I was surprised when I first saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That was it? After Kill Bill, Django Unchained, and Inglourious Basterds, the ending felt like the action was just beginning – where’s the endless, outrageous, cartoon-like violence Tarantino is known for? Where’s Charles Manson? And was that really two hours and forty minutes? Where’s the second half of the movie? Hollywood had dazzled me with its visuals, and transported me into an electric fairytale land where I didn’t feel the hours pass.
Hollywood is a tender, deeply affectionate dance with a magical moment in time. The summer of ‘69 was a graduation – a changing of the guards from the film generation of the 50s to the new kids on the block, the hippie movement coming to an end with the never-to-be-repeated crescendo of Woodstock, and Hollywood losing its innocence with the Manson murders. Graduation is always a bittersweet moment, where a long-unified cohort disperses, like a great wave rising to its peak just before it crashes on the rocks, shattering into a billion little pieces.1 Soon, the soft, psychedelic sounds of the Beatles and Beach Boys would give way to Led Zeppelin, and clean-cut TV westerns of Rick Dalton’s style would be replaced by gritty images of Vietnam. But not yet. This is their swan song.
To that end, Hollywood is Tarantino’s most thoughtful work. In his other movies, the protagonists are larger-than-life figures taking epic acts of vengeance, brimming with delightfully self-righteous monologues. By contrast, Hollywood’s Rick Dalton is a bit of an everyman, a B-movie actor coming to terms with his own fading career, realizing that time is now working against him, and that he will never become great the way some of his earlier colleagues did, even if perhaps more by luck than skill. Eclipsed by younger talent, he is disoriented in a world that has changed around him. He suffers through his pains, and rises to new heights in the end. That act, to face his own inadequacies and carry on, makes him a hero in an ordinary, relatable way. He’s no Great (Anti-)Hero like The Bride, Django, or Jules Winnfield – but he’s a real human.
The mirror image of Rick is his best pal, Cliff Booth. It’s no coincidence that he wears a Champion t-shirt throughout the film: he is courageous, strong, infinitely confident, and the center of female attention. He embodies everything that was cool about masculinity in the 60s. His stage presence is captivating, and it’s hard not to be swept up by him. Men want to be him, women want to have him.
Similar, but opposite, is Sharon Tate, the final member of the triad.2 We see her from two different angles. First, we accompany her on the ordinary errands of her day, like with Cliff. In that course, we fall in love with her effortless grace, seeing her radiant beauty, optimism, and lightness close-up. Second, we see Tate as just another person in the crowd. At the Playboy Mansion, she dances, just for herself, among hundreds of others – but to the viewer, she stands out. At every crowded party or nightclub, there’s always someone that draws your attention. She is that person. No matter how objectively small her part in a scene, she is always the subject of the viewer’s attention. There’s a special kind of voyeurism there, since Tate doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue – or, strictly speaking, any impact on plot.3 Tate captures us with her atmosphere, and Hollywood is entirely a work of atmosphere. She is the soul of the film.
Beyond soul, Hollywood also has spark. I was surprised not to see sex come up more in other critics’ reviews: Hollywood is deeply charged with attraction. Though there’s no overt love story, the movie is full of reminders that it’s LA in 1969, and everyone is riding high on the wave of sexual freedom. Hollywood is studded with beautiful people, and countless suggestive shots create an undercurrent of sexual charge that only adds to Hollywood’s electric feeling.
Hollywood is all about feeling. As a film, it is almost entirely a sensual experience. Some people say that it’s all flavor and no substance, but that’s precisely the point: some of the best Michelin-starred meals are all flavor, because that’s what ultimately really impacts the audience. In that vein, Hollywood is an audiovisual masterpiece. Not only is it generally shot beautifully with impeccable detail, but it delivers scenes that are both transportive and synesthetic.
Key to that transportation, to the immersion of the viewer, is the soundtrack.4 There’s a clever trick here: much of the movie is set in cars, while driving. The accompanying music is credibly on the radio, and the fact that we can hear it makes us feel like we’re really there, in the car with the characters. The pairing of songs to scenes is, of course, perfect – just consider when Cliff first sees Pussycat. Those twenty seconds of flirting looks exchanged while Mrs. Robinson plays contain more tension and intrigue than some entire films.
In Hollywood, Tarantino masters that heavily multisensory short scene, where an unbelievable amount of audiovisual detail and stimulus is packed into a few seconds. The scene where Cliff feeds his dog while making dinner and cracking open a beer, feels so extremely high-resolution in every sense – every bubble in the beer is crisp and pristine, nothing is blurred, and the audio of every iota of the process is so clear that it could be ASMR. By its sheer amount of lush detail, this minute-long scene could be a short film. Watching it blew my mind.
Ultimately, I do not know what it means for a movie to be good, but I know how it makes me feel,5 and Hollywood is a masterpiece of eliciting feeling through mood and atmosphere. As a sensual experience, Hollywood is spectacular. We are passengers in Tarantino’s car, and he’s taking us on the most incredible ride down the Boulevard, sharing all his favorite sights and sensations. Through twists and turns, we look out the window, dazzled the whole way, trying to take in all the scenery’s rich detail, pulled in by every one of our senses as we fly by. Others have called the film a love letter to Hollywood, to the 60s, a valentine for Tate. The truest love letters are not works of cold analysis, but works of pure emotion. And that is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: so much loving detail poured in by Tarantino, to share with us a wonderful ride.
A friend used this metaphor back when we were graduating from high school. It stuck. Graduation is a rare and wonderful feeling. ↩
Rick, Cliff, and Sharon form a triple in that they each take a different part of a “main character”: nominally, the movie is about Rick Dalton. He’s the one with a real character development arc, a well-rounded figure with plenty of flaws and trials to overcome. He gets all the dialogue. However, Rick isn’t the one we, as an audience, really care about or root for: that’s Cliff Booth, the real champion of the story. Cliff’s presence pumps us up, we love watching him act cool and kick ass. He’s a simple character, but he gets the most screen time. But neither Cliff nor Rick are the real core of the movie, the focus is off-center: though she doesn’t have much screentime or dialogue, the movie is about, and for, Sharon Tate. It wouldn’t exist without her. She is Hollywood’s aesthetic core. ↩
That’s insofar as there is a plot – everything that happens in the movie happens regardless of Tate’s actions, except for the very end, where her disembodied voice finally admits Dalton to her ranks. Hollywood is more a movie of vignettes than led by a traditional plot, but that’s not a weakness: it is a pure audiovisual experience. It communicates an immense beauty and richness of feeling, the way that a really strong piece of instrumental music doesn’t need lyrics – in fact, lyrics would only be a distraction – to move the listener. ↩
When Tarantino plays with a concept for a new movie, he starts by flipping through his record collection, trying to find the soundtrack for a story. As he narrows in on the music, he then carefully marries tunes to characters and plot-points. Hollywood excels as an audiovisual experience. Music was a cultural pillar of the late ’60s, and Tarantino takes us on a wonderful musical journey. ↩
I take a somewhat contrarian and unpopular position in the arts, in that I consider myself an artistic hedonist. I am a sucker for stimulus. Unlike most critics, I care little about meaning, commentary, reference, or clever flourishes – I care about the sensation that a work evokes in its audience. To me, film, music, and the visual arts are first and foremost sensual experiences, and I am most rapt by work that dazzles its audience with original spectacle. ↩