"Throughout the film, Tarantino fills in the narrative like a painting with shades of overlap between the real world and the celluloid dream world transporting us to a different time," writes Ritwik Kaikini .
Quentin Tarantino delivers a completely new language for the film narrative in his latest venture ‘Once upon a time in Hollywood’.
The film is set in the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood during the 60s, which saw a lot of struggling actors, stuntmen, producers, costume designers, set designers and new adventurous production teams experimenting with their methods on lavish expensive sets, at the cost of losing their own personal desires. It was a time to set the first benchmark for the definition of large scaled entertainment in film and TV shows. Italian Spaghetti westerns were on the rise and a lot of actors migrated to Europe to rejuvenate their careers due to mainstream actors dominating the industry. The television had just been commercially released to the world and people were glued to their TV sets waiting to be lost in a whole new fantasy world.
In the competitive production world of a dynamically changing Los Angeles, we are introduced to Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt), a stuntman who’s been in the industry for a long time, playing the stunt double for Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo Di Caprio), who himself is a struggling actor lost in LA trying to tie up loose ends and gain momentum in his personal life and career. They lead lonely lives as performers in a highly competitive world where news and gossip spread like wildfires. The introduction to their lives is treated with great aesthetic innovation. We follow the duo riding in Dalton’s Coupe-de-ville car, a sleek light green shiny machine with its trademark oversized steering wheel. They traverse through the roads of LA like lost souls in a dream. The camera movement and the shots are cleverly executed introducing a investigative flexibility of viewing scenes. We gaze from a smooth top angle shot onto DiCaprio’s swimming pool in a desolate but beautiful landscape of Los Angeles, and then we are gently lowered to a different neighboring home where Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) has moved in with a freshly rising, party loving Roman Polanski.
We are invited into the architecture of the homes over the hilly regions of LA through a very Hitchcock-influenced voyeuristic approach. These are angles which are impossible to the human eye in the real world. The cinematic world is very flexible, and Tarantino takes total advantage of this to make us watch and experience conversations, people driving their cars, people listening to music, people lighting up their cigarettes, with an omnipresent texture of vintage written all over it. We experience scenes like our eyes and ears have the ability to place themselves in any of the three dimensions of a space and fill up the whole mis-en-scene by observing objects, as we witness old cassette players, the interiors of a Playboy mansion party and the rising hippie culture curling into the west coast like an addictive virus.
Tarantino churns out a new form of narrative where there is no definite geometry or method in placing events but there is an intuitive placement. It is like the structure of a dream. A dream has no start or end point, but it begins somewhere in the middle and continues. The scenes intuitively sit into a space and the space changes with time and the whole structure still makes sense. This kind of narrative treats the world like a huge brain, and this huge brain perceives the film like a complicated yet believable dream.
Rick Dalton is lost amidst the numerous sets of his movies like a cowboy lost in a celluloid fantasy. He becomes sick of playing the villian in all his movies when a pompously intrigued producer Marvin Shwarz (played by Al Pacino) wants to cast him in one of his spaghetti western films as a hero and tells him that villains are always forgotten at the end of the movies. The character of ‘Jake Cahill’ the villainous bounty hunter in a TV show has been dissolved so much into Rick Dalton’s blood that he himself is shocked about where it has led him, causing him to doubt his future in the industry. Rick Dalton’s life is interspersed in the real time narrative using clippings from his old films. This gives a pointer about Rick’s personality as well as the choices he’s made in his life. In one of the most well scripted scenes in the film, Rick Dalton solicits an immensely divine consolation from a fairy like child actor (played by Julia Butters) on the set who is reading a big book between shots, refusing to break from her character.
Meanwhile Cliff Booth lives a simple life in a makeshift trailer parked at a Drive-in Theatre with his pitbull, Brandy, who awaits his canned food like a vampire hungry for blood. Cliff Booth’s fearless walk on Spahn Ranch amidst the disoriented group of hippie girls is cleverly conceived like a spaghetti western ambush scene which comes alive in seconds. Cliff Booth lives the life of the reeled-up cowboy outside the movie set, while the weak Rick Dalton plays the cowboy on a movie set having no clue about handling real world difficulties, often as trivial as fixing a TV antenna.
Throughout the film, Tarantino fills in the narrative like a painting with shades of overlap between the real world and the celluloid dream world transporting us to a different time.
The use of a diegetic soundtrack with a contextual purpose based on the content is a clever ode to the golden age of Hollywood scores. The constant switching between fantasy and reality results in a complete concoction of mixed perceptions. The sounds of winds hissing through doors are exaggerated as an ode to the old Hollywood horror films of the 70s and 80s. The soundtrack from 70s show ‘Mannix’ shoots out of an old CRT TV in the hall and we are dissolved into a sequence which completely disorients us into thinking if this is a film fantasy or a real rock-solid occurrence. The sounds of movies playing at the Drive-in Theatre outside Cliff’s trailer are very distant and playing out of the many parked car stereo systems, a metaphor for his own life, a stuntman lost in the industry always treated as an underdog distancing himself from the limelight.
Writing as an experience itself reveals new fragments of stories when the process immerses the author so much that the writing process starts to control the mind. It is a reversal of authority. The brain starts to conceive and process from what is written, and the writing starts to dominate the progression of the story. Similarly, in Once upon a time in Hollywood, this metaphor of control has been extended to the whole process of filmmaking. The detailing of each scene helps resolve conflicts on the progression of the narrative and then guides it intuitively. During the process of filmmaking, the director starts to build these fragments or pieces of a narrative. These fragments must be perceived as authentic rather than dismissed just as figments of an excited imagination. This is because real art happens in between processes. The first instincts are the most valuable instincts, as we never know the routes our minds took to reach this first pedestal of imagination. If we break this pedestal and start forcing ourselves to imitate this previous construction our whole process gets nullified and the result is shallow. Through this film Tarantino strengthens the fact that cinema can be used as a medium to voice our inner most desires to change history into full-fledged intuitive feature. Cinema can no longer be treated as a half-eaten fantasy. It is a full meal of realism augmented with apt characterisation.
Ritwik Kaikini is a multimedia artist, writer and a musician working in the areas of philosophy of sound, art-science, and Technology. He completed his MA in Arts and Technology at The University of Texas at Dallas in 2018 and has been involved new media art practice and film productions. He composes music and writes a lot on the relationship between sound and cinema.