"THE SPECTER OF GRUESOME REAL-LIFE TRAGEDY UNDERNEATH ALL THE HOLLYWOOD HISTORY"
Yesterday's post about The Black Dahlia reminds me that earlier this year, Armond White mentioned Brian De Palma's film in his review of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, which White states "is easily Tarantino’s best film." From National Review:
Movie-actor sympathy is QT’s obtuse version of humanism; his hipster notion of relationships rarely goes beyond clichéd cleverness. The behind-the-scene moments in Once Upon a Time don’t seem as authentic as the early-Sixties sex-and-ambition revue in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, or as insightful as the Hollywood-blacklist parodies in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! An interlude about the vanity of Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) gives the impression that QT forgot exactly what movie he was making; like Jackie Brown, it’s not convincing.
In Jackie Brown, QT was so absorbed in fetishizing Blaxploitation lore and his star Pam Grier (whom he called “the queen of women” the first time I met him) that instead of reexamining the era when his obsessions were born, he updated it poorly, and Grier wasn’t actress enough to reclaim her Foxy Brown crown. In Once Upon a Time, QT exults in a period re-created solely through cultural artifacts: pop songs, TV shows, movie posters, theater marquees, and incessant, maddening radio advertisements. The specter of gruesome real-life tragedy underneath all the Hollywood history and pop effluvia gives him something new: poignancy.
Brian De Palma already made this ambivalence poetic in The Black Dahlia — especially the memorable sequence where the audition of tragic Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirschner) as Scarlett O’Hara distilled her all-American drive and pathos. Despite crude technique, QT reveals his awareness of Hollywood desperation, found in society’s changing sexuality, especially when dealing with the Manson girls. Going back to the Sixties hippie era, QT evokes the cultural differences between middle-class California conservatism (embodied by inside-outsiders Rick and Cliff) and Manson’s dangerously radical counterculture.
These tense, lewd scenes (anchored to Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, a brazen free-love druggie, Dakota Fanning’s fanatical Squeaky Fromme, and Rick’s meeting with a precocious child star, loaded with pedophiliac undertones) suggest more than Manson’s psychotic influence. QT seems to be getting at a modern crisis. Manson’s maenads — dirty, barefoot examples of Dionysian abandon — provide the most fascinating sequences of QT’s career. A plot digression features Bruce Dern as a blind, wizened, weakened victim of his own lusts as well as of female opportunists, a Harvey Weinstein figure.
At the screening I attended, most of the audience went into quiet shock during QT’s finale, an extended sequence of conventional action-movie moral reckoning. It hit them on another level than the earlier, poorly imitated scenes of mock-TV violence (for a cineaste, QT’s images are surprisingly imprecise). In this riposte to #MeToo diabolism, Tarantino finally finds a social context that challenges his audience. And while the Motion Picture Academy previously rewarded QT for disgracing both the Holocaust and slavery, this might be an even hotter topic, and it needs a better follow-through than his slasher-movie tropes. But, admittedly, this display of cheap revenge is his career highpoint.