Quentin Tarantino has one film left.
In the past, the director has adamantly maintained his intention to produce exactly 10 films throughout his career, though he considers “Kill Bill” volumes one and two to be a single entry. Out of all of them though, it’s Tarantino’s ninth and most recent film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” that best summarizes the key features of Tarantino’s body of work and provides a complete picture into who he is as an artist — a fitting precursor to whatever he will eventually dream up for his capstone piece.
The 2019 release is an unapologetic celebration of the mania that struck 1960s Los Angeles. For all its quirks and indulgences, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a compelling declaration of all that Tarantino admires most about entertainment media and pop culture. The film does so by embodying two principles of Tarantino moviemaking: intertextuality and his artistic fusion of mundane and dramatic events.
“Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” is all about style. Old songs, fast cars, movie stars and electrifying action — these ingredients make up the basis of a Quentin Tarantino film, and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” illustrates that foundation to great effect.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, an aging television actor struggling to remain relevant amid a new era of movie stars and commercial industry. Alongside him is Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double sidekick portrayed brilliantly in an Academy Award-winning performance by Brad Pitt. The duo embarks on a string of adventures set against the hectic backdrop of red carpet premieres and the countercultural movement.
Intertextuality — the shaping of a text’s meaning by its relationship with other texts — plays a foundational role in the infrastructure of Tarantino’s films. The director takes every opportunity to incorporate intertextual references to the celebrities, movie scenes and general ideas that have most influenced his artistic taste.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” takes intertextuality to another level. The film plays as a 160-minute highlight reel of ’60s pop culture through creative self-reference. Rick spends a day on the set of the show “Lancer,” where he is booked as the guest villain alongside star James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant). In a cutaway sequence to a clip from the 1963 World War II drama “The Great Escape,” DiCaprio is edited in place of Steve McQueen as Rick daydreams of what could have been if only he had scored the coveted role.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” succeeds as a creative vision because of the delicate balance Tarantino strikes between those elements of self-reference and the director’s signature auteur style. Taken too far, intertextual references threaten to come across as merely an artful way of copying other preexisting films. At worst, they run the risk of devolving into a loose collection of cringe-inducing hints at media fads, shoehorned in for hollow sentiment and cheap laughs. Though of a wildly different genre, “The Emoji Movie,” in which a group of emoticons adventure across Twitter, Instagram and Candy Crush, is a case in point.
Tarantino expertly sidesteps these potential pitfalls by honing the focus of the film on the distinguishing aspects of his unmistakably original script. The characters, cinematography and story structure are each marked by a signature and deeply personal design only Tarantino himself could dream up. Throw in a dash of creative flourish that verges on the extreme, and the end result is a perfect recipe for timeless and unabashedly fun cinema.
Tarantino’s fusion of the mundane with over-the-top action is another technique that dates back to his earliest work. His 1992 cult classic, “Reservoir Dogs,” opens with a polarizing discourse that veers from topics of the ethics of tipping to the pop star Madonna. Though verging on tedious, the conversation grounds the film with a sense of plausible reality before diverting course into a heist-gone-wrong storyline.
“Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino’s 1994 magnum opus, begins on a similar note. Hitmen Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), on their way to carry out a ruthless execution, engage in a hysterical rambling conversation about television shows, international fast food and foot massages. Jules and Vincent are just like us, simply following the mechanical routines of a typical commute to work — with the only caveat that their job involves exacting heinous crimes without an inkling of remorse.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” flips the script by putting off the gory violence until an extravagant grand finale, but the general formula remains the same. While recognizing the mundanities of life, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” employs an eccentric style that livens its world with splashes of outrageous excitement. Rick and Cliff are everyday people who like to kick back in front of the television with some pizza and cold beer at the end of a long day of work. It just so happens that they also get into fights with Bruce Lee and that their next-door neighbors are Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski.
There’s not much left to Tarantino’s film career, by choice. He reasons that film directors tend to stick around past their welcome, and as a result, slowly but surely lose touch with general audiences. Though a continued career of writing for the screen and stage remains in the cards, it is difficult to imagine a world in which Tarantino is not actively making movies. Few filmmakers have managed comparable commercial success and cult following.
If indeed this is the end of the road, it’s likely that Tarantino has something special in the works for magic movie number 10. If anyone knows how to go out in style, it’s Tarantino.
Tucker Oberting is a rising senior in the College. This is the final installment of The Reel Deal.