Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino (by Tosh Berman)

Sunday, July 11, 2021

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD a novel by Quentin Tarantino (Harper Perennial, 978-0-06-311252-0)

I can't think of a better time than spending a few (or longer) hours with a Quentin Tarantino film in a movie theater. I think of his work as vacation time. I don't need to think too hard about the films, and it is a guarantee that there will be a tremendous snappy conversation and tons of film references for the amateur and educated film nerd. In Tarantino's world, he makes up his landscape based on the desire for a life seen through the movie camera lens. He's brilliant to pick up a dialog that is both natural as well as theatrical. Of his nine films, there are some that I prefer to others. Still, one can't go wrong with a Quentin Tarantino movie; what I do find slightly annoying is the fans who are obsessed with either a history that they missed due to their ages or, at its worst, nostalgia for another era. On the other hand, my favorite film of Tarantino is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  

Tarantino deals with a landscape that I was very similar with, especially the Los Angeles radio stations KHJ and KRLA and the TV shows of that year in 1969, either shown in syndication or in real-time. The fake-69' billboards, the signings on the side of the buses, and the bus benches on Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard bring up bittersweet memories. Every person I know who has a thing for retro life and culture fell in love with Tarantino for just bringing up the past in such a manner that is a great comfort. It was an odd time warp to drive down Sunset Boulevard and witness the world tuning back to 1969.

On the other hand, the reality was that it was the end of the peace and love of the 1960s, and a horror show of sickening violence took place in Los Angeles. Positively, the film changes that narration to one of the good and happy endings. The death of Sharon Tate and others by the hands of the Manson family doesn't give me pleasure nor happy thoughts. Tarantino presents his upbeat narration to the very real year of 1969. A creative artist can make a powerful film by changing the painful memory into a good and comforting ending. Let nostalgia get in the way by telling a horrific tale. 

The beauty of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is that it can be retold or played as a board game with the characters of actor Rick Dalton and his stunt man and gofer Cliff Booth. Of the two, the only interesting figure is Cliff, mostly because he's a violent psychopath. Plus, he has charm. Rick is an actor going through the pains of being a TV star and his journey to make it as a film star. The pathway is not hard to see but difficult to stay on the path. The beauty of Tarantino's work is that he gives life to these characters that become an ongoing series if possible. Or made into a novel.  

In the novel Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has another go with his lead and side characters. In format, it resembles a novelization of a film. Still, in actuality, it is a series of fictional and nonfictional riffing of the times through the characters and the culture that they all came from. As a teenager and even as a child, I have read the novelization of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and my beloved British series The Avengers and The Prisoner. I enjoy the act of reading, but also I feel that when I read a novelization or a book based on my favorite TV series, I'm getting an inside look at the characters, such as Napoleon Solo, John Steed, Emma Peel, or the mysterious No. 6. 

After seeing the film twice, and months later reading Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it's fascinating that he doesn't let the characters go. I suspect that he keeps all his creations as a living substance and not a work from his past. Bob Dylan is known to wanting to keep his music in the present and doesn't see his recordings as the last and final statement. I think Quentin looks at his creative work in the same framework. In that sense, his novel is an exciting read because he takes the narration and the characters into another aspect of the film narration. If one is a fan of the movie, I think they will like the novel, as a sequel to the film. 

If you separate the film from the book, which by design is the side-line product to be part of the film experience, it is not that good of a novel by itself. What it does do is to allow Tarantino to write about film and especially TV history as an ongoing lecture by its author's voice throughout the book. The fun part of Tarantino's world is that he designs his creative work as one large product; all aspects are attached to Quentin Tarantino. He's the ultimate, in the 21st-century sense, an influencer.  

Tarantino is very much a critical thinker, but as an entertainer, expressing his love for history that he re-makes to suit his purpose in telling a story. His passion for steak houses with full bars, family restaurants, and nerdy enjoyments, such as obsessing over popular and grade-z films, is comfort food itself. As of this writing, he has two movie theaters in the Los Angeles area, where he will only show 35mm films, which I think most are from his collection. I have always admired artists who make up their landscapes and treat the outside world as a nuisance more than anything else. 

Reading his novel is visiting Tarantino's head. I'm about ten years older than Quentin, and I have strong recalls of TV shows from my childhood and teenage years. The big difference between Tarantino and me was his knowledge about TV culture when he was very young. I'm presuming that he got stuck on these shows when Tarantino, I have to assume, watched the various TV series due that they were repeated on multiple local channels throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It's hard to believe since the novel and film take place in 1969, and in actuality, Quentin was around 9-years old at the time of the Manson killings. I was 15, and I lived in Topanga Canyon with my parents, which was also a hangout for the Manson Family at the time. I remember my dad telling me that he remembered picking up Manson as a hitchhiker on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. 

Tarantino's historical information is mostly from his movie-viewing past. He was indeed a child of the modern technological era of the movie theater as a church and a place to gather information about the world. One can change one's perception of the world by just editing or adding scenes to a narration. His novel is very much of a re-edit of his film. As a novel, it doesn't work, but as a collection of notes and references, it is an important document. Maybe not for the general and not cinema-loving reader, but it's an essential work for and by the author and is an active investigation in his thinking of the culture he didn't leave by the side of the road. 

As a reader and an admirer of the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it is in parts delicious, but to make this book into something beyond itself, he needed a good editor. I'm presuming that he didn't work with an editor because passages and even chapters in the book could easily be eliminated. Then again, one of the joys of the Quentin Tarantino world is that he's maximum in all aspects of his creative work. There are no shortcuts with Quentin; it's all or nothing.