[**Warning: Spoilers Ahead!!]
Quentin Tarantino‘s latest technicolour toned fantasy, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as fading Western TV actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman/buddy/counselor/driver Cliff Booth, respectively. They’re fictional characters and Tarantino throws them into a lot of nostalgic late sixties Hollywood-era type situations. Margot Robbie is sort of in there, and sort of given prime billing, commanding screen space as real-life model turned actress Sharon Tate, newly married to director Roman Polanski, and basically not doing much except looking glamorous and wide-eyed and beautiful.
All of Tarantino’s latter films have a heavy plastic fantasy feel – they each pay homage to certain genres or eras Tarantino feels nostalgia for – kind of like the most expensively themed prom a director who’s got complete freedom can throw for his seventeen year old self, or the most expensively themed bar mitzvah if you want to go all the way back to thirteen – and the new outing is no different. There are definitely good things about it, but they ultimately get drowned in the prom theme superficial excess. Some of those good things are solid performances by both DiCaprio and Pitt, some great quirky moments of humour (I could have done with a lot more of those), commendable acting by the supporting characters (there’s a scene where Dicaprio’s actor goes up against a child method actor – channelling Meryl Streep – that’s amazing), fine filmmaking if we’re talking about framing and camera movements and set design, and an immersion in the plastic fantasy world that Tarantino has created for himself.
Unfortunately, none of it really lands in any kind of meaningful way and I feel as if Tarantino really hasn’t created any meaningful characters or moments since Jackie Brown. The second part of Kill Bill has some meaningful moments where Uma Thurman reckons with motherhood and her missing daughter but they’re few and far between. Inglourious Basterds is the best of the post Jackie Brown films in terms of mastery, craft, and satisfying story but none of the characters really hit home or make you believe in them. But wait, you’re going to say, Tarantino’s always been artificial – that’s his thing, isn’t it? That’s true but his earlier films had an edge. You really felt for Tim Roth’s plight in the mess of unplanned events that make up Reservoir Dogs.
When John Travolta’s gun goes off unintentionally in Pulp Fiction while discussing the presence of God, much of what follows is a believable exploration of what happens when you deal with the aftermath of being caught in unwanted, frustrating circumstances. Jackie Brown (my favourite of Tarantino’s films), while serving up some of his flavourable stylized jive, gives you very realistic middle aged characters played by Robert Forster and Pam Grier – you can really feel the desperation surrounding where Jackie’s ended up in life, a life etched in three dimensional compassion and intelligence. It’s set in a real world we can easily believe and relate to. What happened to that Tarantino? He stopped making films for some years after Jackie Brown and when he came back, each film was progressively more artificial and unsatisfying than the last. It’s what happens when someone like Tarantino is given the freedom to simply indulge in whatever he wants to do. Where are the friends and colleagues giving him feedback about what’s not working in terms of character, scene, plot, tone, etc? It’s got nothing to do with the subject matter or the swearing or the violence. Tarantino used to be the kind of person who could take an infomercial and make it interesting if he wanted to. But that person’s long disappeared.
Back to this particular film. It coasts along with no real structure or momentum for a long time and then at some point (maybe halfway throughout the film or afterwards – the sense of time is weird in the film because it narratively takes place over three distinct days although the running time is close to three hours), we are introduced to the Manson family who are living out at the Spahn ranch. Booth, Brad Pitt’s character, comes to the Spahn ranch after picking up one of the Manson girls hitchiking to get a lift back there. There’s a great scene where Booth checks up on Spahn because he senses something is wrong and feels that Spahn might be incapacitated or dead.
Throughout the film, DiCaprio’s character is fairly vain, weak, and high maintenance while Pitt’s proves to be heroic, sturdy, and unpretentiously capable – this in itself is a really interesting dynamic and there’s much there that could have provided a solid and original drama. If Tarantino wanted, he could have gone back to the mental space he tapped when he made Jackie Brown and really looked at the slow burn tensions that have built up over the years in Dalton and Booth’s unequal relationship and individual frustrations; he could have woven a really interesting and credible story about the web of people that they intersect with in that time and place (without having to eschew any of the flash and violence he so dearly loves while still paying homage to the era). But that’s not what Tarantino does. Instead, he has the Manson family members invade Rick Dalton’s house on that fateful evening in 1969 (instead of Tate’s, who lives next door) and then Booth and Dalton destroy them. To be fair, at least the two principal characters remain sort of true to character with Booth and his dog doing most of the real work and Dalton simply coming in at the end, unawares, finishing the job with a movie prop.
Why do people go see a Tarantino film? People from my generation remember the immense impact that Pulp Fiction made on the scene in the mid-nineties, how revolutionary and innovative that seemed in a decade which unlike its forebears did not seem to have much of either of those qualities, and we hope to experience that again. I think that Tarantino was definitely moving in a more masterful and subtle direction as a filmmaker when he made Jackie Brown but people didn’t seem to like it as much and it’s my own personal theory that he then reacted by withdrawing from filmmaking, opting to go down a different path when he returned with Kill Bill.
Maybe younger generations go see a Tarantino movie because he has that reputation for excess and unbounded flash, unbeholden to rules or traditional expectations and form – a millenial quality that puts him in company with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Kanye West – and he constantly delivers some of that excess with each outing. Why care about the historical accuracy of WWII or its impact if you can just venture off into fantasy at the end of Inglourious Basterds and simply fry the entire Third Reich’s command? Why care about the legacy of slavery or the feelings of those who have inherited that legacy when you can simply make a Mandingo/Spaghetti Western picture set in the Old South where you get to have your cake and eat it too – the cake here being the violence and cruelty endured by slaves. It’s a lot harder to make a film like Jackie Brown where at its end, the black protagonist cries as she drives away, knowing everything she’s done and endured in order to be able to get to that point in the film.
When it comes down to it, I don’t really mind Tarantino making a film where he decides to alter history and have his erstwhile heroes destroy the Manson cult. After all, I’ve been conditioned to accept this tendency by his previous films. However, if he’s going to do that, he needs to really invest in that plotline as opposed to simply making it an absurd twist in the last act – he needs to really develop the characters and the stakes and engage with the subject of the Manson cult, what it was and how it came about, its intersection with the sixties period he represents, instead of just blowing away a few characters as ‘dirty hippies’ at the end. Hippies are to this movie what Nazis were to Inglourious Basterds and what Southerners were to Django Unchained.
At least the Nazis in Inglorious Basterds got a real developed villain in the person of Hans Landa. On the other hand, if Tarantino’s going to invest as much screen time in his leads as he does, he needs to develop their dramatic tensions and resolve them, but he doesn’t want to commit to doing that either. Mostly, I just wish he’d devote himself to applying more of his quirky sense of humour which I think has always been his strongest suit – not the violence, not the dialogue, not the surprise twists, but the exquisite sense of quirky and capable humour. Anyway, that’s not going to happen – critics seem to be lauding this film and it’s going to create a feedback loop where Tarantino does more of the same during his next outing – perhaps a Star Trek or retro James Bond film as he’s discussed in the past. Oh yeah, let’s not forget that motorcyle movie he mentioned a long time ago. This is the way he thinks now: not in terms of compelling characters or themes he wants to explore but genres he wants to notch onto his belt. He says that the next film will be his tenth and final one and after that, he’ll turn to plays and literature so we’ll have that to look forward to. Tarantino’s current crop of movies, instead of making me feel nostalgic for the genres and eras he invokes, makes me nostalgic for the time when Tarantino was a fun and fresh and thoughtful director.