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Welcome to yet another elaborate Tarantino American revenge fantasy which does double duty as a fantasy of the white studio system coming through the 60’s intact. Once Upon a Time in …. Hollywood is simultaneously incredibly engaging film making and morally dubious nostalgia.
As with all of his movies the premise is very straightforward: TV star’s wattage is dwindling just as the studio system is changing and the 60’s are raging around them but his stunt double helps him through it all. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton was a fortunate product of the studio system who starred in a TV hit but can’t find his way in a new world populated by polished professionals with strategically managed careers. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is his stunt double, butler, and alter ego. Living fantasy projection of square jaw, tanned rippling muscle, and experience – this could be Fight Club all over again.
This being a Tarantino movie, there are digressions into the Playboy mansion, Bruce Lee, Margo Robbie’s Sharon Tate gets to relish her budding stardom, and the Manson family creeps into the picture as our leading men tie it altogether. No one plays these games quite as stunningly as Tarantino. No one manages to draw in so much acting talent and do so much with it, especially with short cameos.
Cinematically this is another exercise in slouching towards DePalma via Godard. Tarantino is forever fascinated by the absolutist geometry of cinema, if a gun is introduced, you better be damn well assured that it will go off and in spectacular fashion. This is fascinating to watch, it’s probably the major reason to see this movie, because it’s so exacting and engaging on a purely aesthetic level. The enveloping digressive series of stories that fold in on themselves as the movie draws to inexorable conclusion make this such a strong aesthetic statement.
But at the level of moral consciousness it sags into the same tired trope of all Tarantino’s movies – a vicious revenge fantasy that plies you with violence and comedy. The way that he gets around everything – Nazis, slave owners, cults – is a kind of social purging not too distant from the cathartic idea of a super hero defeating a villain to make you feel complete. He’s always rewriting history for catharsis when the history is the point, it did happen and in a certain way that makes it so germane to who we are and the whole idea of Tarantino’s discursive cinema. And yet, he doesn’t seem able to develop an idea outside of that.
He’s definitely trying to perform that role and maybe he really is in the same space, just as super heroes are colonizing cinema in a time of political authoritarianism the parallels in comic book history are eery. But Tarantino is playing at a pretty superficial level, he barely grazes the surface of the lake because the reflection is just too beautiful. It’s a stunning vista but still a reflection and a reflection of his obsessions, white men running Hollywood and by proxy the world.
My guess is that Tarantino would posit that the entire movie is a definition of an era that was all white and absolutely exclusionary, that it presages the current era, that is, a backhand wrapped in the hegemony of the previous era. It can operate that way but it’s pretty shifty. And in the context of all his movies it’s really of a piece. Same structure, same fun at the same points, same fascination with itself. He uses the image of issues like race, gender, class without ever engaging with them. And that’s what is so absolutely, bewilderingly, baffling because he spends so much time trying to rewrite history, building the trappings of historical universes across time and space – the antebellum south, the old west, WWII, 60’s Hollywood – but stops at the point where genre washes onto the beach of real engagement. Cinematically he’s in such control, the whole Tarantino experience is something that most directors can’t even imagine, and yet he can’t seem to get beyond that. He makes you believe but doesn’t really ask you what you’re believing.