A friend of mine is an archeologist. She does lots of exciting work digging through history, and actual dirt, in order to discover how humans lived hundreds of years ago. Or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Which is where it gets tricky for people to understand her work, and I don’t blame them. Claire studies the Paleolithic Age, which dates back to around one million years ago. Most of our brains boggle at trying to understand that concept. One million years of human history: making tools, having babies, grinding flour, painting, writing, loving, moulding plastics, fighting wars, vaccinations, vegetarianism, the Cinématographe, the smartphone, Tinder.
See, as a silent film specialist I only have to go back 130-ish years to get the start of my period, and yet I know I lose a lot of people once I dip back any further than Modern Times (1936). We called our podcast The Sound Barrier for a reason: lots of people fail to engage properly with pre-sound cinema. Just as most of us western critics are ignorant of large swatches of Asian and African cinema. Sometimes there is too much time to take in, and too little time in which to do so.
There’s such a thing as historical anxiety. These days 10, 15, maybe more films come out every week, in cinemas and across streaming platforms. It’s basically impossible to catch up with new films, let alone with everything that came before. And while canons exist to tell us which films from the past it is most essential to familiarise ourselves with, quite rightly, researchers are beginning to question and expand those very canons. I turned to silent cinema in the first place because I loved movies, but the films I was frequently told were important and essential disappointed me. Films of value, films that many people enjoy, left me cold, or offered depictions of women that I instinctively found degrading or dismissive.
Which brings me to Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, the evocatively titled Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It came out last week in the UK, so maybe you’ve seen it already. It’s set in 1969, and tells a loose and rambling story about a washed-up star, his stunt double, a sinister group of young people who live communally at the Spahn Movie Ranch, and a young starlet called Sharon Tate. Continue reading Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: the rest is silence