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July Books

Julia Butters in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (2019)

By a long shot, the most talked-about book since last month’s roundup on new and noteworthy titles is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino has been doing much of the talking. On podcasts hosted by Marc Maron,Elvis Mitchell, and the Ringer’s Sean Fennessey and Chris Ryan, he’s been preparing his devoted fans for his transition from filmmaker to novelist. For years he’s been saying that he would make ten films and call it a day, and number nine was his 2019 ode to the Los Angeles of 1969, a winningly laid-back hangout movie that moseys its way toward an ultraviolent sign-off.

Hard copies of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood should arrive in the fall, but Tarantino wanted a paperback released first, a brick of a book the cut and size of the kind we find rotating on tall metal drugstore carousels. Some of the writers of movie novelizations that Tarantino admires—John Minahan (9/30/55, Eyewitness), Arthur Herzog (Orca), and of course, Sam Fuller, who novelized his own movies—were given just a few weeks to turn a shooting script into a prose novel that would help promote the movie on opening day. But Tarantino spent five years working on his screenplay, researching and gathering anecdotes from old hands such as Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, and Kurt Russell.

Even with a running time of two hours and forty-one minutes, the film is just too tight to fit it all in, but four hundred pages have given Tarantino room to roam. “He’s here to tell a story, in take-it-or-leave-it Elmore Leonard fashion,” writes Dwight Garner in the New York Times, “and to make room along the way to talk about some of the things he cares about—old movies, male camaraderie, revenge and redemption, music and style. He gets it: Pop culture is what America has instead of mythology. He got bitten early by this notion, and he’s stayed bitten.” And the book reads as it should. “If it were written better,” quips Garner, “it’d be written worse.”

Once again, Sharon Tate, played in the film by Margot Robbie, escapes her horrific real-life fate. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), once the star of a hit western TV series in the 1950s, struggles to make the most of guest spots playing the black hat who gets shot at the end. Tarantino says it hurt like hell to cut a scene he’d shot, a telephone conversation between Rick and child actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters), but now it’s in the book.

And then there’s Cliff Booth, Rick’s stuntman, driver, and fixer-upper—as well as the perfect fit for Brad Pitt. “Cliff’s story almost merits its own movie or novel and it’s hard not to feel that Tarantino has fallen a little bit in love with him,” writes Gavin Smith at Reverse Shot. “The novel’s Cliff is the quintessence of amoral Tarantino cool, and one of his great creations, above and beyond Pitt’s deserved Oscar-winning performance.”

Tarantino tells Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. that of all the characters he’s dreamed up over the years, “Cliff Booth has ripened most. People really just end up being really fascinated with him. Two years later, after the movie, people still bring him up and talk about him. He seems to have a shelf life that resonates the more time passes.”

Did Cliff kill his wife? That remains an open question in the movie, but Tarantino answers it in the book. Is Cliff a cinephile? No, Tarantino tells Fleming, but he does see a lot of movies and he does make a point of catching a foreign film each Sunday. Gavin Smith spots a considerable overlap between Cliff’s tastes, Tarantino’s oft-stated preferences, and the positions mapped out in the criticism of Pauline Kael. “So, there we have it,” writes Smith: “one of our greatest contemporary filmmakers is just another Paulette.”

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson finds Tarantino’s first novel to be “a bold, nimble, piquant, informative, often joyous piece of storytelling in the metahistorical tradition of Doctorow and DeLillo and James Ellroy, who also mixed real-life figures and invented characters, and the counterfactual tradition of Sinclair Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here and Philip Roth in The Plot Against America, though powered by wish-fulfillment rather than envisaging the worst-case scenario.” Compared to the film, the book is “rangier, sexier, bloodier,” writes Charles Arrowsmith in the Washington Post. “More wistful, and somewhat more oblique in meaning, it expands the film’s world even as it comments upon it.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is “not only a fresh path through the story world that will tease fans but also another of [Tarantino’s] accessible experiments with narrative form,” writes David Bordwell. “As a bonus, the book shows the author to be a stimulating historian of American studio cinema.” Tarantino’s next project is Cinema Speculation, a collection of reflections on the films of the 1970s. More novels will follow, and Bordwell welcomes the prospect: “I will read them.”

Deeper into Classics

Scholar and filmmaker Catherine Grant has called V. F. Perkins’s 1972 book Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies “one of the most inspiring of the foundational texts in film studies.” Now critic and programmer Geoff Andrew recommends V. F. Perkins on Movies: Collected Shorter Film Criticism, edited by Douglas Pye. It’s “a delight that should appeal to anyone who read and found Film as Film valuable, and indeed to all those who appreciate lucid, insightful analysis and interpretation.” In the third section of the collection, Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) “receives the most intense attention, being the subject of not one but three pieces,” writes Andrew. As it happens, James Naremore has just devoted an entire book to the film. “Imperative to understanding the Ophuls behind Letter from an Unknown Woman are the collaborators who aided in delivering it to its final form, a modest subversion of auteurism that Naremore maintains as key to the otherwise singular artistry of its director,” writes Patrick Preziosi at Electric Ghost.

Naremore’s book is part of the BFI Film Classics series, and the latest volume is Rebecca, Patricia White’s study of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, the first film he made in the U.S. White discusses the book, the film, and its director with Michał Oleszczyk and Sebastian Smoliński, the hosts of the podcast Foreign Correspondents: Deeper into Hitchcock.

In the first half of Honor Among Thieves: The Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville, Andrew Dickos presents a “birth-to-death critical biography,” writes Ruairí McCann for Ultra Dogme. The second half is “non-linear, looking at his artistry in clusters,” and on the whole, the book is an “astute pocket compendium on the man and his art.”

Three Excerpts

The fourteenth-century Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been repackaged and rereleased as The Green Knight in the run-up to the opening on July 30 of David Lowery’s film starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, and Joel Edgerton. In the foreword to the new edition, Lowery writes, “I think what hooked me, even before I knew I was hooked, was this chivalric concept of honor—the inherent valor of something as archaic and arbitrary as, say, a beheading game.”

In From the Streets of Shaolin: The Wu-Tang Saga,S. H. Fernando writes up a primer on Lau Kar-leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977) and Gordon Liu’s Shaolin vs. Wu Tang (1983). He also talks with RZA and GZA about drawing inspiration from these and other films they caught in rundown theaters in New York in the 1980s. “Wu Tang is a sword style of kung fu,” says GZA. “Our tongue is a sword, and we use it verbally and keep it sharp, and that’s the whole point about it. We liked them flicks, so we applied that to the hip-hop shit.”

An excerpt from Danny Trejo’s memoir, Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood, takes us back to the world of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Trejo did time with “a greasy, dirty, scrawny white boy” who was able to talk him and his cellmates into getting high. “It was like a guided meditation,” writes Trejo. “He talked us through the whole thing, rolling a joint, sparking it up, taking a deep hit, and the three of us felt super high.” That scrawny white boy was Charles Manson.

Endnotes

The second season of TCM’s slickly produced and irresistibly entertaining podcast, The Plot Thickens, is The Devil’s Candy, the story of the making of Brian De Palma’s 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. The season is based on the book by Julie Salamon, who spent a year following the story, and the podcast features recordings of her interviews with Wolfe, De Palma, Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and others at work on what would become a notorious box-office bomb.

On the Film Comment Podcast, Erika Balsom talks about Ten Skies, her outstanding new book on James Benning’s 2004 film. On August 1, Balsom will launch the book in Berlin at an outdoor screening of this major minimalist work.

Byways, a collection of photographs by cinematographer Roger Deakins (who is known for his work with the Coen brothers, Denis Villeneuve, and Sam Mendes), will arrive in the fall. And we’ll wrap for now with François Ozon’s annotated list of his ten favorite books of all time. “My mother was a French teacher, so literature was very important to the family,” Ozon tells the bookstore One Grand. Alongside classics by Balzac and Brontë, Ozon lists Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. “This is a book I turn to when I am stuck or lost,” he writes. “As with Proust, there is always something to learn. I found it in my mother’s library, and I know she was a big fan of the book, so reading it was a way to understand her.”

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