ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

is claiming (again) that he only has a single film left in him: an R-rated “Star Trek.” Of course, volunteered to revive Captain Kirk. Paramount needs to jump on this. If anyone could breathe life into that long dead formula, it would be Tarantino. As for Shat, perhaps he would learn something, even at his age. When Shat took his Star Trek V idea of the Enterprise crew battling God to the studio, Paramount, Gene Roddenberry, et. al. shot back: “They can’t meet God!” Shat lost his balls. He should have grabbed Tarantino, then because this is a filmmaker who does not let history, social norms, or formula expectations dictate to his art.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood posterAfter his films with Sergio Leone, composer Ennio Morricone became such a cult figure that it wasn’t long before wannabe film composers began paying homage to him with one yawn-inducing, predictable tribute after another. Of course, most attempted to solicit his endorsement, and received blank stares and unanswered letters in reply. That is, until jazz composer John Zorn came along and filtered Morricone through snippets of Carl Stalling, video game music, and his own sensibilities. Morricone was delightfully startled, breathed a sigh of relief, and gave a resounding accolade, noting that finally here was a worthy tribute, because Zorn refused to treat him with reverence. Zorn was as radical and revolutionary as Morricone himself.

This is what Tarantino does consistently. The title of his latest is no coincidence, paying his homage to cinematic idol Leone. Tarantino clearly has an authentic love of 1960s and 70s grindhouse cult film as well; so much so that he is no mere imitator, and this makes him one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last 25 years.

As in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino takes the role of a celluloid antifa and wallops the fascists. “Let’s kill Nazis,” goes the chant, probably much like the American troops sang  on D-Day (one must ask: when did hating Fascism become a bad thing?), but he has a new Fascist offshoot target as well: cultists. And, as before, he rejects the way his source material ended, and so crafts a new dreamscape ending. In this, Tarantino reminds me of an artist named Antonio Adams who created adult sculptures of JonBenet Ramsey and Emmett Till, allowing them to grow up in his sculptures, denying their fate. So again, Tarantino rewrites history; not just for the sake of a better narrative (although there is that as well), but because it’s the right thing to do. If the way to do that is an alternative myth, so be it. It should not be an issue, since all films are myths.

Just as Zorn quotes multifarious sources, working them seamlessly into an integrated whole, so likewise does Tarantino, with influences as obscure as  ’s Female Bunch (it helps that Adamson filmed it on Spahn Ranch, but the quotation is more than mere location). Tarantino is also shrewd in his visual juxtapositions. Contrasting with Charles Manson’s dreams of a race war, we see nonchalant images of Gail Fisher working alongside Mike Connors (for all of us old enough do remember how naturally progressive that coolest of hokey cop shows was).

Tarantino’s love of rescuing actors from career fatigue continues as here he gives the best role he’s had in decades, allowing the actor to flex his long overdue tongue-in-cheek skills. Pitt is actually refreshingly original once more as Cliff, the stunt double and buddy of ’s Rick, a fading Fifties western star now reduced to a late Sixties heavy. Rick’s cynicism recalls Bogart’s Rick, and he might have been played by Richard Boone (Paladin of “Have Gun Will Travel”) or Clint Eastwood (Rowdy Yates of “Rawhide”). DiCaprio is slightly miscast on the surface, but he does have an excellent chemistry with Pitt and a standout scene.   (hilarious as a blind geezer who watches TV), , and Al Pacino make vibrant, eccentrically hued cameos. Julia Butters, as a child method actor who plays opposite DiCaprio in a well-directed scene, almost steals the spotlight from all of them.

Tarantino revels in visual metaphors (a century earlier, he’d have made a helluva symbolist painter). The more seemingly insignificant, the more pertinent. A case in point is the vignette of Cliff and his obedient, hungry canine, contrasted with the sight of a cinema marquee announcing a showing of the Frank Sinatra/Raquel Welch film Lady in Cement. Those of us with a degree in theology know that “Raquel” means “ewe,”  the symbol of purity. Tarantino is letting us know that a lady in cement is not the goal here. Rather, Cliff is to protect one Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)—and, man, Tarantino loves Sharon and her innocence, best seen in her sense of wonder at being in the godawful Dean Martin Matt Helm movie The Wrecking Ball. (Martin was so devastated by Tate’s murder that he never made another Helm movie). She is also seen partying with hubby at the Playboy mansion and shopping for maternity clothes. With Pitt, she’s the wondorous heart of this fantasy.

Although Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a very good movie, it’s not Tarantino’s best (that would be Inglourious Basterds). It is flawed, taking too long with some pointless but still entertaining as hell scenes (i.e. the fight scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh) and pop art reaching, but these are also delightful diversions. Still, warts and all, a Tarantino movie is always an event. Let’s hope that he’s lying through his teeth when he says he’s got one more film and instead we’ll be seeing his work for years to come; a not-so-final frontier.  How perfect is that ?

8 thoughts on “ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)”

  1. Sure, Alfred can write a thoughtful, compelling review about a good movie, but we already knew that. Seems the poll respondents might have been trying to lure Al back into 366 with this vote for “summer punishment”.

    Good to be reading you again.

  2. OK, so here’s my main observation about HOLLYWOOD. I will discuss plot details, so don’t read if you want to avoid spoilers.

    First up, the movie is impeccably crafted, is totally convincing in its recreation of late 60s Los Angeles, and it doesn’t have a single weak performance. It is nearly perfect commercial moviemaking, with an eccentric edge.

    That said, although it doesn’t totally ruin the movie for me: Tarantino’s obsession with violence is starting to irk me. The finale is needlessly gruesome and sadistic. I hope the laughs I heard in the theater when Brad Pitt repeatedly crushes a woman’s skull were nervous titters born of surprise.

    I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Tarantino imagines an act of violence first, then builds his script around it. This director embraces the myth of redemptive violence unashamedly. In HOLLYWOOD, violence is both a sexual and a sacred act, the climax of the narrative, the money shot.

    That’s not so new in Tarantino. What’s curious here is the context in which he sets up the violent ritual. Beforehand, he has one of the Manson family girls state that the reason they are going to kill Hollywood stars is because they are the ones who idealize and glamorize violence, and teach society to be violent. This is the criticism that has really gotten under Tarantino’s skin over the year, so he puts the argument into the mouth of the movie’s villains. Then he doubles down on his gambit by killing the hypocritical spokesperson for non-violence, and going into overkill as he does so. Regardless of the merits of the Manson chick’s argument, the head-bashing isn’t a refutation of it; it’s an act of faith, a demonstration of virtue for true believers in the redemptive release of violence.

    It doesn’t bother me for a director to use violence, even gruesome violence, when it’s appropriate. Here, Tarantino goes meta with his praise of violence, drawing less-then-humble, self-conscious but unreflective attention to his own techniques. What bothers me is not the violence itself, but the way Tarantino highlights, praises and fetishizes it. It’s starting to feel unnatural and forced, like a personal obsession. I think it’s turning weird, and not in a good way.

  3. Interesting points made here. All seem to agree that Hollywood is well-acted and crafted. To me this is the simplest movie that Tino has ever made. Most of the fun can be found in its depiction of Los Angeles circa 1969, complete with authentic radio and TV snippets that are humorous but also treated with reverence. He clearly loves the era, and the actors look like they’re having fun in their roles. The incessant drinking and smoking is pretty hilarious. People keep asking me about Manson in the film, and I keep telling them that it’s mainly just a side plot. The hippies are mostly poked fun at, although some coolness can be found in their hitch-hiking/dumpster-diving scenes.

  4. Well, that was a lot of rambling nonsense. But…what would you expect from someone who thinks “Basterds” (with Brad Pitt doing his best Foghorn Leghorn impression) was Tarantino’s best.

  5. What, nobody’s going to say Pulp Fiction was Tarantino’s best? It’s been 25 years and you can still quote any line of that movie and get the next line back from anybody listening. It’s 10% of the memes on the Internet by sheer weight.

    Also, I’ve been too crazy busy with my other projects to play here, and boo hoo hoo I miss 366 Weird! I don’t think I’ve even watched a whole movie of any kind all summer.

  6. This film left me wondering in the seat. (Spoilers up ahead)
    I’m not sure if it is a retromanic celebration and idealisation of yesteryear or a try to bring together people who seem to have competing ideas of what is good and important. It’s harder to argue for the latter point.
    Maybe you could see the reference to real events (the murders) and the Rick-takes-it-all happy ending that is denying the turnout of the real events as a satire. But at least in our small theatre it seems like nobody else worked through to this perspective. But it seems plausible in a way if you consider the comic staging of the realistic, harsh and exaggerated violence (that also sparked laughter from the majority in our small theatre) that lead up to this “happy end”. Especially if you consider how those hippies were talking about violence in media in the car. There’s a stereotypical superhero that seems to be immune to injury and drugs. And even the trophy wife does her part to destroy evil.
    But reading some reviews and comments on the film gives me the impression that this interpretation is very personal and not obvious. And that brings me back to wondering about the film. What’s the frikkin point here?

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