Quentin Tarantino is at the height of his powers, and 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' demonstrates his mastery of the medium.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is on pace to become Quentin Tarantino's best opening weekend of all time. As the 9th film in his proposed total of 10, we seem nearing the end of the line. Yet he also seems to be getting better at this.
As always with a Tarantino film, Hollywood has caused a little uproar, stirred a little controversy, ruffled more than a few feathers. It plays by its own rules on many levels. Scratch that.
It plays by Tarantino's rules.
In a time of homogenous mainstream movie-making, QT knocks down the movie-theater doors and blows everything away.
The cool part for us at No Film School is that QT's movies leave us with something to study and to learn from.
How does he do what he does? Most importantly how does he get away with breaking so much convention?
And most important of all?
What conventions does he stick with and reinforce?
In an age where every executive and every aspiring screenwriter is told they should be able to quote Blake Synder while obeying the laws and physics of beat sheets, outlining, and page counts, Tarantino thumbs his nose at it all while providing us with a huge breath of fresh air.
Narration? Sure. Sometimes.
Titles introducing characters? Maybe. Why not.
Flashbacks within flashbacks? Of course.
Changing facts and altering history? F*ck yeah.
Why does it all still work? Well...
Quentin Tarantino is a Master of Story Tension
If you've been watching Quentin Tarantino's movies you've become aware that more and more often he builds extended scenes, really sequences, in one location around one explosive piece of tension and suspense.
Inglorious Basterds featured scene after scene strung out over one massive piece of tension, making the whole movie feel dynamic and taut as a result.
The opening scene sees Col. Hans Landa arrive at the farmhouse looking for Jewish refugees. Tension builds because we suspect that the farmer is hiding them. In an excellent camera move that booms down below the floorboards, the hiding Jewish family is revealed.
Of course, Tarantino uses the tool over and over throughout the movie. The scene at the bar where the American's are in Nazi disguise. The premiere where Aldo Raine is pretending to be an Italian filmmaker. The list goes on.
This device is referred to as dramatic irony and Tarantino uses it to keep audiences GLUED to a scene and a conversation that goes on... and on... because we know something some of the characters don't. We are waiting to see how they react, who finds out what... etc.
This device is best used and explained in film history by one of the other true masters of the craft, Alfred Hitchcock, and we have to go back to his conversations with Francois Truffaut (another cinematic genius, and one of Tarantino's favorite filmmakers) to find the most elegant explanation of this tool and its power. They called it:
The bomb under the table
Here is the quote from Hitchcock that describes this theory:
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
Looking back at scenes like the opening of Inglorious Basterds you can see how Tarantino uses the "bomb under the table" in scene after scene in different ways. He took it to a whole new level in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood though, because...
The entire movie is a bomb under the table sequence
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a movie about Los Angeles in 1969 and the actor who lives next door to Roman Polanksi and Sharon Tate, the latter of whom was murdered brutally while pregnant in her home.
None of this is a spoiler. If you don't know the story of the Manson Family, the murders that year, and the murder of Sharon Tate and others in her home in 1969, the movie will be confusing for you and you should know about those things going in.
Tarantino and movie assume you do.
The actual historical events serve as the bomb under the table.
Every scene and every sequence plays out with the knowledge of the horrifically violent fate that awaits some of these characters. The added layer is that Tarantino has created the neighbor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend/stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and the audience is wondering how these fictitious figures play into the facts.
Some of the uproar and controversy over the movie may derive from the fact that a lot of audiences don't know much, or anything, about the Manson family.
Knowing even some of the details behind the fate of these characters is enough to make the entire drama play out with a great deal of suspension. There is a bomb under the table for the entire 165-minute runtime.
Tarantino can now do whatever he wants to along the way to this conclusion, he can dally on the set of the TV show Rick Dalton is guest-starring in and explore the character's inner struggle, because he's cross-cutting it with the hauntingly beautiful sequences of a young, innocent, and nearly angelic Sharon Tate experiencing the beginnings of her promising career. Tate is happy, she's full of life, she's eventually very pregnant, and she's dropping into showings of the Dean Martin movie she has a part in just to experience the joy and magic of seeing herself on-screen with a live audience.
It WORKS dramatically because we are filled with the pain of knowing her fate. It won't be long now.
Alongside her Dalton and Booth continue to confront the reality that their time has passed. They are both watching their careers and livelihood drift away in all-too-familiar Hollywood fashion. This is a town where more people end up without work and unhappy than end up fulfilled.
In addition to all this, the movie spends a ton of screentime following cars as they cruise through a sun-soaked 60's Los Angeles. You can feel the smog, the smoke, and the vibes. The fact that Tarantino shot the film on 35mm, as well as 8mm for certain clips from various projects Rick Dalton has starred in, contributes to the sense of the era.
Talk about mise-en-scene.
But again, Tarantino can DO this stuff, like let his camera hang around in the back of Dalton's car while Booth drives around listening to the radio because he's got that bomb under the table. He can take his time guiding us on a dreamlike trip through 60's television and Spaghetti Westerns because he's got us waiting on that very real-life nightmare.
It's fun to watch artists experiment with the medium in any art, but it's really something unique here when the medium is celluloid and movie advertising.
The end result is that by the time we get to that fateful day of the Tate murders, we've gotten a full taste of trying to make a career in LA.
There is real honesty in this portrayal, the time spent driving around town, the odd roles, the near-misses. The potential career-changing moments that never were. It's humorous here, but it's very true to life working around the industry in LA during any period.
For most people who come to Hollywood with dreams, even the success of a hit series runs out eventually. There are very few Brad Pitts and Leonardo DiCaprios, which makes it both ironic and impressive that they each captured the experience here. You wonder if even people with careers like theirs understand that harsh feeling of being washed up.
It's this painful reality Rick Dalton accepts when he tells Booth he can't keep him on anymore, and that he's going to have to sell his precious home (next to Polanksi and Tate) to move to an apartment in Toluca Lake.
And it brings us to that ending...
Violence in ways we least expect it
This final section will get into spoilers so if you haven't seen the movie, now would be a good time to check out and come back here once you've finished it.
And I think you'll want to come back here simply because digesting what the ending is, why it's an issue for so many, and how it works, seems valuable. And we'd love to hear your takes as well in the comments.
Quentin Tarantino managed to mostly avoid violence and bloodshed for the entirety of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is interesting for a filmmaker who is perhaps more blood-drenched than any other in history. Which, again, seems to be part of the effectiveness of the audience participating through knowledge.
We know that this story ends in violence, and we know that Tarantino is one of the most prolific violence-on-screen directors. But for so long we're sitting there waiting... wondering.
Then when it happens it happens in a way we least expect it. Francis Ford Coppola once said he tried to imbue each moment of violence in The Godfather with something off-kilter and messy- almost making it more shocking. It was something he'd observed in Kurosawa, so he said, and he wanted to do the same.
Tarantino's suddenly violent ending involves plenty of that type of unexpected messiness.
The members of the Manson family that killed Tate and her house guests finally do show up and... go to the wrong house.
Then before we know it the "bomb under the table" is going off... but it's in the wrong place.
History has been changed. Tarantino, of course, did this with Basterds, but this time the implications within the story he's telling are far larger from a character standpoint.
For all his rule-breaking, Tarantino loves a few other screenwriting stand-by's. We might as well rename Chekhov's gun Chekhov's flame thrower.
He also satisfies some other plant-and-payoff. An LSD dipped cigarette. Some very large cans of dog food. A very large dog. It all comes back in the explosion of the bomb under the table, that doesn't end up blowing up the part of the table we expected it to.
We're still reeling when the dust settles. The cartoon violence is over, and the main characters are alive and well. And then what happens is both magical and eerie.
Rick Dalton interacts with his neighbors, walks up to the Tate-Polanski driveway with the threat now gone. Firmly in a fantasy ending where the horrifying murders are avoided entirely. Dalton who once mused that being Polanksi's neighbor could save his career somehow is now paying off that moment. In a very sweet and completely fabricated scene on every level, the young pregnant starlet on the rise in Tate says 'hi' to Daton and praises his low brow borderline has-been TV acting.
The movie rewrites one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history with a hopeful conclusion. Tarantino plants the bomb under the table, only to diffuse it and give us the only 'Hollywood ending' ever that was impossible to predict.