ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD (2019, Quentin Tarantino)
The title alone promises some Sergio Leone references, a fable-like storybook of a bygone era, and movie stars. Say what you will about Tarantino, but he’s never been guilty of failing to deliver on his promises.
Revved up and purring like a 1960s muscle car, this oily machine of a movie defies convention as much as it owes to its strict genre roots: it’s about Spaghetti Westerns and looks like one, without remotely following their formula. It has a violent climax like a giallo-drenched exploitation film, but has so much more on its mind than the Argento classics QT loves. And it tells a story the public knows all too well — how Charles Manson and his cult of young hippie girls came to a brutal intersection with Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate on a fateful night in 1969 — while a) sidelining Tate and Polanski in order to focus on their neighbors; and b) fictionalizing the home invasion to a degree I won’t get into here due to spoilers.
Those neighbors, by the way, happen to be a wildly entertaining creation known as Rick Dalton and his stunt-double-slash-personal-assistant Cliff Booth, played by two of the biggest movie stars (maybe the last movie stars?) our generation has seen. DiCaprio absolutely devours his role, giving Dalton an actorly insecurity; raw, unbridled talent; and some Dirk Diggler-level hubris. Pitt, on the other hand, coasts on movie star charisma because he isn’t playing an actor — he’s playing a man whose job is it to make an actor look good. (The film begins with a black-and-white behind-the-scenes promo reel about Pitt confessing to carrying DiCaprio’s load, and ends with a climax where his on-set job becomes his real-life job as well). What a combo this becomes: one is a live wire of rage, sadness, and hopeless isolation; the other is a best friend who oozes cool in every situation, be it confronted by a fight-thirsty Bruce Lee or a creepy near-kidnapping by unhinged cult hippies. Many of their interactions are played for laughs, but try not to feel the gut-punch of a mini-movie-within-a-movie where Dalton befriends an 8 year-old costar, expresses existential doubts, experiences professional failure, then redeems himself. It’s hard to think of a 20-minute stretch more earnestly satisfying, and more warmly written in Tarantino’s considerable career.
Speaking of Tarantino’s career, it’s been a joy to see him wrestle with the meaning that movies have given him. Whether his films are expressly about cinema itself, refer to cinema, or have nothing to do with the movies — and are merely enjoying the feeling they give him — it’s hard to deny that they aren’t all to some degree about the power the medium has over a viewer and the culture at large. Maybe that’s why it took until his 9th film (if you count KILL BILL as one, if you count DEATH PROOF as a whole, if you don’t count shorts, etc.) to make a movie set in Hollywood, at the end of an era, about the end of a life as we know it, and about how the process of being put on film is in a way ascribing eternal life to a subject — we can both be resurrected and made immortal when our image is burned onto celluloid.
RESERVOIR DOGS contained a spiraling flashback where an undercover cop learned how to do his job by learning how to act, and in the process the theatrical performance becomes the mode by which the filmmaker unveils the story. PULP FICTION is about (among many other things) a failed TV actress from a canceled pilot who is literally resurrected from the dead. DEATH PROOF is about a movie stuntman with an indestructible car who can only be harmed once he is taken out of that vehicle and assaulted by a gang of would-be victims — one of whom is an actual stuntwoman who is both acting and coordinating stunts behind the scenes. And INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is about the power of celluloid itself to be used as a weapon in a filmmaker’s fantasy of changing history — where cans of film burn down to trap and murder Adolf Hitler, an ending far more just than reality provided.
All that is to say that in HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino is doing nothing new for him, but placing pet themes in a context that lends a degree of melancholy and nostalgia to them. This movie is a way to make Sharon Tate and her unborn child timeless, much the way the performance she gleefully and proudly observes in a half-full theater will live on forever. An era 50 years gone is made vibrant and tactile thanks to production design, costuming, and art decoration that breathes odor and texture. Tarantino goes toe-to-toe with his own fetishes and comes down with the right foot forward: in a city where the sun rarely doesn’t shine, where people come from all over to make a new life and be paid to entertain, there’s an optimism about the movies. What becomes of things on film? They become larger, brighter, better looking, and take on a meaning to themselves. Actors don’t die; their characters do. Violence on screen isn’t destructive; it just helps us make sense of a violent world. Movies don’t cause us to behave the way we do in the real world — movies reflect the difference between the way we do behave and the way we wish we could. That’s how they’re both a fantasy and a mirror. Once upon a time… in Hollywood.