Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: Tarantino’s Ironic Nostalgic Twist

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quintin Tarantino’s latest offering…

once upon a time in Hollywood: Opinion

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering. It is a slant on a nostalgic tinseltown that no longer exists, if it ever really did in the way that Tarantino depicts it, and the film’s ironic ending leaves one wondering just what his motives truly were.  Critics have complained that the movie spends too little time on the Manson family and its tragic victims but this is the purpose of the entire film, to give a “Hollywood finish” to reality.

The film, starring Tarantino semi-regulars Leonardo DiCaprio (Django, and Brad Pitt (Inglourious Basterds) Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight, Death Proof) and Bruce Dern (in a blink and you will miss him cameo as a last minute replacement for the late Burt Reynolds) is a long, somewhat meandering affair. **It should be pointed out that along with Russell, Dern has the most credits listed under Tarantino.**

Margot Robbie is the tragic Sharon Tate and there are a number of familiar faces, some more special that others, who fill out the cast list of this odd offering. Please do not misunderstand, this is a visual treat for the viewer, it offers much in terms of interest and threatens to become a brilliant character study. Although it never really delivers in term of character but it teases in other ways and provides a few laughs along then way.

I was 11 years old when the 1960’s ended, along with the lives of Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood brought the sixties screaming back into glorious discordant life. The sounds of the radio advertisements, the television clips, the colours, the clothes and the cars all threw me right back into a pre-pubescent memory lane. This was both enthralling and somewhat, rather oddly, disturbing.

Tarantino gives us his version of ’60’s Hollywood. He also, by design, gives us the “Hollywood” ending to the entire “Helter Skelter” true story that the film is based around. (Not upon, as his tale is, to paraphrase a line from 1969’s The Wild Bunch of the event, not from it. In other words, it is the frame he hangs his work on.)

Once Upon a Time… focuses on Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth. Tate is in the periphery as a reminder of the impending tragedy. She flashes on the screen in small glimpses that are designed to show her as a sympathetic character, all the more to make the ending hit that little bit harder. This is, however, a ruse. A MacGuffin if you will. A tactic that sets us up instead for the “Hollywood ending.”

Tarantino lets fantasy intrude at the tail end of the movie and here the discussion will stop in order to keep spoilers from appearing in this review. In many ways, the ending is a disappointment until one realizes that the fantasy is what Hollywood studios would have ordered were the real life murders a movie.

Hollywood has long had a fixation with endings that allow the hero to ride off into the sunset with the girl on one arm and a fistful of money clenched in his fist. The bad guy gets his just reward, a bullet or a grave, or both, and everyone lives happily ever after.

There are enough nods are “real” Hollywood to allow this to work. Booth’s besting of Bruce Lee on the backlot is based around Lee’s time on The Green Hornet. He was also training many celebs and newcomers on martial arts for both onscreen and off. Lee trained Tate for her role in the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” movie The Wrecking Crew. (Coincidentally, this was the last Matt Helm picture made, despite another being touted at the end credits.)

Dalton’s foray into Spaghetti Western territory mirrors, to an extent, Clint Eastwood’s own journey into the Leonesque world of Western Opera. While the connection is tenuous as best, unlike the Bruce Lee vignette, it is there for the film fan to notice and appreciate.

Once Upon a Time looks luscious and real, except for the odd continuity issue, as the hippies all have filthy feet, legs and hair. Dakota Fanning plays stunningly against type as the “momma bear” Squeaky Fromme and Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is all scabby legs, black feet and sexual promiscuity wrapped in a teen drugged up dream. Qualley does such a convincing job as a Manson minion that one can almost smell the scent of eu de rubbish skip that must permeate her entire essence.

The violence in the film is convincing yet, strangely, funny in the way it is presented. All except the scene at the Spahn Ranch, the blood looked as real as the Korean cinema’s blood work, which is head and shoulders above the rest of the industry.

DiCaprio’s performance as Dalton is convincing and his suffering artist makes us feel for him. I will admit to being moved to tears when the child actor – Trudi (played exquisitely by Julia Butters ) leans over and tells a teary eyed Dalton that this is “the best acting I’ve ever seen.” Truth be told, Butters comes damn close to stealing the film from the entire cast. This is one young lady to keep an eye on.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is one to watch. Perhaps not at the cinema, streaming or DVD may just suffice as despite looking brilliant and providing a magnificent nostalgic treat, it left me, at the end of the film, feeling a tad disappointed.  However, it is an excellent example of Tarantino’s skill at hiding a genius move in plain sight. Like Inglourious Basterds he gives us a fictional version of an awful reality, one that equals, to a degree, a happy Hollywood ending. This then, is the ironic twist to Tarantino’s nostalgic Hollywood tale…

Aquarius: David Duchovny in Search of Manson

Promo shot of Aquarius

Period drama used to mean anything that dealt with the time of Jane Austin, pantaloons, Mr. Darcy and Tara. With the long running success of AMC’s Mad Men, it now seems that the 1960s has replaced the earlier horse drawn romantic boilers. Consider, if you will, that the only other period piece to come from AMC, apart from Halt & Catch Fire set in the 1980s (which some people must like since it has come back for a second season) is the network’s nod to patriotism Turn: Washington’s Spies which is another of those dismal attempts to look back at America’s Revolutionary War which has also been brought back, rather inexplicably, for another season. Aquarius, stars David Duchovny as the “hip” detective in search of Charlie Manson “pre-Helter Skelter.

Once again, the 1960s have been revisited and unlike Mad Men, which really celebrated the “good old days of endless cigarettes and three martini lunches,” Aquarius looks at the more unpleasant side of the time. Sure this was the era of “free love” dropping acid and “tuning out and turning on” but it also had the Black Panthers militaristic movement, enough racial prejudice and hatred to sink a far few battleships and the “establishment” vs the hippies.

In one scene, the undercover narcotics officer, referred to as a “Narc” (and you will really show your age if that term means anything to you at all), becomes an underling for Detective Hodiak and one of the other cops asks if Shafe (played by Grey Damon) is going to get a hair cut. The Vietnam war is in full swing and a lot of protestors are heading for countries outside the US borders in order to avoid the draft.

On a side note: Has anyone else noticed that “Hodiak” rhymes with Zodiac as in the killer who tormented the police through the 60s and 70s? Surely this name choice is no coincidence.

NBC has opted to run the show on Hulu where one can “watch the full event series.” A bold move that either signifies supreme confidence in the show or just the opposite. Thus far, several sites have reported that the viewing figures for the show are “disappointing.” Rather an odd prognosis for a show that just opened on 28 May via the network but can be viewed in one fell swoop on Hulu. How are audience figures adequately counted in this instance?

The network advertises that the entire season can be watched, not only online via Hulu, but via on-demand and “on the NBC app!” Surely it is too soon to really say whether the figures are good, bad, or indifferent.

Aquarius does seem to be fairly interesting, combining real people, Manson for example, with fictional ones in order to take a look at the “run up” to the Sharon Tate murder (as well as Jay Sebring and a number of others) and just how “Charlie” got started. The show features a cop who may, or may not, be an recovering alcoholic, an undercover officer along the lines of Frank Serpico and a black “militant” Muslim in the stamp of Malcolm X.

Not wanting to watch the entire series in one go, I opted to take in the first two episodes via Hulu. Overall the show is not bad and of course it goes without saying that Duchovny is incapable of giving a bad performance. Casting Brit actor Gethin Anthony as Charles Manson has annoyed some but, to be fair, it is early days yet and he may still fit the bill.

As this is a fictional telling of Manson’s journey before he got the world’s attention for the murders committed by his “gang” the tale can go pretty much where it wants. Never mind that in reality, Charlie was a short (5’2″) scrawny, and unattractive, psychopath who used drugs and his delusional belief that he was a prophet of doom to rule a group of misfits and antisocial teens and young adults. By the time the murders took place Manson was a 32 year old institutionalized career criminal who discovered music, instead of religion, while in prison and was “really quite good” on a guitar.

The show is entertaining to a degree and it can be seen in its entirety on Hulu, on-demand, and on the NBC app, as stated above. The actors all turn in some satisfactory performances and the series does have a pretty decent “60s feel” to it. For those who do not want to watch the whole “period” drama at once, or who do not have the time, it can be seen on the network on Thursdays.

30 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith