Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Thoughts on the 9th (?) film by Quentin Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), the new film by Quentin Tarantino, is a difficult one to unpack, critically speaking, so this cursory review, if one can even call it such, is more a summing up of initial thoughts, as opposed to any sort of definitive statement. An attempt to process some of the reactions to the film, both from my own initial viewing, as well as the cultural conversations that have surrounded the film since its first release.

To begin, I felt the charges of racism and misogyny seemed a bit off to me, although his female characters have never been more transparent as they are here. It's rare for a Tarantino film to be this lacking in non-white representation, but not unprecedented. Reservoir Dogs (1992) has only one black supporting character, and Inglourious Basterds (2009), despite historical revisionism, is still a largely "white" film. And while the violence at the end of "Once Upon a Time..." is certainly gratuitous, its aimed at both sexes. Tarantino's violence has never had a gender bias.

I had greater problems with the more conventional aspects of the film; chiefly its narrative structure. Tarantino has always been wildly indulgent as a screenwriter, but it's difficult to think of another film of his as undisciplined as this. For a good 90-minutes "Once Upon a Time..." has a relaxed, conversational quality that evokes filmmakers like Eric Rohmer and Richard Linklater; positively luxuriating as it does in a painstakingly recreated late-1960s setting, where scene after scene of characters going about their odd-jobs and daily routines feel designed to barely progress the narrative but suggest something of a life being lived. At one point Tarantino throws in a flashback within a flashback, both of which function mostly as covert exposition (essentially to establish stuntman Cliff's almost superhuman abilities and ease around death - both of which pay off in the final scenes) before jumping eight months ahead for a last act, which for some reason now has a storybook narrator.

I wonder if Tarantino has become so accustomed to dividing his films into chapters that he's now incapable to telling a straight story? Unlike the unconventional narratives of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997), the storytelling of "Once Upon a Time..." just has the feel of bad plotting.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [Quentin Tarantino, 2019]:

After seeing the film, I wrote on Facebook that it was, for the most part: "Tarantino's most restrained and mature film since Jackie Brown; finding an emphasis on leisurely observation, period detail and genuine melancholy. A film that at first seems to be preoccupied with a feeling of finality; its disparate strands of plot and the collisions between real-life and fantasy always arriving at the end of things; the end of the Hollywood studio system, the state of innocence, the American "West", a life, the friendship that exists between men, etc. Then all of a sudden it isn't; erupting into an orgy of cartoon violence in its final scenes.

The title however is the clue. "Once Upon a Time...", like in a fairy-story? Here Tarantino wants to show the triumph of Hollywood escapism over brutal reality; re-writing history to provide the closure, catharsis (even vengeance) that real life denies us, but which the cinema is more than capable to indulge. As Carleton Young said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But is this enough?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [John Ford, 1962]:

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [Quentin Tarantino, 2019]:

If I have a complaint about the film it's this: I wish Tarantino had shown enough courage to follow the story through to its historical conclusion. Throughout so much of the film there's a sick-inducing sense of tension and inevitability developing around the expectation of the real-life horrors to come. In this sense, the characterisation of Sharon Tate is the film's representation of American innocence - primed as she is to be lost in a bloodbath of counter-cultural decadence - and the often observational scenes of her character gong about her daily life have a beautiful sadness to them, which is powerful. But by subverting the reality of Tate's eventual fate, Tarantino betrays those scenes and reduces the characterisation to nothing. A shame."

I liked "Once Upon a Time..." a lot better than my least favourite of Tarantino's work to-date, Django Unchained (2013), where the extended third act descent into cartoon violence felt more egregious. But as much as I found a lot to appreciate here, it still ranks as one of the weaker Tarantino efforts for me, far behind my very favourite films of his, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Death Proof (2007), Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight (2015).

As an aside, I would argue that "Once Upon a Time..." could form an odd little triptych with two other recent "auteurist" films, The House That Jack Built (2018) by Lars von Trier and Glass (2019) by M. Night Shyamalan, in the sense that they function both as a kind of final statement or meta-commentary on their filmmakers' respective careers (loaded as they are with all the quirks, eccentricities and manipulations that their authors are best known for), but also a provocation to the audiences that have both derided and defended them; "doubling down" as it were on the more contentious aspects of their aesthetic and ideological concerns to the extent that the films both define and obfuscate (intentionally?) their actual intentions.

The sense of nostalgia permeates every aspect of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and its evocation of late-1960s Los Angeles to the point at which the film becomes less concerned with the more conventional development of character and plot, and instead finds drama and interest in the images of actors driving classic cars through painstakingly recreated Hollywood streets; where the camera picks out and lingers on period signage and billboard advertisements while songs and commercials play from stereo to stereo. For Tarantino, such sequences are the backbone of the film, and it's this immersive, atmospheric quality and the sense of period authenticity that really defines the film as a genuine experience.