Conjuring the Dead: “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” Is Upon Us

Current Events, Film, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

brad and leo

I went to drink another Negroni at Musso & Frank with a couple of close friends immediately after watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood.” It was supposed to be a stewed nod to the director and film, a phlegmed gasp of deference that we were sitting in possibly the same swiveling barstools that Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton—or rather, laconically, just Brad and Leo—sat their firm, libidinal, starlet-asses on, as they finally croaked their lines in front of a camera. You can picture Tarantino controlling this space, kneeling behind the counters, talking so enthusiastically with his hands until they ignite a miniature summer squall, his determinate chin-erection as a glossy and pointed hump prodding at whatever stands in front of it. The white-haired bartenders here were at ease in their decorously soiled red blazers; they didn’t give a shit about our expulsions of theory and decay. We were drunk, throwing money, begging the open sky to make us drunker. They had all been in the film, as themselves, and had also been serving these cocktails for decades. This one hundred square-foot runway behind the counter that my friends and I hunched over was where they spent unnumbered hours, totaling many years, mixing Old Fashions, Negronis, Latin Manhattans, King Robbs, Ginger Gold Rushes, watermelon daiquiris, et al., oceans of sweetened ferment that made us dumber and sad. The people around were comparable: a young white man with a manicured aryan fro, and an “I Am the NRA” pullover with a huge American flag printed on the back; he was trying to get laid, leaning into his date with a desperation comparable to homeless children begging with their hands cupped to tourists. A fat man in a bright Hawaiian shirt sat near me; his face was red from busted capillaries, from decades of alcohol I guess. There was a group of female models in a booth behind me; they kept fixing their hair while staring pointedly into their phones as Magic Mirrors of more eupeptic fates than this one here.

It’s why we watch movies instead. And as Tarantino has declared himself, “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” is his love letter to Hollywood; it’s his most personal film, in that he’s displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of the world he loves so much. “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” takes place in 1969, the year of the Manson murders, the end of the so-called love generation, when the besotted delirium of bare feet and acid and tie-dye splattered like multi-colored ejaculations across their chests gave way to the paranoias of cults and charismatic serial killers, an era analogous to the aftermath of a bad acid trip, when the spindly reverberations are still all around you, but the wide-eyed blinking and inability to follow social cues remains dominant.

The night a very pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends got slaughtered was the night the beautiful colors and uncontrollable love and laughter turned schizophrenic, when the politicians got even crazier, when the wars somehow got even more demented. It’s understandable why Tarantino picked this event. It wasn’t necessarily the death of our innocence, because we were already the furthest thing from innocent. But the rich, and famous, and white were now vulnerable, and therefore the spell had been broken. The America that’s been killing its youth, ordering them to fight their insane wars, the America that bludgeons against the black and brown and poor and female finally turned against itself in ways it hadn’t before.

To get as close as one can to the way a director thinks, to his or her psychoses and tempered perversions, in a psychoanalytic arrangement more akin to a sprawling Rorschach journey, you watch all or as many of their films through, as chronologically as you can. Bergman, Fellini, Louis Malle, Agnés Varde, Tarkovsky, Jacques Tati—they and countless others smashed their old successful conventions, creating entirely new ways of telling stories through film. Because telling stories is not the superficial task of carrying the viewer through the glugging pool of characters and plot through some undulating act structure; the filmmaking is equally embraced to the story being told, and Tarantino has been telling the exact same story with only the surface scum of ornamental characters and plot as the remaining difference. His filmography resembles something closer to an Andy Warhol exhibition—a grandiose monoculture of hype with its extravagant blast of color and flair.

His films are just like his soundtracks. It’s about replaying the old hits—the lint-dusted vinyl spun backwards, a bubblebath of glitter and lube so we can no longer identify our nuts from our nipples. It is, of course, about nostalgia. It always has with Tarantino. He’s a doctor Frankenstein of film trivia that’s been shoved through a wood chipper, pasting together old movie posters and cereal boxes and radio commercials and beer cans and cars into one gleaming orgy of cinema only because these things are cool. Perhaps they’re lacking any substantive value in the overall narrative, but at least they remind us of the way things used to be, and more importantly that Tarantino knows about them. And he wants desperately to tell us that he knows about this remote paraphernalia, as if only he is privy to this knowledge, and only he is resurfacing it for your viewing pleasure. The reason he doesn’t create new music for his films isn’t because he wants to authenticate his world with time-appropriate music, but rather because Tarantino doesn’t create anything new in his films as a whole.

That’s not to say that Tarantino doesn’t immerse you in a world of its own. But in “Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood,” he created a world that only exists as its tiny exclusive snow-globe existence, purposely leaving out race riots, Vietnam War protests, the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, general civil upheaval that was the collective antithesis of its protagonists. There were only the white Hollywood stars, and the hippies. Two worlds of opportunistic self-loathing at war with one another. Every time Cliff Booth or Rick Dalton uttered the word “hippie” it was with a brackish disdain for the voluntary lower class, a predatory resentment of their collective decision to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” also emphasized this indelible snobbery amongst the class of responsibles, with Bigfoot Bjornsen taking every opportunity he could to denigrate hippie scum. But it was part of the pun, amidst the stoned Pynchonian haze teeming from a circus of languid heroes. It wasn’t actually cynical, but part of a private desire to believe in the trip; it was a clumsy jealousy that grown men with military-issued lapels and flattop haircuts couldn’t grapple with. Tarantino’s treatment of this was an emphasis entirely on the Manson family, on the monstrosity that gave an altar to the Nancy Reagan types and their religiosity of squareness, to just say no, and no, again and again.

Besides the obvious informalities when Cliff Booth tells Rick Dalton not to cry in front of the Mexicans, or contorting Bruce Lee into a brash caricature of egomania, contemptuous and irrational, like a schoolyard bully who picks fights he can’t win, or making Sharon Tate the self-admitted klutz who bobs around town stupidly amused with herself, going to the movies to watch herself on the big screen, and glancing around in the dark movie theater, smiling to herself when the other audience members laugh at her falling to the ground and reciting bad jokes, there’s not much offered as countenance for importance characters, much less heroes.

That’s why Tarantino’s portrayal of hippies is so ill-informed. At one point, when Cliff Booth is hanging out with Rick Dalton at his house, watching old episodes of the hit western television series “Bounty Law,” in which Dalton stars, Booth brings out a joint that’s been dipped in acid. He saves it until the end of the film, when the climactic twist comes to a head, and he takes a long deep hit, and mutters, “And away we go.” This is, of course, impossible. LSD evaporates when exposed to light or heat, and so burning it would be a complete waste of the chemical, and if you felt anything close to the coruscating explosions of ego-death, it would be more related to those videos of teenagers pretending to act blackout drunk when all they had was in fact nonalcoholic beer from unmarked kegs. It’s evidential that Tarantino has only been a film nerd, and nothing more. The characters in his films are often great, and especially great for cinema; but they’re always just characters, not quite human enough to jump off the screen and fill us with the reverential charity of a whiskey-soaked communion, even a banal decency brushed up in the dust. The aftermath of his films feel like getting mild enjoyment from a good sneeze.

Cultural critics are obsessed with identifying the point or purpose of things. As they should. The point of a film or song or painting doesn’t need to be prophetic; there’s not enough geographical expanse in our Promethean hungers for everything to be a Guernica or a “Stalker.” And that’s fine. Most films are bad, but at least most of the time you know they’re going to be bad—simple farts honked from the factory windows of an industry already so consumed with itself, The very worst of cinema is when it takes itself as serious as a Kurosawa or a David Lean, but merely achieves the same frustrating pedantry as everything else, as a garrulous drunk who will just not shut the fuck up.

“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” doesn’t quite meet the criteria for being terrible. It’s messy, as are all his films, in the way a toddler’s bib is messy, or a porno film’s overall narrative is messy. I want to know why Tarantino made the ending the way it is, why a two and a half hour buildup of tension between the hippies and the Hollywood heroes had to be so prosaically Tarantino, why he couldn’t contain his turrets for overly stylized violence just once. We’re being pandered for cheap laughs, like children at a marionette show who scream gleefully and clap their flat palms together when the good knight parades victoriously on his floppy horse, our mouths and fingers sticky from so much dribbling Coca-Cola and pulverized popcorn debris. Do we not deserve better? Have we reduced ourselves to the delicacies of bucktoothed yokels, juggling potatoes at the county fair, doing body shots every time a firework makes a patriotic allusion to its fearless immortality?

Films of emphasized nostalgia meet the cravings of today. Modernity doesn’t offer us the splendors and blooming appetites that the sci-fi films of the past based in our present decade promised. The films that predicted the future failed us. Or what is more likely, we failed them. Like all our other failed dreams. There’s no Hal 9000 trying to disrupt our autonomy and mission to explore other planets, tossing our best mates into the eternal depths of outer space; instead, we have Alexa who will order us more protein powder when we ask it ten times, yelling louder and slower with each successive attempt. Philip K. Dick’s androids aren’t seducing our wits into murderous paranoias; there’s no javelins of lasers between monarchs with emerald-encrusted pith helmets; what we got instead was a planet that’s breaking out in volcanic blisters, whales washing up dead on the beach with a stomach full of our plastic filth; we got Tinder; Hulu automatically binging your free nights into some bleary pixellation; a growing slouch in your neck, gums that have begun to bleed, the jubilance of youth drying up a little more every successive day; blog posts that jumble into a Mount Everest built with scribbled confetti; a glowing, pleading circus inside this rectangle in your back pocket, sucking your face like a vampire squid; fake plants from Ikea, drywall and fiberglass that looks like cotton candy that separate us from our neighbor we’ve never met; marriages that drag out like skid marks; the incomprehensible mass of other bodies, every one of them seeing the world as you see yours now, that the world is happening to you, and then the occasional assurance that when you melt back into the phlegm of rotted earth under some stump of termites, all your drunken camaraderie was nothing more than a desert fart.

So we’ve given up on the future. Instead, Tarantino turns our attention to vintage beer cans, root beer float commercials, tanning butter commercials, and something remotely bland from Paul Revere & The Raiders. Because the past is alterable. It’s a trinket shop of cool bracelets and some old records that we can rifle through. He’s often criticized for his sensationalized gore—the streams of blood that surge like a firehose nozzle when a limb is chopped off, heads exploding with atomic force, bodies that are violently tossed more as ragged dolls. But it’s the gore of nostalgia that really makes me hysterical, in which his cinema is so caricaturized, it’s more cartoon than live action. It’s what we deserve. Enthusiasm for the mundane is god. Make us rich for a few smothering seconds. And then roll the credits.


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Mid90s is the Beginning and Ending of Our Lives

Current Events, Film, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

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by Guy Walker

Growing up in Los Angeles in the mid nineties was supposed to be a time of perspiring boredom. There was no Great War to protest against, no major cultural upheaval, no new mind-expanding drugs to try. There was just the day-to-day unfolding monotony of being a kid, wading through the creamy smog the way grandmothers swim, swinging lunch pails, conceding that yo-yos and Pokémon were scenes of glamour and social footing.

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, observes so much more than the fragmented trademarks of growing up in this strange and passionless orgy—the standardized confusion of slang, the Teenage Ninja Turtles ubiquity, the stapled fortresses bunched together into a barren and broken purlieu. Most representations of the nineties serve more like they were accruements of nostalgia organized neatly on the fireplace mantle. And within the context of skateboarding (as well as surfing and snowboarding), Hollywood has never achieved anything worthwhile. For the most part, these types of films have come across as one blurred and contrived iteration of Dazed and Confused, which in itself was feigned nostalgia.

What makes Mid90s the delicate masterpiece that it is, is our own obsession with authenticity. We’ll scour endless hours of interview footage and Twitter feeds to find a person’s single public stumble, and confidently write them off as a counterfeit icon. Jonah Hill rightly stated that a single Kowabunga! in a film that’s really only peripherally about skateboarding would disembowel the whole work, lump it along with the rest of the ridiculous genre.

But there’s none of this caricaturized glee. Thirteen-year-old Stevie, played by Sunny Suljic, comes from a moderately broken home—with a single mother, and an older brother who beats on him, he turns to a new group of friends. He stops watching movies with his mom; he starts smoking cigarettes, and drinking forties in the bathroom in order to catch up with the older kids; he’s deflowered in a sense, vaunting his success of fingering a girl for the first time. But Mid90s is a return to innocence. The resounding meliorism in Hill’s picture is finding family outside one’s own, in the ramshackled guardians who roam around like us, searching for some invocation of purpose. It seems negligible at times to try to pontificate on why a film is so successful in its delivery, in how it was molded over four years into its nice 84-minute package of what it means to grow up in a broken home. And maybe this was unintended. Director Paul Thomas Anderson said it was only well after he completed Boogie Nights did he realize it was about family—about finding it in the most unexpected places.

The return to innocence is what drives so much of the American adult narrative. It’s why so many of us have children, so we can vicariously relive life’s gleaming optimism through our children’s eyes. The innocence is summarized neatly in a scene when Fuckshit, a rhapsodic long-haired skater a few years older than Stevie, played by Olan Prenatt, explains to a genuinely engrossed homeless man about why they skateboard all day: “[It’s] why we ride a piece of wood—like, what that does to somebody’s spirit.” If an adult uttered those words, we could aptly scoff at their own self-indulgence; but the unprompted candidness of the young is what makes it good and true. That same scene was inspired by a moment just before the end credits in Plan B’s 1993 skate video, Virtual Reality, when one of the skaters sings along to Here Comes The Sun with a homeless man playing on his guitar. There was no mockery, no escaped abuse; just a moment of genuine kinship for the streets.

Because the treatment of the homeless and of skaters at the time were similar. Especially a young black man like Na-kel Smith who plays Ray, the oldest and most talented of the group, who occasionally nudges Stevie in a direction that an older brother or father should. He offers gentle encouragements that could only have been learned from his own time living and falling.

Mid90s has been compared much with the 1995 classic, Kids, for the obvious superficial similarities. Kids is about a day in the life of a group of New York City teenagers, their experimentation with dirty words, their required exaggerations of those novel sexual exploits, when every kiss and touch of a nipple felt like Rocky Balboa’s celebration at the top of the stairs. But as accurate as the youth’s depiction in Kids may have been, it was the product of generational cynicism, a sort of updated Reefer Madness that terrified parents on every friendless cul-de-sac than it did inspire more of an introspective art form. The similarities are there: Telly, the main teenage stalwart of awkwardness, intones to his friend about virgins. “I love ‘em. No diseases, no loose as a goose pussy, no skank. No nothin. Just pure pleasure.” It’s two excruciating hours of this. Watching it today, you don’t cringe for him and his clumsy gloating, but for yourself. We remember when this was the way it was—a collective effort of mentally inscribing the most irreverent displays from our older brothers and drunk uncles and coming to school each day as if to share our dirtiest vocal capabilities, gluing “pussy” with “cocksucker” with “your mom” like they were loose interchangeable Scrabble pieces. There’s a moment in Mid90s when Stevie first steps foot in the Motor Avenue skate shop, where he glimpses from behind a t-shirt rack at the private dialogue of his soon-to-be friends. They debate if they’d rather suck their dad’s dick or eat their mom out. Life or death. It’s as accurate of a moment as ever could be. Lunch hour was an endless joust of hypotheticals: would you rather break both legs or let your sister shit in your mouth. Debates that could run on for hours, fissuring our unrealized ideological confines. But there was always the bleary self-awareness that the whole thing was in jest, that life itself is just some strange ephemeral quip, fueled by waggery and drunkenness. Mid90s captured that integral lightheartedness within its dialogue that Kids didn’t.

Because at that age you’re still learning to form words, trying to croak out some meaning from your smutty orifice. As if there’s a vague awareness that we’ve only recently been weened off the teet, and our mouth is now told to perform, to interact casually and senselessly like normal adults do. Before you become a caricature of yourself, miming the sayings of pristine lawnmower American suburbia, drinking a light beer at your buddy’s bar-b-que, saying things like, “just nod your head and say she’s right,” as you all laugh together like you’ve never heard that witticism before. Mid90s is also the last hurrah of innocence before we start acting out these manufactured identities.

At its core, Mid90s is far more related to Hoop Dreams, the nearly three hour documentary that follows two inner-city Chicago teenagers, and their quest to make it into the NBA. Both films have a similar dialectic between chasing some endless victory lap of a debonair adolescence, sinking deeper into the impishness of being young and drunk forever, and pursuing the original dream of doing what you love professionally. In Hill’s film, Ray and Fuckshit begin as best friends, both with exceptional talent, who gradually drift apart amid their differing interests: Ray pursuing skating as a real, tangible career, and Fuckshit just getting more and more fucked up. This same wrestling of temptations underlies Hoop Dreams—it underlies our daily life. Every momentary lull gnawing with the beckoning of sabotage: am I going to drink more chamomile tea and finish this article, or overdose on ghb with my overweight landlord?

I was never much of a skateboarder, but I’ve surfed most of my life. And walking down the steps to the beach parking lot, there’s always the expected coven of old men, softly shuffling around the dusty blasphemous edge of the world with their shirts off, their dark brown beer-tits mummified forever by the sun, the scaled wrinkles folded over themselves. They still wear flip flops. They still ask me for pot. They still even surf on occasion. But most of all, they stand around like human seagulls, scavenging for the last morsels of cool, talking about their hippest days. It’s why a coming of age story with skateboarding serving as the glaring interest that the plot swirls around is so apt—we know this too will change, that our beloved maple-eyed protagonist lays in his hospital bed at the end of the film with two families that love him, with a myriad directions forward.

The skate documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys showed it without categorically declaring it so: the archived footage was of the Z-Boys as handsome sun-tendrilled kids; but their present day interviews were noticeably different. Stacey Peralta became a famous and respectable filmmaker, while Jay Adams slogged in and out of prison serving drug-related sentences, eventually dying at age 53. The blithe enviability of blond-haired grommets sneaking into backyard pools to skateboard disappears with old age.

Mid90s ends soon after the thwarting romance has fallen apart. These decisions are just beginning to be considered, when the audiences’ own desires for self-correction anticipates for a more comprehensive last verdict. It ends when it needs to end, before the rush of school shootings, before one or more of the friends gets addicted to meth, before the shuttering jolt into the next millennium and all its grotesque calamity. Jonah Hill lets us remember the last redeemable decade as it was, before the lights went out on us for good.