If I think about my first exposure to “controversial” pop-culture filmmaking, it was (like a lot of people my age) Quentin Tarantino. And to me it’s interesting in how through time he’s become such a lightning rod when it comes to film discourse, discussions about film culture and cultural appropriation versus influence, about direct and indirect ties to other older films, and even older niche types of filmmaking.
His works Kill Bill (both volumes 1 and 2) and Jackie Brown (adapted from Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch) are great, and even now if I rewatch those films and cringe at some of the violence and the language and the dialogue, they’re both still some of my favorite movies despite their flaws in violence and writing. The perspective that Tarantino frames violence is something both visceral and raw but also sensationalized in a surreal way I can’t fully express, but it always borders on uncomfortable depending on the context, and the back-and-forth always feels show-off in a ways to me, though maybe it’s a level of jealousy that Tarantino has the freedom to make movies that are mostly just conversations in diners and coffeeshops.
So then speaking of aesthetics and trappings, here’s the thing about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It’s really good, and it looks amazing, but I’m not entirely sure I like it.
Films that rely on nostalgia are weird. Media in general that relies on nostalgia is weird, because you have to balance a fine line in theory between historical accuracy and pure aesthetics. No one interested in retro wants historical accuracy, they want aesthetic. And those who want historical fiction aren’t that much interested in the aesthetics, because it’s just trappings for larger stories and unseen but deep-seated issues. So of course something that purports to be about the Manson family and Hollywood in 1969 is going to have to deal with that, which it does, but also doesn’t in a weird way that both fascinates but also bores me.
For the sake of convenience let’s just use OUATIH, sound good?
OUATIH doesn’t actually feel like a film, but rather, a showcase of scenes and interactions told roughly in order, so it’s less a series of narratives or linear stories that interweave, and more of skits that created a presented narrative, occasionally and honestly, sorta crudely, tied together with omniscient voiceover narration. It’s almost like an experience as opposed to a movie, where you can experience what it would have been like for this type of person or these types of people who would have crossed paths with stars, producers, hippies, and the beautiful and inescapable historical setting, which is so colorful and razor-sharp in terms of cars, fashion, and buildings…the background stuff.
But I don’t know if the background stuff really saves it, at least not in a way to make this a movie worth ever watching and re-experiencing again. In the same fashion, Tarantino’s previous work, The Hateful 8, was a beautiful film to look at and was shot magnificently, but felt so ripe and rife with violence I’m honestly not that comfortable just watching it again for a good long while, if ever, because the meat of it isn’t something that I can make peace with as “good.” Beautiful? Gutteral? Raw? Yeah, sure. Good? Ehh, not in that case.
I actually really applaud the way that it uses actress Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate not as an alternative-history thread (where DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, the so-so TV actor in a middling-to-sinking career, and his stunt double/assistant/friend Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, kill the Manson family members before they can do anything), but instead as a sort of larger background look at late 60’s LA and Hollywood, tying the presented narratives together at the very end after various intersections throughout the film in an almost afterthought sort of way.
And, as I said before, it looks amazing. It’s also wildly-quiet in comparison to his other films, in terms of lacking the “signature” Tarantino scenes of intense dialogue and quips to stew on movie trivia, pop culture, niche subculture, or whatever was drawing his fancy that day (the honestly-stupid tipping monologue of Reservoir Dogs and the insider-movie stuff of Death Proof are particularly-jarring examples). Maybe it’s because this IS a film about insider Hollywood trivia and niche filmmaking lore, so that level of meta-narrative disguised as casual conversation would push it over the edge too much, so that self-editing and self-restraint helped a lot.
I just don’t think it was enough, overall, for me. Which is fine, because to bring it back to a deep-rooted belief here, Tarantino doesn’t make movies for anyone but himself and what he likes and wants to try out, and he has that freedom to experiment and make a meandering sorta-coherent film that purports to be an alternate-historical moment capture related to the “Golden Age” of Hollywood in and the death of the Summer of Love while also creating a showcase for the art and style of a particular era.
But you can find much tighter and better storytelling along similar lines in other places, like 2016’s The Nice Guys (directed by Shane Black) which is set in 1977 California and honestly, while taking place almost ten years after the Manson story, works just as well as being about “California in the (decade)’s”. The cars are great, the clothes and architecture and set design and fashion are on-point, the story revolves around a very historically-contextual thing. Everything in there snaps together quickly and efficiently, and you feel like you’re in 1977 in LA but not lost in it admiring the scenery, wondering about the drinking habits of some two-bit Western star and his sideburns or simply admiring the theater marquees during a minute-and-a-half driving sequence that’s there to remind us of back when movies were great, man.
Or whatever, like what you like.
It’s 2020, and I’ll be forty in three years, the media tastes of people are by and large something entirely secondary to me and my interactions with them. It’s easy to see why OUATIH was so well-received and loved, as well as why it was also roundly-criticized in various manners, I guess, but in the end all that neon and cool furniture and cars just wasn’t enough for me.