Quentin Tarantino is the flawed genius of contemporary cinema. As a director he has such an assured touch that almost three hours of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood slip by in no time at all. The flaw lies in his love of extreme violence that leaves a nasty taste, no matter how much we might admire the rest of a movie.
In Once Upon a Time’ we have to wait until the final scenes for the blood to start flowing. The vast bulk of the story concerns two Hollywood veterans trying to find a foothold in new era.
Leonardo diCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a Hollywood actor who was a big star in a 1950s TV show called Bounty Law. By the year 1969 – the year of Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy – Rick is reduced to playing the villain in other people’s shows, fearing that he is already a has-been. His battered ego is shored up by bosom buddy and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is also short of work. Cliff occupies his time fixing Rick’s TV antenna, chauffeuring him around, and coming over to drink beer in the evening, before returning to the caravan he shares with his dog, parked behind a drive-in cinema.
Rick and Cliff hanker for the good ole days of Hollywood, before the “hippies” took over. Nevertheless, there’s nothing Rick would like more than to be noticed by his new neighbour in Cielo Drive, Roman Polanski. The very mention of Cielo Drive will set off thoughts of the Manson murders in some viewers’ minds. The film moves inexorably in that direction when Cliff gives a teen hooker a ride back to a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, gallantly refusing a blow job on the way. It is, of course, the Manson hang-out, although “Charlie” isn’t home.
Tarantino’s running joke is that Cliff, the unassuming stuntman, is a real live action hero. He shrugs off a tricky scene chez Manson, and gives an arrogant Bruce Lee a hiding in a parking lot. He mayhave murdered his wife as well, but a flashback casts even this in a sympathetic light. The scariest thing that happens to Rick is a conversation on set with a terrifying little girl who lectures him on Method acting.
When we get through all the nostalgia and in-jokes, and disengage from the stream of 60s pop that makes up the soundtrack, we are left with the ticking time bomb of the Manson murders. Where do Rick and Cliff come into the picture? I won’t answer this question, but please remember we’re dealing with a director with so little respect for history that he had Hitler killed by a bunch of Jewish G.I.s in Inglourious Basterds.
When the ultraviolence finally arrives don’t be surprised if the audience responds with laughter and groans. This is the usual reaction to Tarantino’s over-the-top moments.
Such scenes may be attributed to the director’s love of Eurotrash and Italian giallo. I have an affection for this stuff too, but if I sit down to watch something by Dario Argento, Mario Bava or Sergio Martino, I know what I’ll be getting, because the plot is barely more than an excuse for a seres of stylised shocks and bloodbaths.
Tarantino is a very different proposition. An A-grade filmmaker possessed by a perverse need to go slumming in the Bs, he is simply too good to be that bad. It reminds me of Wyndham Lewis’s attempt to pen a pot-boiler that would sell enough copies to buy him time to work on his ‘serious’ novel, Tarr. That would-be pulp fiction, Mrs Duke’s Million, was a compete flop. Decades later it was rediscovered and hailed as a literary masterpiece.
The moral is: a talented artist can never deliberately debrain himself, even if there are excellent financial reasons for doing so. To succeed in the pulp universe requires a unique mentality – a belief in one’s vocation as a writer combined with a complete inability to write. The name “Dan Brown” springs effortlessly to mind.
Tarantino’s approach to filmmaking is that of an intellectual who wants us to think of him as a real badass dude. Once Upon a Time’ is not only a brilliant homage to a lost era of American film and TV, it’s a detail-perfect portrait of an industry in a time of transition, and an analysis of the symbiotic relationship between popular culture and the American psyche.
Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, for instance, is hardly a fully rounded human being. This Sharon is an innocent thrilled by her own taste of big screen fame in a trashy Dean Martin flick. She symbolises the way Americans have come to worship the cinema to the point where movies create an alternative reality.
Tarantino portrays Tate as a B movie bimbo married to an acclaimed arthouse director. This slyly takes the gloss off Polanski and his peers, who steered Hollywood away from its beloved stereotypes in favour of a new world of conflicted anti-heroes. Tarantino seems willing to let us see Charles Manson as an evil symptom of a time when those beloved old certainties were breaking down – when fearless cowboys such as Rick Dalton, were dumped in favour of the hippie bikers of Easy Rider.
At its worst, Once Upon a Time’ could be seen as a plea to Make Hollywood Great Again, but the film is too broad-ranging to be boiled down into such a narrow message. Tarantino is both radical conservative and iconoclast – a devotee of cinema history whose humour and violence speak of no time but the present.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Written & directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Leonardo diCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Emile Hirsch, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Nicholas Hammond, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern
USA/UK/China, rated MA 15+, 161 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 August, 2019