I've been trying for over a week now to figure out exactly why Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, the latest opus from auteur Quentin Tarantino, hit me the way it did. As someone who's never visited California or more specifically, Hollywood, and as someone who wasn't born until nearly two decades after the year in which the film takes place there were no personal nostalgic ties to what is very clearly a very nostalgic movie for its writer and director. I love the movies as in "the movies", sure, both for their fascinating behind the scenes processes as well as certain aspects of the business and I adore the idea of crafting this love letter to a bygone era that, in many ways, is reoccurring at this very moment even if the players are very different in the similarly circumstanced game. Any piece of work that provides insight into any aspect or era of the movie business is typically something I'm game for, granted, but even my affinity for films and television shows produced in the late fifties through to the end of the sixties is low and wouldn't justify the instinctively adoring reaction these impossibly detailed re-creations of such receive and no doubt deserve. There is plenty to like and appreciate within the massive two hour and forty-minute runtime Tarantino has assembled with his latest, but it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is that occurs within those (nearly) three hours that not only made me long once more for days consisting of more innocence, but also genuinely made me love what I was watching and want to remain in this world he was enchanting us with. After a week of mulling over the film though, of continuing to go back to certain scenes, countless performance moments and a hundred other facets I hadn't yet considered day after day the bigger picture came to be that it wasn't necessarily any one thing in what will from now on be referred to as OUaTiH, but more it was the effect each of these elements had on one another; the meticulous re-creation of 1969 informed and enhanced the performances of these fictional characters which were in turn heightened in the context of the film by the real-life events that Tarantino weaved through his narrative so as to create a sense of familiarity while still holding tight to the destination he's driving towards. Ultimately, this stands as one of Tarantino's best, most introspective works as it delivers the feeling one wants to leave the theater with after having experienced a Tarantino flick while the experience in and of itself is something of an unexpected and surprisingly soulful one.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are faced with a changing Hollywood landscape in 1969 that they weren't prepared for.
© Sony Pictures Entertainment
What is maybe most enticing about OUaTiH though is the fact that, as someone who is-as previously stated-both unaware of and uninfluenced by the culture of Hollywood in general and the pop culture of this time period in particular, this film serves not as an elitist slideshow/time warp back to the TV shows and radio DJs that a large sect of the audience have never heard of and are therefore made to feel unworthy of watching this heavily layered and intrinsically crafted meld of fact and fiction, but rather Tarantino's screenplay and eventual film feel more like an invitation to younger audiences to learn about this world that used to exist and both the wonderful things such as certain actors and songs that came out of this era as well as hinting at the terrible history lesson to be learned and how this moment in time that Tarantino clearly has an affection and a nostalgia for was effectively killed in a single night with the fable-like qualities of the narrative depicting how he wishes he could reverse those actions so as to then alter the future of and ultimately the fortunes of, what were undoubtedly some of his favorite creative types working at the time who he instead saw bulldozed by this shift in the culture. On the flip side of this, OUaTiH will naturally serve as those nostalgic slideshows and time warps for audiences of a certain age and this will undoubtedly prove to be a thrill in a different way than it was to this individual, but that the film not only works as a piece of art that operates on several different levels within the context of the film, but also as one that operates on different levels for different audiences is a true testament to how well Tarantino and his producers have built this production; the story, aesthetic, and ideas enticing audiences of a certain age while the pairing of stars like Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio-both of whom are the last of a dying breed in terms of pure movie stars with DiCaprio serving more as the pure "name on the marquee" here given his track record-along with added-value elements like Margot Robbie and the reputation of Tarantino as a brand as much as he is a writer/filmmaker enticing the younger crowds is genius especially given the fact large sections of both audiences need to feel a film is something of an "event" in order to even be inspired to make a trip to the cinema these days. OUaTiH is certainly an event in regards to these qualifiers, but more it is the fact that something of this nature has been able to be crafted at this high of a level is what allows it to stand apart not as just an exception to the rule, but as a testament to what is being missed out on when a lack of balance is present.

A lack of balance of course in regards to the ever-changing cinematic landscape that now seems to solely thrive on Disney properties either being re-imagined or Disney bringing a comic series to life through the cinema (and soon to be on your streaming devices). I don't have a problem with these types of options, but they need to be options among a wide variety of other options at the movies whereas large-scale adult dramas such as OUaTiH are what is being lost in the shuffle; no longer are studios interested in putting up the money for an ambitious slice of life movie such as this unless it's made by someone who's proven themselves a brand as Tarantino has. This is all to say that just as the movie industry of today is facing uncertain change and the era where anything had the potential to break-out has more or less come to an end, so was Hollywood at the end of sixties when DiCaprio's Rick Dalton was trying his damnedest to convert his dying TV career into movie stardom with little to no luck. As chronicled in OUaTiH the era of fifties western serials such as the one Dalton starred in titled Bounty Law was drawing to a close with Hollywood veering towards casting more the hippie sons of famous people than the more traditionally handsome/rugged men Dalton would portray akin to the likes of George Maharis who starred in Route 66 on CBS from 1960 to 1964 or Ty Hardin who appeared in Bronco on ABC from 1958 to 1962. Because of this, Dalton has only ever known how to present himself in this one, single way on screen and while large portions of OUaTiH deal in the actor coming to terms with the fact the industry is evolving and with that evolution more will be required of him or he will inevitably be left behind there is a core section dead center in the middle of the movie that places Dalton as the "heavy" in an episode of the series, Lancer, which actually aired on CBS from 1968 to 1970. In Tarantino's film, Timothy Olyphant portrays series lead James Stacey, Luke Perry in his last feature film role portrays series regular Wayne Maunder while newcomer Julia Butters (American Housewife) portrays a fictional character named Trudi who, within this aforementioned section of the film, lends a motivational speech of sorts to Dalton's ear and ignites the necessary cylinders to elevate Dalton's role on Lancer to more than that of just another "villain of the week" appearance. It is in these elongated sequences that allow both Tarantino as well as the audience to sit and ruminate with the characters that the movie is able to get away with not having a story in the traditional sense, but more this time invested with the characters convinces the audience we don't necessary need a story, but rather-to just be with these characters and take in a day in their life-is interesting enough; their varied, but equally fascinating personal journeys are more than enough.

Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) parties at the Playboy mansion in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood.
© Sony Pictures Entertainment
In terms of DiCaprio's performance, Dalton is an alcoholic whose habits are only made worse with this realization that he's now a "has-been" and in order for him to even make an impression or get any type of face time with his new neighbors, the recently wed Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Robbie), he's going to at least have to create the illusion of more depth if not actually carve some out either in his rotation of appearances on current TV shows or in the Spaghetti Westerns Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) is hoping to convince him to travel to Italy to do. And so, as Dalton comes to terms with having to be challenged for the first time in his career and charged with working with filmmakers who actually believe in him, Pitt's Cliff Booth is also trying to find things that are missing in his life, but Cliff Booth is at least very assured of who he is as a person. While DiCaprio's Dalton has this rich history of an on screen presence he doesn't really know who he is outside of what he always imagined himself to be. Both men are lost, no doubt, but Booth being the more collected as far as personality goes despite having less of everything than Rick and being at his every whim is trying to figure out where he fits into this man's life who he's been "more than a brother and a little less than a wife" to for so many years now. With Dalton only getting occasional guest spots there's not much for his former seasoned stunt double to do outside of drive his drunk ass to and from set and fix things around the house. Pitt just exudes this classy cool factor as his Booth drives around sixties-era Hollywood before finding his residence in a dilapidated trailer behind a drive-in movie screen where he stays with his obedient pit bull, Brandy. If there is any narrative drive to speak of though, it comes from Booth's driving around and consistently seeing the same hippie girl who comes to be referred to as Pussycat as played by Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) who is always hitchhiking, but always seems to catch Booth when he's going the other way. On one of the two days we're closely acquainted with Dalton and Booth though, he has some time to spare and offers to give the underage flower child a lift. Pussycat has her new chauffeur take her to Spahn Movie Ranch, where Dalton and Booth once filmed parts of Bounty Law, but has now become a commune headed by the notorious, but rarely seen here Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). If Dalton's character arc wasn't enough to signify the themes of transition, Tarantino reinforces that "the times they are a changin'" by this physical representation of how their old world has now merged with this new, unrecognizable one.

There are a million other facets in OUaTiH that one could delve into, most notably the remainder of the Spahn Ranch sequence which also features a knock-down, drag-out performance from a nearly unrecognizable Dakota Fanning. Booth's assertiveness in the face of this commune and his vibe immediately conflicting with theirs makes way for a tension-riddled scene strong enough to challenge Tarantino's best. Lena Dunham's Gypsy, Austin Butler's Tex and Bruce Dern's George each contribute to the sequence just as Mike Moh's performance as Bruce Lee enhances a day-dreaming sequence in which Booth faces off with the legendary martial artist in such a fashion that if no further character development occurred around Booth we would still understand him perfectly. Then there is of course Robbie's performance as Sharon Tate which the film has been criticized for sidelining, but Tate isn't supposed to be a main character and it seems Tarantino has kept her on the fringes aside from a sequence where she goes to a theater in the middle of the day to catch herself in a screening of the Dean Martin action/thriller, The Wrecking Crew, in order to preserve the memory of who she was in this aura-like fashion rather than fleshing her out and creating what might potentially be a falsified version of who this woman was. Robbie, as she always does, endears to create an immediately charming presence thus allowing this merger of fact and fiction to carry an added amount of sorrow. Tarantino ratchets up his final act to meet his own indulgences only to prove in the film's final shot that everything he's been building to isn't necessarily in order to set-up the outlandish violence on display, but more an attempt to actually restore a sense of peace to the memories associated with this moment in time and to the memory of this woman and the three other people who were brutally murdered on August 9th, 1969; Tarantino doesn't completely remove the tragedy of the situation, but instead he uses OUaTiH to gush over some of his favorite periods in Hollywood history, re-writing others while in both instances bringing these memories and these people back to life in a multitude of ways.

No comments:

Post a Comment