There’s a wonderful interview by Dick Cavett with Orson Welles in which Cavett asks Welles to reveal his secrets to filmmaking. Welles delivers an answer spiked with mystery and simple honesty. Welles claimed that everything you need to know about filmmaking can be learned in about an hour. In other words, the basics are accessible. It’s a question of what you do after that! With Welles, you had a masterful storyteller and an artist of great vision. Filmmaking becomes just a means to an end. And so it has for Quentin Tarantino many times over. He’s had a bumpy ride with accusations of lifting from other movies including lifting the entire story for Reservoir Dogs from a Hong Kong action movie from the ’80s. In his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it seems safe to say that Tarantino displays the strengths of a seasoned director.
Tarantino the king of retro, has been around long enough to see his own career turn retro. A lot of Millennials were either too young or not even born when Pulp Fiction first came out in 1994, chock full of vintage pop culture references. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino can bring to bear his retro obsession with mature grace. Tarantino is now, like Welles, a director with well-honed themes and obsessions, everything fitting him like a perfectly well-worn leather jacket. And that’s a huge part of what is going on in this movie: a love letter to a bygone era. Just consider the first scene set in Hollywood’s legendary Musso & Frank Grill. If there is one place that represents Old Hollywood, when actors could still be glamorous stars, that is the place. But change is in the air. It is 1969 and a number of factors have cleared the landscape, including television. The fatal break with the glorious past would arrive on the night of August 8, 1969 with the mass murders by the Manson Family. It is that turning point to which all concerned are converging upon. The two main innocent bystanders are a couple of Hollywood fixtures: aging leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/handyman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The obsession with retro is fully satisfied here.
Another hallmark of any Tarantino movie is his love for a salty, dark and raw sensuality. It is in every one of his films. In Tarantino’s case, he seems to best evoke that vibe whenever he manages to share with the viewer his fascination with feet. He is not the first director to make that relatively offbeat choice. You can go back to such film legends as Luis Bunuel for that. To his credit, Tarantino is simply being true to his own quirky passion as well as mining for something original and provocative. It’s all interconnected: his foot fancy and his love for B-movies and throwaway culture. He seems to be challenging the viewer to find art in unexpected places. And, with age one hopes comes some wisdom. Compared to his overindulgent examination of Uma Thurman’s feet in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Tarantino appears to have restrained himself enough to use his obsession like a painter to a canvas. A scene that manages to display the soles of Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) feet while she’s in a movie theater must have been challenging and seems perhaps only a bit contrived. Another scene that has one of the Manson Family members (Margaret Qualley) with her bare feet resting on the dashboard and firmly pressed on the windshield comes across as more natural and provides that spot on Tarantino touch. The unique appeal of feet and B-movies may not seem to add up to much and yet perhaps a mystery remains, a nearly indescribable appeal. That’s the stuff that dreams, and movies, are made of.
And no Tarantino movie would be complete without his ultimate obsession: righteous fury! Remember, this is a love letter to everything that Tarantino holds dear to a once wondrous Tinseltown. If there is a dark force that needs to be dealt with in order for truth and beauty to survive, then you know Tarantino is going to unleash the remedy. In this case, the hippie culture with all its navel-gazing sense of entitlement and self-righteous angst is anathema to a more refined and disciplined era. To see a new generation that is not only not up to the old standards but doesn’t care is pretty heartbreaking for Tarantino. But for that movement to be weaponized is the last straw and that brings us to the fight that Tarantino is more than willing to engage in.