Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘Once Upon a Time In Hollywood’ Finds Fault in Our Stars

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a yin and yang type of film. Parts of it are amazing and showcase Quentin Tarantino at the peak of his craft. Other parts showcase his artistic myopia and indulgent wish fulfillment. In spite of its issues, Tarantino’s latest contains some of the best work by all involved in quite some time.

The key to OUTH is in the title itself, “Once upon a time…”. This is not real life, it is a fairy tale–an optimistic exploration of what might have been. A revisionist look at one of Hollywood’s most infamous and heart-wrenching tragedies. At least on the one hand. On the other, it is Tarantino coming to grips with his own mortality. A look at the impermanence of pop culture and how easily washed away by the tides of time it all is.

Much like Speilberg’s Ready Player One, OUTH wallows in nostalgia. Unlike Spielberg, Tarantino shows how much of pop culture just doesn’t survive the march of time. Take the television show Bounty Law, for example. A cheap weekly syndicated western starring Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) that was hugely popular but only lasted for two seasons.

Dalton’s best years are behind him as he slogs through the bevy of genre shows. He plays the “heavy,” the bad guy. Rick is brought in because his name has enough cache that it means something when the upcoming star of the show knocks him out. In 1969 there were countless shows for Dalton to guest star on and each one paid decently and got the job done.

Yet, most of these shows, actors, and directors are long forgotten. The work was solid, sometimes even masterly, but they didn’t capture the zeitgeist so they live on in syndication. Since no one watches television anymore, they have faded into obscurity. Tarantino mourns the loss of not just the shows as a touchstone for memories of one’s youth, but as a loss for the art.

Rick guests on yet another western in a vain hope to revitalize his career. With him, as always, is his constant companion, personal assistant, and stunt man Cliff (Brad Pitt). Cliff is what’s known in the business as a perfect match. He looks enough like Rick that for the few frames we see him we can actually believe it’s Rick who’s falling off the horse or jumping a car off a canal bridge. He drifts through life with a stoic sense of acceptance.

Cliff killed his wife, or is rumored to, and so is less than popular on sets even in 1969. Tarantino plays it off as a joke while also using it to set up Cliff’s natural tendency for violence, which will serve him well in the final reel of the film. Except the joke falls flat and comes off as cruel. It has a forced edginess to it and reeks of misogyny without any self-awareness.

The weird thing is how unnecessary the joke is. Throughout OUTH we are shown countless moments where Cliff’s talent for violence is clear. The joke about murdering his wife falls flat because it reeks of an attempt to thumb his nose at “politically correct” culture. All it does, in reality, is reveal his own petty insecurities.

About midway through the film, Cliff gives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a ride back to where she and her friends are staying, Spahn Ranch. We know it as what it irrevocably became known as the home of the Manson family. The scene itself is masterly and almost an entire movie unto itself. I mention this scene because it is a perfect example in which we see the necessary set up for Cliff’s character. 

The tension is ratcheted to make us squirm. From the very beginning, OUTH has a light fog of dread hanging over it. For a filmmaker infamous for his love of violence, Tarantino never gets much credit for being without peer when it comes to the threat of violence.  

Surrounded by hippies, mostly women, both Cliff and the audience sense something is off. But Cliff is an old school stunt man and the slightly off-kilter new age sociopaths seem unprepared for his straightforwardness and quickness for violence. Tarantino and his cameraman Robert Richardson shoot Spahn Ranch like an old fashioned western.

Long tracking shots interspersed with medium shots of Cliff’s face off with a group of not-so-doe-eyed women. Cliff feels uneasy and can feel something is wrong. The Manson family act as the black hats challenging the hero to a duel at high noon. Except there is no duel and Cliff has to be getting back home. 

Throughout OUTH Tarantino is careful never to mention the name, Charlie Manson. One of the girls says “Charlie says,” and we see Manson exactly once but his full name is never said and he has a paltry number of lines. In his attempt to rewrite history, Tarantino’s outright contempt and sheer rage towards the man is clear—he wishes for him to be erased. In a way, Tarantino does so by making him a minor figure in the story about the only thing he is famous for.

The problem which arises is Tarantino’s failure to fully grasp the emotional manipulation and abuse by Manson on his followers. In Tarantino’s eyes, all are equally guilty and all should pay. He essentially erases Manson by removing him from the story. But when the revisionist vengeful climax erupts, Manson is absent, and in his place only his followers. Inadvertently, Tarantino allows Manson himself to escape his wrath.

While all of this going on, we follow Rick as he goes through an arduous day of shooting on a pilot for a new western starring James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant). More than mere nostalgia, Tarantino is fascinated by the workaday craftsmanship of the hired studio hands. Directors who cranked out episode after episode and worked on whatever show that paid them.

Tarantino stops the film dead so we can essentially watch an episode of a parody of late 60’s television western-and it’s riveting. To be clear he doesn’t show us the behind the scenes minutiae of the shooting. Instead, we watch it from the television audience’s point of view, with only the occasional pause as a hungover Rick shouts “Line?”

Tarantino allows us to see for ourselves why Rick Dalton is so beloved or was. DiCaprio gives a vast-ranging performance showcasing not only his intensity but his gut-churning vulnerability. It is a showcase free of vanity as he hacks and sputters all the while trying to remind the people around him, and us, he is Rick f****ing Dalton.

Before shooting, Rick waits on the set and reads a book. A girl named Trudi (Julia Butters) sits next to him. The scene is tender and funny while also cementing the fact that Rick Dalton might be the best DiCaprio has ever been. I say this only because Butters all but steals the scene from DiCaprio running on four cylinders.

Intertwined with all of Tarantino’s fears of mortality and male obsolescence is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). While she may not have many lines, her presence is inescapable. Like a specter, she haunts the edges of the films, a portent of the impending tragedy that Tarantino has laced throughout the film. Of course in Tarantino’s wish to rewrite history, in his desire to save Sharon, he once again inadvertently does the opposite. 

She goes into a cinema to watch The Wrecking Crew, a movie starring Dean Martin along with herself in a small part. The scene is a thing of pristine beauty and love. Tarantino allows us to sit and observe Sharon as she watches the film and sits nervously anticipating the audience’s reactions. When she defeats henchmen in the film, she visibly tenses. The audience erupts in applause, which allows her to breathe a sigh of relief and smile.

But again the aim, outside of the celebration of the nuts and bolts of the studio system, is to save Sharon. But we understand her so little. She remains an enigma without any definable characteristics, aside from evanescent joy. The heroes are Rick and Cliff—two manly men fighting against a changing tide of ideas and fashions.

By revising the history so as to give us Cliff and Rick saving themselves, and by extension Sharon, Tarantino robs Sharon of the ability to save herself. Sharon Tate didn’t die because she was a weak woman or because she was pregnant or because her friends were hippy weirdos. She died because she was murdered by a madman who emotionally abused and manipulated people. Then he decided to murder someone and it happened to be her. Saying otherwise makes it appear, somehow, that Sharon was asking for it.

Which is not to say I didn’t whoop and holler when the final act played out. Cliff asks one of the assailants, “Don’t I know you? What’s your name?” “I am the Devil and I’m here to do his bidding.” “Nah, it was dumber than that.”

I cackled. Mine was the only laughter in that crowded theater. I don’t know why. Personally, I put that line in the running for favorite of the year. 

Richardson’s camera work is impeccable. I didn’t see it in 35MM but in the regular digital version. Even by those homogenized standards, OUTH snaps and pops off the screen. The way Richardson and Tarantino give us so much information both visually and through dialogue is astounding. It is rare in today’s modern movies to be given so much trust as Tarantino does. 

Edited by Fred Raskin OUTH glides along at a different rhythm than his other films. Much like Martin Scorsese, Tarantino often works with the same editor over and over, Sally Menke. Tarantino, Raskin, and Richardson can’t help but find themselves steeped in the male gaze. Never is it more obvious than when Qualley’s Pussycat is leaning inside Cliff’s car. Richardson’s camera sits outside, her daisy duke clad posterior perfectly framed. Each cut to Pussycat’s form outside the car gets closer and closer in a way that feels overly objectified, even by Tarantino standards. Moments like these hamper OUTH. It is so close to being a masterpiece that when it stumbles, it almost falls flat on its face.

Still, the more I think about it the more I find myself luxuriating in certain scenes and turns of phrases. Whatever his faults, Tarantino is still one of the best filmmakers working today, if only because he allows his characters to speak and to think. In his early days, Tarantino films felt alive but oddly impersonal.

He has always had a definitive style but unlike Scorsese, a director who often feels as if he is painting the screen with his very soul, Tarantino always seemed at an arms distance. It seems more and more he putting more of himself into his movies. Or maybe we’re just getting to know him better and he does such a good job hiding we are only now starting to spot him within his work.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a difficult movie for me to parse, which is partly why I love it so. Most studio movies leave us with so little to talk about afterwards. Whereas Tarantino has given us an opus as deeply flawed as the director himself.  I’ll take it, warts and all.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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