Patrick Mulcahy on Tarantino’s 60s Hollywood pastiche
For much of its running time, Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood is something of a departure for its writer-director Quentin Tarantino. It is not a genre film in which Tarantino inverts certain elements. Rather it is a luxuriously paced (read: somewhat slow) contemplation of the life of a once successful actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first film since winning the Best Actor Oscar for The Revenant), who still has his mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
Tarantino pastiches the 1950s and 1960s television shows that he grew up with, but he does so straight – the film is set in February and August 1969 – as we watch Rick and his clean-shaven stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in various states of humiliation. The drama has a ticking clock, as Tarantino weaves in encounters with the disciples of Charles Manson, living on Spahn’s stunt ranch that was once used to stage westerns. He builds to the evening in which four young people – one guy and three women – decide to kill everyone in a home occupied by film director Roman Polanski’s very pregnant wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and some of her friends.
Rick’s drinking (and a DUI ticket) means that he needs a designated driver – that’s Cliff, who can’t get work as a stuntman because of something in his past. Cliff takes instructions with good grace. He doesn’t get above his station but has a confident masculinity – he is a more natural movie star than his employer. It is his actions that the audience is encouraged to cheer, first when the tyre of his boss’s car is punctured with a knife. This becomes problematic because Tarantino uses him (and Pitt’s charisma) to justify violence against women.
The long recreations of scenes from (mostly) westerns show how Tarantino is utterly seduced by the factory-farm genre films and television shows of the 1960s.
In as far as the film is revisionist – at least before the ending – it shows Cliff taking on the hyper-confident martial arts advisor, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). You think Cliff doesn’t have a chance. The scene is played for a single laugh – the owner of a car (Zoe Bell, Tarantino’s regular stunt coordinator) explodes with rage at the damage caused. However, it shows this fallen hero’s high level of competence.
Contrast this with scenes involving Sharon Tate, as she goes to a party and visits the Bruin cinema in Westwood to sit in on a screening of The Wrecking Crew, an equally laboured caper she made with Dean Martin, whose disinterest is written in his drink-addled face. The sense of pathos is cranked up to eleven as Sharon watches her film get laughs and her action scene merit a cheer – Tarantino intercuts it with Robbie as Sharon training with Moh as Bruce Lee. Tarantino relies on the audience knowing that Tate and her friends were brutally murdered in the early morning of August 9th. Every scene, even one where Sharon buys Roman a first edition copy of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, illustrates the sunny actress sleepwalking to her death.
Revisionism is Tarantino’s thing – it is what Hollywood movies do, providing happy endings where there are none in real life. Not only does he insert DiCaprio/Rick into a well-known Hollywood classic, he provides his own violent-comic spin on the events of 9th August. In his own mind, he is doing this to prove a point – that movies are harmless. He shows the attackers psyching themselves up by saying that ‘most television shows and films are about murder. Let’s take revenge on those who taught us to kill’. The line is so on-the-nose that you can’t believe that Tarantino is so open about his intention. But films and television shows are used for social conditioning. Even the crappy programmes that Tarantino recreates are designed to show human actions divided between good and evil, that there is no moral ambiguity.
What comes across most is that Tarantino hates hippies, those who assume a position of moral righteousness and steal from those who have more than them. Yet that is exactly what Tarantino does, pilfering throughout his work music and scenes from other movies. Normally, he makes something that connects with an audience. Here, aside from a set piece of brutal misogynist comedy, he induces yawns – an audience member behind me made his response known. Tarantino is as nasty as the people he establishes as the villains, but the surprise is that he brings the audience to life without irony when he does this. The post-set piece exchange is the only one that drew steady laughter, providing Tarantino with a sense that he has done okay. To get there, we suffer Tarantino’s shallow aestheticism and a nasty punchline.
Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood is on release