Divine Mercy Sunday
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Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

This is not the sort of movie that I usually go out of my way to see. As far as I can remember I don't think I've ever seen an entire Quentin Tarentino film, just parts of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, more of the former than the latter. Nothing that I've read about his work has made me think I'd like it, though I did find much of what I did see of Pulp Fiction enjoyable. What made me seek this one out was a review which said it was a great picture of Los Angeles in the late '60s.

Not that I was anywhere near Los Angeles in the late '60s. But I certainly have a weak spot for pictures of that period, and by "pictures" I mean pictures--photographs and films taken at the time. So I thought I might enjoy this movie for that reason if no other. I've been much preoccupied lately with the way the passing of people who have lived in a particular time and place means that it is truly lost to memory, and I find myself enjoying those memories. Yes, it's nostalgia, but there's also an irrational sense that by refreshing and expanding my own memories I'm somehow keeping that world real and alive.

Anyway: there are two things to note about the title of this movie. First, the allusion to the Sergio Leone Western, Once Upon A Time in the West. The protagonist, or one of them, of the Tarentino film is an aging Hollywood star who's being offered a chance to revive his career by acting in spaghetti Westerns. Second, "once upon a time" is, as everyone over a certain age knows (I fear the young do not), the way to begin a fairy tale, and this is in a sense a fairy tale.

The aging star, Rick Dalton and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt, respectively, are buddies, though the relationship is also master-and-servant to some degree. They are old-time movie and TV people, most well-known for a TV series called Bounty Law. But the series has been cancelled for some years, and Dalton is more or less a has-been. 

He's still rich, though. It's 1969 and he lives on Cielo Drive. If that rings a bell, it's because it was the street on which Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate lived when the latter and several others were murdered by the Manson gang. Dalton lives next door to them, and yes, that is vitally important to the plot. 

I was a little hesitant about seeing this movie, knowing that it involved the Manson murders, which have always been especially disturbing to me because of their association with the counter-culture and its favored drugs, and knowing Tarentino's reputation for depicting violence. And without giving away too much I will say that there are some five to ten minutes of pretty graphic violence, but will also direct your attention again to the title. By far most of the film's 2 hours and 40 minutes are spent on the doings of Dalton and Booth, the trials of the former trying to revive his career and the latter simply trying to get a job and to do what he can as a friend to Rick--and, importantly, to George Spahn, owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch, which is home to the Manson family.

A good bit of time is spent on the two of them, or some other combination of people, driving around Los Angeles in Dalton's Cadillac while the radio plays various well-known and not-so-well-known songs from the time. (I would be surprised to learn that Buffy Saint-Marie's version of "The Circle Game" was on AM radio. Not in Alabama it wasn't. According to Wikipedia, it reached #109 on the Billboard charts, so maybe it got played a bit in California.)

Booth pays a memorable visit to the Manson family. And Sharon Tate goes to the movies. I think that scene is what I'm going to remember most about this movie. On a shopping errand she passes a theater which is showing a junk movie in which she appears (The Wrecking Crew: Dean Martin as Matt Helm, secret agent). Delighted to see her name and picture on the advertisements, she coaxes the theater staff into giving her free admission (as though she could not afford it), and watches the movie with effervescent childlike delight, like a little girl thrilled at seeing herself in a home movie. It's a sweet, silly, poignant moment, and I hope Sharon Tate really was something like that. 

I gather that a typical culture wars sort of argument has taken place over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Dalton and Booth are the good guys here, and they're also pretty reactionary, griping about the damn hippies. Some liberals took offense at this, some conservatives applauded it. I didn't really see it that way. I mean, it's there, but for one thing, the Manson family surely was as creepy, frightening, and disgusting as they are portrayed here. And for another, Dalton and Booth certainly look good and admirable in comparison to homicidal maniacs, but they are drunken hedonists, not exactly Knights of the West riding against the Dark Lord. 

Sorry if this is a little disjointed. I've been trying to get to it for a couple of days and may not have another chance for another couple of days. Final word: I greatly enjoyed this film; it did not seem too long at all (which I rather expected it would); I want to see it again.

Comments

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I liked it too. As you say, it's a relaxed film that is content to just spend some time with its fairly likeable main characters, and remember a fairly happy time.

The briefest review I could come up with would be: "Quentin who?"

I was actually ignorant of the details of the Manson family. I'd heard of them, but I didn't know that the names Polanski and Tate should ring a bell in that connection. Only afterward did I understand that the film is a kind of alternate-history fairy tale. Knowing what I know now, I'd like to watch it again.

Even after just one viewing, I'd say it's my favourite Tarantino film after Kill Bill. That's not the highest of high praise -- I don't really like his films for the most part -- but it's something.

It sounds almost frivolous to say this, but it's basically a fun movie. That is, it seems a bit frivolous or irreverent or something if the names Manson, Tate, and Polanski ring the bells that they do for many of us.

The fact that they don't for you is an instance of what I was talking about regarding memory and the passing of a world. I venture to say that almost everyone over a certain age recognizes those names instantly, knows the basics at least of the story, and feels a certain horror. I'm not sure exactly what the age would be--mid-60s or so, maybe? 60?

But for younger people it's like, say, Sacco and Vanzetti were for me. Or Hiss and Chambers. Names that I knew had some kind of historical significance and were associated with controversy, but for a long time I didn't know what.

I'm just approaching mid-50s and knew all about Manson, Polanski, Tate. I remember the little paperback Helter Skelter being a bestseller when I was a kid.

I really liked this a lot. Had seen it in the theater and dutifully bought the Blu-Ray when it hit the stores, but had not re-watched until Mac mentioned that he was going to watch it soon. I enjoyed watching it a second time even more than when I saw it in the theater. More relaxed, remembering the main plot points, but not necessarily the details.

It is a little unlike most of Tarentino's films. I suppose a comparison could be made to Inglourious Basterds with relation to the alternative history idea, but really with it's leisurely pace it reminded me most of Jackie Brown. Now that I'm older Jackie Brown may be my favorite of his. You may want to watch that one, Mac.

Back to Once Upon a Time - what fantastic production values, great acting, fun characters popping up, and music you don't often hear - all hallmarks of Tarantino. It does have much less violence than most of his movies, and at 2 hours 45 minutes it does not seem long. I was hoping that he would win Best Director, but alas.

Now that you mention it I think I may have seen Jackie Brown. But if I did it obviously didn't make much of an impression. I'll have to give it a(nother) try.

You mentioned Blu-Ray. As I was watching OUATIH I kept thinking it ought to be more, not less, sharp than these things I stream on Netflix and Amazon. Or at least as sharp. Then it hit me that it's probably because dvd is actually lower resolution. I had the same thought about The Leftovers. So I upgraded our Netflix account to include Blu-Ray ($2 more per month). I look forward to watching OUAT again in Blu-Ray. The Leftovers ought to be better, too. I had to replace our dvd player a while back and the new one supports blu-ray.

I sort of can't believe I'm being dragged along the new and better technology path. Quite willingly, not like having to upgrade Windows because something won't work.

Liked the movie a lot until the ending, which I thought was WAY over-the-top with the violence. I did very much appreciate the "alternative history" angle however. I may watch it again at some point but will most likely FF through the ending. It's not that it was especially graphic, and I got what QT was doing there, but I just didn't like the sheer brutality of it (trying to avoid spoilers here, as a friend of mine almost ruined the ending for me by giving me too much info).

It was so over the top that it seemed almost cartoonish, so didn't bother me as much as some other things do. Sometimes murders that are done without violence are more disturbing to me: "For the love of God, Montresor!" Always gives me a shudder.

The only Tarantino movies I've seen are the 2 Kill Bills, which a friend strongly recommended. I sort of enjoyed them, begrudgingly. There seems to be a similar attitude to Joss Whedon (whose TV shows I loved), but with a harder edge. Before I watched them, I had read a review on some Catholic blog (I can't for the life of me remember which one, but it's long gone - but I don't think it was particularly puritanical as far as they go) which had a line I couldn't forget or disagree with - "Tarantino has nothing to say about human beings, except he hates them." Maybe it's not a fair review, but it seemed accurate based on what I saw. But maybe I was just seeing the movies with that in mind.

I'm certainly not qualified to comment on QT in general, but I wouldn't say that about OUATIH. There's a touching scene between the fading actor and a little girl who has a part in the same movie he's in. Maybe QT has mellowed?

***Spoiler alert!

I read a review somewhere that said that basically every QT film has a revenge element, and that OUATIH represents Tarantino's revenge on Manson and his "family" for killing the 60's. Perhaps the misanthropy of the other films was toned down in this one because of his fondness for that era and its characters?

This echoes Leone's turn in Once Upon a Time in the West, which took a strongly human turn that was present only in fits and starts in his earlier movies.

Interesting too, that QT wrote the long introduction to the big "making of" book by Christopher Frayling about Leone's film that came out last year. In this intro Tarantino comes across as a much more likable chap than in some of the other interviews and such that I've read. Maybe he has mellowed somewhat.

This was the first QT film that I have seen. I saw it because I read in NRO that it was QT's best film. I always thought his movies sounded so ultra violent and 'guy' that I wouldn't enjoy them. I enjoyed Once upon a time so much that since the summer I have seen two other QT movies. I saw Pulp Fiction which I liked very much, then Inglorious Basterds, which also does the alternative history thing. Usually I detest alternative history because Im quite literal minded. But I enjoyed it A LOT in both of these films. I saw Once upon a Time with a well known theologian, who then wrote a good piece about it in the NYT.

If Tarantino did see the Manson gang as having killed "the '60s", he's one of two types: either he was there and never saw it very clearly, or he wasn't, and accepts the account of the first type. I just read his Wikipedia bio and I guess his birth year, 1963, puts him sort of in-between, but basically the second.

Anyway, that is interesting. I want to see OUATITW again. I found it overly long and not all that interesting when I watched it for the first time ten or fifteen years ago.

I would ask for a link to the NYT review but I can't read things there.

When I read the description of Jackie Brown on Netflix, I remembered it. I did enjoy it, but obviously it didn't make all that strong an impression.

I was somewhat shocked by the dates of some of the movies mentioned in Tarantino's bio. Pulp Fiction--something like 1992. Jackie Brown--1997 I think. Etc.

I have been a very big QT fan since seeing the first one (Reservoir Dogs) in the theater. I remember going to see Pulp Fiction twice. Then I thought Jackie Brown boring, but enjoyed most of the others. Now that I am older and more mellow, I find Reservoir Dogs too disturbing to watch (well, the one scene) - but I've watched it maybe 20 times, so that's fine. Pulp Fiction really is the best; it should have at least won Samuel L. Jackson an Oscar - a the least! But I love Jackie Brown now, and I really liked OUATIH too. The Kill Bills are just fantastic, and really as two very different films. And I also like The Hateful Eight a lot. My two least favorites are Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, but then they both have such wonderful (and Oscar winning) performances by Christoph Waltz! So they are worth watching too. The least of his films is Death Proof with Kurt Russell, which I actually find kind of boring. Am I missing any? For the most part they are all pretty violent, here and there. QT is really big on Asian movies, Kung Fu stuff and all that, along with just cinema history but more the B-movies. His influences all show up in the films.

Pulp Fiction is the only one I've seen and it was enough for me. Blood and core dressed up as "aesthetic" violence.

I certainly can't argue with that. But I may actually watch Pulp Fiction all the way through. What I saw of it had a lot of witty dialog, and I can look away from the violent parts...I guess...

I was warned away from Reservoir Dogs back when it first came out. Now I'm curious. Is it just the one scene (which I have heard described)?

It does seem pretty clear that Tarantino is very much into more or less trashy movies.

I am going to watch the Kill Bills over the summer, for sure.

I watched Pulp Fiction some years ago and didn't really like it much. Since that's considered his best movie I never felt moved to watch anything else he's done, especially the more violent revenge-themed ones of recent years.

I tend to side with Marianne here. I can take a certain amount of "aesthetic violence" (Kurosawa, some of the Coens' work, Zhang Yimou, etc.) but for me QT takes the idea too far. I have the same problem with Scorcese and with some of David Lynch's work.

Just as a matter of terminology, I wouldn't call Tarantino's violence--what I've seen of it, which isn't all that much--"aesthetic." I can't think of a one-word description. It seems to be meant to shock, and at the same time it's half-humorous. Which is kind of a nasty combination.

Lynch's violence is on the whole more disturbing to me because it seems to be meant more seriously. It really detracts from the new Twin Peaks.

I agree with you about QT's use of violence. By aesthetic I meant that it has some other artistic purpose rather than strict realism. I think it's that "nasty combination" that bothers me. It's as if Tarantino wants us to become deadened to it. I find some of Lynch's violence just as disturbing but in a different way. Ditto Scorcese.

"It's as if Tarantino wants us to become deadened to it."

I think that's exactly right.

I encouraged the person writing on Revelation and Film for our OUP handbook on Revelation to focus on Tarrantino. He wrote a very nice piece, mainly tackling Pulp Fiction. Its a very nice piece. I will share it when the book goes into print, maybe by Christmas.

Not sure this falls under "artistic purpose," but here's what Tarantino said about his use of violence in 2010:

The writer and director said "violence is so good" because it is the most enjoyable form of entertainment, adding that what he wants to see at the cinema is a man "bleeding like a stuck pig".

The 46 year-old, whose films such as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill frequently revolve around violence, used a speech at the British Academy of Film and Television in Piccadilly to explain how he uses gore to "play" his audiences.

When Reservoir Dogs was released in 1992 audience members reportedly walked out during a torture scene.

“I feel like a conductor and the audience's feelings are my instruments. I will be like, 'Laugh, laugh, now be horrified'. When someone does that to me I've had a good time at the movies," he said.

“If a guy gets shot in the stomach and he's bleeding like a stuck pig then that's what I want to see — not a man with a stomach ache and a little red dot on his belly.”

The director said that violence was the best form of cinema entertainment. “In general cinema, that's the biggest attraction. I'm a big fan of action and violence in cinema,” he said.

"That's why Thomas Edison created the motion picture camera — because violence is so good. It affects audiences in a big way. You know you're watching a movie."

That's pretty close to sick.

I remember reading that Tarantino is actually being ironic when he says things like this, that what he really intends is to use ultra-violence to expose the audience's desire for violence and thus to subvert it. I've never bought that line. To me all it does it give movie critics a reason to excuse or even condone it.

Yeah, that sounds like critics’ jive to me.

Still think his movies are great, and revelatory!

Revelatory in what way? If the question can be answered on the basis of this one film, which is the only one I’ve seen in its entirety.

Revelatory seems to mean hidden depths. To me, the hidden depths in Pulp Fiction are simply joy. The chivalric, almost courtly love dance between the 'John Travolta' character and the gangster's wife. The boxer's endless devotion to his idiot wife, which nearly costs him his escape and his life, but which he maintains at any cost. The stupid robber woman, Honey-Bunny, and her equally devoted robber boyfriend. Yes, revenge is a theme, but so is this weird kind of devotional love. The name on the chopper on which the Boxer and Fabian escape is 'grace.'

I see. I can't comment because I haven't seen it, or not enough of it. I think I saw some pieces when it was playing on some cable channel that we were subscribed to at the time.

Thanks for your comment, Grumpy! Whatever one may say about Tarantino, he is certainly an auteur who makes films like no one else. Violence shmiolence...it made Once Upon a Time exciting for me to watch the first time, not knowing when something that might be hard to watch would happen. It was almost weird that this didn't come until the final scene. Whatever he may be, Tarantino is not making slasher films. He is a great American filmmaker, completely in his own style, and they should award him an Oscar for directing while he is still relevant. If we can ever get out of this rut of only awarding best director to international filmmakers the past ten years, or so.

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