Of all the years Tarantino could have chosen to show in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he chose 1969. This was the height of the counterculture movement. As Brad Pitt drives in his open top Cadillac down Hollywood Boulevard, you can see hippies dotting the landscape, for one, and hear, that the Vietnam War is still going on with no end in sight. It is also the year when Beatles give their final live concert on a rooftop. They are tired of their popularity, of the bickering and infighting too. In one particular scene, when Brad Pitt gets up on the roof to fix a broken antenna, we get a flashback and a flashback-within-flashback that shows the world weariness of a man who has seen it all. At this point of time, all he does is take off his shirt, light up a cigarette, and take the California sun in. It is a cool scene; one that plays to the gallery. It’s a scene that shows us that living in the moment is all he can do at this point of time.
1969 is the year when Led Zeppelin made its self-titled debut. The band would change rock music, which in turn would have a huge influence on Hollywood films so much so that it would come to be called New Hollywood. The editing that would come to mark such films in the 70s would be more artistic, instead of simply being used to further continuity, as was the case prior. It’s an idea that would come to be used in Tarantino’s films of the future, including in this film: Note the scene that shows Leonardo DiCaprio's alcoholism and how much that has taken a toll on him, personally and professionally. Tarantino's signature editing is not evident only there but also in how he compares and contrasts the downward hill drive of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a stuntman, and Roman Polanski, the hotshot director in town. Two men of different strata, both of who are in cinema, and yet, both of whose after-night shenanigans are so different. While Polanski parties in the Playboy Mansion with the who's who (there is Steve McQueen and Mama Cass to name two), Booth loves to do drive-in cinemas, or better yet, be at home and watch television. Yet, they are bound by their shared love for car and speed.
1969 was also important for a particular film genre: the Western. While this genre would spawn Academy Award-nominations (ex: True Grit), and films that won the award (eg: Unforgiven), the genre would never have the popularity or the numbers it enjoyed in the 50s and 60s. Stars who would define the Western genre either stopped doing those films anymore (Randolph Scott) or began transitioning into others (Yul Brynner in sci-fi movies, especially Westworld, comes to mind). Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton is one such Western hero, who is told by Al Pacino's Marvin Schwarz, that he is now entering the territory of a has-been. Tarantino, the writer, takes us through the emotional and mental upheaval that such actors potentially undergo at such time of transition. Take the fantastic scene between Dalton and precocious child actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters). Outside a saloon, on two rickety chairs, sit these two actors (Trudi doesn't like the term, actress) and read two different books. It then rises to a high when through the books they read, they reveal their aspirations, hopes and in Dalton's case, fears. Such is the power of the tale, and the written word, that Dalton goes on to break down in front of an eight-year-old. What happens next is an outpouring of empathy, the kind usually not overtly seen in the director's oeuvre. The writer in Tarantino stages the next scene to perfection, when he shows that empathy bears great rewards, as we get treated to one of Dalton (and DiCaprio's) best acting performances in his life.
While Westerns often showed vast expanses of land that human were yet to conquer (the beautiful extreme wide shots that used to be their standard feature), 1969 was the year man set foot on the moon. Such was the magnitude of the feat that the mind refused to believe that it wasn't just a camera trick. While the debate still rages whether the cameras available at the time -- two of them, 16mm Black and White and 35mm Technicolor, find a mention in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood -- were good enough to trick us, the cinematography in this film by Robert Richardson does trick us by transporting us to that year. The way the camera lingers on characters—Pitt is almost always shown like a god-in-waiting and DiCaprio's eyes almost always tell a story—and on the environment—like the scene introducing the Manson Family—is truly a sight to behold.
1969 was also the year that Charles Manson and his family brutally murdered Sharon Tate. To take this idea and convince us it could make for great cinema is what makes Tarantino one of the best storytellers we have right now. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino, the screenwriter, borrows the style of his most favourite screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Notice how he introduces the two distinct characters, Dalton and Booth, the actor and his stuntman. He reserves the best for what is possibly one of the scenes of the year when Booth visits the Spahn Ranch where the Manson family resides. The framing, the staging, the tension he builds throughout, the usage of music, the dialogues… Oh, how I wish Tarantino made an out-and-out horror film as his swansong, if the next should be the one.
But then again, what will Tarantino's swansong be? After his neo-noir trilogies, he took up action, war, western (twice) and now, a drama, and he has, almost each time, stretched (and at times, changed) what the genres have stood for. With each film after Inglorious Basterds, however, you can sense some world-weariness almost that has seeped into his filmmaking. The languid nature of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might not suit the tastes of the traditional Quentin Tarantino fan but it is nothing short of amazing to see Tarantino be more and more meditative with each passing film. I will miss the cathartically violent filmmaking of Tarantino after his 10th film, the sort only he can provide (this is already his least violent film to date). You have to wonder, maybe, just maybe, could he sign off with a musical, in true Hollywood style?
NAME: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino
DIRECTOR: Quentin Tarantino
(This article was originally published in cinemaexpress.com)