Saturday, July 27, 2019

Of Cults and Cowboys

Movies: Once Upon a Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino is a director I love to hate (or hate to love?). He's an asshole in real life, having put Uma Thurman in a situation on the set of Kill Bill where she nearly became paralyzed and having defended Roman Polanski on Howard Stern in 2003 suggesting that Polanski's rape of a drugged 13 year old was consensual sex (he has since apologized for saying this, but I don't buy it).

People often ask if one can separate art from artist, and I suppose it's possible, but if you actually watch/read art by assholes and predators, their sickness sometimes seeps through the screen or book. Consider Woody Allen's obsession with younger actresses and "May/December romances" and Louis CK's jokes about men being sexually out of control. Art, it seems, imitates life.

While I have given Tarantino many passes because he is, I believe, a truly great director, it is becoming increasingly difficult to watch his work and not see his misogynist and racist beliefs play out in front of you. While Tarantino has always reveled in violence and shocking the audience, his recent work (everything post-Inglourious Basterds, I'd argue) is becoming less interesting and truly provocative and more and more "edgelord".

All this said, his talent as a storyteller as well as his ability to really set the scene and submerge the audience in time and place (Los Angeles in 1969 in this case) is still top notch. I liked Once Upon a Hollywood, but I didn't love it. Not the way I loved Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Once Upon a Hollywood has a story at the center and a story on the periphery and in the final act of the film the two stories meet (yes, this review will have spoilers, but I'll put a warning beforehand). The central story is that of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, bringing his excellent acting game)--a middle-aged actor who still drinks like he's in his 20's and has moved on from his glory days as the hero of a TV Western, Bounty Law, to playing "the heavy" in various shows and movies which, as Dalton's agent (played by Al Pacino) warns, is not a good idea because it gives the spotlight to younger, upcoming actors in the hero role and subtly encourages viewers to hate Rick.

Rick whines that he is officially a "has been" to his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, playing an alpha male in all the worst and best ways here). While Dalton still has a career, as well as a nice car (that he can't drive since he had his license revoked after too many DUIs) and a beautiful home on Cielo Drive, right next to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, Booth has a shitty car and shitty trailer where he lives with his pitbull and eats mac n' cheese out of a box every night. While one might feel bad for Booth and the way Dalton takes advantage of him, Booth is a loose cannon. He's a man who doesn't shy away from a fistfight (even against Bruce Lee) and is said to have killed his wife and gotten away with it.

While Dalton is trying to get his shit together on set, Booth picks up a young, flirty hippie chick (played by Margaret Qualley) and drives her "home" to the Spahn Ranch where he discovers dozens of skinny, dirty hippie girls living in squalor. This is where the two stories meet, and where history meets fiction. The Spahn Ranch was a real place where members of the Manson Family camped out in the months leading up to their infamous murders. Booth interacts with real-life Manson Family cult members Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromme (played by Austin Butler and Dakota Fanning, respectively) as well as 80-year-old, blind-as-a bat-George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the owner of the ranch. He also beats the shit out of a hippie. It was at this point when I started to realize what was going to happen at the end of the film...

Warning! Spoilers ahead!


If you've seen Inglourious Basterds, you know that half the fun of the film is its historical revision in which a group of Jewish Americans machine gun and burn a bunch of Nazis to death (in fact, one of Rick Dalton's films, The 14 Fists of McCluskey, pays homage to IG). At some point in Once Upon a Hollywood I realized that ol' QT was going to pull the same stunt again. And I was weirdly dreading it. Sure enough, in *this* timeline of 1969 Los Angeles, three Manson Family members break into Rick Dalton's home on Cielo Drive instead of the neighbors, where a very pregnant Sharon Tate is hanging out with friends. Unfortunately for Tex, Sadie, and Patricia, Cliff Booth is hanging out, having just smoked a cigarette dipped in acid, with his pitbull, Randy (or Brandy? I didn't quite catch the 'bull's name).

After a few witty remarks, Tarantino-style, Booth sics the dog on Tex and throws a can of dog food at Sadie's face. A fight ensues in which Brad Pitt beats the ever-loving shit out of a teenage girl and a dog mauls a bunch of people. But it's not over! That same girl stumbles outside and into Dalton's swimming pool, freaking out Dalton who is drunk as a skunk. He goes and grabs his flamethrower and torches the girl (like ya do). Once all three Manson hippies are dead, Cliff ends up going to the hospital and Dalton wanders over to the Tate-Polanski residence where he is invited inside to hang out. Ob-la-dee, ob-la-dah, life goes on, wah.

So here is where I have my issues with this movie. I get that these hippies, including the teenage girls, are "the bad guys" who in actuality brutally murdered a 8-months pregnant woman and four of her friends. So why didn't I feel the same elation as when a Jewish "inglourious basterd" machine-gunned Hitler in the face? Maybe because seeing a Jewish adult male kill a Nazi is more fun and cathartic than seeing a grown-ass man smash a young girl's face against a telephone until it's a bloody pulp? Maybe because I thought it was disrespectful to the memory of Sharon Tate? Maybe because I *know* Quentin Tarantino is a misogynist, so having the alpha male "win", even against a bad person, doesn't feel right knowing the sentiment behind it.

The movie seems to say "if there were any justice in the world, jacked, white men like Brad Pitt would be putting women, skinny long-haired dudes, and Asians and Mexicans in their place where they belong" (there's also a scene where Cliff Booth nearly defeats Bruce Lee in a fight). And I'm not alone in thinking that. It's not just me, the humorless feminist.

At the same time, the movie--and that scene in particular--still has QT's signature sick humor. The audience was laughing, me along with them. But what was lacking in me was a sense of satisfaction. This violence didn't seem "earned". It just seemed...gross and cheap.


End Spoilers!

So how to grade this movie? At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it was overly long and not much happened. But it was funny and well-acted and the dialogue was good. I'm going to give it a B. It's not close to being Tarantino's best, but I can't actually say it was a "bad movie". I just wish Tarantino would use his considerable talent and vision for something truly interesting and provocative. At the rate he's going, he will be Rick Dalton eventually--a sad, old drunk yelling at himself in the mirror of a makeup trailer.

Grade: B

PS: yes, there are FEET

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