Tarantino’s 9th FEETure: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review

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Tarantino’s 9th FEETure:

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

It makes sense that QT is planning to retire after a 10th film (although it won’t last in the long run). He has been slowly evolving over the last 15 years to a point where he is beyond making films and now he is simply working in the wrong format. The change really started with Kill Bill (a flawless masterpiece on every level) and seems to have reached a breaking point with Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood.

Each new “film” he makes feels more like a tapestry of wonderful scenes with phenomenal dialogue that suffer from overindulgence. This due in part to the possibility that QT is surrounded by too many “Yes Men” who are not going to help him shape and sculpt his work into something that cohesively feels like a singular cinematic movie instead of the sprawling collage of tangled (yet entertaining) structureless narrative.

Initially, OUTIH started out as a novel and it really shows as it feels like a completely different beast from everything else he has done. The dialogue is vastly different, not for the worse - but more of a departure from the signature stylized voice that he is synonymous with. I also found the minimal plot to be far too bare for Tarantino’s usual self-indulgence. Brad and Leo’s “arcs” feel much more like POV chapters in a book. And without a more structured plot to drive us forward, I felt the running time much more than I normally do when seeing a QT film, even The Hateful Eight. Of all his films, Kill Bill truly encapsulates the perfect ratio of plot/running time in a QT movie (after the beginning of this evolution to long form TV). Not sure if that makes any sense… It does in my head.

Also, that is not to say that the subject matter, individual scenes, characters, setting/production design, scenes (on an individual level) were not enjoyable - but it was not as smooth and easy to digest as the others. I think it will probably take a second or third viewing to further cement these feelings.

Tarantino has said this is his most personal film. My friend “Tony” floated me the idea that Rick Dalton is simply an extension of Tarantino and his anxieties of trying to stay relevant as he obsesses over what his legacy will be. Perhaps this all plays into his planned retirement after one more film?

Partners

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as the almost-washed-up-drunk Rick Dalton and his lethal stunt double sidekick Cliff Booth have wonderful chemistry together. Their partnership and underlying characterization plugs right into QT’s obsession with cowboys, cops, and the like from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And much like Kato from The Green Hornet, it’s the sidekick (and his wonderful dog) who mostly ends up doing the heavy lifting.

Sharon Tate

I personally detest most true crime stuff and was very nervous about what he would do with the tragedy of Sharon Tate. Whatever happened would definitely affect the way I would feel about the overall film. It didn’t help that there was a bunch of controversy surrounding how much screen time Margot Robbie had - which began to fuel my suspicion of the worst: Sharon Tate would be nothing more than an exploited sacrificial “prop” meant to be gutted in the background while QT’s characters (probably Leo and Brad) would be bumbling around in their own storyline, right under history’s nose. 

To my great relief, the resulting film couldn’t be farther from that truth and I thought it was a touching gesture considering all of the disgusting reenactments/retellings of this poor (pregnant) woman’s final terrifying moments. Instead, we are given a (pseudo-clumsy) sleight-of-hand magic trick where we think we know where it is going despite knowledge gleaned from the past.

I didn’t specifically read anything into her lack of dialogue. While she doesn’t speak much, she exudes a graceful presence. Margot channeled a living candlelight vigil to the real Sharon Tate and all of her hopes and dreams, the pride she showed in her work, and most importantly allows us to imagine what could have been for her (more on that below). 

The sad reality is that many of us, (myself included) casually know Sharon Tate as the pregnant actress who was brutally slaughtered by Charles Manson’s followers or simply as Roman Polanski’s actress wife and nothing more. QT changes that with OUTIH by showing us (the real) Sharon Tate acting opposite Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew. It was a touching, respectful tribute and a true testament to his intentions of having Sharon Tate in the film. Furthermore, we only see Charles Manson in a brief moment in what could have been (and usually is) all about the twisted life/mind/events of Manson and his “family.”

Bruce Lee

While QT goes to thoughtful lengths to delicately handle Sharon Tate’s subject matter, Bruce Lee (in one of the best scenes in the movie) is kind of treated with clumsy abandon. Here, we see one of martial art’s greatest icons reduced to some what of an aggressive, cocky, cartoonish fool in Cliff Booth’s fantasy to help himself feel better about not being selected to work on set with Rick Dalton. Within it’s full context, I don’t think Mike Moh is actually meant to be playing Bruce Lee. Instead, he is playing Bruce Lee as how Cliff Booth imagines Bruce Lee to be. The idea and the scene are brilliant and add to Cliff’s characterization…

Oops

And as I think back to the scene itself, and the recalls to Cliff killing his wife, I am now realizing that perhaps I am wrong and it wasn’t a projection of what would happen but rather a flashback to what had happened before. If that is the case, then it is I who is misunderstanding the scene. Uhhhhh...

Feet

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QT LOVES feet. I mean, he really, really, really, loves them. There are marvelous stories about how much he loves women’s feet. OUTIH goes out of the way on a few occasions to remind us of that in a big way. It makes me wonder a whole bunch about the casting process on a QT film. I would not be surprised if they were shoeless auditions.


Slapstick Violence

Tarantino has gotten to a place where he loves to communicate brutality through comedic means. Continuing a trend that also sort of started with Kill Bill, OUTIH crescendos with goofy, over-the-top slapstick violence. So much so that it leads me to believe that Quentin Tarantino would be the perfect candidate to make an Evil Dead (or 3 Stooges) film. If Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, and Bruce Campbell reigned in Tarantino on a short enough leash, we would wind up with a great fourth entry.

I am not sure if it is QT’s intention, but he always seems to justify his punishment-through-violent-wrath with the lowest common denominator of common sense morality of good and evil. Which is not to say that it is invalid or weak, but merely common sense. There is no Walter White nuance here.

I found this antagonistic device satisfying as I watched the hilarious depictions of Chekov’s dog and flamethrower destroy two evil women and one evil man. Is it exploitation? Misogyny? I am not sure, probably on some Freudian level.

Playing with history

Watching the conclusion of OUTIH feels like therapy in a certain sense, by confronting the demons of a real life traumatic event in our pop culture’s history. 

I cannot speak to this experience (and wish to remain sensitive), but I have heard survivors of rape discuss how they have worked through/confronted/dealt with personal trauma by watching movies like Last House on the Left and I Spit on your Grave. If QT is a purveyor of pop culture mash up or as I read recently on Facebook, “A Cultural DJ” of sorts, is this his way of dealing with this tragic, traumatic, public historical event as a whole? It might be a bit tasteless/inappropriate to try and compare the two in this analogy, but perhaps the ideas behind both are similar in nature. I’ll leave it at that.

Bottom line, seeing Sharon live and the Mason Family killed in this alternate history left me with a cathartic feeling as the credits rolled. Yes, she died IRL, but this one time, she didn’t and it was beautiful.

Insider Baseball

Regarding the “Cultural DJ” observation gleaned on Facebook, there are oodles of noodles of tasty cinematic easter eggs/nods like all other Taratino affairs. But QT takes the insider baseball to a (somewhat agonizing) whole new level with OUTIH. The level of care and detail is astounding. I’ve heard various people online essentially exclaim that this is Tarantino letting his geek flag fly loud and proud. But isn’t every Tarantino affair a similar flag waving? Is it too distracting? I think cinemaniacs (like myself) are so blindly frothing at the mouth over stuff like the fictional filmography/history of obscure spaghetti westerns that they are overlooking a lot of problems with the movie as a whole. 

On an individual level, the detailed TV production/Hollywood business scenes featuring Rick Dalton are wonderful to watch, but don’t work as well when Cliff Booth’s storyline is far more interesting. Every time we cut back to a long Rick Dalton scene, I found myself pulled out of the movie, wondering where this was all going. 

The Big Screen has gotten too Small.

Tarantino ultimately needs to go from the big screen to the small in order for him to continue telling larger and larger stories. With a few heavy hitter producers keeping him in his lane and a solid TV network that will give him the keys to the kingdom, he’ll be able to make some of the best long form episodic, serialized television we have ever seen.