True to the times

It’s 2019, winter here in Melbourne and there’s three of us setting out on Friday night to watch a movie set in LA in 1969.

In Melbourne, we collect for a drink first at a Highett bar. It’s dark and cold, and the road outside is wet with rain. The bar is filling. The bartender shrugs when asked if he expects a big night, the rain, he murmurs – and if not, the cold. It’s not yet 7pm though, and the place is half full. At our table, we consider getting a bar snack before figuring there’s not time for it. We scoff a pale ale each, then head off to the cinema.

At Southland, we circle the car park, one level at a time, before finding a spot somewhere completely different. We’ve pre-booked the tickets and stroll right in. There’s a big crowd. There’s been a lot of hype about the movie – Once Upon a Time In Hollywood – and good reviews, and it’s just the second night of release. JV pfaffs around a few minutes trying to buy something out of the vending machine with his credit card before we head into the movie. We’re sitting the second row from the front.

The movie takes us to a very different world, vividly drawn. The colours pop, the sounds – old radio ads and TV programs – have a ring of surreal authenticity, and the landscapes, familiar from other programs, seem more real. They’re my initial impressions and held throughout the movie. I’m drawn into this world, a sense of nostalgia even though I never experienced this – I know it, however, because it is a variation of what I do know. The world I know now, the world I live in with my mates, have evolved from this, and the antecedents are familiar.

For me, especially, there is something joyful in this. I am curious by nature. Give me a time machine, and I’d zip backwards and forwards in time, checking out great moments and events, but yes, sometimes just to walk the streets and live the life as it was then. And this world presented to me, so vivid I could feel it, captures that sense of time, and more particularly, a moment in time.

We come to these things generally with an intellectual overlay, aware that what we see is a representation, and that these times have passed. We know what happens after, all the years of moments since diminishing the weight of what we see. It turns out well, or poorly, but ultimately what was so real then is forgotten in the years after, and then we walk out of the cinema. And because of all that it’s rare as we watch that we live in that moment being represented.

It’s a very Tarantino gift that suspends that sense of dispassionate distance. He takes you back, standing on a street corner watching it all unfold. It did me, at least. He’s such an aficionado of pop culture that making a movie fifty years after the event feels more real than a movie made at the time. And that’s because he has an eye for the things we take for granted at the time, but resonate in the years after. In a way, it’s truer because what he captures is the essence that – too busy living – we fail to understand in real-time.

So that’s the first thing I want to say about this movie, how real it felt. Then there’s the rest of it, the story, the characters, the narrative arc. Both my friends thought the movie too long. I didn’t. Cheeseboy thought the first half was too slow, that there was too much character development and scene-setting. I understand that, but I enjoyed that generally, though there was always a sense of drawn-out anticipation knowing what was to come.

I thought both de Caprio and Pitt were fantastic. They were great characters. I think Margot Robbie is a star too, and she was luminous on screen in the role of Sharon Tate. She really liked her. And there was a grit to the story that gave it a human scale. Then there’s the Manson family, and they’re creepy.

All of it culminates in the ending you think you know, but then it dawns on you what the title means. This is the Hollywood ending, and though it’s characteristically violent, it’s hilarious. All three of us and much of the cinema were hooting with laughter. It’s wonderfully over the top, very Tarantino again. He’s got genius in him.

And that was the film.

I look forward to watching it a second time. I think I really enjoyed it, and might even enjoy it more with the anticipation defused. I’ll be able to enjoy it for what it is, rather than what it promises to be. And really, I’d have loved to have been there, to breathe in some of the air, and even some of the characters – especially Pitt’s stuntman, a very cool dude.

We walked out. Sun washed California became a Melbourne night, dark and cold. We were hungry, but the restaurants in the mall were closed. We drove a bit before finally stopping at a kebab van in Moorabbin where, after 11, we sat at a plastic outdoor table on a freezing night, a few drops of rain falling, and munched on our kebabs in relative silence. Cars stopped and parked up on the pavement, and people got out and at the window of the van ordered their midnight snack, while a tinny radio playing crap pop blasted out the soundtrack.

In a way, this is a scene very true of our time, Melbourne in winter, late Friday after a night out.

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