Once Upon a Time… in Tarantino Land
As many of you may remember, a few months ago I decided to take a detailed look at the works of Quentin Tarantino – a writer-director who has fascinated me ever since I fell in love with films and filmmaking. After countless hours of research and writing, what I found was an astounding, rich world of reoccurring ideas, themes and motifs, all of which he uses to create his own sort of cinematic language: the Tarantinoesque. Even with the many references that he uses, Tarantino’s works are always instantly recognisable, his scripts filled with engaging humour and pitch-perfect dialogue, while those nods to other films are transformed in new and exciting ways – something that makes for a truly engrossing viewing experience. With the new Blu-ray release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), I was keen to see if Tarantino’s latest fit the framework I explored in my previous articles, or if there was anything else that now emerges as he heads towards his tenth (and potentially final) film.
(NOTE: Major spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ahead!)
GENRE AND STYLE
Once Upon a Time... is a love letter to a lot of things, but first and foremost it’s a celebration of the 1960s – an era which is recreated in painstaking, glorious detail throughout. Tarantino will often simply let his camera roll as it takes in his characters’ wonderful surroundings, the billboards that loom over them or the TV show they’re watching or the music they listen to just as important as the bigger narrative at hand. It gives the film a pleasing, nostalgic air that is captivating to watch as it unfolds, and which makes it feel as if we’re slipping into someone else’s memories (most likely Tarantino’s own recollections of the time).
With such a specific period as its setting, it’s surprising how much of the film is actually all about the Western genre – a style that Tarantino is certainly no stranger to. While this is absolutely in the literal sense, OUATIH briefly transforming into a Western as we watch Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) during his filming of Lancer (1968-70), it also occurs more figuratively in his story, Tarantino using the genre as a way to explore Rick and Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) professions. Rick’s career has been built on the back of the genre, the actor having successfully played the lead in Western TV series ‘Bounty Law’ for years, a job that in turn gave Cliff steady employment as his stunt double. But when we meet him, Rick has been relegated to guest spots on other shows, turning up as the villain each week and sneering through his dialogue before the hero beats him up (an old trick pulled by the networks says producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino)).
When we see him on the set of Lancer in dark garb and disguised behind a bushy moustache, it’s such a contrast to the clean-cut figure of 'Bounty Law’s’ Jake Cahill that it’s as if the world of the Western has turned its back on him, his ageing figure no longer welcome in a place filled with young, heroic cowboys. He realises this himself when he recounts the plot of the book he’s reading to his pint-sized Lancer co-star (Julia Butters), Rick suddenly moved to tears when it hits him how much this tale of an elderly bronco buster could be about his own stalled career, fears that only seem to be confirmed when his first scene on set goes disastrously wrong. That he’s then able to pull himself together and come back with “the best acting” his co-star has ever seen makes Rick realise he might still have life left in him, even if the only way he can continue working on his beloved Westerns is to move to Italy and star in a subgenre he has little affection for.
Yet these Western influences pop up in subtler, unexpected ways throughout with Tarantino often using the style of the genre to build up the tension of his narrative. This is particularly the case during Cliff’s visit to his old ‘Bounty Law’ stomping ground of Spahn Ranch – a film and TV set now dilapidated and overrun by Manson and his followers. It might take place in 1969, but as soon as Cliff puts his foot on that dusty ground, it’s as if we’re back watching Lancer, Tarantino using shots straight out of a Western (many of which he actually uses in the Lancer sequence) and turning Cliff’s visit into a Mexican stand-off. While this showdown might lack guns and bullets, it’s as suspenseful as any other scene Tarantino has created in his previous Westerns, even if it ends with a hippy’s busted jaw and a car tyre being changed.
This Western style is curiously left behind when we venture indoors though, the drawn out silences and sun-baked backdrop replaced by eerie music (an unreleased Bernard Herrmann score) and shadowy, cobweb-filled rooms, Tarantino suddenly turning this into a horror film to emphasis the danger Cliff is in. It’s terrifying to watch, Cliff cautiously moving through the shack and keeping his eye on the fearsome Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), in dread of what he’ll discover behind George’s (Bruce Dern) bedroom door. His relief at finding just a cantankerous elderly man mirrors our own, Tarantino briefly giving us a comedic reprieve as they chat about the good old days – or rather Cliff does while George tries to remember what year it is. But when Cliff steps outside again, we’re suddenly back in the lawless land of the Western, making us realise that he isn’t quite out of harm’s way yet.
CHARACTERS AND CAST
As I pointed out in my last piece, although Tarantino’s characters can almost never be trusted, in his revenge films he moves away from this, using a more archetypal hero to fight against an injustice he wants to correct (Django and slavery in Django Unchained (2012), the Basterds and the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds (2009)). What’s surprising then is that while OUATIH fits into this category, setting right the wrongs done to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her friends on that night in 1969, the one doling out the justice is almost as dubious as some of Tarantino’s earlier criminal characters. Cliff might be charming and a kind soul willing to give a hitchhiker a ride (albeit a pretty one), yet he’s also someone who admits he’s been on the wrong side of the law several times, least of all because he may have killed his wife (a moment Tarantino alludes to but thankfully leaves to our imaginations). So why does this questionable, potentially murderous character still work in this particular Tarantino revenge story?
Well, it’s certainly because of Brad Pitt’s wonderful performance, Pitt giving a thoughtful, layered turn as a man unable to fit into a world that doesn’t want him anymore (career or otherwise). But really it’s his friendship with Rick that humanises him – a pair who support each other throughout the film, Rick by giving Cliff regular work (even if it’s just around the house) and Cliff by encouraging Rick to keep going with his acting career. It’s only later on when Cliff literally saves Rick’s life during the home invasion that Rick realises how much he depends on him (and vice versa), their genuine friendship one that will never fade, even as everything else around them does. And it’s this touching idea that keeps Cliff the likeable, poignant hero that he really is, despite what he’s done in the past.
What is particularly interesting about this pair though is the comparisons Tarantino draws between them throughout – something that makes their dynamic even more gripping. Although Rick is the star and Cliff his stuntman, it often seems this should be the other way around, the athletic, good-looking Cliff (at one point he’s told he’s “kinda pretty for a stuntman”) someone that Rick can only aspire to be. It’s this fact that maybe partly accounts for Rick’s obvious insecurity, the actor constantly questioning if he’s really good enough to do his job, his overreliance on alcohol not helping matters. Indeed, Rick is a stuttering, anxious mess the first time we see him, the meeting he has with Schwarz showing him to be a man entirely out of his depth. The only person able to bring him back from the brink here is Cliff, the man comforting him and declaring he’s “Rick fucking Dalton” – a sentiment Rick will repeat later on after his victorious Lancer scene. He might not always feel like it, but Rick will always be a star. Sometimes all it takes to remind him that is a little faith from his best friend.
VIOLENCE AND THE MACABRE
There isn’t much viscera in this Tarantino tale, but when it does take place, it bursts onto the screen in the most shocking way. As I previously discussed, it’s this explosive violence that Tarantino uses as his own language for revenge, the gore an extension of the anger a character (and Tarantino himself) feels towards those who have done an unforgiveable wrong. It’s no surprise then that Tarantino reserves his violence for the Manson followers who invade Rick’s home at the end of the film – the trio who in real life killed Tate and her friends.
It’s decidedly shorter than any of the other blood-filled scenes of his previous works, yet it is nonetheless brutal, Cliff (and his dog Brandy) literally eviscerating the group, the sounds of blood spurting and bones crunching almost as horrifying as what we’re seeing. That we never feel any sympathy for the hippies is credit to Tarantino and the notes of dark, absurd humour that he adds to this sequence, the trio so hilariously out of their depth that he turns them into the butt of a joke, albeit one that culminates in the nasty use of a flamethrower. It might be OTT, but you can almost hear Tarantino telling us it’s ok to laugh and not feel sorry for them. After all, did they hesitate during that night in 1969?
What precedes this scene is just as interesting though, the murderous group actually pausing their plan after a close encounter with a rampaging, margarita-fuelled Rick. When they realise it’s him, they speak with reverence about ‘Bounty Law’ (Tex (Austin Butler) lovingly describes a lunchbox he had from the show), each of them bowled over by meeting such a brilliant actor, even if it was in unusual circumstances. But suddenly, Sadie (Mikey Madison) turns the discussion into something a lot darker, pointing out to the others that they should send a message to the world about the TV violence that they, and everyone else, grew up on. And what better way to do that than by murdering Jake Cahill himself, a character who regularly killed people each week? Yet when they set their plan into action, what they encounter is so much more extreme in comparison to the restrained, bloodless stuff they saw on TV that the group are immediately floored, Tarantino turning their ‘deep’ statement into a mockery. Watching onscreen violence is one thing, but using it as an excuse to carry out unspeakable acts is something Tarantino can’t abide. These three need to be put back in their place, and Cliff is more than happy to be the one to do that.
FANTASY VS. REALITY
Once Upon a Time... might have a story that uses real figures and a historical incident as inspiration, yet most of what we see onscreen is merely Tarantino’s version of events. In other words, it’s only true to a certain degree. But the picture that he paints doesn’t exist entirely separate from reality, Tarantino actually using our knowledge of that 1969 night on Cielo Drive to build up a horrible sense of impending dread that hangs over the film like a ghostly presence. As we reach that fateful evening, we watch the characters blissfully unaware of what we know, onscreen times indicating exactly where Tate, Rick and Cliff are, Tarantino laying everything out like a true crime procedural.
When we eventually approach that final awful moment, the tension is so taut that it’s almost unbearable, our expectations of the grim scene that’s about to follow enough to make us want to stop watching. So when Manson’s lackeys enter Rick’s house instead of Tate’s, the relief we feel is so huge that you can’t help cheering Cliff on, our fears of seeing history repeat itself put aside as Tarantino unleashes his revenge. Sure, it’s not what happened, but there is something oddly powerful about having it play out this way, Tarantino creating a twist that ensures Tate gets the life she deserved – a pure Hollywood ending that perfectly sums up the wonderful tinseltown world we’ve seen throughout.
What makes this conclusion even more satisfying is that Tarantino drops hints about the changes earlier on, the airport scene featuring Tate and Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) later repeated with Rick and his new wife (Lorenza Izzo), both sequences shot in exactly the same way, while Rick is dressed in a costume similar to Polanski’s. It’s as if they’ve literally switched places, Rick (and Cliff) the replacements that Tarantino will use to set things right. And they certainly do that.
The truth never factors too heavily into Tarantino’s portrayal of real life figures as well, the writer-director using many of them as an embodiment of an idea rather than a factual representation. Bruce Lee’s (Mike Moh) cameo is a perfect example of this, the actor and Martial Arts genius making an appearance to emphasis how obsolete Cliff’s role in Hollywood has become, Lee the perfect leading man who has no need for a stunt double. He’s the whole package. So no wonder Tarantino has Cliff squaring up to him. Yet it is Tate’s portrayal which is the most interesting, this joyful, hopeful character used by Tarantino to represent an exciting new era of Hollywood that is on the horizon. This is best captured when we see Tate going to watch her new film (The Wrecking Crew (1968)), Tate’s gleeful expression completely infectious as she revels in the audience laughing and cheering at the right parts.
She’s certainly happy that everyone is connecting to the film, yet it’s also the moment she realises that a lot of opportunities are going to be coming her way soon – a fact that has her leaving the cinema with a dreamy, optimistic look on her face. While it’s true her appearance in Once is only brief, Tarantino is keeping her enigmatic so as not to besmirch the real Tate’s memory, knowing that a more detailed portrayal won’t do her justice. Indeed, there’s a reason he doesn’t digitally insert Robbie into The Wrecking Crew footage we see (Tarantino even signposts this decision by showing us Rick in The Great Escape (1963) minutes before), Tarantino recognising that the real Tate deserves to be seen in her full glory. It’s a choice that adds a great deal of poignancy to this scene, and which also makes it easy to understand why Tarantino would want to ensure Tate stays alive at the end of his film.
Tate might be the embodiment of the positive things to come, but Manson (Damon Herriman) symbolises something else entirely. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that he appears at the same time we see Rick in his Lancer costume, the dark clothes and wild hair of Caleb DeCoteau mirroring Manson’s style (Lancer’s director, Sam Wannamaker (Nicholas Hammond) even says he wants Caleb to have a hippy look). However, while Caleb is a fake villain in a make-believe Western, Manson is a very real threat, our knowledge of what he did making us fear for the unsuspecting characters who encounter him. His ghoulish presence might send shivers down our spines, but Tarantino makes a concerted effort to demystify Manson with this cameo too, his version a diminutive, average-looking guy (one of the characters even calls him a “shaggy asshole”) who drives around in a crappy Twinkie truck and who no-one really has time for, least of all Tarantino.
That the name ‘Manson’ is never uttered is further evidence of this (Herriman is on the cast list as ‘Charlie’), Tarantino ensuring that he never uses that legendary name and that he cuts his appearance down to the briefest of moments, not wanting to afford Manson the attention he so desperately wanted in real life. In doing so, Tarantino is also rightly separating him from Tate’s world and reclaiming her story as her own – a story that she never had the chance to tell because of him. Yet in Tarantino’s Universe, she might just get to do that further down the line.
THE POWER OF FILM AND TV
It’s obvious throughout all of his films how much Tarantino loves cinema and TV, the genre influences and references that he uses reflecting an infectious obsession that we can’t help but be enamoured by. So it’s surprising it’s taken him this long to make one set in the very industry he feels so passionate about. Rick and Cliff clearly cherish it too, both of them determined to keep working in this world, even when every door seems to shut in their faces. But Tarantino makes us understand exactly why they persevere, the little victories they get enough to keep them powering through, such as Rick’s bad day on the Lancer set turning into one of the best of his career.
It’s during these scenes that Tarantino also allows us to experience the production process he loves so much, OUATIH camera suddenly becoming the camera used to film Rick and James Stacy’s (Timothy Olyphant) big moment together. When Rick gets a line wrong, the imaginary Lancer set suddenly breaks down, the music and sound effects (neighing horses and passing stagecoaches) disappearing as the camera resets, almost as if we’re in control of it. This sequence isn’t merely about breaking the fourth wall (there isn’t really a fourth wall to be broken), but rather its Tarantino’s way of putting us in the director’s seat, making us part of the world he so adores.
The creation of film and TV isn’t just a thing he finds beauty in though. These are two mediums he also believes carry a tremendous amount of power – a concept he uses several times throughout his career. In the literal sense, Tarantino envisions cinema as a tool to help his characters, such as the film premiere in Inglourious Basterds being used to trap the Nazis, or the final girls in Death Proof (2007) who use their stunt training to enact revenge on Mike (Kurt Russell).
Similarly, it’s this idea he uses at the end of OUATIH, Cliff’s stuntman skills helping him win the final fight, while Rick’s flamethrower from ‘The 14 Fists of McCluskey’ comes in very handy for finishing off Sadie. Yet in a more figurative sense, Tarantino sees that moving images hold a power all of their own, able to preserve someone in time forever, even after they’ve gone. In Tate’s case, and in our reality, she stays in our memories through film and TV – a touching reminder of the bright young star who was taken too soon. But here, Tarantino is literally using his cinematic world to keep her alive, changing the narrative to what he sees is right. And if that isn’t a perfect example of the power of the moving image, than I don’t know what is.
While Tarantino is enamoured with both cinema and TV in equal measure, there are several moments where he seems to figuratively pitch them against each other, often as a way to show the changes in Rick’s career. This is a man who is at the bottom of the pile, his guest roles on TV giving him little to do and the only film offers ones that he’ll have to move to Italy for. But while his career is ending, Tate’s is just beginning, cinema a beacon of hope for her, and something she is obviously looking forward to being part of for a long time. If she represents the world of film, Tarantino associates Manson’s followers with TV repeatedly throughout, whether it’s the trio talking about ‘Bounty Law’ or the group of them glued to the screen in George’s house.
Indeed, during this scene it’s obvious that TV means a lot to Squeaky, the fearsome girl rattling off a list of shows that she and George watch together (and heaven forbid he fall asleep while they’re on). Although it doesn’t seem right to suggest that OUATIH is all about film versus TV, there’s certainly a way Tarantino uses this argument to make his ending more symbolic than it first appears. After all, it can’t be mere coincidence that the death of these TV-loving hippies allows Rick to suddenly connect to his neighbours – those who are literally part of the promising world of cinema. When Tate’s sweet voice invites Rick in for a drink and those huge gates to her home open, it’s as if Rick is being ushered into a new era that will let him leave all those TV guest appearances behind. Who knows, maybe he’ll even get a role in the next Polanski film.
CONCLUSION: MEMORIES AND MELANCHOLY
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows a director at the top of his game, his Tarantinoesque language used to create something truly powerful that says a lot more than we first expect it to. With the appearance of Red Apple Cigarettes in the closing credits (this time a literal product placement featuring Rick), there’s no doubt that this is part of the Tarantino Universe – a place that is becoming increasingly exciting as he continues to add to it. However, it’s a film that also shows a man who continues to mature and evolve in his writing, and who appears to be coming to terms with an industry that he knows he’ll have to leave behind at some point (in much the same way Rick and Cliff eventually will). It might not be his most extravagant plot-wise, yet OUATIH is a deeply melancholic work with real nostalgia in each of its frames – something that makes this an admirably restrained film that rewards many repeat viewings. His next work might be his last, but it’ll almost certainly take place in this wonderful cinematic world that he’s crafted over the years. And I for one can’t wait to see what that swan song will be.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 9th December