Nostalgia has replaced epochs in the modern culture. There is the increasing feeling that while technology certainly races ahead in its advancement, culturally we are obsessively looking to the past. Vinyl is sought after by the kids who are convinced it sounds better than digitally remastered albums on CD or streaming. The look of videotape is being recreated for music videos and even entire film projects. Music scores are reviving the techno sheen of the 1980s. Millennials, having just missed out on the 80s and consuming art while growing up highly influenced by the 70s, are desperate to reach back. With consumer culture now defining the times and creating stagnation in any new art forms or styles, the past takes on a new glow. But few filmmakers can make art out of nostalgia quite like Quentin Tarantino. His new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, defines nostalgia itself. In its look and sound it feels like a brain working in overdrive to recall a specific moment in its archived history.
Tarantino himself is a walking and talking library of pop cultural memory. He recently professed to still recording shows on VHS, he insists on shooting his movies and screening them in 35mm, and his music supervisor, Mary Ramos, recently described to Rolling Stone touring Tarantino’s vast vinyl collection to select soundtrack cuts. While other directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan champion shooting and screening on celluloid purely for its aesthetic value and preservation of cinema culture, Tarantino feels like an auteur bent on preserving a moment in our timeline. Poseurs and fans have always devoured his style, its energy and colorful nods to grindhouse culture, the wild violence and zesty dialogue. While Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and the Kill Bill saga all referenced the 1970s, they remained contemporary films, set in the 1990s and 2000s. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s return to the very fountain of his inspiration, pursuing the year 1969 with sensuous cinematography by Robert Richardson, a usual collaborator who made his name filming visions of the past for Oliver Stone in the late 80s, early 90s.
There is a plot, of sorts, to this film, but it is more of a guide through Tarantino’s evocations and ideas. The premise is as simple as the average life at any time in Los Angeles. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) made his name starring on a TV western but feels he’s now a has-been. He drinks too much and has hired his former stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as a semi-assistant, which actually means his driver and house sitter. Cliff is suspected of having killed his pestering wife, but who knows? The one flashback sequence alluding to the event has a potentially subtle wink at the Natalie Wood case. Rick’s agent, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), announces that he’s close to getting the actor work doing Italian spaghetti westerns, which sounds like a death knell. While sulking in his woes, Rick spots his new neighbors on Cielo Drive. World famous director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) has moved in with wife and actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Rick agrees to act in a new western next to James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), which proves to be a real test on whether he still has what it takes. Meanwhile, Tate spends her days wandering around the city as Polanski goes oversees to shoot a movie, watching her latest work at spots like the Bruin in Westwood. Cliff goes for drives during which he comes upon a strange group of young girls who live out in Spahn Ranch under the spell of a guy they call Charlie.
The above is merely the stage for Tarantino’s indulging in remembrance, albeit with his unique voice. Some of the film’s most exhilarating sequences have little to do with violence but are instead the moments where Cliff speeds down streets at night and we see the past facades of the city rush by. Glimpses of when the Pantages still screened films or a stunning overhead shot of the long extinct Van Nuys Drive-In set to radio announcements and melodies are a cinematic time capsule. Songs like “The Letter” by the Box Tops or rare gems like “Bring a Little Lovin’” by Los Bravos are revitalized by being returned to their time of origin. I’ll never hear Deep Purple’s “Hush” the same way again after the scene where Polanski and Tate drive down a road to the song on their way to the Playboy Mansion. “Son of a Lovin’ Man” by the Buchanan Brothers frames the mansion party, with Tate trotting-in in go-go boots as Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis) gossips about the blonde beauty near the pool. Moments like these thread into the greater narrative, but they can stand alone as Tarantino contemplating a Hollywood of specific figures now swept away in the winds of pop history. Today, Polanski is more infamous for being a fugitive in Europe escaping sexual assault charges, Tate’s tragic fate at the hands of the Manson Family is part of the U.S.’s gallery of bloody infamy. But there was a time when these were cultural icons, living high and dancing the night away.
A friend who lived through this time period mentioned to me that the film captures the general sense of optimism of the late 60s. This might help explain our obsession with recovering not so much the past but its popular surfaces, because they contrast so starkly with a new generation devoid of romanticism or idealism. Tarantino’s work always features moments of sudden, bloody eruptions, acts of revenge or duels to the death, yet these movies also feature an artificial sense of violence that hides a strange optimism left over from the director’s childhood. There’s a reason why Tarantino has a sense of humor that is rowdy but not cynical, or why when he messes with history it reveals good intentions. His 2009 World War II fantasia, Inglorious Basterds, follows Jewish-American partisans as they scalp Nazis and eventually annihilate Hitler himself. History didn’t happen that way obviously, but it should have. Fascists deserve such fates and in the movies the artist can make sure they get them. Basterds opens with the title card “once upon a time…” and in that sense connects with this new film, since both are about Tarantino looking at the past as both memory and fairy tale. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is less satirical because Tarantino did actually live through 1969 L.A., though what he wants to say about the time is different. Sharon Tate enters the Westwood Village Bruin theater, watches herself in The Wrecking Crew and then walks out in twilight, like a daydream from some better time. When Cliff brawls with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet, Moh’s Lee is hilarious and also a loving tribute. Was Lee this arrogant? Who knows, but it’s how Tarantino wants to remember him.
Like any film obsessive, there is little doubt that Tarantino’s memories are framed by the movies and directors that shaped him. The very texture of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a dreamscape of shots, close-ups and queues borrowed from an endless array of directors from Robert Altman to Sam Peckinpah to the B-movies the director loves beyond all reason. The details of this Los Angeles are historically accurate, but also cinematically-speaking. You can find links to a hallucination like Altman’s The Long Goodbye from 1973. When Rick shoots his new western, Tarantino delivers a film within a film, with shades of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, if not the Italian spaghetti westerns he also splashes around in movie poster close-ups. These close ups are the equivalent of keeping vintage materials on display at home, we preserve such treasures because they take us back. Tarantino nearly surpasses a film like Alfonso Cuaron’s more melancholy Roma in his pursuit of nostalgia. Whether in the close-ups of vintage dog food cans in Cliff’s beat up trailer home, including the comics on his shelves, or the luxuriant details of Rick’s own home, Tarantino wants to put us there. What was lost cannot be resurrected, but it can be conjured in celluloid’s artificial eye. Rick himself is a man haunted by the passage of time. He nearly breaks down near his co-star Trudi, amazingly well-played by the young Julia Butters, when a paperback western inspires a realization of how old he feels.
Yet every memory has its darker shades. The same era that produced a writer of glitzy sophistication like Eve Babitz also gave us Joan Didion and her apocalyptic dispatches from the city of angels. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood maneuvers through the city’s sense of illusion and edgier truths. Before seeing the film I revisited both Babitz and Didion, both were brilliant, both also provided diverse angles. When Babitz wrote about The Doors, she wrote about Jim Morrison as a figure of beauty, pompous but likeable. Didion focused on their music as a fusion of sex and death, chronicling a recording session where the Lizard King went missing only to appear as a drunken beast. In Tarantino’s phantasmagoria about 60s L.A., the darker side of this sunny vision are the roaming vixens of the Manson Family. Principally embodied by the flirtatious Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), the female followers of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman as a disturbingly close copy) roam the city and as they did indeed do in real life, rummaging through dumpsters, thumbing for rides along street corners while also hoping to entice any naïve sucker to join the clan.
Without a doubt the most controversial and discussed element of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Manson angle serves a deeper purpose than mere exploitation. Tarantino is not making a serial killer movie or crime procedural. Beneath the veneer of every beautiful memory there is a Charles Manson roaming, as every romanticized version of history has its more honest, bloodier side. The same culture that produced flower power also fueled the aesthetic of Manson, and it’s not so shocking in hindsight that he was connected to the Beach Boys, that he did almost get a record deal, that his hallucinations entailed perverse interpretations of Beatles songs.
In his absorbing critical analysis of The Doors, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, critic Greil Marcus opens a chapter on the eerie song “End of the Night” with the following passage: “The appearance of The Doors marked a verge in the history of Los Angeles rock n’ roll, of Los Angeles, and of the United States. That is because in their music you could hear a portent that the future, the near future, contained stories no one imagined they would want to hear, that people would not be able to turn away from, that would keep people awake, worried at the slightest anomalous sound, terrified and disgusted by their own fantasies. After Charles Manson, people could look back at ‘The End,’ ‘Strange Days,’ ‘People are Strange,’ and ‘End of the Night’ and hear what Manson had done as if it had yet to happen, as if they should have known, as if, in the deep textures of the music, they had.”
And then Tarantino decides that as the weaver of dreams he can alter history. Read no further if you have not seen the film. Fittingly, Manson only appears once, as a wandering, strange figure knocking on Sharon Tate’s door on a sunny afternoon only to be turned away by her one time boyfriend, now companion Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). We, now witnesses in the future, assume what will come, the dark night of terror and destruction. Cliff himself gets a preview when Pussycat uses him to hitch a ride to the infamous Spahn Ranch, where he sees the rest of the family who leer and stare like outcasts from some plague century. He even punches a rather goofy Manson clan member in the face after his tire is slashed while attempting to speak with the ranch’s owner, George Spahn (played with poignant roughness by Bruce Dern). What will follow later is destined to generate endless controversy, even more than Tarantino having Adolf Hitler meet a much-deserved, fiery death in Inglorious Basterds. Cliff and Rick become the first targets of Manson’s roaming death squad, but they gain the upper hand (Cliff with the help of an acid-dipped cigarette) and destroy the fiends. It is Tarantino delivering the bloodbath we’ve been anticipating but in reverse. In his vision it is the monsters who receive the crush of bones, the savage assault of Cliff’s pit bull and even an incendiary end via a flame thrower Rick kept from a previous movie gig.
By the rules of nostalgia Tarantino has every right to do this. How often do we not think on the past and reflect on what could have been? Like Stephen King’s 11–22–63, about an English teacher who attempts to stop the JFK assassination, generations endlessly wonder if tragedy could have been averted. What if the planes had been stopped on September 11? What if Hitler’s would-be assassins had been successful? Cinema and literature have a habit of imagining the worst possible futures. Tarantino in his love for a fantasy Los Angeles of 50 years ago wishes the villains had met their just ends, as in a movie. In a sense, Manson, long a twisted figure of pop lore, deserves no better than to have his plans foiled on film. His blood trail has been discussed to no end. Those who wish to indulge in the real horror story that actually took place can read Vincent Bugliosi’s famous Helter Skelter or Jeff Guinn’s more complete Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. Tarantino loves cinema too much for its own sake to cede it to such a specter.
One sign of a great director is that they grow, even if they remain attached to their obsessions. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reveals a Tarantino who at 56, now married to an Israeli singer and hoping to retire and have children, is becoming a true reflective. Unbridled passion has always colored his work, even in a total Russ Meyer homage like Death Proof. In his new film that passion is nostalgia unchained to an almost Proustian degree, of course in the auteur’s infamous voice and style. Was this how it all really was in 1969? Maybe not, but it is how Tarantino wishes his film to remember that year. This is how we all tend to revisit our past eras that we’ve walked through, with a mixture of daydream and nightmares kept at bay.