmaking skills during the doomed Nation’s Pride premiere in Inglorious Basterds. One’s a has-been Hollywood performer on the set of a mediocre TV Western, while the other’s a merciless Nazi fascist using cinema as a medium to further propaganda. Yet, they share in common the sentimental heart of an artist hungry for applause.
For some, Tarantino’s revisionist gaze is exploitative. But for others (such as myself), it is one of playful contempt
The point being: Tarantino’s devotion to art, especially when contained within the humanitarian task of rewriting history, is a genre unto itself. He counts on the viewer to recognize the audacity of two self-important white men somehow managing to shine a spotlight onto the purity of crafting lies in a narrative that hinges on altering the deadly truth. By extension, it’s hard not to smile at the audacity of a white male filmmaker who addresses the darkest chapters of humanity – the Holocaust, American slavery, the Tate murders – to supply his vision of storytelling. It’s only a matter of time before the 2019 Wimbledon men’s final merits his attention. For some, this revisionist gaze is exploitative. But for others (such as myself), it is one of playful contempt. He is not just reshaping history; he is preserving the past by laughing at its villains. (remember the Ku Klux Klan scene from Django Unchained?). Rick Dalton might be the star, but it’s Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth that is the auteur’s voice – he worships his famous buddy, geeks out on Spaghetti Western movie trivia, and coolly dismisses the real-life horrors in his way.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino goes a step further…or backward, depending on how you look at it. He is so contemptful of the history he chooses – the 1969 mass murder of Sharon Tate and her friends by the Manson Family cult – that he relegates it to the background of his film. It’s the Tate murders that inform the wistful story of an ageing star and his loyal stunt double, rather than vice versa. It’s Sharon and husband Roman Polanski who are the next-door neighbours of Rick Dalton, not the other way around. This deceptive dichotomy between foreground and backdrop is reflected in the film’s stylistic elements. For instance, radio adverts and retro jingles form much of the film’s background score. We see well-known actors – Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell – defy our perceptions of their popularity by dotting the film’s background with little cameos. We expect to see something (more of them) but we don’t. We see celebrities from the time – Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski, Steve McQueen – treated as one-scene colour fillers. Rick Dalton himself is a former star relegated to the backdrop of the television industry. At the center of the film lies the actor-stuntman equation – the stunt doubles do the real thing, the dirty work, but the movies count on them to blend into the background. It’s no surprise then that Pitt’s character is the one that clashes with the Manson members – his serendipitous encounter with one of them (an outstanding Margaret Qualley) triggers the collision of parallel narratives.
There’s the trademark Tarantino gore, but the reason it feels jarring here is because – unlike in his previous films – violence isn’t a natural extension of this universe
The subversion of focus is a risky move, because the film constantly defies the cultural significance of an event that many pinpoint as “the night the 1960s abruptly ended”. As a result, we spend so long waiting for the real story to unfold that when the moment does arrive, it feels like an afterthought. There’s the trademark Tarantino gore, but the reason it feels jarring here is because – unlike in his previous films – violence isn’t a natural extension of this universe. Period war movies, kinky revenge thrillers, slave dramas and tense Westerns are built to be resolved by bloodshed. But the midlife crisis of a Hollywood Hills celebrity? Not so much. Then again, Sharon Tate’s life wasn’t built to be resolved by brutality either.
Hence, a smarter way to look at OUTIH: The real movie lies in our wait for the fictional movie to concede the stage. We are so busy anticipating the worst that an entirely different narrative gatecrashes our conscience. The pace, therefore, is teasingly slow – long-drawn sequences of Rick rehearsing at home and struggling on set, a random “comic” scene featuring Bruce Lee on the Green Hornet lot, wordless montages of Cliff driving to places and going about his routine with his beloved dog in his trailer, Tate dancing at a party or walking into a movie theatre to watch her own performance. The whataboutery is the film, and a hypnotic one at that.
There is, after all, something impossibly romantic about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s circularity – the destiny of an upcoming star is irrevocably intertwined with the fate of a fading one
Instead of going plot-heavy, I suspect Tarantino brings ‘60s Los Angeles to life with great detail and care so that we sense the spirit of what was at stake. So that it becomes apparent that hundreds of more worthy stories were unfolding until one night changed a city. So that it becomes clear that Sharon Tate was merely a part of Hollywood’s glittering backdrop before tragedy pushed her into the foreground. There is, after all, something impossibly romantic about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s circularity – the destiny of an upcoming star is irrevocably intertwined with the fate of a fading one. The show must go on.