Part I: Quentin Tarantino’s Latest Film – A Nostalgic Buddy Film: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[No spoiler alert is needed since I say very little about the details of the movie plot.]

It seems a long time since I have seen a movie on a big screen in a theatre. I went with my youngest son and my grandson to see Quentin Tarantino’s [T’s] latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. My son, who loves T as a director, enjoyed the film, but thought it was T’s worst. I and my grandson enjoyed the film and considered it pretty terrific. In the discussion afterwards, I really learned how my son’s detailed memory of past films helps in understanding a movie and how much deeper my son could dissect a film than I could.

I am not sure whether this was T’s last or second-to-last movie (according to his intentions), but if it is his last, I will miss his originality. As the title indicates, the film is a fable, or, more accurately, a parable, for there are only actors with speaking parts, not animals. The Torah story of Balaam is a fable because it has a talking ass; it is satirical comedy. The story of Jonah is a parable even though Jonah travels to Nineveh in Syria to redeem the heathens there, for Nineveh, according to Aesop, was where the fable as an art form originated. The lesson of the satirical parable of Jonah will be saved for another time.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a story about an alternative universe, a tale that uses the material of our collective history, in this case, both our collective actual history and our history of watching films and reading about the lives and personalities of those involved in the industry. Like the fable, the parable is used to teach a lesson. It is deliberately intended to be instructive. In T’s case, even though violence is central to the tale, the story is Christian. It is about sin and redemption. My son’s conviction, and he uses interviews with T to prove it, is that the message, and T’s repeated message, is simply that violence is fun. I will discuss this thesis in part II.

This is a movie in the tradition of the 1969 buddy films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. These are all, like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, different versions of cowboy buddy films. Easy Rider may be the most interesting. It may be no accident that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stretches out to 2 hours and 45 minutes. So did the original Easy Rider before it was cut to an hour and a half. At one and the same time, Easy Rider introduced new techniques of filmmaking and ushered in an era of indie films. In content, it was an inversion of the frontier thesis; the bikers travel from west to east, from California to Florida instead of to the west.

America at its core was no longer portrayed as a land of freedom, of individual tenacity and daring-do. Rather, America was a country soaked in hypocrisy, founded on insecurity and xenophobia. The film was an ode to the counterculture of the sixties while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood celebrates the sixties of Hollywood and turns the Manson cult into a version of murderous hippie villains.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a working actor who mostly plays the villain in Westerns though he was once the “hero,” Jake Cahill, in the TV series, Bounty Hunter. In real life, that is, in the life of the fictional actor, Rick Dalton, the latter is in quest of the great prize that Hollywood offers. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, his stuntman, chauffeur and all-around gopher. The two are not just master and servant but are real friends. They are loyal to one another. They have each other’s backs. But, as in all traditional buddy films, they have contrasting personalities.

Rick Dalton is a schizophrenic, stuttering, stumbling, insecure, neurotic and self-absorbed character who is transformed when he performs in a movie. When playing the villain who kidnaps a girl in a film, he mouths off and throws the 8-year-old (Julia Butters) to the floor. After the scene ends, this super mature young lady goes up to Rick Dalton and whispers in his ear that, in that scene, he gave the best performance she had ever seen. It is true comedy when a successful actor gets his validation from a female stripling.

Brad Pitt, on the other hand, is a cool character, totally comfortable with himself, his life and the company of his bull terrier, Brandy. While Rick Dalton plays the tough guy, the ex-military Cliff Booth is the real thing. Unlike a typical buddy film, however, DiCaprio and Pitt do not play characters who misunderstand one another. For they never try to understand the other. They let each other be. Nevertheless, over the three days (or was it two?) in 1969 in Hollywood when the film unfolds, their friendship and male bonding grow even as their employer-employee relationship dissolves over those same few days. 

A buddy tale of this type is quite unique to American culture, and American lore for that matter, going back to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The original prototype of the buddy story may be that of Moses and his brother Aaron travelling through the Sinai towards the Promised Land. Neither makes it. But their roles are not only complementary but, in their own way, heroic. In the movies in which Rick Dalton acts, he is the hero, but in real life (that is, in the movie), he is a disintegrating mess. Cliff Booth is the real hero. There is neither complementarity nor rivalry; the two occupy different trajectories.

In a Hollywood context, the buddy film is escapist where heterosexual males openly display their affection for one another. In the process, they reveal their, at best, indifference to women. Sex is bracketed and violence takes its place. For in the background, and haunting the film and our tremulous expectation, is the story, excluding the afterword, that culminates on the final evening of the three days, 8 August 1969, when, in actual history, four members of the Manson Family cult broke into the home of 26-year-old Sharon Tate, pregnant with the child of Roman Polanski, and killed Sharon and four of her friends.

The inversions and playing with the actual numbers is a trademark of Tarantino, for, as he repeatedly says, “this is a movie,” and he wants to be clear that it is a product of his imagination that simply uses actual Hollywood events, or, at the very least, the lore over those events, for his own purposes. It is a movie about once upon a time in Hollywood, about the period of innocence and fantasy that seemed to slip into oblivion following the Sharon Tate murders. The decline of Rick Dalton’s career is but a stand-in for what happened to Hollywood by the end of the sixties and what also happened to the decade of free love and tripping out on acid. However, in my son’s interpretation, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood adumbrates the radical change in the culture of films in the seventies and Rick Dalton’s resurrected career. In my interpretation, the movie is about the end of an era and the end of Rick Dalton’s career.

Though a buddy film full of nostalgia, great expense and effort were taken to reproduce the Hollywood of the time. The movie is neither a broad comedy in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, nor a refined comedy in the  tradition of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, or the crossover of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In the 1969 hit, The Odd Couple, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon played two contrasting personalities that systematically sabotaged one another with their very different personalities. This was a film that really adumbrated the new buddy films that would follow. For unlike the pre-Tate buddy films, the two men were at cross purposes in the age of emerging feminism, specifically over their contrasting approaches to dealing with women.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, women and love interests are totally peripheral to the dominant narrative of the film. Thus, though the starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her boyfriend, Roman Polanski, occupy the house next door to Rick Dalton’s, though the road from the end of the driveway from each home winds and twists down from the Hollywood Hills, Sharon Tate, as an enthusiastic innocent, occupies a separate narrative space virtually until the climax of the film when the end of innocence will be clearly demarcated.

Further, while most of the women in the film are shrews (if they are wives) or tramps (if they are hippies), Sharon Tate as portrayed in the film is neither. Even though, unlike Rick as a working character actor, she is part of Hollywood aristocracy, she is warm – she picks up a hitchhiker and gives her a hug when they separate – happy with herself and sweetly delighted and even excited to watch her own performance in her 1968 movie and the positive reaction of the movie audience, The Wrecking Crew. (Is this an adumbration of the end of Tarantino’s movie?) On the top level, she, like Cliff Booth on the Hollywood lower level who lives in a trailer next to a drive-in theatre, is happy in her own beautiful skin and even manages to avoid paying the 75 cents to get into a movie to watch herself on screen with her bare feet on the seat in front of her.   

This film is nostalgic in another sense. It is a whitebread film, not only because the great plurality of Latinos who live in LA are erased from the film. Contrast that with Easy Rider that, in the motorcycle trip eastward rather than westward, the first spoken words are “Buenos dias,” and “Buenos amigos.” Easy Rider welcomed  strangers on motorbikes (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) as neighbours. (Ironically, following the completion of the film, the two friends, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, became alienated and never spoke to each other for the rest of their lives.) The only neighbourly contact in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood comes at the end of the film when DiCaprio is invited in to visit Sharon Tate and her friends, which he had longed to do when he passed Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski at the beginning of the film in LA’s airport. T’s film is a counterpoint to Easy Rider.

There is also no black and white pairing of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte or of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover where the progress on mutual understanding takes place on racial lines. Nor does the buddy film follow the subsequent pairing of men who develop their sensitivity to one another nor, as in the case of The Green Book, where the master-servant relationship is inverted and the white guy is the chauffeur and the black guy is the sophisticate. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the friendship of Cliff Booth, the “servant,” and Rick Dalton, the “master,” is very deep, but based on loyalty rather than sensitivity, on mutual support, rapport and trust rather than depth of feeling, on identification with one another rather than deep chasms that divided them.

Why a buddy film? Why cowboys? Because that is when violence was taken as purely fictional. That is when the rapport between two men was celebrated even though it was not based on mutual understanding or reciprocal sensitivity but simply on friendship that at its core consisted of loyalty and trust. What has this to do with a message of redemption?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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