Mild spoilers for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
My first Tarantino film was 2012’s Django Unchained. It was my cinematic Big Bang, where I realized that movies were a collaborative experience in the vein of help achieving one’s imaginative vision. It helped me realize that film was an art form to express one’s self through comedy, violence or tragedy. It blew me away, more so than any other film I’d seen up to that point. Fast forward to today and I can confidently say that Tarantino is my favorite filmmaker, mainly in part to how he’s become the artistic definition of the word “director”. There are very few, count-on-one-hand filmmakers that can attract an entire audience solely by being involved, and I see him as the marquee name to that distinction.
It’s been interesting following his career. Starting as the new kid, the hot shot with Reservoir Dogs, then turning the cinematic medium upside down with Pulp Fiction, a film whose popularity and cultural influence could have easily typecasted Tarantino into making films like it. We now know that one of his greatest directorial strengths is adding variety to his work. In the quarter century since Pulp Fiction came out, we’ve seen Tarantino go into the blaxpoitation, martial arts, samurai, war, western and who dunnit genres, all with outstanding results. His love of cinema permeates each and every time he puts a film out, which makes Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood so special.
With a filmography as dense with cinematic allusions and tributes as his, it’s surreal to watch a Tarantino film that takes place in the city, the industry that he unabashedly loves; it’s like Michael Bay directing a fireworks shop owner, or JJ Abrams making a Thomas Edison biopic.
Tarantino’s latest is predictably a love letter, a beautiful reminiscence of a time before. Rick Dalton, once the talk of the town, sees the parade pass him by, not as the main attraction, but a lowly bystander. He is desperate search for the next big job, slowly coming to the conclusion that there may never be a “next job”, not like before. Leonardo DiCaprio is cast as said movie star, with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth as his right hand (stunt)man.
What makes OUATIH unique from the rest of the director’s films is context, both narratively and within Tarantino’s career. He’s famously said that he’ll stop directing after his tenth picture, expressing his worry that going further may ruin the prestige of his work. If that’s to be believed, and we hold him to his work, we’re entering the theatre witnessing the true twilight of his career. No longer is he the hotshot who reignited John Travolta’s and Pam Grier’s career, or the center of the movie violence argument. In a time of sequels, reboots and remakes, the idea of the movie star or original IP is slowly becoming quieted out in favor of surer, easier investments. A new wave of cinema is starting to set in, and Tarantino knows this. He’s always been a champion of film, and rightly views it as an art, an event where one should prepare themselves to go to. He still shoots on film, hates the mere thought of CGI, and wouldn’t dare be a director for hire. He knows he’s old fashioned, and his latest film is a meditation on that feeling, even becoming a little insecure about it. The two main characters spend the vast majority of the picture looking back at the good ol’ days or try their best to replicate that success. It’s all done with sincerity and authenticity, as if Tarantino is writing Rick Dalton through his own eyes. Rick hates hippies, and maintains a well-mannered, clean shaven demeanor, even if he stands out from the rest of the city. He doesn’t follow the current trends because he knows no other way than what he knows. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and it’s used to infectious and tragic effect.
Sharon Tate is prevalent to the story, being a beacon of light and optimism that the new wave of cinema would bring in the oncoming decade. Her place in the story has become the central place of criticism for the film, ranging from the apparent lack of any meaningful screen time or how inconsequential she is in relation to the Manson family subplot. The critique of ample screen time is understandable sure, but the intent with Tate’s character isn’t just “Tarantinoing” her up, but instead act as the New Wave ready to take over Hollywood. Her optimism, kindness, cheerfulness is a direct contrast to not only the central protagonists, but how many view her legacy. Tarantino doesn’t dwell on the violent reality that Sharon meets, an event that will forever change how we look at her career and body of work. Here she’s portrayed as a star on the rise, one who lives in the moment dreaming of a fruitful career. She’s essentially the least flawed character Tarantino has ever penned, a brilliant juxtaposition to a violently tragic reality.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s Roma. This has all the trappings of a film made by him, but has moments that are so drawn out and specific, that we’re able to see the director’s gleeful affinity for cinema but also be wrapped up in its melancholy. It’s an examination of one’s own body of work and questions its own relevance going forward. This isn’t an old man shouting to the sky in rejection of the future, but rather a bittersweet tribute to a time that was pure and innocent, a fairytale of what was and what should’ve been.