The Colourful Disappointment of the Ninth Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood critique
A 1960 Playboy self-promotion advertisement. Published in Playboy magazine, August 1960 – Vol 7 No. 8. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 by Classic Film. Source.

Following my thoughts in the first part of the post-duo, I now turn to Quentin Tarantino’s new ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which was released in German cinemas on 15 August 2019. This is the first time I am writing a review. So I hope I can express myself in a way that you can relate to.

The Dream Factory and the Heart of LA

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is first and foremost a tribute to the classic Hollywood of 1969, depicting the process and some of the hurdles of filmmaking.

The film uses fluid camera movements and gorgeous sets in realistically staged city scenes. Every car and truck, plastered with contemporary advertisements, is from the era, which the wide-angle camera captures. This scenic accuracy, especially during the freeway drives, caught my attention and fascinated me. I couldn’t get enough.

Celebrating this era is something the film does exceptionally well. Even the characters in the film enjoy their dramatic talent. The viewer is presented with a colorful Hollywood on a platter that makes you admire and admire the art of filmmaking.

There is another cinematic world portrayed in the course of the film, which I don’t want to spoil and therefore won’t comment on.

The Actors in the Film as Actors (Respectively Stuntman) in the Film

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the role of Rick Dalton, a decapitated actor who only appears in bad TV series and tries to break free of the Western association that prevents him from taking on new roles. Hollywood is now New Hollywood and Rick Dalton can’t get a foothold there, even though he lives next door to Roman Polański and his wife Sharon Tate.

American Diner 1960s
American Diner in the 1960s. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 by Moto Miwa. Source.

Rick Dalton’s stunt double Cliff is even worse, barely able to do any stunts at all, just a chauffeur and man of all trades.

Those familiar with DiCaprio’s acting skills will not be disappointed. He shines most in the scenes where he switches between his role as Rick Dalton and the character he plays in the film. There is also nothing to say about Brad Pitt’s charisma and role. Viewers get the paradigmatic cool of a Pitt performance at its best. Fortunately, no less, but no more either.

For the duration of the film, Tarantino lets the two characters run into the void. Another scene, another wink from Leonardo DiCaprio, another cool/bad look from Brad Pitt. It doesn’t take long for the repertoire of facial expressions and gestures to run dry.

Margot Robbie gets less screen time than the trailers suggested. There isn’t much to fathom about her character, probably because Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate, is sufficiently well known in American culture. The same goes for the circumstances of her death, to which the film refers in an honorable way.

Tarantino takes the spotlight off Charles Manson and shines it on Sharon Tate’s life. After initial skepticism about the film, Tarantino’s descendants supported his project, including Margot Robbie with a perfume by Tate.

The intention, as well as the title of the film, is revealed at the end, which leaves me in awe of Tarantino’s endeavor.

Tarantino’s Stylistic Means

Anyone who watches a Quentin Tarantino film knows that they are in for some brutal violence. Tarantino has successfully established this association with his name. And while he is loved for his dialogue, it is the controversial use of violence that is often the focus of his critics.

An Excursion into the Grandiosity of Django Unchained

Speaking of dialogue. A few months ago, I found myself watching several scenes from Tarantino’s filmography on YouTube: Like the great dialogue between Dr King Schultz and Django and the marshal before and after the bounty hunter shoots Sheriff Bill Sharp.

Django Unchained (2012) is simply a masterpiece, embodying all the Tarantino and Western trappings we love, while giving us an incredibly clever, nuanced and – dare we say it – amusing critique of slavery, when most Western films ignore the aspect of slavery altogether.

YouTube comments often say that Black Panther (2018) is the first real black superhero. I disagree with the comments because he existed six years before that: Tarantino’s Django.

I want to give some space to my love for Django Unchained and list the film’s main strengths:

  • Schultz breaks through the racist binary culture (whites as the epitome of culture and civilization, blacks as uncivilized and incapable of proper use of language and appreciation of culture) by making the complacent Southerners look wildly uncivilized in comparison to him. He is essentially a symbol of the mythical European civilization on which American men of means have built their plantations.
  • When Django shoots the first Brittle brother right in the middle of a Bible page pinned to his shirt, it is as if Django’s shot at the bloody hypocrisy of using Christianity to justify the brutality of slavery.
  • Django’s aesthetic choices in some ways describe what the theorist JosĂ© Esteban Muñoz has called desidentification. For Muñoz, desidentification is a strategy of acting against a dominant ideology that does not simply seek to escape or assimilate into it. Django wears the clothes of a Southern aristocrat not to become one, but to misuse the idea of the Southern gentleman. In other words, he takes the cultural logic of participation, of slavery, and decomposes its symbols from within.
  • The destruction of Candyland can be seen as a metaphorical demand for the destruction of the institution of slavery in general.
  • Stephen is definitely a villain who knows exactly what he is doing and uses his superimposed laughter to gain trust and influence. Django gives him the same fate as the white slave traders. However, I would like to take a step back: He probably never had any other chance of gaining any kind of freedom under the conditions of slavery. He was given the chance to be freed by a fake German dentist and taught how to find his way to freedom. Stephen tries to manifest his own power by playing the (bad) cards he has been dealt. From hard labor in the fields to the relative comfort of Candie’s house, he has come to the point where he can rebel and contradict his master.

The Beginning of the Downward Spiral

Tarantino’s dialogue is living art that magically creates a realism in the film that would not be the basis for conversations taken from life outside of Tarantino’s preferred medium.

For me, this grandiosity of Tarantino’s was broken with The Hateful Eight. Although the dialogue is Tarantino’s, it lacks weight and sophistication. The violence is brutal, soulless, and used for the sake of violence.

Less Red Jam Than Expected, More Soulless Than Hoped For

When I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was waiting about halfway through for a violent release. When it finally came to the end with the Tarantino scenes, I was reluctant. One thing was missing: the conflict. The backbone of his stylistic devices.

The depictions of violence only serve to continue the parallel strand of the plot. This single basis of Tarantino’s intention is not enough for me to give the violence room to develop.

If anyone knows how to add facets to brutality, it’s Quentin Tarantino. Take the way he mocks the audience in Inglourious Basterds: We have a good laugh at the expense of the Nazis’ grotesque reactions to the film shown on German Night in Paris about the soldier who becomes famous for shooting enemy soldiers from a bell tower over the course of several days, cut off from his troops. But a little later, when brutal violence breaks out in the hall, it is we who are visibly entertained, gazing at the screen and enjoying the scene of justice.

In the Style of the Early Tarantino Films, Without the Joy of Experimentation

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Ford
A Ford 7-liter for 1966. During the 1960s, 7 liters were the maximum displacement allowed by NASCAR. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 by John LLoyd. Source.

Since Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino has drawn us into a game of references in each of his films, using them again and again to break out of the game and create something radically new. This is what Tarantino is known and appreciated for.

He often emphasized that he would only make ten feature films. For a long time I was fascinated by his drive and sheer endless creativity. Since his eighth film, I have seen that thread broken, and his ninth frustrates me as much as it leaves me unsatisfied.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood gets lost in its own nostalgia. It narrates without tension and complacently. In terms of film and acting, the film is of course brilliant and of a higher quality than the blockbusters of recent years. But there is something helpless about his nostalgia. It’s as if Tarantino himself is clinging to an era whose end he can’t accept.

Just as the film’s protagonists, Rick and Cliff, are tired and empty, Tarantino seems unable or unwilling to do anything more. For two hours, hardly anything happens. The once punchy dialogue turns into a monotonous bleat. The referential machinery squeaks and grinds to a halt at the end of the film.

Still, I hope for Quentin Tarantino’s tenth film.

End of article. If you spot a typo or have thoughts about this article, feel free to write me. 🙆‍♂️

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