Simple Reflections on Film, Entertainment, and culture

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino’s latest release is a strange mix of late 60s pop culture and alternate realities.  I am not a fan of Tarantino, but chose to see this picture because of the Manson Family connection, and frankly, zero interest in any other film playing that weekend. I have a penchant for period pieces and was impressed with the production design that carefully reconstructed the late 1960s, Los Angeles. Channeling Forrest Gump, the lead characters often interact with real historical figures. These humorous vignettes highlight Tarantino’s admiration for famous stars at the time, such as Bruce Lee, Peter Fonda, and Steve McQueen.

The film centers around fading-star TV actor Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (portrayed by Brad Pitt).  As Dalton struggles with the realities of declining stardom, Booth assumes the role of valet and general-purpose handyman for Dalton as his career parallels Rick’s career trajectory.  Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski on Cielo Drive but only meets Tate at the film’s climactic conclusion.

The film provides a vivid portrait of the time that is nostalgic and satisfying. Pitt’s encounter with the Manson Family at the Spahn ranch exuded all the tension of a thriller, but the “buddy story” between Dalton and Booth dragged on after a time.  A tighter edit that trimmed the film by fifteen to twenty minutes would have improved the overall experience.

As I reflected on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I struggled with the violent revenge fantasy ending that Tarantino used to similar effect in Inglourious Basterds. Such conventions can work in a fictional setting, but Tarantino’s conclusion left me wanting. The over-the-top dispatching of the Manson Family members did not bring about any satisfaction knowing the real ending. What is the point, after all? The Manson murders have been meticulously documented over the years in books, movies, and documentaries. Tarantino’s grindhouse-movie rewrite cheapens the real tragedy since Manson’s cult of personality devastated families of both the victims and the perpetrators.

To my detriment, I could not help but recall Tarantino’s political stance on guns, which appears at odds with the gory violence that trademarks his films. When confronted about his style of mayhem in movies some years ago, Tarantino quipped, “It’s one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it” (Newsday, 1994). With the blood-spattered end to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it appears Tarantino hasn’t changed much in the last fifteen years.

Final Verdict: Take a pass. Tarantino fans, wait for the Blu-ray.

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