MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
There’s just something about the year 1969, fifty years’ ago. It was the year of America’s moon landing, the Stonewall riots, Woodstock, Chappaquiddick, and a series of murders by members of Charlie Manson’s cult members.
While Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood was in production, it was often described as “Quentin Tarantino’s Charlie Manson Movie”. While Manson (Damon Herriman) makes a brief appearance and the murders are part of the serpentine storyline, this film is not really about Manson’s cult.
This movie is about movies. While all of Tarantino’s films are about movies (and shaped by the movies that the writer-director remembers with fondness), but this film moves popular culture front-and-center.
So, what’s special about 1969? People are still making appointments to watch the same prime time shows on television as they are aired (The VCR and tape rental will come along in the mid-70s). Most urban areas have radio stations that everyone listens to (including regional song hits). Independent movies are beginning to draw audiences away from major studio releases. Downtown movie theaters with one screen are continuing to decline in attendance as people move out of the city.
And Hollywood is enjoying its last days of glory.
In the center of the film are Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a star of TV westerns in the fifties, and Cliff Booth (Pitt), Dalton’s stunt double. Dalton is facing a mid-life crisis, wondering if there is life after television (and roles for him to play). Booth lives a quiet solitary life in a trailer with his pet dog, with a past tragedy haunting him and limiting his job possibilities. Dalton and Booth’s friendship is fierce and they continue to support each other (although the actor enjoys a lifestyle many times richer than his stunt double).
We follow these two friends as they try to adapt to a changing Hollywood landscape that refuses to slow down. Although they drink a bit too much at times, both men are fundamentally decent persons, in contrast to the circle of women who surround Charles Manson, hovering like dark spirits on the LA streets, dumpster diving or haunting the streets of the Spahn Movie Ranch.
Dalton lives on Cielo Drive, down the street from Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), but has no social interactions with them. As the film moves closer to the month of August, a time of reckoning is imminent. But as Tarantino demonstrated in his three previous films (Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight) movies are opportunities to rewrite history.
But what movies can’t do is change the current culture in which entertainment is consumed in increasingly private and selective ways, streamed through devices, computers and smart phones and (with the exception of some Marvel Cinematic Universe films and Disney blockbusters) limited shared experiences. Even church worship services have their own online communities (and sanctuary worship often includes digital media).
There is so much to like (including much humor and a sympathetic portrayal of Sharon Tate as a kind, talented and upbeat person), it is probably Tarantino’s most audience-friendly picture (although still pitchfork-loaded). Pitt, DiCaprio, and Robbie are bound to be nominated for many awards, along with Tarantino and (you heard it here first) 10-year-old Julia Butters, who makes an impression as child star Trudi.
I highly recommend Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, one of the best films of 2019.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: Fact and fiction get jumbled together in this entertaining and evocative recreation of a pivotal year in American history.
Four pitchforks: Constant swearing; moments of extreme violence, including scenes of death; some strong sex talk; scenes of cult activity.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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