Quentin Tarantino’s childhood love of cinema again is at the fore in his nostalgic paean Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But when will the writer-director invest his talents in something fresh and challenging? By Christos Tsiolkas.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Credit: Andrew Cooper

Quentin Tarantino is the Peter Pan of Hollywood cinema. Other American filmmakers of his generation have consciously riffed on the joys and the excesses of pop culture, but I can’t think of another director who is so exuberantly infatuated with the minutiae of genre and exploitation cinema. In his late 50s now, he is still enthralled with the films that dazzled him as a child and as a young man. It’s as if he doesn’t have any conception of a guilty pleasure.

One of the loveliest sequences in Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is when Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, passes a Los Angeles cinema and on a whim decides to go in and watch herself in the 1968 spy-spoof The Wrecking Crew. I’ll admit to experiencing a slight trepidation as Tate took her seat and the screening of her film began, and it’s because I’ve seen that movie. And even at the age of 10, watching it on television, I knew it was a pile of shit. Was Tarantino going to mock the young star? Was she going to be humiliated by the audience reactions around her? But instead of derision, the screening is met with whoops and cheers of approval. Robbie is excellent at conveying the diffident mixture of vanity and self-consciousness that is integral to celebrity, and one doesn’t begrudge her character’s bliss in this scene. It’s impossible to not get caught up in Tarantino’s infectious celebration of the pleasure of cinema. It has been one of his most winning and remarkable achievements across the nine films he has directed – to take tired and caricatured genre and B-movie tropes and invest them with real emotional resonance.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in 1969. Television had already taken over as the most popular of entertainment mediums and the old studio movie system was dissolving. Hollywood’s cultural ascendancy was also being challenged by the war in Vietnam, the momentum of civil rights and the rise of radical political and social activism. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a B-movie Hollywood actor who had his greatest success in a TV western in the 1950s. His best friend is Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, a movie stuntman but also Dalton’s assistant, mopping up after him both professionally and personally. Dalton lives in a mansion in the Los Angeles hills, still getting supporting roles as a villain in schlock movies and in television, but his glory days are definitely over. He and Booth are antagonistic to the “hippies” that seem to be congregating all over LA; they are repelled and jealous of the new crop of countercultural filmmakers coming to the fore. No one represents this new wave more than the Polish émigré, Roman Polanski, who, along with his wife, Sharon Tate, has moved in next door to Dalton. Polanski is riding high on the success of the genuinely upsetting horror film Rosemary’s Baby. He is an outsider to Hollywood, yet he is garnering the acclaim and success that Dalton so desperately craves.

The film is long – more than two-and-a-half hours – but Tarantino’s affection for his characters is genuine, as is his knowledge of the world he is re-creating. We are never in doubt that this is his own idiosyncratic version of the late ’60s, filtered through his nostalgic fan-boy perspective. But the humour is whip-sharp, and Los Angeles is filmed with such a lovely Day-Glo warmth that I surrendered quickly to the film. Tarantino has always loved actors, both the actors he uses in his films and the fact of stardom itself. In particular, he adores actors who he believes have been given short shrift by mainstream critics and audiences.

In 1997’s Jackie Brown he resurrected Pam Grier’s career by giving her the title role and expanding and building on the persona she had developed in 1970s blaxploitation cinema. In Once Upon a Time…, Dalton is a caricature of a has-been, but there’s generosity extended to him as a character and to DiCaprio as an actor. The film’s most terrific scenes deal with the art of acting, and with the actor’s terror of not getting it right. Dalton has got a supporting part in a new TV western and his anxieties and his alcoholism bring him close to sabotaging his scenes. We feel his self-loathing and we experience his terror, and we also get the release of his satisfaction when he goes back on set and delivers an outstanding performance. DiCaprio is remarkable in these scenes, and so is Tarantino. They are as taut and as exhilarating as any in his best movies, which for me are Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Death Proof, all movies where his love of cinema is inseparable from his love of performers.

However, there is more in this film than melancholic nostalgia. I doubt there is anyone in the audience who isn’t aware of the tragic fate that befell Sharon Tate and three of her friends when they were brutally, horrifically murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. The sunny breeziness of this love letter to LA and old Hollywood is tempered by the sense of dread that we have knowing the tragic outcome of the story. The anxiety is unsettling, but it also generates a real engagement – I wanted to know how Tarantino was going to deal with that act of senseless violence. The Manson killings were a pivotal turn in the utopian fantasies of the hippie Summer of Love, the harbinger of a drug-fuelled subterranean malevolence to the counterculture. He is deliberately manipulating us, butting feel-good nostalgia against our awareness of the coming calamity.

We want perspective and we want understanding. We get neither. Instead, Tarantino employs the same over-the-top cartoon violent flourishes that have compromised all his films since Inglourious Basterds. And as in that film, and with Django Unchained and the more recent The Hateful Eight, he squanders his audience’s initial good faith. The violence, when it comes, is so divorced from reality and so abysmally executed that I sat looking at the screen dumbfounded. Just as in Inglourious Basterds, when he wiped the Holocaust from the memory of World War II, Tarantino wants us to find pleasure in a creation of an alternative universe where real horror and real suffering have been excised. But he must know that this childlike insistence on avoiding tragedy is by now a serious undermining of his talents. I can’t think of any other reason to explain the clunky, by rote execution of the violence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

What disappoints most about this work is that there are clearly fascinating and troubling concerns that are obsessing Tarantino as a filmmaker. In one long and genuinely spooky sequence, Cliff Booth visits a ranch where the Manson Family is camping out. He is confronted by the vacant-eyed acolytes of Manson, young kids who parrot liberationist and radical sentiments. Lena Dunham is one of the Family and it can’t be an accident that this actor, so emblematic of hashtag politics and culture, has been cast in the role. The rhetoric of the Family, as Tarantino presents them, isn’t far removed from statements one might find on Me Too or Antifa Twitter feeds. He is clearly drawing connections between that late ’60s generation and contemporary young progressives. Also, early in the film, there is reference to Booth having murdered his wife, followed by a quick and disturbing flashback to Booth and his wife on a boat, where she is portrayed as a ball-breaking shrew. The inclusion seems provocative, but we are unclear about what exact point Tarantino is trying to make. Is he being deliberately misogynistic or is he being critical of the culture of innuendo and rumour that bedevils celebrity? When the violence does come, Dalton and Booth most viciously attack the female members of the cult. The ire that is fuelling these connections might be contentious, but the real compromise is that Tarantino doesn’t have the artistic courage to deal with them. In the end, he wants the false promise of a new Hollywood that can embrace the traditional and the new. That’s his final image, the gates of a Los Angeles mansion closing and keeping out all that is sinister, all that is contradictory, and all that is difficult. It’s the perfect ending for a Peter Pan filmmaker. Hollywood as Neverland.

Let me posit an alternate universe where Tarantino took on the challenge of Jackie Brown, the one film he’s made that feels adult. In that film, Jackie’s desires and motivations are grounded in real regret and questioning, and the choices she makes aren’t dependent on the conventions of genre nor on a child’s Manichean understanding of the world. He’s been chasing that early success since that first stunning suite – from Reservoir Dogs to Pulp Fiction to Jackie Brown – wanting to be loved by his audience and slowly closing the gates on inspiration. Tarantino’s work of the past decade suggests he hasn’t seen a current film, read a new book or listened to any contemporary music that might inspire him or challenge him as an artist. He’s endlessly mining the obsessions he had as a youth and, while it’s making him a lot of money, it means betraying his talent. There’s much to enjoy in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but when the credits started rolling, I turned to my partner, rolled my eyes and said, “I just wish he’d grow up.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 24, 2019 as "Time trial".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Damascus and 7½. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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