CineSavant Column

Tuesday July 30, 2019


Zero Spoilers!

I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s newest. I’d talk about it in more detail, but most everything plot-wise or style-wise would be a spoiler, and that’s just bad form. This is the first picture since The Shape of Water that I felt compelled to see on its first weekend. I’m glad that I knew nothing about what would happen — avoiding the trailer and publicity paid off handsomely. The 1969 Los Angeles setting feels very familiar, even though I came to town in late 1970 and didn’t get out of the UCLA dorms much until ’71. I think the hippie population of Hollywood Blvd. had thinned out somewhat, but I do remember a classmate being nailed for ignorantly, innocently smoking a joint as he walked by Grauman’s Chinese, and being put through hell for it. What could he say — he was from Oxnard, and L.A. just seemed like a place where one could do anything.

I barely watched the news at that time yet was acutely aware of the Manson murders. Our first dorm outing in Fall ’70 was to go explore Stony Point out by the Santa Susana Pass. We saw bikers threatening people at the big park out there, the one with the railroad tunnel from White Heat. Only years later did my toes curl when I read Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter and realized that the remnants of the Manson clan were still at large — bikers, cowboys and hippies — roaming in the same environs.

The show struck me like a perpetual motion dream of driving around town ‘in the day.’ When the stuntman character Cliff drives on the 101, we immediately notice the sound wall barriers, that didn’t exist in 1970. To get to the Spahn Ranch, he’d have to go to the end of the Freeway and continue on surface streets for several miles. I laughed when Cliff’s trailer is parked behind the Van Nuys drive-in theater. When somebody mentioned ‘Panorama City,’ I realized that I’m not sure where Panorama City is exactly, and I’ve lived here almost fifty years now.

Bob Birchard and Randy Cook drove me to the Larry Edmunds Bookstore several times; it was very close to the ‘Supply Sergeant’ across from the Vogue Theater, where I remember seeing The Wind and the Lion in 70mm in 1975. Westwood in the movie is a vision; as an usher and assistant manager in the chain that owned The National and The Village and The Bruin, these were my stomping grounds in film school. I once recognized Alan Alda in the ticket line and invited him in to see the show without paying. Back at the Norton Air Force Base I had winced through the whole smarmy mess that is The Wrecking Crew. Somewhere between Murderer’s Row and The Ambushers, Matt Helm became terminally uncool… or I stopped being quite so immature.

Once Upon a Time gets that intersection with The Village and The Bruin correct, except that the great Italian restaurant Mario’s is no longer katty-korner from The Bruin. Anyway, when I worked a parking lot in Westwood in ’72, I’d stop off in the morning at the little snack stand we see opposite The Bruin, where Sharon Tate crosses the street. A Westwood movie cost $3 at that time, and through most of the ’70s. But since I made about $20 a week, going to see shows was out of the question. Becoming an usher solved that problem, with free passes.

Tarantino’s latest is still a mix of his peculiar notions, but he’s in such a reverent mode that he leaves many of his more aggressive moves behind. He doesn’t have to play sassy genre games as his story is already immersed in film culture — the context of show biz, TV, features, commercials, Spaghetti westerns keeps the movie references lively. His mix of pop music and AM radio cacophony creates a fairly accurate picture of the times, even if a starving student like myself never got nearer to the glitz than the fancy hipsters that parked in my Westwood parking lot. Any fans of Paul Revere and the Raiders in the house?  The Child of Wonder known as Sharon Tate comes off as a life-loving fan of everything.

The characterizations are marvelous, and the way Tarantino intersects with creepy-crawly Manson lore is inspired. We sit in dread through most of the picture, trying to remember dates — shouldn’t Sharon Tate be pregnant now?  Is the particular song on her car radio commenting on that?   The same goes for the song Twelve Thirty, with the lyric ‘Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon,’ which in this context chills the blood. The bits of murderous Charlie M. philosophy offered by his ‘witchy’ operatives seem right-on accurate. It’s no longer prominent on Manson’s rap sheet, but the Bugliosi book established Charlie as a core White Supremacist. His psycho fantasy-excuse was to foment a black bloodbath, and then prevail because ‘blackie’ is stupid and needs to be led by somebody. Hey, MAGA. (actually, author Tom O’Neill recently presented new theories conflicting with those of Vincent Bugliosi.)

The finish for me was almost magical, with the ‘Once Upon a Time…’ title eliciting a sentimental reaction. Even though it deals with Hollywood’s most traumatic crime, Tarantino’s picture might be his least violent (well, overall). Only once or twice does he go Over the Top with violent hyperbole. I laughed out loud at the audacity of one scene, which becomes a bizarre re-cap of an equally outrageous scene in, of all things, a Mexican horror import.

Now I have to dig through 10,000 disorganized discs in search of the old TV movie Helter Skelter with Steve Railsback. Why it wasn’t remastered to coincide with the release of Tarantino’s picture, is a mystery. Rather than dump a pile of spoilers here, I might review Once Upon at Time In Hollywood later when it hits disc… you know, long after anything original I might have to say has been raked over fifty times in other reviews.

In this show, QT doesn’t toss ‘cool’ music around just because he can. Randy Cook pointed out on FB a sentimental jolt he received from Tarantino’s choice for a concluding music cue, which took me a minute to figure out. It’s Maurice Jarre, not Ennio Morricone… and both the song and the source movie are odes to a beloved actress lost to time. I’d rate Once Upon a Time… up at the top of Tarantino’s output, neck and neck with Jackie Brown.

If you’re going to see it, do it quick. Hey, I can even recommend it to my daughter — it has a heroic dog!

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson