It’s an absolute testament to Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that even after seeing it a second time, I still have more things to say about it. The first viewing provided plenty to discuss but my subsequent viewing was a sobering and clarifying experience. Crucially, Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) came alive for me in a way that did not occur to me during the initial screening. Dalton’s fear of being a has-been actor, who feels he’s sunk low enough to start making Italian Westerns is tinged with a fear of counterculture.
Tarantino cements this fear with his presentation of the hippies. In their introduction, they’re surrounded by mist, provide a haunting chant and appear in a long shot. They seem like metaphysical creatures that would not have been out of place in a John Carpenter film.
In this regard, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is perhaps Tarantino’s most sombre and mature effort. It feels like the famed indie auteur is trying to preserve an era in time. Coming out of the second screening, my overriding question was what about the era was he trying to preserve? Strictly viewed through the prism of Rick Dalton, I first thought Tarantino was trying to hold on to this sort of journeyman actor, who effortlessly breezed from projects, without much investment or skill.
However, in part, I think Tarantino wants to retain the simpler time in which actors used to be seen as larger than life icons of the screen. Much of the film is dedicated to showing Rick as a cinematic icon, whether it’s the beginning scenes that show the actor’s earlier work or a montage that shows him on various Italian movie posters. Rick fears the counterculture embodied by the hippies because it reminds him that he can’t be that larger than life Western hero anymore.
There are a few scenes where the hippie characters viciously undress the silver screen portrait of Dalton. One key scene has a hitchhiking hippie called “Pussycat” say the following to Rick’s stunt double- Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). “Actors are phoney. They just say lines that other people write and pretend to murder people on their stupid tv shows. Meanwhile, real people are being murdered every day in Vietnam.” That line has a hint of the disenchantment towards actors’ and their relationship with violence. This is a thread that is firmly tugged at in the climax of the film and is discussed in my original review.
Music has always been a staple of Tarantino’s films, but in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s omnipresent. As much as the film is the portrait of the days in the life of a rising starlet and ageing actor, the film equally presents a daily KHJ broadcast in 1969. Along with persistent music, many small moments of characters watching television and preparing to watch movies, Tarantino is trying to preserve another element from the era. He’s trying to illustrate a time when we all gathered around the television to watch the same show and tuned into an identical radio station.
This stands in contrast to today’s culture of splintering consumption where the niche is favoured over the populist appointment television; unless it’s a reality television show or superhero movie. With this aspect in mind, I don’t think Tarantino contrasts these aspects with the countercultural, other than a brief mention by one hippie that television is stupid, and some lip service of two people within the Manson family always watching the same show together.
There is no doubt that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is an astounding cinematic work; a singular mosaic, presenting genuine existential angst through the prism of a gleaming era, which was starting to lose its sheen. But like the magic of movies, for a brief moment, Tarantino makes us believe that the magic of 1969 never truly died.