Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

What a difference a second viewing makes, at least for me. I typically get one film a year catastrophically wrong, and on a first viewing, I thought it might be this one but also couldn't see how. I spent a long time chewing it over, reading criticism, listening to podcasts and interviews with Tarantino, warming to the lived-in details and sidelights of the film in memory but never really receiving a satisfactory answer to the question that plagued my mind: why does a film that's fundamentally about male friendship use the real-life murder of Sharon Tate as the setting for that story?

Answer: because it's not about that, you jackass. Or, more precisely, just about that. It's said of James Joyce's Ulysses that nobody short of him could possibly unpick everything in the book as it's so specific to his lived and personal experience, and while I won't elevate this to the level of Ulysses in "objective" value, I will say that it's arguably Tarantino's Ulysses, spread over three days instead of one, and so densely packed that it defies a single "it's about" sentence.

But opening lines are often a good place to start, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD's is: "This man is worth $500.". It's the opening to BOUNTY LAW, to be sure, but immediately questions of worth and value played front and center of my head. How much is Rick Dalton's career worth? Or Sharon Tate's?

This relates closely to potential, both tapped and untapped. One of the less commented aspects of the use of Bruce Lee in this film is that, despite his great stardom, he still had decades ahead of him that we'll never experience. What Sharon Tate had in front of her is harder to imagine, and it's more than plausible she never had a great role in her.

But "great" is one thing, and "value" is another. On a second viewing, the Easy Breezy section of the film, apart from being relentlessly superficially entertaining (give Julia Butters a nomination, please!), unpacks this. Dalton's chosen reading material looks like crap, probably *is* crap, and yet at that very given moment, nothing could tap into Dalton's core more. That worthless, forgotten pulp novel means more to him than everything Disney's cultural empire (nice subtle dig by having that be Butters' reading material) has to offer. (It's also worth noting that when we first meet Dalton's despised hippies, they're literally gathering food from the rubbish - finding treasure in the trash, one reasonable precis of the whole QT project.)

The triumphs of the actor are fleeting. One reason I say the film really isn't "about" male friendship is that the entire second act of the film keeps our three characters apart, finding links across all the legs of the triangle. Dalton and Tate represent the two realest pleasures the actor has - the former nailing a scene on set at a level greater than he imagined, only to have it immediately slip through his hands as the production moves on to the next scene, and Tate setting up shop at a cinema, basking in audience reaction to her moments of comedy and action. (First time round, I thought it was a mistake she was leaving the cinema at dark, and didn't quite click that meant that, even though we haven't seen her do it, she clearly would have sat through the whole film twice.)

Tate and Booth, meanwhile, share a parallel in both their overlapping soundworlds (Booth listening to Tate's record of Paul Revere and the Raiders) and their choices to pick up hitchhikers. There's a lot of duality and moral ambiguity in this film, and if Robbie's superficial cheeriness comes across as shallow, perhaps it's also worth reading as a shadow to Booth. I certainly would push back against the idea that QT didn't know how to write a strong female character - certainly we can give the guy who JACKIE BROWN and DEATH PROOF that much credit, right? In which case, it's a design choice.

The almost unnatural shining loveliness of Tate, therefore, should work to bring out the shadows in Booth. And yet he's a man whose sins are hiding in the light. For all the question of whether or not he killed his wife, it's worth noting that Booth never denies it, and I'm pretty sure Dalton doesn't either, instead arguing that he's a war hero. One doesn't contradict the other, of course.

You can be a self-loathing rage-filled alcoholic and a tremendous actor. You can be a wife killer and a war hero and a loyal friend. You can be a genius director and a pedophile on the run. You can be living in the gold-dappled sunlight of Hollywood while the Vietnam War rages on. You can be a hippie preaching peace and love and harbour murderous feelings in your heart. All these things can coexist, and it's a true discomfort to try to process a story with this kind of ambiguity in our current political climate. (Which leads to an uncomfortable point that I read as apologia in a first viewing: you can be a sexually abusive rage-filled asshole and have produced many of the key films of our era, including several of this director's films.)

There's no surprise that cultural shifts in our current era left lots of people, myself included, struggling with the paroxysm of violence that ends the film. Is it ugly? Yes. I've seen myriad defenses of the ending, many of which I don't buy - the extent to which the characters deserve it, or the fact that this is the least violent Manson film ever made. (By virtue of not featuring the murders, of *course* it is - that doesn't mean the ending couldn't have been depicted differently.)

And yet, what I think is the easiest "defense" is this: the violence is actually true to character, and underscores Tarantino's examination of dualism, which starts from the stunt double premise and inverted opening credits (DiCaprio's name appearing under Pitt and vice-versa), continues in countless ways (my favourite, unnoticed the first time: Brandy's dog food is rat-flavoured, and she eats it off the kitchen floor, whereas at Spahn ranch a real rat lies in a trap on the floor, an image that causes Booth to flinch) and culminates here (an image shortly before this, of Pitt pointing his finger in gun-shape at Tex holding a real gun, is possibly the central image of the film for me). Is the level of violence Cliff Booth brings to bear unnecessary? Yes. Is it in character with the guy who savagely beat the guy who stabbed his tire? Absolutely. Is it a coincidence that two of the blows to the head he unleashes drive bloody fragments of glass into a framed movie poster, just mere minutes after his assailants have talked about how screen violence has raised a generation of killers? It's all inseparable.

So. Imagine making a film with all of this in it and all anyone wants to talk about is if you've been unfair to Bruce Lee and if Margot Robbie should have had more lines and if you've been too violent towards women (who, just as an aside, killed people in real life). That's part and parcel of our times, of course, and just as '69 represents one changing of the guard in Hollywood, I think Tarantino is acutely aware that he's at another changing of the guard, and that his voice, his passion, his dream is out of step with the era. My last review was obsessed with contemporary resonance, and I don't think that HOLLYWOOD is a film that should principally be read through that lens.

As the culmination of the Tarantino project to date, I think the most productive and fairest reading of HOLLYWOOD is through the lens of the Tarantino project. And while it contains many of his indulgences - especially feet - it also ties into his career-long professional project of rehabilating actors who were perceived to have limited potential and discovering in them more than Hollywood, or perhaps they themselves, knew. I couldn't help but bring Robert Forster's recent passing into the theatre, just one of many of Tarantino's resuscitations, some of which had more lasting effect than others. It's notable that the passing of Burt Reynolds meant simultaneously denying Tarantino a chance of giving Reynolds a second resuscitation (after PTA's doing so in this film's cousin, BOOGIE NIGHTS) and placing the role in the hand of a name actor who phones it in (although I will say seeing Pacino's later ham-free moment watching "FBI" simultaneously with both Booth and Dalton - and, implicitly, Spahn and Squeaky - puts the superficial performance up front in a better context). [ETA: Apparently I was totally wrong about which character Reynolds was meant to play: as noted in the comments, he was to play Spahn, and Bruce Dern took his place.]

Anyway, Pacino-bashing aside, there's a generosity at the heart of QT's project. And if it's a generosity that is tied to a superficial worldview, or one that loves crappy westerns or is okay showing violence to women at a level that creates discomfort in 2019 or seemingly disrespects Bruce Lee (but listen to Amy Nicholson's podcast series with Tarantino before committing to this notion), well: that's duality too. It's all part of the same thing. And apart from A HIDDEN LIFE, I haven't come out of a film feeling more of a connection to a director's generosity of spirit than I did to this viewing of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

Doug liked these reviews