Spare time is a commodity as precious to me as gold or Haribo Orangina mix. I don’t get much of it and so, when I do, I want to squeeze it like a wet cloth. That means Once Upon a Time In Hollywood was only the third film I’ve seen at the cinema this year (the other two were US (awful) and Endgame (a cracker)). The decision to watch was one I came to carefully, and it proved to be the right one.
Not that I liked the film. Ok, so I came out of the cinema imagining myself as some kind of Brad Pitt/Cliff Booth figure; grizzled, stoic and principled, a man able to be true to himself in changing times. But on reflection I embarrassed myself there. Otherwise it seemed to me that Once Upon A Time… was pretty standard fare. It had Tarantino’s customary issues with sex and race and two modes — crass or reverential — neither of which resonated with me. The performances were energetic but predictable, the same with the images, and there was about as much insight into the human condition as you find in the average pint of milk.
I didn’t go to see a Tarantino flick because I thought I was going to like it though. I haven’t got on with his movies since Kill Bill. The last one I saw — Django Unchained — left me agog at both the violence and the cackling amongst QT’s entourage (this was the London premiere) every time someone used the N-word. I reckon he’s a vastly overrated creator and I wanted to see his new film to remind myself I was right. I also wanted to understand quite why this film was so highly regarded elsewhere, especially amongst the critics. But in trying to work this out for myself after watching, I came to a surprising conclusion whereby I appreciated the film and Tarantino a bit more (still didn’t like it, but anyway).
Here’s what I was thinking. Tarantino is popular amongst critics because they are mostly middle-aged men (like me!) who pine for something other than workshopped Intellectual Property when they go to the cinema. Tarantino gives them that and is in some ways the last man standing, able to compete in the current multiplex thanks to a fandom as ardent as that of some superheroes. Tarantino is passionate about cinema and directing and actors and, as is made very clear in the film, Hollywood itself. He is unlikely to pop up on Netflix or Amazon, the streaming behemoths who don’t do ratings and don’t need critics.
So Tarantino is a hold out against the modern world and so are critics (just quickly, it also struck me that Tarantino’s films are proudly analogue in content and construction, that he has never shown any affinity with the digital world). No wonder they dig him. They also share his passions and admire his attention to the craft. The fact that the craft, as it currently appears on the screen, adds up to the square root of nothing doesn’t really come into consideration. Just let it wash over you.
I don’t like going to the cinema to have my chin tickled. I am tough and independent like that. I like films that challenge me or make me think differently. My favourite MCU movie is Thor Ragnarok because I really didn’t anticipate the God of Thunder could be played for laughs. If that isn’t a bonafide I don’t know what is. But what I ultimately realised about Once Upon a Time… is that it did actually make me think differently. It made me think like Tarantino.
It’s no big claim to suggest that he 53-year-old director has a subscription to Auteur Theory Monthly. He has said that reading Pauline Kael’s review of Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande a Part was his moment of revelation, particularly the line, “It’s as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.” Tarantino’s early work, especially Pulp Fiction, is actively mining this seam. The longer his career has gone on the more each film has seemed a pastiche of what has gone before.
My own realisation was that this has value in itself. Watching Once Upon a Time… may not tell you much about the late 60s or the psychology of the Manson Family, but it does tell you a lot about Tarantino. It reveals a man with obsessive energy, someone determined to make every frame pop, even at his age. His slavish devotion to observing and annotating pop culture has not diminished either. No room in Once Upon A Time… is short of a movie poster on its walls, no exterior scene out of sight of a billboard. The total number of cameos must be somewhere in the 40s; not just Lena Dunham and Damian Lewis but every supporting actor from every mildly well-reviewed drama of the past 30 years (Lawrence from Westworld! Harry Morgan from Dexter!). Once Upon a Time is an attempt to make an entire film out of Easter eggs.
Almost everything in the picture is revealing of its maker. Take the many lingering shots of LA highways. They weren’t relevant to the plot, they weren’t even pleasing on the eye unless you were a fan of old cars. I suspect Tarantino is, but these moments — I realised — were also doing something else. They were showing LA in a pre-lapsarian state, before it was gridlocked by traffic. This meant nothing to me (at least in the moment of viewing), but it would be all too familiar to Tarantino and everyone he knows. It was an in-joke. One only enhanced by the feat of getting these roads shut down in the first place (something that seems borne out by this Vulture piece).
My ambivalence, ok, my antipathy towards Tarantino began in 2003 when I read a brilliant profile of him by Larissa McFarquhar in the New Yorker. It painted Tarantino as the movie obsessive that’s now the stuff of popular legend. But what stuck with me was how much effort, and money, he would spend in trying to get his movies just so. In particular, there was an anecdote about his hunt to find precisely the right ‘Mexican whorehouse’ for a scene in Kill Bill. The whorehouse existed only in Tarantino’s imagination but he still deployed a team of scouts to find it in the real world. When, eventually, an acceptable location was found — a real bordello in Puerta Vallarta — it still wasn’t perfect enough and the location was subsequently customised by the addition of a new bar, a caged jukebox and some pigs.
At the time I could not believe someone could spend so much money on something so immaterial, so pointless. Nor could I believe that a man born and raised in Knoxville Tennessee could be so adamant about his vision for a Mexican whorehouse. But over the years, I have since seen any number of mediocre movies which made up for in compelling recreation of period detail what they lacked in thought or heart. Tarantino had just been ahead of the curve.
With any luck we’ll look back on such debauched behaviour and laugh at it. How funny, we’ll say, that when the world was burning we would waste money, time and talent on getting a knocking shop just so. But my new feeling is that we will also be grateful for Tarantino, for representing himself and his fascinations so authentically in his work. All that wastefulness, all that obsession with aesthetics, the white male privilege thrown about not only casually but with ironic detachment, the use of gore as paint, of violence as humour, and veneration for crap old cinema. For someone so uninterested in creating characters with any depth, he has bared so much of himself on screen.
Francois Truffaut encapsulated the auteur theory with a saying; “there are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”. His hero, Alfred Hitchcock, surely disproved this instantly. Not only did he make the odd bad movie to contrast with so many great ones, his auteurish actions — the way he displayed his humanity on the screen — were put in service to the film in such a way that the viewer would often fail to notice they were there. You can’t say that about Tarantino any more. But with the 2hour 45 minute Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has fulfilled Truffaut’s maxim. Neither a good nor a bad film, its value comes from the director having successfully put himself on the screen. He’s made it all about him.