From Once Upon A Time In Hollywood to Luck By Chance, why we love watching films about the movies
The problematic stereotypes aside, what Quentin Tarantino manages to achieve through Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is to bring alive the world of movies of the late 1960s.
There are movies, and then there are movies about the movies. Many great filmmakers have paid tribute to their industry somewhere in the legacy they leave behind, each in their own unique styles.
With Quentin Tarantino nearing the self proclaimed end of his 10-film career, it comes as no surprise that he has chosen Hollywood as the setting of his latest film. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is Tarantino’s take on the end of what is now known as Hollywood’s golden age, told through the eyes of a failing actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his buddy cum stunt double-cum-gofer Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
Tarantino though, is not the first, and will not be the last filmmaker to romance the medium through the medium itself. From Cinema Paradiso to Luck By Chance, every now and then a filmmaker writes a love letter to the industry, bringing their own personality, influences, and style to the table. These stories straddle different genres, but are bound together by a very unique emotion — that of being in love with the milieu more than the subject matter itself.
Paresh Mokashi’s Marathi biopic on Dadasaheb Phalke, Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) tells the tale of how India’s first film got made way back in 1913. Sure, it is a period drama with some very sparkling details, but that is not what you take away after watching the film. You see the passion and belief of a man who sells off his belongings to learn the craft and pursue what could only be called a pipe dream back then. This is no tearjerker though. The easy, fun vibe running through the film tells you more about the filmmaker’s love for cinema than his protagonist’s. Then there is The Disaster Artist (2017), which is as different a story and milieu as possible, but hinges on a similar premise — that of one man’s belief. James Franco walked away with multiple acting awards for portraying Tommy Wiseau, infamous for having made what is largely acknowledged as the worst film ever made (The Room, 2003). It is Franco’s filmmaking capabilities though, that make this film more than just a laugh riot — it takes real love to successfully leave an audience with the portrait of sincerity and passion that drove his protagonist.
The chaos of filmmaking has also been captured in cinema through satire. Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (2008) explores multiple Hollywood stereotypes — an action hero who wants to do more, an award-winning actor who takes himself much too seriously, an obese comedian looking for a change of image, and a producer who will stop at nothing. Making movies like this one and Frank Oz’s Bowfinger (1999) require the ability to laugh at oneself, and all that one holds dear. It is almost like an indulgent parent saying, “Hey, this one is a mess but she is my mess, and I love her all the same.”
There are different ways to love one’s mess though. Not every filmmaker takes the route of flippancy. Some dig deep into recounting personal experiences, while others paint the love of their world through the biopics of stars, like Chaplin (1992). Regardless of nationality, race or gender, we have all had our childhood flights of fancy about making it as a film star. And to us, the audience, movies about the movies afford us a short trip into that mythical world where dreams do come true for a few. The reality of a handful of people achieving their dreams also means countless others are shattered. Filmmakers have often used the journey of a struggling actor at the forefront of their stories. Both Luck By Chance (2009) and The Dirty Picture (2011) show us the harsh reality of the film industry, but with contrasting approaches. While Zoya Akhtar’s tender and detailed treatment of the milieu also subtly lays out all its flaws, Milan Luthria throws those flaws in your face. These are different stories, told in different ways but the filmmaker’s love for a flawed industry shines through in both.
Films that straddle different eras of filmmaking have done some of the best chronicling of the industry. Om Shanti Om (2007) explores and compares Bollywood in the 1970s and the 2000s. It might be a story of reincarnation at its core, but is also a story of the change in the industry. The trickiest films in this genre, however, are those that capture the mood of the industry during a period of flux. Singing in the Rain (1952) and The Artist (2011) are both classics in their own right, separated by half a century. Yet they both tell poignant stories about the transition from silent films to the talkies, possibly the biggest watershed moment in the history of cinema. Hinging the story on failing actors who struggle to keep up with the times is a trope that has worked before, and is what Tarantino falls back upon to tell his story in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.
The film has left critics and reviewers split, and its problematic stereotypes have attracted a lot of flak. But if there is one thing everyone agrees upon: this has been the most Tarantino-esque film he has ever made. This is a man who loves cinema. Subtle hints of an impending film of this kind have always been there through all his work. Pulp Fiction (1994), his sophomore attempt, is a gangster story, but might also be the only film ever made that references almost every genre of cinema, from martial arts to film noir, westerns, musicals and well, the gangster film itself. The indulgence has been contained in all his later efforts, but the love of cinema shows up every now and then. Take Inglorious Basterds (2009), for example. On the surface, it might seem like a film about a bunch of Nazi killing Jews, but dig a little and you find deeper layers that are all to do with the power of cinema. Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a young girl whose family was killed by the Nazis, uses cinema to exact her revenge and take back a medium that had been appropriated for propaganda. The climax has it all — she addresses her to-be-victims via a short film before burning down the theatre itself.
When the love for one’s art is so great, it takes restraint for a filmmaker to then not get carried away with the sideshow that says, “These are a few of my favourite things.” Catering to a larger audience while keeping a small set of movie buffs interested is often what separates a good film from a great one. But how much of that indulgence is the right amount? It depends on who is watching, of course.
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