Warning: What follows is a review that does not use the phrase ‘Love letter to…’
Sorry, I’m late. It’s the start of September and after weeks of only hearing polarised views about ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ I made it to a cinema in the centre of a baking Madrid.
Quentin Tarantino receives criticism from ever-expanding sources and for ever-expanding reasons. A recent combination of the two goes along the lines of ‘fanboys close ranks to defend him, no matter the quality of his work.’ Whether this is true or not, people have gotta know whether or not their reviewer is a fanboy. Well, I am not a fanboy.
Our culture, our films, our music are already defined by sexism, racism and violence. Tarantino does not create this and I could spend my time finding examples where Tarantino creates honest representations of, or even countervailing pressures to, our sexism, our racism, our violence. Because these things belong to all of us, Tarantino just throws it right back at us in the form of a flamethrower.
On each visit to the cinema, you are presented with a formula that says films are like this. Tarantino says actually maybe films should be more like this. At one point the young actress Trudi Fraser asks Leo DiCaprio to describe the story he is reading. He replies with plodding plot points and is rebuked by the child saying. ‘Not the whole story, tell me the idea of the story.’ There you have Tarantino tell us his secret to his storytelling and to his nine films.
What I did see in this film, and perhaps this annoys people more than any sexism or violence, is that there are minutes and minutes where nothing happens except someone driving a car, or watching a film in a cinema. But we struggle to attach these scenes to any thread of the plot.
Because the idea of this particular film is that life is exciting. Driving a car is exciting. Going to the cinema is exciting. Picking up hitchhikers is exciting. Walking through the abandoned film set where the Manson family live is exciting. Thinking about history and imagining ‘what-if’ is exciting.
Cinema did not start with Tarantino and he is not necessarily the finest filmmaker of his generation. But if you liked Pulp Fiction and think Tarantino films have now gone too far, into the pastiche or cartoon then remember that one of the great lines from Pulp Fiction was ‘Bring out the gimp’.
This is a line that could headline a thousand negative viral reviews in 2019. But at the time it felt a bit naughty and exciting. Now we watch characters enjoy driving a car, enjoy going to the cinema and we cannot bear it and wish he made a proper film like the one with the gimp. We cannot bear the time spent without the distraction of action. We cannot accept that driving or going to the cinema was once so exciting for people. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an exciting film where exciting people do exciting things. It is, to coin a phrase, a love letter to excitement.