Screw the Critics #4: Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

A continuing segment in which Lily, intrepid blogger, goes head to head with the most dastardly of foes: Rotten Tomatoes. Group-think be damned! In this segment, we look at the acclaimed Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Who will win? 

Rotten Tomatoes Consensus: Thrillingly unrestrained yet solidly crafted, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tempers Tarantino’s provocative impulses with the clarity of a mature filmmaker’s vision.

Hello, everyone! Sometimes I feel so blessed that very few people read this blog. You know why? Because that means I get to disagree with mass popular opinion without worrying that a bunch of fanboys will attack my page and send me death threats over a fictional story. Today, I am wading into dangerous water. Today, once again, I am daring to criticize a Quentin Tarantino movie that received critical and popular acclaim. I didn’t want to say it, but I have to say it: just because it’s directed by Quentin Tarantino does not mean it deserves critical acclaim. That was hard to hear, I know. But let’s all just take a deep breath.

The problem with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (or Once, as I will refer to it from here) is not that it’s a poorly made film. No QT film could ever be called “poorly made.” In terms of style (except for the editing, which I will get to later) it’s a superbly crafted film. The costumes, setting, music, cinematography, and acting are all top-notch. DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie light up every scene with their stellar acting chops. Also admirable is QT’s dedication to recreating Hollywood as it existed (or might have existed in his idealized version) in 1969. His love for Old Hollywood television and Westerns clearly shines through the film.

That said, it’s also his overwhelming nostalgia for a bygone era that bogs down the film. Homages to 60s TV shows and inside Hollywood jokes are all fine and good, but they do not make a film. A good film is not just a pastiche of antiquated culture because recreating past culture without re-interpreting it or at least providing commentary on it doesn’t mean anything. I saw a lot of comments on Reddit lauding this film for reproducing Old Hollywood and for basically functioning as a “love letter” to the era. In their interpretation of the movie, the main theme was QT’s yearning for the great days of Hollywood and the plot served as a way to contrast Old Hollywood (the fading celebrity Rick Dalton) with New Hollywood (rising star Sharon Tate). Such a theme is neither novel nor profound, but maybe if Once had tried to communicate this theme effectively, without the crutch of homages, the film would have been a better one.

Now I may be jaded because I’m a film student and I’ve had to read too much about Hollywood history, but the homages, references, and overall plot of this film felt mundane to me. Many viewers said they felt immersed in QT’s 1969 Hollywood, but I couldn’t help feeling that in his enthusiasm for the era, QT made the film lack versimilitude. For example, his other period pieces (like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained) were immersive films because I never got the feeling that QT was trying to recreate a world. The setting played a secondary role to the plot, and thus felt more seamlessly integrated into the film. Compare those films to Once, where the setting is the main character and the plot fades into the background, and now all I can pay attention to is the retro cereal packaging and Rick Dalton’s hatred of those “fucking hippies” and how many times a character name drops a 50s TV show in the first hour. This certainly creates a sense of time and place, but the fawning way in which he displays his setting creates the visual equivalent of QT kissing 1969’s ass.

Unlike IB and DJ, QT provides no commentary or critique of Hollywood in 1969. As the name suggests, Once is a fairy-tale, and it’s obvious in how QT writes his plot and characters. The plot is as simple as a fable. An aging actor aspires to be a star, and wishes for the success of his fabulous new neighbors . A stuntman is lured by a beautiful young girl to a dragon’s layer, vanquishes the dragon, and saves the fabulous neighbors from a gruesome fate. Everyone lives happily-ever-after, mostly unchanged, except for the fabulous neighbors, who change history just by staying alive. It looks good on paper: clean, quick, and simple, but QT stretches his fairytale into almost three hours of flashbacks, tangents, and sappy shots of beautiful ol’ Hollywood.

His self-indulgence is on full display in this film. I don’t see what “maturity” the critics are talking about. Yes, this film is certainly slower than his other films, and there’s less violence. But it’s not a mature film in terms of theme, plot, or nuance. The plot about an aging artist mourning their lost youth, and wishing for the fame of a bright new talent,  is completely stale. We’ve seen pretty much all of it before: heck The Artist did pretty much the exact same thing a few years ago and even then people were saying that it was unoriginal! You know who makes superb films about coming to grips with aging and our own unimportance? Alexander Payne. You know who doesn’t really add anything new? Quentin Tarantino. We get it! We know you wish that movies were still about men kicking down doors and virginal women who did little on camera besides smile and look pretty. But Hollywood has moved on, and QT needs to get over it.

At least when his former editor Sally Menke (may she rest in peace) was still alive, she reigned in his self-indulgence with firm, precise edits. Since she has died, his films have shown the lack of her touch. With such a long and sprawling story, Once needed a firm hand, but editor Fred Raskin lets the film soak in its own juices until it becomes bloated. Most scenes are meandering, and some scenes (like one particular extended flashback) are so choppily integrated into the main plot that the editing seems like a mistake. We know it’s not, because nothing done under Tarantino’s exacting auteur eye could be a mistake. But if this type of film is the new “mature” Tarantino, should we be congratulating him?

The thing about maturation is that it requires evolution. QT has barely evolved since he rose to prominence as a director. His male characters are pretty much all the same: noble masculine men who don’t take shit and aren’t afraid to use violence to prove a point. His female characters are still the same: nagging harpy women who deserve to be “accidentally” thrown off a boat or violently murdered (à la Cliff Booth’s wife and the Manson women) or beautiful goddesses who serve no purpose other than flipping their hair and showing some leg.  Let’s look at how Sharon Tate is portrayed in this film.

Sharon Tate barely speaks in this 3 hour film. She smiles, flips her hair, dances, and looks gorgeous, but she doesn’t talk. The only detail in the film to suggest that Tate is more than a poster come to life is a scene of her snoring. According to QT:

I got very infatuated with her, just the person she was, as I was learning about her. So I thought it would both be touching and pleasurable and also sad and melancholy to just spend a little time with her, just existing. I didn’t come up with a big story and have her work into the story so now she has to talk to other characters and move a story along. It was just a day in the life. It’s a day in the life of all three of them, that Saturday in February. A day in the life, driving around, running errands, doing this, doing that, and just being with her. I thought that could be special and meaningful. I wanted you to see Sharon a lot, see her living life. Not following some story, just see her living, see her being.

In theory this is an admirable goal, but QT can’t step out of his infatuation enough to actually breathe life into Robbie. He doesn’t let her be a human. I believe that Tate could be as angelic and kind and vivacious as Robbie portrays her to be, but I also believe that she was more than that. She had to be more than that because she was a real human. And yet, while fictional character Rick Dalton gets to have an existential crisis and Cliff Booth gets oodles of backstory, real life human being Sharon Tate is reduced to  a fairytale princess.

QT also added:

“The thing about it is, unfortunately she’s a woman who has been defined by the tragedy of her death. While not making the Sharon Tate story, I wanted to explore who she was, the person,

Once doesn’t have to be the Sharon Tate story to make even the slightest attempt to develop her character. There are plenty of other characters who are more fully developed in the film than Tate, and guess what, the film is not about them, either. QT’s explanation is an excuse for the fact that he can’t see Tate as anything other than a beautiful Silver Screen starlet that he wishes hadn’t died. It’s nice to see her idolized in this way, but it’s also dehumanizing and disrespectful to the real and complex Sharon Tate.

The viewers who loved this movie seem to have given QT a pass for his schoolboy idolization of Tate, his old-hat plot, and the 1960s mood board that stands in for his setting. They’re okay with the paint-drying pace, the weird editing, and the random voice-overs (because why not have Kurt Russell randomly start narrating 3/4 through the film?). If this film were directed by anyone else, it would be ripped apart, but because it’s directed by QT, the flaws are overlooked because he must be trying to say something, right? It’s impossible that he would make a mediocre film, right?

No, it’s not impossible, and just because he’s trying to say something, it doesn’t mean that what he’s saying is worth being praised. QT is a visionary director and he’s made some fantastic films. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not one of them. Let’s stop pretending that it’s a new classic simply because he directed it. It’s okay for directors to make a bad film every once in a while. Spielberg does it. Alexander Payne does it. Guillermo del Toro does it. They are still superb directors. Making a bad film is the first step to becoming a better director. Once is not the sign of a more mature Tarantino, but if he learns from his mistakes and reflects on them, it could be the beginning of his evolution.

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