Once upon a Time, Part 2: The Colourful Disappointment of the Ninth Tarantino

Originally published

by Johann Schopplich

🇩🇪 You can read this article in German as well.


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood critique
A 1960 Playboy self-promotion advertisement. Published in Playboy magazine, August 1960 - Vol 7 No. 8.
Licenced under CC BY-NC 2.0 by Classic Film. Source.

Following my thoughts in part one of the post duo, I now dedicate myself to Quentin Tarantino’s new ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which was released in German cinemas on August 15, 2019. It is my first time to write a critique. Therefore, I hope that I can express myself in a way to which you can relate.

The Dream Factory and the Heart of LA

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is first and foremost a homage to the classic Hollywood of 1969 and portrays the process including some hurdles of filmmaking.

The film uses smooth camera movements and features magnificent sets in realistically staged city scenes. Each car and each truck printed with contemporary advertising originates from that era what the camera manages to capture in wide-angle. This scenic accuracy especially over the highway drives caught me and fascinated me. I didn’t get enough of it.

Celebrating this era is something the film can do extraordinarily well. Even the characters in the film enjoy their dramatic talent. The viewer is presented with a colourful Hollywood on the platter, which entices to marvel and adores the art of filmmaking.

In the course of the film another cinematic world is portrayed, which I don’t want to spoil and therefore don’t want to comment on.

The Actors in the Film as Actors (Respectively Stuntman) in the Film

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio slips into the role of Rick Dalton, a decapitated actor who only appears in bad TV series and tries to free himself from the association with Western that prevents him from taking on new roles. Hollywood is now New Hollywood and Rick Dalton can’t get a foothold there, even though he lives next door to Roman Polański and his wife Sharon Tate.

American Diner 1960s
American Diner in the 1960s.
Licenced under CC BY 2.0 by Moto Miwa. Source.

Rick Dalton’s stunt-double Cliff scores worse, he barely comes into the position to shoot stunts anymore and is just a chauffeur and man for everything.

Those who are familiar with the acting art of DiCaprio will not be disappointed. He shines most in those scenes in which he switches between his role as Rick Dalton and the character he plays in the film as Rick Dalton. Nor is there anything to say about the charisma and role of Brad Pitt. Moviegoers get the paradigmatic coolness of a Pitt performance at their best. Fortunately not less, but not more either.

Over the length of the film, Tarantino lets the two characters run into the void. Another scene, another wink by Leonardo DiCaprio, another cool/bad look by Brad Pitt. It doesn’t take long until the repertoire of facial expressions and gestures has nothing new in store.

Margot Robbie gets less screentime than the trailers would suggest. There isn’t much to fathom about her character, which is probably because Sharon Tate, portrayed by Robbie, is sufficiently well known in the American culture. The same applies to the circumstances of her death, to which the film refers in an honourable way.

Tarantino takes Charles Manson’s spotlights and puts Sharon Tate’s life in the limelight. After initial scepticism about the film, Tarantino’s descendants supported his film project, for example, Margot Robbie with a perfume from Tate.

The intention, as well as the title of the film, reveals itself at the end which leaves me in deference to Tarantino’s endeavour.

Tarantino’s Stylistic Means

Anyone who sees a film by Quentin Tarantino knows that brutal violence awaits them. Tarantino has successfully established this association with his name. And while he is loved for his dialogues, the controversial stylistic means of violence is often the pivot of his critics.

An Excursion into the Grandiosity of Django Unchained

Speaking of dialogues. A few months ago I caught myself watching several scenes from Tarantino’s filmography on YouTube: Like the grandiose dialogue between Dr King Schultz and Django and the Marshall before and after the bounty hunter shot Sheriff Bill Sharp.

Djano Unchained (2012) is simply a masterpiece that embeds all the typical Tarantino and Western characteristics we love and at the same time shows us an incredibly clever, nuanced and — dare we say it — amusing critique of slavery; while most Western films completely ignore the aspect of slavery.

YouTube comments often read that Black Panther (2018) is the first true black superhero. I contradict the comments, because he had already existed six years before: Tarantino’s Django.

I want to give some space to my love for Django Unchained and enumerate the most important strengths of the film:

  • Schultz breaks through the racist binary culture (whites as the epitome of culture and civilization, while blacks are seen as uncivilized and incapable of the proper use of language and appreciation of culture) by making the complacent Southerners seem wildly uncivilized compared to him. He is essentially an emblem of the mythical European civilization on which American men of means have built their plantations.
  • When Django shoots the first Brittle brother directly into the middle of a Bible page attached to his shirt, it is as if Django’s shot at the bloody hypocrisy alludes to the use of Christianity to justify the brutality of slavery.
  • Django’s aesthetic choices in some way describe what the theorist José Esteban Muñoz called Desidentification. For Muñoz, desidentification is a strategy of acting against a dominant ideology that does not simply try to escape or assimilate into it. Django does not wear the clothes of a southern aristocrat to become one, but to abuse the idea of the southern gentleman. In other words, he takes the cultural logic of participation, slavery, and decomposes its symbols from within.
  • The destruction of Candyland can be seen as a metaphorical demand for the destruction of the institution of slavery in general.
  • Stephen is definitely a villain who knows exactly what he is doing and uses his superimposed laughter to gain trust and influence. Django thus gives him the same fate as the white slave traders. Nevertheless, I would like to take a step back: He probably never had another way to gain some kind of freedom under conditions of slavery. He was given the chance to be freed by a fake German dentist and to be taught how to make his way to freedom. Stephen tries to manifest his own power by playing the (bad) cards given to him. From hard work in the fields, he served himself in the relative comfort of Candie’s home and has even come so far that he can withdraw and contradict his master.

The Beginning Downward Spiral

Tarantino’s dialogues are living art, which magically create a realism in the film, which outside Tarantino’s preferred medium would not be the basis for conversations taken from life.

For me, this grandiosity of Tarantino was broken with The Hateful Eight. Although the dialogues can be attributed incomparably to Tarantino, they lack weight and sophistication. Violence is brutal, soulless and used solely for the sake of violence.

Less Red Jam Than Expected, More Soullessly Used Than Hoped For

When I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I waited about halfway through the film for a violent discharge. When it finally reached its end with the Tarantino scenes, I was disinclined. There was one thing missing: the corresponding conflict. The backbone of his stylistic means.

The depictions of violence only serve to continue the parallel strand of the plot. This single basis of Tarantino’s intention is not reason enough for me to grant the violence room for development.

If anyone knows how to give brutality facets, it’s Quentin Tarantino. For example, how he mocks the audience in Inglourious Basterds: We amuse ourselves at the expense of the grotesque reactions of the Nazis to the film shown during the German evening in Paris about the soldier, who becomes famous when he, cut off from his troop, shoots enemy soldiers from a bell tower in the course of several days. But a short time later, when brute violence breaks down in the hall, it is we who are visibly entertained, staring at the screen and enjoying the scenery of justice.

In the Style of the Early Tarantino Films, Without the Joy of Experimentation

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Ford
A Ford 7-litre for 1966. During the 1960s 7 litres was the maximum displacement allowed by NASCAR.
Licenced under CC BY 2.0 by John LLoyd. Source.

Since Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino has drawn us into a game of references in each of his films and used them repeatedly to break out of the game and create something radically new. This is what Tarantino is known and cherished for.

He emphasized often the fact that he would only shoot ten feature-length films. For a long time, I was fascinated by his striving and the sheer endless creativity. Since his eighth film, I have seen this strand broken and his ninth frustrates me as much as he leaves me unsatisfied.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood loses itself in its own nostalgia. It narrates tensionless and complacently. In terms of film and acting, the film is, of course, brilliant and of a higher quality than the blockbusters of recent years have offered. But his nostalgia has something helpless about it. It seems as if Tarantino himself is clinging to an era whose demise he can't accept.

Like the movie’s protagonists Rick and Cliff are tired and empty, Tarantino doesn’t seem to be able or willing any more. Hardly anything happens for two hours. The once punchline-rich dialogues turn into a monotonous bleating. The machinery of references screeches and comes to a standstill at the end of the film.

Nevertheless, I hope for Quentin Tarantino’s tenth film.


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