Tarantino pulls a Fellini (with 1/2 more) on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Spoiler Review)

Tarantino is a distinctly American filmmaker. He lives in the excess and margins of camp, kitsch, and nostalgia; he relishes over the top violence; blasé suburbia; and the pursuit of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. He is interested in re-interpreting history in ways that best suit his own agenda. He loves the lavish indulgence and glamor associated with the underbelly of crime and the high life of the fabulous. He pursues balance by exploring the extremes.

I’ve never quite understood the appeal, personally.

But with Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood, what may be the most Tarantino-y project yet, I’m starting to understand it, even if I am ultimately unable to glom onto the bandwagon of adorers for reasons entirely too personal and entirely too narcissistic to express here.

But let’s get into this love letter to 60’s cinema, in all its wild excess, perversion, beauty, and…failings.

What is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a time in Hollywood
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Brad Pitt (L) and Leonardo DiCaprio credit: Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the 9th film from the poster boy for Auteur Theory Quentin Tarantino, starring Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, and Margot Robbie as…Sharon Tate. It is a comedy-drama about the late 60’s film era, and the steady decline of the period from hippiedom to the cruel world of the 70s.

This is gonna be fun. I think. Ugh.

The film covers two days in February for Cliff, Rick, and Sharon, as well as one fateful day in August. Rick, a former TV Star struggles to find meaningful work, as his career is on the wane. Cliff, busted and broken by life, just looks for ways to fill time, and make some cash. Sharon lives the life of an innocent actress, ready for the big time. In the shadows looms a group of crazy hippies, interested in shaking things up, for the worse.

What I Liked:

The Casting

The casting director, Victoria Thomas, should get a gold fucking star, holy shit. Every actor is top-notch in this film, as you would expect of people who want to glom onto a Tarantino production. From all the A-List Actors to Mike Moh – who I hope actually does a Bruce Lee Biopic that isn’t the shitpile that got recently released – to Margaret Qualley as the mercurial sexpot hippy Manson Family Protegé Pussycat everyone is at the top of their fucking game.

Timothy Olyphant and Damon Herriman, in particular, are thrilling to see in such a high profile production, after their stints on Justified. Herriman especially, despite the paucity of his screentime, is weirdly perfect as Charlie (Manson) spying on Sharon Tate and Co. And Timothy Olyphant, who I have argued and will continue to argue, would make a fantastic Roland Deschaine makes the perfect choice as the up-and-coming James Stacy starring in his own western “Lancer”, with all the lowkey polite dick-swinging that comes with living in Hollywood. Even Maya Hawke as Linda Kasabian, and the cohorts in the rest of the family are just about pitch-perfect in their roles as creepy (crazy) hippies. I could go on for ages about all actors in this shindig (R.I.P. Luke Perry)

But, of course, it’s the three leads that really sell the show: DiCaprio and Pitt have both been around the block long enough to both embody their crafts to its apex, and also, on some level I imagine, understand the struggle of seeing yourself get older, and watching the world, somehow, remain the same age. Their friendship is as believable and heartwarming as it is lopsided. These are some mature, understated performances.

Pitt, especially, feels solid and weathered as stunt-double/real cowboy Cliff Booth. The way he carries himself, like some partially eroded, partially broken hunk of rock, laconic and easy-going, yet deadly and capable gives off the western vibe perfectly.

And seeing DiCaprio play what amounts to man-child actor Rick Dalton is also a treat. His simpering self-importance, his abject devotion to the craft of filmmaking, and his “friendship” with Booth are all authentic, and hilarious, and give the film its comedic edge.

And then there is Margot Robbie as the vivacious Sharon Tate. She brings a playfulness and candor to the role which is electric and truly brings to life this historical footnote of a person, who is best known for the tragedy that befell her. But we’ll get to that.

The Parallel Chiastic Storytelling

What made this film really work for me as a film, though, is the storytelling, for once. Tarantino has only gotten more and more self-indulgent as time has gone on, but his use of chiastic parallelism in this film deserves credit. It’s a neat trick, that enriches the whole production tenfold and gives its structure thematic resonance.

But I should probably clarify what that even means.

Chiasmus – in reference to the greek character Chi (x) – is a rhetorical technique in which two parallel ideas are inverted, and crossed. To use an example antimetabole (and one of the most famous examples of chiasmus ever): Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. – John F. Kennedy

In the above example, you and your country are treated as parallel and then inverted. The effect is an inversion of the thought, while establishing a similarity between the two. The country does for you, and you do for the country.

And while this technique is applied mostly to rhetoric and poetry, it can be used for storytelling purposes as well. In this film, Tarantino employs parallel chiastic structure as his primary narrative of choice, for better and worse. The thematic thru-line of Cliff “Carrying the Load” for Rick bluntly establishes the line between real and dream.

As Rick’s stunt double, Cliff does actual work, while Rick puts on the appearance of work. However, both need each other to survive, and function. It’s almost Jungian. But this Chiastic difference between the two establishes a theme of the film that I personally love: the difference between reality and unreality in a filmic context.

It focalizes the action deliciously. Because, you see, while Rick is shooting a western TV show to revive his career, Cliff is living a western. The framing of Cliff’s daily life as a modern cowboy: Dark past, a stoic demeanor that never breaks, and all the trappings of the conventional Clint Eastwood-type anti-hero are all present in the character of Cliff and his goings-on. Even his name is a western sounding hero name. Tall, Dark and Handsome.

So as the body of the film follows these two, Cliff’s interactions with the Manson Family become the stuff of western hagiography and legend. His slow measured steps to check on his friend, with languid long takes and the wide expanse of california desert become, effectively, a “real” western. Meanwhile, Rick is shooting a western as a villain, and breaking down constantly, fragile, and easily beaten down. Yet throughout the film, people recognize and admire him for being Jake Cahill.

A parallel chiastic structure. And that structure reinforces a few other key meta-elements, that we’ll get to in a second. But first:

The Pure 60’s Vibe and Love Letter to Cinema is Lovely

This story is a “love letter to the 60’s”, and while I find that concept trite, I do appreciate the lengths Tarantino and his crew went to establish that verity of execution (minus one glaring discrepancy).

From rotoscoping DiCaprio into the Great Escape, to having various authentic film stocks used for Dalton’s body of work like “The Fourteen Fists of McClusky”, which comes off as some weird meta-rendition of Inglourious Basterds with even crazier stunt-work, to the aesthetic of Hollywood with its sodium-vapor lamps and its glitz and glamor that only goes skin deep. All of it has that authenticity, with one major exception.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

I’m going to sound nitpicky, but all of the stuff surrounding “Bounty Law” – Dalton’s TV show – came off as inauthentic in its post-production conceits. The Bounty Law logo looks like something that was made in Final Cut Pro x on a two dollar budget, meant to look like a late 50’s tv logo, but not actually; and the decision to simply overlay a monochrome color scheme over a digital film stock is obvious, and weird, considering how slavish everything else about the film’s aesthetic is. It’s minor, but seeing the lengths they went to establish verité in this film makes it way more noticeable.

But the 60’s vibe is still everywhere. From the vinyl record players to the Paul Revere & The Raiders album, to the awful noisy fashion, to the sleaze-y trailer behind the drive-in theatre where Cliff lives, to the Playboy Mansion. the moments in Italy, in particular, felt like they were pulled directly from Bertolucci and Leone behind the scenes, to say nothing of the painted posters.

The effect was to establish strong verisimilitude with the ’60s, which is both a blessing and a curse in the context of this film. Because thanks to this strong sense of devotion to the period and parallel chiastic structure we get a nice little meta-fictional fairytale.

The Meta-fictional fairy tale

This is a part I am both deeply conflicted on, and enthralled by. One the one hand, Tarantino frames the film as a fairy tale “Once upon a time”, and manages to weave a compelling fairy tale vibe to it, albeit in a very post-modern schema.

And the way he does it is nifty.

About, oh, midway through the film Rick is performing as the “Heavy” (a main villain of the week) on a new tv show “Lancer” starring James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant). The scene is shot in the style of the film we – the audience – are watching (as opposed to a classic tv film look), but during the sequence of shots, Rick loses character a few times and breaks the illusion of the film to ask for his lines. But because the scene is shot in the style of the film Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood — full-color digital — as opposed to the color stock of said TV show, we are clued into the fact that we’re watching a film that, while aping reality, is not reality. It’s a neat trick, that’s deftly pulled off.

We are not watching a real 1969 Hollywood, but a simulacrum. This is even emphasized by the fact that when Sharon Tate goes to see her own film, they use footage from the original film – with the original Sharon Tate – instead of Margot Robbie inserted rotoscope style.

By including these little framing moments into the narrative, we are able to piece together unconsciously that this isn’t a straight-up retelling of history. This is Tarantino’s filmic vision of the 60’s, one that is not subject to the actual history of the Summer of ’69. So he’s allowed to make whatever alterations suit his fancy. In fact, the film uses the relationship of Booth and Dalton to establish a theme of doubling, to make sure that distinction is made loud and clear.

And while I appreciate the decision to clue the audience into that. It leads to my struggles with this film and one major critique:

What I struggled with

The Ending

*Major Spoilers Ahead, read at your own risk*

The ending of the film is problematic. It left a weird taste in my mouth. And not just because it was funny and off-kilter and extraordinarily violent.

Tarantino has a habit of historical revisionism, in which historical monsters actually receive some kind of comeuppance, often violently and in an over-the-top way. Whether that be the slave-owner Candie in Django Unchained, or Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. And, for the most part, I tend not to be bothered by this habit of rewriting history to suit his own moral vision of the world. It is almost a welcome catharsis to have these monsters earn a horrific ending that people want them to get.

But in those films, the style is much more Wagnerian and Operatic. This film is not that. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg of problems in saving Sharon Tate from her actual fate in real life.

To clarify. The film sets up Sharon Tate as a pascal lamb who is to be killed by Charlie and his family of Crazy Hippies as happened historically. But at the last moment, instead, the family goes to the wrong house — the main characters Rick and Cliff who happen to live next door — and tries to kill them instead. They are then brutally murdered in the most over-the-top way imaginable, and everything is resolved by Cliff (the real western hero), and Rick with his flamethrower.

It felt really off.

The Double-Edged Sword of Verisimilitude

Unlike Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, this film establishes that it wants to achieve some level of verisimilitude. There is no Eric “The Bear Jew” Donawitz to take naht-zee scalps on Brad Pitt’s orders like some comic book from the 40’s. Nor is “Charlie” Manson depicted as some cartoon supervillain a la Candie/Hitler. He is portrayed like, well, Charles Manson. A creepy stalker ass weirdo who collected a bunch of people to do awful stuff.

And the film relies on your foreknowledge of the Tate Murders throughout most of its run time. It portrays Sharon Tate as innocent and full of life and completely unaware of her dark fate. Focusing for too long on Rick’s house on Cielo Drive. Having Manson scope out Tate’s house in what is one of the sobering moments of the film. Having Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen pointing out how Jim Sebring is waiting for Sharon to dump Roman Polanski so he can get with her. Little breadcrumbs are dropped up to and including the climax of the film. The film knows what actually happened and plays on the expectation that you also know what happened.

What’s worse, Manson’s family are portrayed as creepy and monstrous, but human monsters. Like what you would expect a drama to depict them as (like Mindhunter Season 2). A group of hippies you might find weird and off-putting, but in the way all hippies are weird and off-putting (sorry to my hippy readers). Their cult like behavior doesn’t drastically or comically violate the norms as set by the film or our own reality. This film hews too closely to drama for that to fit.

So when the final act concludes with the three stooges like dispatch in a way only movies can accomplish, it is not completely inconsistent with the style and set-up of the film – this is a fairy tale, remember – but it does feel off and distasteful in a way that, somehow, Hitler being blown to shit by a Tommy gun doesn’t.

And perhaps this is just me having my expectations squashed by the end, in having it play out like a screwball comedy…with violence, but the decision to have manson family lose felt, well, it left a weird taste in my mouth. It’s like the Asimov story of Shah Guido G, but instead of it being a Shaggy Dog story about something inconsequential like Atlantis, it’s about a brutal murder and torture that actually happened.

Charlie Manson’s reputation is monstrous, no doubt, but he’s not the ubiquitous cartoon villain that Hitler and Slave-Owners are. His monstrousness is like his portrayal: intimate and human. He’s not the consistent butt of jokes meant to protect us culturally from the scary things around the corner. And Tarantino seems to know that, based on how he structured the film. In fact, he’s playing to that expectation. Hitler literally wears a fucking cape in Inglourious Basterds, but Damon Herriman has that dead-eyed creepy look that Manson had down to a tee.

And his murder of Sharon Tate is still gruesome and horrific. It may not meet the literal fucking holocaust in terms of scale, but that lack of scale somehow makes it so much worse and more vile for me personally. And by framing this film as a bait and switch in terms of how it sets up its villain, it is so much worse off for it.

And for the record, I understand the choice he made, and how it ties into the film thematically. It goes back to the idea of Doubling, and the parallel chiasmus and the slight unreality of the project (see above). It’s a fairy tale and Tarantino sets it up well. But it’s still kind of fucking gross because it doesn’t save the real Sharon Tate from her very real fate. It is not cathartic and over the top. It does not fit the style of the film we have watched, which is more meditative, and introspective than either Basterds or Unchained ever could be in their mythopoeic pursuits of re-writing history.

Ultimately, it feels immature and runs counter to all the maturity that the rest of the film does have. And I know he couldn’t have ended it like history without it leaving an even worse taste in your mouth. But still, the choice to revise history, at least in this case, felt wrong.

Life is chaotic and messy and people don’t always win, and, again, I understand that this is framed as a fairy tale – where good guys win, and bad guys get their balls eaten off by an attack dog, but it still doesn’t sit well with me.

And that’s not the only thing that leaves a sour taste in my mouth

Self-Indulgence

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) doing a tv spot.
Sony Pictures

As has been Tarantino’s habit, he has lacked a strong-willed editor since the death of his previous editor Sally Menke, this film has a habit of abject indulgence in the extreme. Scenes go on forever with no real direction, shots linger for too long. Tarantino is given license to every conceivable impulse he has. And while one could argue the direct influence of the meditative Once Upon a Time in the West, that isn’t quite a perfect excuse.

Some of this is great. Especially in the sequences with the Manson Family, where that slowness is evocative of Once Upon a Time in the West’s habit of languid, pregnant pacing that was intentionally slow; but most of it feels slow because Tarantino doesn’t want to kill his darlings.

He is too married to the project and so all of his scenes end up going on for ages. And it unnecessarily inflates the run time of the feature. The first sequence with Al Pacino could have been cut down by at least 4 minutes, and we would have lost nothing. Unlike the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West, where the opening sequence establishes the tension and tone of the feature.

Perhaps it is gauche of me to invoke Once Upon a Time in the West, and then bash this film for its tendency to mosey through its almost 3-hour run time. But certain scenes would benefit from a little trimming around the edges.

we don’t need to see Cliff Booth drive from Rick’s house to his trailer for a full minute. We don’t need to see Rick sit in a chair doing nothing. And, while a lot of the choices make sense and are mature choices, some are just the result of a lack of a good editor.

And so the result is only 80% intentional and 20% fat. And that 20% fat could be cut for a more satisfying picture. And also, the foot fetish stuff was weird.

Conclusions

Once Upon a Time ….In Hollywood has a lot going for it: it’s meta-fictional set-up; it’s slavish devotion to the 60’s and a mature assessment of the decline of an era of filmmaking as a metaphor for growing older; but its ending and Tarantino’s habit of self-indulgence in every conceivable capacity mars it from transcendence.

80,000 out of 100,000

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