Quentin Tarantino’s much awaited love letter to Hollywood brings blaring lights, aesthetically pleasing shots reminiscent of the glitz and danger of the late 60s, and a stunning cast of characters based around a series of true events, posing the tricky question—is it possible to play with everything?
Faded Western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio’s first role since his Oscar-winning performance in The Revenant) laments his dying persona and the only possible next step in his career path—Spaghetti Westerns. Close friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (a shady, sunglasses-wielding Brad Pitt) drives his boss around before returning home to his caravan where he lives with his dog Brandy. The premise is a simple one and no doubt a reflection of Tarantino’s awareness that success is fleeting and one can only be in the spotlight for so long. This idea is reflected in Dicaprio’s scarily well ad-libbed trailer scene, in which he kicks himself for forgetting his lines and humiliating himself in front of everyone. Rick’s pressurised, disheartened character is contrasted with Cliff’s laidback, hippie nature as he parades around in Hawaiian shirts. He attracts the eye of a young, pretty member of the Manson family, a key link between fictional scenarios and true events depicted in the film.
The parallel storylines intertwine and merge, but ultimately fail to create a consistent, rhythmical lull, as opposed to what Tarantino habitually accustoms us to. The mind boggling time chain that is Pulp Fiction or the concise goal-driven plot of Kill Bill both outdo this new release. It appears to be not only a love letter to Hollywood, but also a mess of a love letter to Tarantino’s own films. Evidently, we find a number of characteristics which seem to act here not as a main plot point or character attribute, but as a common trope, as though Tarantino has jumbled up all of his films’ signature centrepieces and tossed them into the madness of the 60s. In reference to his other works, we see a close shot of yellowed feet stuck to the front window of a car, and an excitable Manson family member similar to Kill Bill’s villain Gogo Yubari. Ultimately, Tarantino’s latest film is not about his characters, but about him and his status and power as a film director.
Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate was critiqued even before the film was released. Tarantino was accused of excluding her from the plotline, depicting her as a dim-witted, childish blonde quietly laughing at herself on screen at the cinema. But there is a real, heartfelt quality to her short appearances amidst Dalton and Booth’s turbulent lives. Kind, bubbly and sweet, she is not so much daft as high on the 60s life, and on the excitement of being semi-famous and attending the biggest parties of the time. Still though, Tarantino’s treatment of past events remains a tricky game to play: is it possible to tweak such an event as a murder, in which the people who were involved are still alive today? It is difficult not to see the trauma-inducing photograph of Polanski the day after his wife died, posing next to his front door on which the assailants had written the word PIG in her blood, without questioning whether the true story should remain untouched by strangers’ hands.
Tarantino has widely been criticised over the years concerning his insensitivity; whether in his films or in interviews, he seems to perpetually exist solely in the fictional world, where no feeling can be attained. His overuse of the ‘N’ word in Django Unchained (near one hundred times) can be interpreted as taking advantage of a colonialist context to satisfy an ‘infatuation’ with it, a word used by Spike Lee in reference to his consistent usage of it. His insensitivity in Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood, however, is debatable. The usual gory violence makes its grand entry only in the final scene—one must be prepared for it—but the question of what happens to Sharon Tate is a turn of events in which Tarantino heroically positions himself as conqueror of the bad guys in his personal cartoon world.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor