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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Peak Easter Egg Cinema


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The wife and I were supposed to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on our date night. Our first date night since the dawn of time. Probably since our baby daughter was born. I underestimated the demand for Tarantino’s new movie, so when we got to the theater and punched in 2 tickets, we were surprised to see there was only 1 ticket left. There was a moment where I almost stated my case to go alone but on a date night? Might as well print out the divorce papers. Instead, we went to Cheesecake Factory for dessert. What a twist.

Later that week, we were scheduled to have my wife’s former co-worker and her fiance over for dinner. When the fiance said he couldn’t make it, I figured this was my chance to go and the wife agreed. This time, I bought the ticket in advance, reserved seating, which NEVER pans out. I ordered some chicken tenders and popcorn and went to my seat.

Of course, the seat was broken. The accompanying seat was also broken so I moved a couple down to get that sweet sweet recline action.

I love trailers and I got to see every single one, making snap judgments on A) whether or not I’d go to see them in the theater, wait to rent, or wait to watch on HBO/Showtime and B) how the movie would do at theaters. Here are judgments for the trailers I saw…

Good Boys – Hell yeah, should do business equal to Sausage Party (another August release from its producer Evan Goldberg)

Hustlers – The female version of Magic Mike? Will wait to rent, most likely watch on premium cable

Charlie’s Angels – meh, maybe if I need to kill some time and I’m ‘under the influence’

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – NIAGRA FALLS, mine eyes might not be ready for the volume of tears bombarding the ducts

Queen & Slim – modern-day version of Bonnie & Clyde, which I kinda already got my fill of this year

Gemini Man – current Will Smith vs. young Will Smith in a Looper-esque flick? sign me up

A couple showed up right as the final trailer was playing, the guy kicked my head as he walked past and gave a half-hearted apology (“sorry, bro”), then he and his significant other talked loudly. It was one-sided, the woman was perturbed. There’s always something that goes haywire at the theater.

What ensued was almost 3 hours of unadulterated gushing over 1969 Hollywood. Given Tarantino’s backstory / childhood, this “love letter” / “memory piece” makes sense. As always, the cinematography was top-notch. The attention to detail was airtight. Dialogue was signature Tarantino and the acting… I mean, you can’t go wrong with Leo, Pitt, and Robbie.

I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, but not in a good way. Not like “Oh man, what could possibly happen next?!?” more like, “something has to happen next, right?” And I think Tarantino played with that conventional wisdom.

Whenever there was a traditional opportunity for something to happen, it was subverted. I wanted things to happen so very badly. And I think because I was born in 1980 and I’ve lived 99% of my life in the Northeast and because I have very basic knowledge of Charles Manson and the atrocities he and his cult committed that I didn’t pick up on a LOT of the material.

It felt like one big inside joke. I was the outsider at the dinner table, trying to keep up and piece everything together while everyone else had a rip roaring time. Now, I understand how today’s teens and ’90s kids might not fully appreciate all the ’80s nods in Stranger Things.

READ: A Pop-Culture Glossary for ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’

I mean, this is a movie that got “a seven-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere.” When the credits rolled, a few people in the theater clapped. I didn’t. It felt like everything was flying over my head. I left with more questions than answers.

I would’ve loved to have seen the film with someone who lived through that time, especially someone who lived in Hollywood. I’m tempted to buy whatever tangible media (DVD? Blu-ray?) has the director’s commentary to get Quentin’s take, but that might end up being 5 years long. Luckily, there are plenty of explainers online.

The experts say that in any movie or script, every line of dialogue, every line of action, every shot should have meaning or purpose. The writer / director shouldn’t include anything that doesn’t directly relate to or impact the story.

But, when your movie’s the length of a football game and Quentin Tarantino is the writer and director, it can be exhausting trying to absorb, retain, and digest everything on-screen. My motherfuckin’ cup runneth over from the embarrassment of riches.

READ: All the Movies and Shows Referenced in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Because every shot feels important. Every scene draws you in even when part of your brain is like ‘hey man, we gotta go‘. And to think there’s an even longer cut that many are clamoring for…

“Editor Fred Raskin’s first assembly of the film was four hours, 20 minutes

420. Interesting. On multiple levels. One – pot, two – Hitler’s birthday.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy peeling back the layers. I had a mixed but somewhat favorable reaction after my initial viewing of ‘Us’. It wasn’t until I did some digging online that I really appreciated the level of thought Jordan Peele put into it. The same holds true for OUATIH but in a much more subtle way.

This method of filmmaking is immersive, complementary, and high-brow. Tarantino and Peele trust that their audience will either A) get the references or B) hunt down the meaning online. If you’re the slice of the pie that doesn’t care, so be it. It’s unabashed and unapologetic, but feeling lost can take away from the experience. Shouldn’t a story be able to stand on its own without a million little invisible footnotes and citations? Have we hit peak Easter Egg cinema?

READ: Watch These 10 Films to Fully Appreciate ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’

There’s just a lot that’s unsaid. Unexplained. I understand why directors don’t want to hit us over the head. But, Bruce Lee popping up over and over again? Wouldn’t we have connected more with Lee if we knew about his connections to Jay Sebring and Roman Polanski? We saw him training Sharon Tate for her role in The Wrecking Crew but we were thrusted into a behind-the-scenes moment from the set of The Green Hornet that was disorienting. It all just felt random.

Leonardo Dicaprio Oaatih GIF by Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - Find & Share on GIPHY

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

And maybe that’s the point? The randomness of it all. The random violence, the random ways in which Hollywood is tied together? I mean, the heiress to the Folgers fortune happened to be hanging out with Sharon Tate the night they were murdered? Who would put those two in the same room?

As the credits rolled, I sat there thinking ‘that’s it?’ As the camera stayed on the car in Sharon Tate’s driveway, I was paralyzed. I thought, here comes the rest of the Manson Family to finish the job. I expected more. I knew this was an alternate timeline but now it was my mission to figure out what was real and what was fiction. I also underestimated the cultural and societal impact Charles Manson and his cult’s crimes had on America.

For that, I looked to my mom. My mom was 20 and my dad was 19 when the Manson murders happened. Mom was in college in either Ohio or Rhode Island or Arizona and Dad was in college in Montreal. They had radio, TV, and the newspaper but if my college experience was even remotely comparable, there’s usually a disconnect from the real world and current events. I would’ve slept through 9/11 if my mom hadn’t called. Maybe that’s just me.

Ironically, 1969 was the year ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) went “online”, essentially creating the foundation for what would become the internet. Without the internet holding my hand, how long would it have taken for me to connect with OUATIH?

Another irony is 1969-1970 was the year cigarette advertising was banned on radio and television and Rick Dalton appears in a Red Apple cigarette TV commercial during the end-credits, possibly implying his path back to stardom isn’t as smooth as the ending indicates (or just as “smooth” as Red Apple cigs taste).

I asked my mom about Manson and she said it was shocking. My father passed back in 2006 but Manson is one of many topics I would give anything to get his take on.

The thought of high profile celebrities getting slaughtered nonsensically by a sect historically believed to be peaceful pacifists induced panic (how’s your tongue, twisted?). We know the facts now but in the moment, bias and human nature could lead you to see all hippies as threats. Much in the same way a portion of non-Arab Americans unfairly stereotyped Arab Americans or people with brown skin after 9/11.

The wife and I tried listening to a few podcasts during a long drive to get more context. The common thread among the podcasts and the articles I’ve read post-viewing is that the Manson Family murders were the ‘death of the ’60s’.

“Essayist Joan Didion theorized that August 9, 1969 (day of the murders) was the day the ‘Hippie’ movement, the free love era, and the 1960s as a whole came to an abrupt end.”

Other historians commonly held that position, assigning a great deal of importance to the Manson murders. Yet, about a week later, an estimated crowd of 400,000 attended Woodstock where 2 people died — one from a drug overdose, the other from an unfortunate accident.

Mere weeks before the murders, we had the Moon Landing. A month before that, we had the Stonewall Riots in NYC. In other words, it was a historic year filled with turmoil, turbulence, miracles (Mets, Jets world championships) and change. To say the Manson murders caused a landmark, tectonic shift in the U.S. seems overstated, but I’m probably incredibly wrong.

Leonardo Dicaprio Dancing GIF by Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - Find & Share on GIPHY

That’s one of my criticisms of the film and maybe it shouldn’t be. The truth is, does this story hold up if it weren’t tangentially connected to the Manson Family murders? Did Tarantino assume too much? Do we emotionally invest in Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) if it weren’t for this impending doom that we only know via prior knowledge and not through the movie’s beats?

In a way, OUATIH feels like a prequel. Like, we’ve seen the Charles Manson movie and OUATIH is where it all began? Or Rick Dalton is a LEGEND that we all know and love and this is how he became the icon. Only problem is we don’t know and love Rick Dalton prior to this movie.

Instead, we’re focused on Dalton and Booth but painfully aware and concerned about Sharon Tate. Tate’s fate is the fly buzzing about, the black cloud looming over us. If it weren’t for the attempted murders, Rick Dalton wouldn’t be the hero and he wouldn’t have talked with Tate and possibly rejuvenated his struggling career.

Margot Robbie Photo GIF by Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - Find & Share on GIPHY

Not sure why 9/11 keeps surfacing in my mind, but a more contemporary analogy for my feelings about OUATIH might be if we followed the story of an actor and his buddy trying to cling to relevance in the months and days leading up to September 11th, 2001.

Our protagonists are about to get on a flight and accidentally stumble upon the plot to crash the planes and thwart the terrorists before it happens, unaware of just how significant their actions are. And it’s all by chance and circumstance. Sure, it’s satisfying until you leave the theater and it’s back to real life and all you want is that alternate reality that you can’t have. Plus, you’re thinking ‘why did we spend 2 hours on that when THIS was the real story?’

Is Sharon Tate’s story in OUATIH compelling? She parties at the Playboy Mansion. She rides in cool cars. The most time we spend with Tate, it’s in a theater watching her watch herself on the big screen. Tarantino is setting us up — those of us who know Tate’s real life fate are bracing for her gruesome demise — and the payoff is she doesn’t have to endure that horror.

“For Tarantino, Sharon Tate has an angelic presence throughout the movie. He even considers Tate an angelic ghost on earth, with Tarantino’s own words, “to some degree, she’s not in the movie, she’s in our hearts”.

For me, Tarantino relies too heavily on our own memories for his memory piece. Charles Manson appears on-screen for maybe a minute. If you don’t know him or his story, are you as honed in on this movie? If you do, then his presence is well, omnipresent.

Leonardo Dicaprio Hello GIF by Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - Find & Share on GIPHY

Here’s another comparison, that’s probably just as unfair. The Avengers: Endgame is of similar runtime. It’s the culmination of a ton of movies that have done an exceptional job of building the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Without the previous releases, can we enjoy The Avengers: Endgame? I would argue we could. Endgame was also non-stop action over 3 hours because it had multiple storylines to wrap up. It stands on its own but the people who’ve seen the prior titles have a deeper appreciation.

OUATIH is part of The Tarantino “Universe”, but that universe is more far-reaching and not as closely connected. So, how does OUATIH fit within that universe? What does the movie say about his universe?

  1. Cliff Booth is a stuntman who’s allegedly killed his wife, Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell are stunt coordinators = Kurt Russell is murderous stuntman in Death Proof and Zoe Bell is his target
  2. Rick Dalton plays a bounty hunter and cowboy in the Old West / Spaghetti Westerns = The Hateful Eight
  3. Rick Dalton plays a man who kills the Nazis = Inglorious Basterds

I can appreciate that Rick Dalton goes from the hero in Bounty Law to “the heavy” (the recurring villain getting his ass repeatedly kicked aka a jobber) to the hero again. I can appreciate Rick used the same flamethrower to torch the Manson Family member that he did in the scene from his movie “The 14 Fists of McCluskey” earlier in the film. I can appreciate that Cliff’s earlier scene with his dog in his trailer paid off during the Manson Family member invasion of Rick’s home.

Some are unsettled by the film’s ending, disliking OUATIH‘s revisionist history and citing Hitler’s murder in Inglorious Basterds. Hard to find anyone complaining about how Hitler was really killed (outside of Neo-Nazis?) and it seems outrageous to complain about Sharon Tate not getting slayed.

The ending is bittersweet. In Tarantino’s universe, Tate lives and we rejoice but it’s short-lived. We know she’s gone. Tarantino puts the onus on the audience. You can either feel a sense of(illegitimate) justice or you can feel contempt for him for making you believe in this fleeting fairy tale.

Most critics hated the ultra-violent scene where Pitt and DiCaprio kill the Manson cult members who’ve invaded their home but it’s trademark Tarantino. It’s what most Tarantino fans come for. It was something that was mostly missing from the film with the exception of Pitt beating the bejesus out of that one cult member at Spahn Ranch.

That was the scene I’ll remember most. For me, the entire movie was a setup for that payoff. I wondered if ALL that setup was required. We spent so much time with Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth and it looked like this was it, this was the end of the road for their relationship. It took a goddamn massacre for Rick Dalton to finally get that invite from Sharon Tate. What a Hollywood ending.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Of course, in real life, Roman Polanski is wanted for sexually abusing minors, so it feels a little weird that OUATIH places us in a world where he’s heaped with so much praise. What’s his future in this alternate reality? Much like Us, it’s a commentary on how things can change.

In Us, it placed us in a time when Michael Jackson was a god. In OUATIH, it’s how the “Golden Age” of Hollywood became New Hollywood but also how the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have altered the entertainment industry landscape (notably the scene between the young 10-year-old actor and Rick Dalton).

Perhaps, the most unsettling vibe from OUATIH was the feet. SO. MUCH. FEET. Feet. Feet. Feet. All women btw.

Pulp Fiction Feet GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s almost as if Tarantino knows that we know he’s got a foot fetish and he was like “Oh, you don’t like that I love women’s feet? WELL, HERE’S SCENE AFTER SCENE AFTER SCENE OF WOMEN’S FEET! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT?” Tarantino was daring people to walk out with the number of close-up shots on women’s feet.

From The Sun:

“FOOT fancier Quentin Tarantino puts his stars’ tootsies on screen for nine minutes and 47 seconds of his latest blockbuster.

There are 36 shots of feet in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood — with Leonardo Di­Caprio’s shown for one minute and 34 seconds of the 2hr 45min film.”

READ: Quentin Tarantino’s go-to cinematographer can’t help laughing when discussing the director’s love of feet shots

Thank the Lord above this movie wasn’t in 3-D. Yet another reason I hope smell-o-vision never happens.

Pulp Fiction Feet GIF by Digg - Find & Share on GIPHY

I’m a live and let live guy. You’re into feet? Fantastic. Do what you wanna do as long as you’re not hurting anyone else. But, I’m not a foot guy and the in-your-face foot worship was a major turn-off. To each his or her own but this was a form of torture. Not shaming Quentin but I don’t come to your house and shove big breasts in your grill while trying to tell a story.

What’s OUATIH’s lasting legacy? Is it a movie we’ll all watch on loop like we did with Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction? I don’t think so. It largely depended on one’s own personal nostalgia and the twist at the end.

Even with all the research I’ve done, it still feels like there’s a lot more to uncover that’s more specific to Tarantino’s personal story. Is this Tarantino’s coded way of saying that Hollywood has changed and he’s struggling to stay relevant? That he’s part Rick Dalton and part Cliff Booth? That he seeks to separate himself from his affiliation with Harvey Weinstein and get the intro to New Hollywood? I could use an acid-dipped cigarette right about now.

 

 

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