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.