' ' Cinema Romantico: Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Monday, August 12, 2019

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

If Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature film, “The Hateful Eight”, was a western, so too is his ninth feature film, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, consumed, as it is, by myth, not so much of the Old West as Old Hollywood, which makes the film’s 1969 setting pertinent, on the cusp of New Hollywood, when stars like Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), of a fictional TV western “Bounty Law”, were fading. But if “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is a western, it is also a fairytale, evoked in the title and the title’s ellipsis. Tarantino has no interest in challenging myths, as westerns often do, let alone tearing them down, but reveling in them, building them back up, at least for one night.

This fairytale turns on Rick’s friendship with his loyal stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), such a spot-on double that when they sit down side-by-side at a bar for cocktails they imbibe them with a similar slurp. Not just his stuntman, however, Cliff is also his confidante, his Sundance Kid, his driver, seen when he escorts Rick back to his bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills, next door to new neighbors Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the former emblemizing that looming New Hollywood. Rather than immediately merging these neighbors’ stories, however, Tarantino runs them parallel for a good long while, denoting “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s” languor. While most directors might be content with one freeway aerial shot to convey L.A. as a driving city, Q.T. lingers over the act of driving itself, through the narrow, twisty streets of the Hills and down boulevards, placing the camera at a low angle in Cliff’s car to ensure we can make out every painstakingly created billboard hovering just over the character’s shoulder. In that way, the backdrop becomes a character, in so much as Tarantino consciously draws our attention to it even as we are ostensibly watching the people, immersing us in the time and place. Sometimes he even does away with the people, like a brief sequence cutting from from neon sign to neon sign, each one lighting up come twilight.

The neon signs, though, are not as luminous as Tate, who is emotional ground zero for OUTIH even if, in a virtual non-speaking role, she receives less screen time than Rick and Cliff. If a more interior examination might have unlocked deeper truth about Tate, Tarantino, as elsewhere, is not so much interested in the truth. That’s why her romantic backstory is conveyed by Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), wistfully, from afar, demonstrating not so much the mere Male Gaze as a certain image of her, one which Tarantino freezes in time; Sharon Tate as the life of a party that would never end.

Not that she gets no time to herself. In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Tate guilelessly talks her way into a screening of her own movie (“The Wrecking Crew”) and sits unnoticed amongst a half-full theater, watching her performance and listening to the laughs around her. This is not sad but joyous, further illuminated in how Tarantino and his editor Fred Raskin cross-cut between this and a scene where Rick films a guest starring appearance on a TV western as the macabre, mustachioed villain. Here “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” delightfully idles in the actorly nuts and bolts as Rick, desperate and hungover, tries to nail his scene. (The moment when, at some saloon table, DiCaprio erupts with frustration at forgetting lines, Timothy Olyphant, playing opposite him as the show’s star, reminded me of William Goldman’s old anecdote about Roy Scheider coolly standing by on the set of the “Marathon Man” while Dustin Hoffman flipped out.) Eventually, though, Rick rises to the challenge and brings the house down, and his reaction to getting it right, where DiCaprio improbably manages to slowly let the poignancy push through the self-pity, rhymes with the scene of Tate at the theater; we are literally seeing how production gives way to release.

Yet in playing a heavy slated to die at episode’s end, this scene spiritually connects to the demise of Rick’s career, furthered in his pre-shoot encounter with an adolescent co-star championing the Method. “Who are you?” he asks as if confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Future. By the end, in fact, when “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” flashes forward, Rick returning home from shooting Spaghetti Westerns in Italy, he has acquired girth and sideburns, evoking the aging Elvis. The aging Elvis, in fact, was no fan of hippies and neither is Rick, accosting a car full of hippies in a late night scene, clutching a pitcher of frozen margaritas, laying bare his rage as ridiculous.

As ramped up as Rick gets, Cliff remains mellow, someone wholly at ease in his body, which Tarantino, noted foot fetishist, visually underlines in the character’s moccasins. When Cliff fixes Rick’s TV antenna, he ascends to the roof in the three quick leaps, a comic moment made so by how blazingly fast it happens even as it illustrates how Cliff moves with little wasted motion. It suggests a ferocity ready to uncoil at a moment’s notice, and Pitt’s laconic smile and speaking style, never employed better than here, harmonize with that notion, like someone sizing you up and half-a-second away from punching you if he decides he doesn’t like you. Indeed, a disturbing flashback to Cliff and his ex-wife, whom he is said to have murdered, though we don’t see the murder, arguing on a boat, ends with him just sitting there, a harpoon gun in his lap, a concise portrait of an itchy trigger finger.

His penchant for unbothered cool and sudden violence converge when he picks up a youthful hitch-hiker, unbeknownst to him a member of The Manson Family, and ferries her to their commune, Spahn Ranch. An old dilapidated western movie set, Tarantino effectively brings it back to life, not with any special effects or fantasies but the simple act of Cliff sauntering down the make believe main street, a marshal in moccasins, while Manson’s followers crowd the boardwalks beside him, jeering, like extras in a B movie, all leading to a near escape. The scene is portentous, The Manson Family gathering on OUTIH’s edges like storm clouds, building to the infamous, tragic night of August 8, 1969, cutting between the respective evenings out of Rick & Cliff and Sharon and her friends, every detail accounted for with time stamps and voiceover, like a more elegiac version of “Goodfellas” busy day sequence, brought home in perhaps the greatest of all Q.T. music cues, The Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time”, an astonishing eulogy to the very era Tate represents.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” culminates, as Q.T. movies often do, with an expected yet still abrupt explosion of violence, mimicking the movie’s overall fantastical presentation in its grisly exaggeration. And if the great myth of Hollywood is that it’s where dreams come true, this denouement, in its way, embodies that myth through Tarantino’s preferred slight of hand, dispensing a kind of cosmic justice by living out Western-style revenge, brought home with an ingenious narrative payoff by way of a prop, improbably giving rise to the title track of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album: “Tonight the Western Stars are shining bright again.”

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