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August 21, 2019

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood


Quentin Tarantino - 2019
Columbia Pictures

I was nowhere near Hollywood either in February or August of 1969. During that winter, I was finishing up my Senior year of high school in Denver. That August, I was in Detroit, staying with some relatives prior to going to New York City to begin my first year at New York University. But I have enough clear memories to have questioned the choices of film references and music in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. Yes, I know Quentin Tarantino has framed his film as a "fairy tale". Aside from the alternate reality of a fictional actor's encounter with members of the Manson family, was the choice of film titles seen on theater marquees and posters, as well as a soundtrack that was derived from an AM radio playlist. Thinking about the film, I conjured up my own alternative to this alternative.

First, keep in mind that some of those movies would never have played at the same time. This was when a first run film would play in a major city, often on a single screen, when single screen theaters were the norm. It was also normal for a hit movie to play for months in that one theater. However, the reality is that while we see a prominent poster for Michael Sarne's Joanna, that film basically came and went in November 1968. And one can briefly see a sign for Tora! Tora! Tora!, a film that wasn't released until September 1970. To some extent Sarne, William Friedkin (The Night they Raided Minsky's) and Noel Black (Pretty Poison) are as far Tarantino will get in acknowledging the changing face of Hollywood filmmaking, when film school grads were beginning to make their mark.

Conspicuous in its absence is any reference to Columbia Pictures major hit of the Summer of 1969, Easy Rider. The closest Tarantino comes is having Rick Dalton call Manson family member "Tex" Watson by the presumed pejorative "Dennis Hopper". Some have conflated Rick Dalton's reaction as speaking on behalf of Tarantino, but I don't think it's as simple as that. Like Tarantino, many of the first film school generation filmmakers were influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague, especially the early films by Jean-Luc Godard. Possibly, Dalton is reacting more to Hopper's onscreen persona in Easy Rider as the character known as Billy (the Kid). Hopper appeared in True Romance, written by Tarantino. And less than two months earlier, Hopper could be seen briefly in one of the most mainstream of Hollywood releases that summer, True Grit. What is also significant about Easy Rider is that the bulk of the soundtrack is made up of already existing rock songs, familiar with some AM radio play, but even better known on that relatively new phenomena of FM rock radio, so-called album oriented rock that was independent of the more restrictive Top 40 on AM radio. What makes things a bit complicated culturally here is that FM radio was virtually less racially diverse than AM radio where you could hear Tommy James and the Shondells followed by Sly and the Family Stone, and The Supremes followed by The Doors. If someone depended on Once Upon a Time . . for film history, they would be unaware of how it part of a shift away from traditional Hollywood.

That New Hollywood that is unseen or ignored would include films like John Cassavetes' Faces, a film that Cassavetes made mostly with his own money from acting, free from any studio backing, The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks, the first studio production directed by the African-American writer and photographer, and Midnight Cowboy, initially rated X, officially prohibiting anyone under the age 18 from attending. Midnight Cowboy is almost the anti-Once Upon a Time . . ., taking place in New York City of 1968 at its seediest, also about someone who plays the part of a cowboy, sometimes not very well, accompanied by his enabler as it were. Whereas Rick Dalton's heterosexuality is never in doubt, Joe Buck is flexible as the occasion demands, while the perpetually sick Ratso Rizzo stands opposite of the athletic Cliff Booth. The only acknowledgment of any non-English language films are the four fictional Italian productions starring Rick Dalton.

Unless Quentin Tarantino is totally oblivious, as much as he might revel in an older Hollywood and some of the attitudes of that time, he has also been a beneficiary of following in the footsteps of the New Hollywood generation. It was Hopper and filmmakers like Henry Jaglom, who assisted in the final edit of Easy Rider that played a major part in importing the idea of non-linear narrative structure from Europe to the Hollywood studio film. And taking up where Kenneth Anger left off, Dennis Hopper set the template for studio films comprised of the film director's needle drops from their favorite records. Had there been no New Hollywood, which in turn evolved to the sudden elevation of younger male directors given multi-million dollar budgets on second films, it is quite possible that a video store clerk would still be dreaming about making his own movies.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 21, 2019 06:10 AM