'Once Upon a Time'…Professor Tom Doherty talked about Quentin Tarantino

Film director Quentin Tarantino on a set filming Brad Pitt (back to camera) and Leonardo DiCaprio; they are sitting at a table in a red restaurant boothCourtesy of Sony Pictures

Quentin Tarantino behind the camera with Brad Pitt (back to camera) and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was released on July 26 to immediate critical acclaim and box office success. The movie’s cast includes Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margot Robbie and takes place in 1969 Los Angeles, where a television actor and stunt double navigate the changing film industry.  BrandeisNOW spoke to American studies professor and film expert Thomas Doherty about Tarantino and his most recent success in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Quentin Tarantino has only made nine films and for the most part it’s all been critically-acclaimed work after critically-acclaimed work. Does this make him unique?

Well, if not unique than exceedingly fortunate.  Of his nine films, only one — his last outing, The Hateful Eight (2015) — got universally panned.  I think one of the reasons we’re all so thrilled about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (and I admit I was among the Tarantino-istas who were at the first matinee on opening day) is that it is such a comeback after the mean-spirited and plodding The Hateful Eight.  Otherwise his films (and these are my personal rankings if anyone wants to come by the office and argue) are all either spectacular (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Death Proof, and Inglourious Basterds) or really, really good (Kill Bill I and II), or just pretty good (Django Unchained).  Not incidentally, OUATIH is what Tarantino calls a “hang out movie”— you go not for the plot but to hang out with characters, which is why I think people will be going back to this film again and again — The Big Lebowski — who cares about the convoluted kidnapping caper, we watch it again to be in the company of the Dude, Walter, Donny, et al.

American studies professor Thomas Doherty seated in a theater eating popcorn
Photo/Mike Lovett

Professor Thomas Doherty

How is Tarantino able to stay relevant and keep his movies fresh despite the many changes in the film industry?

The obvious answer is talent: he has an effortless command of film technique, he attracts great actors, and, in a cinematic world given over to grunts and catchphrases, his dialogue is just stone eloquent — witty, smart, musical, vernacular-heavy.  Also, and this is especially important for a period piece like OUATIH, he has a great eye for detail.  The film critic Andrew Sarris wrote, “Never trust an artist who doesn’t pay attention to the details.”  Tarantino’s recreation of Hollywood, 1969-— the music, posters, ads, clothes, and lingo — is like a flashback without the acid hangover.  

Could you see Tarantino switching to television?

Well, anything is possible — TV sure is attracting some of the best writing talent nowadays. But Tarantino prefers the big, theatrical motion picture screen.  Remember that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was shot in 35mm—on film! — so that is the optimum way to see it projected in theaters, although it is also available in 70mm and digital. We’re lucky in Boston because we have two theaters — the Coolidge Corner in Brookline and the Somerville Theatre — that are screening the film in 35mm.  I think for younger people especially, who have grown up on digital projection at the local multiplex, it might be eye-opening to see what the art of celluloid filmmaking looks like.

There’s a new king of the hill in terms of highest-grossing movie of all-time, and it’s Avengers: End Game. Is there any hope of a critically-acclaimed movie, like Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, vying for that top spot in the future, or does it forever belong to mega-motion pictures?

Doubtful.  For a Hollywood film to shoot into the billion-dollar-gross stratosphere it has to play globally and it has to play to adolescents and younger.  Usually this means a special effects-laden superhero extravaganza or a beloved animated animal. Tarantino’s films are not only very personal but very adult (in the sense you have to pay attention) and very American (in the sense they delight in American popular culture and language).  I have nothing against the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Extended Universe, but on the whole I prefer QT’s Cinematic Alternative Universe.  


Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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