Once Upon A Time In Hollywood shows Tarantino can't rise above the past, just like his lead character Rick Dalton
In Once Upon A Time, director Quentin Tarantino seems to be stuck in a time warp, where he does not go beyond recreating the 1960s Hollywood.
You may have read or heard countless times by now that Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood, the late 1960s. Hollywood was undergoing a transition then, moving from Westerns to more 'hippie-influenced' genres, as they say in the film. At the center of the film is the character of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of the Westerns, who cannot move with the times and embrace the new winds of Hollywood.
Unfortunately, the same can be said about Tarantino. While Tarantino quite successfully transports the audience to the late 1960s in the film, he cannot rise above the past, much like his lead character Rick Dalton, and this results in an overindulgent film.
In an interview with Today, Tarantino confessed that most of the imagery used in the film stems from his childhood spent in Los Angeles, primarily from the long rides across Hollywood he used to have with his parents. Hence, the fetish for vintage cars in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. From Rick's Yellow Cadilac de Ville to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate's (Margot Robbie) 1962 MG TD, the film is obsessed with recreating vintage cars. The car coordinator Steven Butcher shared the same passion as Tarantino, and shortlisted as many as 2,000 vintage cars to pepper all over the roads of the 1960s Hollywood. He even tracked down the very car that Charles Manson followers rode on their way to Tate's house but decided against using it because it would be "too creepy".
In the same interview, he talks about listening to the car radio as a child. Unlike what became a practice in the following decades, the radio used to remain tuned to just one station back in the day. The frequency was not meddled with, even during advertisements. However, in the times of Wink and Spotify, the radio is just another means of finding "the right" playlist or song. For a generation spoilt for choice, a film like One Upon a Time in Hollywood — with its massive worldwide theatrical release — has too many niche references, and a deliberate slow-burn pace.
Tarantino also spoke about his fascination with life-sized hoardings. Needless to say, there were plenty in the film. As part of the meticulous detailing, the song that the Manson followers are singing on the streets of LA, 'I'll Never Say Never Love to Always', was interestingly written by Charles Manson in real life. There are endless references to the pop culture of that era, from classic films and TV shows like FBI to the classic songs on the car stereo to the cameos by actors of the bygone era, like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen.
It is very clear that Tarantino is in awe of the 1960s Hollywood, and in turn, his childhood. But nostalgia is a minty lens, especially when you look at your craft through it. Overindulgence in this film could be Tarantino's only second irreversible sin after agreeing to direct an 11th film (he made an announcement that he would retire after 10). The only time he subverts his fairy tale of Hollywood is in the climax, where he hopes to rewrite history. That is the only spark of originality in an otherwise heavily inspired film. But there also, Tarantino ends up with a misfire.
*Spoiler alert* Throughout the film, Tarantino uses Robbie merely as a cinematic tool to lure people to theatres. His obsession with highly sexualised shots of Robbie aside, he uses Sharon Tate as merely a leitmotif throughout the film. In his version, the Manson followers never reach Tate's address. They end up knocking at the neighbour's house instead: Rick Dalton's. At the time, Rick is floating in his swimming pool with headphones on, and much like most of his films, his stunt double Cliff does all the heroic work, brutally bashing the intruders. The gore and the violence against the 'hippies' doesn't really serve a crucial purpose besides a blatant fetishising of violence, unlike most of his earlier films where the violence finds its natural place in the narrative. *Spoiler alert ends*
The only bits where Tarantino speaks to generations across ages is in the scenes when Rick is having a between-the-shots chat with a young (eight years old!) junior artist, and confesses through his eyes that he is unable to hold on to his stardom, and is gradually becoming irrelevant as days go by. The scene comes from a very honest place since Tarantino seems to be going through exactly that crisis.
The impeccable production design and costume design throughout the film come from an immensely honest place, and Tarantino is anyway the king of homages. But the lack of a strong narrative in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and the over-reliance on nostalgia, only proves Tarantino is stuck in a time warp. He is left to play with this film like a child is left alone to play with a ball.
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