Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
I just saw Quintin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I really liked it, my two favorite scenes were the ones that took place at the Spahn Ranch and when Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate watched her own movie (The Wrecking Crew) at the Bruin Theater. It was an awesome movie. At the same time, I left the theater thinking what did I just see?
Though I liked it (a lot) It didn’t seem to have a tight narrative, more like a paper bag of scenes trying to find a movie. (Uh, Dave what part of “this is a Quintin Tarantino movie did you not understand?”) This is however an observation not a complaint.
Since I am talking about the narrative flow there will be some spoilers, so you may not want to read any further if you haven’t seen the movie. You have been warned!
The importance of the narrative, in this movie, is seen in the title. Once upon a Time in Hollywood. Fairy tales are stories that are told to us. And QT spoon feeds us this tale like we were children tucked in our bed trying to go to sleep. (Again, that’s not a bad format.) They give us a happy ending; one that may not have happened in the real world. They are symbolic warning of threats that people saw in the past (Little Red Ridding Hood is a warning against witchcraft) . They are stylized, so we know what one type of narrative will be (I would say the overriding story telling style) from what we read on the marquee.
So, before I can tell you about the different types of narratives there are in OUaTiH let me say what type of Narrative it is not. It is not Charles Manson’s Narrative. Though the cult leader’s spirit hangs in this movie’s background like a malignant ghost, IT IS NOT HIS STORY. And I for one am thankful for this. He only appears in one scene where he is sees protagonist(?) Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) working on a roof. Booth is accused of getting away with the murder of his wife and to some extent may be just as dangerous. I would have liked to have seen a movie where Manson’s presence was felt but his form is not seen. But oh well.
We also must remember that this was originally goning to be Tarantino’s first novel. Then it became a 4-hour long movie, then a roughly 2 ½ long movie. Some of the conflicting narrative styles is because of the simple fact that the movie had to be pared down and some kind device was needed to compensate for nearly 90 minutes that were lost, so that the ending did not need to be changed or become incoherent with the missing scenes.
Also, we need to remember that some of the narrators may be unreliable. Even when Steve McQueen tells us his part, he is using drugs. Just because the facts he is telling seem to fit with what we know about the Sebring-Polanski-Tate love triangle, doesn’t mean he is not biased, it is clear he wants Sharon for himself.
The movie’s first native style is a black and white interview, where a TV show is interviewing actor Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth. You would think that this would be the most reliable of narratives, the camera doesn’t lie. But the thing is. As the movie goes on, we realize that this an old narrative. It may have been true when it was filmed, but the focus of the movies takes place a few years later, after Dalton’s show is cancelled. Hence the black and white form of the narrative, it is both seen on an old style TV and an artifact of the recent past (From the main POV of the movie). This narrative disapears after the first five minutes of the movie, only to return as a stinger in credits with the faux Red Dalton Red Apple cigarette commercial, left over from Rick’s glory days.. Saying the old narrative that Rick Dalton is a star disappears but is not completely gone.
The movie has a voiceover, even though it is not a consistent presence. We first hear it when Rick lies about why he isn’t driving (The voice, which brings with it a flash back, reveals Rick can’t drive due to DUIs) The voice is AWOL for almost most of the movie, until it comes back in the beginning of the third act. The voiceover explains what happened to Rick and Cliff when they are in Europe, but also a rather accurate exploration of what Sharon Tate did during the (real life) Last night on Earth. The voiceover technique it self is a leftover from a bygone comimetic era. But the question is who is he?
The voice is obviously Kurt Russel, but who is he playing. The credits only say that Russell plays Randy the stunt coordinator, we see him fire Cliff off the set of The Green Hornet. is it Randy the one who is filling in the gaps in the story. Is he an old Hollywood lifer who is telling us the story of that night 50 years ago? Or is it Kurt Russel, telling an alternative history to Tarantino? I think it is ‘”The Word of God” or in this case Russel is voicing for Tarnation, filling in the gaps that were created when the movie was reduced from 4 to 2 ½ hours.
This voiceover also helps with the movies 6-month time jump, if this part of the story was to be acted out then it would have necessitated an additional act. This make sense but I wondered where the voiceover had gone after its introduction in act one until its reappearance in the last 20 minutes of the show.
We have a completely different narrative style around the scene at the Playboy Mansion, compared to what we get with the rest of the movie. It is the only location I saw where the location’s name appeared under it in the whole movie. Is that a narrative oversight or is Tarantino showing us that even in this world of the 60’s Heff’s place was a fantasy world unto itself. It is possible that he thinks that the new generation of movie goers could recognize one of the Hollywood Hills most iconic locations without a clue? I am not sure.
Also, with characters like Steve McQueen and Mama Michelle, at the mansion we get their names when we first see them, but nowhere else in the movie. Is this QT telling us that once undoubtedly identifiable characters are now all but forgotten, or is he hedging his bet with real life historical celebrities but has no need to do it with criminals like Squeaky Fromm and factious characters like Rick and Cliff?
Also, a key point of the story that Tate broke up with Jay Sebring to marry Roman Polanski, is revealed in the “story” McQueen tells Connie Stevens. He is a separate narrator than the voiceover, are we to give it more Creedence because it comes form a Hollywood insider? Is this just shop talk gossip? Steve of course is not talking to Connie but to us the audience. And when he says he never had a chance with Sharron was he saying that he had never got to be with her, because he wasn’t her type or that we later generation of movie goers never had a chance to really know her because of Sharron’s untimely death?
Flashbacks are another narrative method that this movie leans on heavily. I didn’t quite realize that the Cliff Vs Bruce Lee fight was a flashback, until we pop back into the stories main timeline with Cliff on the roof. We can’t completely trust the flashback either. From the flashback we know Cliff’s wife died on a boat, but not if he murdered her. We see Rick’s memory of auditioning for The Great Escape. The scene is done by having Dicaparo CGI’d into the movie. It is unlikely that the audition would have included all the other actors that did make it into the movie, on a set, in full costume, so we must assume that Rick is a unreliable narrator, and is remembering it the way he wants to, and that the less interesting story he tells a fellow actor might be the truth.
We have another competing narrative in the theater, that is our own knowledge of history. This narrative is bolstered by the voiceover which details what was really happened in Sharon Tate’s last trip into LA. We know she dies, and we must surrender this knowledge (and we do so willingly) so we can accept the new narrative where she lives.
In the end we have all the different narrative styles competing against each other in the same 2 ½ long movie. These dueling narratives leave for me more questions than answers. To me that doesn’t make it bad just quirky. And I can dig quirky.