Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I watched this a second time to see if I would like it more or if it would remain my least favorite QT since Inglourious Basterds, and though I ended up liking the opening stretch significantly more, this doesn’t ultimately crunch. The first time around, there were a lot of moments where I wondered, “Is this relaxing or just boring?” The second time around, I was very into it for a while. And, on a production design, world-reconstruction level, this is obviously outstanding work.

However: the extremely lengthy, intertwined Lancer/Spahn Ranch sequence does not work. It actually does work as a piece of screenwriting, in terms of doing all kinds of thematic heavy lifting. QT is presenting two Western film/TV sets—one still functional but clearly on the verge of no longer being required on a regular basis, the other now past its lifespan. The present is already somewhat past in the first case, and you can see the potential for the working set mutating into something much more sinister. There are two different visions of collective enterprise on both locations, and Cliff and Rick’s experiences form a productive dialectic. But, in practice, the two lengthy scenes we see being filmed are just not interesting, in a way that accurately represents how not interesting these TV shows were. That’s a pretty theoretical proposition that isn’t worth unfolding at such length, and QT chooses to use his own visual language rather than one consistent with the show’s (unlike the opening BTS pastiche), which doesn’t really help or enrich anything. Meanwhile, the Spahn Ranch sequence is basically a trick, feinting at being a horror movie before it’s revealed that the Manson family was telling the truth all along. When you watch it a second time, the misdirection no longer being a factor, it just takes a very long time, and the trick isn’t good for a second round.

And I simply can’t get past the ending. It is not worth doing all of this heavy lifting, historical reconstruction and elaborate narrative structuring simply to, for the third time, violently correct history. Again, this crunches on the page: the old, square Hollywood actor has the gory future of cinema in his literal house and backyard, as if Lucio Fulci simply cannot be denied for that much longer. The latent violence embedded in Rick’s key performances meets a new form of social violence for which it is the correct counterbalance—all well and good, but this kind of elaborate grotesquerie is not really my thing and, again, seems like a one-note joke that doesn’t deepen with repetition. (Compare/contrast with There Will Be Blood. The first time I saw that, I was annoyed, feeling like PTA had thrown away all of his hard work. The second time, I realized I was looking forward to the ending and found it cathartic. I didn’t look forward to watching this part again, and that didn’t change once it was done.)

That still does leave a lot to enjoy, and the virtues on display here have been extensively discussed (all that beautifully staged driving, Brad Pitt being perfect, “my booze don’t need no buddy,” etc.). Two things above all else: it’s not just that the 35mm cinematography looks great, but the recreation of older film stocks for Rick’s previous filmography is insane. It’s just dead-on, in a way that never happens, and presumably involved serious trickery to generate the correct colors and grains of now-extinct stocks, then more work in printing them to the much less malleable standards we have now. I have no idea how this was done, but it’s fantastic work. (This is, inarguably, the year’s most impressive application of 35mm.) The other thing that I love: when Pitt is on the roof, then camera is level with his head, more or less, then cranes upwards just so, like maybe three or four inches. This makes all the difference: a flat background clarifies itself into hills and valleys, which is how Los Angeles works. I remember shots like this in Short Cuts, and it is a terrifically evocative way to convey how it feels to be in LA.