Brad Pitt looks great on a rooftop. Golden, easy, a greaser made miracle. Smoking like he was made for it. He’s vaulted up here in the sun, a faultless three bounds, tracked by a camera that’s just as lithe and agile. This is the peak of what Tarantino can do – make smallness spectacular. When he can elevate life’s banalities with images we want to peel off and keep.
Here, we’re in the sun. It’s a hazy day in Los Angeles. We’re allowed to follow and enjoy it in the company of a movie star in a movie about movies. We can bask and wallow, indulge ourselves. And that’s just one reason why Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood unboxes some of the most casual, amiable Tarantino we’ve had in a while, which renders his artificial reliance less annoying, not so much poking you in the ribs as stroking the back of your neck.
For me, it’s his best work since Inglorious Basterds, and maybe more likeable. We have two leads bound by friendship; no double crosses, hostilities or gunplay. They bicker and reconnect and one of them is tied professionally to the other, although they share much warmth, and watch TV with a six pack like everyone else did in Tinsel Town. This alone makes the references work – a pair of buddies with waning purpose, handling it poorly (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton) or with a spotless smile (Pitt’s stuntman, Cliff Booth) as heroism slips into parody, commenting on it because there’s little else to do.
They wander through an amplified gander of the Golden Age – or at least Tarantino’s jukebox version of it – wondering at themselves, not finding their place between old tough men and camera-swinging hippies. Los Angeles is becoming wiser, dirtier, less noble. For actors like Sharon Tate, it’s a bright place where love is in widescreen and you are powerfully free. For Dalton, it is an effervescent ‘fuck you.’ Tate is married to an award-winning Polish director, and keeps her former boyfriend around as their houseguest. Meanwhile Rick’s only bucking of the norm is his path to Spaghetti Westerns, which he resists, or taking advice from eight-year olds. One is spinning gold; the second is trying to find the thread again. Conservatism is expiring.
As we cruise, amble and fly into rage with his characters, there’s a melancholic swoon to the film’s pacing, its wish to make us affectionate for a mass culture everyone could more or less agree on – even if, 50 years removed, many of us never know what that felt like.
In the wings, we have the Manson family. When their car pulls up at the Tate driveway (as it inevitably will, though you absolutely need to know that before accruing tension in Once Upon A Time…, otherwise the whole shebang may feel like a lengthy cocktail hour), my heart was in my throat, thrumming like the engine. In Inglorious, Tarantino machine-gunned Hitler. What would he do this time?
I’ve grown to distrust his impulses. Shock and gore have become the expected finishing move, not the measured adrenaline they once were. The Hateful Eight was as predictable as its runtime. I’ve never cared for Kill Bill, which to some is heresy, yet frees me to watch martial arts that doesn’t verbalise every extraneous detail. Because despite my praise of Tarantino’s latest grace notes, he still tends to let them bloat and compensate wildly with violence. His people talk a lot. They never stop till they’re dead. And that’s presumably why so many of them want to off each other; everything is said, nothing is left to interpretation.
Back to generalised culture. What we may generalise – and please dig at me in the comments if no – is that Quentin’s first three films are very good. Jackie Brown doesn’t quite live up to the accolade of lost masterpiece, but it’s heartfelt, simple, and has Robert Forster’s eyes. Reservoir Dogs, meanwhile, remains a blast, a stage play with frantic male meddling that makes brilliant use of its conceit. Then Pulp Fiction, obviously. Obviously. I don’t even want to recommend it, as there’s been enough ink spilled in service of those scenes. Saying Pulp Fiction is good is like saying water boils at 100 degrees.
It’s the revenge period, personally, that’s been problematic. Since 2003, we’ve seen the same basic plot run across his movies: someone is wronged, receives help, they chart a course of killing, and setbacks ensue. The central character is often marginalised or correcting history for our sakes. It’s redemptive. Despite the suffering on screen, Tarantino is well-intentioned. Maybe we have to skip his demented use of the n-word to really believe that. But for every bravura set piece – Kill Bill Vol.1’s fight in the House of Blue Leaves, Archie Hicox’s 20 Questions game, Jack Rabbit Slim’s – there’s a wad of exposition and a drop of goo on your face as Tarantino goes, “Look here! This! They’re talking so specifically, aren’t they! Wow I don’t wanna leave, do you?! No! Why pause then! On with the chit-chat!”
That’s why he’s frustrating: the length and the material don’t tend to add up. He insists on pointing and explaining, and he has to work hard excavating the purity of his aims to make us care about a bullet in the stomach.
One Upon A Time… In Hollywood succeeds because it is sad, schlubby, gentle with Rick and Cliff’s failures, but’s also less of a genre piece, more like a stroll to the reckoning no-one suspects behind the gates of fame or infamy. “Fuckin’ hippies,” Rick spits, and we tense. They’re killers. No-one told him that, in his dressing gown with a jug of margarita. There’s a pleasure in it because DiCaprio’s so desperate, with his whinging and stuttering. He’s an underdog who doesn’t know he’s in the fight. We see him fall and battle and strip himself of hope. Whether he can salvage meaning from a forgetful world is his key test, which reveals how all of us subvert one course of history through not being the person we think we are; we could be saviours in alternate dimensions, and we’d never know it. The film is behind the little guy. It’s asking us to consider what our own failures may rescue.
I think I’m finally looking forward to his films again. If things play out as intended, with his next movie being the last, Tarantino’s career could end exactly when it’s meant to. Unlike several of the endings he’s written, it might be perfect. For once he could leave us wanting more.