The power of Transformation

Film review: Once upon a Time… in Hollywood (Director: Quentin Tarantino)

By Sascha Krieger

One could say that Hollywood is at a crossroads again. Streaming services are changing the way films are produced, distributed and watched, the #MeToo movement is challenging the patriarchal system the film industry has always been. Quentin Tarantino has been a product of Hollywood#s latest phase, the advent of independent cinema, progressive, daring, with blockbuster potential – and driven by figures like Harvey Weinstein, the kingpin of the #MeToo outcry, the symbol of Hollywood’s sexual abuse epidemic. His first film after Weinstein’s fall dives into another time in which Hollywood was in crisis: the late 1960s when the old studio system and its output of gender role confirming and hero fare was challenged by a seismic shift in societal values and the advent of non-conforming, wild, rebellious „New Hollywood“. While conceived still with Weinstein at the helm, Once upon a Time… in Hollywood is hard not to be read as a reflection on the role of film in a changing society – and a celebration of its stubborn perseverence.

Image: © 2019 Sony Pictures Entertainment Deutschland GmbH/Photo by Andrew Cooper

It tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV cowboy struggling with the new „spirit“, the hippy movement and the demand for more subtlety, nuances, a growing disdain for old-school heroism. With his best buddy and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) he meanders through a confusing shift in his reality while navigating the shallow waters of fame. Mixed into this is the real-life character of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), most famous of the victims of the murders conducted by the Manson „family“. In the film, she is Rick’s next-door neighbour and while the Manson cult is featured prominently, the ending provides a more than interesting twists. For Tarantino, cinema is the place for fairy-tales, for stories that transcend reality and enter imagination, for the high and the low, the meeting of all the spheres in one big convoluted mess of story-telling. His love of cinema is manifest in all his films – in this sense, his ninth one is the culmination of his oeuvre.

In many ways: for one, he perfects the combination of fiction and reality in a panoramic image that is both society portrait and imaginative fantasy story. „Real“ people meet fictional characters, „real“ movies and shows are contrasted with invented ones, sometimes the fiction invades the „real“. While he always quotes pop culture and cinematic history – and does so extensively here – he now also self-quotes his entire oeuvre which has entered film history. If you like you can find references to all his earlier film here. Many techniques are present , the tracking shots, the rhythmic, music-infused narration, the sepia-ringed, nostalgic glow of the images, the mix of narrative techniques, the constant changing of perspectives and tone. Tarantino does not make films, he plays. He puts the pieces on the board and runs with the wherever they take him. Reality and fiction, truth and imagination, narration and quotes, they’re all playing cards, figure, whatever, in the game he sees cinema as. In this sense, Once upon a Time… in Hollywood is the ultimate Tarantino film.

He imagines his own reality in which history and fiction, memory and re-imagining become one, For him, film is a transformative medium and he uses it to its full extent in these sprawling but never for a second boring two and a half hours. His look back at the struggle between old and new in and far beyond Hollywood reflects on the current one but doesn’t take sides. He loves the old and the new, the one-dimensional heroism of Dalton’s bounty hunter and the dark intensity of his New-Hollywood villain (DiCaprio needs to get serious Oscar consideration, by the way). His perspective is not concservative nor progressive, change is a given, the past necessary for the present. This might disturb some who had hoped for a more critical assessment of his own role in the industry in the past 25 years. But just as his portrayal of women has always been ambivalent, his moral compass has always pointed in more than one direction at any given time. Gratuitous violence and re-imagining of history in order to get a better outcome – his oeuvre is a long revenge movie that never denies the fascination of that which revenge is taken on. In the end, Quentin Tarantino remains unashamed. He doesn’t discard his past while acknowledging the issues people may have with it. In his ninth film, he simply lays out why he became a film-maker in a labour of love that is hard not to adore.

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