Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

*. In 2019 Hollywood marked the 50th anniversary of the Manson slayings with two movies partially based on those events: The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The first was widely panned, and considered by some to be the worst movie of the year. The second received critical accolades and made most major-media, year-end top-10 lists.
*. That Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was so well received is due largely to it being a Quentin Tarantino film. Tarantino has had a remarkable career. After bursting on the scene with Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown he became arguably the most influential filmmaker of his generation. But why should the release of a new Tarantino movie be the cause of any attention at all in 2019? His last two pictures, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, were overblown and hugely disappointing. He has often spoken of retiring, claiming that directors don’t get better as they get older. Clearly he wasn’t. So how much of a pass is he still allowed, based on work he did more than twenty years ago?
*. I wasn’t impressed by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but not for the reasons most often given in its few negative reviews. These were mainly of the school of “woke” criticism, and took the writer-director to task for his racism and misogyny. Writing in the New Yorker Richard Brody even slammed the film as “ridiculously white,” whatever that means. Critics wondered what Bruce Lee was doing in here, a question I have no answer for (he is present in what is either a flashback or a daydream, take your pick). And what was with the slurs against Mexicans? Presumably they’re to make up for the fact that there are no blacks in sight. And why didn’t Margot Robbie have more lines? And why do we have to see Charlie’s girls getting busted up so spectacularly at the end?
*. These things didn’t bother me at all. The ’60s were not a politically correct time and Sharon Tate (Robbie) is not an important character in the story. In fact, I think she’s just offered up as a red herring. Instead of these woke touchstones, what I disliked was the bloated running time (161 minutes), much of which seemed wasted watching people drive around or watch TV. Only half an hour into it I started playing the deadly game of thinking which scenes I would have cut from the final print. I soon had a long list. In addition, the characters are all stoners and/or meatheads, so while they may be sympathetic at times they have nothing interesting to say. What is a Tarantino movie with no interesting talk?

*. A deeper comparison with The Haunting of Sharon Tate is worth pursuing. Both movies conclude in the same way, with the historical murders being foiled and the Manson gang being killed instead. In the case of The Haunting of Sharon Tate the point seems to be that Sharon (Hilary Duff) has tapped into some kind of cultural subconscious that allows her, at least in one parallel or alternate reality, to flip the script into that of a cheap home-invasion horror movie, with the innocent victims emerging triumphant in art if not in life.
*. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the script is flipped in much the same way, by a pair of Hollywood has-beens — fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stunt double/personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) — tapping into a less anachronistic zeitgeist. Movies, in both movies, are what come to the rescue. They are more powerful, if not more real, than reality. It’s a point nicely captured by Tex Watson holding a real gun on Cliff Booth, who holds his fingers up in the shape of an imaginary pistol. You can guess who wins that draw.
*. The idea seems to be that, at least in Hollywood, the myth is more important than any notion of truth. Reality is changed by the lens we view it through. Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel . . . and a horror movie to those who grew up watching horror movies, and a Western to actors who play cowboys. The title is an obvious nod to Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy but it also lets us know that this is a fairy tale, not a docudrama. Rick keeps a fully fueled flamethrower in his shed? Well, why not.
*. Tarantino was taken to task for presenting a reactionary defence of a mythic Hollywood, but has there ever been any other kind? The hippies are the product of the entertainment industry but they insist on taking its lessons literally. As gang member Sadie puts it, “if you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder.” Thus they are justified in wanting to “kill the people who taught us to kill.” Tarantino, who also grew up watching TV and watching murder, drew a different lesson, wanting to make movies with the people who taught him to make movies.
*. There’s the germ of an interesting idea here, just as there was in The Haunting of Sharon Tate. In this film it’s more developed, but I still find it frustrating and shallow. One reason being that Tarantino seems less interested in other movies now than he is in doing homages to himself, right down to his fetish for feet.
*. In his best movies Tarantino placed real characters in the midst of a media-rich environment, but here the characters (I want to put that word in quotation marks) are so much the creation of that environment that we can’t imagine them outside of it. There’s a long section that shows Rick playing the bad guy in a crumby Western. It’s telling that we never see the cameras or crew. We don’t need to. We know they’re there, just as we know they’re always there. The Spahn Ranch is an old movie set. Cliff lives next door to a drive-in theatre. But even driving down the highway we feel the cameras are on. This is something both Cliff and Rich understand. It’s in their bones. The hippies are absolutely baffled by it, like straight men and women caught in an absurdist play.
*. This is a very well made movie. The streetscapes are flawlessly recreated in ways I couldn’t even imagine but which I suspect cost a lot of money. But the whole thing moves very awkwardly, and is hamstrung by its cast of comic dimwits. Indeed, if there is a point it seems to be that the dimmer you are the happier you will be, at least in Hollywood. Old George Spahn (Bruce Dern) has figured that much out, preferring to be thought blind while he has teenagers “fuck his brains out” in between sleeping and watching TV. Drugs, sex, violence, and movies. That’s all there is. Just don’t take any of it literally or seriously, because none of it is real.

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