To his credit, Quentin Tarantino will always and forever be a divisive creative force. There is no recourse but to either love or dislike his work. I fall closer to the latter category though I’m not as vehement as some.
At the core of this fission are his own proclivities. Tarantino has always been a profane filmmaker reveling in gushing blood capsules and wall to wall pop-cultural references. His knowledge is dizzyingly Encyclopedic even as it leans toward all the deliciously lowbrow delights he can indulge in. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize his nods to Leone and the Spaghetti western or his love affair with everything as diverse as pulp-infused noir and Hong Kong action cinema.
He eats it up voraciously and practices it devotedly. It’s not too far a stretch to say cinema is his religion — or at least the most important entity in his life — and yet even his obsessions are indulgent and so every movie he’s taken on has those traits. In essence, nothing is sacred. As he’s made quite clear, he makes movies he would want to see. They fit into his vision.
Remarkably, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably the most personal picture he’s ever made — the one touching on something the most human — where there is even a hint of authenticity and something real that does not need a wink or an undermining remark.
I think of Sharon Tate in this picture as portrayed by Margot Robbie. I understand some people taking issue with how she is established. The vocal weight of her part holds nothing comparing to the bromance of her male counterparts.
But in the context of what has been manifested, it feels warm and humane in a way we very rarely see from the director. He is giving Sharon a few days of her life back, in a sense, and pays her another honor by not removing her actual image from the footage or the posters we see (ie. Don’t Make Waves or The Wrecking Crew). It’s all her. Right there in front of us to be appreciated again and not merely gaped at. She simply exists for a few solitary days in the summer of 1969.
However, the same respect is not paid to Bruce Lee or for that matter, anyone else because Tarantino never operates that way. He’s beloved for his very irreverence of everything even as everything in his films is saturated with reference and homage.
It makes Once Upon a Time‘s most relevant points of departure all the more surprising. Model Shop (1969) is an unhurried slice-of-life film distilling The Sunset Strip and the surrounding area much in the way Tarantino does. And yet Jacques Demy is on the complete opposite spectrum of a Tarantino.
His films are full of fantasy as well but more whimsy, romance, and an almost innocent naivete. For instance, I could never imagine Tarantino being able to pull off a non-ironic musical; Demy imbibed their magic.
But Model Shop was a departure for him as much as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is slightly different for Tarantino. At any rate, it finds them drifting toward a central thematic world — Hollywood of the late 60s — where there is golden sun to match the melancholy and the music.
The post-Kennedy, Vietnam-era malaise is upon us even as it clashes up against the rock ‘n roll soundtrack supplied by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, The Mama and The Papas, and Paul Revere & The Raiders.
The representation of 1969 on its own is impressively immersive as if Tarantino is recreating his childhood — the way he used to remember things — and no doubt he is. I only know secondhand and still heartily appreciate the likes of 93 KHJ and The Real Don Steele, all but ubiquitous, with the static whizz of the radio bathing the listener in jingles and audio AC. The lit-up signage of The Sunset Strip, billboards and advertisements, stretching out across the horizon.
Products like Velveeta, Kraft, Hormel Chili. I know those too. And that is part of the enjoyment of this movie, to be given a couple hours to bask in the nostalgia of the past, whether it’s the Westwood Theater, drive-in movies, and certainly the myriad of era-appropriate posters we catch glimpses of.
And the sprawling — some would say lethargic — runtime allows for these day-in-the-life type scenarios we would not get in your typical film. However, Tarantino also has the task of inserting his own vision into the tableaux put before him.
Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) character is an extension of the issues I have with these types of pictures: a fictitious character in a real world. To be honest, the writer-director fully commits to inserting him into the bygone era from co-starring with Telly Savalas, being up for The Great Escape, and now in his downward spiral guest spotting in FBI and Lancer.
And against these ready-made touchstones, Tarantino can employ his own fanciful riffs off history. Whether the amalgam of Bounty’s Law — take your pick of any 50s or 60s shows (Burke’s Law and Wanted Dead or Alive spring to mind) and you’re there. As Tarantino has already acknowledged, this prevalent career decline during the mid to the late ’60s was indicative of many of the tough guy idols who could not transition. This arc is not made up.
However, I find myself grappling with the same problem I had with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, though to a different degree. Because, of course, everything Tarantino’s ever made is couched in pulp and totally self-aware. It’s the real with the fiction. It just so happens I find the real far more compelling. For instance, Sharon Tate, the depictions of the L.A. milieu, even the glowering menace of the tripped-out Mansion Family, these elements engage with social context head-on.
Whereas when I watch the spoofed scenes out of his own Inglorious Basterds parody or Dalton’s latest guest appearance as a heavy in the real-life — albeit obscure — Lancer, there’s not the same thrill. It’s not so much that we know we are watching a movie; it has to do with knowing we are watching Tarantino play out his own reenactments with all his tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes spot-on) parody.
The moments of Dalton that get at something more complex are the doubts that plague an actor in his position. For an extended scene, he sits in a casting chair with his precocious costar (Julia Butters) recounting the two-bit western paperback he’s been reading. Through rather overt terms, he and the audience realize the downward spiral of the book’s hero describes him to a tee. And he sobs.
Otherwise, I find most of these interludes to be dead ends, only useful for watching Tarrantino avail himself of his own personal pleasures. The one exception is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) because his function is less about parody or homage.
He fits into this world but it feels more organic — not like Tarantino is pasting his creation into the boots of several other men. Like Gary Lockwood in Model Shop, or even Sharon Tate in this film, he is also afforded the luxury of meandering around town to make the most of the mimesis Tarantino has employed.
He resides in a Jim Rockford-like trailer hitch, beer in hand in front of the TV with his closest companion, his salivating dog Brandy. It instantly provides us something else delectably dilapidated. There’s nothing wrong with DiCaprio but I am drawn to Pitt’s characterization especially.
His loyalty feels indicative of some indestructible set of values and common decency. One might surmise his type of people are representative of all that was simultaneously right and wrong with America. Because it’s true you can start saying that about just about everyone. We all bring our share of good and bad into the world.
Even his detour to the old Spahn Movie Ranch — coaxed to the sketchy commune by Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a coquettish member of the Mansion family, as he is — keeps with his sense of right and wrong. And even in a foreboding arena such as this, he walks toward it more like Dirty Harry than Jim Rockford. He seems indestructible and for all intent and purposes, he is. We know any attempt on him will be negligible as he casually makes his acquaintances and checks in on the old man (Bruce Dern).
The ending Tarantino wanted to keep hushed up is rather ironic for how unsurprising it really is, when you get right down to it. I hardly mean it as a spoiler. If you’ve seen even a bit of any of his oeuvre, you know what’s coming. The instant tip-off is the song “12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to The Canyon)” because if I wanted to make a film about Cielo Dr. or Laurel Canyon there’s no other choice. It’s one of the few instances of near on-the-nose song selection.
The lamentable thing is he somehow leaves behind all the best moments of Once Upon a Time behind — the fairy tale moments even — and winds up with something far more Tarantino-esque. His fans will be praising the glories of his name because he has done it again. That much is certain.
However, others of us will rue the potential wasted. What could have been a far more honest portrait than we might have ever thought the man capable of is like all the rest, a provocative, messy collage of ambitions and years of cultural relics skillfully sutured together.
But it feels again like Tarantino is more a gifted fanboy than a man with a genuine cinematic heart and soul. His aesthetic is cutting all of his heroes into something outrageously bombastic; because he boasts many, both high and low.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style but after the momentary glimpse into something else, more promising even, it falls short of what could have been. Maybe it’s this reality that plants his dashed fairy tale most firmly in a problematic past we can never have back, even if we wanted it. What’s more, he had to bludgeon the magic out of the movie with an utterly Tarantino crescendo. Nothing can be taken seriously. Nothing is sacred.