July 31, 2019

Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”: He Always Gives Us Plenty to Talk About 

By Stuart Mitchner

Before I put my moviegoer cards on the table, I should say upfront how much I enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I found more to like and even love in it than in anything I’ve ever seen by the director of that iconic cinematic sugar rush, Pulp Fiction (1994). If you asked me my favorite moments in the films of Wim Wenders or Jim Jarmusch (not to mention, not yet, Sergio Leone), I could go on for an hour and still have more to say. With Tarantino, it usually comes down to the moment when John Travolta and a barefoot Uma Thurman do the Twist in a nightclub dance contest, Thurman’s character having just told Travolta’s character that his gangster boss, her boyfriend, killed a man for massaging her feet. After that, the sugar began losing its kick and I had second thoughts about every single blood-bright bravura scene. But there was no denying the excitement of a new thing under the Hollywood sun. The mere fact that there was so much to talk and argue and bitch about was an accomplishment in itself.

With Tarantino’s latest still fresh in mind, I have no second thoughts worth mentioning about the interplay between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a fading TV cowboy, and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, his charismatic stuntman double, driver, man Friday, and drinking buddy. I enjoyed watching the two speeding around LA in Dalton’s white Caddy, and the way Tarantino caught the nighttime, neon-branded, Sunset Strip spirit of the time and place. While DiCaprio gives an Oscar-worthy performance, Pitt supplies old-fashioned star power with his warmly earthy, good-humored alternative to the dour heroes played by Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. He’s a joy to watch at all times, whether he’s smilingly destroying an insufferably arrogant Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), going through the elaborate routine of feeding his pit bull Brandy, or fixing the television aerial on the roof of Rick’s Cielo Drive home, which just happens to be located in the immediate vicinity of the crime-scene-to-be inhabited “in real life” by Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski.

“What Are You Reading?”

Meanwhile DiCaprio has a movie-in-a-movie all his own as the fallen bounty hunter hero reduced to playing a B-western heavy, blowing his lines, raging and weeping, and sharing an uncharacteristically-for-Tarantino tender, sensitively directed scene with Julia Butters, a child actress who has captured every reviewer’s heart, including mine. You sense the uniqueness of what is about to happen the moment you see her on the set, with the big book in her lap, her cowboy-booted feet poking out from the gingham dress. In that first moment she suggests more sheer presence than anyone in the film. You’re wondering what’s she doing in a Tarantino movie and at the same time feeling it’s exactly right that she’s sitting there as Rick sits down nearby, after politely asking her permission, and begins reading a paperback western. The perfect pitch exchange between the two on the simple subject what-are-you-reading reminds you that Tarantino’s greatest gift remains his mastery of dialogue. She’s cool, even severely superior  at first, but as he tells her the plot of the western and begins to lose control of his emotions in his identification with the unhappy character he’s describing, she puts her book down, comes over, puts one hand on his knee, and gently, sweetly consoles him. One wrong word, one false move by either actor and the scene would dissolve into the sort of schmaltz hardcore Tarantino fans would deride. And when you reach the double whammy shell game of the savage denouement, you can’t help feeling that Tarantino has covered his bloody tracks by feeding you this tender scene to savor while you’re having Second Thoughts writ large.

Sharon and Michelle

The doomed starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is featured in a small film of her own that includes a trip to a bookstore and a daytime visit to a Westwood Village cinema to see herself on the screen in a supporting role with Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew. Again with uncharacterstic delicacy, Tarantino captures the excitement of a young actress who has not yet arrived enjoying a fan’s-eye view of herself. Of course there’s no way to watch her being so lovably, innocently full of herself without the frisson of knowing what’s going  to befall her in “real life.”

Watching Robbie as Tate, I kept thinking of how well Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas might have played the part when she was the same age. The connection came to mind because of a moving, luminous, caught-for-the-ages close up shot of Michelle in Andrew Slater’s song-filled documentary Echo in the Canyon, which offers a nostalgic feel-good alternative vision of the same time and place when musicians like Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Phillips and Mama Cass were hanging out, enjoying Laurel Canyon’s open-door ambiance, casually dropping in, jamming, everything glowing, fine and mellow — until the night of August 9, 1969. During a 2001 interview on knotslanding.net, Phillips still finds it hard to talk about the Manson murders, speaking in extremes of “rampant paranoia, unspeakable pain, terrible horror.” Describing how she “walked all the way up Cielo Drive for the first time in 34 years and went to where the house is,” she says “it made me cry…. But I really can’t talk about this.”

Did she identify with Sharon Tate? How could she not? Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood subtly evokes the miasma of the Manson cult, the shadow of menace and horror conspicuous by its absence in Echo in the Canyon. One of Tarantino’s evil masterstrokes is the choice of the song playing on the soundtrack as the Manson cult death car with its three girls armed and ready rumbles ominously up Cielo Drive. What you hear are the gorgeous harmonies of the Mamas and the Papas singing “Twelve-Thirty,” arguably the most beautiful song they ever recorded, with its first line, murderously ironic in this context, “Young girls are coming to the canyon.” Here’s a song nicely evoking the idyll depicted in the other film, contrasting “dark and dirty” New York City with life in Laurel Canyon, where “it’s so strange to feel so friendly, to say good morning and really mean it.” How strange and how wrenching for Michelle Phillips, should she have the courage to sit all the way through Tarantino’s film, to hear her younger self singing those harmonies, those words, with the dreaded denouement looming — unless of course she’d been alerted to the fact that Tarantino has something else in mind.

Showdown at the Spahn Ranch

The most inspired film within this film is centered on the subtly suspenseful, showdown-tense visit Cliff Booth pays to the Manson family coven on George Spahn’s ranch, where Cliff had done some stunt work years before.

So much is both happening and impending in this sequence, it needs to be seen more than once to be fully appreciated. It has the aura of a sinister western you feel that you must have seen or perhaps dreamed in a nightmare. Cliff arrives in Rick’s white Caddy, having given a lift to Pussycat (Margaret Qualley from The Leftovers), one of Manson’s tribe. Although the mood on the drive up has been playful, with Cliff as always totally in command, unphased by the knockout-lovely young girl’s advances, the mood changes as soon as he steps out of the car. The atmosphere is somewhere between the Bates Motel in Psycho and Village of the Damned. The menace is palpable, given an additional edge because of our existing awareness of the mythic enormity of the murders. This is the devil’s domain minus Manson, who doesn’t need to be there, so powerfully is his Svengali ambiance evoked. Cliff’s courage is never in question. He’s an unarmed version of Eastwood’s Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Sensing his onetime friend George Spahn may be in trouble because of the guarded reaction to any mention of his name, Cliff persists, pushing blithely through every barrier, every threat-implicit excuse the women put in his way. By the time he finally enters the room where George is sleeping (or is he dead?), the Hitchcock vibe is so intense, he could be walking into the finale of Psycho, except he’s in control, and George (Bruce Dern) is alive and grumpily wants to keep sleeping, and says he doesn’t remember Cliff.

I’d mark this detailed account with a spoiler alert, only anyone who has seen Cliff in action knows that he’s going to survive the challenges and carry the day, never mind the slashed rear tire in Rick’s car and the grinning sleazebag who did the deed, and is fool enough to step into the showdown ring with Cliff.

The Ending

Speaking of spoilers, Tarantino has good reason to want us to come unprepared to his denouement. As I suggested, it’s a shell game ending, brilliant, exhilarating, and devious. We’ve been nervously anticipating a blood bath and Tarantino delivers, but it’s not the one we were dreading. Judging from the laughter and other signs of enjoyment (and relief) at a recent showing at Princeton’s packed Garden Theatre, the audience loved it. My guess is that once the sugar rush recedes, people will have second thoughts. Or at least plenty to talk about, as my wife and I have been doing. That may be Tarantino’s most enduring contribution to cinema — he always gives us plenty to talk about, including a choice of title that reminds me of seeing Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West 50 summers ago at a theatre in Denver. Tarantino must know, deep down, that neither he nor anyone else is likely to accomplish anything cinematically close to what Leone manages merely in the extended opening credit sequence of the original Once Upon a Time, not to mention the stirring denouement of Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, said to be Tarantino’s favorite movie.