The Lessons of Cinematic Violence - Dan's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" Review



“I’ve been expanding on this one idea in my head. Alright, dig it…we all grew up watching TV, y’know what I mean? And if you grew up watching TV, THAT means you grew up watching murder. And EVERY show on TV that wasn’t ‘I Love Lucy’ was about murder. So…my idea is…we kill the people who taught us to kill.”

To me, this is the most important line of dialogue from Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. It was spoken by Tarantino’s interpretation of a Manson cult member of the ‘60s, who participated in a deadly home-invasion on the night of August 8th, 1969. 

Tarantino uses some pretty ingenious subtext in his movie to suggest that the motive for this madness is somewhat irrelevant in the end. and he depicts the wide-eyed hippies on the 1960s “Manson farm” (i.e. “Spahn Ranch”) as women who would likely be trolling Reddit or the dark web if they were alive today. It all has a deeply-sad sort of irrelevance, and possibly even a jaded one, but it does ring true to my mind. With the quote I cited above, Tarantino takes an opportunity to position a highly-strategic “screw you” to his most aggressive anti-violence critics…considering his vehement rejection of the association between film violence and actual real-life violence. There is a video on YouTube of Tarantino vehemently debating people who believe this, and Tarantino once delivered this observation in an interview:

“I have a little joke, but it actually is kind of true, that kids who watch violent movies -- again, who like them, not that you force them -- but if the kids will respond to that naturally, it won't make them a violent human being when they grow up, but it could very well make them violent filmmakers when they grow up.”

This quote is arguably trying to point out the absurdity of someone citing violence in the media as the ONE thing that ultimately made them a monster. As if to say “Nope, it’s not Charles Manson’s brainwashing influence, the lifestyle this murderer lives in, her abusive parents, her complicated genetics, or the environment she grew up in, it’s just TV, dummy!” Although, to be fair, a real-life Manson follower named Nancy Pitman is actually quoted as having once said the following:

"We are what you have made us, we were brought up on your TV. We were brought up watching ‘Gunsmoke’ [and] ‘Have Gun Will Travel’.”

I imagine Tarantino is a very firm believer in stripping out all the loaded political weight of a statement like this (especially in our ultra-divisive context of today), and instead exploring more intimate human truths…which, in this case, is that movies and TV really can (and do) help to shape us in all kinds of ways. I’ve had some distaste for Tarantino always working very, very hard to craft a “pastiche plot” or “sampler story” in a great many of his movies…which, in my opinion, is solely designed to accommodate as much of Tarantino’s quirks, dark humor, and iconoclastic worldview as humanly possible (even if such a plot or story isn’t necessarily the best thing for his characters, effectively bloating them with so much excess). Be all that as it may, for the first time since “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino actually shifts all his resources towards building a WORLD, top to bottom; a world that most people have never known, and, in a certain respect, does not fully exist anymore. But, for me, it is a world with aspects that I not only know, but I also actively live within, even all the way over here in sleepy Storrs, CT. This, to my mind, is the foundation of any great film.

The 1969 incarnation of Hollywood, as Tarantino chooses to narrow it all down, is a world where greatness (specifically, the greatness of publicly-celebrated manhood) is a mirage that feels more real than any other mirage on the planet. But, whenever anyone in Hollywood tries to dive headlong into that mirage, they end up face-down on the floor (and not just metaphorically speaking, as many of the film’s characters actually do wind up there at one point or another). They then begrudgingly pick themselves back up, while licking their wounded egos in private, and painfully learning that their own mirage of greatness may never be real. They carefully craft their lifestyles to SEEM like they own their lives 100%, and are in full control of whatever they say and do…but, as you learn more about our hero character, Rick Dalton (a fictional over-the-hill TV western actor), you realize that he’s ALWAYS beholden to the people who have the power to hire him, and he has next to NO control over what he says (mostly pre-written lines), or how he says it (mostly because of a notable stutter he has, which I can obviously relate to). Little wonder, then, that Rick is always in a state of paralyzing fear about the possible downhill slope of his life and career just around the corner, even though no one will ever confirm this for him, or explain why it’s happening. Because, let’s face it, this is Hollywood…where everyone implies the word “no”, but nobody actually says it. 

(Been there! Still doing that...)

The only person in Rick’s life who will loyally, earnestly, and regularly say “yes” to him is his loyal longtime stuntman and personal assistant, Cliff Booth, who is also Rick’s best friend. Cliff has pretty much all the character traits Rick doesn’t; he’s confident, decisive, self-accepting, and 125% allergic to interpersonal bullcrap. In fact, violent confrontations involving Cliff seem to be pretty commonplace, but they never are initiated by Cliff. Instead, they’re initiated by other annoying people who dare to serve up fresh bullcrap…which Cliff, of course, will not tolerate from anyone, from disgruntled hippies to Bruce Lee in the flesh. Perhaps another filmmaker would be far more judgmental of Cliff because of this; after all, Cliff is someone who lives in a ramshackle trailer with a bulldog, and has links to several Hollywood scandals, very few friends, and no steady career. Tarantino, however, is absolutely and unequivocally reverent of Cliff, and presents him as a social and emotional titan…after all, he is the only character who has rubbed shoulders with every social strata in Hollywood.

This is why, in a characteristic twist of real-life history, Tarantino selects the fictional character of Cliff to murder the murderous Manson-ite hippies on the night of August 8th, 1969…thus sparing the lives of Sharon and her friends in this fascinating alternate reality. And, yes, Tarantino does show every gory detail in a fetishistic display of violence, which is absolutely riveting, as well as roundly disturbing. This use of violence does admittedly pose a moral quandry: Tarantino has just implied that his brand of ultraviolence just solved a series of unsolvable problems in this fictional universe. It is also implied that the murder of these hippies brought manhood back to Rick and Cliff (and their roles in the Hollywood community)…at the minimum, it restored their friendship, which was about to come to an end before all of the violence commenced.

It is indisputably true in the non-cinematic world that violence rarely solves problems in a sustainable way. Tarantino himself acknowledges this, with this quote he once espoused in an interview:

“If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It's one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.”

This may be a maddeningly-inarticulate statement in itself, but the sentiment behind it is something I tend to agree with on an artistic level. Tarantino once said there are two types of violence in film: “traumatic violence” and “cathartic violence”. Traumatic violence obviously needs no definition (as almost all violence on the planet can be classified as that for most people), but this is how Tarantino defines “cathartic violence”:

“I feel like a conductor and the audience's feelings are my instruments. I will be like, 'Laugh, laugh, now be horrified'. When someone does that to me, I've had a good time at the movies.”

I admit that men may be more predisposed more than women to have this “good time” with cathartic on-screen violence, but I have also known a good amount of women who consider themselves Tarantino fans. Furthermore, Tarantino kept violence out of the vast majority of the film (just as he did with “Jackie Brown” in 1997), and rather skillfully made his 4.5 minutes of violence (in a 160-minute movie) count for FAR more heft than many American movies. It is also undeniably true that most violence in Tarantino movies (including this one) does involve women, who are commonly on the receiving end of it. This is where I think people have to work as hard as they can to exit the “political persecution” mode of thinking, and move toward the “speculatively-empathetic” mode of thinking…because, when all is said and done, Tarantino is an extremely-empathic filmmaker, and I’ll proudly debate anyone who claims otherwise. 

I’ll leave most of the speculative empathy to Patty’s blog about the film, who likes to opine that Tarantino is someone who likely had a rough childhood, was bullied a lot in grade school, and has serious issues relating to women. I must admit that there is evidence towards all three of these conclusions, based on the fact that Tarantino was born to a 16-year-old mother and an absentee father, with a hair-trigger way of thinking and emoting that has frightened many (even those who revere him), and he did not get married until age 55. I absolutely can empathize with Tarantino’s proclivities, celebrations, and weaknesses, which he proudly and skillfully exhibits on the silver screen…just as I can 125% empathize with both Rick and Cliff, which primarily explains the four stars I’m giving this film. 

As I have experience in talking about spectrums, I’d say I’m right in the middle of the “Rick and Cliff personality spectrum”. I myself have profound angst, alienation, and feelings of uselessness at times, and I am also thoroughly intolerant of bullcrap…I just choose not to drink myself to an everyday stupor to cope with it all, nor do I get into hostile/violent confrontations (or associate with hitchhikers, however comely), which cannot be said of either Rick or Cliff. 

But, hey, if there is one ultimate point to this rumination of mine (and I certainly hope there is at least one, hehe), it’s this: live and let live. This is something I have a VERY hard time remembering now and then (as I know most of us do, and in this polarized age, now more than ever)…but, it can be a lot easier to understand this sentiment if you appreciate good films and television, and allow them to help you connect with the larger world. This is something that certain people (such as the followers of Charles Manson) will likely never understand…and, if not, please don’t blame it on Tarantino.