Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I’m not sure what it really means to be in the film industry. A large part of the industry, if I understand rightly, is temporary, job-to-job employment, and cgi swallows large numbers of desk-bound employees no different than typical for circecorporate employees. The industry also has a layer of amateurs who are doing their work for no remuneration while trying to get noticed. I’ve always thought that it was one of the most chaotic industries around.

It has the “gods” at the top, and a lot of wannabes below them; and there’s a strange group that dangles dangerously below the gods — these are neither gods nor simple wannabes; they are often called has-beens, but never-weres fits better for most of them. This movie was made just for this delightfully ambiguous and interestingly anecdotal group for whom one suspects Tarantino (who knows all too well what he has in common with them) must have a warm spot. I have known a few of these folks, if only briefly, and it’s hard not to love them. They are the true romantic underside of the Hollywood dream.

The movie industry is far more competitive than most industries which is why we get films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which I just saw last night. A typical romp from Tarantino. He uses it to both tear apart Hollywood mythology and restate it in as conservative a way as possible. A good film that is full of bad thoughts and brilliant film making and never seems to actually mean what it appears to mean.

It’s a film for those who think bating the politically correct crowd is knee-slapping good fun. And in this film… well, Tarantino is crafty enough to have his own way. Always has been.

I think the only way to really understand a Tarantino film is to admit it is not a cohesive whole even when it most feels like it is. If you insist it falls into anyone of these categories: ambiguous, smug, immature, brilliant, Oscar-bait, Oscar-bane, genius, ignorant, entertaining… then Tarantino will be elated and know he has been successful. But, in fact, it’s all of these things and more.

Tarantino is important precisely because he captures in an interesting way the essential messiness of a large, sprawling, urban society that never really understands itself, particularly so when it makes short, vigorous stabs at trying to understand itself. If you can reduce such an understanding to a meme-like, short jingoistic phrase or image, then, congratulations, because Tarantino Just had a good laugh at your expense. If you could reduce his films to one thing I suppose it could be that Tarantino always expects to have the last laugh, and usually does, but far better to simply understand the fundamental irreducibility of his films. They never summarize well, they are designed to look good on movie posters and in swift-cut trailers, but these require a healthy acquaintance with irony if they are to make any sense as true precursors of their respective films. His films are messy, not chaotic, mind you, but messy. Messy is that sweet spot between order and chaos

The real catcher is that, of course, Tarantino does not have any idea how to tie them all together. If he did, he would, no doubt, try to do so, and would end up making a lot of dreary and very bad movies. Thank god he has no love for the big picture. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how to tie them together, either. But the pragmatist in me says that’s okay. Complexity produces messiness, and only by at least trying to piece things together can we avoid the dangers of chaos, but if we ever succeed in figuring it all out, in achieving cohesiveness and absolute order, — well, that would be even worse, because in doing so we would have somehow veered too far from the truth, which is never cohesive, and never quite perfect in its orderliness.

The shift at the end of the film, the ugly, cruel, vulgar ending, is a shift away from tragedy toward the comedy that is Tarantino’s true metier. Tragedy gives us nihilistic chaos. Comedy ends with “…and they lived happily ever after.”