Cinema’s Lord of Misrule, Quentin Tarantino, has returned with a novelisation of his most recent film, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, and while the essence remains the same, the original narrative is subject to Tarantino’s trademark mischief
So it’s 5:30am on a May morning in Cannes, 2009, and the Croisette is already gently illuminated by the dappled light of dawn. I am sipping coffee with a croissant, brought to us in a spirit of camaraderie by fellow movie obsessives who are standing in line to catch the 6:30am preview of Quentin Tarantino’s early cut of his new World War Two spectacular, Inglourious Basterds.
Only a few hours before, the director was holding court under a tree at the Soho House party, answering absurdly arcane questions about films, directors, actors, genres, obscure soundtracks. Tarantino loves Cannes: it was here, after all, that he scooped the Palme d’Or for Pulp Fiction in 1994, and here that he is able to indulge most freely his passion for movies with the like-minded.
Everyone is sleep-deprived, but nobody cares. This is the new Tarantino, for God’s sake: who cares how early it is? And – as every movie lover now knows – Inglourious Basterds proves not only to be a whip smart homage to the WWII B-movies of the past, but Tarantino’s first and most notorious use of film to mess around shamelessly with history and ask: “What if?”
The same mischievous spirit animated his most recent film, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019), which rewrote (amongst other things) the story of what happened at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles on the night of 8 August 1969, when (in real life), Charles Manson’s “Family” brutally murdered Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, and four others. Suffice it to say, and without spoilers, this is not how Tarantino’s movie version pans out.
Now, cinema’s Lord of Misrule has written his first work of fiction, a novelisation of Once Upon a Time… that delves deep into its backstory and – naturally – plays with its original narrative structure. The essence of the tale remains the same: fading Western star, Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film) and his stunt double and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), cruise through a Hollywood in which the Manson Family’s rampage – the “Kreepy Krawl” – is the dark side of a broader cultural revolution.
For a start, the book is an exercise in retro fiction – a homage to the pulp novelisations that used to accompany major releases; churned out at speed, often by ghostwriters, as quick and easy merchandise (“my contribution to this often marginalised, yet beloved sub-genre in literature”, as Tarantino has put it). It reads like Elmore Leonard written at gunpoint – and is hugely enjoyable.
With its modified ending, the book feels already like a literary director’s cut of the original movie. But, really, it is a work of autobiography by the video store clerk who became a superstar director; specifically, a celebration of a particular era in movies and of movie culture draped over a ready-made plot.
Hence, we learn that Cliff, as well as being a decorated war hero, is also an unlikely fan of the foreign films that started to exercise such an influence in Sixties Hollywood. He especially loves the movies of Kurosawa, the acting of Toshiro Mifune, and the on-screen antics of Jean-Paul Belmondo.
“Cliff didn’t know enough to write critical pieces for Films in Review,” writes Tarantino, “but he knew enough to know [Alain Resnais’] Hiroshima Mon Amour was a piece of crap. He knew enough to know Antonioni was a fraud.” He even takes a secretary from the William Morris Agency on a date to see Vilgot Sjöman’s hugely controversial I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967).
As an old school action star, of course, his boss Rick scorns this fascination with subtitled foreign films: “I don’t go to the movies to read.” He prefers to shoot the breeze about the glory days of action heroes – Lee Marvin, Stewart Granger, Burt Reynolds, and Rick’s nemesis, Steve McQueen (who, in the story, pipped him to the lead in The Great Escape).
He hates what Hollywood is becoming and that, as his agent laments, “You gotta be somebody’s hippie son to star in movies nowadays” (take that, Peter Fonda and Michael Douglas). In the end, Rick is “an Eisenhower actor in a Dennis Hopper Hollywood”.
Tarantino’s gift is a capacity to play with genres and chronologies as recklessly as any post-modern saboteur, but also to remain profoundly in love with the movies that he quarries for entertainment. He dismantles and reconstructs the work of the past, but with the deepest affection. The book, like all his movies, is both supremely contemporary and utterly nostalgic.
He has said that his next film, his tenth (the two parts of Kill Bill count as one movie, apparently), will also be his last, and that he will then retire to the “more modest life of a man of letters”.
Well, maybe. It is true that he has already signed up to deliver a second book, provisionally entitled Cinema Speculation, which will explore the films of the Seventies.
All the same: the words “he meant it when he said it” were coined for Tarantino. He is an arch-prankster and an impulsive choreographer, who is more than capable of announcing his departure from the cinematic stage – and then returning on a whim, without a word of explanation.
As Cliff reflects of his beloved Kurosawa: “He wasn’t a fine artist, but he had a sensational talent for staging drama and pulp artistically.” I think Tarantino is writing about himself: not with false modesty, but in the spirit of a film-lover who never wants to surrender this lifelong infatuation to a boring solemnity about his accomplishments as a supposed auteur. He will always be the fan queuing at dawn to see a preview.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Black Widow (general release, 7 July)
Though Marvel Studios has recently been focusing its energies upon small-screen series for Disney+ – such as the entertaining Loki, now streaming in weekly episodes – Cate Shortland’s movie has been awaiting theatrical release for many months, held back repeatedly by the pandemic. Scarlett Johansson’s character, Natasha Romanoff, is at last given her own standalone adventure, away from the Avengers team – a journey that reunites her with her Russian family, including her sister, played by Florence Pugh, and her older-generation superhero father (David Harbour). Add in Ray Winstone as the villain, and you have all the elements of a high-quality Marvel movie – an antidote to the elegiac finality of Avengers: Endgame (2019), and a welcome addition to the franchise that has conquered the world with much greater efficiency than the alien invasions its heroes routinely confront.
Please Help Me (BBC Three, iPlayer, 7 July)
Lucy Pearman, a breakout act at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, is excellent in this new psychedelic sitcom as Milly, caring for her beloved Nan (Anna Calder-Marshall), who uses a vibrator as a rolling pin, struggling with single life, and worried that she is losing her mind. Milly can’t see herself in the mirror, is told off by a pony and believes she is levitating during a date. The dialogue is terrific – when she, Nan and Uncle Sean (Harry Peacock) discuss Sarah Ferguson, she has to explain: “No, no – the one from Bicester”. Very promising.
69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez (VOD)
You don’t have to be a fan of hardcore hip hop to enjoy Vikram Gandhi’s exploration of the career – if that is the word – of social media superstar and rapper, Tekashi69, AKA 6ix9ine. Born Daniel Hernandez, the 25-year-old New Yorker grasped at an early age that his path to fame lay in shocking imagery rather than music or lyrics (“My music is trash but my videos are fire”). The rainbow hair, multicoloured teeth and countless tattoos signified from the start a readiness to capture the attention of screen-scrolling teens at any cost – and it worked. Gandhi leaves the viewer in no doubt that Hernandez is, or has become, a thoroughly repugnant person, who long ago lost what moral moorings he had to a world of gang violence, domestic abuse, and treachery. Whether there is much left of the affable Latino kid who once ran a bodega is for the viewer to decide. Either way, the documentary is a frightening parable of the power of social media to turn a person into a persona, and to sell rubbish as creativity.
The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it – Mary Ann Sieghart (Doubleday)
As one of the most successful and cerebral journalists of her generation, Mary Ann Sieghart is perfectly-placed to map the hurdles and unconscious bias that women still face in every walk of life. The book is full of meticulously-researched data and enriched by Sieghart’s interviews with figures ranging from Baroness Hale to Hillary Clinton. She anticipates and heads off all the standard counter-arguments – principally that gender equality is well on its way to being achieved. Nobody can read this book and still believe that particular myth; and everybody – especially men – should read this book.
Chemistry and Other Stories – Tim Pears (Bloomsbury)
Best known for his West Country Trilogy, Tim Pears has a remarkable ability to extract the striking and luminous moments from ordinary experiences. In that sense, these fine short stories put one in mind of V.S. Pritchett. A scene as simple as a small boy watching cowboys at the cinema is invested with a sense of drama and meaning; as is the haunting image of a teenager pushing her dying mother out to sea. A reminder of what the short story form, in the hands of a master, can achieve.
Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal – George Packer (Jonathan Cape)
As readers of National Book Award-winning The Unwinding (2013) can attest, George Packer is one of the truly indispensable chroniclers of our era. In Last Best Hope, he squares up to what has happened to America in recent times and asks how the most powerful nation on earth came to be pitied as something close to a failed state. At the heart of the decline, he argues, is the loss of the art of civic conversation, “the evasion of talk”, and the absence of a binding culture: what Whitman called the “fervid and tremendous IDEA”. He refuses, all the same, to give up: “I am an American and there’s no escape”. A remarkable book.
Blue Banisters – Lana Del Rey (4 July)
“I’m writing my own story. And no one can tell it but me”: in her eighth studio album, Lana Del Rey imports country music motifs to her trademark exploration of Americana in all its forms, embarking on a sonic journey through a world of romance and glamour shot through with introspection. Little more than three months since the release of Chemtrails Over the Country Club – reviewed here for Creative Sensemaker by Xavier Greenwood – this release attests to her unrelenting commitment as a recording artist. Check out the title track for an early taste of the riches to come this weekend.
This debut album by the 24-year-old, San Diego-born violinist – a student of Itzhak Perlman – is a fine anthology of Black concert music and of the music of white composers that owes a debt to African-American creativity. This takes him from Adoration by Florence Beatrice Price, the first Black woman composer whose work was performed by a major US orchestra; via the duet, Shelter Island, by Xavier Dubois Foley; to four numbers from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. A glorious collection from a true prodigy.
In years to come, cultural historians will write long texts on how artists made inventive and often playful use of lockdown, in creative defiance of Covid. Jack Savoretti chose to indulge an unashamed nostalgia for the melodrama of European popular music, in a fiesta of ballads, disco, and full bore Eighties pomp. This record does exactly what it says on the cover, and is all the better for that.
Bach & Sons –The Bridge Theatre (booking until 11 September)
Don’t miss Simon Russell Beale as the great composer in Nick Hytner’s production of Nina Raine’s new play. A fine ensemble cast lends weight to an exceptional lead performance, and the dramatic whole is knitted together by a subtle exploration of the entanglement of the sacred and the profane, of order and chaos, and of artistic intensity and familial love. (And do read Sarah Sands’s Slow View on the production, in which she talks to Beale, Hytner, and Raine.)
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Have a great week.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Sony Pictures, Miramax, Marvel Studios, Tiger Aspect/BBC, Manuel Harlan/Bridge Theatre, WireImage/Getty Images