Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.
It’s additionally a sign of something, although, I don’t know that it’s anything good, that Tarantino has reached such rarefied heights that Hollywood’s being seriously talked about in some quarters as a contender for the Best Picture Oscar. Or perhaps that’s merely reflective of the current dearth of significantly original or quality material. I mean, I’ll give Hollywood credit for this, despite the entirely – intentionally – derivative title, and that revisionist ending repeat of Inglourious Basterds: it doesn’t feel like any other movie out there, even among its director’s own oeuvre. That’s not necessarily a vote of confidence, for many and various reasons, but it is an interesting thing, and from that perspective, Hollywood might be his most fascinating film since, well Pulp Fiction, probably. Certainly, since Roger Avary ceased being involved with his scripts.
Interesting and fascinating aren’t necessarily in the best interests of telling a great story, of course. There are plenty of interesting and fascinating failures out there that singularly don’t do that, and Tarantino’s ninth film has a lot more in common with massive follies than it does the kind of picture suggesting an auteur operating at the peak of their powers.
You can see more clearly than ever with Hollywood how it’s almost an accident that Tarantino fell into the biggest sandpit possible, to be able to play with his imagination-spawned toys. Forget about a Vega Brothers or a Kill Bill Vol. 3; the fact that he’s even talked about making some episodes of Bounty Law (and has written five) – fat chance – indicates a potentially endless universe on his part melding Hollywood fact and fiction, one where he’s happy to opine on the ins and outs of whether stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) could beat Bruce Lee in a fight (and lest the furore over this seems misspent – and hilarious and riveting as the sequence is – the concerns over implied racism in an all-American fictional guy being able to whoop Bruce’s ass are not an unreasonable, however big a fan Tarantino professes to be of the martial arts star).
The first two hours of Hollywood meander contentedly in an entirely unfocussed fashion, to the point where you begin to wonder if Tarantino is purposefully taking the piss, that you’re the subject of some elaborate joke whereby he’s seeing how long he can tantalise you, the viewer, before you realise than no, actually, he isn’t going anywhere with any of this (that sensation still hasn’t entirely left me). I mean, he does, sort of, go somewhere, but it’s the biggest shaggy dog story there is, for a payoff that’s something of a purple patch.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is well-past his career best, a former TV series headliner now reduced to villain guest spots and the prospect of going to Italy to star in spaghetti westerns (which, despite Tarantino’s veneration, are hardly a badge of pride unless directed by Leone; I’ve never been much of a Corbucci fan).
We follow Dalton through his meetings with Al Pacino’s agent Marvin Schwartz (a great Pacino part, increasingly pot luck these days), in which he sets out for the not exactly Brainiac Dalton why his career is on a terminal trajectory, and onto the set of Lancer for a protracted, often painful bad guy spot. There’s some very amusing/excruciating material here, from Dalton spending a clutch of scenes doing little more than stammering, spitting, hacking and chain smoking, to fluffing his lines and furiously engaging in a self-berating in his trailer, to an acting pep talk from Julia Butters’ child star that culminates in his being touchingly/mockingly validated.
None of this seems apropos anything much at all, particularly when we jump forward six months and Dalton’s back from Italy with a wife (Lorenza Izzo) and the inevitability of having to let Cliff go. Indeed, bringing in Kurt Russell (well, Kurt’s already there for a cameo) to narrate the chronology of the events of the day of the (first) Manson murders, only entwined with and irrevocably affected by the wild card of Dalton and Booth, adds to the impression that Quentin’s suddenly remembered he’s supposed to be telling a story here, so he’d better bring the threads together in something approaching a manner that resembles coherence, yet actually seems to be waywardly emphasising happenstance.
Instead of busting in on Tate et al, it’s Dalton’s house they invade, with resulting brutal consequences for the trio. And the upshot for Dalton, besides getting to use his flamethrower for real (previously used in a movie that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the climax of Basterds), is that he gets inducted into a new family, having inadvertently saved Tate from the Manson one. Who knows what Polanski pictures Rick’ll appear in, or what advice Cliff may give Roman about steering clear of underage liaisons.
Rick Dalton: It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been.
DiCaprio is having a ball, in a role where he’s able to bring to the fore the full arsenal of self-conscious (as in, hoisted by the petard of their own perceived self-worth and lack thereof) actorly tics and quirks. It’s probably the most fun he’s been outside of Jordan Belforth (although Django Unchained is also on the leader board). And he and Pitt perfectly complement each other.
Every way in which Dalton is highly strung and on edge, Booth is contrastingly laid back and unflappable (I love the moment where he and Dalton go to their farewell meal, and – having been privy to the murky suggestions regarding the fate of his former spouse – someone he knows at a nearby table quips “Hey, how’s the wife?”)
Pitt is uber-cool here, so much so, he’s able to rock a white denim ensemble; his personal life consists of a dog and a trailer – and, naturally, comic books – and a reliance on the slumming it Dalton for subsistence. But he is, to all outward appearances, existentially at peace. What we’re supposed to make of that unreadable confidence is a different matter; he is, intentionally, inscrutable in the sense of many a steely-eyed hero of the period. Tarantino provides enough ambiguity that he could be a blithe sociopath (it’s definitely a role you could imagine Madsen in, in a low budget take), but one to be inversely celebrated by his audience in the Dirty Harry sense of movie cool.
Bruce Lee: It was a friendly contest. He barely touched me.
The Bruce Lee scene, apart from anything else re Bruce, serves to emphasise Cliff really is a badass, such that when the climax comes in all its gory glory, we really aren’t surprised at his one-man carnage army. Most amusing, however, is the manner in which this forms a bookend to Pitt’s first Tarantino role, in True Romance, where his couch-potato stoner Floyd – reputedly not so far from Pitt’s actual narcotic diet of choice – responds to a home invasion with a passive “Don’t condescend to me, man. I’ll fuckin’ kill ya, man” while capable of nothing of the sort.
Here, Cliff is similarly uncertain as to whether those entering Rick’s house are the result of a drug-fuelled hallucination – he has just smoked an acid-dipped cigarette – before responding decisively when it becomes evident they are (I particularly love the use of dog food tin as a weapon, since he’s been holding it throughout the preceding stages of the confrontation).
The sequence is all kinds of absurd, going even beyond its positioning as cathartic overkill into the sublimely ridiculous when the flamethrower makes an appearance, and it underlines that Tarantino is still the big kid trying to push “cool” buttons, to see whether you’re actually willing to stick with him and his idea of that cool, no matter how much he tries to test your patience en route (and there is a lot of that) or throws curveballs.
I mean, everything with Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a perfectly formed contrast, in grooming and presentment, to the scummy, scuzzy poverty-row Manson family, and she’s presented as something of an innocent, a wholesome naïf, who takes wide-eyed pleasure in watching her own (well, the actual Tate’s) performance in a shitty Matt Helm picture and the audience’s response to her performance. Is there any point to the protracted sequence, aside from underlying the worlds-apart culture clashes (and showing the actual Tate)?
Probably not, excepting that Quentin gets to parade his ongoing foot fetish via Sharon’s dirty tootsies (which have hitherto been disguised by immaculate white ankle boots – Tarantino’s fashionable side of the ’60s is straight out of Austin Powers). In themselves juxtaposed with his foot fetish for Manson girl Pussycat (Margaret Qualley of The Leftovers). One might think Tarantino is suggesting Tate’s too perfect to have been despoiled the way she was (hence the happy ending version), but then he’ll throw in a line from Steve McQueen (a really good Damian Lewis cameo) noting how he didn’t stand a chance with her because she only goes for men who look like twelve-year-old boys.
Are the criticisms of Robbie’s Tate as a character valid? Well, it rather depends what you think Tate is doing in the movie or representing. I’d say she has strong presence, which you don’t necessarily need to achieve by copious dialogue or dramatic incident. I’m less convinced we needed to pay so much attention to her toes, though.
There’s negligible narrative cohesion, let alone tension during the film’s first three quarters, the sole exception being Cliff’s visit to the Spahn Ranch, an eccentric episode pregnant with potential backwater threat, excepting that you never doubt he’ll be fine up against Manson’s crew. Indeed, the underlined irony is that, when he does get to see ranch owner George Spahn (a splendidly irascible Bruce Dern), the latter’s entirely happy with his lot, and everything Squeaky (Dakota Fanning, superbly obnoxious) says is accurate (and factually accurate). Also notable here is Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming Elvis, Austin Butler, as Tex (later to show up at Dalton’s house and get savaged by Cliff’s dog).
I was struck by the manner in which Tarantino seems intent on making everything about his Hollywood edifice subtly off-kilter, such that deducing any undiluted perspective on his part is iffy. Which is entirely in keeping with his generally unbeholden approach. For example, the suggestion that the Family trio may not even have been instructed to commit the killings by Charles – compounded by the fact that Manson features in only one scene, as if Tarantino somehow wishes to separate the mythical figure from the acts themselves – and it might have all been down to Tex.* And the curious choice to pick Lancer as the TV show to focus on, given the tragedies and subsequent ignominy of its real-life star (played by Timothy Olyphant).
There seems to be an underlying sense here that everything is tainted, whatever the surface sheen or supposed certainties, and the seemingly most obvious truths aren’t necessarily so. Tarantino loves to ruffle feathers, most consistently with the n-word, but here, with a continual spew of disparagement of hippies – hilariously so, admittedly, in respect of Dalton’s drunken raging; but hey, they’re would-be murderers, right, albeit ones inspired by Rick’s own murderous onscreen legend, so deserve it – and admonitions not to cry in front of Mexicans. He revels in an unreconstructed, reactionary world – and in this context, slightly bizarrely, the world of old Hollywood being saved by the prevention of the Manson murders – flagrantly so, when it comes to inflicting ultra-violence on women at the hands of antihero who may or may not have offed his wife on purpose. It’s as if to say “I will not bow to the whims of the moment” (and because, let’s face it, he has always expounded a certain beta-wish-I-was-alpha faux machismo).
Obviously, the parade of cameos is a lot of fun – others include Luke Perry, Michael Madsen, Lena Dunham and Scoot McNairy – although I completely didn’t twig Sam Wanamaker was Nicholas Hammond. Every time Zöe Bell appears in a Tarantino offering, however, it only compounds my conviction that great stuntwoman she may be, but she’s an appalling actor. I had great fun with the soundtrack too. Some choices are on the obvious side – Mrs Robinson – but equally, others that are – Out of Time – instantly seem indelible to the movie. And there’s a sense that, driving around Los Angeles with Cliff, as we do for much of the time, we’re being asked to simply dip into whatever’s on the radio at that moment.
There isn’t much in the way of recognisable trademark dialogue here. Instead, there’s a different kind of immersion in a Tarantino world. Truth be told, I think leaping headlong twice into revisionist history (hyperviolent fairy-tale) narratives the way he has is one time too many, since it ensures he has well and truly severed the slender thread that had him vouchsafed as relevant. Which won’t stop the faithful from proclaiming his ridiculous doodles are awards worthy. I’m not remotely convinced any of the acclaim fostered on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is deserved, but I nevertheless have to credit Tarantino’s chutzpah in pulling off something so brazenly, inimitably indulgent.
*Addendum 07/08/22: This may be overstating the content of the movie (Manson says to “make it witchy”). Not to be overstated is that Tarantino’s presentation smoothly daubs over any debate about what may have been going on in that house, and the activities his idealised Tate and Polanski may have been involved in. As detailed by Dave McGowan in Programmed to Kill, you can find Church of Satan coming up, via Rosemary’s Baby, Jay Sebring and Sammy Davis Jr, and alleged Cielo Drive S&M rituals and sadistic movies. The Esalen Institute also gets a look in. As for Charlie, McGowan documents the MKUltra links to Manson and most prominent serial killers of the period and subsequently.