Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time Wistfulness
I never was a Quentin Tarantino fan. I get that his films often feature graphic violence, nonlinear story and shifting timeline structure and he throws in a different sense of humor for interwoven vignettes. Sometimes it’s funny. Often not. While the title is deeply imbued with paying “homage” to Hollywood, it’s really a ripoff fairytale title of days gone by. If he really wanted this film to deeply pervade Hollywood history, perhaps he would not have gone down a path of monstrous reenactment. Then again, according to news reports, early on in his career, Tarantino considered filming comic book adaptations. This certainly felt like a graphic novel come alive.
Back in July, 2017, it was reported that Tarantino’s next project would be a film about the Manson Family murders. In the summer of ’69, there were three life changing experiences– American astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon, Charles Manson and Woodstock. The prosecutor who got guilty verdicts in the mass murder case was quoted as saying, “The very name Manson has become a metaphor for evil, and evil has its allure.” Perhaps because he is at the tail end of the baby boomers (does he secretly wish he was a bona fide baby boomer 1945-1960?). He was a little too young for these momentous events and an incredibly pivotal time in our collective consciousness psyche. I can speak authentically here as I know exactly where I was watching Neil Armstrong take his first hops on the moon (Lake George, NY. BTW, it was a wonderful NYT crossword puzzle theme– at least someone commemorated society changing into the new technological age).
Manson preached racial tensions, explaining that the social turmoil is in code in the Beatles’ White Album songs. Family members, mostly young women, many underaged, believed that whatever Charlie says is true and followed his orders. The Mansion murders were the ugly side of life gone amok. It was a time when mental illness was dismissed as annoying other than disturbing allowing its eventual danger to permeate and percolate within a community. It was so horribly violent and ugly blaring on all radios and television networks, all the time, for days on end. I knew all their names, both victims and their killers. Those were very dark days. Every night we watched the news coming from Nam. There was so much blood. Tensions still hung thickly in the air since the ’67 riots in Newark over an incident of a black Newark taxi driver, arrested for a traffic violation then allegedly beaten and killed. Was Manson’s prediction of apocalypse coming true? At the time, there were so many conspiracy theories and urban legends. I loved the Beatles then, still do to this day, and happy that the film score turned to the Mamas and Papas, as the proverbial Greek chorus recorded on vinyl, capturing the lifestyle scenes of time and place.
So, it was a good thing that QT didn’t go for the obvious jugular, instead taking a different approach in a roundabout way using a uniquely American moviemaking experience since the beginning– the Western. Historically, the West was extremely dangerous for everyone and everything. The television shows in the ‘50s and ‘60s reflected as much as they could get away with, mostly romanticizing the time and whitewashing the violence. Perhaps that’s why interspersing the movie with made up product placement ads as well as a self-evident yet very authentic TV Guide magazine keeps the audience ready for anything goes. Starting in 1953, the TV Guide (I devoted much time in my youth programming my television viewing week) was a prelude to a less intense newspaper gossip column providing program listings information, television-related news, celebrity interviews, critics reviews, Westerns garnering most of the covers– Laramie, Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen as Josh Randall, a veteran of the Civil War turned bounty hunter. He wanders the Wild West capturing outlaws. The Rebel, Nick Adams, who died of a drug overdose in 1968, played, a former Confederate soldier traveling the turbulent post-Civil War West. Take the time and check out The American West a docu-series expounding on the Post Civil War period (1865-1890), Executive-Producers Robert Redford, Stephen David and Laura Michalchyshyn. Not surprisingly, it’s 50 years since the charming and engaging train robbers met their violent end in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
There were many others that carried the tradition; in itself a skillful apropos for lead characters in this film be the aging cowboy star of Westerns along with his sidekick and best friend, an equally fading into the sunset. The stunt double finds himself reassessing Spahn Ranch, a ‘60s television and movie set for Westerns after inadvertently picking up a Manson hitchhiker bringing him to the ranch. Sticking to the actual history, however, by 1969, most of the set buildings had deteriorated and the ranch earned money by selling horseback rides. George Spahn, a nearly blind 80-year-old owner, allowed the Manson family to live at the ranch for free. The scene is reminiscent of traditional thrillers and tension remained taut.
The ensemble cast is another skill that QT is very good at using advantageously. More work for more people and possibly good paying work since he gets the big budget requested. Despite attempts at individual portrayals with the Steve McQueen character hitting the mark, while the women characters remain as two dimensional as shown projected on the big screen in the Sharon Tate movie theater scene. At this time, there’s an obvious fixation of women and their feet. Okay, what’s the creepy dirty foot fetish here, Quentin? You obviously need a woman director for these scenes. This is so not what women do, especially in a movie theater, especially in 1969. But that’s what happens when you’re perpetually inner 13-year old self gets to make big budget films. Thankfully, the little girl actor wore boots and the role of Italian wife, Francesca, did not show the bottom of her dirty feet in your face.
As it happens, the Francesca character is my favorite since she had so little time on screen yet provided the most viable during the final act when narrated exposition finally pokes a hole into the holding pattern of set up during the first two hours of the movie. The stage. The character. The costume. Then we’re in a holding pattern while he figures that he’s got to get the story going. Too many people are gonna fall asleep. So, what happens? Narrated exposition. Egads. Poking fun when you paint yourself into a corner and can’t find a clever close? It’s okay, I guess. It will get a pass because QT fans know something is coming up, fast, and it will be furious, like a pent up tornado ready to unleash destruction. One of the Manson characters put it succinctly – that Hollywood was teaching us to kill. On tenterhooks, I prepared for the worst and ironically, treated with the best ending a Hollywood ending could be. Happy.
A couple of things QT is really quite good at– set design and music choices (which I think he also secretly wants to be as well as the music supervisor). The authenticity of the sets is an amusement park ride– into and out of our childhood memories, Cars and Music. Okay we get the cars. I see so many antique and restored muscle cars where I live right now. Coming home from seeing the movie, we took side streets when Yuri saw a ’55 corvette parked and an older retiree sitting in the driver’s seat. He remarked with a resoluteness to its date, the model and its specific attributes, triumphantly finding one on Google (he once owned a four speed, ’67 Triumph Spitfire). While I admire the engineering, style and five speed of my ’93 Honda del Sol, I don’t get into the magazine style shooting of set locations with classic autos in the film. However, while for the most part, Once Upon a Time was a visual funhouse, my favorite scene follows the signage being lit as dusk settled over the valley. Beautiful graphic design in neon.
Complementary music choices for the final midnight hour was especially eerie– Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon written by John Phillips (1965) that was notably acknowledged as an example of “well arranged two-part harmony moving in opposite directions”. Inspired by Laurel Canyon, zigzagging hilltops hiding the home of all show business types. Here, the young girls (groupies and/or aspiring actresses) would party into the night then wander home aimlessly at dawn. As the tune fades out, repeating the final Mamas and Papas Greek Chorus lamenting a defining moment in time and place, I gripped the arms of my seat for the anticipated bloodbath. Definitely not original music normally expected from a movie score or composer, nevertheless, it manifested into a cacophony of final moments. As a music supervisor visionary, the soundtracks of underplayed songs from the 1960s and 70s was deeply appreciated.
Yet kudos absolutely go to the marketing and public relations for this movie as well as the myth of Quentin Tarantino. Why did the film premiere at Cannes? He didn’t have to go the film festival route. He’s had many high profile theatrical releases and weekend box office successes, yet perhaps after attending the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where he served as president of the jury, he encountered the full extent of the film festival experience. There, the masses come out adoringly and for one purpose– to see the celebrities arrive for the moment and the long red carpeted stair walk into the theater. I know because I was there. It is an overwhelmingly exciting to follow the filmmakers as throngs of onlookers cheer their names. It may be an obvious reason for its official premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, but this time it was in competition for the Palme d’Or (it did not win in any category). The buzz that QT was on the verge of retirement likely created the stir that deliberately caused a seven-minute standing ovation despite mixed reactions regarding the way the movie ended– as an alternative reality. Typically Old Hollywood.
The same happened in the our cineplex theater and I watched as people left the theater before the credits, missing out on the fab faux “Red Apple” cigarette commercial outtakes (very funny). They stumbled out of their seats with confused looks, a bewildered blankness by what was an almost three hour ordeal that could have been précis where it not for a meandering first two acts. Oh, but then that’s not how he works. QT is the product of post baby boomer naivety and growing up right into the hands of communications pundit, Marshall McLuhan. In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) he explains “medium is the message” concept that the medium (a means for a message conveyance) is more important than the meaning or content of the message noting that the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium. Hence the roller coaster, house of horror and whiplash triggers that often override the movie as purely entertainment. Hollywood studios saw the beginning of the end in 1969 when the independents came along and challenged the status quo of moviemaking. QT is holding on to what is left of a dying institution as long as it keeps him rich and famous.
I enjoyed the movie very much. I’m grateful to my friend who had seen it with her husband and son and wasn’t sure how she felt about it and what did I think of it? I’m glad we went. Yuri and I have been talking about it for the last two days finding more avenues for exploration and discussion. We may see it again as it has become one of our more interesting “Kubelka” moments. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is by far my favorite despite the tritely cliched title. Not that I had a favorite before, because I never was a Quentin Tarantino fan.