Tarantino’s Wilder Days

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Directed by Quentin Tarantino | Comedy, Drama | 2h 40m

In a world where information passes as knowledge, and association is so frequently confused with causation, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood provides a diverting, if not entirely satisfactory fantasy.

Fairy tales, even the modern variety, have their own set of conventions, their own internal logic, and even their own political and social biases. Each has a hero, a villain, a damsel-in-distress. Heroes are invincible, villains (and sometimes even the less-than-villainous by-standers) are dealt with with often surprising cruelty, and the political and social message is frequently less than progressive – stay close to home, respect authority, know your place…

Quentin Tarantino’s latest work, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, even purely by dint of its title, and it conforms in many ways to these conventions.

The hero for example is a white middle-aged male, in fact it may even be the white middle-aged male. Self-confident, complacent, untouchable in his mediocrity, he is a creature impervious to change or outside corruption, begotten not created, and sweeping aside those lesser creatures – the Hippies, the Quarrelsome Wife, the Ethnic martial arts star, the Over-striving child actor – with a facility and completeness born of his very lack of effort and achievement.

One cannot help but be reminded of the current crop of old Etonians tromping through Westminster –  most decidedly not scholarship boys – convinced of their own entitlement, armed with the “effortless superiority” their upbringing promotes, and explaining to lesser versions of themselves that the modern world is now unreasonably biased against them. You can almost hear the satisfied grunts of the curmudgeonly Brexit voter and the shrill psychobabble of right-wing lifestyle coaches raised in approval of Tarantino’s return to the “true” order of things.

In every fairy tale there is a moment where the narrative parts company with everyday reality, and the “magic” begins. Where exactly is that moment in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Certainly, by the time we descend into Tarantino’s customary flurry of Tom and Jerry violence near the film’s end, all semblance of reality is long gone. It is likely that extraordinary scene, where a humiliated actor Rick Dalton threatens his own image in a trailer mirror (other, yet self, yet still other) – with visceral violence comes the moment of transformation. From this point onwards all of Dalton’s lines are remembered, all performances adept… he even loses the cough that has plagued him through the film. We are then treated to an exceptional performance from Di Caprio, when Dalton nails a scene as a villain tormenting a kidnapped child. One of the great actors of our age, portraying a mediocre actor, who is nonetheless producing an exceptional performance (other, yet self, yet still other).

Was this simply a moment of psychological transformation? Or are we to conclude that Dalton has taken arms against a sea of troubles and become a Shade, an ideal version of himself.

If this was indeed Rick Dalton’s last afternoon as “himself”, and he has become his admirers (“That’s the greatest piece of acting I have ever seen!”), then there is a cogent explanation for what follows. Rick Dalton has become an idealised if redundant version of himself. And the orgy of violence that ends the Hippies rather than Sharon Tate is similarly an imagined, idealised reality. And when Rick Dalton is finally invited through the Tate mansion gates and greeted warmly, affectionately, by Tate and her friends, who we know to be dead, the camera pans up to an Olympian height and we can separate ourselves from the characters and see these people for what they are: distant creatures inhabiting a world of their own legend.

Although Hollywood apparently lives in the ever-present now of adolescent self-reflection, it is surely still not possible to make a film documenting the decline of “golden-era” Hollywood through the eyes of a fading star, without at a least a passing consideration of Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard.

The comparison between Wilder and Tarantino is not as strained as it first may seem. Both are masters of witty, epigrammatic dialogue and both captured in their own way the language, the Umgangssprache, of their day through relentless consumption of modern culture. Wilder famously taught himself to speak English by reading the sport pages and cartoons in newspapers, while Tarantino’s language no doubt springs from a diet of bad videos in his 20’s. Both also have their roots at least partially in European cinema, with Tarantino’s recurrent nods to the Italian Western.

Rick Dalton, the protagonist of this film, is no Norma Desmond however. His star has always been a more modest one, and derives mainly from television – that medium so despised by Norma (“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”).

Neatly enough, Once Upon A Time’s ending sees the final violence of the film explicated to us by Dalton – in fact a dead man floating in his own swimming pool – and the comparison with Sunset Boulevard is complete.

Or perhaps not. Tarantino famously wishes to preserve the purity of his filmography by producing only 10 films, and he has used Wilder as an example for why this should be done. There is therefore apparently only one movie to go. Let’s hope for his sake it has more in common with, say The Apartment, than Buddy Buddy.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is released in the UK on 14 August 2019.