We all have to start somewhere and Quentin Tarantino is no exception. Unlike popular lore, Tarantino did not come bursting through the indie film gates with Reservoir Dogs as his first film. Before you go out and see any of Tarantino’s films you should watch his first little ditty which was an unreleased feature film called “My Best Friend’s Birthday.”
“My Best Friend’s Birthday” is a black-and-white amateur film written by Craig Hamann and Quentin Tarantino. This was also the first film the Quentin Tarantino directed. It was shot while he was working at the now sadly closed down indie film shrine Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, CA.
The project started in 1984, when Hamann wrote a short 40-page script about a young man who continually tries to do something nice for his friend’s birthday, only to have his efforts fail miserably.
Tarantino and Hamann expanded the short script into a full-length feature film screenplay. Some of the dialogue and characters would eventually find a home in Tarantino’s classic screenplay True Romance.
Actor Allen Garfield (from Beverly Hills Cop fame) was teaching Quentin Tarantino acting at the time, and that is how he also became involved in the project.
The budget was an estimated $5,000, which was tiny considering they shot the indie film on 16mm over the next three years. Quentin Tarantino acting bug was in full effect so he also starred in the indie film, along with several video store and acting class pals.
Tarantino worked on the crew, which included fellow Video Archives employees Rand Vossler and future Oscar® winner and Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary, who also acted as cinematographer on the film. It’s the most overtly comedic film that Quentin Tarantino has ever made.
The original cut was about 70 minutes long but the final reel was destroyed in a lab fire that broke out during editing. The surviving 36 minutes of the film has been shown at several film festivals around the world. It has never been officially released.
When watching this short you can see early seeds ofQuentin Tarantino‘s genius for dialog and character. It’s a fun watch and a must for all aspiring filmmakers. Enjoy the rare indie film oddity “My Best Friend’s Birthday.”
It’s often said that the 1960s came to an end, not on New Year’s Eve 1969, but several months earlier, on August 9th— the night that film actress Sharon Tate and her houseguests were murdered in her home in the Hollywood Hills. The shocking event signified a collective innocence not so much lost as it was slaughtered— the progressive ideals that embodied the decade having met a grisly, untimely end at the hands of a magnetic cult leader named Charles Manson and his acolytes.
With this singular act, followed the next night by the murder of a upper middle-class couple a few miles east, the hippie mantra of “peace & love” had been twisted and perverted to the whims of a persuasive psychopath who wished to ignite a vicious race war he dubbed “Helter Skelter”. Especially for those living in Los Angeles during the time, the murders became a shared cultural flashpoint akin to the JFK assassination— the world had changed almost instantaneously, and nothing would ever be the same. The dream was dead.
Somewhere beneath the layer of collective anxiety and fear that blanketed the southland’s suburban sprawl, a six-year old Quentin Tarantino was just beginning to discover his insatiable love for cinema. Even in a neighborhood as far removed from Hollywood as Long Beach, the glamorous atmosphere of LA’s movie industry was palpable enough that Tarantino could soak it into the fabric of his very being, where it would marinate over the next fifty years while he embarked on a film career of his own. The idea to make a film about this period, however, would not arrive for quite some time: it was around the time of KILL BILL’s production when Tarantino found himself struck by the fascinating dynamic between an actor and an accompanying stunt double whose continued employment was very much tied to the actor’s success (4). When he married this to the memories of his formative years, he realized he had the seeds of an idea that he could enthusiastically commit years of his artistic energies to; an idea that he would come to call ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD.
The form this story would take, however, was initially uncertain. Tarantino initially envisioned it as a novel, but as the years stretched on, he found he couldn’t deny its potential as a screenplay, and subsequently, a motion picture (5). That he would be able to make the film at all was a foregone conclusion — this is Quentin Tarantino we’re talking about here — but he did face an immediate wrinkle in regards to his producing partner. His longtime home, The Weinstein Company, was in flames, embroiled in a massive scandal involving producer Harvey Weinstein’s long and terrible history of extreme sexual, mental, and physical abuse.
Associated for decades with awards circuit domination and a tempestuousness that had heretofore been tolerated as the cost of doing business, the Weinstein brand had become radioactive overnight, subsequently kickstarting a cultural reckoning that would topple many other famous and influential figures. Tarantino cut ties with the Weinsteins immediately, his back catalog now tarnished somewhat by his association with them. As he navigated these turbulent waters, Tarantino knew he had to be more protective of his work than usual. He was well aware of the cultural and economic value of his name, but even that couldn’t be relied upon in a rapidly changing & globalizing industry that had become addicted to compound franchises and connected cinematic universes of superheroes.
Indeed, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a film that simply would not be made today by any major studio specializing in theatrical releases— that is, if not for Tarantino’s name on the marquee. Tarantino “The Brand” was far more valuable than any individual work, so he knew he had to capitalize on it while he still could. The news of Tarantino’s free agency sparked a bidding war, and the outcome would depend on whoever could meet a set of demands that, frankly, no one else outside of maybe Steven Spielberg could ask for in this climate: a $95 million production budget, final cut, so-called “extraordinary creative controls”, 25% of the first-dollar gross, and his regaining of the film’s rights after a period of ten to twenty years (8). Sony would eventually emerge as the winner, subsequently setting up the project under its heritage Columbia Pictures banner.
Even then, Sony would need to co-produce with entities in the UK and China— a sign of the increasing globalization of film financing, whereby the profit potential of international markets compels other countries to share in the risk. If producing a Tarantino picture could be called a gamble (which, let’s face it, is a stretch), then Sony’s gamble paid off handsomely. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD stands as another contemporary (and profitable) classic in Columbia’s venerated library— and another sparkling jewel in the crown of a director who continues to prove that there is still more life yet in original, character-driven stories for adults.
Produced by David Heyman and Shannon McIntosh, in addition to Tarantino himself, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD was shot in Los Angeles from June to November of 2018 (6); a rather shocking feat considering studio filmmaking’s mass exodus to venues like Toronto or Atlanta in pursuit of generous tax credits to balance their runaway budgets. Furthermore, production was able to faithfully recreate the LA of 1969 with minimal CGI (7), going so far as to transform an entire section of Hollywood Boulevard — multiple city blocks — into a veritable time capsule of the era that required the cooperation of countless businesses and government entities.
Such a sprawling production scope encompasses the scale of Tarantino’s story, which primarily concerns the relationship between struggling television star Rick Dalton and his longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth, all while the go-go optimism of the 60’s curdles into something altogether more cynical and sinister. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two of the biggest movie stars in the world as well as prior Tarantino collaborators, headline the film as Dalton and Booth, respectively; each taking home a $10 million payday for their trouble (which actually was a pay cut for DiCaprio (9)). Both men prove their value by delivering career-best, endlessly watchable performances. An amalgamation of figures like Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds, DiCaprio’s Dalton is a successful actor by any conceivable metric — a fancy car, a big house in the Hollywood hills, and his own television show — but has grown bitter and paranoid over his inability to break free of his TV cowboy typecasting and become a superstar of the big screen. Further compounding his insecurities are a slight stutter that pops up in moments of extreme anxiety and, apparently, undiagnosed bipolar disorder (10). Booth is Dalton’s best friend and creative partner, a stuntman by trade who has only grown more laidback and carefree with age.
He seems to have no insecurities at all, utterly at peace with his station in life— a middle-aged bachelor sharing a junky trailer behind a Van Nuys drive-in with his beloved pit bull. His cheery disposition, however, hides a darker side— rumors persist that he might be directly responsible for his wife’s premature death, but until it can be proven, he is determined to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. Even if he didn’t do it, events ultimately transpire that show he is quite capable of the deed. However, his display of these hidden “talents” is carried out in the name of self-defense and under the heavy influence of illicit narcotics. Although not quite a redemption arc, Tarantino nevertheless presents this climactic development as a comparative good: the snuffing out of darker forces intent on destroying something as beautiful and fragile as the dreams of a generation.
Nowhere are those dreams more embodied than in the guise of the ill-fated actress Sharon Tate, resurrected through Margot Robbie in an elegantly ethereal performance. The real-life figure of Tate has ballooned into something of a cultural myth, known far better for her grisly end than her life’s work. Robbie’s performance endeavors to take back her narrative somewhat, imbuing the character with a poignant idealism. She’s living the California Dream— married to a world-famous director in Roman Polanski (played here by literal doppelgänger, Rafael Zawierucha), her own career in the movies poised on the verge of lift-off. In the context of Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood, his Tate is an avatar for the magic of the movies, as well as a bittersweet vision of what could have been.
Even though she lives right next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive, she operates in a totally different social strata, enjoying flashy movie premieres and partying with celebrities at the Playboy mansion while he labors through the sweaty production of western TV serials. Tarantino’s at-times meandering plot ultimately builds to the inevitable moment that these two worlds collide, but the manner in which it happens is surprisingly sweet, giving Tate the Hollywood happy ending she never got in real life. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Tate’s inclusion would draw criticism— indeed, a key part of Tarantino’s appeal lies in his career-long flirtations with what one could call questionable taste. Never one to shy away from controversy, Tarantino was quick to reject some critics’ arguments that his rendition of Tate was inherently sexist on the basis that she has only a few lines throughout the film’s nearly three-hour runtime.
Their trivial line counting betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of character, if not a takedown made entirely in bad faith. It also diminishes Robbie’s performance, which doesn’t necessarily need words to convey the complex interiority of the character. Indeed, it’s the deliberate lack of characterization that gives Robbie’s Tate her humanity, allowing us to fill in the missing pieces with our own humanity in a bid to capture her spirit— and what we lost collectively as a culture with her passing.
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These three figureheads anchor a huge ensemble of supporting players, enough to populate a small town. As the story splits off to follow the exploits of Dalton, Booth, and Tate individually, each character essentially gets an entire movie’s worth of supporting characters to interact with. Dalton’s social circle primarily concerns his western co-stars. Tarantino mainstay Michael Madsen makes a brief appearance early in the film as Sheriff Hackett, a character on BOUNTY LAW, whereas his hippie-appropriating villainous turn on LANCER — itself predicting the same appropriation Charles Manson would use to attract followers to his murderous cause — makes memorable (if brief) use of Scott McNairy and Luke Perry, the latter of whom would receive the film’s dedication following his untimely passing from a sudden stroke in 2019.
Timothy Olyphant leverages his smarmy handsomeness as James Stacy, the hero of LANCER and a friendly rival competing for the same roles, his own career ascendancy highlighting the sharp downward slope of Dalton’s. Julia Butters outright steals the show as precocious child star Trudi Fraser, a pint-sized acolyte of the Stanislavski method and a harbinger of the sweeping sea change in acting style set to overtake the industry in the early 70’s that would leave old-school performers like Dalton in the dust. Then there’s Al Pacino, who slips so effortlessly into Tarantino’s cinematic universe it’s a wonder it took him this long to get involved in the first place. He delivers a delightful performance as Marvin Schwarz, a Hollywood producer of the oldest school. Rarely seen without his coke bottle glasses and a fat cigar in his hand, Schwarz has taken a special interest in Dalton’s career; he’s hellbent on recharging Dalton’s fading star with an unconventional plan that involves starring in Italian westerns. Pacino brings the same intensity he’s always brought to his performances, only this time the character allows him to display the soft edges of grandfatherly charisma.
Like Dalton, Booth’s journey involves a wide range of colorful characters— only with much more dangerous capabilities. His roadside flirtations with Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, a cheery hippy girl and frequent hitchhiker, unwittingly leads him to the maggot-infested snake pit that is Charles Manson’s Spahn Ranch commune. The dusty, forgotten movie ranch has been commandeered by Manson’s family members and turned into an isolated community where their supposedly “utopian” ambitions can be put into practice.
Manson himself is something of a non-presence, played by Damon Herriman in only a brief visit to Tate’s house on Cielo Drive during broad daylight— a development only we the audience realize as a harbinger of imminent doom. Herriman, who has effectively been typecast as Manson seeing as he plays the same character in Netflix’s MINDHUNTER series, leans into Tarantino’s rendition of the real-life figure with a searing creepiness that leaks out from behind a crooked grin. Manson’s relative absence nonetheless looms large over the proceedings, given its sinister weight through the actions of acolytes like Qualley’s Pussycat, Dakota Fanning’s Squeaky Fromme, or even Lena Dunham’s Gypsy. Together, Dunham and Fanning embody the two-faced nature of Manson’s cult mentality, Dunham as the soft-spoken “earth mother” who welcomes new faces with open arms, and Fanning as the protective Squeaky who wields a bitter malice in order to maintain her fragile position.
Squeaky in particular is tasked with the important mission of keeping Spahn Ranch’s eponymous owner happy and oblivious to the cult’s complete takeover of his property. Bruce Dern, who previously appeared in Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT, plays the blind, bedridden George Spahn with an impotent irritability that shows how easily he can and has been taken advantage of. Without Spahn’s cranky complicity, there is arguably no soil for Manson’s hateful ideology to take root.
Booth’s career as a stuntman is also illuminated through the famous and not-so-famous faces he comes into contact with on set. One of the film’s more memorable sequences finds Booth getting into a scrap with none other than Bruce Lee— played by a conflicted Mike Moh as a pompous prima donna. Like Robbie’s performance, some critics and audiences would find fault with this depiction of Lee, blasting it as racist caricature. This aspect even led to the cancellation of the film’s premiere in China (11).
While Tarantino’s portrait most definitely doesn’t cast Lee in a reverential light, it does give a degree of volume or complexity to a figure otherwise reduced to a two-dimensional “cut down in his prime” narrative by Hollywood mythmaking (while alluding to the outsized ego recounted by some of his collaborators). This sequence also coincides with memorable performances by Tarantino regulars Zoe Bell and Kurt Russell, both belonging to the same stunt world as Booth— and a reflection of the success Booth himself might have attained had he not hitched his wagon so intensely to Dalton’s. As Janet Miller, Bell leverages her own outsized persona so as to give her vocal disapproval of Booth a comic edge. As her husband and stunt coordinator Randy Miller, Russell shows us the flip side to the psychopathic Stuntman Mike character he played in Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF, regarding Booth somewhat more diplomatically out of professional obligation while nevertheless sharing in his wife’s disdain. Russell’s participation gets even more mileage by serving as an omniscient narrator in select scenes.
Of the rest of ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD’s huge ensemble, Emile Hirsch, Maya Hawke and Damien Lewis stand out. Hirsch, once groomed as a leading man in his own right, seems to settle quite naturally into character work as Jay Sebring, a music industry player and Tate’s ex-fiance & now-best friend (it’s complicated). In real life, Sebring would also meet his untimely end on that fateful August night on Cielo Drive, but Hirsch’s easygoing performance as this alternate-history version of the man works similarly to Tate’s, in that he brings out and preserves the humanity that’s otherwise been reduced by his victimhood to Manson.
Damien Lewis makes a memorable, if brief, appearance as acting legend Steve McQueen, painted by Tarantino as a would-be rival for Tate’s affections who never really had a shot to begin with. Maya Hawke, daughter of acclaimed actor Ethan Hawke, plays Flowerchild, the rare Manson acolyte with a conscience. 2019 proved a breakout year for the emerging actress, who also made waves with a starring turn in Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS series, and her performance here solidifies the notion that her career is built on natural talent, not nepotism.
Though her scene is brief, she brings an unexpected levity to an otherwise dark, pivotal moment where Manson’s flunkies decide to leave their car and commit murder. Her last-minute abandonment of the group— taking their sole means of transport along with her — is emblematic of Tarantino’s pitch-black sense of humor, but it’s also based on a real-life episode that actually happened on the second night of the Manson murders.
The remaining cast is far too sizable to go into further detail, but only in Tarantino’s career is the prospect of what might have been as intriguing as the actual final product. Deleted scenes would have seen reprisals from prior Tarantino players like Tim Roth and James Remar as Sebring’s butler and a western character named Ugly Owl Hoot, respectively.
A brief appearance by James Marsden as a young Burt Reynolds in a deleted Red Apple commercial also provides a glimpse of what might have been. Speaking of Reynolds, the late actor himself would have appeared in the film as George Spahn, but as fate would have it, his final performance would be at the initial table read (12). Early development reports would also suggest a much different thrust to Tarantino’s story, detailing the negotiations of Tarantino regular Samuel L Jackson for a major role and a reconfigured plot where the Tate murders were actually carried out as they were in real life. In this version, Tarantino intended Pitt to play a detective investigating the killings, and the role of Cliff Booth would have been played by Tom Cruise (13). Pitt, however, didn’t particularly respond to this iteration of the story, leading to the story recalibration that ultimately went before cameras.
ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD easily counts among Tarantino’s most stunning work from a visual standpoint, suffused with a high degree of stylistic flourish while never imposing itself on the narrative. Tarantino’s fifth collaboration with cinematographer Robert Richardson yields its biggest return yet: an impeccably-lensed feast of composition and color, all of it bathed in the golden glow of Los Angeles sunshine.
Though the story unfolds in the present tense, Tarantino and Richardson immerse their visuals in a warm bath of nostalgia— as if the camera itself were looking back fondly on its heyday. Indeed, a special sort of energy courses through the film, evidenced most potently in frequent driving sequences that Tarantino lets run for extended periods of time. There are moments when, driving around LA on a warm sunny day, unencumbered by traffic, that you become acutely aware that your heyday is here and now. It’s the feeling of being alive and in your prime, and it’s easy to believe this feeling will stay with you forever— your youth, your virility, your association with other young and beautiful people, your “coolness”. The film’s long driving sequences show that Tarantino understands this notion— that it’s nothing less than the foundation of the Hollywood Dream; a fragile and delicate thing that can quickly curdle into a nightmare if one dreams too much.
Tarantino’s love letter to cinema asserts its passion through a dizzying mix of formats, genres, aspect ratios and techniques— nearly all of which are achieved through technical in-camera means rather than with digital emulations. He and Richardson shoot the primary storyline on Super 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. They roll a combination of Kodak 200T and 500T film through Arriflex 435 and Panavision Millennium XL2 cameras, ably replicating the premium cinematic look of the Hollywood films they pay so much homage to while taking advantage of recent developments in film stock’s low-light sensitivity.
This means a lot more of Tarantino’s vision can be captured with natural light, leading to the voluminous golden glow that envelopes the story— further complemented by the use of vintage Cooke, Angenieux, Panavision Primo and ultra-speed “golden” lenses. The filmmakers also shoot in the lower-gauge 16mm format in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio for television sequences like BOUNTY LAW or FBI, the former shot on Kodak’s Eastman Double X black-and-white stock and the latter on their Ektachrome 100D offering. These sequences adopt the stylistic vernacular of their era, limiting themselves to the techniques and tools available to crews of that time. That they feel so effortlessly authentic is a testament to Tarantino’s self-immersion in the long and varied history of the motion picture.
Though a ton of energy is expended on simulating these styles, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD sees Tarantino working at the zenith of his aesthetic. His gleeful embrace of dynamic camera work enjoys the benefits of his lavish budget, leaning into the decadent excess of its 60’s setting with a delirious mix of lens flares, whip pans, jump cuts, soaring crane moves, creeping zooms, slow-motion moments, and punchy detail inserts. The crane shots in particular distinguish this film from the rest of Tarantino’s filmography, showing off the sheer scale of his world while suggesting a kind of swooping omniscience — or fateful inevitability— as it tracks his characters through the landscape.
At the same time, the personal sophistication that comes with age evidences itself in Tarantino’s restraint; exaggerated though it may be at times, Tarantino’s aesthetic is clearly calibrated towards the demands of his story rather than the self-aggrandizing motivations of a younger artist. For instance, several scenes unfold with only one static setup; we don’t notice the extended duration because Tarantino converts kinetic momentum into conversational energy via his gift for endlessly captivating dialogue.
Production designer Barbara Ling complements the quiet elegance of Richardson’s cinematography by comprehensively replicating the story’s “summer of ‘69” setting, while avoiding the typical signifiers and visual cliches of the era. A lot has been written about the attention she and her team paid to detail, faithfully recreating their locations exactly as they were at the time. Tarantino’s name recognition — and the logistical doors it opens — gives Ling license to transform several city blocks at a time; and not just the aforementioned sequences on Hollywood Boulevard.
The production’s large-scale recreations extend to other iconic LA locales like Westwood Village, or long stretches of Wiltshire Boulevard. That said, some aspects of 60’s Hollywood have been completely lost to the ravages of time, requiring a little more craft in the way of their resurrection. Keeping in line with Tarantino’s “no CGI” mandate, detailed miniatures allow production to bring back lost-lost locales like the Van Nuys drive-in. Naturally, CGI couldn’t be totally avoided— DiCaprio had to be digitally inserted into a scene from THE GREAT ESCAPE for a gag, but even then the effect is done so as to achieve the look of something captured in-camera.
Returning editor Fred Raskin further sells the illusion in creating a temporal and narrative continuity between setups. His work is nothing less than magical, erasing the seams of the film’s making while eliciting a genuine emotional response. Indeed, one of the film’s most sublime, memorable moments can be attributed to Raskin’s unique ability to create meaning between disparate setups. A short, wordless sequence heralding the arrival of August 9th, 1969 finds several Hollywood landmarks firing up their signs and lights as dusk settles over the landscape and Mick Jagger croons over the soundtrack. Raskin strikes a perfectly-calibrated poignance that rests at the convergence between the story’s two competing tones: wistful nostalgia for a bygone era and the dread of inevitable calamity that we know is coming but can do nothing about. It is the last, gleaming moment of the 1960’s just before it all comes crashing down.
After working with Ennio Morricone on the score to THE HATEFUL EIGHT, Tarantino once again foregoes original music in favor of the eclectic jukebox approach that has been a defining characteristic of his career. The story’s period setting allows him to indulge in the tunes of his youth, constantly beaming out across the sprawl via LA’s radio station KHJ— notably not the fictional KBilly that pops up throughout the Tarantino universe in previous films, but the actual station Tarantino listened to himself back in the day. The film’s ample budget allows for high-profile needle drops from the era like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”, Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and The Rolling Stones’ “Out Of Time”, while Tarantino’s own stack of deep cuts enables him to drag out several gems from obscurity.
Of all these, José Feliciano’s laidback acoustic cover of “California Dreaming” proves an unexpected grace note, perfectly complementing Tarantino’s wistful nostalgia with its elegiac tribute to a beautiful dream that may have already passed by. In his hands, KHJ becomes something like an omniscient period narrator, constantly playing in the background across the disparate story threads and uniting his characters in a shared existence.
As Tarantino nears the end of his oft-promised ten-film filmography — indeed, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD very well may be his penultimate film — the stakes couldn’t be higher for a filmmaker with as sustained a track record for excellence. The film often feels like nothing less than the Ultimate Tarantino Film, crammed to the gills with his artistic signatures and stylistic flourishes. It’s no coincidence that the color yellow, a kind of chromatic motif throughout his work, is so dominant throughout ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD.
Countless accent details bear a bold saffron hue, from his signature title cards, to a television director’s turtleneck (sweater) or even Tate’s outfit at the Playboy Mansion party. Other surface trademarks repeatedly stamp Tarantino’s name all over the material, like his supernatural gift for creatively profane dialogue, indulgent shots of women’s bare feet, the iconography of the Western genre, and a general bloodthirstiness that manifests in gnarly explosions of violence. That said, save for the film’s climax and a short scrap between Booth and a Manson acolyte at Spahn Ranch, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is Tarantino’s least violent film by a mile.
His careelong homage to cinema and self-referential fascination with pop culture (and his own place within it) reach their zenith here, with a celebration of Hollywood as a mecca of culture, the pulsing center of the universe. The presence of certain character archetypes and fictional brands like Red Apple cigarettes connect Tarantino’s latest efforts to his previous work, further expanding the cinematic universe he’s spent his entire career building.
Tarantino being… well, Tarantino… he can’t help but pepper the film with winking references to his position as the creator of this universe, itself a sizable pop culture phenomenon. If Dalton’s cream-colored ride looks familiar, that’s because it should: it’s the hero car from RESERVOIR DOGS (3), now owned by Michael Madsen. There’s also a beat that acknowledges Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema, whereby the characters notice a premiere at the sleazy “adult theater” down the road, in effect mapping out its location relative to the infamous El Coyote restaurant where Tate had her unwitting last supper.
The film stands alone within Tarantino’s filmography, however, in its unconscious acknowledgment of a core — if little-discussed— aspect of his legacy: his commitment to the perpetuation of photochemical film. Joining fellow filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Tarantino has used his influence to ensure the continued availability of celluloid in an industry that’s been completely overtaken by digital formats. With the exception of generational cohort Paul Thomas Anderson and the battle between film and video seen in 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, Tarantino stands apart in his treatment of the format as dramatic subject matter itself. One needs only look at the sequence where Tate spends an afternoon at one of her own movies to see the reverence and awe he clearly holds for the communal experience of cinema; of watching real film unspool through the projector.
Just as his characterization of Sharon Tate is meant to show us what we collectively lost as a culture with her death, so too does ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD try to convey what we stand to lose in our spurning of the theatrical experience for the comforts and convenience of streaming at home. The sharing of laughter or tears with a bunch of strangers in the dark is a sacred experience not dissimilar from churchgoing; it fosters empathy, and stitches us ever deeper into the fabric of community. The spectre of moviegoing’s complete obliteration has hung over the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic— the recent announcement of the closure of LA’s beloved Arclight theater chain is a particularly sobering blow— and while it’s still too soon to see if the media’s breathless proclamations of cinema’s total demise will pan out, Tarantino’s film is nonetheless an urgent reminder to preserve this beautiful dream before it’s gone forever.
Tarantino is no stranger to success— indeed, he’s had one of the most remarkable runs in the entire art form. The success of ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD, as assured as it may have been, nevertheless represents a new height in his career. After premiering at Cannes with a seven minute standing ovation (1) and a nomination for the prestigious Palm d’Or, the film would go on to gross $374 million in international box office receipts. Though his prior films were fairly polarizing among critics, Tarantino’s latest effort met with positive reviews across the board.
Ten Oscar nominations would follow, honoring the film’s achievements in sound editing, sound mixing, costume design, cinematography, direction and production, among others. DiCaprio and Pitt were also nominated for their performances, with Pitt ultimately taking home the gold statue for the Support Actor category. Though it may not qualify as a full-stop phenomenon like PULP FICTION or even RESERVOIR DOGS, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD nevertheless poses several opportunities for its continued presence in pop culture. Tarantino will be releasing his own novelization, and is reportedly working on an extended 4-hour cut for Netflix (14). If that wasn’t enough, he’s also developing a BOUNTY LAW television series, for which he plans to direct every episode. Where he gets the time or energy to do all of this, this author has no idea.
ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a bookend to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, in that it neatly concludes a run of revisionist historical pictures that seek a kind of lopsided justice for the industrialized world’s racial inhumanities. Tarantino’s “alternate history” period, if it can be called that, and which may or may not be over depending on the as-of-yet-undetermined subject matter of his next film, employs exaggerated violence to cathartic ends. The victories may not be moral, but they are most definitely personal.
Though ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD similarly ends in a carnival of bloodshed, Tarantino’s underlying motives for said revisionism finally becomes clear. If anything, these films are about choice— things may seem destined or inevitable when viewed through the rearview of history, but nothing is pre-ordained. As ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD unfolds, the wistfulness we feel about Tarantino’s ode to Old Hollywood is tempered by a mounting dread; the knowledge that the fateful night of August 9th is drawing close. That a simple, almost thoughtless, intervention from Dalton redirects the Manson cult’s murderous attentions is nothing less than a seismic historical shift that would reframe the entire remainder of the 20th century.
The cult’s humiliating, cartoonishly-absurd demise at the hands of a party much better prepared to defend themselves than Tate is itself a kind of revenge. Where INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED saw Tarantino create revenge fantasies for the benefit of people other than himself, this alternate take on the Manson murders is his own personal revenge: revenge for killing the dream of the 1960’s, for killing the Hollywood he loved so much. In the process, however, Tarantino uncovers a much more poignant truth— one that better speaks to the unconditional love of cinema that has fueled his career. More so than Charles Manson, or the free love generation, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is about the magic of the movies.
Through cinema, we can create new realities that fix the broken aspects of our own; the dead can be resurrected, horrible fates can be averted, dreams can live on. Perhaps even he didn’t realize it until now, but Tarantino knows this better than anyone. It is why his figure continues to loom so large over the industry, and why he has become such a singularly successful force; his passion for the art form is infectious, sure, but it’s also restorative. As long as Tarantino’s work endures, the dream of a new golden age of cinema will always lie on the horizon— its contours ringed by the bright, promising glare of the California sun.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors.