Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Nihilistic cultural commentary on quality, 35mm film with good performances; this is my essential thought of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Writer and director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Grindhouse, Django Unchained) has something to say about American culture and the arts. His movie is interesting if only as cultural commentary. What Tarantino has to say is that mindless art fosters mindless acts and that Americans are hollow.

It doesn’t matter to Tarantino that his otherwise meticulous re-creations of television programming are not remotely accurate in terms of content. If you’ve seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and you’re too young to remember TV shows or the type of TV shows being depicted, don’t take Tarantino’s depiction as truth. The shows are not as flat, plain and gratuitously violent as he depicts. He distorts the history of television in this sense. Why is this important? Because the distortion, however slight and I don’t think it’s slight, reflects his deeper distortion to come.

For example, Al Pacino’s character, itself an exaggeration or caricature of the Hollywood Jew, reacts favorably to a work of art by praising the “killing of Nazis”. Even in the era of Kelly’s Heroes, Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen in the mid to late 1960s, major Hollywood films depicting Nazis being annihilated went over for deliverance of justice, not for the residual thrill.

But in this way Tarantino seeds the notion that his brand of mindlessness and titillatingly violent depictions were somehow mainstream and acceptable. They were not. The films of Sam Peckinpah, among others, for instance, were considered shocking and controversial.

Tarantino’s are not characters as much as they are ciphers. Of course, there certainly are empty people, increasingly and especially in today’s culture. But even vapid people do more than exist in the way Tarantino dramatizes. Almost every character in the film chooses to be consumed by rock music, radio, television and movies. They don’t really have conversations. They’re like automatons moving in robotic like ways without much if any thought. Sound familiar? In this way, Tarantino certainly mirrors and projects a forecast of the vacant culture to come. The mindlessness of his characters is paramount.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is made with deliberation. Every frame and shot is calculated to provide a certain perspective on the meaning of what’s to come. This includes a few aerial shots and scads of close-ups. Tarantino is too calculated and the film, which is about 40 minutes too long, is contrived. For example, a scene in which Brad Pitt’s stunt man character picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be one of the Manson Family is so contrived as to be totally artificial. The actress’s lines and the performance do not match the powerful impact that her character’s actions, presence and consequences have on the plot. Put another way, the youngest female of the Manson tribe is depicted by Tarantino as too middle-class and decent to be the type of confused, lost and vicious, cornered subhuman she was being molded into at the hippie commune where she’s kept. Her character delivers a crucial transition yet she’s a total lie.

Let me examine each major character. The most interesting character is the actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio (Catch Me If You Can, The Great Gatsby, Titanic). For all of his flaws, and he’s insecure, vain and shallow, he’s the most realistic. He’s the most human. He’s the only character in the film with values. He thinks for himself to some extent. He lets himself experience emotion as he goes through an extremely painful self realization which he faces bravely and alone. He expresses his emotion without shame, which I think is admirable, especially in a man — especially in the late 20th century when feminism emasculated man, seeking to make men feel small and unimportant. The DiCaprio character is the only character that seeks to be productive other than a lone girl. He strives to be his best. He hates his flaws and strives to overcome them. He struggles. He doesn’t give up. To a certain degree, he succeeds.

Yet DiCaprio’s character is tormented. He’s miserable for most of the movie. By the end, he more or less gets what he wants and has earned but Tarantino mocks and trivializes it. Mr. Pitt’s character, on the other hand, is vacant. By all outward appearances, he lives like Charles Manson without the explicit philosophy and cult following. He lives in a filthy home of his own choice and making with a menacing dog behind a drive-in movie theater in the San Fernando Valley. He’s like an ignorantly blissful dolt. His best days are behind him. He looks old and haggard. All he has is a decent physique and an ability to fight and do menial, manual labor. He has no friends, family or romantic companions. His highest experiences are mild amusement at older children of the opposite sex, especially a vagrant or wandering hippie who parades around in cut-off‘s and doesn’t shave her armpits. The biggest and most serious commitment he makes in the movie is when he says “yes we do” after he agrees with one of the Manson Family in a way that lets the audience know he’s as vulgar, raunchy and vacant as the hippies on the commune. After the dust settles following the film’s cartoonishly heinous climax, he’s unemployed, unemployable and he’s lost his closest relationship. His response? In parting, he tells DiCaprio‘s character: “bring bagels.” This line represents the scope and depth of his commitment to living. He’s not that into it.

This is the point of Tarantino‘s film. He dramatizes that Southern California in particular and America in general, are shallow, empty and meaningless. He shows that everyone seeks to get stoned. He depicts no real regard, let alone reverence, for humanity. He demonstrates that we’re all a few tokes or violent TV episodes away from being mindless cult followers.

Tarantino backs this up with scads of visual references, cues and cuts, including flashes back to George Putnam‘s talk radio show, the Pantages theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and parties at the Playboy mansion. Audiences will probably take this as a whole as brilliant and terribly meaningful. I submit that it isn’t. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be interestingly rendered with attention to detail, and it is, and much of it is well done. But, from barefooted actors and re-casting of old TV shows to rock music as an incessant and blaring soundtrack in everyone’s heads as they drive everywhere with the windows down in a kind of mindless stupor, the whole city of Angels is portrayed as being under a kind of hedonistic spell of nothingness. Maybe this is Tarantino’s point. But then what’s the point of having a point? It drains even the antiheroism of any real interest. You watch for the sake of watching and react for the sake of reacting. It isn’t any deeper.

There is a singular aspect of the film which I think is useful. I think this is the part audiences may respond to with verve and some degree of enthusiasm which I think is unearned. Tarantino portrays hippies for what they are: vacant. It isn’t more complicated than that. He lingers on the hippies. With the exception I mentioned, he shows their evil goals. He doesn’t whitewash hippies, their subculture of communalism, selflessness and religion. Though he pointedly omits their indulgence in drugs, probably because it undercuts his thesis, he depicts with lingering precision the pure evil of the hippies that chose to apply New Left ideals to their logical extreme and commit mass murder in Southern California. This culminates in an effective series of scenes on Spahn ranch in Chatsworth where the hippies congregated and planned their acts of evil.

With one caveat, a character apparently intended to be Susan Atkins, he consistently dramatizes Manson’s Family as evil. The Atkins character blames their actions with some degree of plausibility (on the movie’s terms) on television. It’s an interesting sidebar and it’s undeveloped. I think there’s truth in what the character says. But as delivered it’s tossed aside and unexplored. “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” she says. When those people kill back, it sort of vindicates her assertion.

None of this should be taken as deep and intelligent filmmaking. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood flashes thoughtfulness here and there but to say it’s thoughtful is too generous. It’s carefully rendered nihilism.

The theme of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is that writer and director Tarantino thinks that everybody must get stoned, to paraphrase a song by Bob Dylan. There are good scenes and depictions. Some of them are sharp. But the movie is more cultural commentary than artful fairy tale. Parts are stylishly rendered. But the main character, a stunt man played by Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 12 Years a Slave, Meet Joe Black), is as mindless as Charles Manson, the monster who made the Manson Family that butchered productive Southern Californians on an August night 50 years ago today. The fact that one of those innocents, Steven Parent, is not depicted in Tarantino‘s film, is extremely revealing. For all of the supposedly meticulous details, including a holding shot on an ice cube tray, excising the extermination of a young man’s existence from a story which purportedly seeks to rectify or at least re-create with an alternate version, one of the most horrific and influential crimes of the 20th century, says everything about the filmmaker. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood belongs with In Cold Blood and another Sixties shocker, Midnight Cowboy, in focusing on the depraved at the expense of the good, the able and the innocent.

Tarantino’s notion of what’s being saved by this alternate version takes the form of Sharon Tate, capably play by Margot Robbie (I, Tonya, The Legend of Tarzan). She, too, is a cipher as depicted here. She’s attractive, intelligent and careful about her appearance down to the smallest details if without much effort. The actress goes to Westwood to buy a book and takes in one of her own movies. But she does so as an exercise in wanting to cash in on being a movie star, not that there’s anything wrong with that, which undercuts the character’s credibility. The fact that she apparently removes go-go boots and socks in the movie theater and puts her bare feet up on the seat back in front of her is utterly out of character. This is true for both the character portrayed in the film and what we know about the real actress who was stabbed by Manson’s hippie women (please stop calling them “girls”) over and over and over and over repeatedly until Tate and her almost full-term fetus were butchered after Sharon Tate pleaded for her life. This is the sense in which Tarantino trivializes that which ought to be revered, the life of a single human, and delivers it into one extravagantly violent and supposedly giddy display in the film’s last 20 minutes.

It isn’t funny. And yet, due to the vacancy of the main character, the stunt man played by Brad Pitt, it’s intended as a kneeslapper. The humor is supposed to be justified because it’s an alternate version, not the facts being re-created. But butchering others in self-defense while hallucinating on drugs is asinine at best. The fact that Mr. Pitt’s character chooses to get not just stoned but deeply, fundamentally stoned, negates everything good about what he does. “Happy, self confident men do not seek to get stoned”, Ayn Rand — who outlined and created her literary masterpiece and a philosophy for living on earth in Chatsworth where she lived with her husband — wrote about the year 1969. As is usual, Rand is right. Quentin Tarantino’s clever and elaborately winking twist on mass murder attempts to show otherwise.

 

Children of Hollywood

The granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas appeared this spring in the room where the first Academy Awards were held to moderate a discussion with Cary Grant’s, Charlton Heston’s and Ruby Dee’s adult children on being a child of Hollywood. It happened at the classic movies festival.

Douglas, Grant, Muhammad and Heston at TCMFF 2019

I wrote about the insightful panel discussion, dubbed ‘the descendants’ by Turner Classic Movies for their 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival, for Flicker Alley’s online classic film journal. The Hollywood-based company, which creates, distributes and sponsors top caliber movie restorations and releases, kindly announced that “[o]ur Flicker Alley Team attended the TCM Film Festival in April, where we met the talented Scott Holleran who graciously shares his experience in this month’s blog.”

Read my article about surviving Hollywood parents — besides Melvyn Douglas, these include Dyan Cannon, Ossie Davis, Charlton Heston, Ruby Dee and Cary Grant — here.

 

OCON Cleveland 2019

OCON Cleveland, like OCON Pittsburgh and OCON Chicago, makes the most of its centrality of venue and location. I think today’s audiences are art-deprived, as I’ve written. So this year’s arts theme, pegged to the anniversary of a collection of Ayn Rand’s arts and literature essays, undoubtedly helps.

The best aspect of the conference is its venue, the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, which was built for the 2016 Republican National Convention (read my review here). Overall, the sponsoring Ayn Rand Institute’s best conferences in terms of the whole experience are the ones held in mid-American cities. OCON Cleveland squandered the opportunity to capitalize on the history of the location, unfortunately. There were no lectures on John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, for instance, or other obvious Objectivism tie-ins. Tours of Cleveland are another missed opportunity.

OCON increasingly tends to be oriented to a lighter, less intellectual and educational and more social experience, so this is not surprising. Gone are the deep dive courses of yesteryear, when I could delve into details, nuances and aspects of my favorite artists such as Hitchcock, Hugo and Hawks. In Chicago, I studied Aristotle with an Aristotelian scholar for several sessions. In Cleveland, the same scholar was reduced to a single session.

I’ve heard it said that “young people” are to blame. I don’t accept it. Certainly, I think it’s true that the incessant and ubiquitous technology glut often depletes or mitigates one’s ability to focus. But offering less is a self-fulfilling prophecy. OCON ought to offer deeper, longer and more serious studies with streamlined teaching. Not in fragments that often turn into advertisements for whatever the speaker’s selling. There were too many ads, or plugs disguised as something other than ads, for my money at this year’s OCON. Let the trader principle play out and have an Austen Heller room in which to showcase, mix and trade. Also, the full schedule ought to be announced and advertised in advance, not doled out in spurts as if prospective customers are inclined to act on a whim.

Here are other criticisms: no greeting, let alone orientation, at conference registration — an announcement of the death of a prominent Objectivist intellectual mentioned as an aside (which turned out to be false and was retracted without apology) — and the worst part: an intellectual who’d denounced Leonard Peikoff was admitted and is sanctioned by the ARI, which is unfortunate.

Visiting and making new friends is a top value. I gained the highest value at OCON Cleveland in the lessons on bacteriophages (with a nod to Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis), PrEP, the scourge of mosquitos, CAR-T, Rachel Carson and CRISPR by the brilliant if breathless Dr. Amesh Adalja — behaviorism and Ivan Pavlov — Christianity’s dubious origins — interesting advice with cogent thoughts on Bob Dylan and criticism of being “inquisitorial” within the context of what the speaker calls personal, as against optional, values — and a lecture on Aristotle with insight into Rand’s thoughts on his philosophy of art.

Though I was unable to attend several major lectures and courses, I enjoyed Shoshana Milgram’s newest work on the splendor of Victor Hugo and I would’ve liked to have seen Dr. Milgram, an English literature professor and Rand’s biographer, on the arts panels. My personal favorite presentation was Stephen Siek’s marvelous, two-part lecture about and biographical introduction to Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose struggle, work and life are as larger than life, passionate and inspiring as his music. This type of mini-course makes OCON uniquely enriching. OCON ought to let those who attend be greedy for more.

 

Songs: “What About Us” by Pink

Pink’s Grammy-nominated 2017 single from her album Beautiful Trauma, “What About Us”, captures both the highly charged disunity of our times and a call for empathy and unity in a poignant and simple rhythmic melody. The dance anthem starts with a nursery tune-like la la la, which gives the song a childlike introduction.

Then, comes a faintly audible yet distinctive Gregorian or African background chant, which alternately strikes me as a chorus of hardy sailors singing as they set out for sea. You can barely hear it, but this intermittent background provides an ethereal or ghostly dimension to the tune, which then bursts into a vocal by Pink demanding to know the title’s status. Lyrics are explicitly pro-human while the authority being scrutinized might as well be God or some supernatural notion or government or religious institutional authority. When a rousing bridge abruptly comes in, the main theme shifts its multiple challenges — “what about love?” “What about trust?” “enough is enough” — from God to ourselves. It’s effective.

Written by Pink (Alecia B. Moore), John McDaid and Steve Mac, “What About Us” will to some sound too tidy. Its beats per minute, range and chord progression are all well calculated for dance floors without compromising musicality, however, and Pink’s vocals of the intelligent lyrics are clear, pointed and insistent. There’s a sense that some value’s at stake — the shared purpose of a community, team or partnership; some sort of social relationship — and the song’s last three words end with an emphasis which puts the phrase with its many meanings to the listener to think about.

The compelling music video depicts Pink and an array of young urban types connecting, conflicting and agonizing during strife in slow motion, modern or pantomime movement in downtown Los Angeles.

Joe Buck, Scarlett O’Hara, Doris Day and the Movies

Joe Buck, Scarlett O’Hara, Doris Day and the Movies

Read my writing on David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939) which I wrote after seeing the movie at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood this spring during TCM’s annual movie festival.

In the essay, which includes an extended section on my personal context for seeing the film and reading the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, which won a Pulitzer Prize for literature, I examine its treatment of slavery, romance, women, history and war. This includes my analysis of its most famous line, which I think is misunderstood, overestimated or underestimated, and a new discovery about the character Prissy.

Read my analysis of Gone With the Wind on New Romanticist here.

Another movie I had seen before, long ago, but never reviewed, is Samson and Delilah, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Bible epic. This, too, I saw at TCM’s festival. This, too, contains certain aspects that I think today’s audiences (to the degree they’re aware of these movies) may miss. Read my guest review for a classic movies blog of this movie about sex between man and woman here.

Though I had never seen Winchester ’73, a Western starring James Stewart and Shelley Winters, I knew about its anti-Western or modern reputation. I think I detected an aspect about the 1950 film which other analysts may have missed, which I write about in my review. You can read my guest review of Winchester ’73 here.

Each new review includes a short postscript on the screening including my thoughts on TCM’s presentation. Additionally, I reported on TCM’s tribute to the 20th Century Fox studio founded by a Hungarian immigrant named William Fox, which like Marvel Comics has been consumed by Disney, for one of the Internet’s best classic movies sites, Once Upon a Screen. Read the appreciation of Fox here, where I also share other classic movies posts, including my roundup of TCM’s 10th annual Classic Film Festival.

One of the TCM event’s best features included a program with the child of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, as well as Charlton Heston’s son and Cary Grant’s kid with Dyan Cannon. An article about this discussion, moderated by the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka, Hud, The Candidate), will be posted soon.

In the meantime, I’ve also conducted a thorough examination of the 1969 Academy Award-winning Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy, which turns 50 years old this year. I had never seen the movie, which is curiously forgotten, ignored or rarely discussed yet widely heralded as a masterpiece, an assertion which I dispute in my analysis. Read my thoughts on this bleak and miserable gay-themed film, which debuted in the same year as the hippies’ music festival near Woodstock, Charles Manson’s mass murderous hippies in Los Angeles and America’s landing a man on the moon, here.

Recalling the opposite of Midnight Cowboy‘s extremely depraved and influential sensibility, today’s the date that Turner Classic Movies airs its movie marathon in memory of the late Doris Day, who died last month in California. I was moved to write a tribute to this wonderfully American star which I hope you choose to read. Turner Classic Movies features the article, “America Needs Doris Day”, here.

Movie Review: Rocketman

Purging ‘the devil’ inside is the catalyst in the musical Rocketman. Paramount’s movie about rock star Elton John’s life in songs unfolds in an exaggerated, though not preposterous, recreation of reality complete with dancing, singing and stylized, cinematic theatricality. It’s as bedazzled as you’d have reason to expect it to be.

Rocketman is more intimate than you think, however. More so if you know, contemplate and mine Elton John’s songs and the facts about his life. If not, you may still enjoy the movie, but only if you take it on its terms and none other. Rocketman, like La La Land, may be an acquired taste; this picture (like that other picture, which is 2016’s best picture) is not an overly sentimental or polished depiction of what it means to strive to express oneself as an LA artist.

Like the singer and songwriter’s singular tributes to Marilyn, Diana and his namesake, John Lennon, each destroyed in their prime, Elton John’s musical about his life shows what it means to grind, hurt and “still feel the pain of the scars that won’t heal”, to borrow a line from one of his hit songs. Rocketman dramatizes the brittle, wretched cost of infamy, stardom and fame. It is unyielding in this sense. It is also uncanny.

Screenwriter Lee Hall (War Horse, Billy Elliot, Victoria & Abdul) and director Dexter Fletcher, with Elton John’s apparent endorsement, move through the stages and keys of his life, if not entirely the catalogue of his music (how could they?) with tact, deft and ruthless editing, lighting and stagecraft. The result is sensational. So is Taron Egerton in the lead.

Rocketman takes off as a musical — strictly framed in the subject’s songs — about the whole man. Unlike other movies about real people, this one revolves around more than a streak of egoism.

“I want to get better,” Elton John plainly says at an early point in the film. The rest plays out from there, from his curiosity about his father’s recording of Count Basie and navigating toxic parents to his inner rage — “The Bitch is Back” — and onward. Whether his first kiss from one who sees in him his true self or a colleague’s advice to kill the self you seek to transform so you can become who you want to be, Elton’s ego is central.

Rocketman is explicitly and unabashedly sexual, erotic and meaningful. There’s no catering to Others as in last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which delivered songs at the expense of story. This is the tale of a self-made man and, accordingly, this means showing man as a man and this means sex, love and being gay. This is essential to why Elton John shaped his own life.

A duet of “Streets of Laredo” gives that song its due for the first time since Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) borrowed pathos and the title’s phrase; its carefully framed scene gently lays the foundation for the most loving one in Elton John’s life: Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell in a warm, equally perfect performance). But the magic, memory and wonder of Rocketman will depend on your experience of these songs in your life, if any. If you’ve never heard them, you are in for a fabulous treat.

From the spine-chilling discovery and delivery of “Your Song” to deep and abiding love and admiration in Bernie’s eyes, and back around to the ache of a gay man’s (really, any one’s) unrequited love for the unattainable, Fletcher and Hall integrate egoism into Elton’s pain points. Then, they wrap the picture neatly, almost prayerfully, in what matters about the one who was once a pudgy, unloved boy named Reg; that, like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, the child’s on the outside looking into what’s eluding his life.

Liberation, i.e., tagging, owning and loving himself, through the hard work of achieving intimacy, this is the legacy of Elton John’s music and life, caught with care and attention to detail here. Pardon the bad wigs. Forget that no one can fully recreate Elton John in his signature (nor breathtakingly handsome Bernie Taupin). Everything works to serve the story, not the other way around. This is an awesome achievement. Even Bryce Dallas Howard as the mother shines.

Rocketman, from choreography, photography and every element of design to poignantly, ingeniously conceived plot points such as “Crocodile Rock”, “Honky Cat” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, fulfills its theme that selfishness is virtuous. When someone accuses Elton of being selfish in a climactic scene of dramatized introspection, his response cleverly embeds a rejection of both underlying morality and rendered judgment.

“Real love’s hard to come by, so you find a way to cope without it,” Elton says about drugs and suicidal tendencies coiled in keeping up appearances and faking reality, which nearly everyone pushes him to do.

While Rocketman doesn’t sugarcoat these details, it also isn’t stingy in depicting what it means to save the life which is your own. In lavish and elaborate production numbers, Rocketman shows what Elton John’s done to struggle, melt down, frolic and rise, float and align with his surroundings as he’s propelled to new heights. It revels in the sense of alienation expressed in the song which is its title’s springboard, “Rocket Man”.

Rocketman spins, curves and adorns the extremely difficult, emotional and nuanced art of living. Through a selection of the artist’s songs of life, the immensely watchable and magnetic Rocketman lights up the arc of Elton John’s life, from learning what’s poisonous to embracing himself. You’ll feel elevated, crushed and empowered. You’ll know what it feels like for the man who creates and happens to be gay and trapped by anger, drugs and alcohol for repressing himself. Clarity is Rocketman‘s aftereffect. And it radiates pure Elton John.