Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

NB This isn’t exactly a spoiler-free review – before the Cannes screening, Tarantino asked reviewers not to reveal anything, and he got a few boos for it. I hardly think I ruin the film for you here, but if you’re sensitive to spoilers, I feel it’s polite to warn you…

Quentin Tarantino certainly gave Cannes a shot of adrenaline, right in the heart. The festival has rather tailed off since his circus, including Bradonardo, rode out of town.

But what of the film? People talk of little else here – they either love it or dismiss it with a lazy swipe of the hand or shrug of the shoulders.

You can’t simply dismiss this movie. It’s bold and brilliant – but it’s also boorish and bloated. It’s exasperating as much as it is exhilerating. You never run out of alliterations with Quentin Tarantino (see?).

What does it say, this story about a washed-up TV cowboy actor (Leonardo’s Rick Dalton) and his stunt double friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, as charming as you’ve ever seen him, which is pretty fucking charming) who get caught up in the Sharon Tate Manson Murders in 1969?

I must admit, this is a Tarantino with some real emotion, some heart. Probably closest to Jackie Brown in tone (even featuring a travelling shot past that airport mural) and feel, luxuriating in period detail to an almost fetishistic degree. 

It’s what’s most interesting about the film from an artistic point of view – this is all about representation and recreation of alternate reality through cinema. Rick hangs out with Cliff who is his double, who “carries his load”. Tarantino creates fake movie trailers and clip (as his did in Death Proof/Grindhouse), loads of them and spends ages showing Rick making a Western movie – we watch him act, slip up, re-take, get shouted at by the director (Sam Wanamaker, played by Nicholas Hammond) and then nail it. Actors get a shot at redemption, even while that genre is fading the way of the old West.

Meanwhile, in a gorgeously-constructed scene, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate goes to a movie theatre to watch herself play in screwball comedy The Wrecking Crew, with Dean Martin, and she is a joy to watch (both as Robbie off screen, in the theatre seats, and as Tate, on screen.) It’s one of the great movie theatre scenes, an intellectual moment suffused with pure joy, one to match Mia Farrow in A Purple Rose of Cairo.

As she watches herself nail her comic scenes – QT uses real footage of the original movie, this time – she feels the excitement a new career, a new beginning, a new stardom. She is giddy with possibility, as we are for her, even as we are aware of her notorious fate.

Elsewhere, we can never be quite sure if what’s on the many screens, the TV shows or the movie trailers or the news reports, is real or faked, or if the radio station constantly playing on the car radios is real or reconstructed. QT spends two hours playing with this tension between movies and reality, between form and format. There are TVs, movie screens, car radios, record players, transistor radios, drive-ins, posters, photos, neon signs – nothing, he’s saying, is real, nor need it be real. We can disappear into fake, into constructed reality, lose ourselves in songs and lyrics, become inured from reality. The world’s a movie set, and we’re all actors and stunt doubles and posers and players and poets and singers.

Just as Leo’s Rick is feeling washed up and left behind by the new golden generation sweeping in and living next door (Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski), Hollywood is on the cusp, too. It’s the end of an era, 1969. Tarantino doesn’t want it to go, this world of movie theatres with light-up Cinerema signs. Up the street there’s a premiere for a porno. “Dirty movies get premieres now?” says Sharon Tate with some surprise. “They’re great fun,” says her hairdresser Jay Sebring.

Another stand-out scene is when Brad Pitt visits the Spahn Movie Ranch. What clearer symbol of the shifting times – and the movie’s main theme – could there be than an ageing stuntman revisiting the set of his old TV show, now over run with hauntingly dead-eyed members of the Manson cult, who (true detail) have taken up residence there?

Of course the soundtrack is accurate, too – 1969’s Greatest Hits, not quite, but some great ones, such Jose Feliciano’s California Dreamin’ and Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show or Deep Purple’s Hush. The soundtrack is actually almost constant, either appearing in the action (i.e. someone turns the radio on and it’s playing Mrs Robinson, or they stick the needle on the record and dance to Paul Revere and The Riders  – that’s one band right there that not even appearing in QT’s movie will help revive…) or it kicks in somehow to illustrate another lengthy driving scene. Sometimes the two merge, blending action and fiction. 

It’s all about alternate realities and bends in the road. But, Quentin, but….

Life happens. Violence happens, hard. If you say we can alter things in movies, make our own history, fix it in post, don’t you deny history? And the violence against women in the climax from which I had to avert my eyes, that wasn’t good. That was angry, creepy, even. Yes, of course, it’s movie violence, giallo-horror style, and wasn’t it TV violence the Manson cult wanted to blame?

So what are you saying, after all this lengthy, painstaking, accurate recreation? That nothing’s accurate anymore and we can’t believe cinema? What history, then, should we believe in an era of fake news and Holocaust denial? Where does Inglorious Basterds fit in with this – innocent, playful movie fun or more fodder to say, hey, I thought the Jews killed Hitler, so what’s all this Holocaust whining about?  You want to do the same now?

Maybe he is the hero for many. I love much of the boldness and the technique,  although obsessive geekery makes me feel squeamish, as does excruciating violence. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stoopid.

Is this his own fond farewell to cinema, shooting it on 35 mm, while the world turns on Netflix and chills? Or is he saying, we’ve had all this format deluge before and that movies and our desire to create fiction, pulp or otherwise, will survive? But not everything survives, Quentin, not everything. We are not death proof. And we don’t all live in Hollywood and disappear into a movie every night. Some of us have to live in the real world, where it hurts.