Monday, July 29, 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

Famed Director Quentin Tarantino’s ambitious  (and long) Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood revisits the last years of Hollywood's supposed golden age. Set in 1969 Los Angeles, it features Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, sometime star of a TV Western struggling with how to keep his career going in a changing environment, while dealing (or not) with a drinking problem, and Brad Pitt as his longtime stunt double and de facto best friend Cliff Booth, In the film, a window into late 1960s celebrity culture (and as such a quick cure for 1960s nostalgia), these fictional figures have real-life neighbors - most notably Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, whose tragic real-life fate is obviously already known to the audience and so hangs menacingly in the movie's atmosphere.

The two tremendous actual actors carry the film through, despite a less than tremendous storyline about the fictional actors they play. As a TV actor, Rick (DiCaprio) is not quite a has been, but he is certainly getting there as he faces the prospect of being reduced to making "spaghetti westerns" in Italy. He is on a slow track to nowhere and knows it, and it bothers him. Unlike Rick, and despite suspicions of his own problematic past, Cliff (Pitt) seems much more at peace with himself in his even less promising present situation. Cliff seems contentedly devoted to Rick, who obviously uses him, but is also genuinely his friend. They model two different, if somewhat symbiotic, ways of responding to aging out of youthful celebrity. 

Laden with contemporary pop-culture images, the film recreates the late 1960s atmosphere complete with parodies of TV shows, portraying life as it was being imagined on screen and how it was being lived on the street. (They all also smoke too much, distractingly so; but, of course, it was the 60s; so it was still cool.) Meanwhile, the Sharon Tate motif adds to the sense that things cannot keep going on this way, while Cliff's creepy, inadvertent introduction to the Manson family further adds to the sense of impending menace. Were it not for the horrifying violence they eventually unleash, Manson's strange hippies seem almost comic - as undoubtedly they did to some extent seem to society at the time, until the full force of their alienation was so violently and destructively demonstrated.

It is evident that Tarantino really cares about Hollywood - or, at least, his image of Hollywood as it once was. It is an illusory world seemingly largely disconnected from the distress of the real world outside its bubble. It is less clear why the world beyond LA should have cared about Hollywood in 1969 - or should now.

Viewers will all have to decide for themselves what to make of the movie's surprisingly strange and historically incongruous ending. But, as I already said, the film may function for some as a good cure for any potential excess of 1960s Hollywood nostalgia. 

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