Quentin Tarantino doesn’t like hippies. And it is easy to see why: middle-class runaways swiping credit cards from unsuspecting folk to fund cultish penury in desert communes; or, in the case of Charles Manson and his happy “Family” brutally murdering the unsuspecting, among them, actress Sharron Tate who, with four others, was stabbed to death at the home she shared with her husband, Roman Polanski, who was away with work at the time. This last event, which, took place on 8th August, 1969, and shook America to its core for its unique brand of bloody horror (Tate, pregnant, was stabbed sixteen times) and apocalyptic opacity (Beatles lyrics were scrawled along the walls) proved to be the end of that lopsided decade, the Sixties, and proves in Tarantino’s 9th movie his narrative’s ticking time bomb. Who, after all, deals in bloody violence quite like Quentin?
Well, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), for one, our small screen manqué and hero, if snippets of his unsuccessful forays onto the big screen are anything to go by – one, for example, sees him incinerate a room full of Nazis with a flamethrower. A second would be Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s former stunt double and all-round best bud, who dispatches foe after foe without losing a sweat, or the pearly grin off his handsome face. Together they haplessly barrel around LA. It’s February 1969, and Rick’s star-making turn in the television Western “Bounty Law” is a fading memory. He’s having to content himself with guest-spots as the heavy (the villain, in other words) on other TV shows (“The F.B.I.”, “The Green Hornet”, “Lancer”, all period specific), hoping the pilot season will bring him some good-luck before he’s forced to go to Italy, at the behest of his agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), where the Spaghetti Westerns of the two Sergio’s, Corbucci and Leone, are taking off – Tarantino adores Leone and worked with Leone’s famed collaborator, Ennio Morricone, (in 2015’s “The Hateful Eight”). Indeed, Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood” devoutly mimics the cinematography of “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in America”.
Rick’s new neighbours on Cielo Drive are Tate (Margot Robbie) and Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) seen motoring up their vaulted drive from afar – they’re the embodiment of the new era Rick is fast missing out on. For Dalton, the Polanskis assume the role of the Joneses; unable to keep up with their cultural capital, stardom, and box office returns, Rick can only view them from the other side of his lawn, the idea of being invited by Sharon through their automated gates an impossible fantasy for a has-been. Like “Pulp Fiction” three decades before it, “Once Upon A Time . . .” is structured like a day-in-the-life movie, but in this case the action progresses over three days: February 8th and 9th and then, six months later, August 8th and 9th when history is set to intercede in Tarantino’s cinéma à clef. Tate’s character is kept peripheral, rearing her unsuspecting head every now and then to remind us, threaten us even, that violence sooner or later will end this story. But before tragedy there is comedy.
There have always been comic elements to Tarantino’s work but never so blatant have his efforts in the genre been than here: a buddy comedy and industry satire, where violence is put to a menacing simmer. Rick’s shabby professionalism is brought face-to-face with Strasberg’s Method in the form of a precocious eight-year-old (Julia Butters) who would rather Rick refer to her by her character’s name, the better for her to remain in character between scenes. Gags played out for laughs include a botched Red Apple cigarette commercial and a superimposed Dalton in Steve McQueen’s role as Hilts from the “The Great Escape” – a part we discover Rick missed out on by the slimmest of margins. Tarantino’s set-pieces, like his movies in general, take their time to warm up, the clamorous build up, the calamitous climax.
These set-pieces are threaded together by long car drives, where watching Cliff chain smoke and listen to the radio is an aesthetic experience unto itself. Tarantino has always loved car movies – he even made one in “Death Proof” back in 2007 – and here his dizzying crane shots and camera dolly movements, a product of the movie’s luxurious $95 million budget, brings Cliff’s daredevil acceleration along Hollywood Boulevard to heart-pounding life. These souped up moments between the director’s more loquacious episodes gives the movie an unsettling, nauseous momentum as we’re constantly reminded what time, what day, it is as Tarantino’s clock ticks closer to that fateful hour on August 8.
As a filmmaker, Tarantino has earned his place not through the psychological acuity of his characters, or a particularly profound ontology in his movie’s themes, at least not in his later work, but with a deft colour palate, an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture, and narrative sleight of hand. The heist movie without a heist. The war movie that kills Hitler. They’re entertaining, and all the quirks of this unique working style are at play here, the yellow title font, the eccentric characters and pop cultural verbosity, the revisionist history. All the toys and tricks learnt from a decades long filmmaking career, and a life-long love of the movies is here, and the effect is first stupefying, even genius, and then once you’ve left the cinema, once things have settled, all too familiar. With one movie left to make and a backlog magical rabbits out the hat, where is there left for Hollywood’s aging Boy Wonder to go?