Back in 2012, around the time Django Unchained released, a theory floated the web that all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies exist in the same universe. From pseudo-named robbers in Reservoir Dogs to Nazi-killing American soldiers in Inglourious Basterds, each character with his/her own substance deemed it right to co-exist.
Now, not only was the theory typical Tarantino on its own, but it was also a testament to the fact that the writer-director had a consistency with his work. Long sequences, glorifying slow motions, blood-shed violence, in and out narrations, visual backing to flashbacks, character arcs which time their origin, and dialogues which riddled with the intellect of its deliverer — Tarantino made his movies his own in a way no other ever did.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a foray into the late ’60s as the golden era of Hollywood comes to an end. A foray – not one of admiration, of glorification, of regret, or even of textual accuracy but of the art of looking back itself. There is almost no story; time, though, is the plot. Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) is a fading star whose constant self-doubt and a fear of irrelevance are in their peak as his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) supports him, apart from meandering around in 60’s LA we see through his eyes.
A constantly switching side peek-in keeps us up to date with the non-fictional couple Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives next door to Dalton. There are references, and then there are self-referential ideas. Witness Dalton playing Tarantino characters as he becomes a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained) as well as a Nazi-hunting gunman (Basterds from Inglourious Basterds) within a space of five minutes. Witness white-extremist self-obsession. Witness Tate remove her hair-band in slow motion as Polanski speeds their car in Hollywood hills. Witness LA before it became American movies’ favourite character. Also, witness a fictionalised Bruce Lee.
With all that being Tarantino, what often misses the headline, as is characteristic to the Pulp Fiction director, are its primary characters at their vulnerable best. We see them intimate and geographically spaced. It is as if the situation has evolved to develop a bubble around him/her leaving for the audience just their character and his/her last layer of absolute emotion. You could spot intimate and geographically spaced sequences of Sharon smiling as she watches people appreciate her performance on the big screen. Even Rick manages to squeak in his most humane side as he modulates his voice after having forgotten his lines. It is just him. He talks to himself. It isn’t just the artist adjusting to his expectations, it is also a reminder that our generational existentialism isn’t unique. Bounty-hunter-enactors of the 60s had issues as well.
It is not very often that the reputation of the director precedes that of the movie. People familiar with him, his filmography, the 60s, Polanski, westerns, or even cinema in its purest form are bound to have a much more enjoyable time than that don’t. The divide in the audience isn’t tragical, it is just the nature of one’s biases — something which makes this film about cinema, even more about cinema.
Of all the reasons that make Once Upon A Time In Hollywood a brave movie – ranging from feeling slow to artistic liberties with real-life cult figures – the one which tops the pile is the intention itself. To convey nostalgia is an artist’s longest desire and furthest realization, but to make people with no connection to an era they didn’t live through miss it — that is a victory.