More noise than signal

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

The latest Tarantino joint drops us into Hollywood in 1969, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton worries that he’s coming to the end of his career, hopping though TV series as special guests rather than the lead roles. This will also have implications for his friend, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, his body double stuntman, driver and general gopher.

Still, Rick has been offered some lead parts in Spaghetti Westerns, although he thinks that’s another sign of decline, but he still has his house in the hills. Indeed, he might even get a part by talking to his new neighbours, Roman Polanski and his wife, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate.

For two hours, we’re mainly following the ups and downs of Rick and Cliff’s life and careers, both present and in flashbacks, and to a lesser degree Sharon Tate’s, along with her relationship with Polanski and old flame Emile Hirsch’s Jay Sebring. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the Manson family are gearing up to do what they did, although in this alternate version, in particular their run-ins with Cliff and his awesome dog Brandy, things will be different. For some reason.

The questions rattling around in my empty ol’ head since watching this a few days ago have mainly reduced to what, exactly, was the point of all this, and what, exactly, was Tarantino trying to say, and about what? The answers I have settled on are that, well, he had no point, and isn’t saying a damn thing about anything, which is pretty much in line with Tarantino’s career so far. And that’s fine, not everything must pass explicit commentary on the world, but this feels like the first time he’s trying to reach for some greater point, particularly with his inclusion of approximate historical events and characters, but he’s failing to get anything across.

You could argue Inglorious Basterds was a toe in the water of alternate histories, but I don’t think that stands up to much scrutiny. That was a fairly straightforward Tarantino take on the Dirty Dozen war film formula. This is… weird. Why invoke real-world tragedy to produce a weird revenge cum home invasion fantasy, particularly when that only really happens in the final, what, quarter of the film, which has been entirely different in tone and feel up till that point?

There’s many strange lesser deviations from reality – I entirely understand why Bruce Lee’s estate are not happy about this – but in the main, I just don’t understand why bother doing it this way. It might be different had this been a character study of Tate, or had even a faint attempt to justify it, but she’s barely a character in the film. The sum total of knowledge of Tate you will get from this is that she seems nice. As, perhaps, you’d expect from Tarantino, this is exploitation, not exploration.

I really like all of the non-Manson stuff in here – DeCaprio and Pitt are great, Robbie is likeable, even is she’s not doing much, and it’s as stylish and sharp as Tarantino always is. I’m assuming this isn’t your first time to the Tarantino show, so if you’ve like his other work, you’ll like this aspect at least, and if you didn’t it won’t change your mind. But the Manson stuff… I dunno. It made me uncomfortable, but not because it was exploring their dark nature to get some understanding of them, but because they’re repurposing a horrible chapter of history into some ultimately entirely pointless light entertainment, and as a shorthand to avoid having Tarantino write a real villain. It’s lazy. I felt embarrassed for him.

So that stuff isn’t great, and that leads into the usual hyper-violent finale that here really feels like it’s been cut in from an entirely different film. Jarring, but not in the way I suspect Tarantino wants. Again, achieving a goal and the goal being worth achieving are not necessarily the same thing. The way that the final stretch delights in its violence towards women is a little off-putting – in the overall arc of Tarantino’s treatment of all his characters, regardless of gender, it’s perhaps not so out of the ordinary, but in a film with otherwise precious little of it, it sticks out like a charred corpse or an unrecognisably mashed skull.

Even with all that said, I suppose I liked it well enough to recommend it without all that much hesitation, and I’m just glad he’s still being allowed to make films very much in his style, in an increasingly homogenous big budget cinema landscape.