Monday, August 12, 2019

Enjoying the Fiction of Things

Thoughts on Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Did you guys know that Quentin Tarantino makes fictional feature films? Excuse the obvious, heavy sarcasm, but maybe the thing I hate worst about my Film Twitter addiction is the dealing with the incessant questioning of historical fact as represented in a movie by Quentin Tarantino. I've had to actually remind people..."It's a movie..." Like...seriously. Quentin Tarantino makes heightened, stylized fictional movies.

I hear myself as Tarantino talking that TV news talk anchor down after the release of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 when she asked him why his movies are so violent.


He goes on to remind her, when she talks about how he might not think it's so fun if a bunch of kids violently attacked him on the street, to which he says "See you're talking about real life, and I'm talking about movies."

Yes. The dude makes movies. Movies that it is okay to love, and movies it is okay not to love. I'm fine with opinions. The best filmmakers are those who lead us into debates and discussions about the art we enjoy. And, make no mistake, Tarantino is one of the best of all-time, simply for the way he has changed how we discuss movies. But what he's never stood for, and where I happen to agree most with him in terms of attitude is in the fact that, are questions of reality in his art. The question of Bruce Lee's personal character and integrity (he's portrayed in the film as an arrogant big mouth), makes no sense to me. "It's a movie," as I say, from the man who had a woman destroy Hitler and the Third Reich inside a movie theater.

All I'm saying is let's get into what we loved Tarantino for in the first place. He represents the fun, the pure unadulterated joy, of making cinema. And, whether it works for you or not, his movies are nothing more than cathartic exercises in spreading joy to fans of movies.

This is no more true than in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, his first GREAT movie since Inglorious Basterds. Set over one long winter's night and day and one wild summer night, it is a movie that feels as original as anything Tarantino has made. After the opening night screening at the Belcourt in Nashville (on 35mm!!!), my buddy Joshua and I both couldn't help agreeing that we'd never seen anything like it. I even said those words: "I've never seen anything like it." It moves differently than any movie I've ever seen. There's a slowness that carries most of the runtime that somehow immersed me, certainly more so than the deliberate first hour plus of The Hateful Eight (the one Tarantino I outright hate).

The slowness works here, in part, due to the quality of a small handful of long scenes and the equity of attention paid to the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a borderline washed up former action star and TV cowboy, the lead of NBC's long-running Bounty Law, and now playing the heavy in a run of TV guest spots, and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, his stunt double, driver, and right-hand man. Within that is the adventures of Sharon Tate (Robbie), newly married to Roman Polanski (seen but never heard) and living next door to Rick with movie hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) among various fancy friends.

A long February day in 1969 finds the three stories intertwined with Tate's breezily interjected. Scenes play out at great length and are full of brilliant levels of detail. Rick on the set of "Lancer," his new young co-star, and an Oscar-worthy breakdown and rebound. Cliff and his sordid possible past, his run-in with a hitchhiking hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) and the Manson Family, who are squatting on his old friend George Spahn's (Bruce Dern, in a hilarious short cameo) Movie Ranch and an Oscar-worthy masterclass in patience, ferocity, cool, and tenderness only Brad Pitt can deliver (complete with two beatdowns). Their respective locations and situations reflecting their roles as partners and friends. Sharon Tate breezes through with pure happiness, a symbol of Hollywood at the time, a newlywed be-bopping into a book store and stopping off at a movie house to giddily watch the actual Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin--a brilliant Tarantino touch. Robbie's performance is magical. Her presence is much like that of Tate's: You are instantly taken with a pure positivity and that looming sadness of your own knowledge of history.

Then, the movie skips ahead and Tarantino turns everything up to eleven: the tension, the comedy, the love. I won't say more about the plot... It needs to be lived and breathed.

Watching Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is the story of what's expected vs. what happens. It fiercely blends truth and reality (with a host of look-alike actors playing very real people) with Hollywood machinations and magic. It plays on our expectations and rewards us with the possibility of a time as it is remembered and should have been remembered. It contains a character in Charles Manson, represented by Tex (Austin Butler), Sadie (Mikey Madison), and Katie (Madisen Beaty) as those who would brutally murder Sharon Tate and her friends, more tangibly evil by a mile than any other Tarantino character (Hitler notwithstanding). It counters that with pure love, friendship, the nicest and most likable Tarantino protagonists since Jackie Brown and Max Cherry.

Brad Pitt's turn as Cliff Booth may be forever embedded in me. For all the huge showiness of Leo's terrific performance as Rick Dalton, there is the quiet, assured cool of Brad. I am so forever grateful to Tarantino for introducing Cliff Booth to the world. Cliff is hard, violent, his past worth several tough questions, but he fully embodies the notion of best friend. He the type of guy other men are drawn to because he makes you feel powerful simply by how comfortable he is in his own skin. He supports with kindness and protects with grit. He has Rick's best interest at heart always. He makes Rick a winner.

I loved this movie. I went back twice. I never do that. Tarantino brings the wild fun, the star power, and works his newfound interest in uneven narrative structure to new heights with beautifully shot (by Robert Richardson), luxuriously long scenes that play with such perfect comedic pitch and/or dramatic tension. It is, above all else, a love letter from Tarantino to a time he can only remember as perfect, when he was young boy who moved to Hollywood from rural East Tennessee. It is an experience of history, artifice, expectations, and remembrance of what was, what might've been, what has and what could be. It has both Hollywood and Once Upon a Time... in its title.

It's a fairy tale. 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for needing for what needed to be said. I loved this film and it touched me on a very personal level for me as I'm still coping with loss as I thought a lot about dad as this would've been a film that he would've loved. He loved TV westerns, that whole time period, the music, the fashion, the films. Hell, he would've loved what happened in the end. Now we have a bunch of PC Principals, SJWs, alt-right Fascists, and crazy leftists trying to ruin our enjoyment.

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  2. My fourth favorite Tarantino movie, after Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight and Reservoir Dogs ;)

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