Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

Quentin Tarantino has made his first truly bittersweet film

Saw this projected in 35mm, Alamo Drafthouse Tempe.

This feels like something only Tarantino could’ve made, but it doesn’t feel at all like any of his previous films. And after ruminating over it for a week, I think it’s his most thoughtful work yet.

This is a film that really only takes shape during its ending, via the feelings relayed by its final images. I will be discussing the ending so, spoilers ahead. The story here certainly feels smaller than QT’s previous films, probably due to the short amount of time covered, and the lack of sprawling set pieces. Even though The Hateful Eight more or less took place in one room, that film feels “bigger” than this one.

We begin by spending a day or two with Rick and Cliff. Rick is beginning to have an emotional breakdown, with his career and self-worth coming into question, as we see him guest star in a Western television show. Meanwhile, we follow Cliff around town, doing odd jobs for Rick, and eventually see him make his way to Spahn Ranch. These sequences make up the majority of the film. Rick eventually goes to Rome, taking Cliff with him, to shoot a few Spaghetti Westerns, and they return six months later, on the fateful night of August 8, 1969.

Now, during the main chunk of the film, there are definitely some juicy, familiar QT moments. This is by far one of his funniest films, and the soundtrack is killer. The pace he takes is relaxed, more so than Jackie Brown (this is essentially a buddy/hangout movie). He takes every opportunity to bend to his aesthetics, recreating and referencing many time period accurate actors, titles, opening credits, logos, movie/tv posters, etc., even using a bit of CGI to place Rick in a scene from The Great Escape. Watching this all go down on 35mm is a visual treat.

However, there are some familiar QT moments that are heavily lacking or absent. There are no 20-minute long dialogue sequences, with rubber-banding tension that keeps going until the situation explodes (well, maybe the scene at Spahn Ranch, but not really, the tension is squashed quick). Instead, he throws up time stamps during the evening of August 8th, and due to our knowledge of history, tension is created through suspense. There is very little cathartic ultraviolence (except at the very end, but I’ll get to that). It’s quite hard to backtrack through all his trademark little motifs that make his shit his shit, but anyone familiar with his catalogue will feel this to be immediately going in a direction unique to his work.

As for the criticisms against Sharon Tate's character, nah. This movie isn't about her. The scene of her in the movie theater is wholly representative of QT's feelings towards her, her place in time, and what she represents, and the sequence is heartwarming.

So, let’s talk about the ending. In my opinion, one of two things happened. Either the acid cigarette is played for laughs, and the ending we get is the ending that happened. Or, the acid cigarette was not played for laughs, and the ending we get couldn’t have happened.

August 8th. Rick gets back from shooting a few Spaghetti Westerns in Italy. Eh, they're whatever. His career is in the shitter. Rick has to sell his house. Rick has to fire Cliff. They most likely won’t remain friends, distance will set in, they’ll drift apart. Their careers will soon be over. They’re both aware of this. They go out for drinks, get one last “fuck it” in. Then Cliff smokes the cigarette.

From then on, the game is up. Literally everything that follows is completely implausible. Cliff visited Spahn Ranch earlier. He walks down the street past the Manson’s loud as fuck car. Surely, they saw each other. Surely, they recognized each other. Cliff beating on Bruce Lee was a good convincer for the audience, in hindsight, but the result of that match wasn’t made clear, and surely he wouldn’t have attained superhuman strength and pinpoint accuracy in the ensuing fight with the Mansons (although I can attest to the effect of psychedelics on heightened motor reflexes, lol). A film production wouldn’t let an actor take an operating flamethrower home to keep. Sharon Tate, Jay, and their friends wouldn’t know who the fuck Rick Dalton is, let alone be fans of his. Jay wouldn’t know The 14 Fists of McCluskey. "You're a good friend" is all Cliff ever wanted to hear from Rick.

When this ending sequence was going down, I was having a ball. The entire theater was erupting in laughter and cheers. But afterwards, I couldn’t shake the feeling. I was feeling heavily bittersweet about that ending. Why? Because it couldn’t have happened. QT puts the title card at the very end of this film, for the first time in his career. As the text is slowly unraveling across the screen, it’s accompanied by "Judge Roy Bean’s Theme", by Maurice Jarre, a haunting piece of music. It's as if to suggest, “if only”. If only it could’ve been this way, if only old Hollywood and new Hollywood could coexist. But it couldn’t. This is just a fairytale.

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