Friday 16 August 2019

Two rode together: "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood"

The trouble with Quentin Tarantino is that he's never known when to stop. The formative moment in this career came when Pulp Fiction hit a box-office figure that saved its struggling producer-distributor Miramax, prompting the company's chief Harvey Weinstein to offer Tarantino carte blanche to make anything he wanted. Initially, there was a push for maturity with 1997's Jackie Brown, yet when that film underperformed, Tarantino retreated into his headspace to revisit the glories of his adolescence: a manchild period that yielded films spliced together from memories of 70s kung fu epics, nights at the drive-in, and a run of splattery spaghetti Westerns. More so than most movies, these played like scaled-up inflations of those sticky-wet dreams of carnage socially awkward teenage boys have long had behind closed bedroom doors; you slithered away from them in need of a hot shower, and watched aghast as they warped the direction of the American cinema. Once the individual credited as that cinema's great white cutting-edge hope had turned his back on reality to cultivate nerdy, self-contained fantasies, why wouldn't the mainstream take refuge in comic books? Still, few troubled to intervene: certainly not the critics, who barely had a bad word to say about Tarantino between 1997 and 2016, nor Uncle Harvey, who kept on writing those cheques. Sure, the mogul said: run wild with the N-word! Put Uma Thurman in mortal danger! Film all the ladyfeet you want. Tarantino, the most indulged filmmaker of recent times, is now 56, and what's most compelling about his first post-Weinstein production, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, is what he appears to have taken away from the past few years: a rueful sense that things change, empires fall, and that even shutting yourself away in your old bedroom can provide no shelter from the ravages of time. One hesitates to raise the question: is OUAT... IH the movie where Quentin Tarantino finally... grows upAlmost; almost.

For the bulk of its running time, the new film is a gentle, quietly poignant buddy comedy, a movie about the making of 1960s Westerns (for screens small and big) that, in its mood and themes, bears comparison to those autumnal Ford and Peckinpah Westerns that emerged around this period. The precise year is 1969, and we're introduced to jobbing TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thinker and a stresser who's failed to make the leap to films at a moment when the movies are starting to reassert their cultural dominance. At his side: his stunt double, driver and best pal Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), an easy-breezy action man, pushing fifty yet still admirably limber, as signalled by the early scene that finds him bounding onto the Dalton roof to fix a fritzing TV aerial. (Offscreen, as on, he is the protector of the Dalton image.) This pair have one another's backs, yet from the attention paid to Rick's smoker's cough, his bamboozlement around his eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters), or the revelation of the thinning, silvery-blonde crop under the fulsome wig Cliff dons ahead of a fight with a passing Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), it's clear these are no longer the hip young gunslingers they might once have passed for; that they are, instead, men approaching middle age and trying to stay relevant in a world that may no longer have an obvious place for them. (You instantly get why a fiftysomething filmmaker elected to make this movie in 2019.) Their slow decline will be contrasted, over these two hours and forty minutes, with the upwardly mobile progress of Rick's next-door neighbours in the Hollywood Hills: the dandyish Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), hot off the back of Rosemary's Baby, and his pregnant love Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Anyone with an inkling of the dark history of the Hollywood Hills will have an inkling of where we're headed; everybody else is in for a nasty surprise.

Before these worlds can collide, they have first to be built up. This Tarantino duly does via a typically Tarantinoid patchwork of half-remembered faces, shows, promos and pop songs, with occasional details proving more characterful besides: there's an oil patch beneath Cliff's beat-up Karmann Ghia that somehow proves more vivid and evocative than all the blood spilled in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Once Upon a Time... elevates itself by building on existing reality, namely those Hills, with their up and down trajectories, their inherent social strata. (Crucially, Rick lives a little down the road from Polanski and Tate.) After venturing into the cotton fields of the South and hiking through the Red Rock mountains, Tarantino is here working far closer to home, both geographically and spiritually: this is self-evidently a film made by someone who's spent a good length of time cruising around Los Angeles in their own beat-up vehicle, first as a wannabe, then as the talk of the town. The result is that OUAT... accrues an emotional weight those previous films never did, and with that, some trace of earthly wisdom. The characters have clearly articulated regrets and insecurities, rather than torturously prolix backstories; though there are lengthy dialogue scenes, they have real concerns to chew over, and Tarantino eschews his usual self-consciously zingy blather for something more considered. Everything connects up, relates: it's impossible to watch Rick trashing himself and his trailer in the wake of flubbing a scene without being reminded of that eight-year-old telling him that striving for perfection is futile, but that there might still be grace in the attempt. (You may also chuckle at the sight of DiCaprio, one of our most effortful leading men, working overtime to play a hacky actor desperately trying to make good.)

What the bulk of OUAT... IH suggests is a shift in Tarantino's thinking - a belated self-awareness that goes deeper than surface postmodernism. In his manchild movies, the bloviation was meant to be as electrifying as a tantrum, a defiant auteurist bellow: I am Quentin Tarantino, and I care not one jot for your notes or your script editors. Here, it's more selectively and effectively employed, as the preserve of ageing men trying to cling onto a moment, a memory, a feeling; the words get knitted together into a consoling nostalgia, a comfort blanket that a fellow might wrap around himself in times of turbulence. That comes with a certain musky whiff, granted. I can understand the honourable intentions that carried one rookie hack back into the cinema to count up the limited number of lines Tarantino affords his Tate, while venturing that it was a waste of time not untypical of much online film journalism. (Recent history would suggest you're headed down the wrong path if you want the characters in Tarantino movies to talk more.) The film catches its twentysomething heroine at a point when, onscreen as maybe off, she didn't have all that much to say for herself - and we might say the narrative will go out of its way to help preserve her creative voice. At any rate, on a scene-by-scene basis, Robbie makes Tate a vividly pretty, forward-looking presence: she doesn't speak much in the same way a ray of sunshine doesn't speak much. For Tarantino, Tate represents that starlight that is within sight yet out of reach - and perhaps a paradise lost. Here, finally, is where Once Upon a Time... winds into more contentious territory, for in order to paradise to exist, so too must perdition. For just over two hours, OUAT... purrs along as a funny, touching, revealing midlife crisis movie; thereafter, it takes a sharp right turn and becomes a Tarantino movie, in a way that can only impact on your mood as you exit the cinema.

This viewer wasn't appalled, as many of the first responders in Cannes were, so much as mildly disappointed at the reversion to type; still, even this wrong turn proves revealing, not least as further proof of Tarantino's singular waywardness. (Whether you like it or not, it is entirely a Tarantino ending: there's absolutely no sign of interloper between brain, mouth and bloodbath.) Anyone trying to avoid spoilers might want to look away here, but OUAT...'s final half-hour entails the following: a superbly sustained mock-horror sequence at an abandoned ranch in which Cliff discovers something that would indeed terrify a performer (someone who hasn't heard of him); prolonged hippy-bashing that suggests Tarantino is exactly as conservative as a child raised on shows like The FBI would be; some of the most profoundly charismatic acting Pitt has ever done, which is why we keep watching; and an attempt to claim even the Manson Family as Tarantino characters, and thus subject them to the same laws of non-gravity as Django's slaveowners and the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds. With that, you can feel some of OUAT...'s great weight and history ebbing away, and fantasy (principally, a fantasy of middle-aged male potency) reasserting itself. Quentin the grown-up exits the scene, replaced by his own stand-in: the big kid who knows more about movies than he does of the real world, and doesn't fully understand the fire he's compelled to play with. (One reading of the film's final movement: that Tarantino has driven us a long way round the houses to get the Roman Polanski of 2019 off the hook.) What Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood may demonstrate more than anything is that this filmmaker doesn't need Harvey Weinstein around to squander his promise or put a toe or two over the line. The trouble with Quentin Tarantino is - has always been - that he never knows when to stop.

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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