Movies: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino cements his brand into every boring, bloody frame of his latest picture, which frames a Brad Pitt-Leonardo DiCaprio buddy story against the backdrop of the Manson murders. Critic Katherine Monk says the acting is heroic, but the movie is just plain bad.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Starring: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Running time: 2 hrs 41 mins
Opening wide July 26, 2019
By Katherine Monk
Can I say it yet? Are we woke enough to hear the truth? Or are readymade ironies and shallow observations now the best we can do? I ask because I don’t want to hate on Quentin Tarantino as a person. I just think he makes a lot of bad movies. Yet, we embrace them because somewhere along the way, we made a collective decision it’s more about brand than substance.
Tarantino’s brand, forged by the truly revolutionary Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, is black comedy freebasing film references — a product tailor-made for the TV-weaned boomers and X-ers who know what a Gomer Pyle is. Tarantino makes us feel special for it, too. He recreates the fabric of the pop-culture past with the passion only a film nerd can muster, and as a result, we forgive the crass rip-off of a classic, or academically validate grotesque amounts of violence.
I think we do this because he’s representing what we know and recognize, which affirms our place in the infinite cosmos. Moreover, he does it in such a thrilling — cinematic way — that we get lost in the nostalgia, and machinery of it all, and forget to process what he’s actually presenting amongst the fields of saturated eye candy.
I don’t want to hate on Quentin Tarantino as a person. I just think he makes a lot of bad movies. Yet, we embrace them because somewhere along the way, we made a collective decision it’s more about brand than substance.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood offers the perfect opportunity to probe a little deeper, because it’s a bad movie. Funny how I immediately want to qualify that with words of praise about how good Brat Pitt looks in a pair of sunglasses, and how well Leonardo DiCaprio can act. Because, honestly, I’d prefer to step back — the same way I did in high school at the smoker’s entrance — and not feel the peer pressure; the social media group-think that now infects most film critics, if not everyone on the planet.
Yet, even though this isn’t the most egregious of Tarantino movies, it highlights all the things he does so poorly, but gets away with because he’s “doing it on purpose.” For starters, there’s this problem with the shots matching, the angles and the coverage. In one pivotal restaurant scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio are discussing a career move — but all we’re really noticing is how awkward each cut is, and wondering if it’s a meta statement on moviemaking.
Because of course it is. It’s titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Duh.
Which means we have to look past the pointless, but nonetheless pleasing uses of the crane shot mimicking A Touch of Evil, his own “camera on the back a convertible” trick, the meandering plot lines that lead nowhere except a presumed reprise of Helter Skelter, and of course, the graphic, comedy-inflected violence that defines the Tarantino brand as a whole.
At least Once Upon a Time in Hollywood holds off on the gore-fest until the very end. Yet, because he frames the whole piece around the Sharon Tate murders and the massacre that made Charles Manson a household name, it’s a finale we approach with endless dread. And once again, like he did in Reservoir Dogs, the dread — the act of waiting, in itself — becomes the sole dramatic force.
For this reason, the emotion always feels coerced with Tarantino. He holds us ransom, then roofies our drink. Just look at how he uses Brad Pitt as the puppy to get us in the car for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Not only is Pitt’s sun-bronzed, Ray-Banned face plastered on bus shelters, the thought of seeing him as DiCaprio’s stunt double for an old black and white TV western is too alluring to deny.
…The emotion always feels coerced with Tarantino. He holds us ransom, then roofies our drink.
So we eat it up: DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, star of Bounty Law (think ’The Rifleman’), a gunslinger who gets his man and his money, and a lead actor who likes his liquor. Brad Pitt plays the handsome stunt double, Cliff, a cowboy who has no fear and a body that won’t quit. Cliff is still capable of work, but when Bounty Law is cancelled, Rick takes him on as chauffeur — and general housekeeper, because something happened to Cliff along the way that makes him a bad risk to have around.
What does any of this have to do with Sharon Tate? Nothing. Except, in this story, Rick Dalton lives next-door to Sharon, played with comic grace by Margot Robbie. We watch different snippets of her life played out. Sharon and Roman driving in a car. Sharon welcoming Polish friends of Roman’s. Sharon watch herself on screen at the local Beverly Hills cinema, realizing people are enjoying her performance in The Wrecking Crew.
This whole mega-meta exercise is played out using our own imaginations as the driver. We feel we know how it will play out, because we know what really happened. Tarantino gives us dates with each tableau, edging us closer to the shoulder, and finally, the big Cliff. Go ahead, rock your cranial hard-case, and see if you can remember all the details surrounding an event so horrible, you’re already imagining the ugliest bits.
Tarantino knows this, which is why he makes us wait so long, giving us hints with each new character, and offering memory-tags with each newly doctored old film clip. It’s clever, but like all things branded Tarantino, it’s also purely exploitative. He’s taking advantage of a true tragedy for his own dramatic purpose.
He tries to justify it by re-imagining the carnage in a way we can morally reconcile, but he still delivers the expected gore. In fact, he over-delivers. Enabled by an ear-pleasing soundtrack designed to yank us in, Tarantino cuts and slices. He pummels and stomps people to a pulp. Here, he smashes a woman’s head into a stone mantlepiece until it resembles pie.
It’s clever, but like all things branded Tarantino, it’s also purely exploitative. He’s taking advantage of a true tragedy for his own dramatic purpose.
She was bad, obviously. But, why? Oh why, do I need to see a woman’s face reduced to pie? Or a man’s cranium reduced to pulpy bits in the trunk of car? Or a baseball bat breaking an external carotid artery? Sure, all the victims were villains, but the Tarantino brand means taking it all to that extra level — and indulging in a form of graphic violence that excuses itself by deploying self-conscious humour and a good mix tape.
It’s creepy. It’s film fetishist, not cinemaphile. Tarantino’s love of cinema, and his unfathomable desire to commune with its ephemeral essence, has rendered him a stalker. A gawker who wants to put his precious object of desire under a bell jar, which is why nothing in his films ever approaches love. It’s all a self-aware mirror dance to affirm himself in a glamorous context, where women are almost always the victims of violence — executed with a branded touch of self-winking sarcasm.
Only the sexy glaze of stardom keeps us watching. And again, he knows that. Which is why he always casts A-listers, and plenty of them. This movie would be nothing without its stars, who are without much argument, two of the biggest in Hollywood. Nothing, not even the meandering bore of a plot, can sweep away the sheer enjoyment of watching DiCaprio and Pitt work together. It’s like watching a master class in ‘bro’ — complete with a cameo from Steve McQueen (as played by English actor Damian Lewis).
Using their bodies to do most of the talking, as men do, the two actors perform an elegant dance together physically. They lean in and out. They pivot and glance. They touch. They notice touching. They are comfortable together. As men.
Too bad the director was too focused on the delivery of his own words to the lens, and missed all the real footwork — and the core of what he’s so desperate to capture in every single one of his own frames: Masculinity.
Tarantino likes to make movies about tough guys with real problems, hitmen with a sense of humour. Clint Eastwood meets Woody Allen, only in a moral vacuum. The bullets blow away flesh without a hint of gravitas, and the viewer is left in this blood-spattered mess without any meaning.
Dot. Dot. Dot. Except one: Entertainment.
So if you’re still into cliffhangers and base exploitation for the pleasure of the masses, or you simply can’t resist the idea of visiting the backlots of Hollywood in the late 1960s, or cruising Ventura Boulevard with Brad Pitt and DiCaprio, Tarantino serves it up like a TV dinner: Flat and fragmented. Not that it matters. Half the fun is buying the package and the anticipation of brand satisfaction. The rest is dealing with the disappointment, and taking a second look at the box.
In this case it reads “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — which means all that crap in that box was put there on purpose. It all tastes the same. And it’s got Quentin Tarantino’s name all over it.
Main image: Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio as Cliff and Rick. Photo: Andy Cooper. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
THE EX-PRESS, July 26, 2019