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Non-Review Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fairy tale, for better and for ill.

The paradox at the heart of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood lies in reconciling both its maturity and its simplicity. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has famously been sold as Tarantino’s penultimate movie – although there’s a bit of back and forth on that – and it’s permeated with an appropriate melancholy. This melancholy is reflected in a number of ways, but most obviously in the film’s setting. For Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino conjures sixties Los Angeles back to life, from from drive-in cinemas to celebrity parties at the Playboy Mansion.

The bulk of the movie unfolds over a weekend in early February 1969. The movie gives precise dates, with clear purpose; the story takes place exactly six months before the Manson Murders. Those murders represented the end of an era. In The White Album, Joan Didion recalled, “many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” As such, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood feels like a countdown to an end of an era. A lot of it feels like an elegy building to an inevitability. There is something mournful here.

There is no small amount of ego and self-involvement in the assertion that the sixties ended because of a handful of brutal murders in Hollywood involving a couple of celebrities. After all, the entire country was in chaos. Nixon had taken the White House. The war was waging in Vietnam. Warren Beatty famously based Shampoo around the life Manson victim Jay Sebring, and considered building to Sebring’s murder. However, Beatty though that this betrayed a very self-centred history of the late sixties, and instead rebuilt the movie around the idea that these celebrities were disconnected from what was really happening.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood only fleetingly acknowledges any reality outside of Hollywood. There are some muffled news reports of the chaos in the outside world heard through a car stereo. Accepting a lift from stunt man Cliff Booth, a young hippie protests that actors just pantomime reality, while people die all the time in the real world. Of course, this young woman is a hypocrite. Pussycat is a member of the Manson Family, the cult built around a man whose violent actions were rooted (at least in part) in his own failed bid for stardom and whose crimes targeted celebrities in pursuit of a celebrity profile.

So there is a sense of indulgence in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the sort of self-flattery that one expects of a movie made by Hollywood about Hollywood. To be entirely fair to Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is smart enough to wear its perspective on its sleeve and also canny enough to ever-so-slightly shade its romanticisation of the past. More than that, Tarantino himself has a filmography that is largely defined by righteous anger and retributive violence, so the gentleness and compassion of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood feels like an excusable late-career indulgence.

Indeed, it seems likely that one’s attitude towards Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will likely be shaped by the extent to which one might tolerate Tarantino’s indulgence. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a staggering work of warmth and compassion. Tarantino’s gift for empathy has long been underrated by his critics, perhaps because his empathy tends to align with those who do horrific things to those who have done horrific things to them in turn. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, that empathy feels more generalised and abstract. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is the warmest Tarantino film since Jackie Brown.

Of course, the big challenge with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is whether the audience can – or will – share Tarantino’s empathy. Most of the targets of Tarantino’s empathy are entirely deserving. One of the stars of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Rick Dalton. Dalton is a washed-up old cowboy actor who feels very much out of place against the changing backdrop of the late sixties; this discomfort perhaps most literally expressed through a hilariously awkward cut from an appearance on teen show Hullabaloo but also in his repeated admonishment of “dirty f&!kin’ hippies.”

Rick drinks too much. Rick is unreliable. Rick is self-involved. Rick doesn’t seem to grasp that times are changing. “He wants to put me in an Italian (eye-talian) Western!” Rick laments after a meeting with Hollywood fixer Marvin Schwarzs. “I don’t want to be in an Italian (eye-talian) Western!” However, Rick is generally a good sort. He seems to take direction relatively well. He occasionally stutters, seemingly borne of insecurity. He practices his lines using a “rehearsal tape”, even if his drinking erases that effort. (He even resents his drinking, unable to understand why he can’t stop after four whiskey sours instead of eight.)

Rick isn’t necessarily a good man, but he is not a bad man. More than that, he’s trying. He does the work. And Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood never judges Rick. The film’s most affecting moments reflect on Rick’s anxieties as a journeyman actor, capturing both his understanding of his present reality and the dream of something better. As he modestly (and likely accurately) reassures a younger co-star that he was never seriously in contention for Steve McQueen’s part in The Great Escape, the audience is invited inside Rick’s head to imagine an alternate version of that beloved classic.

Rick is the driving force of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but not the only focal point for the film’s compassion. Much has been made of how Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood treats the character of Sharon Tate, notably the film’s tendency to just stare at her and to avoid giving her too much dialogue. These criticisms seem to miss the point of how Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood approaches Charon Tate. Tate is not really a character in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but the film also avoids treating her as a symbol.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood never transforms Tate into anything as trite as a symbol of classic Hollywood or the anthropomorphic embodiment of the sixties. The film also never reduces Tate into anything as crass as a Tarantino character. There’s a sense that the distance that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood keeps from Tate is intended to be respectful, to avoid wading into tabloid gossip or rumour-mongering, to avoid overriding her agency with Tarantino’s voice. Instead, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood feels almost passive when it comes to its treatment of Tate, which is probably for the best.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood simply focuses on Tate being. The bulk of the story is separated from the murders by six months, which means that any time that it spends with Tate is just trying to capture a day in her life. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood declines to treat Tate as a counterpoint to Rick, refusing to meditate on the well-documented anxieties that weighed upon her during the time period; her struggles to be taken seriously as an actor, the idea that she might have to retire, the complications of her life with Roman Polanski.

The use of Tate in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood says more about the film than it does about her. As ever, there is incredible indulgence in this. Tate’s day around town includes her buying a first edition of Tess of the D’Ubervilles as a birthday present for Roman Polanski, a sly in-joke to the fact that Polanski would direct an adaptation shortly after Tate’s death. Of course, this in-joke erases a lot of the other uncomfortable context of that adaptation; the story of an affair between a young woman and an older man, made by a man who was facing charges of sexual assault of a minor.

Indeed, the biggest issue with the manner in which Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood approaches Tate is tangential – how much of that use of Tate plays like a commentary on Polanski. Tate’s choice of book seems to erase some of the more uncomfortable aspects of Polanski’s filmography, trying to divorce one of his films entirely from its context. Beyond that, the acknowledgement that – between Sebring and Polanski – Tate has a taste for men “who look like twelve-year-old boys” hangs uncomfortably in the air. It’s uncertain if Tarantino intends that discomfort, but it is there.

However, this is a particularly minor misstep. As with its treatment of Rick, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood handles Tate with compassion and affection. Idly wandering around town on a weekend afternoon, Tate stops in to watch The Wrecking Crew, the Dean Martin comedy in which she played a supporting role. There’s a charm and a beauty in this sequence, from Tate’s big nerdy reading glasses, to her pantomimed kung-fu, to the simple pleasure that she takes in the sound of the audience laughing at the jokes that she executed. Like Rick, Tate has done her job well.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood treats Tate as a young woman who is living her life. That life is constantly observed by outsiders, but it remains her own. Steve McQueen might narrate the contours of the relationship between Tate and Sebring and Polanski, but the film suggests that McQueen is imposing his own narrative upon her. “Sharon definitely has a type,” one observer muses. “Yeah,” McQueen agrees, melancholy wafting through the pool party. “I never stood a chance.” Similarly, Tate trades a photograph of herself (with a poster) for a free pass to see her own film.

Throughout the film, Tate’s internal life is her own. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood never digs into it, but that feels like an act of compassion. After all, the finer details of Tate’s life (and death) have been picked apart time and time again for public consumption. There is a reason that her family was nervous about the use of her in a story like this. However, there is also a reason that they eventually gave Tarantino their blessing. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood suggests that there is some part of Tate that remains her own, no matter how often she might be recreated or reinvented.

There is an element of meta-commentary here, in the thematic threads that anchor Rick and Tate to one another. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is one of Tarantino’s most openly emotional and affecting works, and part of that is because its emotional investment in Rick and Tate feels genuine. Although the film never articulates this with Tate, historical context provides a point of reference. Like Rick, Tate is closer to the end of her career than the beginning. She had asked to be released from her studio contract to marry Polanski, and so had already given up on a screen career by the time the film starts.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood finds Rick wrestling with his obsolescence. “I’m a god-damn has-been!” Rick laments early in the film. Later on, he breaks down on reflecting upon the plot of a dime store paperback that he is reading, telling a fellow actor about how the main character in that story knows how it feels “to be a little more used… a little more useless, every day.” Again, this gets at one of the core themes of Tarantino’s work, especially Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the idea that art serves as a funhouse mirror – a way to articulate ideas that we would struggle to express otherwise, and to provide alternatives.

Utility is a major recurring theme of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, particularly for actors like Rick or Tate, who never managed to achieve world-conquering stardom but who still provided entertainment and joy to thousands and thousands of people who may or may not even recognise them on (or in the middle of) the street. Again, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood feels like a “late career” movie for writer and director Quentin Tarantino, a movie preoccupied with the question, “what was the point of all that, then?”

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood feels like a pop cultural psychronology of Quentin Tarantino, a dive into the mind’s eye of one of the industry’s defining filmmakers. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood pilfers repeatedly and mercilessly from Tarantino’s back catalogue. Like Pulp Fiction, it’s a classic story of lives intersecting (or not) amid Los Angeles’ urban sprawl. Kurt Russell shows up to provide a kinder and gentler spin on Stuntman Mike from Deathproof. Rick even stars in Fourteen Fists of McClusky, a movie that recalls Inglourious Basterds as our hero burns Nazi Command alive. (“Anyone order some burnt sauerkraut?”)

On a more existential level, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood seems to wonder what the point of movies actually is – at least as mass-produced and manufactured by Hollywood. This seems particularly framed in the context of Tarantino’s preoccupation with revenge and retribution. While the Manson Family are hardly reliable narrators, there is some point to a late scene in which the characters ruminate on what they learned from pop culture as a whole. “We’re killing the people who taught us to kill,” states one demented follower, suggesting the Manson Family as a product of pop culture as much as a source.

This introspection perhaps explains the softer and gentler timbre of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Tarantino has spent his last three movies depicting historical revenge fantasies, albeit not without some measure of self-awareness and self-critique. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is intentionally built as something different. It suggests that one of the primary appeals of movies is the freedom that they afford to imagine a better world. Movies, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood suggests, need not serve as elegies or eulogies for the dead. Movies can bring the dead back to life, or preserve and celebrate them.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a rejection of one (familiar) type of story in favour of another. This is reflected in its treatment of Tate, who is often treated as the ultimate victim. There are shades of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to all of this, the film that prompted Tarantino to declare that David Lynch “had disappeared so far up his own ass that [Tarantino had] no desire to see another David Lynch movie until [he heard] something different.” History has been kind to Fire Walk With Me, recognising in hindsight that it took one of pop culture’s quintessential “dead girls” and let her live again.

It appears that Tarantino might have mellowed in his initial knee-jerk response to Fire Walk With Me, or at least taken it on board. If anything, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood goes further than Fire Walk With Me. After all, Fire Walk With Me might have featured a vibrant and defiant Laura Palmer who tried to exercise agency in the narrative of her own demise. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood goes further than that, using the setting of six months before the murders to allow Sharon Tate to live unburdened by the atrocity looming in her future. Sharon Tate is more than just a piece of Hollywood trivia.

Tarantino is playing with his own tropes here, reflecting a filmmaker who has been working long enough that his conventions have seeped into popular consciousness. Two years after Inglourious Basterds was released, writer Steven Moffat embraced the familiar time-travel cliché of “what to do about Adolf Hitler” in his mid-season Doctor Who episode Let’s Kill Hitler. The episode was messy and disjointed, but it ruminated on the question of how time travel stories should approach the logical question of something like the Second World War. Does it make sense for fictional time travelers to kill Hitler?

There is some satisfaction in killing Hitler on the big screen, as Inglourious Basterds demonstrated. Even Let’s Kill Hitler ensured that the fictionalised Fuhrer endured his share of humiliation. However, the answer that Let’s Kill Hitler offered to the question was essentially a metafictional one. What is the point of a story that kills off Adolf Hitler? The real Adolf Hitler will be no less real. His crimes will have no lesser impact. It might feel good, and that might be reason enough, but isn’t that a very limited idea of what stories can actually accomplish?

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood hits upon a more utopian and idealistic idea of what cinema can do. It is a romantic and aspirational notion, one far less cynical than audiences have come to expect from Tarantino. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood suggests that films can package and sell a fantasy, and that fantasy can have value of itself. Films can imagine different worlds, in a manner both literal and abstract. Tarantino makes all this reflexive. Can Hollywood create a narrative in which it redeems itself? If Rick can see himself in the pages of a pulp novel, why not?

This is, understandably, an uncomfortable notion in the post-truth era, where fact and fiction blur, and where a significant chunk of the population seem to exist in their own fantasy bubbles. Then again, that is what movies have always done. Movies have always conjured alternated realities into being, which in turn shaped and moulded public perception. During his early pitch meeting, Schwarzs lectures Rick on the “old trick” that the studios are employing in casting him as the villain in their new shows; they are using Rick as an avatar of the past, his defeat communicating to the audience that he is a relic of a bygone era.

As with other aspects of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, this gets thorny and self-referential. When Rick shows up for a guest star role on Lancer, the director instructs wardrobe and make-up to make his fiendish villain look “like a hippie”, packaging an agenda that can be pumped directly into the audience’s home. In the context of the Manson Family, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood argues that the culture was just looking to paint the counterculture as something villainous and monstrous, with Charles Manson just giving them a narrative they could structure. It complicates the film’s own ambivalence to counterculture.

So Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood offers a very aspiration idea of what cinema can do. It is a love letter to Hollywood as an institution, both in its painstaking recreation of the time period in question and in its philosophical arguments about the potential of Hollywood to shape reality. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood repeatedly ruminates on the importance of art in both big and small ways; the audience laughing at the forgettable comedy of The Wrecking Ball, Rick finding himself in a disposable cowboy novel, even the film’s own ability to conjure up a bygone era (and a dead woman) and bring them back to life.

If that dime store paperback confronts Rick with his own uselessness, is it fair to wonder whether Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood might find Quentin Tarantino grappling with his own? Of course, Tarantino was never a journeyman in the way that Rick was. Tarantino might have directed episodes of E.R. and CSI, but he has as solid a claim on the label of auteur as any working director. More than that, it’s revealing that the future of which Rick is so uncertain – of spaghetti westerns and exploitation – is the past that informed and shaped Tarantino.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood hints that Tarantino is grappling with the question of his own relevance in a rapidly-changing Hollywood, much like Rick Dalton himself. Rick is seen as a spent force, the embodiment of a time that has passed. This is a common critique of Tarantino, whose past glories are often venerated and whose modern films are often dismissed by a certain school of critic. (“He needs a better editor.”) Indeed, there’s a sense in which Tarantino has transformed from a rebellious and provocative young outsider into the cinematic establishment. Tarantino is still “the man”, but just in a different way.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is obviously a nostalgia piece of the late sixties, but it also seems nostalgic for a more recent time. The film repeatedly seems to hark back to the nineties. This is most obvious in the way the film is built around movie stars as much as concept. While Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood touches on the Manson Family murders, it is primarily an excuse to hang around with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. It feels like avery old-fashioned idea of a summer film, where the biggest draw is the names above the title rather than the intellectual property providing inspiration.

DiCaprio and Pitt are both breakout stars of the nineties, and they provide old-fashioned star wattage in an era that has often struggled to create its own movie stars. Recently, at least part of the problem selling Men in Black International to audiences was the outdated assumption that audiences who loved Thor: Ragnarok would be excited to see Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson team up again. While that recent profile that crown Leonardo DiCaprio as the “Hollywood’s last movie star” was a tad hyperbolic, there was some truth to it.

While Tarantino himself is obviously a star draw – much like Christopher Nolan was the star draw for Dunkirk – at least some of the appeal of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood lies in the first big-screen collaboration of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. (The pair both appeared in a Martin Scorsese short film, The Audition.) While the appeal of this combination hardly measures up to the battle of the stars in Heat – to pick a nineties example – it does allow the film to serve as something of a throwback. It is also notable for giving DiCaprio a scene opposite other nineties teen icon Luke Perry, in his last big screen role.

Again, all of this could easily seem indulgent. All of this does seem indulgent. However, Tarantino is shrewd enough to prevent Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood from seeming too much like a bout of pandering self-pity. Most obviously, the film makes a point to stress that Rick’s fear of the future is not entirely justified, even if he might struggle to find a place in it. The audience knows Tarantino’s affectations well enough to know that the film is not endorsing Rick’s contempt for Italian Westerns. (“Have you even watched an Italian Western?” Cliff asks Rick on the car journey home.)

More to the point, it’s revealing that the most together character Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a precocious eight-year-old star that Rick encounters on a western pilot. Leafing through a gigantic biography of Walt Disney and embracing the bastardised version of the method that is so frequently spoofed, Trudi Fraser is very much fashioned as a representation of the looming future. “I don’t normally like to be called pumpkinpus,” she softly corrects Rick at one point, while also insisting on being called “actor” instead of “actress.” But even this is tempered by compassion. “But you’re upset, and we can talk about it later.”

Tarantino is clearly spoofing a certain style of what (would today be considered) “millennial” concerns through his up-and-coming child star. However, the treatment of Trudi Fraser never feels particularly condescending or passive-aggressive. Trudi might be a bit modern for Rick, but she’s sympathetic to him. She listens politely and intently to him discussing his reading. She comforts him when he becomes distressed and insecure. There is none of the contempt that films like Wine County reserve for the younger generation.

If anything, the film suggests that Trudi’s approval means a lot to Rick and that Rick could learn a lot from Trudi. Indeed, Rick nails a scene by adopting her approach, by staying in character and trying to accept the world of the television pilot as his reality. One of the most powerful emotional moments in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood comes when Trudi leans in close to Rick after a take and assures him, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen.” Rick tears up with pride. If Rick is to have legitimacy, it is to come from the younger generation, not from his pedigree or past glories.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood walks a tightrope between Rick’s anxieties and the suggestion that the kids will indeed be all right. It is perhaps telling that for all that Tarantino is a nostalgic film maker with an abiding love of cinema’s rich history, he has also shown himself to be willing to experiment and try new things along away. It is impossible to imagine Christopher Nolan – to pick an example – dropping in to direct episodes of popular weekly network dramas or shooting a sequence of a friend’s film on digital to get a feel from the technology.

Tarantino’s anxieties about the future are largely his own, and he owns that. After all, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is at the very least open to the idea that moving to Rome and making some spaghetti westerns could revive Rick’s career if he were willing to embrace it. The film refuses to come down too hard one way or the other on the argument, juxtaposing Rick’s snobbishness with the audience’s understanding of how that younger and hungrier school of filmmaking provided a platform for Clint Eastwood. (Eastwood, who headed the Cannes jury that gave Pulp Fiction the Palme d’Or. To bring it all full circle.)

This tempering mellows some of the rougher edges of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. The Manson Family murders are a touchy subject from a cultural point of view because they are frequently used to belittle or diminish the counterculture, as a cautionary tale about the dangers of liberal excess and challenging the status quo. One of the most frequent tones of media dealing with the Manson Family amounts to “kids these day, huh?” In the context of a film worried about the future, the Manson Family carry a certain symbolic weight.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood certainly plays into this. Notably, the casting of the women in the family quite pointed. The Manson Family in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is composed primarily of the children of movie stars; Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke, Harley Quinn Smith. The family is rounded out by a number of other new generation Hollywood stars in more authoritative roles. The Manson family seems to be directed by Squeaky and Gypsy. Squeaky is played by Dakota Fanning, one of the defining child actors of the twenty-first century. Gypsy is played by Lena Dunham, “the voice of [her] generation.”

As such, in the context of Hollywood and even without the disdain that various characters express for “dirty f&!kin’ hippies”, the Manson Family in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood expresses a primal fear. It is a story about the youth preying upon the elderly; both literally and figuratively. An extended sequence in the film is devoted to the family’s predation upon George Spahn, the blind owner of the old ranch at which the family has taken up residence. There are moments in which the portrayal of the Manson Family in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood comes close to feeling like an old man shaking his fists at the kids of today.

(To pick one small, playful example, there is one moment at which veteran stuntman Cliff Booth – on a visit to the creepy old ranch that the Manson Family calls home – effectively forces Steve “Clem” Grogan to replace the tire on his car. Booth beats Grogan to a pulp, in a display of his old-fashioned masculinity. The imagery is weirdly specific, evoking the sort of tired and broad clichés about the loss of practical real world skills for millennial men. To bring the discussion back to Eastwood, it plays like a more violent and forceful riff on a similar sequence in The Mule.)

Even in those sequences, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is mostly tempered by compassion. One of the most surprisingly sweet moments in the film comes from Cliff stopping by to visit George Spaihn, and refusing to leave until he is certain that the cantankerous old man is safe. Spaihn seems genuinely moved by the visit, both to his broken down old film set and to his broken down old self. “You have touched me,” he tells Cliff. This comes quite close to serving as a thesis statement for the film. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is about affording kindness, where possible.

(In its own weird way, this applies to the Manson Family themselves as much as to anybody else. Cliff is shown as being kind and compassionate to Pussycat, driving well out of his way to take her home. More than that, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood seems to suggest that redemption was possible for members of the Manson Family until the last possible moment, that violence was avoidable until a certain threshold was crossed. As much contempt and anger as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood reserves for the Manson Family, it is very specifically tied to specific individuals and what they did.)

Although Tarantino has always had empathy, that gentleness is striking. A lot of Tarantino’s films focus on the idea of cycles of retaliatory violence. In early films like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, that violence is a sign of a chaotic and turbulent world. In his later films, including Kill Bill, Vol. 1, Kill Bill, Vol. 2Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight, that violence carries a sense of (admittedly uncomfortable) righteousness to it. In the world of Tarantino’s films, violent delights have violent ends. Often that violence is as close as one can come to remedying trauma and injustice.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is interesting because it – both literally and figuratively – eschews this approach. It is perhaps notable that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood follows The Hateful Eight, perhaps Tarantino’s bleakest and most cynical meditation upon cycles of violence. As such, the decision to focus Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood on other ideas (such as redemption and rehabilitation) might make sense. It might also suggest that Tarantino has grown up, with many of his critics have long stated as a desired goal for the enfant terrible of modern American cinema.

Of course, Tarantino rejects such a facile reading. The climax of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood seems to exist primarily to refute the idea that he has “gone soft.” In fact, the climax of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood feels like something of a cheeky and teenage provocation in an otherwise more mature and reflective movie, with Tarantino seemingly trying to push the boundaries of what he can get away with. The climax of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a very suave and calculated move on the part of Tarantino,  intended to manoeuvre the audience into a very awkward position.

Still, climax aside, the gentleness woven into Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is fascinating. It is perhaps a more mature theme than the anger that drove his earlier films, but one that comes with complications. This makes a great deal of sense. After all, growing up means accepting that the world is a complicated place, and that it is possible to have a conflicted emotional response to something. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood sidesteps a lot of potential issues by focusing its compassion on figures like Rick and Tate. However, problems arise when that kindness is extended to the people around them.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is essentially a buddy movie. It is the story of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. The film’s narration describes Cliff as “something more than a brother and something less than a wife.” Cliff worked as Rick’s stunt double on a forgotten fifties television series, and now serves as Rick’s factotum. The pair travel everywhere, Cliff driving because Rick has lost his license. When Rick meets Marvin Schwarzs to discuss career opportunities, Cliff is at the bar adding hot sauce and salt to his cocktail. When Rick goes on location, Cliff moves into his house. When Rick is on television, the pair watch together.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood offers a fascinating portrayal of masculine friendship, in particular the kinds of emotional boundaries that exist between these sorts of friends. Cliff might be Rick’s friend, but he is also his employee. The pair’s relationship might be one built on emotional support, but it is defined in financial terms. The film repeatedly likens Cliff to a loyal dog; it mirrors Rick’s relationship to Cliff with Cliff’s relationship to his dog Brandy, and even suggests parallels with the relationship between Charles Manson and “Tex” Watson. Confronted with Tex late in the film, Cliff accidentally calls him “Rex.”

It becomes very clear very early in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood that the relationship between Cliff and Rick is built as much on what is left unspoken as what is actually articulated between the pair. Cliff has a dark semi-secret in his past that has rendered him persona non grata around Hollywood. The characters speak of it quite openly, although Rick is dismissive of it. Confronted with the accusation by a fellow professional, Rick shrugs it off. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” Rick asks. Randy replies, “I do.” The film makes it clear that Randy has good reason. However, Rick still keeps Cliff around.

It is impossible not to read this through the lens of Tarantino. After all, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is saturated with Tarantino. The film is decorated with antiques from his own private collection. The film is littered with references to the pop culture of his youth. In fact, the film only managed to shoot at the Musso and Frank Grill because Tarantino was a regular patron of it. The film is inseparable from Tarantino, even beyond the obvious parallels between the director and his star.

This becomes uncomfortable in the context of Cliff Booth. Since the release of The Hateful Eight, Hollywood has undergone a reckoning with its own legacy and past, confronting the public with the horrors and violence perpetrated within the system. Tarantino himself has been caught up in this public reckoning, both directly and indirectly. Harvey Weinstein remains among the most high-profile of offenders associated with the #metoo moment. Weinstein exerts a gravity over Tarantino’s body of work, being a major champion and supporter of his films for decades.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s first film without Weinstein. As such, it’s hard for the film to escape his gravity. Tarantino has explored his own culpability in such matters, conceding, “I knew enough to do more than I did.” One wonders if that is just as true of Rick. Tarantino openly invites the parallel in the way that he frames Cliff’s misdeed. As with the casting of the Manson Family, it all feels like meta-commentary nested within itself. As fellow Irish critic Luke Dunne pointed out, the victim of Cliff’s crime is played by Rebecca Gayheart, the former long-term partner of Brett Ratner.

However, this reading is complicated. After all, Tarantino has his own reckoning to confront as well. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood features a lot of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. Tarrantino has landed himself in hot water in recent years for his defense of Polanski, although he has since apologised. Even beyond that, Tarantino has his own skeleton in his closet; a misdirected stunt in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 resulted in a serious injury to actor Uma Thurman. Thurman has since forgiven Tarantino, but that culpability hangs over the director.

The most charitable reading of Cliff is one that treats the stuntman not as his own character, but as a shadow self of Rick. After all, the two are physically interchangeable; Cliff is tethered to Rick after serving as his stunt double and the opening credits cleverly superimpose the actors’ names over the others’ character as if to suggest that they are interchangeable. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is set against the fading Age of Aquarius, so it makes sense that Cliff might serve as a Jungian doppelganger to Rick. Notably, it is Cliff who flirts with the counterculture, while Rick remains (relatively) straight.

If Rick can be read as a stand-in for Tarantino, then perhaps the same is true of Cliff. They are two halves of a whole. When Cliff jokingly concedes that that job description of “carrying his load” actually “sounds about right”, he is perhaps speaking figuratively as well as literally. Rick is presented as a professional with some pride in what he does; an unreliable, inconsistent, arrogant professional, but a professional nonetheless. In contrast, Cliff is presented as somebody who is more happy-go-lucky and carefree, even if he has much more to feel shamed or guilty about than Rick.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood maintains this delicate balance by refusing to wallow in too much pity for Cliff. The film is honest about the emptiness of Cliff’s life, but it rarely argues that Cliff has suffered unfairly or egregiously. When Cliff does manage to score a gig working on The Green Hornet, he almost immediately squanders that opportunity by indulging his most childish impulses. Rick wallows in self-pity and self-loathing, but Cliff just drifts through their shared lives. Cliff arguably enjoys the perks of stardom more than Rick; he drives the fancy car around all day and to live in the fancy house while Rick works.

Of course, things get more complicated at the edge of the frame. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood suggests redemption and absolution for a variety of other figures as well. Most notably, the film offers a humane and compassionate portrayal of Roman Polanski, a director who has spent his life in Europe hiding from charges of rape and sexual assault. The film’s kindness towards Polanski is part of its fairy tale setting; the film avoids exploring how Polanski repeatedly cheated on Tate, or that he didn’t want the child that Tate carried, or that he kept extending his stay in Europe to avoid coming home to his pregnant wife.

This extends beyond the frame into the casting decisions. Tarantino notable casts Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, another victim of the Manson Family murders. Hirsch had his own behind the scenes scandal, choking a female executive at an after-party at the Sundance Film Festival. As with Polanski, the part that Sebring plays in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is relatively small. It seems strange to think that Tarantino could not have cast any other actor in the role. As with the casting of Cliff’s victim and the Manson Family kids, the casting seems to be the point of itself.

These little details never occupy the centre of the frame. Polanski is only seen driving his sports car or playing fetch with his dog. Sebring’s entire arc is narrated by Steve McQueen from across the pool. However, the film’s attention to detail works against. So much attention and effort is paid to the finer details that these small decisions feel conscious and premeditated, much like the sequence of Tate buying her husband a copy of Tess of the d’Ubervilles seems to exist as a firm rejection of one of the more popular critical reads of that Polanski adaptation. (“She was born in a time that called it seduction, not rape.”)

This is challenging and uncomfortable. And that seems to be the point. It is harder to get a read on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood than on most other Tarantino films, for better and for worse. This is ironically a result of the fact that Tarantino consciously smooths over his rough edges, and puts memory in soft focus. This allows the implications to compound and conflict. As much as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood might be consciously stylised as a fairy tale to Hollywood’s lost past, it is also paradoxically one of Tarantino’s most challenging films.

There are times in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood that would benefit from the moral clarity that defined so much of the director’s earlier work, particularly dealing with subject matter so deeply entwined with Tarantino’s star persona. Then again, maybe understanding that the world is a complex place that rarely provides such clear-cut answers is part of growing up.

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