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

I confess, I have not be able to stomach every Tarantino movie that comes down the pike…I was born in the relatively-peaceful fifties, and will never have the ability to face on-screen violence without leaping out of my seat. This has caused Dan a few moments of embarrassment upon hearing my horrified gasps, which are way beyond my control to squelch...because of this, I really hated “Kill Bill”, as the violence there somehow became horrific and boring at the same time. This is probably the ultimate indicator as to when movie violence has gone way too far.

I did love “Pulp Fiction”, however…I loved how all the characters diversely (and amusingly) coped with all the wild situations Tarantino threw them in, as well as how their conversations ran the gamut from God to French quarter-pounders-with-cheese. Even if I don't enjoy violence in films, I'm certainly not against the ungratuitous kind…the kind that does not involve the harm of animals, while still moving the plot along. Yes, we can all hurt each other if we so desire, but what OTHER interesting things can people do together?

This is why I went to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” with a bit of trepidation (and sat in the upper rows of a fairly-unpopulated showing, so no one could glare at me); I am happy to join Dan in giving this remarkable film four stars, with a crowning achievement and a caveat.

The crowning achievement is to have the main character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) have a stutter, without any mention of it in the entire film by any character. It's just a quality that Rick has, as if it were a large nose or straight white teeth, with no value judgments given…save for what we ourselves bestow. This surprised me greatly, because I was bracing to have this character be insulted by others for his disfluency, or to protest and complain about it, or “overcome it” in a way that zips the film right to the Oscars…but it ends up being just a part of Rick, and I found this cinematic achievement very refreshing.

Now, for the caveat…although Tarantino certainly restrains himself remarkably for the majority of this film by keeping the potential violence to a minimum (and the fight scenes as lighthearted as any I've ever seen), the character of Cliff “falls off the peace train” in an ultraviolent finale that I take a bit of issue with. This occurred to me as one of the clueless Manson-ites was flailing in Rick’s pool, mortally-injured, and about to be burned to a crisp by Cliff's flamethrower. She made horrendous noises throughout this ordeal, and it made me wonder about just how much our reactions were being “choreographed” by Tarantino. I do understand his decades-long penchant for doing this, and I get that this woman would have continued to do horrendous things if she hadn't been stopped by Cliff and Rick…but I do think a single well-aimed bullet may have done the trick, just like with Marvin in “Pulp Fiction”.

Sure, this may not have been as much fun (and I believe this fun comes from the relief that we are vicariously “back in charge” of Tarantino’s world)…and, on our watch, no lovely pregnant woman is going to die a gruesome death. Phew. I do get that…but, I also remember thinking (earlier in the film) as a teenage Manson-ite girl hitchhiked her way into Cliff's car, that these girls (who are based on actual girls) were highly-disturbed for justifiable reasons. Violence begets violence, rather than solving it, and movies should not aspire to be 100% entertainment…they should inform, challenge, and inspire.

And just what is "speculative empathy," which Dan believes I can wax intelligently upon? I had no idea, so I Googled it…and although I didn't find it officially listed, I did bump into a term called "Narrative Empathy," which was in an 28-page essay by Suzanne Keen, in a scholarly journal called The Muse.

I found this quite relevant to the discussion I’m having with is a bit of a heavy read, but I'll try to condense it here. This article essentially states that technology can now identify "Mirror Neurons" in our brains which help us to read other people's minds, to emotionally relate to them, and perhaps kick up a bit of empathy ("I feel your pain”) or sympathy ("I can see you are in pain"). This is certainly intriguing, because I already knew about Mirror Neurons from my work as a psychologist in working with children with autism, as well as through my experiences of raising Dan. "Mindblindness" is a term that refers to the inability to incorporate other people's points of view over our own, and this term can certainly apply to anyone (on the spectrum or off). It is a concept that those on the spectrum are vulnerable to, and it may have a biological base involving their Mirror Neurons, or lack thereof.

"Neuroscientists have already declared that people scoring high on empathy tests have especially busy mirror neuron systems in their brains. Fiction writers are likely to be among these high empathy individuals. For the first time we might investigate whether human differences in mirror neuron activity can be altered by exposure to art, to teaching, to literature."

In my mind, this is an important point for all of us to absorb…and I can back it up from personal experience, I’m proud to say. At age 32, Dan continues to be one of the most empathetic people I know. Theoretically, this is because I read to Dan for many of his formative years (primarily ages 2-5), but I don’t desire any accolades for this decision. After all, I was merely a terrified English major who raised a precocious son in autism's dark ages; I used to lug home grocery bags full of children's books, in just the way other women lugged grocery bags.

Another point Keen makes about empathy is that it can lead to sympathy for another's plight…or, it can lead to personal distress, which actually tends to shut down altruism. This thought clarifies some unresolved feelings I've had about Trump (our supposed leader and role model), and how I tend to turn away from every national provocation he attempts.

"Personal distress, an aversive emotional response also characterized by apprehension of another’s emotion, differs from empathy in that it focuses on the self and leads not to sympathy but to avoidance. The distinction between empathy and personal distress matters because empathy is associated with the moral emotion sympathy (also called empathic concern) and thus with prosocial or altruistic action. Empathy that leads to sympathy is by definition other-directed, whereas an over-aroused empathic response that creates personal distress (self-oriented and aversive) causes a turning-away from the provocative condition of the other."

I am always an eternal optimist at heart, and this is why I believe Tarantino will continue to develop as a filmmaker (as well as human being), which may ultimately expand his ability to empathize with all of his characters…and perhaps we will be ready to take that leap of empathy on our end, too. I think we are all gradually leaving behind the morally-unambiguous era I grew up in, which was full of obvious villains and heroes.

Regarding the four stars I'm still giving this film (despite its gruesome finale), I do fundamentally agree with Dan. Tarantino did a good job of creating a world I understood, and I enjoyed spending time in it. His characters were endearing and great fun to watch (for the most part), and the juxtaposition of people in various places was clever. Also, despite the violence of the film’s ending, I did embrace the fundamental uniqueness and originality of how it played around with history. Take that, all of you tired sequels…especially “Kill Bill Vol. 2”!

I think Dan was right on the money when he opined that Tarantino is a genius in creating an understandable and relatable cinematic world…even if it is wildly different than our own. There is a huge overlap between our individual experiences in this world, and the surrounding cultures that supposedly separate us. Despite those factors, I do believe most of us occupy the same psychological framework. 

Movies are the ultimate tool that can help us understand all this, and enable us to soar into the larger concerns of the universe…while having a good time doing it.


For, you see, all of us are ultimately connected; I felt this acknowledgment from Tarantino at the movie's ending, when Sharon’s security gate opened, and Cliff was invited inside by the potential victims he just unwittingly saved. How often do we help each other out, sometimes without even knowing it? Imagine what we could do together if we were more aware...

And, for the record, although I am a pacifist, I’m certainly no saint; I do wish that someone really had killed Manson's followers before they killed those five innocent denizens of the Hollywood Hills. I just wish it wasn't with a flamethrower...