Quentin Tarantino is not broadly thought of as a thoughtful director. Whilst his films frequently overflow with obscure references to cult film ‘arcana’, this trait is generally assumed by his detractors to be the actions of a magpie savant as much as an auteur. In other words that Tarantino is layering his references less for audience benefit, than for his own; a directorial tic.
With “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood” however, Tarantino has clearly been thinking a great deal. Not about his usual preoccupations [well, the film is chock-a-block with breathless shots of women’s feet so that fetish is still running hot] but about rather un-Tarantino themes like obsolescence and a fear of the future. It’s perhaps taken longer than usual, due to his unusual preoccupations, but somewhere down the line the perpetual Enfant Terrible of Hollywood has mutated into a member of its Old Guard. Even his grossly cherubic head which has been forestalling the ravages of age for what feels like decades has begun to concede ground. For years, Tarantino has claimed that he would only make ten films before retiring and his latest marks his ninth. His self-imposed artistic catflap is swinging closed and, for a director who has always obsessively looked backwards, is it any wonder that rather than a foreign country, Tarantino’s version of the past is instead, a golden age?
Its early 1969, the hippie dream is at its zenith, with Woodstock only months away. As a result, Los Angeles teams with longhairs and the venerable frilled shirt is experiencing its last gasp of relevance. Outside this bubble of hip is Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading cowboy star Rick Dalton, who perhaps non-coincidentally, is beset by many of the same problems as the foot enthusiast behind the camera. Having originally made his name in the black and white cowboy TV serial ‘Bounty Law’ in the 1950s, he junked the role to go chasing Hollywood stardom only to find Hollywood unreceptive to his charms. By ’69 he’s not exactly washed up, but it’s the next turn-off on life’s highway. Spat back into television, he’s only cast as one-off villains and that’s only so fledgling stars can trade off his, now fairly threadbare, tough guy image by trouncing him in a fight. According to a sympathetic agent [Al Pacino in a rather distracting cameo role] the only way out of his downward trajectory is to head to Rome to star in Spaghetti Westerns; an option the thoroughly American Rick, disdains.
Beyond his crumbling career and fancy Beverly Hills pad, all Rick seems to have is his relationship with Cliff Booth [Brad Pitt] his stuntman/driver/handyman/paid best friend. Rick is high-handed and insensitive to the point of obnoxiousness in his interactions with the seemingly laid back Cliff, but the friendship seems genuine,even if it’s all take and no give. Whilst Rick is all fraying charisma and dissipating talent, Cliff has something of a nihilist’s calm to him, behind which the shape of a chained down attack dog is occasionally glimpsed. Whilst seemingly unruffled by anything life might throw at him, Cliff’s career as a stuntman has stalled due to some seemingly credible rumours that he murdered his wife and got away with it. As a result, his gig as Rick’s major-domo is basically all he has and the two’s co-dependency has deepened to the point where they are each other’s entire support structure and social circle. Things seem to be looking up, however when Rick notices that megastar director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate have moved in next door; if he could just score an invite perhaps he could score a role and resuscitate his dying career. One thing’s for sure, if the right person comes to the door they’ll be making a killing…
Tarantino’s beloved editor Sally Menke tragically died in 2010 and it’s interesting to imagine what ‘Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood’ would have been like with her still in the picture. Tarantino’s films with Menke were rapid fire machines, whilst ‘Hollywood’ is a meandering 161 minutes. The length seems part of the directorial design, as Tarantino has made what he calls a ‘hang out’ movie; the plot secondary to the pleasures of the viewer getting to spend time with the characters. Richard Linklater’s stoner classic ‘Dazed and Confused’ is perhaps the ultimate example of the form, but Tarantino thankfully doesn’t quite go to Linklater’s lengths of having no plot at all. That said, there is a deliberate shagginess to the story; a lack of a central thread binding individually stunning scenes together; anyone hoping for the crackerjack plotting of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is out of luck.
Still the world Tarantino has created is fantastically drawn; In Hollywood manages to recreate the popular image of LA of the late Sixties to a truly incredible degree. This is a world that throbs with the constant noise of adverts, top 40 radio hits and blaring televisions; In Hollywood is practically drowning in Pop culture. There’s an interesting parallel between the fairy-tale evoking title of the film and the fact that the cultural image of ‘60s Los Angeles has become as much of a modern folk memory as anything in the Brothers Grimm’s canon. What is less interesting is Tarantino’s unfortunate tendency to show off his immaculate toy box via long scenes of characters driving through LA’s tangled roads in mute silence which, whilst atmospheric, can’t help but drag when it recurs for what feels like the 9th time.
However, beyond the technical wizardry, a hangout movie lives or dies on its performances. Pitt in particular does some of the best work he’s done in years; his inhuman good looks have always obscured the fact that he’s essentially a character actor caught in a leading man’s body. By casting him as the less emotionally rounded secondary character, Pitt’s natural charisma burns through all the brighter and his comic timing has only improved with age. DiCaprio on the other hand effortlessly communicates the internal tsunamis raging inside the kind of man who previously thought emotional introspection was a kind of cologne. He rages, he sobs; still projecting movie star charm but erratically, like a sputtering engine. The supporting actors also acquit themselves to a high standard. Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in particular performs almost exclusively with her face and body language, a lightning in a bottle performance that is getting drowned out in controversy over her relatively few spoken lines. Tate in the film represents a kind of rising balloon contrast to Rick’s falling one; all wide-eyed enjoyment cut with a piercing unease for the audience haunted by their knowledge of history. Rather than ghoulishness though, this simple portrait of a young woman enjoying her first real taste of stardom is a rare reassertion of Tate as a living human being, rather than her usual depiction as merely a famous corpse in the Mansonic myth.
Of course this wouldn’t be Tarantino without a dip into the old ultraviolence and during a brief ten minute burst, he delivers it in spades. It will undoubtedly put off many, but it’s so excessive the scene plays more like ‘Tom and Jerry’ than ‘Hostel’. Far more unnerving is Dakota Fanning’s unrecognisable turn as Squeaky Fromme at Spahn Ranch in the film’s tense centrepiece [well, tense for people who aren’t unnaturally well informed on their Manson lore anyway]. That’s not really what Tarantino’s going for however, this really is a fairytale of a bygone age, with a director who desperately wants to rewrite history and make it last forever.