Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★½

10th Quentin Tarantino (after Death Proof, Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1, The Hateful Eight and Kill Bill Vol. 2)

So, we arrive at this review. In some respects, the imposed silence I was required to uphold has helped me mellow my opinion on this film, though it is still largely negative. It also allowed me to channel my potent rage into something more productive than writing a firebrand screed, as my miniseries has shown. If you haven't read them already, I'd recommend taking a look at the links below for my thoughts on certain elements of this film:

letterboxd.com/dz1ga/film/valley-of-the-dolls/
letterboxd.com/dz1ga/film/fist-of-fury/
letterboxd.com/dz1ga/film/head/

At the end of the review for Head, I stated that I would be using this review to discuss why Tarantino chose to make it Once... in the manner he did. To do so, I feel we have to go back to what is his best film, Death Proof.

Tarantino has often stated that he feels that it is his worst film. Certainly, it was panned by the critics and had a lukewarm box-office response. Yet, twelve years later, it remains both his most radical film and his most personal. In his earlier films, the obsession with a certain type of cinema, the trashy, the purely commercial, was manifested in narrative elements and visual cues, while still maintaining a veneer of sophisticated Hollywood technical production quality. Gradually, however, the commercial aesthetics of the films he loved, like the Shaw Brothers intro card or the 'Mighty Afrodite' production company on the credits of Jackie Brown, began to creep into his work. Thus, we arrived at Death Proof, which took the rough and ready aesthetic of the B-movie to an extreme. The very print itself was badly scratched, had missing scenes and boasted a title change card. It became, then, his most complex investigation into what it is to watch and appreciate bad taste films, and also perhaps his most personal look at his own perversions and fetishes.

For whatever reason, the film bombed, and I think Tarantino lost his nerve. He retreated into a fantasy world, where he could be free to appropriate world history to his own ends; it's telling that since Death Proof, not one of his film has been set in the present day, whereas all of them before had been.

It's also probably for this reason why that Once... has been so popular, with some people calling it a 'warm' film. Once... taps into a vein of familiar iconography. For many a film fan, and indeed in general, the late 60s is a blissful era of free love and sun-kissed beaches, before the world was polluted by Watergate, the souring of consumer capitalism, the rise of social justice and the spectre of environmental damage. It is an uncomplicated, nostalgic time that people want to escape into. The ending, in this respect, is Tarantino sealing the fantasy bubble, making a blissful conservative wonderland for those who want to exist within it.

For those on the outside of this bubble, though, it's not hard to see why this film has caused so much outrage. It's a hideously racist, sexist dinosaur of a film, made by a man who has seen too many films and had too few conversations with real people. On one level, it's actually kind of great that Tarantino has decided to drop the facade that he's somehow interested in race relations and has just settled into being what he really always was; a cranky SOB that doesn't really like anyone that isn't him. But the fact that the film has received so much positive press is baffling, considering its attitudes towards race, women and sexuality that are delivered un-ironically to the unwitting audience. Directors like Aldrich, Edwards or Verhoeven may legitimately be described as problematic for their attitudes towards women or minorities, but their films contain a fundamental understanding or empathy towards people that Tarantino is entirely bereft of, which has justified their critical standing. This film, however, is morally bankrupt in the most grotesque way, especially the finale.

Here, Once... makes the same deadly mistake that Inglorious does, which is that it rewrites history to erase the memory of a terrible event, by pasting a karmically satisfying alternate over the scars of the real. Some readers may feel like an objection to this somehow misses the point of Tarantino's film, that it's meant to be a fairytale fantasy about a 'what if?' version of history. Yet this is a cop-out, a lazy rebuttal to the fact that the truth is often a painful, messy experience that ultimately belongs to those who lived it. To close your eyes to this, to accept the blatant rewriting of a Truth, is to fall prey to the tactics of propaganda. This is not to say that this film is anything like Jew Süss, to use an extreme example. It does not explicitly push an agenda that exhorts the demonising of others. What it does, repeatedly and subtly, is to utilise the rhetorical devices of propaganda to present an idealised past that neatly erases the many complicating factors of that era, such as the civil rights movement, the beginnings of Stonewall and so on; it's notable that this film has no black or gay characters at all. It affirms to its base audience that this is how things should have been, before the world became too complicated and you started being accused of privilege.

There are things to admire about this film. The attention to detail in terms of historical signs, posters and the names of film directors is wonderful, especially to a nerd like me. Pitt is excellent. The widescreen photography is sublime. But at the centre of it all is a sneering contempt and a rotten heart. What a shame Tarantino lost his nerve.

Tarantino in Order:

1. Death Proof
2. Jackie Brown
3. Reservoir Dogs
4. Django Unchained
5. Kill Bill Vol. 2
6. Pulp Fiction
7. The Hateful Eight
8. Kill Bill Vol. 1
9. Inglorious Basterds
10. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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