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Tarantino's Nirvana?

Updated: May 17, 2020

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2019

To watch this new movie is to witness Tarantino not as we’ve come to expect - hyper-stylised and pastiche-laden - but instead poised, reflective, philosophical - even meditative. A few Tarantino trademarks light up the screen, but they were subtler and more densely articulated than usual, including some of his recurring motifs: Kung-Fu, chance meetings at traffic intersections, vintage film posters, resurrected old movie stars. Once Upon a time ... is certainly a more studied picture, even a more articulate one than its predecessors, but whether it’s a more mature film and whether it's this great auteur's true masterpiece, is a different, more complex question. Certainly, the languidness at times seemed to tentatively overwhelm its edgier more pregnant moments so that there is little of the menace or growing tantalizing tension (apart from the glorious scene at the hippie commune) to propel the narrative in a way you come to expect in a Tarantino splurge-fest, except that when all hell breaks loose at the very end, you do suddenly earn the awareness that something horrific has been brewing all the time ... and what a glorious sensation that is, and, on reflection, so well conceived.

That this is Tarantino's love-ode to Hollywood’s Golden Age or a requiem for the dying days of that epoch in the late 60’s has been well commented on, but there is something glorious about artists making art on the very subjects that propel them: yes, sometimes it risks verging on kitsch, but here we are in safe and trusted hands. The juxtaposition of Hollywood high society (crassly hedonistic, yet archly conservative) against the growing counterculture and slow-brewing displaced angst of the hippies drives much of the film's inner sentiment. The argument posited towards the end as a justification for the Manson-clan killing spree (“they [the Hollywood industry] are the ones who taught us to kill so we should kill them”) seems a latent remark about how Tarantino mourns the loss of that age as it sequestered into the rise of the self-obsessed personality celebrity cult which - ironically for all their crazed anti-celebrity dogma - those homicidal cohorts personified. Is Tarantino saying that Hollywood used to be a community with a common, singular purpose to unite and make great movies, but then instead became about singular people exploiting a community for their own narcissistic motives (look how wonderful I am as opposed to how great we are)?

All of this coalesces into a tribute to the craft of movie making itself, the ultimate escapism against the inevitable march of time. That expansive easy Hollywood feel to the manufacture of cinema and TV shows back in that age was beautifully captured with the essential sense of scale also so well evoked in the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar! The film sets are so large as to mirror almost exactly the very sensationalist parallel they seek to portray. So too was the slow, gravelly play-out of scenes between the two aging “has-beens” of TV star Dalton and his stunt-double sidekick, Booth. In the hands of DiCaprio and Pitt this devolved into a really rather beautiful and poignant elegy of uncluttered male friendship of the kind which is never stated, never acknowledged, which rests on a certain master-slave binary and almost (but never quite) delves into the homoerotic contextualization of a brimming ripe underworld Hollywood of the time. Tarantino doesn't necessarily draw on the masculine in that sense, although many of his films include famous “bromances” – Pulp Fiction being a classic case in point, Django too, or even the quasi-orgiastic element to Reservoir Dogs. Even aside from ambition (Dalton) and acceptance of his lot (Booth), there is something genuine between these two men, wayward and adrift as they both are before the end of an era dismantles them forever.

The structure of the script echos a recurring homage to the old western films and cements this idea of the lost and drifting outback hero. From the centralised conceit of shooting the western TV show to the actual playing out of the western-style plot-line when Booth literally stumbles into the “Wild West” at the hippie commune, itself an old western film shoot location, Tarantino seems to be marking his storytelling with an overt. even cliched conventionality. This meta-textual interplay between the idea of “shooting” a film and the shooting which occurred so randomly and freely in old Westerns was arresting. It had all the shot-perspectives, design and pacing of a classic western (the classic build-up of a show-down at the OK Corral), but also the ending of the film too was a definitive western trope central to the cowboy morality myth: the 'baddies' come into town and the 'goodies' stop them in a bloody shoot out which wasn’t quite a shoot-out but had much the same result.

It's only at this juncture do you realise the fusion of the nostalgic with the horrific and how devastating that can be. The altering of history is a strong Tarantino theme: whether the killing of Hitler in a movie cinema or an alternative rendering of the slave trade, he likes to re-imagine how things might have been. Here, the alternative narrative provided for the Manson murders holds our sense of contemplative alarm: that lingering end-credit shot on the Polanski driveway, peaceful and quintessential, where no harm has come to the inhabitants - suggests how things might have been in Hollywood if that 'innocence' - flawed and pretentious as it was - hadn’t been so violently shattered by the likes of the Manson cult. It’s Tarantino reclaiming that lost nirvana for the Hollywood set, when in reality we know it was inevitably lost anyway: the understanding that anyone could just burst into your home and slaughter you in cold blood made the whole of Hollywood paranoid and introspective. David Lynch uses a similar idea to capture this muted paranoia in his own testament to Hollywood, Mulholland Drive.

Once Upon a Time ... is tonally more like Jackie Brown than the other films in Tarantino's oeuvre. The sudden outbreak of violence at the end was shocking and yet mesmeric and somehow oddly affirming: Tarantino always does very balletic and beautifully sequenced violence, but this wasn't the usual over-the-top extremes when he sometimes doesn’t know when to stop, when pure fantasy strains our sense of sporadic wonder. In a way, the “less is more” theory worked better here: the relative brevity of the violence made it more effective, whereas something like Kill Bill is so purely an affectation, that it works well enough.

I found the humour in this film far more immediately apparent than in others. There is always a kind of grim amusement going on in Tarantino: the humour is disturbing in that it often prefigures violence or carnage (drinking whiskey before the basement shoot out in Inglorious Basterds or talking about cheese-burgers before the assassination in Pulp Fiction) but here it was more laugh-out loud funny, and more immediate. Whether this suggests Tarantino is mellowing over time or not, or whether this is his desperate way of trying to cling onto his dream of an eternal, utopian Hollywood with a kind of grim sarcastic determination, remains to be seen.


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