I consider Quentin Tarantino’s finest film to date to be Inglourious Basterds (2009), in large part because of how it questions cinema’s tenuous relationship to history. Less a movie about World War II than a movie about World War II movies, Basterds famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) climaxed with the image of gung-ho American soldiers assassinating Adolf Hitler in a movie theater—a brazenly fictional innovation that drew attention not only to its own artifice, but to that of any historical drama. In breaking the unspoken rule that narratives set in the past must respect the actual historical narrative, Tarantino acknowledged that any time a filmmaker makes a narrative movie, his or her project is grounded in make-believe. Narrative cinema conjures its own reality that plays on viewers’ desires, whether through the charisma of performers, filmmaking technique, or the progression of the story. Ultimately these things have nothing to do with history, as much as most historical dramas try to pretend otherwise.
Since Basterds, Tarantino has been spinning out variations on the insights of that film, mixing the facts of different historical eras with the flights of his imagination. Django Unchained (2012) took place in the antebellum south and followed the vengeful exploits of a runaway slave, while the The Hateful Eight (2015) took place after the Civil War and played fast and loose with America’s societal tensions at that time. (Perhaps Tarantino’s most topical film, Hateful Eight presaged the 2016 election in its portrait of Americans with competing, antagonistic views forced to share the same space.) Now Tarantino has delivered Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, a movie set in Los Angeles in 1969 that touches upon the film and television industry of the late 60s, the Manson family, and other aspects of American culture in the Vietnam era. If this film feels less satisfying than Tarantino’s last three, it’s likely because the writer-director has exhausted whatever he has to say about the relationship between movies and history and is simply spinning his wheels.
That’s not to say that Hollywood is without its pleasures. From moment to moment, Tarantino remains one of the most impressive stylists currently working in American cinema, and the film contains a trove of entertaining crane shots, cutaway gags, and stray visual details. He also remains an impressive director of actors: Hollywood features two marvelous performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and the supporting cast (which features Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, and Lena Dunham) is seldom less than enjoyable. Yet despite its epic length, Hollywood doesn’t feel as much like a grand statement as it does an accumulation of pleasant moments, as if Tarantino had simply assembled everything he liked about late-60s California (both real and imagined) and decided to play with his collection. The film doesn’t wear out its welcome until its final half hour, when Tarantino scrambles to bring his various ideas and fetishes to a slam-bang conclusion comparable to that of Basterds, but when it does, the overall thinness of the project becomes all too clear.
Hollywood begins in black and white, showing scenes from a fictional, early 60s TV western called Bounty Law. Tarantino soon reveals that the lead actor on the show, Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), is a 50s movie star who’s spent the 60s working in television. Rick’s fall from stardom has dovetailed with a descent into alcoholism. When the story begins, he needs to be driven everywhere by his stuntman cum personal assistant, Cliff Booth (Pitt), since his license has been revoked after too many DUIs. Much of Hollywood‘s narrative concerns the touching friendship between Rick and Cliff, which is rooted in honesty, affection, and mutual need. Cliff may be more easygoing and cocksure than the anxious, self-doubting Rick, yet he too has his demons, having possibly murdered his wife in a highly gossiped-about incident that Rick is careful not discuss. The film only reveals Cliff’s troubled past when the stunt coordinator on another TV western (on which Rick is appearing as a guest star) refuses to work with Cliff because of his history. In one of the film’s more affecting moments, Rick defends his friend and convinces the stunt coordinator to change his mind.
Tarantino interweaves this fictional portrait of Rick and Cliff’s friendship and professional obligations with scenes from the life of the not-fictional model-actress Sharon Tate (Robbie), who’s presented as a sort of magical sprite floating through the Hollywood party scene and whom Tarantino imagines living (with her husband, Roman Polanski) next door to Rick’s mansion. Also drifting through the narrative are several of the wayward young women who belong to Charles Manson’s cult (which was based on a ranch outside Hollywood) and are often seen hitchhiking around the city. Because the film is so relaxed, it never develops a sense of dread from its crosscutting between Tate and the Manson girls—who would intersect horrifically in real life—nor does it achieve the summative, poignant quality it’s after in associating Rick’s professional downfall (meant to reflect the decline of the Hollywood studio system) with the rise of Manson’s zeitgeist-ending community. Rather, it’s in the smaller, less grandstanding moments that Hollywood thrives: Cliff’s lonely evening in a trailer with his dog, Rick’s discussion of a western novel with a little girl he meets on a TV shoot, Sharon’s childlike appreciation of her own performance in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew at a downtown movie palace.
Though Tarantino mixes fiction and historical fact cleverly and confidently, I’m not sure what he wanted to achieve with the mix this time, and I’m not sure if he knew either. Some of the combinations feel silly and uninspired, like when Cliff fights Bruce Lee on a TV backlot or when Steve McQueen turns up to ponder Sharon’s love life. Passages like these (and the film contains many of them) suggest that Tarantino is doing little more than indulging his fandom of Hollywood lore, playing around in the past rather than questioning it. Perhaps the film’s title is meant to be a clue to its mission: this is a bedtime story Tarantino is telling to himself. v