Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

It’s annoyingly difficult to discuss QT at this point, but, mercifully, not nearly so difficult to enjoy a new movie of his on this go around. While OUAT....IH is Tarantino’s third post-Sally Menke work, it is his first without the baggage of a screaming mad dash to get it stitched together by a particular release deadline or in order to outpace a leaked script. Uncoincidentally, it’s all the better for it (the scene transitions alone, goodness). It’s also a return to a friendly and familiar jukebox DJ mode that had been collecting dust in storage since DEATH PROOF - there are many scenes (perhaps 10 minutes too many) of characters driving from place to place just enjoying the sounds of the moment and the wind in their hair. Refreshingly, he’s mounted his most ground-level human drama in over 20 years - the central tensions (for a movie about real murders, surprisingly) focus less around physical threats and more on the existential ones. While it is a movie about movies (as ever with QT) alteast the first 2 hours or so focus on actorly charm as opposed to over-eager dialogue or splashy provocations. The breezy California narrative rarely sweeps the characters away with plot, allowing for a pleasant amount of room to think about the mis en scene surrounding these little industry people. After the downright claustrophobic and visually caustic 70mm HATEFUL 8 roadshow, QT has snapped back the other way, packing a ridiculous amount of panache into the tiniest corners. A film like ROMA can overdo this and make a former reality into a theme park version of itself by luxuriating too much in the details of the memory. OUTIH leaves more to be desired, often giving you only teasing glimpses of the neon Hollywood that used to regularly buzz to life. It’s in keeping with the theme that is this a fairy tale or better yet, a daydream the characters themselves are taking for granted - something to be savoured one last time before the lights come up in the theatre.

Copping to it being a bedtime story in the title is often the film’s biggest virtue and occasionally it’s most indicative flaw. What leaves something of a sour taste in my craw is that I can’t shake the idea that OUTIH is perhaps QT’s most conservative film - the bougie Hollywood has-beens ride again one last time and the new age hippies with their #ideas about #cinema get roasted. The third act peels back the mask ever so slightly, but it’s just enough to reveal a potential ugliness underneath, and not quite the one that the film intends I think. Maybe it’s because my brain is broken, but it’s hard not to think of the Manson home-invaders as stand-ins for new Hollywood would-bes cluelessly traipsing into (literally) the wrong house and Tarantino effectively grabbing them by the hair and saying “THIS is how you direct a REAL action sequence.” It’s thrilling in the moment but has a cheaper aftertaste when compared to the much more thoughtful preceding two hours. This subtext, however, is muddled by the fact that he’s mixed in real victims and real perpetrators - the line between the virtuousness of saving the memory of Sharon Tate in this film and QT simply thumbing his nose at his detractors in a highly specific way that evades accountability is hard to draw. Same goes for the hazy memory (or was it more likely a made-up daydream?) Cliff has while fixing a TV antenna. On its face, it’s a chauvinistic white male fantasy of a man getting bitched out by naggy woman after righteously tearing a new one into Bruce Lee of all people. Reality disagrees, though, as there is hardly a woman more revered in Tarantino’s history than Zoë Bell - for my money, it’s hard not to read this as Tarantino criticizing one of his central characters in the most directly obvious way for being a dumb asshole. Self-made fiction and incontrovertible truth are the opposing sides at war both on and off the screen in OUATIH, occasionally to the point where subtext overwhelms my attention span for the text. Like I said at the jump, it’s exhausting to debate Tarantino’s intention in 2019.

QT has remarked that these films tend to be adapted from abandoned novels, but throughout the 2010s, he has left little behind on the page, often at the expense of prioritizing a discernible guiding voice behind the larger picture. He remains one of the only American directors still going who refuses to give the whole game away with easy virtue signalling and pat endings, but here (and especially in HATEFUL EIGHT) it’s as fairly difficult in spots to know if QT’s aware of his lack of self-awareness amid all of the profuse self-awareness*. It takes a steady hand and I’m not sure Tarantino has it as much as he used to. If his films are loaded with as much autobiographical subtext as he says, then he seems to know that, too, and wrote himself an ending where he gets to put off that particular curtain call on his career for another day. The debate about whether he earned it or not continues off-screen and out-of-mind.

*All that said, he's absolutely trolling you guys with the foot thing. C'mon, now.

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