By Ali Moosavi.
Twenty-five years ago Pulp Fiction premiered at Cannes, won the Palm D’Or, and had an everlasting impact on the art of film making. Numerous films have been influenced by its structure, and the term “Tarantinoesque” has become commonplace. This year, Tarantino was back in Cannes to unveil his latest work, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was undoubtedly the event of the festival. Huge lines for the film, which had taken over three of the festival’s theatres, had formed hours before the screening. Huge crowds of stargazers had also gathered outside the Grand Lumiere Theatre to catch a glimpse of the film’s superstars, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie. Before the screening a statement from Tarantino was read to the audience. It included this plea: “The cast and crew have worked so hard to create something original, and I only ask that everyone avoids revealing anything that would prevent later audiences from experiencing the film in the same way.”
Well after that note, how does one approach writing about this film? I will try my best to respect Tarantino’s plea and avoid any spoilers. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s lovingly created ode to the Hollywood and TV world of the late ’60s. He has gone to extreme length to recreate that era, paying attention to every little detail. The main story takes place over a few days in 1969.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has just wrapped up working in the TV series Bounty Hunter and has been demoted by studios to being the bad guy in other TV series. His best buddy is his long time stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). We travel with these two in and around Los Angeles and share their adventures. Tarantino creates his own version of history, mixing fictional characters like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth with real Hollywood figures such as Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). We see Los Angeles of that time as a happy going, fun place. Hippies and Flower People and various communes are in and around the place. A great scene conveying this mood is when Sharon Tate spots a cinema showing The Wrecking Crew (1968), in which she had a part, and introduces herself to the cinema staff who are thrilled to take photos of her visiting their theatre.
Meanwhile, Rick Dalton is trying his luck in movies, a western to start with. Many of other actors in his shoes have departed Hollywood to try their luck in Spaghetti Westerns in Italy. Bruce Lee is also starting out in American TV and Tate is starting to make a name for herself. Rick Dalton also happens to be neighbours with her and Roman Polanski.
Cliff Booth, meanwhile, is filling his time by driving around LA. Tarantino shows his mastery in creating tension from very ordinary events in a scene where Cliff Booth is looking around a commune, checking on one of his old friends. Just a normal conversation between Booth and one of the girls in the commune becomes a source for Tarantino to squeeze out every ounce of tension from an unlikely source.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is entertaining and playful. It is helped enormously by the performances of the cast and the chemistry between the two leads, while Margot Robbie is specially affecting. The production and costume design, the soundtrack, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography have managed to successfully transpose us to 1969.
On first viewing, it somehow did not resonate with me in terms of the element of surprise and the freshness and vitality compared to films such as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill (2003). It is his most conformist and traditional film to date. His standard time juggling is just limited to cutting between the parallel adventures of the two leads. Perhaps because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is less show-off and in-your-face than Tarantino’s afore-mentioned films, it will age better and stand a longer test of time.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).