The end of an era – but which era?
At this point, it would be passe to point out how Quentin Tarantino’s entire filmography is a love letter to a bygone era. But then the madman went and directed an entire film whose text and subtext can be attributed to the nostalgia and love for the way the Hollywood landscape used to be. In doing so, Tarantino has made something rare in Hollywood – a nostalgia film that knows it’s boundaries and is absolutely certain of what it wants to accomplish and why.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is considered the 9th film from the famed director*, a fact given urgency by his own threats to retire after ten films. Which gives his latest feature a layer of melancholy, as it becomes apparent that the director may feel partially as a man in the wrong time. Tarantino’s love for self-indulgence has always been an omnipresent component of his brand, but it’s on even greater display here as his camera meticulously tracks long joy rides, neverending walks, and even the preparation of dog food. Some of this is to prepare for certain reversals later on, but most of it is simply extraneous – just like many of the films in Old Hollywood that the film is paying homage to. Tarantino is not here to be brief or efficient; he’s here to immerse you in this world and you’re either on board or you’re not.
The film, taking place in 1969, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as aging, egocentric western actor Rick Dalton. He has a drinking problem and a suspended license, which requires the driving assistance of his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Together, they face an uncertain future in Hollywood as Dalton’s peak as an onscreen outlaw and leading man are rapidly coming to an end, and Cliff’s career opportunities are all but dried up (it doesn’t help that he carries a rather mysterious backstory with him). Dalton has a harsh reality in front of him – either move to Rome to star in spaghetti westerns, or stay in America and accept supporting roles of decreasing significance. Meanwhile, rising director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his young actor wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have recently moved next door to Dalton.
It is easy to draw parallels between Rick Dalton and Tarantino himself. The director has in the past expressed hesitance to embrace the new streaming media landscape, but it’s peculiar to paint Tarantino within this dilemma. His latest films are more profitable than ever, and he’s one of the few directors alive who can put butts in seats on his name value alone. Combine that with a heavy amount of artistic freedom, and Tarantino just doesn’t fit the Rick Dalton mold of a dimming star being forced out of the limelight.
Perhaps it’s more fair to draw parallels between Tarantino’s yearning for old Hollywood. When everyone shot on film as opposed to digital, and consumers were more willing to partake in the communal ritual of watching a movie in theaters rather than staying at home. Midway through the film, Sharon Tate attends a screening of The Wrecking Crew (1969), a film she stars in. In perhaps the most endearing scene in the film, Tate is taken aback by the positive audience reaction to her character’s goofball antics, soon joining in with their laughter and euphoria. Much of Robbie’s direction throughout the film simply requires her to smile and dance, but it’s here where transforms Sharon Tate back into a living, breathing creature. For too long, the late actress has been a symbol of tragedy, but modern generations barely know much about her beyond that. Tarantino and Robbie, if for but a few moments, shine a light on the human being beneath the graphic headlines.
But Tate is but a small part of a story dominated by the fictional Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. Pitt’s portrayal of Booth is not only surprisingly nonchalant, but anchors the story despite DiCaprio’s top billing. Booth’s role as Dalton’s lackey and driver is a bit embarrassing without ever being demeaning. The stunt casting of the role works brilliantly, as it’s just as odd for us to see BRAD PITT carrying bags and being subordinate as it is for the characters to see Booth in such a submissive role; it’s narrative short-hand that really hammers home the dynamic of our two leads.
As Dalton attempts to get his acting mojo back while on set of various productions, including a memorably hilarious and sweet interaction with a child actor (a scene-stealing Julia Butters), it’s Booth who has the big foray with members of the Manson family. Booth is meant to be the co-star, but it’s here where he actually feels like the leading man, as Pitt’s effortless machismo gets an opportunity to flex it’s muscles from tense adventures on mysterious ranches to a comical encounter with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Or perhaps this is just another Tarantino homage, as the film is littered with references to television shows such as The Green Hornet, Batman, and FBI. Maybe Booth is just a stand-in for those would-be TV sidekicks, who often encounter the villain of the week before the main hero eventually gets his opportunity to confront them.
It is fascinating to wonder what exactly Tarantino is trying to say in the context of 1969 America. There are hippies on street corners, signifying the youthful forces pushing our middle-aged protagonists out of the glory days. There’s an abundance of screens, mirroring our modern obsession with devices, as people sit down to watch repetitive episodes of the time period’s most watched shows. There are literal and figuratively blind old men, unaware of how the world is changing around them. Poetically, members of the anti-government Manson family make it a routine to watch a slice of government propaganda in FBI. There’s allusions to the idea of how the young people in the film watched violent shows as children, and now they’re the violent ones. This is apropos commentary for a Tarantino film, whose movies are notoriously violent. But Tarantino’s violence stays on the screen; he will not be made a scapegoat for the inner demons of society, and neither will our protagonists.
Where the film eventually ends up in terms of it’s characters fates is thrilling, but not exactly shocking if you’re familiar with Tarantino’s catalogue. This is a director that has repeatedly entrenched himself in the happenings of yesteryear, perhaps because he really finds the modern world that uninteresting. The source of nostalgia isn’t just a longing for old things, but evidence of the inability to reconcile with the way the old things ended. Tarantino has made his art a reconciliation of the past and the innocence that has died with it.
Make no mistake, for as much profanity and sex that pervades his films, that is an idealism beneath the surface. This is why Pulp Fiction ends with a rejection of the material world, Kill Bill ends with a rebirth, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood ends by attempting to preserve something that was previously lost. The nostalgia film, as we previously know it in the Star Wars and Halloween franchises, have often featured an almost suffocating reverence of the past while trying to take the story in a new direction. But the inability to separate or improve upon what has already worked leave these films feeling like copy cats pretending to be something new, promising to take you somewhere new while touring the same old neighborhoods.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood doesn’t play that silly game; it knows it’s a snapshot of the past and embraces that fact. In investigating an era that has long since ended, Tarantino is able to strike the balance of paying homage, creating something fresh, all while feeling familiar. Instead of trying to deconstruct, repurpose, or recontextualize something old and present it as new, sometimes it’s OK to just say you miss something old. Here is a film that knows that the party it’s depicting is over, so why not craft a world where the party kept going? It’s a fantasy, to be sure, of our greatest wants, but isn’t that what the movies are for?
*The Kill Bill volumes are considered one film, as that’s what Tarantino originally intended. Although, you probably paid for 2 tickets to see them.