Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood (2019)

Once upon a time in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino was a badboy troublemaker on the movie scene, heralding in a new era of post-modern indie filmmaking that could commercially compete with the major studios in a way that shook up the status quo. Then, over time, Tarantino became the status quo. The dream of the 90s indie scene faded away, but he remained largely unscathed as a Blank Check auteur who could make just about anything he wanted – no matter how self-indulgent, esoteric, or #problematic – merely because he was established at the right time and grandfathered in. That protected status cannot last forever. With Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, the rebel-turned-Establishment director directly grapples with his inevitable obsolescence as an artist who’s no longer “needed” by the industry and whose time is approaching the rearview mirror. If Tarantino is still a movie industry troublemaker, it’s because his Gen-X sensibilities are now an outdated taboo among the youths, no longer a revolutionary paradigm shift. To pretend that he’s still cinema’s troublemaking badboy at this stage of his career would be embarrassing. Instead, he leans into his newfound status as cinema’s grumpy old man, and it’s oddly invigorating.

To address the approaching obsolescence of his Gen-X shock humor & political apathy, Tarantino dials the clock back to another inter-generational dust-up between institutional dinosaurs & idols-smashing youths: the fall of Old Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt star, respectively, as a has-been Old Hollywood television actor and his personal assistant/stunt double – a pair of aging knucklehead brutes who sense their days of usefulness in Los Angeles are nearly at an end. In real life, the death of the Flower Power hippie movement and the birth of the New Hollywood movie industry upheaval are often marked by the brutal murder of Sharon Tate & friends at the hands of the Charles Manson cult – the gruesome epilogue to the Summer of Love. In this film, Tarantino daydreams an alternate history where Manson’s brainwashed devotees were disastrously unsuccessful in their mission the night of Tate’s murder, and the New Hollywood takeover never took off as a result. Margot Robbie puts in a supportive, periphery performance as Sharon Tate, who thrives blissfully unaware of the dark forces surrounding her. Tate lives a carefree life as a rising star just next door to DiCaprio’s fictional Old Hollywood hangover, whose stubborn refusal to fade away gracefully and amorous exploitation of his personal assistant eat up most of the (sprawling, near three-hour) runtime. This is largely a plotless hangout picture between a childlike employer and his dangerously quick-tempered employee, two men who cover up the uncomfortable power imbalance of their relationship by disguising it as a friendship. The Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate is treated as an unfortunate distraction from enjoying the final days of these men’s relationship & industry as they near extinction; it’s an incident Tarantino would prefer to delay for all eternity so that Old Hollywood itself would never die.

I appreciate this movie most as a passionate argument for a sentiment I could not agree with less. I have no love for the traditional machismo & endless parade of cheap-o Westerns that clogged up Los Angeles in these twilight hours of the Studio Era. Still, it was entertaining to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests wax nostalgic about the slimy, uncool bullshit only he cares about. Even when Tarantino arrived on the scene as a prankish youngster in the 90s, his work was already mired in nostalgia for the dead genres & traditionalist sensibilities of the Studio System that died with the 1960s; he just updated them with cussing & gore. These early Gen-X remixes of old-fashioned crime pictures were at least stylized to be cool, though. Here, he extends that nostalgia for The Way Things Were to Old Hollywood relics that are hopelessly uncool, square even: radio ads, paint-by-numbers Westerns, network television, chain-smoking, toxically corny Dean Martin comedies, etc. The encroaching forces that threaten to break up this (largely alcoholic & abusive) boys’ club traditionalism are much easier to defend as hip & worthwhile (the looming presences of Roman Polanski & Charles Manson excluded): casual drug use, Anti-War counterculture youths, hardcore pornography’s intrusion on the mainstream, New Hollywood brats like Dennis Hopper (whose name is tossed off as an insult) & William Friedkin (whose early-career title The Night They Raided Minsky’s appears on one of many onscreen marquees), and so on. Positing that the stale machismo of Old Hollywood’s late-60s decline is preferable to the youthful auteurism that soon supplanted it is borderline delusional (and maybe even irresponsible), but it’s at least a distinct & interesting perspective, and it’s perversely fun to watch an increasingly bitter Tarantino defend it.

There isn’t much that’s new to the Tarantino formula here. The stylized dialogue, apathetic slacker humor, gruesomely over-the-top violence, post-modern restaging of ancient film genres, and pop culture name-dropping typical to his work all persist here in a stubborn, unapologetic continuation of what he’s always done. If anything, the director goes out of his way to accentuate his most commonly cited tropes, even rubbing our faces in his notorious foot fetish with a newly defiant fervor. Tarantino has not changed, and neither will your opinion on his merits as a filmmaker or a cultural commentator. What has changed is that he’s now fully transitioned from bratty upstart to outdated Establishment. Aware of his newfound status as an old fogie, he goes full ”Get off my lawn!” here by positing that it’s the children who are wrong, that Hollywood traditionalism deserves to live on infinitely unchallenged & unimpeded. He may not be able to prevent his own approaching obsolescence (nor the end of days for when the Star Power of household names like Pitt & DiCaprio actually translated to box office receipts), but he can at least express that frustration in his fiction by undoing a previous death of Traditionalism in Hollywood’s past. He doesn’t even pretty up the surface details of the era he’s defending to strengthen the argument. The actor & stuntman duo in the film are childlike, destructive bullies who treat life like a hedonistic playground. The films & TV shows they’re making are dreadfully boring. The brainwashed Mansonite children they stomp out to rewrite history are deserving of pity the film is stubbornly unwilling to afford them. It’s an embarrassingly uncool, conservative worldview to defend, but Tarantino is maybe the most amusing messenger to deliver it possible, considering his trajectory as a cinematic badboy turned (as the film’s hippie youngsters would label him) Fascist Pig.

-Brandon Ledet

Schizopolis (1996) Goes Hollywood: Full Frontal (2002)

When Steven Soderbergh filmed the largely improvised, aggressively irreverent Schizopolis in the mid-90s, he seemed to be deliberately disrupting the flow of his career. After a few consecutive big budget duds failed in wide release, the director returned to the themes & means of his popular debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, with the intent of burning them to the ground & shaking himself out of a creative rut. Soderbergh’s one-for-me-one-for-them creative pattern never felt as drastic as when he filmed Schizopolis, which was seemingly made with an audience of one in mind: Steven Soderbergh. The trick worked. The next stretch of the director’s career brought on a string of mainstream successes that made him a formidable creative force within the Hollywood system, instead of a one hit wonder in the 90s indie cinema boom he helped spark. Even success has a kind of complacency to it that begs disruption, however, and early in the 00s Soderbergh returned to the cerebral irreverence of Schizopolis to shake himself out of the comfort of Hollywood System filmmaking.

Following on the heels of major financial successes Traffic & Erin Brockovich, the Hollywood-insider comedy Full Frontal returned to the low-fi absurdism & disjointed structure Soderbergh gleefully turned into a Looney Tunes farce in Schizopolis. Full Frontal is a little less aggressive in its sense of silliness than that 90s work, but is just as prone to jarring non sequiturs, unexplained shifts in form & reality, and playful experimentation with improv. Shot in less than a month on intentionally low quality digital video, the film was called out by contemporary critics for being confusing & visually amateurish, as if those effects weren’t deliberate. For at least the second time in his career, Soderbergh was consciously working in low-fi, anarchic modes of expression to break away from a creative comfort zone that threatened to dull his output. The only difference, really, was that Schizopolis featured mostly non-professional actors (including Soderbergh himself & his real-life ex-wife Betsy Brantley), running amok in the Baton Rouge suburbs, while Full Frontal heavily relies on a vapid Los Angeles movie industry playground for its own hijinks, including public persona-subverting turns from Major Movie Stars like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Fincher, David Duchovny, etc.

Full Frontal vaguely tackes the shape of many 00s indies with large casts. A collection group of characters weave in & out of each other’s lives in a loose, everything-is-connected narrative over the course of a single day. Actors, producers, public relations drones, playwrights, and every other brand of LA industry type you can imagine entangle and drift apart in various combinations in the day leading up to a mutual friend’s birthday celebration. Occasionally, Julia Roberts poking fun at her America’s Sweetheart™ persona or Catherine Keener asking nonsensical, stream of conscious questions to her employees in layoff interviews will steal the show, but the movie is ultimately more concerned with form than it is with performance. Jarring shifts in visual quality & location of setting will intentionally disorient the audience, especially as (borrowing a page from Sex, Lies, and Videotape) the audio drifts out of sync from the image presented, to a dissociative effect. Sex is blurred & obscured from the camera. Movie within a movie layering & voice-over interviews deliberately confuse what’s “real” within the narrative. Character introductions are presented in headshots before the opening credits (which are actually credits for a non-existent movie Rendezvous) as if they were a playbill in motion. Much like Schizopolis, Full Frontal feels like a filmmaker playing with the basic tools of his craft to reach for freshly innovative effects he could not achieve in the more well-behaved works that preceded it.

There are plenty visual & thematic details connecting Full Frontal & Schizopolis if you intentionally keep an eye out for them. Catherine Keener’s slow-motion romantic breakup with David Hyde Pierce certainly echoes the domestic fallings out between Soderbergh & Bentley’s various doppelgängers in the earlier work. The reality-breaking interview tangents, the drab office place settings (including scenes set in workplace men’s rooms), and Soderbergh’s choice to appear in front of the camera (this time with a blurred-out face, as if he were an episode of Cops) are just a few blatant connectors that run as parallels between the two films. What’s more important is the way the films use an improv-style spontenaity to make the audience feel as if anything could happen. In Full Frontal, a nameless neighbor is shown performing simple domestic chores in a full Dracula costume; an unnamed man crawls across a hotel hallway on all fours in his underwear, unacknowledged; an actor with a Hitler mustache sings the theme song to Cops in a makeup mirror (there’s that show again). This spontenaity revitalizes Soderbergh as a filmmaker, a creator. Instead of shaking up the romantic ennuii of Baton Rouge suburbanites, it disrupts the business-as-usual mundanity of Hollywood’s sycophantic starfuckers & namedroppers, but the intent remains the same even in the transported setting. Unfortunately, these films also share the burden of being overlooked & undervalued for the deftly absurd ways they reshaped & untidied Soderbergh’s career as it evolved into Hollywood-insider status. They’re two of his best films, yet somehow two of his least loved.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its romantic doppelgänger crisis to the similar themes of Anomalisa (2015), and last week’s look at how it violently subverted the director’s hit debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).

-Brandon Ledet