Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Tarantino, increasingly tangled in false existence of a celebrity, supplants reality
Tarantino is a celebrity and this has implications to a creative artist, a figure so encrusted in glamour that rather than attend to the world he/she sees himself/herself as the object of the world’s attention.
Quentin Tarantino is as much a star as a film director, and each film of his is eagerly awaited across the world. His latest effort Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was shown at Cannes in 2019 to huge audiences and eclipsed most other screenings, perhaps also those of better films. Tarantino is a cinephile who once worked in a video rental store and most of his films pastiche (mimic) other genres in one way or another. His debut was the remarkable Reservoir Dogs (1992), which retold Ringo Lam’s Hong kong robbery-gone-wrong film City on Fire (1987) in which an undercover cop infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves but develops a friendship with a member. What Tarantino did was to simply retell the story, commencing after the failed robbery and dealing only with the aftermath, when the undercover cop is found out by his associates. In this very first film, he made it evident that he was primarily concerned with plot construction and he has taken the same path ever since, finding ingenious ways of constructing narrative.
His second film Pulp Fiction (1994) took this further by telling three intertwined stories, leaving the audience enthralled with the narration but also responding to the characters and situations. Tarantino got career-best performances from John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel Jackson and Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece of narrative invention. His subsequent film Jackie Brown (1997) depended less on plotting strategies but worked equally well with characters and got top-class performances from De Niro, Pam Grier, Robert Forster and Chris Tucker, all in memorable roles. Up to this film Tarantino, while working with genres and combining their elements, exhibited a deep interest in people and relationships — in reality, as it were. If his mimicry/pastiche of genres made critics see his work as ‘postmodern’, there was genuine empathy with human beings that he seemed to have lost thereafter — in Kill Bill Vol I & II in which mimicry of disparate genres along with a love of popular culture were the most that remained.
Tarantino is a celebrity and this has implications to a creative artist; a celebrity is a figure so encrusted in glamour that rather than attend to the world he/she sees himself/herself as the object of the world’s attention. This implies that celebrity-directors gradually lose a sense of reality and the sharp decline in the work of not only Tarantino but also others like Pedro Almodovar provides evidence. Most of Tarantino’s films, although brilliant in sections, now fail to arouse one’s interest as explorations. His growing sense of self-importance as a creative artist can be gauged most from Inglourious Basterds (2009) — the film Once Upon a time in Hollywood resembles — in which a group of Jewish soldiers of the US army assassinate Hitler and the Nazi top brass in Paris in 1943 during the screening of a film. Tarantino, it can be argued, is playing God, immune to actual happenings and inventing a (‘poetic’) ending by which imagined Jews wreak fictional vengeance on the Nazis for what the real Hitler did to real Jews.
Tarantino’s films are also nostalgic exercises in that they reflect on past genres and a nostalgic exercise is what his latest film is. The film deals with Hollywood of the 1960s and has Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in the key roles. DiCaprio is TV star Rick Dalton who is best known for a cowboy serial called Bounty Law and Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, once his stunt man but with Dalton in decline and taking on bad man roles, has become his driver; Dalton has been caught for drunk driving several times and he needs one. Tarantino’s film is exquisite for its evocation of Hollywood of the 1960s, of Beverly Hills where Dalton has his home. His neighbours in Beverly Hills happen to be Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate. Polanski has just made Rosemary’s Baby and is one of the hottest directorial talents in the world. For those not familiar with this, Sharon Tate and several of her guests were brutally murdered on 8-9 August 1969 by members of a hippie cult led by Charles Manson, when Polaski was in Europe shooting a film. Tarantino is evidently using that happening to animate the nostalgia in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Of course, having seen Inglourious Basterds we also know he may not be committed to the facts.
The two characters conjured up by Tarantino are both engaging enough but it is Brad Pitt as the tough Cliff Booth who easily steals the show. DiCaprio is not a first-rate actor and, as a habitual incapacity, he cannot keep his face empty; he contorts it even to indicate thoughtfulness. He plays an ageing star in the decline but one needs only compare his performance to Robert Forster or Pam Grier’s in Jackie Brown – also ageing persons declining in their lives – to see the superficiality of his portrayal. As a bad man in a spaghetti western Rick Dalton/DiCaprio simply lacks the gravity of somebody like Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Tarantino might even be parodying the genre although he is actually not; he respects it too much. Tarantino is so respectful of all cinema of the 1960s (except Bruce Lee, who he lampoons) that DiCaprio’s turn as Rick Dalton is a distinct letdown. There is one party scene in which key actors of the period are shown to be present and I found Steve McQueen particularly convincing. The studio sets are terrific and the staging is a visual treat.
But basically, there is no plot to the film and all that happens is Cliff Booth dropping Dalton off at the sets and driving back while the star is busy getting ready for the shooting, stealing a surreptitious drink and mouthing his lines. As indicated, the actual plot only has to do with the hippie cult preparing off-screen for their murderous assault and Tarantino builds up tension by showing a girl waving to Cliff from a street corner each time he passes by. One day he picks her up and drops her off at ‘Spahn Movie Ranch’ where she is part of a hippie commune to whom the police are ‘pigs’ and virtually everyone a ‘fascist’. Cliff once knew George Spahn (Bruce Dern), who owns and lives on the ranch but is now blind. Tarantino builds up incredible tension in this scene where the hippies try to prevent Cliff from meeting Spahn. What makes it all so taut is the sense that Tarantino catches of political tensions building up under the sunny milieu. The scene with the blind Spahn captive to the cult and tended by a hippie girl also suggests good times gone sour — undesirables infesting a once flourishing Hollywood locale. Tarantino builds up all this tension, directing it towards the fated Tate killings of 8-9 August 1969. But as in Inglourious Basterds, he cheats fate; after creating expectations he does not allow the gruesome deeds to unfold. Watching them might have been unpalatable but they still needed to be acknowledged.
Tarantino’s films are often extremely violent and he picks violent subjects to handle but he is essentially playful. I earlier, while talking about Inglourious Basterds, remarked that Tarantino was ‘playing God’. I would now propose that another characteristic that marks his films is that he deliberately replaces real violence with over-the-top make-believe kind. WWII marked the summit of violence in the 20th century not only because of the number of lives lost but also the manner in which people were killed. Compared to that Tarantino’s violence in Inglourious Basterds is extravagantly unreal. People may get beaten to death or burned alive but it is comic book violence as vulgar reassurance — bad people getting their deserts. Acknowledging the real in cinema implies allowing for cruelty and unpleasantness, but Tarantino increasingly avoids nastiness, regardless of the sound and fury in his films.
In the final analysis, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for all its exquisite recreation of the past, is not the work of a major artist. Cinema works best when it pursues mimesis, acknowledges the reality that humankind has no control over and to which it must submit. This is sense of the human creation or imagination being of no avail against reality is symbolised by the grisly Tate murders that happened in the heart of Hollywood glitter. By recreating their era so painstakingly but opting for a resolution that sidesteps them Tarantino is elevating Hollywood above the level where it deserves to be. Cinema cannot supplant reality but Tarantino, perhaps because he is increasingly tangled in the false existence of a celebrity, pretends that it can.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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