Thursday, August 22, 2019

A Thousand Feet High: Once Upon a Hollywood (2019).

In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane famously mutters 'Rosebud' on his deathbed. Only the audience is given the solution to the mystery: it refers to a sled which Kane played with as a child, long before he would lose himself in the Xanadu of personal wealth, power and ego. In later interviews, Orson Welles often downplayed the significance of Kane's central riddle, labelling it a cheap gimmick and a bad joke. Gimmick or no, Rosebud taps into something universal about life: the older you get, the more the details of your childhood assume a lustrous, irretrievable magic.

In his 9th picture Once Upon a Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino returns to the era of his childhood, to the year of 1969 when the director would have been 6 years old. It is the end of a decade, and in a wider sense, the end of the whole period of bounteous energy, optimism and self-belief which characterised America in the post-war period. The next decade would usher in economic slow-down and the political scandals of the Church Committee and Watergate, and America's image of itself would never be quite the same again. The texture and appearance of 35mm film in Hollywood movies changed notably between the two decades. Up until about the mid-60s, it still had something of the lustre and artifice of the Technicolour era; the movie world looked brighter and prettier than the everyday one. In the 70s, movies adopted a more muted palette, with a softer, hazier visual texture, accentuated by natural light and deepening shadows. Location filming became the norm; the studio backlot became the street.

This loss of innocence, eulogized in Once Upon a Time, was a necessary and perhaps inevitable coming to the terms with the dark forces and contradictions that underpinned the American Dream at its apogee. Nevertheless, even if the innocence itself was built on illusionary foundations, there is no denying the considerable beauty and energy of American culture in its golden age of Pop: the curvaceous, untethered exuberance of Space Age architecture and automobiles, dusk and night-time skies tattooed with a giddy, psychedelic chorus of neon signs, crackling radios tuned to the hormonal teen symphonies of Phil Spector, the Beach Boys and the Shangri-Las. 

Once Upon a Time seeks to bask in the energy and ambience of this era of American pop culture, right at the point where the clock had finally run out on it. America had already lost its innocence by '69; after a series of traumatic assassinations and demonstrations, the country found iself more bitterly divided than it is even today. The Manson Family murders, however, became a symbolical culmination of that loss; they were the harbingers of a bleaker era to come, where optimism gave way to the cold grip of paranoid uncertainty. Tarantino's movie alters the facts of history to create an alternative timeline where that death knell never occurs. Of course, in the real world, had the Manson murders never happened, an appalling tragedy would have been averted , but history in general would progress in largely the same way. In the self-contained fairytale of the movie, however, the magic LA of Tarantino's childhood persists forever. Rosebud again. 
In this sense, Once Upon a Time goes against the grain of historical revisionism as it tends to be practised in movies today. Most contemporary revisionist movies seek to undermine the mythic image of a by-gone era by illustrating its dark undercurrents and contradictions. Once Upon a Time does the opposite: it revises the historical facts in order to restore the mythic image of the period. In many period movies, the period is merely the setting for the story. In Once Upon a Time, creating a meticulously detailed yet ultimately dreamlike simulacra of LA in the late 60s is the central aesthetic purpose of the movie. 
One the things I loved about the first (better) half of Death Proof was its unabashed celebration of American popular culture: jukeboxes, pretty girls, pop records and muscle cars. In Once Upon a Time, Tarantino becomes a fully fledged poet and rhapsodist of Americana in the tradition of Chuck Berry and Brian Wilson. The movie is infused with an obsessive, infectious love for the culture and ambience of its period. Television and radio samples are integral components of the mise en scène and soundtrack, and of the historical dream state that the film induces. A remarkable collaboration between director, cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Barbara Ling, its dream LA feels as boundless as a Grand Theft Auto game. Sequences where characters drive at night are transportingly beautiful.

Once Upon a Time feels like a departure for Tarantino, and the emergence of a more mature vision. With the exception perhaps of the first half of Kill Bill, the primary focus and energy of his movies has always been with the speech of his characters. Cinematic technique has tended to be subservient to the dialogue, and he has often been carried away by the enjoyment of his own voice. In Once Upon a Time, he has pared back his verbal exuberance, making the dialogue less showy and more specific to the characters. He has learned the value of silence, of simply watching characters behaving and being, whether it be Pitt's serene Cliff Booth climbing the roof to fix a television antennae, or Margot Robbie's Tate surreptitiously enjoying an audience's enjoyment of her performance in The Wrecking Crew. There are long stretches of Once Upon a Time which are the closest the director has come to making an actual drama. As an artist, Tarantino seems in no danger of becoming a has-been; but the melancholy of ageing has brought something of hum-drum reality into his incorrigibly escapist cinematic world. To my taste, any rate, it might be his best film.

In the devastating conclusion of Lynch and Frost's Twin Peaks: The Return, Dale Cooper travels back in time to prevent the TP world's defining tragedy from occurring. Lynch's vision is extremely dark and tragic: you can't eradicate the trauma of the past; change one thing, and the tragedy will simply re-emerge, perhaps in an even worse form, elsewhere in the karmic ledger. Tarantino has always been a comic rather than a tragic artist, and in Once Upon a Time, history is re-written and redeemed: Sharon Tate survives, and all of the darkness is expunged from the Manson story. Yet Tarantino maintains an awareness throughout of the impossibility of this scenario; it is a fairytale and a magic trick, sustainable only by the illusionary magic of cinema. Rick Dalton plays cowboy heroes and (latterly)heavies, but in reality he is a comic, shambolic figure. The irony is that it is his stuntman, who belongs in the anonymous class of movie performer whose face or name will never be known by the public, who embodies the reality which Rick merely plays on the screen. He is the stoic, indomitable, self-contained archetype of American cinema, embodied on screen by McQueen, Redford and countless others. Carrying Rick's load once more, he is the one who saves everybody from the Mansonoid intruders, leaving Rick to enjoy a hero's welcome in a Cielo Dr residence unscathed by blood and sorrow. 


Postscript: Hippies. Does Tarantino hate hippies? Maybe. Certainly there are enough gratuitous hippie beatdowns in Once Upon a Time to make Joe Friday, Vincent Bugliosi and Bigfoot Bjornsen salivate with joy. Or maybe he's just playing up Rick Dalton's peculiar antipathy for the hippie for comic effect – either way, it is admittedly hilarious.

Iconic Hippie Haters: 


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