I went to see “Pulp Fiction” on its October 1994 opening weekend at a 2:30 pm screening. I arrived at 2:15 pm, stood in line and waited. And waited. The shows were delayed because audiences weren’t leaving after the credits. They were sitting in their seats talking about what they had just seen. Months of hype in the newspapers and on shows like “Entertainment Tonight” ignited curiosity and the movie delivered, using a broken timeline, ultra-violence and witty dialogue to bend the idea of what a movie could be. Just after 3 pm the movie finally started. Later, mind blown, I didn’t stick around the theatre to discuss the movie with anyone. I ran to the box office, bought a ticket for the next screening and got back in line.
Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” doesn’t have quite the same impact as “Pulp Fiction” but it digs deeper, expanding on themes the director has spent a career exploring. “Pulp Fiction” was a seismic shift, a movie changed the face of 1990s cinema, while “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is an allegory for changing times.
As the title would suggest “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” has dark fairy tale elements. Set in sun dappled 1969 Los Angeles, it focusses on two almost down-and-outers, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) a former series star now reduced to doing episodic television—“It’s official old buddy. I’m a has-been.”—and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a self-described “old cowboy.” Both are on a race to the bottom in an industry they don’t understand anymore.
Next to Dalton’s luxury Cielo Drive home is a mansion owned by starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), party place to L.A. luminaries like heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and hairdresser to the stars Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). As Dalton and Booth’s Hollywood era comes to a close, another is blossoming next door and further on down the road at Manson Family HQ and former western movie set Spahn Ranch.
There will be no spoilers here. I can say the various narrative shards dovetail together in a frenzy of grindhouse violence near the end, but “OUAT… IH” isn’t story driven as much as it is a detailed portrait of a time and place, the moment when the sea change was coming. Piece by piece Tarantino weaves together a nostalgic pastiche of b-movie tropes and expertly rendered sights and sounds to create a vivid portrait of a time and place. With the setting established, he plays mix and match, blending fact and fiction, creating his own history that feels like a carefully detailed memory play.
Pitt screaming down Hollywood Boulevard in a powder blue sports car is the essence of what the movie is about. The propulsive energy of Hollywood, dangerous, glamorous with the promise of ending up who knows where. The characters may all be headed for uncertain futures but an air of optimism hangs over the story. Dalton is down on his luck but when he realizes his neighbor is a world-famous director he says, “I could be one pool party away from starring in the next Polanski movie.” He’s a man out of time but still feels there might be a place for him in that world and that is the lifeblood of Hollywood, the city built on dreams.
One such dreamer is Tate. Robbie has a lovely scene as the actress enjoying her own movie in a darkened theatre. It does away with the stylized dialogue Tarantino is known for and instead focusses on the pure joy the character feels at watching her dreams come true on the big screen. It’s a lovely scene that speaks to the excitement of the first blush of success, untouched by cynicism in an increasingly cynical world.
“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is unique in its feel. Tarantino has always been singular in his filmmaking but this one feels different. It’s clearly rooted in the b-movies that inspire his vision but here he is contemplative, allowing his leads—DiCaprio and Pitt in full-on charismatic mode—to channel and portray the insecurities that accompany uncertainty. The film is specific in its setting but universal in portrayal of how people react to the shifting sands of time. Funny, sad and occasionally outrageous, it’s just like real life as filtered through a camera lens.