(Directed by Quentin Tarantino) (2019)
In the late 1960s, late in his career, Ezra Pound discussed his monumental work, The Cantos, calling it a ‘botch.’ When asked, “‘You mean it didn’t come off?’ the poet replied: ‘Of course it didn’t. That’s what I mean when I say I botched it.’ He then went on to describe a shop window full of various objects: ‘I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way’, he said, ‘to make’ – and here he paused – ‘a work of art.'”*
Hollywood – the old, gold Hollywood – was in crisis in 1969 – real life had begun to outdo the movies – the film studios were nearly bankrupt, and the product was tired glam-rock before the arrival of punk. Hollywood was a reflection of the wider national crisis. Haight-Ashbury gave way to Hate-Everybody. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood meanders through that year, using a washed-up western star “Rick Dalton” (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt man/factotum Cliff (Brad Pitt) as parodies of Yesterday’s Glory. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) represent the Future’s potential for good. (It is an intriguing conceit of Tarantino to flirt with history as the couple pass the Manson Family like ships in the night – Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is like Wotan in Twilight of the Gods – there almost only in spirit, yet a driver-of and witness to a world that is ending.)
DiCaprio & Pitt are splendid actors in top form, but they are hardly stretched here. Excellent actors (Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis) are mostly wasted in ho-hum, Ocean’s 11-type cameos. Typically with this director, there are dazzling, flamboyant (yet uneven) production touches to set the time and place, and Hollywood circa ’69 looks, for the most part, just right – like Polanski got 1930 s LA right in a vastly better film, Chinatown. Some extremely effective sequences recall other films, naturally, even those of the director himself. We particularly liked the creepy, sinister scenes where fearless Cliff, in a restoration Coupe de Ville, picks up (or lets himself be picked up by) a Manson-cutie (Margaret Qualley), who in a leisurely manner (shades of Save the Tiger) is hitching home to the ol’ Spahn ranch, Cliff there risking the ire of the assorted nutters (including Fanning as ‘Squeaky’ Fromme) by dropping-in on former buddy, blind George Spahn (Bruce Dern).
The violence is ludicrous, hilarious, almost otherworldly, and staged with all the flair of a bookish man. Various homages to the movies, from parties with the great and the good to insider tourist traps to film-set exchanges, enhance and yet pall. Like the movies, the leads are getting older, a tad bloated: some are even settling down, but they can still land a punch, nail a tricky scene, belt a ton of booze, match it with a martial artist, or reprise a flamethrower stunt from “The Fourteen Fists Of McCluskey.” It’s a potent display of the last primordial yawp of toxic masculinity.
Quentin Tarantino is the Ezra Pound of B-movies – Magpie-like, he takes a piece here, and a piece there, flips it a little and creates what some are pleased to call art-house. And it is true that he does so with care and talent-to-burn – his vignettes are often brilliant, in terms of script and setting. Like Orson Welles, another enfant terrible, his first film remains his best. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is very, very enjoyable, even stimulating, but not a masterpiece. The director picks up on this and that thing that interests him, and then jumbles them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.[* Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound, pp 457 – 458.]