Punctuation in movie titles is rare and distracting enough that it best make its purpose known. Usually it hints at the nature of the movie to come. The exclamation point once advertised an unnerving shock as in Them! or genuine pep a la Oklahoma! The excitable mark was later co-opted by big comedy as in Airplane! and Hail, Caesar!, the latter title having the added bonus of an awkward if proper comma shoved in the middle. Birdman‘s full subtitle: or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance) connotes the unorthodoxy or (possibly the pretension) to come.
Though it’s not hard to find Quentin Tarantino’s supposedly penultimate feature listed as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, its proper title is Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (don’t be fooled by the versions that put the ellipses after the “in” neither). It’s a title that dictates how to announce itself, presumably with a poignant pause two thirds through like a sommelier transitioning from whiff to quaff. A pause that contains a bit of showmanship and a wink to viewers familiar with other movies that begin with the same words. It’s grand, silly and more than a little self-important. The perfect punctuation to precede “Hollywood.”
The end credits illustrate the pause by holding on the text Once Upon a Time before revealing the final two. By now we’ve seen the second purpose of the triple dots – a way to highlight the oldest traditional use of those first four words in fairy tales. Tarantino’s Hollywood is indeed a fairy tale of Hollywood though for a movie set where tales are manufactured on a daily basis the first two acts are incongruously drawn to the mundane. One of our three main characters, stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), spends more time driving with the radio blaring than on movie sets, and that radio plays ads almost as often as it does music. Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is a rising movie star on her day off, pausing her errands to watch her completed performance with an appreciative audience.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the only lead spending his time on good old fashioned movie lot, running lines and wrestling with self-doubt in his trailer. When he does perform, the movie ingeniously dispenses with the signifiers of a movie set and plays out the scene with full coverage. The lights and crew become invisible and the movie within the movie plays seamlessly so long as Dalton can remember his lines. What we see is what’s been captured, separated from the movie machinery of Hollywood. A story treated as real as Booth fixing a television aerial several miles away.
Tarantino signals a nostalgia for a lot of things throughout the movie like 35mm film, the music and fashion of 1969, and the Los Angeles storefronts of yesteryear. Once Upon a Time isn’t really an exploration of that time or even a pastiche. It’s a diorama, a faithful recreation that makes time for observing what sort of dishes a bachelor eats his mac and cheese from. It’s interesting to reflect that in 1969 Tarantino was all of six years old. The year would be a decade past when he’d be old enough to engage with it on an adult level and already available only as a somebody else’s memory.
The first two thirds of the movie are preoccupied with mostly a single day significant only in hindsight. A six-month stint in Italy filled with back-to-back-to-back movie roles and a marriage is compressed (…) in the transition to the film’s third act, a burst of fantasy that is decidedly not concerned with the mundane or the historical. The several blocks of painstakingly recreated 1969 Los Angeles contrast with Tarantino’s confrontation with the historical record. It may not make it surprising, but it sure makes it pop. The finale handwaves the rose-tinted nostalgia of the movie before it without dismissing it. Hollywood doesn’t change the past, at best it relates its memories and then memories of the memories. Cliff laughs off a flashbacks that contains a flashback itself. You really can’t go home again, so why not remember home as better than it was?
The dot-dot-dot of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is an inconvenience to the eye, a series of bumps on the way between familiar words, and it’s an acknowledgement of Tarantino’s dual intentions. This world and the people in it are just the stuff of legends that happened once upon a time. Anything he adds to change that will be just… Hollywood.