“Quentin Tarantino used to love people.”
That, at least, is the complaint Joshua Gibbs once leveled against the last couple decades of the man’s work. It was an elegant summary. Whatever their strengths, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and the like are populated primarily by types, resembling action figures more than human beings. The complaint – “Quentin Tarantino used to love people,” implying that he no longer does – kept coming to mind while I mused on Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood and pondered why it struck a chord with me that none of its siblings did. The difference, I concluded, is that Tarantino has rediscovered his love of people. He loves these characters. Because he does, we love them, too. As G.K. Chesterton’s maxim goes, “A thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
Set in 1969, at the end of a Golden Age of sorts, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood centers on actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), star of canceled television western “Bounty Law,” and his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). There is little conventional plot to speak of. Instead, Rick and Cliff drift around the greater L.A. area, through sets, bars, trailers, backlots, and Beverly Hills homes, reckoning with the fact that their time is running out. Both characters are fictitious, but real-life actress Sharon Tate (played here by Margot Robbie) roams in and out of Rick and Cliff’s orbit, while her real-life killers (the Charles Manson “family”) wait in the wings. It is a curious quirk of the film that it will likely not play as well for those unacquainted with the real-life tragedy of Tate’s murder. For those who do, the knowledge of how the story ends (or is “supposed” to end) hangs over the film, giving shape to a vague but palpable unease.
Yet because of Tarantino’s love for the people onscreen, the film’s warmth is as palpable as its melancholia. His love renders his heroes endearing enough that they are pleasant company for the film’s three-hour runtime. Rick Dalton is a self-obsessed buffoon, but a largely harmless one, and it is easy to sympathize with his vulnerabilities and insecurities. When he announces to Cliff that he is a “has-been” and begins crying on his stuntman’s shoulder, the sight evokes both laughter and real pity. Insofar as Rick’s anxiety stems merely from wounded vanity and an undue attachment to fame and fortune, it is comical, but as the film unfolds, we realize that it also stems from the very real, very human fear of being left behind by the march of time. When Rick is moved to tears describing a paperback about a cowboy who can no longer ride like he used to and finds himself “slightly more useless every day,” we begin to sense that he loves acting not only for the material benefits it brings him, but also for its own sake. If Rick’s career fails, he will lose not only the livelihood it embodies, but the ability to practice the craft he loves.
Cliff Booth, meanwhile – mysteriously dead wife notwithstanding – is a veritable bastion of decency and unflappable humility, or as close as one gets in a Quentin Tarantino movie. While Rick lives in luxury as Roman Polanski’s next-door neighbor and drowns himself in whiskey sours, Cliff contentedly retires to a rundown trailer in the evenings, eats Kraft macaroni and cheese, and prepares cans of dog food for his pit bull, Brandy. Rick flies first class; Cliff flies coach. Yet Cliff never complains, and one senses that he enjoys a certain quiet satisfaction in looking out for his friend – “carrying his load,” as he puts it. Nor is Cliff’s benevolence limited to his benefactor. Sensing that something is amiss with George Spahn (Bruce Dern), whose ranch has been co-opted as the home for Manson’s “family,” Cliff risks life and limb to ensure that the man is not being taken advantage of. “I just wanted to make sure you were OK,” he patiently tells George. “Everyone don’t need a stuntman,” George scoffs, but the world could indeed use more stuntmen like Cliff Booth.
Cliff’s long-suffering friendship with Rick is Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’s beating heart. The idealistic Rick is forever chasing dreams, but he could scarcely function, let alone survive, without Cliff’s practical assistance. Yet while Cliff could surely survive without Rick, he lives to help Rick achieve his dreams. Each finds in the other a friend who is “more than a brother and a little less than a wife,” and the affection between them is deeply felt, if seldom verbalized. It is only when Cliff is being carted off in an ambulance, after saving his life from the Manson killers, that Rick finally admits, “You’re a good friend.” Cliff simply smiles, “I try.”
Tarantino loves more than the people in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood. He also loves the time and place they inhabit. The film is punctuated by scenes in which characters drive around Los Angeles, listening to the radio, and Tarantino’s camera seems content to simply follow them. This is a vibrant film, but not an ostentatious one. It is a film you can luxuriate in; its languorous rhythm is enchanting. I am reminded of American Graffiti, another film-cum-time-capsule that channels nostalgia through car radios. George Lucas made that film at the beginning of his career and Tarantino made this film at the end of his, if his claims about retirement are to be believed, but the emotional effect is surprisingly similar. Both films take comfort in the familiarity of a particularly beloved time and place, and both are suffused with wistfulness because they know the time will end and the place will change. Lucas and Tarantino have erected their share of cultural landmarks, but these are their most nakedly personal works. Nostalgia bares their sentimental souls; one might almost say it is the truest experience they can communicate. Both Lucas and Tarantino are obsessed with the past. One suspects they became filmmakers because film is the ideal medium for memories.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood marks the fourth and final (for now, at least) entry in Tarantino’s quartet of revisionist history films, acting as a bookend to 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. The title card of Basterds’ first chapter, “Once upon a time in… Nazi-occupied France,” is the first obvious link between the films. Brad Pitt is another. In Basterds, he plays a war hero who goes undercover as a stuntman; in Hollywood, he plays a stuntman who, we’re told, is also a war hero. In Basterds, a blonde actress is murdered, and the real-life murder of a blonde actress hangs over Hollywood. Both films end in fiery catharsis, a connection made explicit by the use of Rick Dalton’s flamethrower, which we first see being used to torch Nazis in a film-within-a-film, The Fourteen Fists of McClosky – which, in turn, is obviously a parody of Inglourious Basterds. It is a crucial detail that Dalton uses this same prop to torch Tate’s would-be murderers in the film’s climax. In Tarantino’s fairy-tale versions of Nazi-occupied France and Hollywood, justice is served when cinema breaches the barrier between fantasy and reality, whether in the form of a film prop or (as in Basterds) the literal, combustible substance of film itself.
The key difference is that, in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the tragedy is not avenged, but averted. The catharsis is not retributive, but redemptive. Tarantino is dismissive of critics who think his violent movies inspire real-life violence, but he seems to believe the influence can run the other way. Indeed, he seems willfully romantic about the power of imaginary violence to redress real wrongs. Tarantino’s films operate in a heightened, fantastic register, and he is at his best, his most wistful and moving, when he explores the tension between fantasy and reality. The final passages of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood involve us in this tension by pitting what we want (for Sharon Tate to live happily ever after) against what we know to be factually true (Sharon Tate dies on August 8th, 1969).
Tarantino wants what we want. He loves Sharon Tate, even if it’s not a very mature love. The way his camera lingers on her as she glides and dances through his Hollywood evinces idealization, not prurient interest. Her virtues are counterpoints to the vices of his heroes. Rick Dalton rants about “dirty hippies;” Sharon Tate gives one a ride, talks cheerfully with her while they drive, and leaves her with a hug. Rick is furious and despairing when his vanity is slighted; when a theater clerk fails to recognize Sharon and unthinkingly suggests that she pose in front of a poster for a photograph “so people know who [she is],” she betrays only a hint of disappointment. When she watches herself onscreen, she is self-forgetful, not self-absorbed, delighted not by the adoration of the crowd but by the delight she brings them. Tarantino’s vision of Sharon Tate as an innocent, ethereal presence seems too good to be true (though according to most accounts, it is). The film’s conclusion hinges on whether all that she represents can be preserved. Of course, it can’t – except in fantasy.
The Rolling Stones sing “Out of Time” on the soundtrack as the night of August 8th, 1969, draws to a close. The refrain, “Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time” seems directed at Sharon Tate, but the lyric, “You’re out of touch, my baby, my poor discarded baby” could just as easily refer to washed-up Rick Dalton. The days are evil and harsh reality is setting in, but Tarantino opts to preserve the fantasy instead. Hollywood’s final passages are not literally a dream sequence, but they do constitute some kind of break with the “reality” of the preceding two hours (and the reality we live in, for that matter). It is no accident that, as night falls before the break, “California Dreamin’” plays on the soundtrack, or that Cliff is on an acid trip throughout the climax. “Are you real?” he asks the Manson killers when they break into Rick’s house.
They were real, but once upon a time in Hollywood, the passage of time stops and the promise of cinema is fulfilled. Cliff, the stuntman, brutally dispatches the would-be murderers, and Rick, the star, goes in for the final kill with a prop from one of his movies. The violence has a distinctly dreamlike flavor. Cliff smashing an assailant’s head in has all the stifled intensity of an anxious nightmare, but the comical overkill of Rick’s flamethrower eases us gently into some realm comfortably removed from reality, where evil is punished and good preserved. A wounded Cliff assures Rick that he is not going to die: “It’s not my time,” he drawls. The film’s denouement is pure wish fulfillment. All the dreams Rick has been chasing come true, although “true” is not, perhaps, precisely the right word. You wish it was real, but you know it isn’t.
And that, Tarantino seems to say, is cinema.
Yet while this catharsis is, in a sense, simply illusory and unreal – the murders really did happen, and this reality tinges the sweetness of the ending with a deep and lasting bitterness – is that all it is? Is Tarantino merely immature, unable to accept reality, or is he tapping into a deep yearning, perhaps the deepest yearning of them all?
Allow me to cast my lot with David Bentley Hart and offer a more hopeful reading.
It is a perfect detail – and all the more perfect because Tarantino can take no credit for it – that Sharon Tate lived on Cielo (“Heaven”) Drive. When Rick Dalton hears her disembodied voice inviting him to ascend the driveway to her house, he is escaping from Kronos – the earthly time that devours and leads inexorably to death, the earthly time he has spent the entire film trying to defy – into something like Kairos, the heavenly time where all wrongs are made right. Recently, I told my priest that time has been feeling like an enemy to me. He told me that time is on our side, because it wants the same thing we want. Time, like the rest of creation, longs to be redeemed.
With Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, in his own small way, Tarantino is redeeming the time.
It is a labor of love.