Sunday, 17 November 2019

Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

Much has been made of Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood as Tarantino’s valentine to 1969 Los Angeles and the now long gone Hollywood he grew up with. As joyous as the film can be there is too much pain on display, however, to regard it so simply. 

This tale of once successful actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) dealing with a declining career and his loyal stunt-double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who in tow is also one step from the showbiz scrap heap, is profoundly moving in a way no other of the director’s films have been. Movies and TV reflect real life and vice versa here; In a brilliantly surreal finale that sees history fork into an alternate reality all in a single shot as if God was splicing two 35mm prints together to his liking, we feel the magic and meaning that cinema can provide, and feel even more, that saddening realisation when those lights come up.

Tarantino’s ninth and penultimate film (the penultimate is important when reading this film) is the director at his most mature and yet most adolescent. The latter is normally used as a means to de-merit but the adolescence showcased here is actually what provides the film with its heart and resonance.

This is best shown in a scene where Rick, hungover as hell ("Eight Whiskey Sours!") and working yet another guest spot on someone else's TV show, has down time on set before shooting begins. He happens to stumble across a witty and precocious young girl who is also performing later. What follows is the most touching moment in any of Tarantino’s oeuvre. Hesitant and awkward Rick asks the young girl if she minds him reading his book next to her as she reads her’s. He is welcomed and the two share silence before Rick asks her what she’s reading; Trudi reveals it's an autobiography of Walt Disney and her enthusiasm for the book further demonstrates an intellect beyond her eight years. Rick is impressed and still awkward as he is coaxed to then share what he is reading, a pulp-western novel of an aging Cowboy who feels weaker and less relevant as each day passes. Rick can barely finish his description before he breaks into tears. The young actor (she prefers actor as actress is "nonsensical") kneels beside Rick to comfort him, saying that ‘it’s only a story’ to which Rick and we the audience know too well it’s not. It’s Rick’s life as he begins to feel his age and his golden years behind him.

It’s a beautiful scene that’s played out with the simplicity, humour, and sadness of Chaplin or Keaton. The film speaks on multiple meta points (it has too many to list) but this one feels strikingly poignant and as I said earlier - adolescent. Rick is asked by the young Trudi to tell her the story of the western he’s reading (western iconography runs through this film like complicated veins) and he almost doesn’t, explaining to her that he hasn't finished it yet and is only halfway through (we’re also halfway through this film), she almost scolds him for his unimaginative response as she wants to know the idea behind the story not how it ends. I’ve seen the film three times now (once on 35mm) and the subsequent viewings hit me that Trudi’s want for the idea behind a story and not the story’s logical conclusion spoke volumes about the way the film approaches tragic history with a childlike innocence. Once you understand the degrees to which Tarantino lets his story play out over history, this scene then is possibly the most important moment in the entire film. 

I felt it was also the director’s duel nature in front of us, vulnerable and conflicted; Tarantino the successful artist, showman, and celebrity who has gained much but feels the best is behind him and is coming to terms with age and the pain of nostalgia that permeates all of his film. This artist face to face with the future and therefore his past, the young, bright, unadulterated imagination of an 8 year old yet to be burdened with life’s hardships who only sees a future that’s worth making herself better each day with each new try. That word again, adolescent - though not to describe an undeveloped state of mind but one that still retains an untapped purity.

Tarantino was 6-7 years old during the year 1969 and he’s made no secret that this is his memory piece akin to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This idea of 56 year old LA native Tarantino looking back painfully at how once a young child looked lovingly at a city he at times loved but also feared is what makes Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood such a profound film and also helps explains much of its profundity. This is not a film that takes liberties with history and horrific real crime events for shock value, it’s how a little boy would view and wish the world to be when faced with unfathomable horror and violence. That there are heroes out there, like Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, like Rick as Jake Cahill from Bounty Law, these white hat vs black hat tales of good and evil that end with the bad guys dead or in jail.

People who are offended by the film’s revisionist depictions have a right to be (Sharon Tate’s Sister Debra fully endorses the film and gave it her blessing after reading the script), and it’s great that a film has garnered such a huge public debate (this is what art should do) but in a post-9/11 world where the superhero film continues to dominate the market, what Hollywood sets out to do isn’t actually that different. Society as a whole flocks to these films to see narratives play out that make sense of the carnage of modern warfare, suicide bombings, and random unexplained violence. By watching The Avengers (et al) save the day and keep darkness at bay, it helps make sense of chaos, or nonsense, the very thing that runs through the Charles Manson mythos that here Tarantino expertly and hilariously shoots down.

It’s at this juncture that we simply must talk about Sharon Tate. One of the great pleasures of Hollywood is its day-in-the-life approach. The beauty of driving in the sun to a great song, enjoying a movie in the middle of a day off, buying a gift for ourselves or a loved one. It’s these kinds of simple joys that can pass us by and not be truly appreciated, especially those who refuse, or don't need to live in fear. In Hollywood we see many people unburdened by fear, a dark turning point that we know is coming on August 9th 1969.

Watching Sharon, she is one of us, she is a young woman full of life and love and is enjoying the simple things. She not only goes to watch a movie on a quiet sunny day but one that stars herself (The Wrecking Crew). The elation of her name on a cinema billboard is savoured and she gains entry (for free) after an effort to convince the theatre staff that she is indeed the actress in the film. It's worth noting that a similar thing happened with Tarantino at a screening of True Romance at this very same cinema during the early 90s while his fame was very new. Watching herself on the screen with childish glee as the audience reacts well to her comedic pratfalls, it’s one of the most moving and joyous scenes this year. Watching the young rising actress enjoy her new success, seeing her silly film embraced by the public, her name on the marquee starring beside Dean Martin and feeling like the best is yet to come.

The decision to keep Sharon’s presence, which is beautifully performed by Margot Robbie, as exactly that, a presence, rather than another more lived in character is one of the film’s successes in its balancing act of taste. Keeping Sharon’s place in the story away from the centre and not explored as Rick and Cliff are is equally as important as how minor Charles Manson is made to be. The film manages to both humanise Sharon Tate without leaning into her enough to judge what we could never know, and reduces Manson and his followers to the butt of a joke.

Take the scene in which Rick's stunt double Cliff visits Spahn Ranch, the current home of The Manson Family and still home of an old friend of Cliff’s, the real life George Spahn. The only fictitious part of this scene is Cliff. The tense set-piece that feels one part Sam Peckinpah to two parts Texas Chainsaw Massacre operates on two levels; On one hand we see Cliff battle a real life Western-showdown of sorts while his actor associate Rick battles his lines on TV Western Lancer, seeing the Stuntman living what the actor is performing in safety. The second function is to begin the mythos stripping of Manson and his tribe. Tarantino - always one to take his time anyway - essentially says if you stare long enough it’s a bunch of rude teenagers, moldy dishes, lazing about watching TV and abusing the weaknesses of the man who owns their dwelling. The stripping of mythos doesn’t stop there and is completed by the film’s warped climax but it begins here. This, along with its treatment of Sharon Tate, 50 years in the making, to celebrate how a life should be characterized by life and not in death, taking the power back from the killers and to the innocent slain, is what makes Hollywood such a marvel to breathe in. 

Cliff isn’t particularly likeable on a real world level, he’s a guy with a shady past that possibly involves the murder of his wife, lives in a trailer with his pinball and has no discenerable friend other than Rick. Within the confines of the reel world, however, he certainly is cool, like seriously cool, movie-cool; As handsome as Redford or Newman with all the swag to back it up. Brad Pitt basically. What makes stuntman Cliff so magnetic runs deeper than this, though; We are the paying audience wanting the illusion cinema provides and yet we are also Cliff, aware of the machinery behind it all. He is, like us, on the wrong side of the screen both figuratively and literally when we see him drive back to his caravan behind that drive in theatre. Like Cliff we don’t have the luxury make-believe of film sets and characters like Rick, we go home and do something mundane like in Cliff’s case fixing the TV aerial or deal with real world problems in our own Western confrontations. Cliff, as he says in the film’s opening 16mm black and white segment - “carries the load” - the load may as well stand for reality itself. When the lights go up again from this Once Upon A Time… we get up from our seats and carry the load once again and forget the dream of the Hollywood machine because we’re on the wrong side of the screen just like Cliff. We plug into the dream machine to take us away from our problems and to see a better world, our cinema seats may as well be Rick’s sofa as we stare at the screen and chuckle like the two of them do watching FBI, but we know, as sure as that drive back home after the credits is, that we’re just house guests on borrowed time, just like Cliff.

The last decade has seen Tarantino's work move into more dense and literary modes, his westerns more verbose and violent than ever. Though these works functioned as sprawling novelistic works that had to be crammed into a feature film, not until now has a film by him contained the richness and emotion contained in a great piece of literature. Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood had me laughing uncontrollably at points, and yet at all other times I was floored by the elegiac sadness that runs throughout. The feeling it left me reminded me of one film (for Tarantino this is a miracle) and that was Robert Altman's last picture A Prairie Home Companion. Anyone who knows the work of Altman and understands what this film meant and represented to the 81 year old, understands the beauty and sadness inside it. The story of a radio show's last live performance is simultaneously a farewell to Altman's career and to his life.

I'll sign off now by cheating a little bit as I use part of the late great Roger Ebert's review of Altman's film to sum up my own feelings of Tarantino's latest:

"What a lovely film this is, so gentle and whimsical, so simple and profound. Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" is faithful to the spirit of the radio program, a spirit both robust and fragile, and yet achieves something more than simply reproducing a performance of the show. It is nothing less than an elegy, a memorial to memories of times gone by, to dreams that died but left the dreamers dreaming, to appreciating what you've had instead of insisting on more. Like the show that inspired it, "A Prairie Home Companion" is not about anything in particular. Perhaps it is about everything in general: About remembering, and treasuring the past, and loving performers not because they are new but because they have lasted."

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