Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is out this month, and it seems like a culmination of sorts for the film fanatic writer-director. Each of his movies toes the line between self-awareness and immersive cinema, continually winking at the camera and yet lost in a world of its own, packed to the brim with pop culture references but still stylish enough to become a pop culture reference. Tarantino, who worked at a video store as a kid and has been devouring several movies a day ever since, has few rivals when it comes to an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form. To see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood framed around film and television sets in 1950s L.A. is quite the prospect, because that encyclopedic knowledge serves as more than a wink or a reference.
That explicit love of movies, to be fair, is a place that several Tarantino films have ventured before, though never carrying such importance as it must likely carry in Hollywood. The primary one is Inglourious Basterds, which uses the state of German cinema as both a unique backdrop for a World War II adventure and, eventually, as a major climactic catharsis that achieves nothing less than the rewriting of history. Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt steal top billing (and, in Waltz’s case, the Oscar) as The Bad Guy and The Good Guy. But Basterds becomes a truly great film for the inclusion of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), theater owner and Lady Vengeance Incarnate, and Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), young Nazi-turned-propaganda-film-star. These characters are opposed in every way except their love of film, which both brings them together and kills them in the end. Theirs may technically be the subplot, but Tarantino’s passion for cinema sings loudest when his characters share in that passion.
That film also has the famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and the Third Reich’s chief propaganda producer Joseph Geobbels (Sylvester Groth) as major characters, amongst a whole host of actors and directors and producers as supporting players. Prior to the industry players in Basterds we also had Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), the stuntman/killer stalking through Tarantino’s somewhat-derided Death Proof. And in Pulp Fiction a surprising amount of dialogue is devoted to the fact that Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) starred in a pilot for a show called Fox Force Five.
Before all that there was True Romance, one of Tarantino’s earliest produced screenplays, directed by Tony Scott in 1993. Unlike Shoshanna Lapedite or Frederick Zoller or von Hammersmark or Goebbels or Stuntman Mike or Mia Wallace, few characters in True Romance have anything to do with the film industry. Clarence (Christian Slater) is a lowlife who works in a comic book shop and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) is a call girl, and their jaunt from Detroit to L.A. only tangentially brings them into contact with a cokehead movie producer and a failed actor. It’s Bonnie and Clyde set in the gutter, a crime movie and a love story, and Clarence and Alabama are quite simply criminals and lovers.
…but boy, do they love movies.
They meet because of Sonny Chiba and a kung-fu triple feature of Street Fighter, Return of Street Fighter and Sister Street Fighter. From there True Romance proceeds to cram in breezy reference to The Mack with Richard Pryor, Freejack with Emilio Estevez, Play It Again Sam, Taxi Driver (“you talkin’ ta me?”), Mickey Rourke, Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson, Elvis Presley, and everyone from “Bill” Shatner to Steve “Fuckin” McQueen. An extended conversation with movie producer Lee Donowitz uses Doctor Zhivago as a metaphor for $200K worth of cocaine. At one point Clarence even resorts to straight-up listing his favorites aloud: “Mad Max, that’s a movie. Good the Bad and the Ugly, that’s a movie. Rio Bravo, that’s a movie.”
True Romance does share a somewhat omnipotent, outside-looking-in quality with Pulp Fiction, both named after ’50s teen magazines that were chock-full of trashy and sordid yarns. It makes sense that Clarence sees his life as a movie, himself as the hero. He muses on vacation plans: “Sounds like a movie: Clarence and Alabama Go to Cancun.” The aforementioned Lee Donowitz — producer of fictional war films Comin’ Home in a Body Bag and its sequel Body Bags 2 — unwittingly solidifies this fantasy when he tells Clarence “You just made the big time. You’re no longer an extra, or a bit player, or a supporting actor. You’re a star! You’re a fucking star.”
And hey, Inglourious Basterds even has its own cinematic universe with True Romance, with Eli Roth’s Sergeant Donny Donowitz the father of Saul Rubinek’s Lee:
True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds — it’s easy to suspect that ingredients used in these films might be even more potent in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And in the same way that Romance and Fiction are sort of self-referential genre pictures heavily reliant on pop culture, Tarantino’s latest ventures seem tied by this idea that movies can sort of sway history itself:
Even is Oswalt is kidding about Hollywood (is he?), True Romance nearly fits the mold of this observation as well: Clarence, a movie-loving lowlife, gets to be the valiant hero of his own action-thriller. “If you just love movies enough, you can make a good one,” Tarantino once said. “You don’t have to go to school, you don’t have to know a lens from a bag of sand.” Though he didn’t direct True Romance, Tarantino’s screenplay still trumpets that philosophy loud and clear.