Tarantino Dismantles His Time Machine

The latter half of Quentin Tarantino’s allegedly-done-by-60 career is consumed with stories of righteous revenge, beginning with the Bride’s determination to kill Bill and then tumbling backwards into more historical grievances. Tarantino’s films have had Jews bump off Adolf Hitler (Inglourious Basterds) and a bounty-hunting ex-slave explode a Southern plantation (Django Unchained), and for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the writer/director returns to those same stomping grounds with a focus on the Tate murders in 1969. It is time now for the Manson Family perpetrators to get theirs, or at least that’s the way it sounds at first — the resulting film isn’t quite so simple, playing for most of its two-plus hour runtime with a melancholic self-reflection rather than giddy bloodletting. It portrays the end of an era with the looming, omnipresent knowledge that it has already ended, that nothing can truly be changed.

Take, for example, one of the first scenes, where washed-up TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has dinner with producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino). As they discuss what Rick has done lately to keep the lights on — mostly villainous TV guest spots — Schwarz warns him that such roles really leech off his star power. The audience, the producer insists, doesn’t see the villain of the week. Instead, they see the cowboy role that made Rick semi-famous, Jake Cahill of Bounty Law, squaring off against another show’s hero. And losing. And the more Rick loses, the more Rick will be seen as a loser, a guy whose sole function is to prop up new talent. It’s “an old trick played by the networks,” Schwarz tells him. The audience, in other words, is predisposed toward seeing the actor and the baggage they bring with them to the role.

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“I’m in the Movie”

Such an idea is not all that revelatory coming out of a film from Quentin Tarantino, a guy who unequivocally wants you to see the actors. He is fond (if “fond” is a strong enough word) of stunt-casting, whether it’s Franco Nero’s (the original 1966 Django) cute cameo in Django Unchained or 70s blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier in the title role of Jackie Brown. But in the specific context of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that idea acknowledges  the illusion and artifice behind the film, where real-life actress Sharon Tate is portrayed by Margot Robbie.

We the audience will, of course, see DiCaprio as DiCaprio, and we will see Brad Pitt as Rick’s stunt/handyman Cliff Booth as still more or less Brad Pitt, but those are original creations. Where Robbie-as-Tate is concerned, the idea that we tend to see the actors reads halfway to a pre-emptive admission of defeat. A director on one of Rick’s acting gigs, the real TV show Lancer, buries him in a roughly rodent-sized mustache because he “doesn’t want [the audience] to see Jake Cahill” and yet here Robbie is, doing a voice and acting exceptionally well, always seeming to inhabit the moment, but still looking quite a lot like Margot Robbie. She is never truly “disguised” in the same way.

When Robbie’s Tate goes to a showing of her movie The Wrecking Crew, the person being projected onscreen is still the real Sharon Tate. Despite an earlier little what-if cutaway that replaces Steve McQueen in The Great Escape with DiCaprio’s Rick for one scene, Tate is here totally unaltered. The film draws conscious attention to the fact that it could replace Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew and yet does not. To Tarantino, the versions of these people that he depicts, that he has written and cast himself, are approximations; the ones captured forever on film are immutable, unchangeable outside little flights of fancy from people like Rick, who pine for what never really was.

“I Don’t Get New Stuff That Often”

The film’s 1969 Hollywood is a haze of real details, fabrications, and real details fudged ever so slightly. It is a wistful unreality haunted by the memory of its realistic counterpart; here, the fictional and fictionalized constantly rub elbows with our knowledge of what really happened, as the camera lingers ominously on the sign for Cielo Drive, the street where Rick Dalton lives next to Sharon Tate. There are, of course, the actors dressed up like real actors, in Robbie as Tate, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee circa The Green Hornet.

But Tarantino also stages dusty western showdowns amid the ruins and tools of fictional creation. Cliff faces down the Manson family on the old Spahn Movie Ranch, a frequent backdrop for westerns including Cliff and Rick’s own fictional Bounty Law, while Rick strides down the Lancer set, passing production crews and big lighting equipment set up on wood balconies. His upcoming showdown doesn’t find him facing down the barrel of another man’s gun so much as the camera, while he attempts to deliver his lines after flubbing the prior scene just moments before; it’s the western myth turned inside out.

In contrast to its most apparent cousins, the period piece revenge shenanigans of both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a leisurely companion piece. Things just happen and lives are simply lived. Its “revenge” element is stitched onto the end after an unceremonious time jump, whereas Basterds and Django consistently build to literally explosive climaxes with lots of in-between violence.

Staged in such contrast with so much half-glanced reflection, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood becomes a sort of Jackie Brown counterpart since both films concern aging, obsolescence, and commentary on prior Tarantino works by taking a more laid-back approach. 

Spun from the pages of an Elmore Leonard story, Jackie Brown replaces Tarantino’s jittery young hotshots with people who are all just tired as hell. What glamor is left has faded and taken on new, weathered textures in the wrinkled brow of Robert Forster or the exhaustion Pam Grier flashes behind the eyes of Jackie herself. When Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell (a markedly lower-rent player than Pulp Fiction’s big-time bossman Marsellus Wallace) shoots Robert De Niro’s schlubby, mustachioed fuckup, he says, “What the fuck happened to you, man? Your ass used to be beautiful.” 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for its part, is focused on staying beautiful, and wallowing in that beauty. It’s the Tarantino revenge fantasy as languid, self-reflexive daydream, content to let its characters drive around and listen to music rather than plot sweet revenge. And watching the film play out like this, largely absent the catharsis that courses through Basterds and Django in favor of tangential plots and cutaway gags, is akin to watching someone sort through a box of toys from their youth. They take things out and they look at them and they remember, but it’s not the same and never will be. The memory is all that’s left.

Hot August Night

After all, for as intricately, lovingly rendered as the history is in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s a false vision. Your run-of-the-mill TV western doesn’t look like the episode of Lancer Rick acts in, which could easily pass for one of Tarantino’s own forays into the genre. When Rick’s performance is humming along smoothly, you don’t even see the seams of the production; the camera and the director and all the rest totally out of frame. The illusion is all-consuming until Rick flubs a line and the scene’s ambience drops away as he tries nervously to crawl his way back into the character’s headspace.

Beneath its relatable veneer of anxiety over one’s legacy, the film is, as Hollywood visions go, almost ludicrously tidy, friendly and smooth. Everything functions largely as the 60s and American society in general intended. Rick gets to nail his big moment of all-caps ACTING, and even the lone kid on set takes things as seriously as can be. Sharon Tate can pick up a hitchhiker without a second thought. Any people of color are scarcely seen and even more rarely heard, shooed into the margins as white men take center stage in the single whitest film Tarantino has ever made; Cliff even fights the mouthy Asian guy on The Green Hornet (aka Bruce Fucking Lee) to a draw. 

And Cliff Booth, that parkouring paragon of manhood, is practically a folk hero in waiting. Following the Bruce Lee tussle, his bottled masculine rage is unleashed upon only the most acceptable of targets, when he weaves through traffic to get that stuntman adrenaline rush and when he beats the absolute shit out of Manson followers that, by stabbing his tire or by breaking into Rick’s home, practically volunteer as tribute. He asks nicely to see Margaret Qualley’s ID to check her age, and his job prospects are even hindered by the idea that he maybe probably murdered his wife, because this sanitized vision of 1969 Hollywood believes women. Even the dead ones.

The drowning death of Natalie Wood seems a clear touchstone for Cliff’s history, but Wood’s husband Robert Wagner kept on acting. Harvey “Humble Harve” Miller was a DJ for the KHJ radio station featured throughout the film, and after serving time for pleading second-degree murder to his wife’s death in 1971, he hopped right back behind the mic (albeit at other stations); his death earlier this year garnered some nice obituaries.

Violence against women is hinted at and men having sex with Qualley’s underage character are referenced. But none of it is really seen, beyond those Manson girls who quote-unquote “deserve” their bloody deaths; the film constantly looks away from things like that flashback to Cliff perhaps killing his wife or those brief images of the real Sharon Tate beamed in from another reality. It’s a conspicuously white paradise, where the only truly bad elements can come from outside in the form of the Manson family rather than within in the form of your Wagners, your Booths, your Millers, your Polanskis, your Weinsteins. It’s not just Old Hollywood that prevails, but a white fantasy version of it.

Out of Sight, Out of Time

As epitaphs go, this one is, to say the least, complicated. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a dense enough object that it’s difficult to excavate any specific answers beyond interpretations . But what’s clear is that this thing wrenched out of Tarantino’s psyche is conflicted, in a similar way to how Rick is conflicted when he thinks back on The Great Escape, a combination wistful/bitter vision that dissipates when confronted by the reality of the situation. When the allure and the illusion of Hollywood has you, though, it’s all you see. All you even want to see.

The result is a detached, almost tossed-off conclusion. When Rick emerges from the airplane post-timeskip, he does so just how Sharon Tate did at the film’s start, as though the story has now properly shifted to being his. He even looks like the kind of guy that onlookers earlier in the film describe as “her type,” all floppy-haired and boyish. And yeah, the Manson gang gets an incredibly violent dispatching at the hands of (mostly) Cliff and (somewhat) Rick, but from there, the film seems to just sit and stare. The still-alive Jay Sebring comes out to ask Rick what happened, and then Sharon Tate comes on the intercom, and then the gates literally and metaphorically open for Rick as the camera watches from on high, at a literal distance. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is spelled out on the screen, roll credits.

It’s far from tidy. What becomes of our pal Charlie Manson? Does he still do the other murders that eventually got him caught in real life? And now that this pivotal moment in history that transforms the Hollywood landscape, the de-facto closer to the 1960s by both date and a jarring loss of innocence, doesn’t happen, what happens when it doesn’t happen? Do the cowboy TV shows go on forever after the meathead triumph of Rick and Cliff’s drunken, acid-tripping cowboy bravado? Have they earned their place, having fought off change to uncritically preserve an eternal 1960s where the stylings of Rick Fucking Dalton have no expiration date? 

But the answer, I think, is simple: that everything stops once the fairytale text of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is drawn onscreen. It concludes with an “and they all lived happily ever after” and the book snaps shut, cutting off further adventures for this innocuous what-if that doubles as a rumination on its own futility. Tarantino plays around with the concept every which way he can, but he never seems to forget the truth in either that melancholy parting shot or the way his fictional creations dance around and call attention to the tools of their own creation, or the sense of it all being too “good” to ever be true. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a bedtime story from a man who may have outgrown their naivety but certainly hasn’t grown to love them any less.

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