There is a Religion of Movies. And I don’t just mean on-screen depictions of religious figures, like biblical epics or Jesus movies, or the recent slate of “faith-based films” in American cinema. I mean that everything about film–film-viewing, film-going, the very existence of “film” as art and entertainment–has a religion-like dynamic, tapping into what theologian Paul Tillich called an “ultimate concern.” Film tells our myths, gives us our heroes and villains, provides us with moral structures, utilizes liturgy. And in this Religion of Movies, there are sects and denominations, prophets and priests, the pious and the heretics (and don’t forget the angry fundamentalists).
Thus, it could be said that Quentin Tarantino is a cult leader of sorts. Since Reservoir Dogs, he has quickly gained a following of passionate disciples, those who will worship whatever new film he releases, praising it for its snappy dialogue, its willingness to forgo traditional narrative structures, and its frenetic and gratuitous celebration of violence and vengeance (or, especially, violent vengeance). Each film is a new-and-improved “love letter to cinema,” a pastiche of the various film genres Tarantino became enamored with while working at a video rental store in California. He is an evangelist; he wants us to love what he loves, which (based on his filmic output) appears to be beautiful women’s feet, bloody violence as cathartic entertainment, and white liberal guilt. His latest sacrificial offering to his followers, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is more of the Tarantino we’ve come to expect. And though I did foolishly stand in a queue at Cannes for more than three hours to see its premiere press screening only to be shut out due to film festival hierarchy politics, I’m certainly not a Tarantino acolyte, and Once Upon a Time didn’t make me a convert.
When it was announced in 2017 that Tarantino’s next project after the godawful The Hateful Eight would be a film about the Manson Family murders in 1969, I accurately guessed the film’s ending before ever seeing a trailer. It would be a violent revisionist history in the vein of Inglourious Basterds (the only Tarantino film I would consider “good”) and Django Unchained, where the evil scoundrels of history would get what’s coming to ’em, right in the face and the balls. Basterds is the only Tarantino film where the on-screen violence is somewhat justifiable by the narrative themes and historical context, and where we are truly implicated as the audience in the climactic celebratory revenge bloodlust (spoiler: I’m referring to the final shot where Brad Pitt carves a swastika into “our” foreheads). So I hoped that my hypothesis would be incorrect, that Tarantino would do something actually unpredictable and fresh and *not* resort to basking in wanton violence. Alas. As soon as the pit bull, Brandy, was introduced, I knew how the remaining 2+ hours of movie would play out.
Once Upon a Time is a fairytale about a bygone golden era of Hollywood where white men were in control, people of color were the brunt of the jokes, and women were either beautiful goddesses or grungy whores (either way, they weren’t as important as the men). Melissa Tamminga’s marvelously detailed analysis in Seattle Screen Scene is well worth reading, as she addresses the above issues in far greater detail and much better than I ever could. For my own experience, I found Once Upon a Time to be strikingly languid in its pacing and boilerplate in its exposition. The Narrator (Kurt Russell) and Steven McQueen (Damian Lewis) tell us all we need to know about fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/chauffeur/BFF Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton’s new next door neighbors on Cielo are none other than filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his beautiful young wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). And while the film often cuts to Tate in order to ogle her legs, the film is mainly about male friendship between Dalton and Booth (albeit DiCaprio and Pitt share surprisingly very little screen time together). After a failed attempt to move from TV to film acting, Rick is now stuck doing guest roles on various TV shows and Cliff drives Rick’s car as an informal personal assistant, blacklisted from doing stunts due to a legend that he murdered his own wife and got away with it. Rick haplessly fumbles through his lines as a cowboy villain, being consoled by an eight-year-old actor (not actress!), Trudi (Julia Butters), while Cliff leaps onto Rick’s roof parkour-style to fix the TV antenna and reminisces about a time he supposedly bested Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in a fight. If Rick and Cliff are the butt of the joke here, the humor was lost on me (most of Tarantino’s humor is). Though sometimes pathetic, Rick is also portrayed as the hero of this fairytale (especially in the final scenes) and Pitt-as-Cliff is as cool as a cucumber, the very epitome of movie star masculinity. I mean, he’s Brad Pitt. He makes eating macaroni and cheese seem studly.
If Once Upon a Time were simply a work of nostalgia about the fading careers of two men in 1960s Hollywood, I’d perhaps find more to love here. There are plenty of scenes of Rick and Cliff just cruising around Los Angeles in their car, lost souls in the City of Angels, an elegiac aura hovering about them like the hazy L.A. smog. And I appreciated the attention to detail in the costumes and production design. It’s the overt inclusion of the Manson murders and Sharon Tate which transforms this into something more ghoulish and not a bit misogynistic, using our collective memory of Tate and the beauty of Robbie in order to generate a desire to see those dirty hippies suffer, even if those who suffer are young women at the hands of powerful men. When Cliff happens to end up at the Manson Family-infested Spahn Ranch after picking up a horny hitchhiking teenager, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), Tarantino draws out the scene in an attempt to foster unbearable dread akin to the opening tension-laden moments of Inglourious Basterds, where violence could erupt at any moment. But, like many of the cruising scenes, I found myself yawning. Even if some confrontation occurs between Cliff and the hippies, we know it won’t be last blood we see spilt. That expected violent finale must come as the sacramental high altar in the liturgy of Tarantino, the body and the blood gleefully shed for you, the tithe-paying disciples. Like much of the Cult of Tarantino that eager audiences worship, Once Upon a Time might be meaningful and/or shocking if it weren’t so barbaric, predictable, and vapid. Kyrie eleison.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7131622/