Putting the "rant" back into Tarantino, Marc Nash watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (contains spoilers)...
I’d gone off Tarantino a while back, but “The Hateful Eight” won me back to some extent. However, I still held my notion that at some point, Tarantino was going to have to make a movie without a single gun or sword in it, to prove he wasn’t a one-trick pony. And to be fair with this movie, the only guns are those on film and TV shoots and the ultra-violence when it does explode on screen at the film’s climax, is knife versus fist and no more (apart from a flamethrower, a lethal film prop). Instead of cartoon violence, the success of this film is the buddy movie at its heart, with two really strong leads from Di Caprio and Pitt.
Di Caprio plays an actor of cowboy TV series, always as the bad guy, who opts to switch over to movies and a more serious artistic and financial career. But his brief moment in the (projector’s) light is fading, as his agent played by Al Pacino informs him with somewhat unseemly relish. His strengths as a gunslinger baddie less called for in the Hollywood of the Hippie era. Pitt plays Di Caprio’s stunt double, who’s career is even more on the rocks than Di Caprio's and seems content to offer his buddy a range of services from fixing his TV aerial to chauffeur, seeing as Di Caprio’s lost his license. When you recall the wisecracking but depthless relationship of Jackson & Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”, the relationship at the heart of this movie is far more emotional and beautifully played by both actors, even though sans much by way of plot, they’re doing little more than driving around LA or hanging out on set together.
The lack of plot is a bit of a problem, at two hours and 40 minutes long I found my attention dropping at points. Some set piece scenes are better than others; the one when a precocious child actor on the same movie set as Di Caprio reduces him to tears because of the short-lived nature of any acting career, is a bit leaden and obvious, but when the two are together in a scene before the camera, it’s genuinely electric; when that scene is wrapped, the girl tells Di Caprio that’s the best acting she’s ever witnessed, but I couldn’t be certain if she was being sarcastic or not. Another set-piece scene, one that has (deservedly) created a lot of controversy because of its unflattering portrayal of martial arts king Bruce Lee, but I really couldn’t see the point of it except as, throwaway good for a laugh. But the furious debate about its treatment of an Asian-American cultural icon, suggests that in this day and age, it’s much harder to have throwaway scenes of little consequence. Both sides of the argument are interpreting the tone and ‘reality’ level of the scene in order to justify their point of view. It’s such a throwaway scene, it simply can’t bear the weight of interpretation being accorded it, in order to prove some other agenda.
The other major plotline is the foreshadowing of the Manson killings, which changed America and Hollywood itself irrevocably. America lost its innocence, the Hippie movement (together with the killings at Altamont) turned up its toes in the face of straight society’s backlash and movies got a lot more gritty and ugly. However, Tarantino changes history with the end of his movie and I’m struggling to answer for myself why, to what end? I can only assume it’s because the film as a paean to 50s TV and 60s movies is Tarantino’s yearning for a return to that celluloid idyll and bemoaning the real history that made it go in a whole less palatable direction. I’m not sure I buy this, until I think he’s also taking a swipe at the lamentable 21st century state of cinema, dominated by lazy, cartoon-like super-hero movies, which is ironic seeing as he’s one of the progenitors of cartoon violence throughout his career. The long scene in which Pitt turns up at the ex-movie ranch in the desert where the Manson Family made their home, is tense, menacing and really delivers the sense of them as a cult. And the details are accurate, (even if the Pitt character is made up). But having set the tone for the Manson Family, when they reappear towards the movie’s climax, all the realism and detail flies out the window in the quest for a comic gorefest.
But thematically I want to unpick all this a bit more. Firstly, this seems a movie obsessed with an American frame of reference. I know a lot about the Manson murders, but do other people outside the US? By which I mean there’s likely a spectrum of audiences who don’t know who Sharon Tate was (Hollywood starlet who Tarantino spares from her grizzly real life fate here), to those who might not even realise that Tarantino has rewritten history in sparing her life. Other critics have pointed up the ‘Once Upon A Time’ element of the title, to suggest this whole thing is a fairy tale. But I would offer that it is a deliberate echo of Leone’s “Once Upon A Time” series, which both took a quintessential American trope of the cowboy and relocated it on the cheap to Italy, but also in “Once Upon A Time In America” signposted another paradigm era shift, that of the rise of gangsters during Prohibition, from which America has again never recovered from, given Organised crime, the level of criminality and violence, the corruptibility of some politicians and police. I don’t buy Tarantino’s possible wistful recreations of lost eras, but I do think he is spot on about highlighting when eras changed irrevocably. But ultimately, this really isn’t a movie about much of anything, except about movie history. It’s sprawling, but not epic.
Marc Nash is on Twitter as @21stCscribe.
His books are available from Amazon here.
Images - IMDb