Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Aidil Rusli
Aidil Rusli

AUGUST 24 — For most people who started to watch films seriously in the 90s, the name Quentin Tarantino holds as much power and influence as Kurt Cobain’s name did for serious music lovers in the 90s. 

Just like how Cobain passionately talked about and introduced his influences like The Pixies, Daniel Johnston, The Melvins, Meat Puppets and so many more to the masses through his interviews, the T-shirts he wore and even guest appearances on shows and tours, Tarantino did the same by name-checking cinematic giants and movements (from both high and low culture) like Jean-Luc Godard, Sonny Chiba, Blaxploitation, Brian De Palma and so many more through his interviews, the T-shirts he wore, posters and movie memorabilia he owned and even direct homages in his movies.

Personally, I was more enamoured by Wes Anderson’s debut film Bottle Rocket (which was marketed as “Reservoir Geeks” on the back cover of the VHS I bought in Petaling Street back then) and Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves during that era of Tarantino mania in the mid-90s, and even during the year of Pulp Fiction (which of course I thought was a fantastic film) in 1994, my favourite films were The Hudsucker Proxy,Chungking Express (released by Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Picture in the USA), Serial Mom and Nobody’s Fool.

But there’s no doubting Tarantino’s presence and influence in the cultural landscape even until today, which is why I’ve always made it a point to catch any new film by him in the cinema, if it manages to make its way here. 

With Palme d’Or winner Parasite (which I wrote about last week) also arriving in Malaysian cinemas in the same week, it’s really a gift to have the privilege to watch another Cannes 2019 film, Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in local cinemas right now.

A legit, big budget (reportedly US$95 million or RM398 million) auteurist gamble by Sony in the age of franchises, sequels, superhero blockbusters and cinematic universes, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood thumbs its nose at audience expectations by also being possibly Tarantino’s warmest and sweetest movie yet, or at least since Jackie Brown (and everyone knows Tarantino as the “violence” guy), while championing values that most people have deemed outdated in this current age of social justice warriors and political correctness.

Looking back to the year 1969 in Hollywood, a loaded symbolic choice full of meaning both in terms of pop culture and political landscape, what with Woodstock, Nixon’s Vietnamisation policy and the breaking of the gate for the upcoming New Hollywood cinema by Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider all happening in that year, not to mention the Manson Family murders, which counted Roman Polanski’s heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate (a crucial part of this film) as one of its victims, the film centres on two dudes — Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Western star on the way out of stardom, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

As is usually the case with Tarantino, there’s a parallel storyline happening, and it involves the positively radiant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who happens to be Rick’s neighbour in the Hollywood Hills. 

For more than two thirds of the movie, we’re just hanging out with these three characters in their three very different lives, without much of a plot or storyline in sight. 

The only element of drama here is Rick’s dawning realisation that his time as a Western movie star in Hollywood is coming to a close, and he probably needs to accept it and do something about it, which of course will also affect Cliff’s future as he’s Rick’s stunt double.

As for Sharon Tate, if you’re aware of the dates signposted by the movie’s title cards and their significance in the history of the Manson Family murders, then that element of threat will always be at the back of your mind, despite how lovely the depiction of her life is by Tarantino on screen.

But this is not a film about plot or storylines, it’s more of an elegiac mood piece that luxuriates in the tiny moments lived by its characters, and I think Guillermo del Toro put it best in his tweet that the film is “a tale of time that probably never was, but still feels like a memory.” 

Memory and fairy tale are the best words to use to describe the film, from the warm and sunny colour palettes of the cinematography, the deliriously fastidious attention to period detail in the film’s background, and the very Scorsese by way of Paul Thomas Anderson editing rhythms, especially during the film’s many musical montage sequences.

In a way, this film uses the same guiding principles as his previous films Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, in which he uses cinema as wish fulfilment to change the course of history, but whereas those films have vengeance and anger as their core, this one has love, sweetness and that old school white cowboy hero code of honour as its beating heart.

Forget all the criticism levelled at the movie, this is a tale of another time that probably never was, a fairy tale (and if you still don’t get that after you get to the ending, then there’s nothing I can say that will change your mind) wish fulfilment, with very logical answers ready for any questions you might want to throw at it — Sharon Tate has so few lines of dialogue (how can she have more when all our collective memories of her are her radiant and iconic photos, and the facts surrounding her murder?), the movie is too white (it’s about a Western star in 1969, and Western stars are very much white in 1969, plus the fact that Charles Manson was a white supremacist so of course the surrounding people will be white, duh), the movie promotes violence against women (ermmm then don’t go see a movie about the Manson killings, which actually happened in real life!).

With a box-office collection that’s already reached US$182 million worldwide (the US box-office alone contributing US$116.5 million), I think it’s pretty clear that audiences everywhere have spoken, which spells a win for big budget original, non-franchise, non-sequel content, and another win for the consistently successful Tarantino oeuvre. 

Miss this one at your peril.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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