Quentin Tarantino revolutionized popular culture in the 1990s with his ultra-violent, ultra-talented films RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION. Dormitory rooms across the nation were decorated with Tarantino film posters. Every fan knew certain dialogues by heart.
Who of a certain age does not remember Vincent’s discussion with Jules in PULP FICTION about the hash bars in Amsterdam and the MacDonald’s in Paris. “…you know what they call a quarter pounder in Paris? …They got the metric system there, they wouldn’t know what the (bleep) a Quarter Pounder is…. They call it Royale with Cheese.”
John Travolta (whose career was in the gutter before he made a comeback in this film) and Samuel L. Jackson were magic in that scene as they personified Tarantino’s obsession with the smooth and the super cool, even when the words come from characters who are bumbling hit men. Tarantino had a magic touch back then, and he has not lost any of his magic today.
It is no wonder that every one of Tarantino’s nine major works refers back to our pop culture, because Tarantino himself is a product of pop culture addiction. He grew up sitting in front of a TV and going to the movies. He disliked textbooks and loved reading comics. Then he took a job in a video store – remember them? There his moving image experience grew and grew.
Quentin Tarantino was born in 1963. He’s getting on in years – 56 years old. With his new film, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD, he harkens back to a time in his childhood when he was watching BONANZA, GUNSMOKE, and RAWHIDE. He focuses on two characters, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. This project is a venture into nostalgia in many ways for this brilliant writer/director.
DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, star of a long-ago cancelled TV Western series who is eking out a living playing guest spots as bad guys on other peoples’ TV shows, and Pitt is Cliff Booth, his loyal stunt-double who has little-to-no more stunt work and has become Rick’s driver and gopher. The year is 1969, and if you check a listing of TV Westerns, you’ll see that many only aired from the 1950s into the mid-1960s. 1969 wasn’t an especially good year for TV’s cowboy actors.
Rick and Cliff are fully developed characters who have a great friendship. Both actors appear to play their roles effortlessly. They embody those two guys as though by nature. Certainly, their success is due in large part to Tarantino taking thought and care as he places them in their particular Hollywood sphere. This production is all about detail. Tarantino insisted that different film stocks and innovative special effects be used to convey the authenticity of the world he was constructing, or reconstructing.
There really isn’t a weak moment in the 161-minute-long feature as we follow Rick and Cliff through their low-energy but highly engaging adventures. Early in the story, we learn that Rick’s neighbor is Roman Polanski. Throughout the film, Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) appears as a character. For many viewers, bells will go off. Oh, yuck, Charles Manson! Oh, for heaven’s sake, what is Quentin Tarantino, the master of vicious yet stylized violence, going to do with that subplot? Should I close my eyes?
Well, you’ll need to see the movie to get that answer. I’m not telling. However, I will say that ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is one of the best pictures of 2019. Tarantino and his cast and crew may well receive Oscars next February.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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