A lot of time is spent doing not much in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the latest film from Quentin Tarantino. Characters drive around greater Los Angeles, watch television, go to the movies, read books, listen to music, and sometimes simply sit and reminisce. One is tempted to call this a “hang out movie,” the kind of movie where characters just sit around and talk entertainingly, but most often Once Upon A Time’s characters are alone, or if they are together, they don’t necessarily talk to each other. They just exist amiably together, and the movie lingers with them.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is less concerned with “hanging out” than it is with hanging on. The film is nostalgic through and through. Tarantino and crew have recreated 1969 Hollywood in loving detail, and they don’t seem to want the moment to end.
In the real world outside Tarantino’s fairy tale, that moment did end. Whatever early 60s idealism that was still hanging on in 1969 died suddenly and tragically when members of the Manson Family cult violently murdered Sharon Tate and her friends in her and her husband, Roman Polanski’s home in Benedict Canyon on the edge of Hollywood Hills. Hollywood was rocked by the event.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood builds to that moment, following parallel story lines in the months leading up to that fateful night to get there. One is that of ill-fated Sharon Tate (a guileless Margot Robbie), then “It Girl” living large in her moment of fame. The other is that of sunsetting Western star Rick Dalton (a fragile Leonardo Dicaprio) and his stunt man/body man/friend Cliff Booth (a beguiling Brad Pitt, channeling “Shane,” not Alan Ladd). Dalton lives next door to the Polanskis in Benedict Canyon. His moment of stardom is fading, and he and Booth are navigating their ways into the next season of life. Snaking through both storylines are encounters the main characters have with hippies, depicted here as zombie-like, their existence on the edges of Hollywood life portents of the mass murder history tells us is coming.
As always, Tarantino clearly loves his characters and exhibits great compassion for them. As in his recent films, Tarantino seems to be trying to do right by these people whom history did wrong. Given the violence involved, it’s tempting to call these last few Tarantino films “revenge fantasies.” It is more appropriate to call them “narrative redemptions.” Storyteller Tarantino gives his characters an earnest, fictional justice they did not receive in real life. His movies are like the book of Esther in that way, an “if only” retelling of a tragic past.
That is not to suggest that Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is without, um, complications. This is a Quentin Tarantino film. The violence is extreme. His female characters are simultaneously rich (compared to most other movies) and leeringly framed. Drug use is depicted as a lark. One way to read a particular motif that runs through this film is as an attempt to excuse Roman Polanski, someone who, in real life, raped a child.
Perhaps you are wondering how I could be at all positive about a movie that includes those things. That’s a valid question. I do not see Tarantino’s movie world as reflective of real life. I see his stories as exaggerations, instances of hyperreality meant to have an effect on the viewer, not to accurately depict the world. Like Esther, a story that includes its villain being hung on impossibly high gallows and the Jewish people committing atrocious acts of violence without repercussions, the material of Tarantino’s films isn’t meant to be taken literally. Regarding Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s thread about Roman Polanski, there is an implicit admission of guilt in the sad fact of that thread. Is it wrong to wish he hadn’t raped that girl and that he had been able to keep making movies as he had been up to that point? I don’t think so.
The second part of that question about Polanski is where Tarantino’s loyalty ultimately lies. His concerns are aesthetic. His fairy tale creates a new future for this neighborhood of filmmakers. The Sharon Tate murders rocked Hollywood out of whatever 50s and 60s idealism was still lingering in 1969. The free-swinging psychedelic aesthetic gave way to the gritty realism of New Hollywood, and the for-the-fun-of-it, 1950s B-movie verve found new life in Spaghetti Westerns, kung-fu flicks, and exploitation films. If you don’t think Tarantino favors the hyperreal aesthetics of 1950s B-movies and 1960s psychedelia and the genres that sprang up in their wake over the realism of New Hollywood, you might want to give his filmography a second watch.
Quentin Tarantino has always elevated the movie material most consider marginal. His is a cinema of oddballs and outsiders. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is at its most moving when it is giving its oddballs moments of grace, as when Dalton and Booth are at ease in each other’s presence no matter their class difference; when an actor takes delight in her work bringing delight to others; when a child validates an old man first by taking interest in his interests and then explicitly; when another old man uses his no-longer needed agility to hop up on a roof to help a friend; and when the California sun filters through palm trees and ocean haze late in the afternoon, making everything shine golden one last time before another lovely Los Angeles day comes to an end.