Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino ? Produced and distributed by Columbia Pictures
Directed and produced by Robert Eggers ? Co-written by Robert and Max Eggers ? Distributed by A24
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Directed and written by Preston Sturges ? Produced by Paul Jones ? Distributed by Paramount
I’ve seen only two-and-a-half Quentin Tarantino films, which seems to me one more than enough. They’re silly, trashy, and singularly devoid of amusement. Why would I see another? But when his latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, received enthusiastic notices elsewhere, I thought I should try it. Could I have misjudged his work? I can confidently report that my original judgment was correct. Unless you’re a fan of seeing faces bashed to pulp on formica kitchen counters and flamethrowers wielded to burn the odd body now and then, this film is one you’ll want to pass by. I know there are grislier movies served up to consumers of sadism, but they’re generally on the low-rent end of the entertainment scale. Tarantino, however, is regarded by many as a first-rank director. Perhaps this is because Americans have become so morally numb that they require sharper, more perverted stimulants to amuse them.
Once Upon a Time seems meant to be an arch parody of would-be macho actors. Actually it’s a parody of Tarantino’s own films, which are themselves stylistic parodies of the particular genres they inhabit. Parody is Tarantino’s only mode. The more obvious the copying, the better he likes it. Which is principally why I don’t like his films. Lampooning other works can only carry a director so far, and here the distance seems infinitesimal, despite the film’s nearly three-hour running time. Tarantino fills the scenery with the pop culture detritus so very dear to him: fast-food drive-throughs, close-ups of rose-colored and bilious-green neon signs advertising the flotsam of a consumer society, and movie marquees announcing junk movies. As he’s reputed to do, he’s made the film to amuse… himself. He’s acquired Hollywood’s current golden boys Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and put them to work by having them thoroughly enjoy themselves in a series of scenes constructed so that the boys’ enjoyment will become ours. Very droll. DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an actor who finds minor success playing a bounty hunter in a television series that resembles Steve McQueen’s 1950s television show, Wanted: Dead or Alive. His best friend is his stuntman, Cliff Booth (a very amusing Brad Pitt), whose principal concern is where he’s going to make his next marijuana connection.
Much of the film is preoccupied with following these airheads around Hollywood and Beverly Hills. They drink, inhale, and party while Dalton worries about what he’ll do now that his television series has been cancelled. Dalton takes heart when he learns that Roman Polanski and starlet Sharon Tate have moved in next door to him, hoping that Polanski will give him a part in his next film.
Tarantino sets up his narrative as a tease. We’re led to expect he’ll recreate the grisly Manson murders, but he never does. That’s his joke. Tarantino has Manson and his followers stumble into Dalton’s house one night but, with his typical penchant for re-writing history, Dalton and Booth make short, bloody work of them.
So what’s this film about? Essentially, nothing. It’s little more than a string of scenes designed to mislead the audience in the cause of entertaining Tarantino. As in all his films, there is no point beyond displaying film tropes amidst California excess. Ha, ha.
The Lighthouse is everything Once Upon a Time is not. It’s filmed in black and white and it’s unrelievedly dour. And it’s slow, painfully so.
In the following comments, I’m going to break the civilized critic’s cardinal rule. I’m going to give away the film’s ending. My justification for this barbarous act is that the directors and writers of the film—the Eggers brothers, Robert and Max—have made a film so dreary, so devoid of anything one would call remotely entertaining that it doesn’t deserve better. When a two-hour movie feels like four, you know something’s gone deeply wrong. As I watched, the film weighed on my nerves until I thought I was undergoing a new form of Chinese torture.
Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a thoroughly woebegone young man in flight after committing a murder, has taken a job as a lighthouse keeper on a barren, isolated island off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1890. He has come to assist the master lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), with his chores. What those chores are exactly is never made clear. We see Winslow swabbing the floor of the tiny cottage he shares with Wake and dumping greasy leftovers into the waves now and then. But that’s pretty much it. In their off-hours, the men drink plentifully from their seemingly inexhaustible supply of whisky, routinely getting roaring drunk. They dance recklessly about their cabin and fall to alternately punching and embracing one another.
Perhaps it’s this possible homoerotic display that’s put the critics on their toes. One can’t fault same-sex shenanigans, you know. There’s some heterosexual activity also. Ephraim finds a scrimshaw carving of a mermaid bare above her fish tail. He carries it around, rubbing its whalebone breasts and, when out of Wake’s sight, masturbating furiously with his free hand. The carving might give a boy an erotic thrill, but a man in his thirties? Then a fleshly mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), also naked above her tail, washes up on the rocks. Ephraim seems to realize she’s a hallucination, but he’s not complaining, and she doesn’t object to his fondling her. Well, what’s a man to do 30 miles from shore on a tiny wave-besieged island?
With the boozing, sexual fantasies, and onanism, Ephraim goes slowly starkers. Too slowly for my taste. Like the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem, he can’t resist killing a seagull one afternoon—to Wake’s horror. The older man rages that Ephraim has brought a curse on them. And he’s right. They’re both cursed to be in this film.
I had looked forward to seeing The Lighthouse. It arrived with strongly positive reviews. What’s more, having been shot in black and white was a definite plus in my book. But whatever the film’s esthetic merits, there’s no denying it’s suffocatingly dreary. Some have called it a comedy, which is a head-scratcher. The only humor I found in it arrives at the conclusion, when the screen fills with Pattinson stretched out on the island’s rock-strewn beach while seagulls pick at his belly. Prometheus, anyone? After all, he’s there to keep the light burning in the lighthouse. The image is funny and, what’s more, satisfying. Pattinson’s character was getting what the actor deserves, I thought, for agreeing to perform in the Eggers’ cheerless project. If I hadn’t planned on reviewing this tripe, I would have left the theater after the first 40 minutes of its two-hour runtime. Make that 30.
Why, I wondered, had this film garnered so much praise? As far as I know, only Anthony Lane in The New Yorker had the temerity to suggest that it’s a stinker, “cooked up and overwrought,” as he eloquently puts it. That seems on the nose. In a bid for artistic status, the Eggerses have decked it out with other allusions. Coleridge’s albatross shows up by way of those pesky seagulls, one of whom Pattinson, not having access to a crossbow, bashes to death with a handy rock.
So what’s this all mean? Are the Eggerses giving a lesson in what extreme loneliness can do to a man? Frankly, I don’t know, and I wonder if they do.
For relief, I watched one of my favorite films once again. Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Made in 1941, it starred Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, with the invaluable assistance of character actors William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, and a flock of other 1940s comedic actors. It tells the story of John L. Sullivan, a successful director of musicals, who decides he wants to make a serious movie of social value after having achieved great commercial success with light comedies entitled Ants in Your Plants and Hey, Hey in the Hayloft. He wants to adapt a recent novel entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which exposes the plight of Americans emerging from the Great Depression. His studio objects that only communists would pay to see it. Furthermore, the executives point out, as the son of prosperous parents who sent him to Choate and Princeton, he knows nothing of the suffering of the underclass.
To the executives’ horror, Sullivan sees their point and decides to give his film authenticity by hitchhiking across America in pursuit of economic suffering. Costumed in ragged clothes, he takes to the road to find trouble. After several false starts, during which he finds himself unintentionally returning to Hollywood and picking up Veronica Lake in the process, he does find trouble. An American yahoo brutally teaches this upper-class innocent some of the hard facts of life in the U.S. of A., to his chagrin.
With his good looks and open demeanor, McCrea is perfect as the naive Sullivan. He’s innocent to a fault.
I had a left-wing friend who despised this film. He thought it was the kind of work that didn’t sufficiently provoke the proletariat. It defanged the revolutionary anger necessary to overthrow the upper class, who were holding down the lower.
In a way, that’s what I like about it.
Image Credit: above: Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)