Thursday, September 05, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

Pulp fanfic

(WARNING Plot twists and story details explicitly--but what isn't explicit in this picture?--discussed

Finally Quentin Tarantino's mildly racist markedly misogynistic mostly masturbatory Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has hit Filipino screens and if all indications prove correct it will be a major hit. Maybe not as big a hit as Marvel's Avengers: Endgame--which I didn't much like either--but do love the way folks have spun the popularity of Tarantino's wankfest: as one of the rare non-sequel non-franchise pictures to open to good boxoffice. 

Which is funny because the spin 1) assumes boxoffice truly madly deeply matters, and 2) assumes (correctly in my book) that our standards have fallen so sharply when something successful isn't a sequel or a franchise it must be The Second Coming. Or in this case The Second Self-Coming.

You must admit the picture's handsomely done, down to the movie billboards the ads the cars the road signs the very plates used to serve food in the legendary Musso and Frank Grill. Several times the camera runs alongside Rick Dalton's (Leonardo DiCaprio) 1966 Coupe DeVille or Cliff Booth's (Brad Pitt) Karmann Ghia or Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate's (Rafal Zawierucha and Margot Robbie) MG TD as they careen down Hollywood Boulevard Westwood Boulevard the Marina Del Rey freeway. We see The Vine Theater playing Romeo and Juliet (opened a year before) the Vogue playing The Night They Raided Minsky's the Cinerama Dome playing Krakatoa, East of Java (which I loved as a kid)All this isn't so much a measure of Tarantino's art as it is a measure of the size of the budget he can command (an estimated $96 million) his willingness to pour it all on the big screen; isn't so much a showcase of acting fireworks as it is of Tarantino's ability to attract Al Pacino Margot Robbie Leonardo DiCaprio Brad Pitt Bruce Dern Damian Lewis Kurt Russell Michael Madsen Zoe Bell, some not for the first time. Tarantino in effect is a gigantic movie and LA geek who wants to parade before us his most prized collection, lit with a burnished glow by Robert Richardson and immortalized on the big screen. His exhibitionism, not to mention size of his stiffie, could not be more apparent.

Part of that collection includes attitudes of the time, I suppose: Rick weeping at the sorry state of his career,  his stunt double and Man Friday Cliff glancing at the car attendants and muttering "Don't cry in front of the Mexicans;" Cliff later having a faceoff with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) their one-on-one encounter ending in a 'draw' (Bruce knocks Cliff down, Cliff slams Bruce against the side of a car).

Lots of ink pro and con splattered all over webpages about the scene and whether or not Lee is an arrogant asshole, but arguably the most telling is a tale told by the real stuntman who grappled with Lee, two-time national judo champion Gene LeBell, who had been deliberately called in because Lee was said to be mishandling the stuntmen (he reportedly insisted on doing sequences for real while the stuntmen insisted fake fighting looks as effective on-camera).

The story's point? Lee realized that his jeet kune do style had a weakness--close quarters grappling--and asked LeBell to teach him. The fight was a setup; Lee was humiliated--but learned from the experience. 

Tarantino apparently wasn't keen on introducing any such nuances to his fable; he was mostly interested in shits and giggles, and maybe pissing on the legend of his supposed idol.   

As for the defense 'it's all in Cliff's head!'--O please. If Tarantino meant to suggest that Cliff isn't as badass as he's supposed to be in flashback then somewhere in the movie this suggestion ought to play a role in the plot; if he is as badass as he's supposed to be (turns out he is) then the flashback is an accurate memory reinforcing the director's point. Tarantino apologists be reachin yo*. 

*(No gags about African-Americans, tho; mustn't antagonize the African-Americans--just made a movie a few years back that largely won over that demographic (years after alienating them--or at least the more discerning figures--with Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown).

Then there's the misogyny--the running gag that Cliff killed his wife, again played for shits and giggles (try watching with a theater audience--the scene just kills em); the endless objectifying of Sharon Tate (long lingering shots over Margot Robbie's body as she lies in bed, with a focus of course on the feet).

Even altering Sharon's fate--something he's tried in Inglourious Basterds (not a fan)--somehow diminishes her. What made her seem so affecting was that she was a bright little flame cruelly snuffed out; take away her ending (the way Disney did the endings of The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and you take away much of the poignancy.

Now misogyny and racism are often the dark underside of Tarantino's true genre: not the western or crime thriller or revenge picture but the exploitation flick. And I get it--enjoy my share, some of em Filipino (James Batman and Babaing Putik (Woman of Mud) anyone?); a certain myopia towards political correctness comes with the territory, otherwise you're never going to enjoy any of it.

Also get what Tarantino's trying to do: a loving tribute to an age of studio-based filmmaking past, warts and all, done on his own terms in his own style, with a bit of mythmaking tossed in to keep adoring metacritics happy.

As for that mythmaking: Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel (Austin Butler, Mikey Madison, Madison Beaty respectively) walk into Rick's (instead of Sharon Tate's) house; Cliff stands in the middle of the living room drugged out of his mind from smoking a cigarette dipped in acid. Cliff sics his dog on Tex, smashes Susan's face with a can of dog food; Tex charges with a knife which Cliff twists and buries in Tex's thigh, then stomps Tex's head to flattened pulp against the doorway threshold. 

Patricia tackles Cliff manages to sink a blade (looks like a boning knife) in one buttock. Cliff gingerly touches the handle, smiles dreamily at Patricia, snatches her head and proceeds to pound it against a rotary wall phone three times (phone cradle perfectly positioned to hook her eye sockets), against a portrait twice (shattering the glass), against the edge of a marble fireplace mantle three more times and--for good measure--shoves her to her knees to carefully bash what's left against a coffee-table edge for another three times (raises her head high for one more strike, realizes he's just mashing hamburger). 

Susan Atkins gets off relatively unscathed mangled teeth and nose and all till she topples into a pool waving a gun. Rick (who's been floating in the water unaware all this time) climbs out, walks into his garden shed, hauls out the M2 flamethrower he once used in a World War 2 quickie, torches her to a sodden crisp**.

**(The torching incidentally lasts 14 seconds--twice the rated duration for this particular weapon; even when it comes to World War 2 military weaponry Tarantino likes to stretch the truth

Am I being too explicit? No more than the movie was. Have I seen worse pizzamaking? Well yes--Takashi Miike Lucio Fulci early Peter Jackson (back when he was fun) come to mind, and you'd be  surprised how bloody Gerry De Leon and Eddie Romero's Brides of Blood and Mad Doctor of Blood Island can be. 

Gore doesn't bother me but it's an unwritten rule in exploitation that we (the filmmaker and the audience) recognize this to be unclean fun--that tits and ass and a bit of ultraviolence are bad for us and we see it because we want to see it, no other excuse (Well there's the battle between good and evil but--fig leaf anyone?). Difference with those filmmakers and Tarantino is that he moves heaven and earth to make the beatings palatable; I mean--these are the Manson killers! That's Sharon Tate, lovely bare feet and all, and Cliff Booth, war hero (who speargunned his wife)! The "God-damned fucking hippies" deserve the crotchripping dog stomp to the head phone cradle to eye sockets lingering caress of burning gasoline***! All for shits and giggles!

***(Why by the way does Tex get the relatively conventional Death by Dog Attack and Stomped Skull while the girls get Phone Cradle to Eye Socket and Flamethrower? And why do I feel it warms the cockles of Tarantino's heart for people to have these discussions?)

Yeah I listened to the audience too. The hooting and howling that isn't just coming from the hunched raincoat crowd (of which I include myself) but from others who don't normally enjoy such fare: the arthouse elite, the bleeding-heart liberal, the average middlebrow, all given permission to applaud by everything that has been carefully prepared beforehand. That--and Tarantino's hypocrisy****--turned my stomach more than what I saw onscreen.

****(May be why my favorite example of Tarantino's directing remains The Hateful Eight where he 1) apes Rene Clair and Howard Hawks semicompetently enough to occasionally pique my interest, and 2) is at least honest about his misogyny and overall misanthropy. Still at 168 minutes (general release) about 68 minutes too long--saying it's my favorite example of Tarantino directing doesn't mean it's actually any good)

I get the loving tribute but I'm not sure Old Hollywood would have dispatched the Manson killers quite that way--okay Cliff was on drugs (there's some question whether or not acid is effective when smoked, that maybe what he ingested was actually PCP, that it's unlikely anyone so high can be so balanced and coordinated) but the mildly outre violence in my book is a betrayal of Old Hollywood values. 

Prefer a tribute from a real adult a real artist--Orson Welles' Other Side of the Wind perhaps, a bittersweet exercise in mourning and muckraking; or Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof) which focuses on the marginalized in the film industry--the stuntmen and hasbeens--in a poorhouse style far more appropriate to the subject ($60,000 shot in two weeks as opposed to Tarantino's hundred million shot in four and a half months).

Not saying I didn't enjoy Tarantino's latest, warts and all; it had its moments, especially Rick with his umpteenth nervous breakdown, or Cliff hurling his Ghia down the freeway, or Margot Robbie and Margaret Qualley flashing slightly soiled insteps at the camera. I came I paid I sat through the picture. For the--y'know--shits and giggles. 

First published in Businessworld 8.30.19

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