Tim Tan Huynh

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

1 Sep 2019 — Quentin Tarantino's latest movie is the film equivalent of Don MacLean's "American Pie." It revolves around a well-known and tragic event that, in the eyes of the creator, has marked the end of a special era.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The poster for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is hand-drawn in the style of the late 1960s.

This post contains spoilers.

Tarantino’s Legacy

I respect Quentin Tarantino for his passion and skill, but I think that some of the fanaticism that surrounds him and his work is too much. I’ve enjoyed the Tarantino movies that I’ve seen, but Pulp Fiction is the only one that I consider to be a classic, and it’s 25 years old. The National Film Preservation Board apparently agrees, because his 1994 opus is the only part of his filmography that’s currently part of the National Film Registry.

His other movies can still be selected, but I think that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the most likely to be selected when it’s eligible in 2029. His next and presumably final movie would need to be as ground-breaking as Pulp Fiction to change my mind. I might be subject to recency bias, but I would rank Tarantino’s ninth movie ahead of Inglourious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, and Django Unchained; I don’t care to see his other movies, to be honest.

I saw Inglourious Basterds for the first time in July 2012, according to my iTunes purchase history. Django Unchained was released later that year, but I didn’t see it until a month ago. Both movies, along with Tarantino’s other notable ones, are currently available on Netflix. I mention these two in because they’re relatively fresh in my mind and because Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio basically reprise their roles from these movies.

Star Power

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is nonchalant and dangerous like his Aldo Raine, and DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is proud and eccentric like his Calvin Candle. Their characters in this movie are less exaggerated and a lot less threatening because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is essentially about friendship amid hardship. Rick is a fading TV star and Cliff is Rick’s stunt double (and chauffeur and handyman) as well as his best and only friend.

The scenes that depict their day-to-day lives in Hollywood, especially when they’re together, seem to be the most popular aspect of the movie. It’s like Season 5 of Entourage set in 1969: Rick is Vince, Cliff is Drama and Turtle, and Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarz is E and Ari. I’ve seen reviews on a few popular YouTube channels that complain about certain scenes being indulgent or irrelevant. I can understand these views, but I don’t totally agree with them.

Real-ish History

The prominent screen-time of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate and the Manson Family seem to be the main complaint. Sharon’s story doesn’t intersect with Rick and Cliff’s story until the very end, and even then, they’re on the verge of connecting. Scenes like Sharon watching her movie in the theater and Cliff sizing up the commune at the ranch could be argued as being pointless, considering the ending.

However, these scenes serve the purpose of setting up the ending, not distracting from it. The focus on Sharon Tate and the Manson Family builds anticipation, more specifically dread, of the infamous confrontation. Unlike the previously mentioned scenes that depict real people in historic—or at least realistic—scenarios, the movie’s climax subverts expectation by totally re-writing the history of the only well-known event.

One way to understand the structure of the movie is to think about how an effective joke works. In order for the punchline to have an impact, the listener must have some false interpretation and expectation about the given scenario. The punchline then corrects or completes the scenario in a way that surprises as well as amuses. If Margot Robbie’s role as Sharon had merely been a cameo, the ending wouldn’t be as surprising.

Obviously, the surprise largely depends on the viewer knowing the real-life fate of Sharon Tate and her houseguests. I learned of their murders when I read about Roman Polanski after watching The Pianist, around a decade ago. I had already known about his sordid criminality, but I was stunned by this personal tragedy. I knew of Charles Manson, thanks in part to South Park, but I hadn’t known about Polanski’s connection to him.

Modern Fairy-Tale

I made the mistake of watching a video review that discussed the ending before I watched the movie. I didn’t plan to watch it, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless. The climax of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has the same type of ridiculous violence and retributive outcome as Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, but it creates a level of satisfaction that those movies don’t achieve for a few reasons.

Mainly, the wrongdoing of the antagonists is up-close and personal. The magnitude of their evil isn’t necessarily greater than a Nazi mastermind or a racist slave-owner, but hating someone happens naturally if that someone intends to brutally murder you and your loved ones, even if the entire scenario is vicarious. Seeing Sharon’s and her friends’ murderers get their comeuppance, albeit in a movie, is cathartic.

So, Sharon really is the centerpiece of this movie. Her presence sets the movie in a time and place that are both familiar and exotic, which is a hallmark of any fairytale. The teaser and trailer make her seem flighty and vain, but her scenes collectively paint her in a near-angelic light. Because of her kindness and marriage to a star director, she represents Rick and Cliff’s redemption that’s hinted in the final moments.

The movie still would’ve been enjoyable if the screen-time of Sharon and the Manson Family had been reduced or even removed. The Life and Times of Rick and Cliff, a pure bromance in and around Hollywood like Entourage, would’ve been cool. Or Rick could’ve been a real bounty hunter instead of playing one on TV; Once Upon a Time in Rio Bravo, a Tarantino version of No Country for Old Men, is an interesting concept.

However, this movie is intended to memorialize a specific place and time that has personal meaning to Tarantino and mythical status for most others. The title is an apparent homage to two Sergio Leone movies, but on a wider scale, it reminds the viewer of a classic fairy-tale. It’s not ironic because, in spite of being violent and stylish, it has a happy and idyllic ending that always happens in fairy-tales and almost never in real-life.

Other Thoughts

I rarely “go to the movies,” as they say. The last movie that I saw in a theater, before this summer, was Wonder Woman. I saw Toy Story with family members on my birthday, 9 August, but if I had known that it was the 50th anniversary of the murders, I would’ve watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as well. Fortunately, I had an old coupon for free admission, a couple of weeks alter, I watched a matinee screening of the 70mm print for free.

Even knowing the ending beforehand, I like most of the things that I’ve seen and heard. The cinematography is cool, especially the extended shots from the backseat of Rick’s car while Cliff drives. The soundtrack is great, and I’ve been listening to it non-stop for the past week. There’s some memorable lines, but there aren’t conversations on par with Pulp Fiction. Coincidentally, the daughters of two stars from that movie have small roles in this one.

The presentation of the movie is inconsistent. I would’ve preferred to have Kurt Russell provide some narration in the first act instead of only in the final act. The title card that introduces the Playboy mansion is unnecessary and so are the on-screen labels for the fictional portrayals of the ladies in The Mamas and The Papas and Steve McQueen. As expected though, the production design is thorough.

Like Pulp Fiction 25 years ago, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was the talk of the town at the Cannes 2019. Tarantino’s latest movie didn’t win the Palm d’Or, but it won a standing ovation. I might see it on a big-screen again, and not just because I’ve missed some scenes during my first viewing. Enticing me to see a movie in a theater twice might be a greater feat.