The Canadian stand-up comic Norm Macdonald tells long, densely packed, rambling stories that are liberally spotted with moments of surreal humour, bizarre non-sequiturs, killer mid-story punchlines and pitch-black darkness. One of his most famous gags goes something like this (not verbatim and much abridged, you understand, I’m just trying to give you a flavour): A moth walks into a podiatrist’s office and the podiatrist asks, “What seems to be the matter?” The moth replies, “Aww, man I’m not sure where to start, uh, I go to work for Gregory Illynovich and, honestly doc, I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore. I’m not sure even Gregory Illynovich knows what I’m doing, all he knows is that he has power over me and that seems to bring him happiness. I go home and climb into bed and there’s this old woman laying next to me and I think back to a time that she was young and vibrant and I loved her with every fibre of my being. Now she just lays there sleeping and drooling on the pillow, her face all covered in cold cream, looking like some kind of misshapen, snoring, half-melted snow cone. My daughter, Alexandria, once the apple of my eye costs me a fortune, she’s like a vacuum hooked directly into my bank account. My son, Piotr Ivynillyvadidovich, and this is the hardest pill to swallow doc, I don’t love him anymore and I can’t tell him because of my cowardice and it’s only my cowardice that stops me taking that cocked and loaded pistol from the bedside cabinet drawer and sticking the barrel in my mouth and…” . The doctor interrupts the moth’s flow of miserable outpourings, “Wow, you’re really suffering, but why did you come here? I’m a podiatrist, you need a psychiatrist.” And the moth says, “Well, your light was on.”
The joke goes on a lot longer than that (and is infinitely better told), but you get the gist. Whether you like his humour or not, Macdonald just doesn’t care and he isn’t going to change his schtick because some of the audience don’t laugh, he’s being true to himself and true to his art, he’s making his comedy for the people who “get” him and he’s been honing his creativity for years. In many ways this is also true of Quentin Tarantino, he’s been perfecting his storytelling his entire career, he’s telling these rambling shaggy dog stories and he’s telling them in a way that’s true to himself. Tarantino’s films play with narrative structure, time signatures and often blur the lines that keep his characters on one side of the law or the other. He has his signature moves that include his own kinks, spot-on choices of soundtrack songs, skewed humour and violence used like exclamation marks. To chart his career is to watch the growing confidence of a juggler keeping all his hacky-sacks/batons/flaming batons/chainsaws in the air. He’s telling a joke. Even if his ultimate punchline isn’t always obvious. Even if we, ultimately are the butt of it.
Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, Tarantino’s latest film, might be the greatest joke he’s ever told. A crazy fin-de-siecle tale of old Hollywood blissfully ignoring the new kid on the block and his new way telling stories and channelling talent; completely dopey to the prevailing wind of change in social awareness and questioning the way the world is run, how everything impacts everything else. I’m assuming here that you’ve seen the film already (if you haven’t, you might want to stop reading now because, y’nkow, spoilers), therefore I’m going to forego providing a formal summary of the plot and characters. What I want to explore in this post is one possible reading of the film that you may or may not agree with, but one that makes a lot of sense to me.
I’ve watched Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood twice – Tarantino’s last few films have almost demanded it, once to just go with the narrative flow, the jokes, the thrills, the shocks and a second time to properly analyse. After my first viewing I was thinking about the themes, old versus new Hollywood, the references and nods, et al., but I kept coming coming back to that idea that you have these privileged few carrying on like nothing would ever change, ignorant of the warning signs all about them. At first I thought Titanic, but a much better comparison is actually F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – which brought me back to my (minor) obsession with unreliable narrators (see my piece on The Shape of Water here, for further reading). If Giles is the Nick Carraway of The Shape of Water, then Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is surely Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood‘s.
I was thinking of The Great Gatsby on my second viewing and everything started to fall into place. I suppose you could say that it is Tarantino’s take on the novel and though it’s not a literal adaptation, metaphorically he’s saying exactly the same things as Fitzgerald. Like Gatsby, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio who, remember, played the title role in Baz Luhrman’s spectacular, but flawed, adaptation of the novel in 2013) is scrambling up his own social ladders, this time Hollywood hierarchy and though he has the trappings of top level acceptance (the house in the Hollywood hills, the pool, the women) he can never quite capture the approval of his peers. Booth, meanwhile, lives in a trailer behind a drive-in but comfortably travels between the two worlds because of his association with Dalton, like Carraway traversing the gardens of his rented West Egg holiday home and Gatsby’s mansion. Is everything between The Valley of Ashes? Well, Los Angeles and Hollywood Boulevard, specifically, are often referred to as The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a place where aspirations and hopes can, and more often than not, burn faster than an expensively put together portfolio of headshots. Spahn’s Ranch represents the hedonism of the apartment where Tom and Myrtle conduct their affair and where Tom punches his lover in the face. The Great Gatsby charts the butt end of The Jazz Age, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood of Movies’ Golden Age and everything the made it glitter was tarnishing rapidly – Sharon Tate was a hopeful actress being groomed as a “Starlet”, a formula for success that had probably died years earlier at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive, when housekeeper Eunice Murray discovered Marilyn Monroe’s body laid lifeless across her bed.
But, whereas Nick Carraway mythologises Gatsby, Booth can be read as a self-mythologising narcissist, he portrays himself as classic Hollywood cowboy, the hired hand that the ladies love, a man with an unwavering moral compass, the loyal companion, quick with his wits and quicker with his gun. He’s a product of all the movies and shows in which he took a hit for the leading man, knock him down once you won’t do it again. In Cliff’s narrative he’s the guy who always saves the day, whether that means fixing a tv aerial, driving around the guy who lost his license or punching a hippy, he’s the guy who’s always there to help these hapless, self-involved and buffoonish Hollywood types. And, obviously, he’s the best looking guy in town because… well, wouldn’t you be if you’re telling this tale?
Let’s look at a few examples. Cliff drives Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) back to Spahn’s Ranch, she is wantonly sexual but he rebuffs her advances with casual moral fortitude and you half expect him to call her, “Ma’am”. When Cliff arrives at Spahn’s Ranch and decides to “save” George Spahn (Bruce Dern) from the hippies and all their free love, the walk up to George’s cabin is a Spaghetti Western, he’s the world weary gunslinger doing what a man has to, the dusty road, the burning sun, the shiftless glances to the locals shuffling and skittering nervously on the porches of sun-baked fake storefronts. Cliff gets into a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the backlot of The Green Hornet, Lee’s caricature posturing and taunting reminiscent of countless recalled bar room/pub fight recollections, “I nearly ‘ad ‘im!”. How about right at the end of the film when Rick finally gets to enter the gates of Tate’s house? There’s Cliff, framed in the doors of the ambulance, never able to join that family, always the outsider not unlike Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) at the end of The Searchers, he’s done what he had to do because this is his world even though he’s never really been a part of it. Did Cliff murder his wife? Was it an accident? Did she even exist? Or is she just another part of his mythos building?
Is Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood the acid fevered testimony of Cliff Booth giving the police a statement from his hospital bed? Maybe it’s the bar stool prattle of some old guy who just claims to have been there, taunting you to say, “Wait a minute, that’s not what happened”. Possibly it’s a comment on the fantasies of the toxic guys who haunt the internet. You might read the movie in the way I’ve written, you might see it as a fable or (as the title suggests) a fairy-tale or something else entirely, I dunno, whatever makes you comfortable. Whatever you make of it, I don’t think you can deny it’s an incredibly well told shaggy dog story and sometimes it’s great just to leave the cinema with your light firmly switched on.