“You are real, right?”– Cliff Booth
There is no doubt that Quentin Tarantino is an Auteur in all essence of the word: his stories are original, his characters are complex and complete, his dialogue is inimitable, his camera work is an extension of himself – at times manic but patient when the moments call for it – and his cinematography is vibrant and refreshing, flushed with glowing reds and blues, colors that stoke the memories of Godard’s “Made in the U.S.A.” and “Pierrot Le Fou.” From Pulp Fiction to Death Proof to Inglourious Basterds, it is evident from the very first reel of the film that Quentin Tarantino has graduated from a student of film to a somewhat mythical master of it long ago. For his 9th Film Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, his mastery is on full display, albeit with mixed results.
There is so much to be liked about Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood; The music, the production, and the acting, but for all there is to like, there is something lacking throughout the film. Not to say the film is terrible; it is definitely entertaining and it is everything you expect from a Tarantino film, yet at the same time, it is surprisingly pedestrian.
The film centers around fictional Hollywood TV Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and Best Friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). During a meeting with producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), Rick is enlightened to the fact that he is quickly aging out of Hollywood in favor of new – fresher – up and comers. It is an enlightenment that forces him to ponder his next move and come to terms with his plunging celebrity status. Cliff, on the other hand, has already fallen out of the business, a victim of an unfortunate (and presumably true) rumor that keeps him on the outside of the industry, working as Rick’s gofer/driver/confidant; a shoulder to blubber on when things are looking dour. They are contrasts to each other in every way: Rick wears his emotions on his sleeve, he always has a drink nearby, and I can’t think of a scene where he didn’t have a cigarette neatly tucked between his thumb and index finger. He’s of average intelligence and stutters when he’s in uncomfortable situations where he has to be more eloquent than he really is. Cliff is much more stoic than his counterpart; he says what he needs to and in few words, he doesn’t have delusions of grandeur about where he is in life; he knows his place and accepts it. Whereas Rick is safe and sound in Cielo Drive up in the California hills with his mixed cocktails and caviar, Cliff is at the bottom, on a dark corner, with his beer and boxed Mac and cheese. If it weren’t for Rick, Cliff’s only friend would be his dog Brandy, and Cliff is perfectly fine with all of it.
Populating this fairytale Hollywood is Rick’s next door neighbors, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), “Bullitt” star Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), Charles Manson (Damon Harriman) and the Manson Family, among others.
I’ve had time to digest the film and the more I think about it, the more I feel that it can’t be critiqued based on what we deem as standard film aesthetic. The film doesn’t follow any real plot, nor does it work a linear story (though it is told in linear time). Cliff and Rick don’t really experience a character arch: it’s more like a speed bump that’s been shaved down so much, it no longer serves its original purpose. There is barely any conflict in the movie. The conflict comes from us internally. What Tarantino does is frame the story based on our existing knowledge of what we know about the gruesome murder of Sharon Tate and her friends that fateful night on August 9th 1969. That’s where the real suspense comes from: sitting in the movie theater, wondering “is he going to cross that line?” The answer is in the title of the film Once upon a time… it’s a trope normally used for folklore and fantasy.
And that’s exactly what this film is: fantasy. Each character floats through the day and night in a dream like state, like apparitions reliving the LA dog days of summer. Tarantino’s films have never really served a social or political purpose. His films aren’t strongly anti-gun, anti-bullying, or anti-racism. These issues merely exist in his film world as noise, radio static crackling from Rick’s cool-sleek 1966 Cadillac DeVille. They exist, period. The theology behind the reason of why doesn’t concern him.
Tarantino loves California, he loves TV and film, and its history. The back drop of the film was sprinkled with locales that existed during that time, Musso and Frank’s, Capitol Records, Sphan Ranch, El Coyote and Casa Vega Mexican restaurants, Van Nuys and Regency Bruin Movie Theater, and of course 10050 Cielo Drive. You get the sense that Tarantino didn’t have to do much homework; these locations are coded in his DNA. You can say the film was a love letter to LA, sure, but I’d say he dressed up LA as its own character, disguised with back lots and fake sets, and once the fake walls were removed, you saw the real LA, as Tarantino does.
Ever present throughout the film is the theme of unavoidable change. There is a wonderful scene between Rick and a young actress (Julia Butters) where, during a lunch break, both are using their time to do a little light reading. Her book is about the biography of Walt Disney and Rick is reading a western novel. When he shares with her the books premise, he breaks down because the story reflects exactly where he is in life: half way through it and a little more useless everyday.
The downside is, throughout the film, you wait for the other foot to drop and it feels like it never comes. Perhaps the final sequence is supposed to be the definitive stomp, but ultimately it ends up being a clumsy stumble. The ending of the film is “classic Tarantino,” it is violent and humorous, however, given that we are now living in a time where mass shootings have become the norm in our country (we’ve just come off a weekend where 28 people combined were killed in two mass shooting attacks in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio), there is no question that the violence at the end of the film will be off putting for some. Others will find it so absurd, they can’t take it seriously. Either way it will be discussed, yet, the scene itself doesn’t elevate or drag the film down; it’s just an ending because the fairytale has to end, right? You can’t start a fairy tale with once upon a time… and not end with …and they lived happily ever after. In today’s climate, everything is divisive, and a film like this loosely based on people who’ve existed and events that happened, was bound to be engulfed by controversy, however, controversy for controversy sake does a boring film make. I was really taken with Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance; It was damn near flawless, brilliantly toeing the line between boyishly charming and pathetic. All other performances were excellent as well but alas, when the curtain closes and the credits role, the dream is over, and there is just a hole in the film you can’t ignore. It’s like waking up from a dream that you guess was good, but you can’t remember why.