Quentin Tarantino is one of the most seductive anomalies in the Hollywood system and in American cinema. She did not go to prestigious universities and she did not attend famous film schools. Quentin Tarantino ran a video store in Los Angeles; an eternal child in love with North American cinema, as well as Italian genre cinema, Chinese martial arts and, in short, cinema in all its forms, flavors and without limits of origin, open to any cultural offer presented as an audiovisual product. Tarantino has actively used his obsessive love for the cinema – and also literature – to build himself as the prototype of a postmodern author that is built from multiple references that, after being assimilated through a pop dialectic, gain greater strength thanks to the construction of a universe of its own. Throughout his career, Tarantino has created his own mythology. The idea of inventing Red Apple cigarettes, the Big Kahuna Burger, or the Big Jerry Cab Co. taxi company is not only a clever trick to avoid inserting existing brands – that grotesque product placement – but it is also a useful mechanism for suggesting to the viewer that the thieves can, before the robbery, argue about one of the icons of pop culture, Madonna, for example, or argue why they prefer Big Kahuna Burger to McDonald’s. This dialectic -the constant comparison between an object of reality and a fictitious constructed object- is also set in motion visually when he creates a mixture of spaghetti western and wuxia in Kill Bill (2003), taking Lady Snowblood (1973) as one of the main sources of inspiration.
On the other hand, Tarantino’s exploration of American history continues unapologetically, a film by film, although occasionally adorned with the outer covering of some film genre. After Inglourious Basterds (story installed in World War II), Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight (the first set shortly before the Civil War; the second, years after that war), the filmmaker takes the final chest of the 60s to recreate a Hollywood that he knows very well and admires in excess. The title, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (Once upon a time in Hollywood, 2019), already indicates a more complex and layered approach to the subject than might appear at first glance. Not only does it allude to works by Sergio Leone, but it also refers to the classic opening of fairy tales and, above all, theoretically places Tarantino’s film in the field of mythical narration. Even the ellipsis, so significant in a title that it would be natural to read without pauses, reveal the intentions of a twist.
Tarantino’s ninth feature film is the first film in which the director plunges directly into the intense, busy, and bright – but also dark – soul of the Hollywood system. Not that in his previous films the subject of the film industry – or the place where “dreams come true” – has not been addressed, but this is the first time that Tarantino has made a systematic reconnaissance. He does it his way; placing the story in a key year for American history: that 1969 in which the hippie movement lost its innocence, drowned in the blood of Sharon Tate and her tortured body, but also the year in which the success of a movie like Easy Rider (Dir. Dennis Hopper) showed that New Hollywood was not a hippie joke with a camera; in fact, there was a new generation of filmmakers ready to give their opinion, ready to challenge the dictates of the system. Right at the junction of these two worlds is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a recognized and admired actor who is facing a professional crisis because, without being so veteran, the twilight of his career is closer and closer. It is the perspective of obsolescence – the same one that actor Hector Mann felt in Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions – that causes him anguish, and he only has Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as the friend who listens to him to vent and Helps him with his chauffeur duties, taking him from one side of the city to the other and taking care of his home on Cielo Drive, right next to the new neighbors: the talented filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and the charismatic and beautiful actress Sharon Tate ( Margot Robbie). In an effort to stay active and keep working towards a second wind, Rick meets with producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who makes him an offer to star in “spaghetti westerns” in Italy to help him revive his career. At the same time, Sharon begins to feel the magic of Los Angeles, reveling in celebrity parties, attending the movies to appreciate the laughter of the public when they see her starring in The Wrecking Crew (1968), and staying surrounded by close friends, including her ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring. (Emile Hirsch). For his part, Cliff, Rick’s stuntman, has difficulty finding work in production and therefore remains on the sidelines of the industry, he is curious when he meets Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a hippie who takes him to the Spahn Ranch, a sprawling piece of land that used to function as a Western movie studio, now inhabited by followers of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman).
From the very first images on film, shot on a live, physical 35mm, it’s clear that Tarantino’s goal is immersion. A total and unconditional immersion in a world, a time, and a specific atmosphere; Los Angeles exteriors have such consistency and fascinating stage performance. The neon lights of clubs, bars, and restaurants, the voices of the radio, the record players, the guides to television programming in the foreground, the engines of the 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and even the cough and phlegm caused by cigars. The Hollywood of 1969 is there before our eyes: eyes that overlap, from time to time, with those of Rick, Cliff, or Sharon. Within this reconstruction of an era, Tarantino needs to create a parallel reality to move his characters, suggestions, and intentions, making them believable and pulsating, giving life to the Hollywood he idealized.
If Rick is a burden, sometimes neurotic, actor, trying to escape decadence, Cliff is the myth of the stuntman, the true American cowboy, the one who has not been tamed by civilization and who still lives on instincts made of sharp looks. , scars, and a deep tone of voice. One lives in a small house in the Hollywood Hills, the other lives in a ramshackle place with a loyal, muscular dog like him, as terrifying as the urban legends that surround him. Rick and Cliff are two underdogs, the invisible and forgotten figures of the show who, according to Tarantino’s story, is perhaps the most precious to him. Without needing many words, Robbie plays a woman full of life, in love with the idea of being able to have the privilege of being on the screen; a smiling Sharon Tate, solar, elegant, talented, the woman of the cinema who crosses the screen and who wants to live in the cinema and in everyday life, and Tarantino, with that character, does a wonderful job because it elevates him to something different, to an ethereal figure like all the great Hollywood actresses of that period. If Emma Stone, in La La Land (2016), was dreamy and yet every day and capable of exploding into Hollywood fantasies only through the lines of the musical, Margot Robbie is the 60s, it is the eternal iconicity of the actress who lives in that constant state of being mythological.
The script intentionally lacks a classic narrative structure, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood fragments the narrative into the separate stories of its three protagonists, breaking the rhythm with seemingly decontextualized details and sketches (the appearance of Bruce Lee -interpreted by Mike Moh- for example), concomitantly delineating the background and the reality experienced by all three. A reality that sometimes forces you to lock yourself in a dark movie theater to look at yourself, re-tuning this side of the screen with your own essence. But the dimension of the fable, parallel and perfectly mixed with the anthropological examination of the time, is just around the corner. The title acquires more meaning in the final part of the story, which reconnects the director with his playful proposal as a hallmark. The violence in the form of revenge emerges at the end abruptly, but with the lucidity typical of a director capable of capturing with love, nostalgia, and passion all his obsessions, his toys, and his influences to show us what he would have liked to happen.