Over the weekend, for the second time in four weeks, I went to see Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I liked the film on second viewing as much as I did on first viewing, and what particularly caught my attention this go-round is how masterful Tarantino is in manipulating time and audience perception for his own narrative uses.
Tarantino's films have always been obsessed with the form and structure, the plasticity if you will, of storytelling itself. No need to rehash here the chronological corkscrews of Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill Volumes I and II or to go through the number of times in his movies characters tell other characters stories or a narrator suddenly breaks in on the movie to tell the audience a story within the film's main story.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for the most part, is told in chronological order. And most of its running time is actually a day in the life narrative following Brad Pitts' Cliff, Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick, and Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate as they go about their business in different parts of Los Angeles. No one is better than Tarantino at taking time to let you get to know characters. But he does it in a way that the rhythm of what is going on varies, helping to keep you engaged and off-balance. The casual flashback/daydream Cliff has of his onset scuffle with Bruce Lee arrives out of nowhere, and despite all the uproar about it, remains, in fact, something that has an unreliabity about it. It may have occurred exactly as Cliff recalls it, or it may not have. We actually get a sweet glimpse of Bruce Lee later in the film, a glimpse that contradicts Cliff's recollection of Lee, when Lee is helping teach Sharon Tate martial arts for her role in The Wrecking Crew (Lee did, in reality, train Tate for that film).
Did Cliff kill his wife? Again, Tarantino doesn't give you enough information to definitively decide what truly happened. Kurt Russell's character, who can't stand Cliff, is the one who announces that Cliff killed his wife, but we get no other evidence the murder happened. Which doesn't mean it did not happen. We understand from his alluded to war record and what we see Cliff do in the film that he has no great problem committing violence, but in the one brief look we get of Cliff with his wife, which occurs as a flashback or memory within a flashback or memory, no killing occurs. Cliff's wife does seem like a harridan, but yet again it's hard to state that what we're seeing is objectively true of his wife or filtered through what Cliff thinks his wife was like.
Tarantino handles all these little time folds effortlessly. And then there's the Spahn Ranch scene, which most directors, in this day and age, would never let go on so long. This scene is proof of how length, when done well, can be the essence of suspense (shades of the basement scene in Inglorious Basterds, which goes on and on and only makes the viewer more and more tense). Not rushing, in an era of the supposed short attention span, is the key. The Spahn Ranch scene is like a scary little horror film within the overall film, and then soon after that, tension released, we have Tarantino completely switching gears once again and that unexpected narrator he likes to use coming in to cover a year in Rick and Cliff's life in a few minutes of screen time. All to set up what you might call the last act, which he also builds deliberately as the audience starts to squirm again.
It's all beautifully done, the mark of someone who plays with chronology, narrative time, and audience perception with ease. Or, at least, Tarantino does it with an ease and a looseness in this film that even he has not had before. He's always been a storyteller who breaks whatever so-called storytelling rules he wants when he wants, and he's never done what he damn well wants to do better than he does in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.