Overpraised Vanity: ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

After sitting through Tarantino’s “ninth film”, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, I need an adrenaline shot to the chest. Oh boy. I suppose I should keep reminding myself this is a fairy tale in a Tarantino universe. With that being said the lacking of a complex, narrative structure that barely grazes the surface of anything deeply sentimental besides the obvious bombardment of 1969 nostalgia is essentially all you need to know about this film and mostly dominated by men.

Of course Hollywood is going to praise this film because it’s a story about Hollywood. The shallow dramas of being an entertainer with the pressure and the demand is intentionally constructed to be over the top and I guess that can be entertaining to watch? Which makes sense to a certain degree on why Tarantino leaned so heavily on the historic tragedy of Sharon Tate’s murder. That was actually the hook of getting people in seats. How was he going to handle such a despicable murder? Curiosity seems to work in his favor, otherwise it just be a film about Leonard Dicaprio and Brad Pitt, two mega stars Hollywood loves to worship on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, their performances were strong, I just didn’t care for this particular adventure of their fairy tale.

Alright, maybe this is Tarantino’s testament to the “loss of innocence” or maybe it’s his personal “love letter of being a cinephile” to a decade in Hollywood that’s now dead. Either way, my mind and heart waged war against wanting to be enamored with this film and so far I’m at a stalemate. The fairy tale is about a bygone era and embedded in that fantasy, there is Rick Dalton, (Leo Dicaprio) a washed-up has-been actor whining about how his golden days are behind him. I can applaud DiCaprio for having his character break down in tears multiple times. It nice to see male vulnerability from time to time and in a Tarantino flick almost seems rare. Then you have Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who’s Dalton’s stuntman buddy who drives him around because Dalton is an alcoholic but also confides in him and uses him at his disposal. That’s nice two male buddies in Hollywood being buddies, a very give and take relationship. And as the story goes they are also the heroes who inadvertently save the day and the symbolic-like princess, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) from what would have been her gruesome murder. They just happen to casually kill the members of the Manson family all because they went into the wrong house. I guess all you need is a cigarette laced in acid, a flame thrower, some aggressive head bashing, and a dog named Brandy to carry out a violent end and save the innocent. It’s a wild ending and even with that fails to convince me it has any capacity of redeeming itself from itself. It’s overindulgent attempting to satisfy us with humorous revenge with sadistic violence. As an aside, DiCaprio’s performance with the bathrobe and margarita pitcher while yelling at the Manson family to get off his private street was pretty cheeky. Also his mega breakdown in the trailer about having eight sour whiskies the night before fumbling up his scene was what DiCaprio does best. He’ll always win the best award for, “losing his shit” on the big screen because its oddly convincing, palatable and I can totally imagine him doing that in real life.

And if there’s a golden nugget of truth in this blasé depiction of Hollywood it brings me to the scene with Manson’s acid-high “crazy hippies” all having a conversation about violence in entertainment. This is the moment before they ascend onto the house and attempt utter havoc. I thought that piece of dialogue was a very cryptic meta-like moment. And I’m paraphrasing here when Sadie (Mikey Madison) says something of the likes, “We should kill all the actors who have killed on TV because they taught us to kill. They want us to kill.” Mind you all of these characters were heavily influenced by mind-altering drugs. However, it did make me stop and think about the influence of violence has on society. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t but if anything it certainly creates some form of aggressive behavior. Just as marketing and advertising generates massive consumption or social media and the onslaught of misinformation, I do think there is something there. Some form of truth. Am I reaching for the stars here?

OK so, my attention span on the story was hanging by a thread by Act 1, but I was able to refocus my attention on exploring all the idiosyncrasies that make a Tarantino film a Tarantino film. Its cute he’s adding his fictitious props of consumerism such as the notorious Apple cigarettes which is in every single film he’s made. All the props, neon signs, and wardrobe was cool, the lingering car rides were neat, music cued in at predictable places were ok, while it’s a no brainer he loves movies which is the obvious milieu of any Tarantino universe, AND finally, all the women characters (except for Zoë E. Bell) were either sexualized, caricaturized, or were just submitting to the notion they live in a male dominated world. His treatment of female characters never changes, despite the great performances of their roles in the film, it just feels too limited just like our current problem in the male dominated filmmaking industry. Oh, right we’re in 1969, silly me I forgot. Oh wait, its 2019, and women only compose 8% of female directors in Hollywood. Yeah, that’s still a problem.

Was anyone else peeved at the undeniable presumption of his foot fetish really being a thin veneer for the female gaze? Sure he’s not showing close ups of boobs and asses, but definitely dirty feet of women. What is that? Subtle sexualizing and fetishizing. It’s crass, disappointing, and ironically something he’s praised for. Or what about the griping wife of Cliff, who we’re lead to believe he murdered her which almost feels like a sly wink to how Natalie Wood was killed just because of how Tarantino gives us a quick snap shot of them on a boat when they share this information. Or the eight-year old girl on set with Rick, who briefly consoles him when he has a mini breakdown which follows into their TV western scene where he improvises and pushes her to the floor. She later gets up and says, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen.” What ego stroking. These are only a handful of moments of how women are perceived in Tarantino’s universe. If anything this is a guy’s film, where it all lands in their favor, filled to the brim of where they dominate and women are just the brunt of the joke, subjected to violence, sexualized or are simply a symbol of innocence. Zero depth and zero character arch. They are just surface characters voided of any depth and that just makes me sad also why I don’t see this film as a “praised masterpiece”.

Another parallel, I had drawn about this film in keeping with the era of the time it was when the studio systems were struggling and on the horizon there was a new batch of incoming filmmakers about to make their mark on the world. In 1969, EASY RIDER, MIDNGIHT COWBOY, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID came out and that was just the foreshock. Prior to the onslaught of these films, John Ford and Howard Hawkes’ careers were coming to an end while the USC boys like Speilberg, Coppola, Lucas, and Milius were about to smash everything and reinvent a new Hollywood. And by the 1970s, the world would have THE GODFATHER, DELIVERANCE, MASH, JAWS and the list goes on. I always say this but the 1970s was the epitome of a golden era of cinema. Which makes me think about the future of Tarantino’s career and the filmography he’ll leave behind. Will he too continue to evolve as he’s no longer married to the Weinstein company? Probably. Will he retire with a 10th film? Probably not. Will he too think, “I’m a washed-up has been?” I’m sure all celebrities question that at some point or another. But to surmise that he has “sibling rivalry” between Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick? Seriously? What hubris. Either way it’ll be interesting how history remembers Tarantino. Noticed how I blurred the line between history and fiction there? Talking about a fictitious character representing an impending perhaps subtle mark to the beginning of an end to one’s career. I can’t help but think, “what if?” the Tarantino days of making a particular style of film is on the cusp of extinction. It’s a wild thought right? It would be even wilder to see Tarantino step outside his comfort zone and make something outside his style of filmmaking.

Secretly, part of me really wanted to be enamored with this film and yet somehow it feels like I opened a can of refreshing pop with no fizz. It’s not the first time and won’t be the last. Its just a massive slap to the face about how far women have come and how far we continuously have to keep going. Perhaps, being a highly aware female in 2019 is what makes me not fall for the fairy tale because reality is so blatantly embedded in my psyche. So on one hand its challenging to embrace a creative piece that feels so wrong and on the other hand appreciating it for all the nuances of cinema, its really a tricky place to be in. I think as a woman sitting through a Tarantino flick especially in 2019, instantaneously causes me to look at the parallels of history and the future. With that being said and his long history with the Weinstein company makes it feel really awkward to sit through asking myself how do I separate the artist from the person? Knowing he was aware of what Weinstein was up to and doing nothing about it except keeping his focus on making the films he makes. How can I justifiably respect a person like this? There’s never an easy answer. It’ll always be a conflicting double edge sword of wanting to appreciate something all while knowing its like sugar laced in poison.

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MIDSOMMAR WRECKED ME

MIDSOMMAR wrecked me. Don’t get me wrong there’s catharsis in this film and even that isn’t entirely fulfilling. It’s the journey to get there that’s excruciating and exhausting. This is very much a superior “horror” film one I may rank up there with Lars Van Trier’s ANTICHRIST. Yeah, that one wrecked me too. There’s just some imagery you can never shake or erase from your memory ever and this is the power in Ari Aster’s films. I saw that in HEREDITARY and I should have known that going into MIDSOMMAR. Oh, silly me. There’s so much psychological warfare it nearly blurs the line at times where you question your own sanity and moments where you begin to recalibrate your own dating history. Ughh! Did anyone else get flashbacks of your own personal demons you battled in the past? They like to slowly creep in except this time, I attempted to mentally combat them with an imaginary constructed house of defense just like Jami Lee Curtis did in the HALLOWEEN reboot. She was armed and ready for Michael Meyers’ return. Silliness aside, I can’t think of a better film I’ll see this year. (I’m talking about MIDSOMMAR not HALLOWEEN) I guess that’s what happens when Hollywood is on a superhero bender and Disney hooking its greedy mouse claws in owning every major studio that ever was. (I’m still in shock they bought 20th Century Fox) Yeah, its seriously sad times in the entertainment industry. Aside from the gloom, I’m grateful A24 exists. In fact, I’ll probably only watch A24 distributed films from here on out because they know how to satisfy their particular audiences. Well, that and the Criterion Collection obviously. Cinephile mecca!

So the epitome of hell in MIDSOMMAR is that its a two-and-a-half-hour journey of taking mushrooms, while enduring the death of a relationship, all sprinkled on top with a commune celebrating its festival that occurs every 90 years in Sweden. Oh and your friends are invited to partake in this as well. I’m sure this makes the Swedes roll their eyes and laugh at Americans overdramatizing their sacred pagan rituals into a horror story when in reality the true horror resides in how our characters’ treat each other. That’s right I went into full over analytical mode and found when I separated the whole religious denominator divided by the emotional/rational bandwidth of these characters minus the actions they took, I came to the conclusion (with the exception of Dani’s character) that most of the male characters are self-absorbed aided by their own selfishness which equates to their own demise. Guess it never pays to be selfish.

MIDSOMMAR is magical in a sense of delighting its audience into the wonder beyond a community that wholeheartedly believes in sacrifice. After the film, I read Aster’s script and there is so much left out of the actual movie that a particular dialogue tied it all together quite nicely for me. Which made me wonder why he removed it or if it was even filmed? Perhaps it was too on the nose? Either way, hopefully it will be in the director’s cut which I assume will be four hours of hell. But essentially, and obviously sacrifice is the biggest theme aside from loss and grief and also the realization Dani’s dating an asshole.

In the immensely dreadful, disturbing, first act, Dani (Florence Pugh) undergoes a tremendous loss and that’s a sufferable horror within itself. Several months later her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his anthropology college bros are leaving to Sweden for a month to a small village known as Harga where the week long festivities begin. Dani also tags along with them, although everyone is reluctant of her being there. She tries to put on a brave face but internally she’s emotionally breaking down which is often shown in her a series of panic attacks. Once they arrive to Haga things obviously go array slowly and then catapults into pure insanity. And through that insanity you’re watching the breakdown of Dani and Christian’s relationship slowly and painfully coming to an end. Dani is vulnerable and Christian’s only concern are for his own needs. Anyone who’s been in this type of relationship will see this. I almost feel like this is a fable of sorts, like the tortoise and the hare? What happens to the vulnerable and what happens to the selfish ones? I won’t spoil it. But look at the mural below!! Now take deep exaggerated breaths.

Now, the precursor to the impetuous breakdown is heartbreaking and distressing, especially from Dani’s eyes and its captured in a sequence that’ll I’ll say is my favorite part of the whole film. It’s the moment Dani comes back from blessing the crops as the community’s new May Queen. She curiously wants to know what going on in one of the barns. Naturally, one of the girls warns her not to, but again human nature and curiosity can’t always be resisted. Dani witnesses another horrific image that cuts her to the core AGAIN and suffers. And you feel for this girl. Breakdown after breakdown, and you know this particular one is the final nail in the coffin. But what’s beautiful about this sequence is how the group of women collectively surround her with their empathy. Like genuine empathy. Her pain is their pain. And as they embrace in this little circle of a cathartic cry session of wailing women, it becomes a domino effect of recycling emotion. It’s terrifyingly haunting to watch on screen and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a filmmaker capture that before well without the regards to Toni Collete’s heavy breakdown in HEREDITARY. I’m still in awe one moment, terrified another, and then exhausted by the onslaught of heavy emotional that hits you like an avalanche. That’s a ton of energy. I’m sure all the guys in the theater were gripping their armchair because its never easy seeing anyone displaying that level of pain especially if it’s someone you deeply love.

I was at odds after watching MIDSOMMAR and my first reaction (which is never my final reaction) was it’s a glorified version of the original WICKER MAN but with a sharp focus from a female’s perspective. Ultimately, its a portrayal of a twisted fairy tale laced in suffering, rebirth, betrayal and acceptance and what’s so parallel is the timeline of the festival’s customs and traditions coincide with what the characters represent in a lifecycle of their own journey. Obviously the ending of a relationship is never easy albeit, Ari Aster makes this grand gesture dazzled in allegory for something tumultuous that should be recognizable by every human being with a soul. It’s a mind-boggling feat. Impressive, glorious, disturbing, and tantalizes the brain! The ending of a relationship is like a death. You ache, you grieve and eventually you accept and sometimes do batshit, crazy things. This is all illustrated in the very first shot of the film. Remember that elaborate mural? The entire story is in that mural which seems like a series of Tarot cards. It feels creepy because it’s meant to. Elaborate with color that doesn’t seem harmful but playful and that’s the real kicker to this whole film as its infused with flowers, dancing, singing, a celebration that mirrors many things in life. Yet beneath the surface there is a true omen to sacrifice. Something people do every day and even though this is a graphically disturbing film it demonstrates humanity’s demeanor. Are we all monsters of our own devices? Not necessarily. But all the newcomers who came to Harga had their own agendas whether it being a thesis or looking to get laid and from that point, there was very much a disconnect between them and in being within their environment. This draws the ferocious line of being selfish or accepting sacrifice which is a fundamental aspect of being in a relationship with someone.

MIDSOMMAR by any means isn’t an easy film to stomach, emotionally and perhaps physically for the average viewer but if you’re strong and willing, go for it! I can’t say enough conflicting good things about this flick. Its discombobulating, clever, deeply and thrillingly like an aphordisac for the confused soul to contempt life’s greatest misadventures. If you can handle blatant imagery of the trauma that’s bestowed upon the human body, which in essence represents the symbolic means of ritualistic sacrifice then by all means please watch this film, and if not well you can read the script which is even grittier than what was shown in theaters. The performance of Florence Pugh, who plays Dani comes off natural and doesn’t even feel like she’s acting. Actually all of the performances were incredible, nothing didn’t feel overplayed but almost as if you felt like you knew these characters to some degree. Sound design, cinematography, creepy musical moments, special effects make up, even how movement is conveyed was intrinsically hypnotic. An incredible haunting tale that will never be forgotten but probably herald as one of the top horror films for decades to come. It even comes with a “moral to the story”. So if you’re dating an arrogant, selfish asshole, well do yourself a favor and dump the person, because yourself worth as a human being deserves better.