I spent the majority of my weekend digesting. I was present but my head was firmly stuck in the clouds. Processing. Analyzing. Re-playing. I couldn’t escape it, nor did I want to, and it most certainly interfered with my weekend writing duties. I had this vision of doing two columns centered on Quentin Tarantino and the release of his latest film. One on his soundtracks, that actually was written, and the other… the difficult task of ranking his top five films. I had my lists made out. I knew the points I wanted to hit, the films I wanted to discuss, and then I saw Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood and everything changed. I was better off crumpling up those lists and throwing them out my apartment window. There was no possible way I could talk about any other Tarantino films without first discussing Hollywood. To do so would be a cheat. This was clearly something that I needed to “talk” out much like a child who is riding the wave of an extreme sugar binge. Let every thought, idea, and emotion, just pour out of me and see if anything coherent can be gathered. I wanted to write something in the vein of a Tarantino character. A thought filled with a bunch fancy pop-culture laced jargon that centered on a highly personal idea or philosophy.
How could I be expected to write about other films when this weighed so heavily on my mind? I’m not going to get into whether or not this changed my Top Five Tarantino Movies, that’ll be addressed at a later time and date, but even if it did impact that list, a one-paragraph blurb wouldn’t’ be enough for my brain… or even remotely fair to this film.
The fact of the matter is… I’m in love. Unequivocally. Hopelessly. Blindly, in love with this movie and the more I’ve thought about it the deeper in love I fall. I’m Andrew Lincoln at the end of Love Actually. I’m Jerry McGuire interrupting the jaded women’s circle. I’m the old couple in Up… both of them.
Part of the problem of being in love is trying to find the words to describe the exact feeling. Have you ever tried to explain love to someone?! This is an emotion that is both deeper and more ambiguous than the definition. You just know it when you feel it but that’s problematic for someone who spends a large part of their time writing. The very purpose of writing is to convey thought and emotion. For me to tell you that I’m in love with a movie and not follow up on that would be all types of lame. It’s like telling you I had the world’s greatest tacos but without telling you where. It’s borderline cruel.
Love isn’t really an emotion that one antiquates with the films of Quentin Tarantino outside of the fact that you and I love them. Although Tarantino is no stranger to tackling the emotion the casual viewer might just mistake his movies as brass, violent stories with complex narrative structures. But love? That seems as foreign as Jules Winston’s ability to eat an actual hamburger without his girlfriend around. Yet, love is the underlining theme of this movie. It’s Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood, cinema, and in a lot of ways, Sharon Tate. Which may seem strange considering the Manson Family lurk in the backdrop like the boogeyman waiting to bring this fantasy crashing down to earth. But the infectious, almost giddy, admiration that oozes from each tracking shot, cut, billboard, or radio advertisement is too big to be ignored. For a film that exists right near the end of the free love movement, Hollywood wears its heart on its sleeve in the hope that love will perceiver.
The anchor of this love is clearly Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate. While much has been said about her minimal dialogue, including a very awkward press conference, I would argue that it’s not what’s not being said that’s at the forefront here. Tarantino uses Robbie/Tate as a symbol, this beacon of hope and promise trying to pierce through the impending darkness of the Manson attacks. This angelic burst of sunshine, bursting through the scene via a Playboy Mansion party, illuminating every scene she’s in with her doe-eyed innocence and girl next door charm. Sharon Tate is the through-line more so than the classic landmarks, the music, or the movie/television references. For Tarantino, Tate represents this period of time that faded away with her death.
Tarantino’s very personal, very vulnerable presentation is something new for the writer/director and adds a unique level of intimacy that none of his other films have matched. One could argue that this is the most un-Tarantino Tarantino film yet and perhaps that’s what makes it so damn Tarantino. The dialogue may not be as snappy, although there certainly are flourishes, and there may not be an actual story here, but this allows Tarantino to focus on what we’ve grown to love about his movies. Characters. And out of all the Tarantino Universe, you’ll be hard-pressed to find two characters as beautifully crafted as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.
Pulp Fiction gave us the briefcase or the watch as an axis to spin amazing characters like Jules and Butch. Kill Bill had the quest for Bill’s blood to drive The Bride. Hollywood gives us a day in the life scenario and it’s the characters that move everything along. Rick and Cliff are asked to do the heavy lifting and the results are mesmerizing. We feel for Rick’s quest for relevance as he tries to course-correct his failing career. We feel content with Cliff as he transitions to his next phase of life without fear or concern. These are two characters who are kind of polar opposites that balance each other and this world so beautifully. Pitt and DeCaprio, two of my generations greatest character actors, completely lose themselves in the roles to the point where you feel that you’re hanging out with Rick and Cliff, not Brad and Leo. It’s that type of rich character work that brings you even closer to this universe as you live and breathe it.
The intimacy of this story structure can’t be ignored. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t want you focusing on revenge lists or obtaining Nazi scalps, he wants you to feel Rick screw up his lines or marvel at Cliff’s encounter with Bruce Lee. Tarantino wants you to become enamored by these two men and it’s almost impossible not to. They’re written with such care and passion they feel like old friends not just to each other… but to us. It’s our instant bond with them that makes this movie run.
In a lot of ways, Hollywood plays out as Tarantino hanging out with his buddies. This is clearly a very influential and important time in his life. A time period that shaped the film creator we’ve blindly followed over the last thirty years. The tenderness and love that he deftly uses to create this universe are as infectious as Sharon Tate smiling in that theater while her movie plays, It’s that infectiousness that makes it way from the screen to our hearts. Hollywood is a movie that not only stays with you but its lore grows with each passing thought much like the fable of Hollywood itself. Much like Tarantino, we find ourselves wanting to go back to this moment in time to re-visit with these characters. Because, just like him, we’ve fallen head over her heels. Maybe it’s the set pieces or maybe it’s the characters or maybe it’s everything mixing together in a perfect storm of emotion. Hollywood becomes the ultimate hang out movie and the more time we spend here the more we become one with our environment.
This film is a love letter not only to the power of cinema, the strength of character, of a time now passed, and the preservation of hope. We live in a time where it’s difficult for movies like this to exist. So often films need to be linked to franchises or reboots that original movies are falling through the cracks. Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood is a love letter to original films. One that can just be a popcorn movie or an in-depth exploration depending on the viewer. A movie that is willing to be whatever type of movie you want it to be just as long as you’re wrapping yourself in the entire movie-going experience. That’s the gift here. This is as much our movie as it is Tarantino’s. And if that’s not an action fueled by love… then I don’t know what is.