Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Possible Opus
At the end of July, Quentin Tarantino is releasing his ninth feature film: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Named after a few Sergio Leone films (Once Upon a Time in the West, and in America), Tarantino is following suit when it comes to his good friend Robert Rodriguez (Once Upon a Time in Mexico). From the title alone, I am perhaps setting a bar too high for myself. However, Tarantino has been one of the biggest fans of cinema since the early '90s. All of his films have been reflective of other styles and genres that he adores. Hong Kong New Wave (Reservoir Dogs), French New Wave (Pulp Fiction), Blaxploitation (Jackie Brown), Japanese bloodbath action flicks (Kill Bill), spaghetti westerns infused with blaxploitation again (Django Unchained), and older westerns infused with whodunnits (The Hateful Eight). I didn't forget Inglourious Basterds, but it is a bit different. It is a representation of the kinds of treatments non-aryan artworks got during the Nazi regime (ridiculed and burned), but done so in a way that turned a satirical ridicule into a cat-and-mouse series or plots.
Why is any of this important? Well, Tarantino knows his cinema. Having worked in a video rental store (which became his encyclopedia), he not only evokes genres, but he goes a bit further. It's no secret that he is a hip hop fan. Don't listen to his soundtracks for this tidbit (outside of the Rick Ross single on Django Unchained); see his public appearances. Tarantino has touted rappers many times, and he almost tries to carry off the same persona himself: a braggadocios winner. With that in mind, he knows all about the assembly of samples to create something new.
His films are similarly full of so many homages, to the point that many viewers cry plagiarism. I see it in a different way. I see a DJ piecing together every element of striking cinema into a few films. You can say the Pulp Fiction dance is from A Band of Outsiders, but it is likely just a tribute to a scene Tarantino adores. He named his production company after this Jean-Luc Godard film. He wears his influences on his sleeve.
What makes him fascinating despite all of this, is how he adds something new to all of these homages. In A Band of Outsiders, the dance is a carefree break away from all of the plotting and thievery taking place; it's a character moment. Tarantino thrives on building characters, to an unmatchable point. Can you think of a series of films that have more idiosyncratic characters, down to the names and tropes, more than Tarantino films? Some directors may rival this (Wes Anderson, off the top of my head), but not many others come close.
That's because Tarantino has managed to extract the pulp (no pun intended) from sources to define what makes characters discernible. You listen to two monsters discuss hamburgers and foot massages before anything happens, and it's all riveting. It isn't just the witty dialogue. It's Tarantino understanding how you can learn from a character even during the most mundane moments. We learn that Jules is easily fascinated but also quick tempered. We learn that Vincent is a thinker, and a provoker that works on the down low. By the time we get to their first series of hits, we see a new side of these people, but we already know what they are like at their most candid.
This is the idiosyncrasy of Tarantino: it's what makes him tick with hardcore cinephiles and mainstream crowds alike. Having said all of this, The Hateful Eight, for me, was good but far from his best. It felt like the meandering Tarantino thrives with tended to fall flat for the first times. Yet that doesn't matter for this next film. In fact, there is a great potential for Hollywood. Think about this entire article.
Hollywood could be something extraordinary, because of Tarantino's vast knowledge of the film industry. People discussed how it takes place during the Manson murders for only that reason. Seeing that the film is inspired by Burt Reynolds, the filming of spaghetti westerns, and various other '60s icons (Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen), I believe this is something more.
This can easily be about the shifting tides in filmmaking. The end of the Hollywood Code, that instructed filmmakers to abide by strict guidelines that sterilized films for decades. The hero had to win. The bad guy had to lose. A gun shot and a wound could not appear in the same shot ever. Then, the code became hateful. No interracial relationships. No queer relationships. What was meant to make films morally good became a fool of bigotry, in a time when rights were being fought for.
That's when the code disappeared. That's when super experimental, and edgy films were being made. That's when the x-rated Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture (which is, of course, tame by today's standards). A rebellion was being noticed by the mainstream. Before the code stopped being used, many genres and styles grew from the woodworks while the mainstream didn’t notice. Can you guess what some of them are? French New Wave: France's reimagining of a tired visual medium. Blaxploitation: race films meant to stick it to political and entertainment machines. Spaghetti westerns: a farewell to the stale all-American image that carried insensitivity with it. The list goes on.
Tarantino has tributed game changing styles for almost thirty years. Hollywood is set during all of these changes. The world was ugly before mainstream cinema finally embraced imperfection and the then-taboo. Hollywood was always ugly. If it wasn’t a single minded corporate system, it's the discovery of a dark underworld. The Manson murders are only a scratch on the surface, but it's an indication of cinema exposing the harsh realities of the world when Hollywood was going through its own wave of hardships.
We also have a stellar cast, but I'm not going to focus on the big names and the Tarantino veterans. Here are some character names for you. Jackie Brown. Hans Landa. Gogo Yubari. These are famous characters in his films, played by people he wished for the world to see. Pam Grier experienced a career rejuvenation to a new generation that didn't have Wikipedia to look up what blaxploitation films were. Christoph Waltz is now a world wide sensation, but he was mostly known for his European works before Basterds. Chiaki Kuriyama was known for Battle Royale when it became a cult film, but maybe not right when it was released with North American audiences. The list keeps going. Daniel Brühl was picked up because of Goodbye, Lenin. Maggie Cheung was featured in deleted scenes for Inglorious Basterds, but she had an affect with her work in various Wong Kar-Wai films on Tarantino. Then, there’s featuring Meiko Kaji’s music being featured in Kill Bill; Kaji’s work as the titular lead in Lady Snowblood is one of the biggest influences to Tarantino’s samurai films (if not the biggest).
Now, we have Samantha Robinson: a new find who has made waves in Anna Biller's '60s feminist horror satire The Love Witch. Robinson is playing Anna Folger, of the Folger Coffee heir. We also have Rafał Zawierucha, who has been making waves within recent Polish cinema (including the film Księstwo). He will be playing Roman Polanski: husband of Sharon Tate (who was slain by the Manson family, along with Anna Folger). Once again, Tarantino has been paying attention to both independent and world films, and is providing a podium for some aspiring voices.
Tarantino just loves cinema. He made a deal with Miramax so he could get a Wong Kar-Wai film to be introduced to Americans (Chungking Express). Everything he does is a love letter to his all time favourite entertainment art form. With his experiences, and his ambitions (fuelled by a never ending build in self confidence, no less), he has arrived at Hollywood: the first film of his to compete at Cannes since Pulp Fiction (which did win the Palme d'or). That's already a promising sign. Hopefully the film will shape up. If it fires on all cylinders and thrives off of the best qualities we have found in Tarantino films, I don't know. With everything I've said in mind, we could be looking at a film that showcases everything Tarantino knows best. We could be witnessing an opus. But I don't want to get too carried away.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.