Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

(Quentin Tarantino, USA/UK, 2019)


Works Like a Dream


It’s a fairy tale, and a cruise liner. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood drifts for a long time, two hours or so, until the end is at last in sight – a fantasy ending, in the strongest possible sense: one that never happened in historical reality. Sharon Tate and her friends weren’t murdered that night in August 1969; they weren’t even visited by those deranged members of Charles Manson’s cult-like Family. Instead, that mob bursts in next door, where they find Tarantino’s fictional characters: in particular, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his ever-faithful stunt double and best buddy, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, who in many respects steals the picture). Now it’s violence time, Tarantino-style: he’s really kept us waiting and praying for this gruesome set-piece.


Justice is swiftly served upon these leering, hippie villains by our movieland heroes, and with an accelerating level of sadism: a face is smashed into hard surfaces over and over, a dog mauls another’s limbs mercilessly, and the last-standing avenger is burned to a crisp by Rick’s flamethrower – the same device that, much earlier in the film, served (in one of many mock film-within-the-film clips) both as a parodic gag about Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds (2009), and as a set-up that will allow Rick to master one actual action-skill of his own – and get to use it in reality. That reality which (to loop back) is really a fantasy …


Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a film that may have you looping back a lot, in your head, after you’ve seen it; it’s definitely had that effect on me. I don’t think it’s in the very top line of Tarantino’s work, but it’s certainly his best since Death Proof (2007); I enjoyed watching it, and agree with Yann Tobin in Positif  (no. 701/702, July/August 2019, “Cadillac vintage”, pp. 112-113) that it’s “un Tarantino de charme”. (1) But, for all that, not merely charming on an easy-viewing, enjoyment level. So I want to start the more reflective part of this review not with the typical array of hot-button topics ­ like gender (does Margot Robbie as Sharon get enough lines of dialogue? Is she an overly angelic pixie girl, a male-projection?), race (disrespect on Bruce Lee, for shame!), violent revenge (to which I will return), the counter-culture, and an entire American reality of the late ‘60s only alluded to (if at all) as it disappears into a vast, off-screen space …


No, I want to start with a scene that beguiled me in its set-up and unfolding. It’s the presentation of Rick’s first major scene in Lancer – the scene he keeps fucking up by forgetting his lines. Now, Lancer (directed here, and in the historic reality, by the actor Sam Wanamaker, played by Nicholas Hammond) is a TV show – a TV Western, in fact. Joachim Lepastier in Cahiers du cinéma (no. 757, July/August 2019, p. 80) began his mostly negative review (titled “Schnockllywood”) by registering his disappointment at this malign “fall” from cinema to TV homage at the project’s very outset – he calls it a “smaller than life Hollywood”. Judging by Sam’s enthusiastic blabber about Shakespeare and improv and contemporary truth, Lancer may have somewhat more pretention than the earlier TV Western (opening the film) that made Rick’s fame as the character of Jake Cahill, Bounty Law – but it’s still, all in all, destined for mostly small, black and white sets the world over.


Tarantino, however, gives this scene to us from inside a dream – his own movie dream, and perhaps Rick’s as well. Lancer, as it initially unfolds for us here, is in colour and widescreen; the camera moves are ample and elegant. It’s been – in a mode we are seeing a lot today in supposedly realistic, behind-the-scenes showbiz exposés like Fosse/Verdon (2019) – already cut, graded, mixed. It’s ‘60s TV as ‘60s TV never, ever was – and definitely not like the (lovingly restaged) square-ratio ‘50’s TV clips we’ve seen earlier from Bounty Hunter, with their chintzy low/high angles, dialogue and cutting. Until, of course, Rick’s lines are off and – still in the same kind of frame – he calls for line-prompts and retakes. Then we are suddenly back in the messy process of making, not the sleek, fabricated (even fantasticated) finished product.


Tarantino knows what he’s doing here; the shift or slide in the scene is well handled. And it made me think about the category of confusion – between movies and life, TV and cinema, fantasies and realities – which is everywhere in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. At one point, it gives us the digital update on this type of confusion: DiCaprio as Rick imagined inside The Great Escape (1963), “seamlessly” (well, sort of – it is a fantasy, after all) substituted for dumb-lucky Steve McQueen (although the McQueen incarnated in another scene by Damien Lewis thinks he’s dumb-luckless for not being Sharon’s preferred physical “type”).


And then there’s the centrally significant site of the Spahn Ranch – previously a town-set for Westerns, now gone to seed, and inhabited, as far as the eye can see, by members of Manson’s Family (Manson himself, curiously, is almost completely absent here – although the same actor playing him, Damon Herriman, gets a lot more time and many more lines in season 2 of the strictly contemporaneous Mindhunter [2017-2019]).


And – not quite as well done as in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984), which is surely Tarantino’s source of inspiration for this detail – there are the painted trompe l’œil landscape backdrops that are wheeled aside to reveal some other, usually less picturesque reality.  (2) And so on – tying up, for me, in the only seemingly deranged but in fact highly lucid speech by a Manson girl (Susan Atkins played by Mikey Madison), arguing that these Hollywood types deserve to be killed, since all they ever showed this younger generation, through their media screens, was killing. She has a point there! (An earlier reflection on this theme in relation to Tarantino, first written in 1994, can be found in my essay “Just Another Bullet in the Head”.)


Twenty years ago, I mused about how Tarantino’s arrival on the cinema scene could seem like the answer to the prayers of No. 1 supercool critic Manny Farber – or, at any rate, the small army of self-styled Farberians of the time (and since). For there, especially in Pulp Fiction (1994) but also, a little differently, in Jackie Brown (1997 – still, significantly, the only adaptation of another writer’s material in QT’s career) was a certain version of termite art: ambling, loose-limbed movies, full of jazzy eccentricities, high on description (rather than narrative), lingering with people in places … In 2019, there’s an instant meme for this that whips around almost every published review of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: it’s no longer termite art but a hang out movie, where the characters do the hanging out (and we, in our fancies, do the same alongside then, as spectators), cruise down the streets in smart cars, drop in on this or that locale …


Loose-limbed, or loosely wound, it sure is. Is this quality both Tarantino’s immense charm and his fatal limitation as a filmmaker? He is the type of director once described (alongside Wim Wenders and Jacques Rivette, and they all do tend to make rather long films) as “one thing at a time” artists; i.e., each scene is devoted to one major point, one mood, one incident, one place, one slab of dialogue – as distinct from (not better or worse than) artists who work to layer many things at once into each scene (Joseph Losey, De Palma, Ernst Lubitsch, Ritwik Ghatak, etc.). In Tarantino specifically, this comes with an overtly casual “pick it up and drop it” approach: in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, some characters get on-screen IDs and others don’t; Kurt Russell as narrator (in his character of Randy?) pops in and out, seemingly only to exposit whatever is judged as needing exposition. This lack of consistency in the use of a technique or device is virtually flaunted.


But I find the film a little odd on this level: it has echoes, patterns and motifs, as many fine, well-constructed films do – or rather, it has what seem like they should be echoes, patterns and motifs. We rarely get a sense in Tarantino’s cinema of a systematic expressive process: details that (beyond the biggest and most obvious ones) click into place as meaningful pattern. The categorical confusions listed above are the strongest, clearest and most coherent example I can find. But many other examples tend to float their way through, lazily.


Bare feet, for example: Manson girl Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) sticks them up on the car window, while Sharon pops them up on the seat ahead in the cinema screening The Wrecking Crew. Is that a comparison, a contrast, an opposition, a sameness, what? Melissa Tamminga (Seattle Screen Scene, 20 August 2019) has a stab at this one: “It’s the visual link between the women … that highlights the divide between them, the Madonna and the whore. Both reduced to the sum of one part”. I am not convinced by that interpretation.


Likewise, J. Hoberman (The New York Review of Books Daily, 19 August 2019, now behind a paywall) finds the “heavy” that Rick plays in Lancer an awful lot like Manson (his acted gesture of “violence” included). Does Tarantino intend this musing play of interconnective thoughts? Unlike with the earlier Lancer scene I’ve discussed, I’m not so sure. And Lepastier reckons that Sharon constitutes the semantic pole of “ambient hedonism” set in contrast with the “sad passion” of Rick and Cliff. Hmmm …


Central characters are given “arcs” – Rick, especially, overcomes his alcoholism (almost as speedily as Dude/Dean Martin in Rio Bravo [1959]!), and the entire ending, as noted, is constructed on clever narrative “folds” and reprises of previous actions (everything from Cliff’s training of his pit bull Brandy to the positioning of objects in Rick’s home) – but, in Tarantino, people don’t really change or “grow” much. Maybe that’s a blessing – I find the alcoholism crisis sequences the weakest in the film.


But let’s look at Rick and Cliff. They’re best friends without the slightest element of tension or disagreement – even when the former has to let the latter go. Think of the rich dramatic (and comic) potential in the position of the stunt-double – everything it could raise in terms of resentment, wounded pride, mischievous secret satisfaction, and so forth. Not a second, not a single hint of any of this in the film – it’s the polar opposite, on this level, to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Cliff is just a nice guy who enjoys Rick’s company and is happy to be hitched to his actorly wagon, until he isn’t anymore. The types of small, daily, infinitesimal betrayals between friends that Elaine May’s cinema (for example) is built upon are totally foreign to Tarantino’s universe; he could never remake Mikey and Nicky (1976)! If there’s betrayal in his work, it’s got to be on the biggest, grandest, most melodramatic level, between lovers, with life and death at stake – as in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004).


Buddy-characters don’t talk much about their pasts much, either, in Tarantino; their endless chat (and this is pretty unique to him) is focused almost wholly on the present moment, and on the future – its prospects, dreams and fears, short-term or long-term. Talking about the past is very uncinematic and boring to QT; if there’s a fragment of backstory, put it in a flashback. This brings us to (for me) the strangest and least resolved scene in the film: Cliff and his wife on a boat trip. On one level, it’s just a quick, cruel, throwaway gag, and it worked like that, worked like a dream, for the happy Barcelona audience I saw it with.


Here’s how I see it. Script-minded commentators often talk disparagingly these days about the presence of reverse engineering in screenplays – having a scene idea, then figuring out what has to precede it in order to justify and set it up – as if artists at the level of Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Pedro Almodóvar, and probably every great dramatist who ever lived, don’t use this basic creative technique all the time. I confess, I find it almost impossible to spot the evidence (so glaring to some eagle-eye scouts!) that such reverse engineering has ever occurred. But in pondering Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, it hit me.


I think Tarantino’s mental process may have gone something like this. The film needs Rick and Cliff to be together all the time – to share the same house, more or less. Cliff, as stated, is fanatically, slavishly devoted to Rick and his wellbeing. So, maybe Cliff is, even a little bit under the surface, gay? Not in this film, no way, José! His heterosexuality needs to be established “in good faith”, as it were. Yet to give Cliff an active, visible wife or girlfriend would immediately get in the way of the story (indeed, this buddy plot ends the moment Rick gets married). And to have Cliff just talk in some maudlin fashion about ex-wives or past lovers – the kind of backstory monologue that is de rigueur in so many movies of all kinds – is a no-go for Tarantino.


So we need a scene, a visual gag with a suggested/elided punchline: and that’s the mystery of whether Cliff did or not kill his “harpy” wife. Or maybe the boat just lurched and the scary, loaded, harpoon-thingy in his hand went off. Whatever. The reverse engineering is now complete: Rick and Cliff can keep hanging out together, non-homoerotically. As I said: works like a dream …


Many have commented – and it’s virtually impossible to avoid formulating the matter this way – that Tarantino’s film dramatises the clash or confrontation between Old and New Hollywood. One that is on the way out, another that is on the way in. Tobin’s semi-enthusiastic review suggests, a little cryptically, that Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is not about the end of innocence (“that would be World War II, treated in Inglourious Basterds”) in this regard, but the end of illusion. But which species of illusion, exactly? Hoberman makes the intriguing observation that the decrepit Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family hangs evokes the modern, revisionist, gritty Western: Stan Dragoti’s legendary Dirty Little Billy (1972) and all the rest. But what, really, is the substance of these Old and New movie worlds? And who – what – can be safely allocated to either side of this semantic divide? More confusion quickly ensues …


Old Hollywood here – the thing to be idolised, defended and nostalgically revered, we assume – is nothing like studio-era “classical Hollywood”: given his oft-expressed disdain for grand directors practising their craft way beyond their personal use-by date, I guess Tarantino didn’t want old guys like Hawks, Hitchcock or Ford doddering around making their “testament” works (I know the dates don’t exactly coincide, but bear with me), or Lang and Renoir, somewhere up in the Californian hills, giving their last interviews before passing on to the Great Beyond.


But Good Hollywood of the ‘60s – full of the kind of energy and inventiveness (not least in the depiction of screen violence) that Tarantino himself is heir to, is all over the Los Angeles map by 1969: it’s Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, that whole “live TV drama” generation. Not to mention Sam Peckinpah, of “every film is a Western” fame! Or – stopping short of the avant-garde, experimental and underground milieu that QT seemingly has no interest in whatsoever – it could be John Cassavetes. It could even be Michelangelo Antonioni prepping for Zabriskie Point (1970) or Jacques Demy shooting that other, smaller melancholic cruise liner of a film, Model Shop (1969). But there is scarcely an allusion to any of this in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. (3)


What is American Cinema in ’69 to Tarantino? It’s weird: TV Westerns, plus a side-trip to Italy to star in a Sergio Corbucci movie or two. And it’s The Wrecking Crew (1968), for goodness sake: end-of-the-line stuff for both Rat Packer Dude Dino Martin and poor Phil Karlson in the director’s chair (Jeff Smith diplomatically places it in a “largely forgettable” bag alongside many of the movies of the period glimpsed on posters, marquees, magazine covers, etc.). Tarantino has stated, many times and in many ways, that the film is built basically as a projection from his childhood experience of Hollywood, or his memory of that experience: these were the films, the names, the billboards, the droning TV and radio broadcasts that surrounded and formed him, sensibility-wise. But is that its only level?


On another level, it’s a certain kind of very contemporary trash-cult taste in film, fed for decades by Video Watchdog magazine and a dozen other prime influencers (not least Tarantino himself in his many film-cultural activities). You may well reply: but that’s exactly where Clint Eastwood came from (TV and spaghetti Westerns), and how he came up into what he is today! Yes, but there is no mentor figure present here like Don Siegel (let alone Sergio Leone) – I mean incontestably good directors, not talked-up cult-fetish figures – and Rick Dalton is not in any way on the destined road to becoming an auteur. The fairy tale finds its sweet ending and its ultimate crane shot before that possibility can even arise.


We also strike intense temporal interference here – naturally enough – between Tarantino’s 1969 and the 2019 in which he’s living and working. Because the “Hollywood in transition” that he shows is an awful lot like now – especially at the level of casting, with the stars of hit TV series including Billions, Girls and Better Things filling the film and lighting up our recognition cells as it unfolds. Yet QT keeps banging on, in his public gestures and pronouncements, about the sanctity of 35mm (both as a shooting and a projection medium) and the physical reality of what his camera captures … so, some semi-fog of denial on his part is surely at play here.


What is New Hollywood, then? I don’t think (despite Hoberman’s observation about the Spahn Ranch) that it’s the realistic cinema of Robert Altman et al. – because, once again, Tarantino owes a big debt to that, too. It seems to be – because it’s allowed to survive – embodied first, last and only by Roman Polanski in his immediate post-Rosemary’s Baby (1968) era of fame: on the way to Chinatown (1974), definitely a L.A. classic, for sure, but also a global, internationalist filmmaking career par excellence. Not to mention other scandals that (like the spectre of QT’s ex-producer Harvey Weinstein) get no play on any level here, beyond Cliff’s gallant refusal of Pussycat’s underage “poontang” … If Raymond Durgnat were alive, he would surely be spinning off on the association of Polanski with a demonic/Satanic cinema, thus linking him with Kenneth Anger and hence Manson via the Bobby Beausoleil connection (Jeff Smith persuasively argues for a number of almost entirely buried intertexts similar to this one, that weave important connective networks in the film). For Lepastier, QT’s “hatred of hippies” overrides his love of – and very real debt to – the genuine New Hollywood, especially in its modernist aspect, which remains “the great absence” in this particular fairy tale …


Revenge: it’s a topic that Tarantino’s commentators fix on, myself included, particularly when I wrote about Inglourious Basterds. Yet Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is not, strictly, a revenge tale; Rick and Cliff are not avenging themselves on the Manson Family for some horrible thing done to them or those they love. They simply respond – with extravagant, murderous heroism – to a sudden, screwy home invasion. Yet what they do feels, for all intents and purposes, like the conclusion to a revenge tale – and a Tarantino movie. How can that be so? The film is unusual on this level because, as an “if only” speculative fairy tale, it is really a fantasy of reparation rather than traditional revenge – or rather, it is an act of revenge against the Manson Family, almost against history itself, against the destiny that befell these innocents (like Gaspar Noé, QT can get extremely sentimental about mothers-to-be). The film “rights the wrong” by imagining an alternative course, an alternative path into the future – whatever that future may be, which the film leaves wide open.


It’s intriguing (to me, at least) that Tarantino has sometimes played with quasi-magical effects – the scrambled time-structure of Pulp Fiction that allows Travolta to be “reborn” in the editing, if not in the diegesis; and here (as in Inglourious Basterds) the “alternative history”/Man in the High Castle thought-experiment – without ever tipping entirely over into magic realism, or full-blown surrealism. (Tobin well formulates what he considers the central paradox of the director’s basic approach to mise en scène: “Hyperrealism in service of a ‘suspension of disbelief’ pact with the spectator”.) Something holds Tarantino back from that further step (not that anyone is obliging him to take it!), and I wonder if it’s the fact that, once he reaches the “tipping point” – once the single, momentous gesture has been performed that alters the course of world history – he’s reticent to imagine further consequences: just what the New World will be with or without certain of its pieces. The dream only goes so far.


MORE Tarantino: Reservoir Dogs




1. Even within the first few weeks of its widely-released public life (which was the time frame in which I wrote this response), Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood had already generated hundreds of reviews and think-pieces across many languages – many of which seemed to toss around almost exactly the same things, whether pro or con the movie. Such is the echo-chamber effect of film criticism in the Internet/social media age! I find this deluge can sometimes (often) wield a deleterious influence on a critic’s brain, so I deliberately limited myself to reading only a few (the ones that I cite) through to the very end. Naturally, much more has been written and said since the film’s initial release – a discourse whipped up once again by the event of Tarnatino’s novelisation (of sorts) published in June 2021. I cover none of that post-2019 extrusion here. back


2. There is more to this Body Double connection. Of course, Cliff as stuntman is a “body double”, too. And, most importantly, De Palma’s film contains an amazing “leap” that many accounts of it simply overlook: at the climax, the main character “rewrites” his own past, the fear and paralysis on the movie set that we witnessed at the start, and “moves forward” heroically in a now different, altered future!! De Palma’s cinema has long investigated, in various ways, the theme and device of the second chance – reaching an apotheosis in Femme Fatale (2002). And QT, as we know, has always been a big De Palma fan ... back


3. Alexia Kannas has rightly pointed out to me that several car-cruising shots, and especially the setting where Cliff lives in his caravan, strongly evoke particular images from Demy’s film. back

© Adrian Martin August 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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