Once upon a time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino decided to make a movie that would make people say “WOW”. I must say that he has succeeded, in his own idiosyncratic way. However, what Tarantino most succeeds in doing is selling us the magical, glitzy, outrageous side of the 60’s. Our eyes light up when we mingle with the outrageous outfits and the celebrities of old swishing about in them; our hearts sore when we speed through the sunny Hollywood highways listening to groovy tunes and our feet on the dashboard. Once Upon a Timeis a sensory feast, and the main dish that Tarantino is serving is the impossible sun-kissed Hollywood cool; and we eat. it. up.
Tarantino stated that this is his most personal film, and it is definitely a film about what Tarantino loves most – the old fashioned, campy movie magic. By immersing us in this atmosphere of the by-gone days, he makes us crave its return. There can be no better time for that as the youth of today tries to be the youth of their grandparent’s time. Vintage, vinyl and even cassettes have become a hipster staple. I must admit, that even I am delighting in the fad; I saw Once Upon a Time at Picturehouse Central with its chequered floors and 35mm screenings; I too wanted to be immersed in that magic.
But at the end of the day, this is also utterly superficial. As Pussycat purrs ‘The tourists love picking me up, I am part of their LA experience’, it is hard to ignore that we are tourists in this world, and that underneath it, there is a pervasive darkness and decay. Tarantino flirts with it in his usual way; as with the Nazis in Inglorious Bastards and slave owners in Django Unchained, the evil embodied by the Manson family is left largely understated, even bordering on the comic; and just like Tarantino’s Sharon Tate, we continue to shake and to groove and to smile without paying attention to the rotting foundations below us.
For me, the main rotting foundation was the actual narrative. Now, I see that desiring a hit at all costs, Tarantino went back to his own greatest hit, Pulp Fiction, for support. Indeed, since the two films embody the same campy yet cool attitude, and pay homage to their respective delightfully trashy progenitors – Hollywood B-movies and pulp fiction magazines – it makes sense to adopt a similar narrative style. However, the vignettes in Once Upon a Time just do not work as well as the ones in Pulp Fiction or even in Inglorious Bastards. Our sympathies and interest keep getting stretched between the various protagonists, eventually getting bogged down at the various locations. Although I am aware that the dynamic and down-on-their-luck duo of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth is meant to be a contrast to the successful and blossoming Sharon Tate, I was confused as to who to care about at any given time. With so much time spent on a particular character-arch at a time, I struggled to see them in relationship to each other.
The casting and characterisation of the three protagonists is also something I have issue with. I once saw (stay with me) a Buzzfeed article titled “Brad Pitt is a Character Actor Trapped in a Movie Star’s body” and I thoroughly agree. In this film, he was finally allowed to demonstrate just that. With ‘you are too pretty for a stunt man’ jokes raining all around him, Pitt is both doltish and rakish, going from a punching bag to a hero within seconds and never losing his convincingness and lovability in either role.
However, the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh from receiving a belated Oscar for The Revenant, as a failing actor of questionable talent…? Yes, he seems to drink far too much and has a menacing tubercular sounding cough but how does that reflect on him as an actor? Or is it just that he occasionally forgets his lines and makes poor business decisions? It feels absurd to say this, but DiCaprio is too good to be too bad…
My last – and greatest – concern is with Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate. Robbie is a highly capable and versatile actress so it is incredibly strange to see her entire role consisting of wearing cute outfits, dancing to hip music and smiling so much it makes you concerned for her facial muscles. All in all, it makes one wonder, is she prematurely practicing for the upcoming Barbie feature? Although it was Tarantino’s intention to display her as an ethereal angelic presence in contrast to her actual gruesome fate, here she seems like a smiley simpleton. Just like the surrounding Hollywood, Robbie’s – or should I say Tarantino’s – Tate is just a glamorous void with no substance behind her, which makes it hard for the viewer to adopt a sympathetic and protective attitude towards her as her fate warrants.
The most interesting and narratively compelling aspects of Once Upon a Time deals with the Manson family. It is indisputable that we as a society are enthral to depictions of violence and madness, and the Manson family are the perfect vehicle for our fix. Tarantino is well aware of this fact (think the recent Manson family revival with American Horror Story, Mindhunter and Charlie Says) and teases us continuously with gruesomely giddy foreshadowing; in this film, Schadenfreude permeates the smog-filled LA air. As always with Tarantino, the violence is hilariously farcical; a child’s perverse playground. Yet he also precedes it with a bit of a social commentary on that violence, surprisingly emerging from one of the Manson girls. For the “lost children” of the Manson family, violent films are a scape goat for their insecurities and incompetence, and the people who produce such poisonous garbage ought to be killed. The metanarrative comes to a climax soon after when the philosophising “hippies” are dealt with in a singularly Tarantino-esque way; mauled and smashed to death by Brad Pitt and his Pitbull, and torched by Leonardo DiCaprio. A singular delicious moment of absurdly grotesque violence.
However, we are left with a strangely unsatisfying and ambiguous ending. The Manson hippies are dead and judging by the time stamp – just after midnight on the 9thof August 1969 – the Tate murders will not go ahead; Margot Robbie can grin ad infinitum, hurray! But something about this does not feel right. If, quoting Joan Didion, “the sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969”, does this mean that in Tarantino’s world the sixties never ended? Certainly, this would sound like a Tarantino paradise; the Cadillacs still rolling, the hippies still making peace signs, a new spaghetti western appearing almost every day… But where would the nostalgia be? Surely, it’s the nostalgia for those nebulous and unsustainable times that salvages this world from plain kitsch-ness? Surely, without this nostalgia, there could be no Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood?