Sunday, September 1, 2019

Once Upon a Hollywood

Director Quentin Tarantino on the set

Tarantino on the set with actress Margot Robbie

Tarantino on the set with Leonardo DiCaprio

Tarantino on the set with DiCaprio and Brad Pitt

Tarantino at Cannes surrounded by DiCaprio (left to right), Margot Robbie, and Brad Pitt

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD                C             
USA  Great Britain  China  (161 mi)  2019 ‘Scope d:  Quentin Tarantino         Official site

History may not look back too kindly on Quentin Tarantino, who exhibits a flair for flash, but missed decades of opportunities to actually offer something of consequence to say.  Instead his breezy style of macho mayhem fits the profile of overly privileged movie nerds raised on television and video games and B-movies, never having the patience to read books, so any introspective element is lacking in his films, as is empathy.  But his prolific use of the n-word throughout his career is clouded in highly stylized artificiality, as if that makes it OK, with a tin ear for criticism from those who took offense, not to mention his longtime partnership with movie producer Harvey Weinstein, whose near instant fall from grace was shocking, the producer of all of his films until now, the target of current litigation from endless scandals of sex abuse from using his position over multiple decades for sexual favors, resulting in dozens of actresses crying rape, with Tarantino acting dumb, pretending he had no idea.  Despite several films written for strong women (with roles that are almost interchangeable with men), Tarantino also has a tendency to underwrite female characters in his films, to treat them as if they barely exist, where bimbos and airheads pass for the norm.  This film is no exception.  For a guy who survives on dialogue and stereotypes, with an unadulterated love for grotesque violence and comic book revenge, he’s made a niche for himself and survived for decades, receiving adulation and acclaim around the world, bolstered by the extraordinary work of actor Samuel L. Jackson, who has built a career starring in Tarantino films, not to mention Pam Grier and Uma Thurman, but the pillorying of his work has not yet officially begun, as his films work best in the moment, and once that moment has passed they may not stand up so well to the passage of time, as most are overly smug, lightweight fantasies that will begin to date themselves, with each new generation wondering why people thought this was so cool, as there’s always a targeted group that is the butt of the jokes, accentuating derogatory comments that are equally offensive and obnoxious, which may grow more apparent over time.  The targeted group includes women, people of color, and foreigners from other nations, with very few viewed in a positive light, which sounds very close to the mindset currently occupying the Oval Office at the moment, with Tarantino perfectly in synch with that mentality, where his insults are like Trump tweets, seemingly boxing himself in.  Make America Great Again?  This movie was made with that same demographic in mind, where his once upon a time motif fondly recalls the nostalgia from a similar era, as there’s barely a person of color anywhere to be seen, as if designed for the exclusive pleasure of white people.  Only 6 when this supposedly takes place, Tarantino’s recollections produce a whitewashed 60’s that looked nothing like this (Where is all the soul music?  Was anyone listening to this particular Neil Diamond song?), as Los Angeles is a town of diversity, where his vision of the times leaves out essential specificity that actually defines this period of time, so it’s not really a love letter to Hollywood or the times, more like an internalized message to the director himself, perhaps filling some therapeutic need, where making a movie about Patty Hearst will be next, recast as THE BAD SEED (1956).  Nonetheless this colorful movie fantasia is shot on glorious 35mm in ‘Scope, immersed in neon signs, vintage cars, radio jingles, movie posters, iconic music, and meticulously recreated TV shows, including the dumb ads, yet also tinged with intentional racial slurs, this time laced in a toxic undercurrent of animus towards Mexicans, Asians, and “the fucking hippies” (always said with a sneer).            

There are multiple parallels in place here, all triggered by the idea of an aging Hollywood star whose time has come and gone, which certainly fits movie mogul Harvey Weinstein who’s been expelled from the Academy as damaged goods, but may also be applicable to the director himself who may view his career coming to an end as well (allegedly one more in the works), with many believing this plays out like his swan song.  Meant to be a feel-good fantasy set in the nostalgia of the year 1969 as the rebellious counterculture movement (no sign of it here) was coming to an end, Tarantino saves for last his own take on the hideous Charles Manson murders that rocked Hollywood, defined as the culminating event that many believe brought that era of idealism and hope prematurely crashing to a close, a kind of punctuation to the political assassinations that took the lives of the era’s greatest hopes.  This trip back through memory lane features a couple of good ‘ol boys in the lead, Leonardo DiCaprio as aging Western star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, his stunt double, both joined at the hip, seemingly going everywhere together, where the deal is if you hire one, you hire the other as a kind of bonus.  From the world of movie sets, a kind of protected bubble that thrives on fantasy, the story is, as the title suggests, more of the same, a kind of preposterous revisionist history that Tarantino has come to exemplify, from the Nazi’s in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to slavery in Django Unchained (2012), and now the Manson derelects.  In each, evil is perceived as an abomination that needs to be eradicated from the earth, much like the epic Bible rant that Samuel L. Jackson goes on in Pulp Fiction (1994) before he blows somebody away, using fake scripture to morally justify murder.  That may be, in essence, the theme of Tarantino movies, creating a revenge scenario as a moral cleansing, ridding the world of evil incarnate, gleefully depicting murders onscreen for laughs and public entertainment, where the world is just an extension of a comic book fantasy.  This film never gets out from under that bubble, but in Tarantino-land that’s what we’ve come to expect.  Starting out as another day on a movie set, we quickly learn Dalton made a name for himself on the popular TV show Bounty Law, known for bringing in wanted outlaws returned as corpses for the reward money, where his notoriety grows by the body count accumulated in the course of his job.  These black and white episodes, viewed as boxed squares on a ‘Scope screen, are balanced by insipid commercials of the time, including a live TV interview with both Dalton and Booth on the set of the show.  Quickly moving to the present, the self-pitying Dalton is haunted by the thought that his best days are behind him, missing his lines, screwing up on the set, embarrassing himself before the crew, something he once thought unthinkable, tearing up the inside of his trailer in a momentary lapse of reason, but he recovers, with the help of a precocious young 8-year old actress named Trudi (Julia Butters) who calls him out on being called a “pumpkin puss,” yet ends the day in glory, with everyone thrilled with his work, while Booth returns home in an old beat-up Porsche that he whizzes around the hills to the music of Deep Purple, Deep Purple - Hush - YouTube (4:25), living out in the valley somewhere in a trailer on what looks like unused land behind a drive-in theater with his pit bull, which is miraculously well-trained to the sounds of his owner, easily one of the film’s biggest surprises, becoming a bonafide star by the end, while the dog food labels are a hoot.

While Dalton is suffering a midlife crisis, Booth is the picture of calm reassurance, giving his hung-over partner a pep talk before dropping him off on the set, making easy eye contact with a flirtatious female hitchhiker on the street, but he’s not going her way, heading instead for the Hollywood Hills to fix Rick’s TV antenna that may have come off its moorings in the night.  Finding a tool belt with a special pocket for a beer, he hops onto the roof in three leaps without a ladder, an eye-catching move that draws oohs and aahs from the audience, followed almost immediately by another moment when Brad Pitt pulls his shirt off and suns himself on the roof (more murmurs from viewers), showing he is completely at ease with himself and the world.  From that vantage point up on the roof Booth watches a seemingly innocuous occurrence, as some hippie guy pulls up in a broken-down ice-cream truck and knocks at the house next door, turning out to be Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) in search of Terry Melcher, a record producer known for the California sound, but he’d moved out some time ago, as the new occupants are newlyweds actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), seen dancing in her room to “Good Thing” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, Paul Revere And The Raiders Good Thing - YouTube (3:01), one of the groups Melcher produced, and her husband, legendary filmmaker Roman Polanski, director of the hugely successful Rosemary's Baby (1968).  Manson leaves without incident, but sets the stage for what happens later.  Meanwhile, Booth recalls earlier days, including a flashback of what originated his reputation as a wife-killer, revealing an ominous moment just before it happened, alone on a boat calmly aiming a harpoon at his shrill, nagging wife, eventually cleared of all charges, but that hasn’t stopped some from refusing to work with him.  While waiting on the set of a shoot, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), who was starring at the time as Kato on the TV series The Green Hornet, was talking some shit about how he would have ripped apart boxer Cassius Clay as his hands are registered as lethal weapons, drawing a snicker from Booth, who is quickly challenged to a fight, showing his prowess, displaying fighting dexterity when he throws Lee into the side of a car parked nearby, doing damage to them both, with Zoë Bell the stunt coordinator outraged at what she sees, screaming profanities afterwards, as it’s her car, firing Booth on the spot.  She’s the wife of Kurt Russell, who hired Booth as a favor to Dalton, who then becomes an unseen narrator later in the film, which is a rather clever transition, as are the scenes of Dalton imagining he got the Steve McQueen part in THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), which are seamlessly (and digitally) juxtaposed into the movie.  This happens again with Sharon Tate, almost always seen with a perpetual smile on her face, with no worries whatsoever, on a natural high apparently, walking into an afternoon screening of a rather mediocre Dean Martin film she’s in, the last of the Matt Helm series entitled THE WRECKING CREW (1968), using her wannabe celebrity status to get in for free, propping her feet up and clearly enjoying watching herself onscreen, which includes interacting with actual clips of Sharon Tate.  Later we see Polanski and Tate partying with Michelle Phillips, Mama Cass and other celebrities around the pool at the Playboy mansion, with Steve McQueen bellyaching about how he’s not Tate’s type, as she seems to prefer little short guys that look like they’re still in high school.  The irony, of course, is that McQueen was invited to the Tate/Polanski residence the night of the bloody massacre, but never showed up.

All this is basically a backdrop for what seems like a harmless visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where Bounty Law was shot, with Booth finally picking up that hitchhiker, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who sells him an acid cigarette for 50 cents, quickly finding the lot inhabited by hippies and weirdos, given a near surreal look, almost like a zombie movie or a Twilight Zone episode, utilizing the macabre reputation surrounding the Manson family to heighten the suspense, as they’re inhabiting the place, but acting strangely, overly paranoid about receiving visitors, always sensing trouble.  When Booth persists about visiting the aging George Spahn (Bruce Dern), who owns the place, it all gets very creepy, as this group of misfits doesn’t like confrontation, viewing it savagely, as it does with all authority, preferring to live by their own rules.  This extended scene takes place at a snail’s pace, but establishes the central thread of psychotic hatred lurking on the periphery, mostly out of sight, hiding under a pretentious banner of hippie peace and love, but exceedingly dangerous.  After watching Dalton make a guest appearance on a The F.B.I. TV show, Al Pacino makes a cameo as an unbelievably weird and overly enthusiastic producer/agent Marvin Schwarz, who wants Dalton to star in spaghetti westerns, suggesting he can turn his career around from being the heavy that gets killed in movies to the hero that does the killing, but he’d have to spend some time in Italy, which for Hollywood actors is the kiss of death, as low as you can get, believing it’s proof your career is over.  After a successful 6-month run, however, and a new Italian wife (Lorenza Izzo, almost nonexistent), the two old friends decide the time has come to part ways, getting good and drunk, with Tarantino pulling off one of those signature shots with a sequence of different marquees lighting up, matched by his love for the look of old movie houses and vintage cars, giving the film a retro look.  The way it all plays out in the end begins innocently enough with Booth smoking that acid cigarette in Dalton’s home, figuring what the hell, taking his dog for a walk while Dalton goes ballistic when a group of hippies pulls up to the cul-de-sac in front of his house with the muffler smoking noxious fumes, ordering them to get the hell out of there, figuring they got lost and were just a bunch of jerks.  When the Manson bunch finally get their act in gear (depicted here as buffoons), it stretches credulity, even for a fantasy, set to the psychedelic music of Vanilla Fudge, Vanilla Fudge - You Keep Me Hanging On - YouTube (7:25), becoming a wildly over-the-top exaggeration of fortunes gone wrong, much like the heist gone wrong story that started it all in RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), with Booth’s dog turning into Rin Tin Tin on steroids, nearly singlehandedly wiping out the entire Manson crew, turning deliriously violent to the point of absurdity, with one drunk guy and the other tripping on acid somehow managing to save the day, and the world, from the Manson mayhem that so demoralized Hollywood for a while, petrified by the vicious scope of their aims, stunned by their depravity and total absence of remorse.  It was an end to innocence and any traces left of the American Dream, turned into a Mad magazine comic sketch in a Tarantino movie.  The irony is that Manson had actually plotted to start a race war, killing rich Hollywood celebrities, drawing plenty of attention, making it look like the Black Panthers did it, leaving paw prints and the word “PIG”in blood on the wall, hoping to turn the world into utter chaos and annihilation, stoking the flames, hoping to leave an opening for their group to fill the power vacuum, a deluded dream if ever there was one, but it’s not that different than what finally graces the screen, gruesome, emptyheaded and outrageous, but selling popcorn and tickets. 

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