Mild Spoiler alert
Quentin Tarantino’s [QT] latest might be his mildest and one of his most light-hearted movies in terms of execution since, mainly, it starts off as a love-affair with the golden age of Hollywood. The year is 1969, and ‘‘Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood’’ [OUATIH] starts off with its intent crystal clear – nostalgia is the word, and Hollywood at the cusp of its golden age is the gaze. That gaze is quite explicit and pulls you into that age through neon-lit street signs, the clothes, fashion, cars without seat-belts speeding down the narrow roads and the inter-state, cinema theater signs, throw-back to TV interviews, voice-overs, posters of TV shows, the drive-ins, and movies and television shows (shot in news-reel grain to boot) post WW-II and what have you. And at the center of it all, he places two very interesting middle-aged; winding-down artists – one an actor [Leo’s Rick Dalton] and one his stunt-double [Brad’s Cliff Booth] and concocts a slow-burning, languid tale of their personal/professional relationship shaped mainly by the common profession they are in. While they represent the wane of Hollywood at its grandest, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate represents that link – through her husband, Roman Polanski— between the pre- ‘70s studio-Hollywood and the more personalized shape that Hollywood had begun to take in terms of story-choices, story-telling, and execution, or even relations, friendly or other-wise. [There’s a scene in which Rick rues that he has Polanski as his neighbor but still can’t get to act in one of his movies!]
The film ambles its way through these set-ups and characters and spans only a few days. One of the awe-inspiring scenes of OUATIH is a terrific stretch that has its eyes, distinctly, on the 3 main characters’ and it’s all in a day’s work. It’s here that, once-again, QT’s enviable skills at placing a longish scene comes into full fire-power. It’s not just the length of this stretch, but the vast amount of incoherence and differences in the lead characters’ lives that’s imprinted on the viewer’s mind. It’s a pathetic day at work for the down-ward spiraling career – he’s now reduced to playing episodic villains in TV shows— of Rick Dalton. He has a hang-over, his stammer is hindering his performance, he isn’t able to get his lines right, and then he has the show’s main lead , Timothy Olyphant, rubbing it into him – though inadvertently of course – making him remember and retell the fact that he lost James Sturges’ THE GREAT ESCAPE to Steve McQueen by a narrow margin. And then, he has an intimidating conversation with the terrific kid Julia Butters who teaches him, or rather, reminds him, of a thing or two about the ‘art’ in acting and staying true to character! It’s both a hilarious and meaningful conversation at the same time, and it’s a credit to terrific writing and acts by Leo and Julia. At the same time, a matrimonially-satisfied Sharon Tate ventures out and decides to visit a theater screening movie in which she plays one of the roles; a ‘klutz’ as she puts it and gets only the ticket-seller and the usher—after her pursuit to force-fully recognize her— to get to take a picture with her. She walks into the theater, takes off her shoes and places her feet on the seat the next row, and watches the audiences’ reactions to her appearances on the screen and just soaks in the radiance, and reveals it through her ever-widening eyes and her smiling countenance. We might look at it as silly; as-in the folks are laughing at such silly scenes of physical comedy, but she’s enjoying it, and so are the audience of that film. That, for us, the audience, is Tarantino’s love-affair with the movies. We are then reminded of Tarantino’s controversial snide at the critics and public alike who categorize films as A-GRADE or B-GRADE movies. [Hell, here he showers even the B-grade movies made in Italy with a meaning!]. Sharon Tate’s scene, is then, a great homage to the withering grand-standing Hollywood and its wistfulness through the eyes of an audience that loved this Hollywood. Now far-removed from the cinematic world, on the sunny streets of California, you see Clifton giving a ride to an under-age hippie with a hairy arm-pit nonetheless who offers oral sex to Clifton while ‘driving.’ He is tempted, but still has the wits and ‘decency’ about him to ask her age, and gently snubs her offer. He then enters the Spahn Ranch and smells something fishy with the way the former studio has been dilapidated and is now the ‘hang-out’ for these hippies. As he ventures to discover more regarding the owner, George Spahn’s condition, the hippies’ turn from, ‘Charles will dig you’ to an unkempt hippie stabbing Leo’s vehicle’s tire with a knife. Clifton lets loose his fists on the hippie, gives a bloody nose and broken teeth in full-force and forces him to fix the flat tire. It is a remarkable scene not for the violence, but for the way QT builds up the tempo to reveal Clifton’s hidden tendency for violence. He is earlier shown driving the vehicle recklessly at break-neck speed with scant respect for safety of others on the road; then a scene indicating he might have killed his nagging wife, and then this scene. After that, there’s no stopping him, and under the influence of a joint, he goes on a violent spree in the last one hour of the movie, revealing himself to be not any-less violent than the frenzied cult-absorbed murderers. [Even his dog, Brandy, is well-trained in violence!]
And that is the cinematic form of QT, and he revisits his penchant for ‘revisionism’ as in Inglourious Bastards and Django Unchained in which he metes out justice per his view. Just as Brad’s Clifton reveals his temperament later in the day, so does QT building a sea of seemingly still waters, but later, in the climax he drowns you in turbulent, violent waters that you had all along sensed, but never thought could actually happen, because you were so absorbed in the idyllic love-affair that QT was having with vintage Hollywood!
It’s wonderful to see Leo and Brad contrast each other with exuberance and minimalism respectively in their roles. Leo is always on the edge, external in emotionalism, and always a step closer to his nihilistic doom: Brad, on the other hand, as the ‘more a brother than a wife’, is laconic, with a wry-smile, still not comfortable giving up, and used-to-his trailer-defined life. This is the best one has seen this star use his stardom. He has adjusted himself to the choir-boy routines he has to run for Leo and manages to find some good in it. It’s a treat to see these two being in a frame and brining out the best in each other.
It’s also great to see that QT conceives only these two characters as imaginary ones, while all other film personalities are true film-personalities like Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, Bruce Lee. [The fight-scene between Bruce Lee and Clifton Booth is hilarious and the conversation about martial-arts and manslaughter is up the roof; while Mike Moh as Bruce Lee is superb!].
And then, as notoriously famous as QT is for his revisionist and anachronistic fetishes, which are nothing short of a cultural war through the eyes of history, one wonders, through-out the film, or maybe after, why is his stand so much in support of a stable culture, an almost tacit approval of sorts to a hierarchy, whether in cinema or society and against counter-culture?