Once upon a time in Hollywood Quentin Tarantino (USA 2019) Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt
viewed Tyneside Cinema 16 August 2019; ticket: £10.75
Life’s a beach
As I watched Once upon a time in Hollywood I was getting that feeling known as Déjà vu. I felt I’d seen it all somewhere before.
This is the first film of Tarantino I’ve viewed that I felt awareness of dirivitive influences shaping his writing/direction. Of course Tarentino is known as an obsessive consumer of movies and TV, and pulls into his films references ideas images etc from the whole rattlebag of the Hollywood skeleton. Generally the bombastics of his stylised scenarios serve as disconnects to most of his referents. But ‘Once upon a time’ pointed me towards specific influential sources: Robert Altman’s movies, in particular the Long Goodbye; and, Hill’s Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid.
If not dopple gangers for Redford and Newman, DiCaprio and Pitt come across as transposed feel-good simulacra. DiCaprio and Pitt in their relationship project an idealised American male buddy relationship, striking that same note of relaxed intimacy that Hill drew from his actors: a relationship that is of course another Hollywood stereotype.
Altman’s movie ‘The Long Good-bye’ is among his very best, and like ‘Once upon a time…’ centres about LA with its myriad interconnected themes of movies desire and crime. The Long Goodbye like some of his other films, most obviously Nashville, utilises a shooting style that exploits the idea of layering rather than narrative. The shifting constantly travelling scenario revolves around theme, stalks idea rather than confronting idea. The Long Goodbye incorporates through a diverse series of characters, vignettes and strips of dialogue, the situations and events that combine and build upon each other to create the impression of a world. It is in the context of this world that we can come to see the movie.
Employing a similar stylistic approach, Tarentino’s movie, like Altman’s creates a world. For Altman LA is a lost world, a world corrupted, a fallen world. The Long Goodbye fills out the things that Altman perceives. Tarentino’s movie is about Hollywood, but Tarentino doesn’t work from perception. Tarentino is about extension. The gross extension of his own immersed movie experience projected out into the world. ‘Once upon a time..’ works as a movie (it is very well shot) because his projection of Hollywood is part of a collective experience extending out into the viewers’ expectations and anticipations, confirming their enjoyment as a legitmate experience.
The layering of Tarentino’s movie sets up the interplay of life and movies in Hollywood: it is difficult to distinguish where one begins and the other ends. In Hollywood, such is the omnipresence of the movies they penetrate consciousness eliding the objective and the subjective. Such is the allure of Tinseltown, the power it wields over the imagination of America in its state of psychic confusion, Tarentino’s state of mind becomes a shared experience in which we all participate.
‘Once upon a Time…’ folds togather the lives of Rick and Cliff. Rick the fading cowboy star and Cliff his stunt double. Rick’s career and income slump as times in Hollywood change. The taste for old fashioned cowboy heroes wanes and is replaced by a hipster generation of male leads. Built into this layered fable of decline are a series of tangential intrusions. Barely remarked these minor interactions, no more than small incidents are witness to another world intruding into the Hollywood machine. The world of Manson, which is exploited by Tarentino to justify his finale as a true ‘Hollywood’ apocalypse.
A film that is an extension of Tarentino’s immersion can only end in an orgy of explosive violence. And Tarentino decides to hammer out the Sharon Tate story on the anvil of his imagination; but transposes the homicidal mission of the Manson family away from Tate’s household onto Rick’s. ‘Once upon a time…’, climaxes with a sequence all movie goers love: a Zombie style final battle in which the good guys whip the Zombies, thereby retrofitting an unhappy actual story with a happy virtual outcome.
Sharon Tate’s heavily pregnant stabbed dead body and murdered foetus are replaced with another kind of ending: drinks for all by the pool. Sharen Tate’s murder (and that of her child and the rest of the people in her house) is just another movie in a world given over to movies in which the manufacture of death is usually the end product. In LaLa Land death is everywhere. Like the sign – part of the landscape.
So Tarentino’s movie makes its claim to be present on our screen in that it is part of the collective consciousness of America. It doesn’t have to explain or to justify itself. It is what it is. Life’s a beach. But where are the Beach Boys. Not on this soundtrack. They are real.