How do you solve a problem like Tarantino?
For over 25 years he’s charted his own course in film, as his contemporaries and rivals have fallen from favour. A product of the outburst of indie film-making in the early 90s, when for a brief moment it seemed possible that just about anyone could make a hit – and then follow it up with a series of personal films rather than moving directly into filming the next Marvel superhero saga – he’s gone from a role model for a generation of would-be film-makers to someone who stands alone; if you want a career like his, you can’t get there from here. Which means that when his latest film is sold as more of an event as a plain old movie, it’s partly because big feature films that aren’t tied to superheroes or established franchises really are events now; the Tarantino circus has come to town, and even if you don’t like circuses it’s still probably worth a look.
And to be fair, it’s an approach that’s worked since Kill Bill was split into two parts back at the turn of the century, with pretty much all his films since (let’s overlook Death Proof, his half of the flop Grindhouse project) having delivered increasingly impressive box office numbers.
It’s not like he’s been pandering either – he’s been making war movies and westerns, which aren’t exactly genres audiences have been crying out for. And now with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he takes that approach to the next level: this film is all event, sold almost entirely on the premise that it’s a film not to be missed because it’s… a film that’s not to be missed? Yes, it does also feature star power in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, but star power isn’t what it used to be; even Tom Cruise can only really pull a crowd by hanging off the side of a plane these days.
And aside from the big names, what else is there to know about Tarantino’s latest feature? It’s set in Hollywood in the late 60s, the Manson family is in there somewhere, and… it’s a film not to be missed?
The fact that Tarantino can pull in big crowds despite going his own way in Hollywood is something to be applauded at a time when individual voices are being shunted aside; the problem is that it seems that the only way he can keep on telling his stories is by hyping them up as events, which is often a weight the films themselves can’t carry. The Hateful Eight was just a bunch of nasty people in a room tearing at each other; Django Unchained was a bunch of good scenes mixed in with some silly ones.
And the discussion around Hollywood suggests that whatever the film’s merits, they’re too subtle for the hype: who should win a fight with Bruce Lee and counting how many lines Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate gets are the kind of non-stories people come up with when they feel that on some level what they bought wasn’t what they were sold.
Tarantino makes interesting, individual films that are often surprisingly subtle and multi-dimensional when it comes to morality. They’re films for grown-ups; no wonder today’s media struggles with them.