For a filmmaker who wears his influences like a badge of honour, Quentin Tarantino had never made a film solely about the medium that shaped him. Granted film and television have always been part of his characters, signs of personality through how they absorbed the pop culture, and in Inglorious Basterds he fantasized on the liberating potential of cinema, powerful enough to kill Hitler. So it’s fitting that his new one, Once Upon A tTime… In Hollywood, his 9th and, supposedly, antepenultimate film, takes the action back to a time that has always lived in the director’s logic, to say a thing or two about the value of story. You write about what you love, and Tarantino loves nothing more than a good tale, wherever it comes from.
Set in 1969, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood blends real life characters with the fictitious that Tarantino creates to serve as conduit for his argument. The make-believe players are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his trusted stuntman-cum-friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick lives off the laurels of his time as TV’s biggest star back in the 50s, and the missed opportunity of a successful movie career (legend says he almost got The Great Escape). He’s not quite Steve McQueen, not even George Peppard, more like Terence Hill grade of stardom. Cliff, on the other hand, now infamous in town for his supposed involvement in the death of his wife, makes for Rick’s one-man entourage in the hopes that he’ll get called to do some stunt work. The two men are tasting the bitterness of the lack of success, the times are a-changing, hippies are transforming tinseltown, westerns are on their way out, and they haven’t even seen what Dennis Hopper is about to do to Hollywood. A producer, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), recommends Rick to try a couple of films in Italy to get back in the game, but Rick sees the move as a step backwards – for him Hollywood can still be salvageable.
Right next door to Rick a new couple moves in – Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) with his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbit). Them of the new face of cinema, young and so hip, already grooving in the Playboy mansion, the definition of zeitgeist. Their story is famous, and the film plays it like the audience knows where this is going. So when Charles Manson (Damon Harriman) comes knocking on the door, or when Cliff accidentally stumbles in the ranch where Manson’s family lives – a group that includes Bruce Dern, Lena Dunham, Margaret Qualley, and Mikey Madison – there’s a tension that comes with the impending doom of tragedy. We don’t see much of Polanski and Tate, but enough to constantly remind us that, as we know, none of this ends well for them.
There’s a surprisingly lack of plot in this, especially for a Tarantino film. Instead each sequence is a vignette that develops one of the three main characters as they are confronted with the concept Tarantino is trying to develop. There isn’t a tangible goal for any of them, we don’t learn much about Sharon’s dreams, and even Rick and Cliff want something that they are not actively pursuing. The film is set first during a couple of days in February, and later moves to that fateful day in August, and cuts between the three characters like they are channeling this grandiose idea, the truth that Tarantino wants to shout from every frame, that every story is indispensable. In one scene Sharon is complimented for purchasing a Thomas Hardy novel, in another Rick gets emotional talking about the pulp-western novel he’s reading. Everyone, with no exception, tunes in every night to watch the serialised shows of FBI and The Green Hornet. In one heart-warming moment, Sharon sneaks to a screening of her own film, a ditzy raunchy comedy with Dean Martin called The Wrecking Crew, to enjoy the audience laughing at her character’s antics. It doesn’t matter that the film in question didn’t receive the best critical reception, it’s still a story and, therefore, just as important as the next great novel.
I know this all sounds corny, but it is Tarantino’s most romantic film. Not just a love letter to cinema, but an enduring look at our tradition to entertain ourselves. Rick and Cliff are not has-beens because their legacy is eternal, they are just suffering from the confusing pains of change.
The villains, because every film has to have one, are those who misinterpreted the medium to justify their violent sociopathic needs. So, as controversial as it was to bring the murdered wife of a still living man to the front of the action, they are there for an important dramatic reason. Mason, and the family, are exaggerated products of pop culture, the fact that they existed is terrifying, but serve an excuse for Tarantino to channel all his griefs unto them. He hates them, just as much as he hates the nazis in Basterds. They’re not glamorised, their violence isn’t justified, for they are perpetrators of the worst crime – not murder, but the misinterpretation and misuse of storytelling.
This is all Tarantino. While every actor is fantastic, the star is the filmmaker himself. For an artist with such a defined style, he still surprises with new narrative approaches and high-concept ideas. If Basterds was grandiose and cathartic, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is passionate and gentle. Still violent, and pretty much a Tarantino film, but one that is signaling the supposed end of his career, looking at what made him himself. In interviews he has said he wants to move on, after his 10th picture, to write essays about this favourite films. I’m not surprised, this one already feels like one of those.
Another controversy came about with the portrayal of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) who fights Cliff on the set of The Green Hornet. I didn’t find it especially tactless, or tone-deaf, like it has been accused of, but it is a surprisingly weak scene for Tarantino’s standards. Not very well written, with only the funny payoff (courtesy of the cameo from Tarantino’s collaborators Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell) sticking to landing. And yet it’s just a little smudge in what is one of the best films of the year. It’s not difficult to see why it received a standing ovation in Cannes. This is one for film lovers, but only the not cynical ones.