Sunday, 25 August 2019

Creepy-Crawl Cinema:
One Upon a Time in… Hollywood
(Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

1969 feels pretty impossible to escape at the moment. All these 50th anniversaries coming thick and fast – moon landing, Manson murders, Woodstock, Brian Jones, Altamont – and now, man-of-that-particular-moment Peter Fonda passing away right on schedule, an exact half century after his image was pinned up on a thousand dorm room walls. Perfect timing then, for retromancer in chief Quentin Tarantino to chime in with the celluloid equivalent of a shiny collectible plate. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got some room on the sideboard.


Like many movie fans, I could frankly spend all day here trying to unpack my mixed feelings about Tarantino and his work, but for the sake of both your sanity and mine, I’ll try to keep it brief.

As sophisticated, cine-literate readers, you will no doubt have realised long ago that all of Tarantino’s films are essentially set within a fantastical movie wonderland. They are films-about-films, indulgent thrill-rides with zero real world relevance, offering pure, dumb-headed escapism.

An obvious point perhaps, but one that is worth restating at the outset, given the persistent failure of many mainstream critics to comprehend it. (Honestly, how they can continue to toil away under the misapprehension that ‘Django Unchained’ actually has something to say about slavery, or ‘Inglorious Bastards’ about the Second World War, is beyond me.)

Though I can dig this superficial, ‘fantasy-land’ approach to a certain extent, I confess its appeal has worn pretty thin for me over the years, particularly when (as in the examples above) the Big QT finds himself romping around in the midst of subject matter which would conventionally seem to demand a certain amount of depth or ideological engagement. For a while now, I’ve been hoping that one day he might finally leave the play-pen behind and make, like, you know – a proper, sincere movie of some kind?

By gently weaning Tarantino away from his films-about-films universe and moving to a painstakingly researched, naturalistic historical setting that just happens to be all about the making of those films he loves so much, ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ (man, I HATE that ellipsis) would seem to offer him the perfect opportunity to do this, allowing him to play his meta-textural, movie nerd games, but in a more grounded / ‘realistic’ context - one in which actions may be seen to have consequences, and in which characters might finally manage to acquire a second or third dimension for themselves.

Given that he basically fails to take up this offer though, instead delivering yet another barrage of defiantly shallow, crowd-pleasing nonsense, I think we can assume by this stage that he probably never will make the jump to the quote-unquote ‘next level’.

As such, this leaves us with a few things that we are just going to have to accept if we are ever going to enjoy any Tarantino movies.

Firstly, they will mean nothing. Any thematic framework or ideological intent detected within will be purely coincidental - probably just a by-product of all the cultural tropes being re-heated and played around with.

Secondly, they will be massively indulgent, typically containing upwards of an hour of entirely irrelevant material that he shot and kept in the movie just because he could. (We may roll our eyes, but hey, if it’s good enough for Fellini…)

And, thirdly, everything in his films will feel just slightly cartoon-ish and overblown. Comedy / character scenes will drag on too long, just to make sure everyone gets the joke. Serious/violent scenes will pretty much always fall off a cliff into OTT absurdity, just because, as all exploitation fans know, crazy stuff is cool, and cool = good. Pop-cultural references and tributes meanwhile will be so shamelessly foregrounded that they might as well be accompanied by a little QT popping up in a box in the corner of the screen ala a Japanese TV show, pointing to them and guffawing.

Once we accept these certainties and abandon the possibility that things may one day be otherwise, we can hopefully loosen up a bit and appreciate the fact that, taken on its own terms, ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ is about the most purely enjoyable three hours of cinema that the 21st century has yet been able to offer.


As someone who has spent a great deal of time living and breathing the storied mythos of Hollywood ’69 over the years, I’ll confess that I was pretty psyched about seeing this movie, and that – leaving aside the caveats outlined above – I was not disappointed.

Although the film is packed with things (small details, creative decisions, wasted potential) which irked me, each of them is balanced out by two other things (character beats, clever gags and references, likable performances) which delighted me. (1)

Yes, this makes for a large number of ‘things’ in total - but such is only right and proper for a picture with this kind of gargantuan run time. If you like films with ‘things’ in them, well strap in buddy, cos you’ll certainly get your money’s worth here. The frantic pace barely ever flags across 170-odd minutes, and new stimuli comes thick n’ fast with every shot. As an immersive ‘Where’s Wally?’ puzzle for a pop-culturally literate crowd to lose themselves within, this film is hard to beat.

As such, it is ‘Once Upon a Time…’s production design which is chiefly deserving of celebration. Barbara Ling [Production Designer], John Dexter [Art Direction], Nancy Haigh [Set Decoration], Arianne Phillips [Costumes] – take a collective bow.

There are, it is safe to say, few other living filmmakers who have both the resources and the inclination to retro-fit vast swathes of Los Angeles to conform to some mystic, rose-tinted dream of late ‘60s perfection, and the results Tarantino’s team achieve in this regard are magnificent – a triumph of “world building” equal to any of this century’s CG-enhanced fantasy epics, and a hell of a lot more fun from my personal POV.

Again and again over the past forty years, we may have seen movie directors pay teary-eyed tribute to the days when Americans could roar around guilt-free in massive, pastel-coloured automobiles, chain-smoking their way into an early grave as they negotiate a neon labyrinth of cinema marquees, movie billboards and fast food outlets…. but never has this celebration been rendered quite so exuberantly, quite so convincingly, as it is here.

As a result, moments such as the panoramic shot in which Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth stands on the roof of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s Cielo Drive house to fix the TV aerial, looking down over the perfectly rendered sprawl of the Hollywood Hills and down to the streets below, are pretty darn spine-tingling.

(The cinema in which I saw the film isn’t exactly what you’d call top of the line in terms of its A/V presentation, but even so, Robert Richardson’s 35mm photography, ripped through whatever kind of cutting edge HD processing brings it to our 21st century screens, looked *incredible*.)

Yes, brothers and sisters (but mainly brothers, let’s face it), this really WAS the promised land, Quentin seems to be telling us, and for a moment or two here and there, I do not feel inclined to disbelieve him.

The fact that Tarantino grew up in L.A. and was six years old in 1969 should probably be noted here, particularly in view of ‘Once Upon a Time..’s all-consuming obsession with syndicated TV, movie posters and radio ads. As you might well imagine, the film’s dense collage of movie nerd fan service is a joy to behold, at times becoming so dominant that it almost takes the movie into quasi-documentary territory, complete with voiceover narration and clip / poster-based alternate history recaps.

And, just as inevitably, I can’t help but love this stuff. Whatever high-minded reservations I may have about Quentin’s oeuvre, all I need do is think back on the fact that Rick Dalton’s calling card action movie was “The Fourteen Fists of McClusky”, or upon hearing Al Pacino (playing Dalton’s liaison with the Italian movie industry) describe Sergio Corbucci as “…only the SECOND BEST director of Spaghetti Westerns in the world” (in outraged, what-do-you-mean-‘who’ tone of voice), or indeed upon the clip of DiCaprio appearing in an Antonio Margheriti spy movie… and all is forgiven. I might as well be sharing popcorn with the fucker on weekend movie night.

(Incidentally, based on the audience’s mocking laughter, I think many of them must have assumed Tarantino was just making all this Italian b-movie shit up for giggles. Little do they know…)


More surprisingly meanwhile, the film’s other great strength is its cast. In the past, I’ve often been surprised to read critics earnestly praising the committed performances of actors in Tarantino movies, given that the director doesn’t display much more concern for in-depth characterisation than if he were Michael Winner shuffling around the cannon fodder in a ‘Death Wish’ sequel… but, such is the paradox of an exploitation filmmaker who finds himself working with the kind of talent and resources usually reserved for critically-acclaimed Oscar-winners, I suppose.

Here though, the plaudits seem more justified. After all, ‘Once Upon a Time..’ is a long film which needs to retain our attention whilst holding back violent action or pyrotechnics until the final reel, and, as fictional creations with the chutzpah to get us there, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth certainly make for a winning pair of protagonists.

An anxious, clumsy, floundering movie star and his vastly more handsome and confident stuntman / gopher, they’re clearly conceived as an odd couple in the age-old Jeeves and Wooster mould, but their relationship is believable, their interplay with the movie’s other characters is always fun, and it’s basically easy for us to settle in and have a good time with their assorted travails and misadventures.

DiCaprio’s performance may have a touch too much huffing-and-puffing Wellsian grotesquery about it for my tastes, but this suits his character, and if nothing else, he certainly succeeds in persuading us to anchor our sympathies to a guy who is essentially pretty pathetic and dislikeable.

Here, though, is a sentence I never thought I’d find myself writing in a Breakfast in the Ruins post: it is Brad Pitt who is the real revelation here. He is not an actor I’ve ever much cared for in the past, but what can I say, he really seems to have “grown into himself” in ‘Once Upon a Time..’, if that makes any sense?

Essentially representing Tarantino’s ideal of the time-honoured Hollywood hero, Cliff Booth is our requisite humble, taciturn working class guy who looks good, does good, and always comes out on top. And, somehow, Pitt manages to embody this storied archetype whilst also ringing true as a fully-formed and immensely charming individual, absolutely nailing that crucial “yeah, what a cool guy” feeling we all love to get from our favourite movie heroes.

Of all of the far-fetched notions which film’s script asks us to accept in fact, probably the most outlandish is the idea that this guy has apparently been hanging around on TV and movie sets for decades, and no one seems to have noticed that he radiates star quality like a goddamned lighthouse.


Backing up this dynamic duo meanwhile are a wide variety of equally talented supporting players, whose work in small roles and ‘one-scene-wonder’ parts enhances the film considerably. I don’t so much mean the inevitable big name cameos (Pacino, Kurt Russell), but more the younger cast members really… which brings us neatly to the thorny issue of the film’s portrayal of the Manson Family.

Again, I have mixed feelings about this. In script terms, the Mansonites don’t really serve much of a purpose here beyond providing some generic antagonists, parachuted in to liven up the final act of what would otherwise basically be a stress-free three hour “hang out” movie. Indeed, Tarantino seems entirely unconcerned with exploring the context behind the Family’s existence and activities, instead relying entirely upon his audience’s perceived familiarity with the historical background – an approach which worked just fine for me, but which could easily cause problems in terms of the way the film plays for a wider audience.

For instance, I watched the film with a predominantly young crowd, and when, in a beautifully rendered scene early in the film, we see Cliff and Rick cruise past a group of ragged teenage girls who are scavenging from a roadside dumpster whilst singing one of Charlie’s songs, I could almost sense a 50/50 split in the audience between those who shared my shiver of recognition, and others who had no idea of the intended significance of what they were seeing.

Throughout the film, references to the cult’s lunatic beliefs or to Manson’s psychological hold over his followers are entirely avoided, leaving us in a strange situation where the only message which can drawn from the text itself is that dirty hippies are inherently evil and murderous, and that Quentin Tarantino hates ‘em.

That said however, the pivotal sequence in which Cliff visits the Spahn Ranch after picking up a fictional (I think?) Manson girl named ‘Pussycat’ (Margaret Qualley - and yes, fear not, Tarantino’s feverish obsession with trying to wring comedic value out of terms for female genitalia remains undiminished here), is wonderfully observed, feeling ‘real’ enough, and crammed with enough esoteric detail, to satisfy even the most demanding of Manson obsessives. (2)

Although Tarantino has the scary, dead-eyed hippies swarm and diminish like Romero zombies at times, what really won me over here is the fact that most of the Mansonites (barring a witchy, passive-aggressive turn from Dakota Fanning as Squeeky, and James Landry Hébert as a redneck grotesque Clem) are disarmingly naturalistic. The fact that they play it calm, friendly and not overtly crazy is to me more unsettling than any quantity of ominous, horror movie shit the film might have thrown at us.

(In view of my speculations below, it might be worth noting that the kill squad, when we share some time with them in the car on their way to Cielo Drive, basically speak very much like 21st century young people; I particularly liked Sadie/Susan (Mikey Madison) exclaiming that, “I’m sorry if I’m not familiar with every FASCIST who was on TV in the FIFTIES”.)

Likewise, the decision to concentrate during the ranch sequence on Cliff’s need to ascertain the well-being of George Spahn (a splendidly cantankerous performance from Bruce Dern – notable here I think as the only cast member who was actually on the scene in Hollywood when these events went down) proves an inspired one. It’s dramatically interesting, true to Pitt’s character, and allows the film to shine a light on an element of the Manson mythos which has largely been side-lined in the past, in factual and fictional chronicles alike.

Thinking about how Cliff immediately zeroes in on the necessity of speaking to George (because I mean, of course this 40-something stuntman would be more concerned with checking in on an old buddy than with quizzing a buncha fuckin’ hippies about the finer points of their belief system) meanwhile gets me thinking about the extent to which Tarantino essentially frames this entire film through the prism of his protagonists’ worldview. (Admittedly, it could be argued that this is not too far removed from his own worldview as another middle-aged Hollywood dude, but… let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume at least a thin line of division, shall we?).


Though the surface signifiers of the counter-culture – in the form of sex, drugs and long hair - may have been ruling the roost in Movieland by 1969, Hollywood nonetheless remained a world in which women were expected to be seen and not heard, and in which non-white faces were almost literally invisible. And, this is exactly what Tarantino gives us - reality filtered through the eyes of a couple of old school, movie industry bros, with no explanation or apology offered along the way.

For better or for worse, proceeding in this manner, without even a passing nod to contemporary standards of representation, is a ballsy move on the director’s part, and as usual, certain sections of the media seem to have had a hard time even comprehending it. In particular, articles such as this one, which criticise the director for giving Margot Robbie little to do beyond looking pretty in her role as Sharon Tate, seem to be missing the point entirely.

After all, the sad fact is that the real Sharon Tate was given little to do in her tragically foreshortened life, beyond looking pretty. She was the product of a culture that allowed young women few other avenues for advancement, and her portrayal in the film merely reflects this. Of course, we can always imagine that she may have steered her life and career in a more rewarding direction had she lived, but trying to retrofit this ultimate victim of the era’s chauvinist attitudes as a super-capable 21st century heroine would have seemed questionable to say the least.

Likewise, I’m happy to defend Tarantino when it comes to the movie’s other big bone of contention, comedian Michael Moh’s portrayal of Bruce Lee as an egotistical buffoon. In a complete reversal of the Robbie/Tate issue, I have no reason to believe that this is an accurate characterisation of Bruce Lee, but at the same time there is something very refreshing about seeing such a revered, untouchable figure get the bubble of his legend so crudely ‘popped’ and – the ultimate justification for anything in a Tarantino film – the scene he shares with Pitt is loads of fun. (I particularly enjoyed the perfect take-down of the old “my fists are registered as lethal weapons” routine.) (3)


WARNING: Spoilers follow in the next few paras. This film has some nice surprises, so please do go and see it before reading the rest of this review.


Whilst I’m generally cool with all this stuff though, I do fear that, whether by accident or design, the director’s willingness to court controversy and blow a few gentle raspberries in the direction of quote-unquote “political correctness” may be apt to lead him into some choppy waters here, should anyone choose to disregard my First Rule of watching a Tarantino movie above, and succumb to the cardinal sin of actually thinking about the damn thing for five minutes after the lights go up.

After all, QT’s personal/professional reputation only just made it out of the whole Miramax / Weinstein debacle in one piece, so, as much as I wish I could just turn my brain off and go with the flow, it’s pretty difficult not to detect a certain, uh, emphasis in the fact that the first movie he has made since severing those connections ends with the triumphant spectacle of two middle-aged Hollywood dudes violently murdering a couple of mouthy young women who wish to forcibly disrupt their comfortable, decadent way of life… y’know what I mean…?

In real life of course, we know that those women were the brain-washed pawns of a criminal lunatic whose practice of racism and misogyny dwarfed that of any Hollywood playboy, but, given that ‘Once Upon a Time..’ pointedly fails to address this and instead merely depicts them as a bunch of damn fuckin’ hippies who won’t get off Leonardo DiCaprio’s drive…. well, let’s just say that the potential for a very troubling alternative reading of the film is certainly there, should you insist on poking it with a stick.

Personally, I’m happy to leave it be. As I stated at the outset, I’d question whether Tarantino has *ever* set out to make a film with this kind of ideological subtext, and even if he did, I’d inclined to believe that this film’s violent finale should be read as heavily tongue in cheek – an intent clearly acknowledged by the young audience at the screening I intended, as they gasped and guffawed in “I-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that” style disbelief.

Basically, I think Tarantino chose to end the film this way for the only reason he has ever done anything in his films – because it’s cool, and funny, and will leave the audience feeling good. The bad guys lose, and DIE! Movies and the swell guys who make them triumph! Brad and Leo save the ‘60s, and a brighter alternative pop cultural universe opens up for everyone.

Which, come to think of it, is the only possible conclusion for a movie named ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’. Fairy tale ending meets Western ending meets po-mo inter-textural headfuck ending. Perfect.

It may be crass and ugly and contrived and stupid… but there’s a strange kind of beauty here too. Just like Hollywood, am I right?

Boom, great ending for a review! Cut and print!


(1) I couldn’t find a way to slot this into the main text, but the only thing that seriously annoyed me about Tarantino’s direction here was his decision to include lengthy scenes of DiCaprio’s character performing his lines in a TV western pilot,  shooting them with gliding Steadicam, beautiful diffuse lighting, Leone-esque cutting between multiple angles and other things that would obviously NOT have been present in a 1969 TV pilot.

Basically he presents these scenes exactly as if they were part of one of his *own* Westerns, having apparently not yet got that bug out of his system, which feels both disruptive to this film’s period setting and indulgent in all the worst ways. Wouldn’t it have been a lot more interesting to pull back and take a verite / behind-the-scenes kind of approach to these TV-show-within-the-film bits, giving us a look at the detail of how shows like this were made, and of what the crew were getting up to as the actors did their thing etc…? Just a thought.

(2) The set looks pretty much like an exact repro of the photos I’ve seen of the Spahn Ranch, and I loved details like the pile of dune buggy parts, the sign pointing toward the ‘chop shop’, and the inclusion of a few surly, disengaged bikers, and even a guy done up like Bobby Beausoleil, in the background. Well done, team, well done.

(3) For anyone counting the beans re: the film’s representational issues, I’m fairly sure Moh is the only non-white actor in the cast who actually even has *lines* -- but again, I’d put this down to nature of the world inhabited by our viewpoint characters, rather than any reflection of Tarantino’s personal agenda.


Doug Campbell said...

Best review I’ve yet seen, nailing both the significant flaws and considerable virtues on display here.

Ben said...

Thanks Doug - I really appreciate it.

Pretty over-long and a bit garbled in places (the review I mean, not the film : D ), but hopefully works as a kind of uncut, straight from the cinema pile of thoughts...