Quentin Tarantino's artful pulp: On alchemy, fantasy and "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood"

There's a lot Quentin Tarantino can't do in his movies. But it's always worth examining closely what he can

Published August 17, 2019 7:30PM (EDT)

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures)
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures)

“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Taranto’s mash note to a decade he was too young to remember, is surprisingly upbeat. Southern California has been trashed so much in film — “Sunset Boulevard,” “Chinatown,” “The Player” – and in books, from Nathaniel West and Raymond Chandler to  Jacqueline Susann, that it’s refreshing to see someone remind us why so many, in reality and in imagination, have been drawn there.

In the off chance that you haven’t seen it yet, “Once Upon A Time …” is about a former TV western star (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton) now hitting the downside of a career that never really took off in the first place, and his stunt double and pal, Cliff Booth. It’s Tarantino’s homage to the countless actors and stunt men whose names we’ve now forgotten or never knew who gave us a few minutes of simple diversion before we flipped to another channel.

Tarantino’s films never stray far from the fantasies of his youth. The quintessential Quentin Tarantino moment is in a film he didn’t direct, Tony Scott’s “True Romance” (1993), from a QT script. Christian Slater’s Clarence, whose day job is running a comic book store, is trying to sell a stash of coke to a B-movie Hollywood producer played by Saul Rubinek. Clarence reveals his unabashed admiration for the producer’s films, including his Vietnam opus “Comin’ Home in a Body Bag”: “That’s a movie. ‘Fistful of Dollars,’ that’s a movie. ‘Mad Max,’ that’s a movie. Not like ‘Dr. Zhivago’ – unwatchable movies made from unreadable books.”

“Clarence,” the producer says, “we park our cars in the same garage.”

Clarence, a pop culture nerd, is of course a stand-in for Tarantino, which is interesting because most screenwriters aim upwards in their fantasy projections while Tarantino aims down, though he slips up a bit when he reveals that he’s perused a bit more high culture than he lets on. Clarence couldn’t know that “Dr. Zhivago” was unreadable unless Tarantino had tried to read it.

But then, whoever made it through "Dr. Zhivago"? You may not park your car in the same garage as Tarantino; a diet of Spaghetti Westerns and crash-and-burn movies can leave a brain feeling like a body does on junk food. But we’re with Clarence and QT when it comes to pretentiousness, which is one sin that no one has ever accused him of.

Tarantino is an alchemist who transmutes junk if not into art, then at least artful pulp. With the possible exception of the Coen Brothers, no other filmmaker’s work is greeted with such anticipation.

The critical reception of this film isn’t all positive. In the Observer, Rex Reed (film critic and star of “Myra Breckenridge”) maintained his perfect record of failing to understand the work of every visionary American filmmaker of the last half century: “Frankly, I find the entire experience baffling, and any attempt to laugh off the Manson murders … embarrassing.”

How is Tarantino laughing off murders by reimagining a story in which they never happened? Reed raved when QT changed history in “Inglourious Basterds” and incinerated Hitler and a movie theater full of his lackeys. Now, when QT rewrites history to avoid the violence, Reed is disappointed that he didn’t get to see the slaughter.

No one should ever use the phrase “obscenely regressive,” but if they did, they should save it for "Birth of a Nation" or several films by Clint Eastwood, particularly "American Sniper" (2014), which Brody loved. The point is that Brody thinks "OUATIH" is "driven by cultural nostalgia … for the classic age of Hollywood movies and for the people responsible for it.” This might be true if it wasn’t contradicted by the evidence of every film Tarantino has ever made.

I’d never use the phrase “obscenely regressive,” but if I did, I’d save it for “Birth of a Nation” or several films by Clint Eastwood, particularly “American Sniper” (2014), which Brody loved. But that’s just me. The point is that Brody thinks “OUATIH” is "driven by cultural nostalgia … for the classic age of Hollywood movies and for the people responsible for it.” This might be true if it wasn’t contradicted by the evidence of every film Tarantino has ever made.

This one is set in 1969. Most film lovers would probably call the early 1930s to late 1940s the classic age of movies, and others would see the 1970s as the classic era with the best films of Coppola, Scorcese, Altman, Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, et al. It was an age ushered in by “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), “2001” (1968), and “The Wild Bunch” (1969), but these films were notable for the ways in which they deviated from previous gangster movies, westerns, and sci-fi films.

By 1969, the old Hollywood with its big studios that controlled the industry was almost extinct. The counterculture was changing movies and television, and to people in Tarantino’s universe, the counterculture is something that happened in another dimension. (There are three or four references to hippies in “OUATIH,” all negative, and the soundtrack contains no evidence of the rock giants who were causing such upheaval at the time: no Doors, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, not even any Rolling Stones, although there’s a nifty cover of the Stones neglected “You’re Out of Time,” but it’s not listed on the soundtrack.

Tarantino’s films aren’t about nostalgia — all the music, film and TV he absorbed in his youth is still available to anyone who surfs the TV and internet, or who turns on their car radio. 1969 isn’t nostalgic for him because, being six years old, he could hardly remember much of it. He’s the Cuisinart of American pop culture. QT understands instinctively what Nabokov meant in his postscript to “Lolita”: “There is nothing more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.”

You could call Tarantino limited in scope, and you’d be right. He’s never made a comedy, and though he knows his classic rock and roll, he’s never attempted a musical. “Inglorious Basterds” is set in WWlI, though it’s a WWII from Tarantino’s universe, which makes it a war film in the way “The Hateful Eight” is a Western. He doesn’t have the vision of Coppola, and the visceral punch of Scorcese is beyond him – really, if the gangsters in his films wandered into Scorcese country, they’d get spanked and sent home. And he paints in primary colors far too vivid to suggest the enigmatic quality of his idol, David Lynch.

There are so many things that Tarantino can’t do that it’s easy to overlook what he does do that works. In 2003 in the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn, in all his pompous twittiness, sniffed “The lack of a sense of intellectual process or judgement that characterizes Tarantino’s approach … helps explain the ultimate vacant quality of his work, no matter how clever it often is …  And yet when I saw them [‘Pulp Fiction,’ ‘Jackie Brown,’ ‘Reservoir Dogs’] recently, I was surprised to find myself bored by all three. In the end, they feel wholly disposable – they’re really not into any of the elements they’re made up of (crime, guilt, race, violence, even other movies), and it occurs to you that Tarantino doesn’t have any idea about them either. He just thinks they’re neat things to build a movie around.”

In a chapter in his book “The Artificial White Man,” Stanley Crouch asks in response, “Is anyone in our time making movies that successfully weave those elements together? If so, who?”

Tarantino, writes Crouch, “is probably the most brilliant student of American popular culture, good and bad, of his film generation.” Further, Crouch, perhaps the preeminent black cultural critic of his generation, defends Tarantino against Spike Lee and others who criticize his use of racial slurs, particularly that word: “Tarantino’s command of American speech reveal an epic debris of knowingly drawn ethnic characters – not types – which we almost never encounter in our American fiction: working-class whites, ‘white trash,’ highly placed Italian American gangsters and their goons, pimps, drug dealers; cops who speak the slang of law enforcement and the argot of their prisoners; aspiring Jewish film actors and Jewish producers.”

It’s true that Tarantino sees all his characters through the lens of genres, but as Crouch puts it, he “takes off the rose-colored pop glasses.”

* * *

There’s one other area in which QT surpasses just about every other current American film director: He discovers, resurrects, and casts actors better than just about anyone else. Consider, for instance, Samuel L. Jackson, who appeared in several Spike Lee films — including an acclaimed performance in “Jungle Fever” — but didn’t reach icon status till Tarantino cast him in “Pulp Fiction” (1994). (He also appeared two years earlier in “True Romance.”)

Steve Buscemi stood out in small roles in “Billy Bathgate” and “Miller’s Crossing,” but “Reservoir Dogs” got him to recognizable co-star status two years before the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” put him over the top.

Before Patricia Arquette played Alabama in “True Romance,” her most visible role was in “Nightmare on Elm Street 3.” If not for Tarantino’s script, she may never have reached the status to be cast in “Boyhood,” which earned her an Oscar in 2014.

Cristoph Waltz was unknown to American audiences before Tarnatino chose him for the SS detective in “Inglourious Basterds.” He has now won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars in QT films.

Add to these the careers Tarantino has resuscitated.

Where was John Travolta’s career by the 1990s? You can sum it up in three words: “Look Who’s Talking.” He made three movies about talking babies. Travolta was in a deep rut and looked like he was surely headed back to the TV sitcom world from which he came out of when QT got him to appear overweight with the worst movie hair since Eraserhead and play a smalltime hood too dumb to remember to take his gun with him when he went to the bathroom. He went from “Pulp Fiction” to his best performance in “Get Shorty” a year later.

After a long career as a child actor then a leading man, Tarantino saw the character actor in Kurt Russell and cast him as a gleefully psychotic road rage killer in the “Death Proof,” one of the “Grindhouse” (2007) segments, and now as the head stunt guy in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Bruce Willis was far from unknown when he played the washed-up fighter on the run from Ving Rhames’s mob boss in “Pulp Fiction,” but his career was stalled. Both acting- and career-wise, “Pulp Fiction” was a shot of B12 for him.

Lawrence Tierney. Novelist and critic Barry Gifford in “The Devil Thumbs A Ride And Other Unforgettable Films” on Tierney playing another of his classic mean-man roles in “Born To Kill” (1947): “ … there's no decency at all in Lawrence Tierney's face, the most cruelly handsome visage on film. Unlike [Robert] Mitchum's face, there's no relief in sight, a man incapable of compromise." Why did it take a 29-year old smart-ass nerd directing his first feature to recall that Tierney was such a great and commanding screen presence?

“The Empress of Blax-sploitation films” is idolized by the white small-time hoods in “Pulp Fiction” talking about Pam Grier’s movie heroine Foxy Brown, but QT centered Grier the actress in “Jackie Brown” (adapted from “Rum Punch” by one of QT’s favorite writers, Elmore Leonard). Co-starring was "Batman" star Michael Keaton, before his Oscar contender days, as cynical FBI agent Ray Nicolette in Jackie Brown, in a brilliant usage of the A-lister. (Keaton liked the role so much he played it again, uncredited, the next year in “Out of Sight,” from another Leonard novel.)

* * *

And then there’s Leo and Brad.

DiCaprio is the biggest movie star in the world — maybe the biggest star in movie history. And all without the aid of Twitter or Instagram and the artificial boost of franchise films.

No one else has done so much great work and maintained popularity so long. It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since he gave a remarkable (though still little seen) performance as Rimbaud to David Thewlis’s Paul Verlaine in Agnieszka Holland’s “Total Eclipse.” Before his 21st birthday, he had played a gay teen (“This Boy’s Life”), an autistic boy (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”), a punk gunfighter (“The Quick and The Dead”), and a junkie (“The Basketball Diaries”).

No other actor could have aced all those roles. Add to them Frank Abignale, the mercurial con artist in “Catch Me if You Can” and, no matter what you thought of Baz Luhrman’s movie, an epic performance as the most intriguing character in modern American literature, Jay Gatsby. As Gene Seymour wrote in Newsday, “He’s too good an actor to be a star.”

In “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” he inhabits the soul of a loser, an actor perilously close to middle age, struggling to keep his name within sight of the B list.

Brad Pitt isn’t quite as big as Leo, but he’s close, and like Leo doesn’t use social media and has eschewed franchise films (unless you want to count the “Oceans” movies). Pitt’s ascension to critical acceptance has been longer and harder than DiCaprio’s. For example, in 2008 David Denby, reviewing the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading,” wrote that Pitt was “overdoing a happy chump routine, snapping his fingers, signaling to us, in the long tradition of mediocre actors, that we shouldn’t confuse him with the character he’s playing.” This was unfair for many reasons, but especially because from early in his career Pitt had established he was a character actor in the body of a leading man.

There was his comic relief cameo as a stoner in “True Romance,” and “12 Monkeys” earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In perhaps his most bizarre role, he was hysterically unintelligible as an bare-knuckles fighting Irish Traveller in Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch.”

DiCaprio, too, has the chops of a great character actor: with all credit due to Christoph Waltz in “Django Unchained,” it was Leo’s performance as a demonically charming slave owner that should have won the Oscar. In “Once Upon a Time,” when a child actress, played by Julia Butters with an uncanny knowingness, tells Rick “That’s the best acting I’ve ever seen,” Rick, caught by surprise, tears up. It may be the greatest acting we’ve ever seen from Leo.

DiCaprio has now been in 28 feature films, Pitt in 48. In this movie both have the best roles of their careers, and it’s probably no accident that they’re playing opposite each other. Really, they’re playing two sides of the same character, Steve McQueen, whose image, seen early in “Once Upon A Time” at a party, played by British actor Damian Lewis, haunts the film. McQueen, an avid motorcyclist who did many of his own stunts, starred, like Rick, in a bounty hunter TV western.

When another actor asks Rick if he almost got McQueen’s role in “The Great Escape,” in one of the coolest tricks Tarantino has ever pulled, we’re treated to Rick’s fantasy of a famous scene from “The Great Escape” with him CGIed in for McQueen.

Another ghost haunts “Once Upon A Time …”, the man from whom QT learned so much about the slam-poetry of violence and the economy of language: Elmore Leonard. At times, the bottom feeders Rick and Cliff seem like characters out of Leonard’s Hollywood novel “Get Shorty.” A long suspenseful sequence where Cliff stumbles upon the Manson Family living on an old movie set is staged like a scene from Leonard’s “Justified” with Pitt standing in for Timothy Olyphant’s Marshal Raylen Givens. Against all odds, Rick and Cliff emerge as the real life heroes they’ve played on screen for years and save the heroine, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, the shining golden presence at the very center of the story.

This is the first film by Tarantino with genuine heart, and the first to make good on that fairy tale title, “Once Upon A Time.”

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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By Margaret Barra

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