California Dreaming – the Case for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
“Always is always forever
As long as one is one
Inside yourself for your father
All is none all is none all is one
It’s time we put our love behind you
The illusion has been just a dream
The valley of death and I’ll find you
Now is when on a sunshine beam
So bring all the young perfection
For there us shall surely be
No clothing, tears, or hunger
You can see you can see you can be”
– “I’ll Never Say Never to Always” by Charles Manson
Quentin Tarantino has made the best film of his career with the conclusion of his revenge trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Dazzling and terrifying, funny and tragic, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the most satisfying watch of the year.
This is a film no other director could have made. Tarantino’s thumbprint is all over this thing, and some of these lines, some of these shots, some of these characters will be with us forever. He has finally made THAT movie. The one that firmly secures his place in film history as not just one of the best directors America has ever produced, but as a film maker who has invented his own language, his own universe of unique, memorable characters, and inventive stories, like no one else can.
Which is the image that lingers most? Is it Brad Pitt gliding across the dusty landscape of Spahn Ranch in a yellow Hawaiian shirt before he beats the barefoot mangle-toothed Clem back into the dust, with two words, “fix it”? Is it Cliff Booth’s dog Brandy launching at Tex Watson? Is it the teary-eyed Rick Dalton being consoled by Julia Butters as a sharp young actress, “poor Easy Breezy.” Is it the brilliant Leonardo Dicaprio coming undone in his trailer after being unable to remember his lines, or is it his “evil sexy Hamlet”? Is it Brad Pitt once again bringing a whole new generation to their knees with the simple act of peeling his shirt off — AGAIN — as he did at the beginning of his career in Thelma and Louise? Is it hollow-eyed Dakota Fanning watching TV in a shack while Bruce Dern as George Spahn sleeps in the back room?
Is it the glimpse of a different life for Sharon Tate, as a carefree girl in bright yellow hot pants, dancing her way through the Playboy mansion amid of rainbow of colors that fade in comparison. Who but Sharon Tate could make Steve McQueen feel like a reject. “I never stood a chance,” he laments. How does such a bright splash of sunshine meet such a terrible fate? Tarantino is so specific with color throughout this film – bold bright memorable colors to depict a city that is bleached in the glaring light of the sun almost every day of the year. He hits us with bold primary colors and gives us one of the films this year filmed ON FILM. It’s a film that celebrates film by a guy who bought a movie theater for the express purpose of preserving cinema.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a western but it teases westerns throughout, not just in Rick Dalton’s former glory days in Bounty Law, but in the way the confrontation at Spahn Ranch mirrors a classic showdown. Both sets invoke westerns, reviving California’s long-gone connection with cowboys and outlaws in film and television, where Rick Dalton, by all accounts anti-hippie, is remade to look a little like Manson with long hair, mustache, and a fringe jacket. Over in Chatsworth we see Tex and other family members on horses (or horsies) infiltrating the former western movie location, infesting the setting like cockroaches or rats. Tarantino pairs these two realities, neither of which depicts actual reality, to illustrate the juxtaposition of a town made for dreamers, made of dreams, with a town on the brink of being struck by one of the most horrific murders in modern history. This all comes from the mind and the eye of Quentin Tarantino.
henever the film cuts to a new set piece it’s exciting. Where are we now? We’re watching a fight between Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth (“That guy?”) to explain why Booth can’t get work anymore as a stunt man. Every scene involving Booth provides clues to the background we need to know about our superhero, learning how he got the skills to do what he was born to do: to take out the cult who were spit out of the mouth of madness, Charles Manson’s zombie followers who were ordered to drive up to Terry Melcher’s house and kill everyone inside and make it look like black revolutionaries did it, with the goal of starting a race war.
It all might have gone Manson’s way, but in Tarantino’s universe Cliff stands in the way. This guy (“that guy”) who can leap on top of buildings, who can throw martial arts experts into the sides of cars, who has no problem beating someone to a pulp who laughs at him, “Ladies….”
eah, THAT GUY is the one they meet instead. THAT GUY who himself is high on acid. THAT GUY with THAT DOG. The Manson family never stood a chance. So instead of Tex Watson on acid terrorizing group of people partying on MDA, cocaine, and pot, it’s THAT GUY on acid who laughs at Rex, no Tex, when he says “I’m the Devil and here to do the Devil’s business.” Recalling it later, Cliff Booth says, “He said ‘I’m the Devil and I’m here to do some devil shit,’ that’s not verbatim.” And by deflating that incantation, in an instant we too are laughing at the absurdity of Tex Watson. He’s no monster. He’s just a fool. And those girls? Well, they were 20 and 21. Any power they thought they had was nothing but the unfair advantage of a trusting community that didn’t yet know the depravity that cults could be capable of perpetrating.
Tarantino scratches such a deep and unreachable itch by twisting the story and having the Manson family meet THAT GUY instead. Oh glory be. And if that isn’t enough, even poor old Rick Dalton floating in a pool and listening to his conservative country music gets a chance to use his flame thrower and torch Susan Atkins to a crisp. “Shit, and I torched the last one.”
It’s the best rescue from a nightmare that anyone could imagine. A fairy tale for those of us who lived through that era, in that time and that place where Charles Manson and his followers scared us awake, night after night, a tragedy remade as a surreal, wildly entertaining celebration of our past. Tarantino gifts us with a rewrite — not made to make us feel better by lying about what kind of a world this is, but to give us the chance to indulge in a dream that only the momentary magic of the movies can deliver.
The brilliant Tarantino keeps the film humming on a surreal plane of existence — a comic fairy tale that never loses sight of its profound end goal. He foreshadows the violence that almost happens. A trapped and dying rat inside the house of horrors ruled by Squeaky Fromme. A burst of blood red color next to Sharon Tate’s front door. And then there are the continual hints of people almost dying, even if its simply the commonplace occurrence of tempting fate by speeding down the hairpin turns of a dark windy Hollywood canyon road.
Death is just seconds away throughout this film but it never catches the people it’s supposed to catch because fate once again intervenes and takes down the right people at exactly the right time, however random it turns out to be. If only there had really been an aggravated Rick Dalton in a short robe and slippers, holding a pitcher of margaritas, yelling into the darkness, “now get this mechanical asshole OFF MY STREET.” If only.
Quentin Tarantino is a master of the form, with a kinky style like no other, and keen eye for setting up a shot. Like all of the best directors his composition is so exacting. You might learn how to do that if you make enough or watch enough movies. Watch each shot in that last sequence. Whether it’s the way the dog barks to be let into the room, and Dalton’s Italian wife opens the door, then looks out before letting the dog in and closes the door. Or it’s a girl rising up in the frame unexpectedly with a knife. Or it’s how Brad Pitt notices that he’s been stabbed before he slowly looks up to deliver the final, nearly unbearable blows to “Katy.” Katy, or Patricia Krenwinkel who stabbed Abigail Folger so many times Folger finally told her stop, saying “I’m already dead.”
There is no making sense of the Manson murders, just as there is no making sense of the levels of dehumanization of Hitler’s holocaust, or America’s barbaric history with slaves. These three monstrous events in history have been remade in fantasy form by Tarantino, who has gifted us with some relief from the memory of it. He can’t fix history. But he can take us to a place for a time where for two hours we get to imagine what if.
By the time the Rolling Stones start singing “Baby baby baby you’re out of time,” when the the neon signs are switched on all across Hollywood, it’s time for Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton to say goodbye. It’s time for both of them to start new lives. And it’s time for California, Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills to say goodbye to August, 1969. It was the end of one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Tarantino holds it close. He ejects the monsters and preserves the better parts of everywhere.
When we hear Sharon Tate’s voice through the intercom after the violence comes to a fiery end, it is a reminder that she’s still there. She’s still up in her house with her nine-month-old baby still safe, gently kicking around inside her. Dalton is welcomed with open arms. The dog is sleeping with his wife. His buddy is alive and headed to the hospital. And the hills of Hollywood are once again peaceful, resting under a blanket of stars you can’t even see in the dazzle of the neon lights.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a film you can’t forget. And the film of 2019.