August 2019

Arts & Letters

Popcorn maker: Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’

By Shane Danielsen

Margot Robbie. Photograph by Andrew Cooper. © 2018 CTMG, Inc

The tide may have turned against the director’s juvenile instincts and misogynist violence

In May 1994 Quentin Tarantino was 31 years old. He’d already taken Sundance by storm two years earlier with his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, and was now making his first appearance in Competition at Cannes, his second feature playing alongside new works by Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Zhang Yimou and the Coen brothers – all of whom he would defeat to take the Palme d’Or. Pulp Fiction proved a sensation, crystallising a particular moment in American independent cinema, and cementing its maker’s status as a major filmmaker.

You’d have to assume he was grateful. Perhaps a little surprised, since the smart money all through the festival had been on Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Red taking the top prize. (Indeed, during the press conference after the awards ceremony, Tarantino admitted as much: “I never expect to win anything when a jury has to decide, because I don’t make the kinds of movies that bring people together. I make the kinds of movies that split people apart.”) But mostly, probably, grateful. To have been invited; to have won.

Twenty-five years later, however, the shoe is very much on the other foot. This time, it’s the festival that’s thankful, relieved not only that one of their biggest names has allowed them to premiere his new film (sounding like some satisfied headmaster, festival director Thierry Frémaux declared the American “a loyal and punctual child of Cannes”), but that he also brought its three leads – Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie – to grace a red carpet otherwise distinctly low on star-wattage.

In 2019, Cannes needs Tarantino. Not only for the excitement his name inspires, even now, but for the vindication of his example, the proof that an auteurist filmmaker can still mean something in an increasingly fragmented and franchise-driven cinema culture. The question is, do we?

I’ve long suspected that, when it comes to Tarantino’s career, what we’re seeing is the backup plan. That after winning that Palme d’Or he saw himself, not at all unreasonably, as a Serious Filmmaker. And so he went away and did what any newly consecrated young auteur would do: he made a serious movie. Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, Jackie Brown (1997) was proper, grown-up filmmaking: expansive in its world-building, ingenious in its construction, emotionally potent. It was the best thing he’d done.

And it flopped.

I doubt he was prepared for disappointment – why would he be, when this was obviously a better, more accomplished work than the one that made him a superstar? – and when it came, he retreated. By the time he reappeared with Kill Bill: Volume 1, six years later, he’d re-evaluated his entire approach, effectively abandoning grown-up drama altogether in favour of… well, pulp fiction. In place of nuance, a surfeit of style, much of it borrowed. Instead of invention, a film geek’s arsenal of copied moves. As thrilling as Tarantino’s subsequent filmmaking could be – and if nothing else, he’s very, very good at staging action – you rarely feel it’s much more than an exercise in form, a gumbo of parts ripped from B-movies you’ve likely never heard of, much less seen.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I haven’t truly loved a Tarantino film since that first Kill Bill and have found most of the recent ones irritating or boring – and in the case of The Hateful Eight, both. In his eagerness to impose a popcorn sensibility on weighty subjects – ethnic genocide in Inglourious Basterds, slavery in Django Unchained – he’s indulged a juvenile approach, often to the detriment of his storytelling. This is not a failure of taste, as it might first appear, but of imagination. And it speaks to the circumscribed limits in which he now operates.

I mean juvenile in the literal sense: the way a kid, intent on winning every game they play, will change the rules retrospectively to ensure they do. That Adolf Hitler was a pretty bad dude, huh? Well, now you can watch him get murdered. Slavery was evil – and now it’s avenged. You’re welcome. Worse than mere wish-fulfilment, this rewriting of history feels cheap and meretricious. It serves not only to reassure the viewer
that they’re on the right side of history – because who wouldn’t cheer, or at least feel a hot little throb of pleasure, to watch Hitler gunned down? – but also to ameliorate the harsh lessons of the actual, non-movie world, which frequently denies us even the sober satisfaction of justice, much less an actual happy ending.

Is Tarantino appalled by the cruelty of slavery? Without a doubt. But watching Django Unchained, you never sense he was nearly as inspired by actual historical accounts, by the first-person narratives of a Solomon Northup or a Frederick Douglass, as he was by seeing Mandingo or Goodbye Uncle Tom at his local repertory house. He despises Nazism (a seemingly uncontroversial position that today, unfortunately, requires reiteration), but his understanding of World War Two seems confined to his close study of William Witney and Robert Aldrich movies; you can’t imagine him sitting down to read, say, Antony Beevor or Raul Hilberg on the subject, or, for that matter, studying any book at all. Why would he? He’s a movie guy.

Which is not to imply that he’s stupid – far from it. He’s sharp and shrewd and witty. But he’s never struck me as especially bookish, and he also hasn’t lived very much: he went, essentially, from doing little but dreaming about making movies, to doing little but making them. Each of these things is a problem for an artist hoping to say profound, original or compelling things about human experience; taken together, they’re catastrophic. So better not to try at all, no?

If Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is Tarantino’s best film in 20 years – and, for at least three-quarters of its running-time, it is – that’s probably because it finds him essaying a subject and a period that he genuinely loves, one whose material details have long since imprinted themselves upon his imagination. The action takes place over two days in August, 1969, in a Los Angeles of sun-drenched, prelapsarian splendour, and every textural element here, every visual sign and musical cue, is meticulously evoked and utterly convincing, in a way that the generic signifiers of the antebellum South in Django Unchained were not. That was a film about America that never felt like anything but a movie. This is a movie about films that mostly feels like life.

Like most of his work, however, it takes its own sweet time; the narrative is digressive, meandering, a loose accumulation of impressions and references. What story there is concerns Clifford Booth (Pitt), longstanding stunt double and all-purpose factotum to Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a dim, once-handsome television cowboy and full-time alcoholic. The fading star lives in Benedict Canyon, next door to the house film director Roman Polanski shares with his young wife, Sharon Tate (Robbie) – part of a groovy New Hollywood set from which both Rick and Cliff, relative old-timers, are excluded. Cliff also once worked at George Spahn’s ranch in the Valley, where a loose assortment of hippie freaks – led by a diminutive misfit by the name of Charles Manson – have recently settled.

The effect is a little like watching footage of Altamont just minutes before the Stones take the stage. Tate is not only still alive, but has just starred alongside Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew, and at one point we see her drop into a Westwood cinema to watch herself onscreen. It’s a melancholy, sweetly affecting scene – all the more so because we know what’s coming.

It’s this “what’s coming” that will prove problematic to many viewers and which finally derails the film. Part of what made Jackie Brown so powerful was its refusal to take the easy way out – to conclude the action with a massive shoot-out or chase sequence that wrapped up the story and sent the audience out buzzing. Instead, it set up a network of complex interrelationships and then resolved those conflicts coolly and methodically. Which, in fairness, might be part of the reason it flopped.

This one, though, ends in pretty much the same way as Tarantino’s last few films – only more so. The violence here is extreme, even by his standards. And in at least one instance, extravagantly, almost defiantly misogynistic.

This, too, is a recent development. The violence directed against Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in The Hateful Eight went beyond the cartoonish (Tarantino’s usual register: think of Laura Cayouette being shot out of a room in Django Unchained  ) and into the pathological. One sensed, amid the particular cruelty on display, its maker lashing out at something more generalised – the limits of political correctness, perhaps. Unfortunately, like Louis C.K. or Ricky Gervais, the desire to
protect a right to be transgressive (which I think is a mostly noble aim) pushes these self-styled “mavericks” into sour conservative ranting. As if tolerance were a binary construct, rather than what it actually is: a test for the creative imagination.

It’s not only disappointing, coming from the man who gave us Jackie Brown and The Bride (and Elle Driver, and O-Ren Ishii…), but curiously tone-deaf, given the charges levelled at his long-time patron, producer Harvey Weinstein. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a deliberate fuck you, a truculent assertion of the artist’s right to do whatever the hell they like. Auteurs are fuelled by their obsessions, yet even by this standard, Tarantino is a special case. He’s a fetish filmmaker, and I’m not simply talking about his by now well-known penchant for women’s feet (though rest assured, plenty of these are showcased in this film). He lays out his fascinations onscreen and invites us to share his wonder at them. It’s frequently charming, and much of this film, honestly, is pure bliss. Only at the end does it shift into something harsh and detestable.

Having long promised that he would make 10 feature films and no more, Tarantino has recently been hinting he might call it a day after this one, his ninth. I think he can sense the tide turning, and knows that, whatever brave new world is coming, it’s one far less friendly to his filmmaking and his obsessions than the world of yesterday. It’s ironic, yet also kind of unsurprising, that a man so beguiled by history should now find himself on the wrong side of it.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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