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.

A Movement of Mayhem and Bullets - Dan's POV

It seems like it occurs every year, and always spurred by another preventable tragedy: the emotional debate about gun control, and why so many shootings are happening in our homeland. Sometimes I find myself at a complete loss to understand why this cycle continues… because, as a guy on the autism spectrum, understanding social motivations isn’t always my forte.

I recently asked Patty why she thinks we have so many mass shootings, always followed by such sound and fury that ends up signifying nothing, and she had an answer that opened my mind as to its clarity and degree of thought (which Patty will expound upon in her own opinion piece that follows this one). For my own answer, I will simply attempt to ruminate on America’s unique fixation on violence, not as a weapon of war or survival, but, rather, as an unvarnished statement.

I think most of these macabre statements aren’t intended to be countered with rebuttals written in further bloodshed (even though they are often inevitable), but a subject like this certainly begs the question: What could these people possibly be trying to say!? For all of my life, I’ve been trained to intellectually analyze as much real-world communication as I can (admittedly for my own benefit), just as I have spent countless hours ruminating on the plots of movies, TV and books. Mass shootings are permanently located in that vast void between real-life and surrealistic storytelling…it is small wonder that such a thing is always so hard to process.

A partial answer to this conundrum could lie in the concerns that our most troubled youth may never be fully honest with their loved ones about. For most of us millennials, one of the foremost things we all wish we could hold one person accountable for (but will never be able to) is how big of a gulf exists between the entitlements we were promised as we grew up, and the things we actually received later in life. Most people would associate the concept of power with either the earning of said power, or being born with it; I believe that a whole new generation is coming to believe that power should be handed to each and every of us, by one submissive power-provider at a time.

Perhaps the most primitively-invaluable and wired-in-nature thing some men want handed to them can be traced back to a brief story I still remember from my middle school days. If my memory is to be trusted, I was coasting through that time of my life with occasional flurries of social activity…which were periodically interrupted by the sensory and emotional overload of monthly fire alarms, gym class, withdrawals from my constant computer use, and the travails of puberty. On one unremarkable morning, I was getting ready for the day, and I came downstairs so Patty could drive me to school; I was wearing a black sweatshirt and dark-green sweatpants at the time. As I guess most sensical women would do (but most men probably wouldn’t care much about), my mom instantly urged me to change my clothes into something less “geeky”. I asked her rather indignantly why it mattered so much to her, and what the point was of me changing my clothes. She took a vulnerable pause, and her voice trembled and trailed off when she said, “You just never know when you’re going to meet that special girl…”

And now, some twenty-odd years later, that one mythic “special girl” (as somewhat-vaguely defined back then) still has yet to walk into my life, despite my not wearing those “geeky green pants” ever again after that day. If it sounds like there’s some anger in that statement or story, I certainly don’t intend for there to be. While I do sometimes grapple with the needling frustrations and bleakness of dating (as I imagine we all do), I am often able to ignore them when I think about the large quantity of special women I’ve typed with and talked with in my life. It very, very rarely has eclipsed verbal/written back-and-forth, that is true…but this component is the heart, soul, and lifeblood of all enduring relationships that enrich and complete us. Even handicapped people without the ability to see, hear, speak, and/or type are capable of finding love, and many of them have done so…which is the very kind of thought that drives a certain portion of millennial/Gen-X America absolutely insane. This is an Americana demographic called “the incels” (i.e. “involuntary celibates”).

The unofficial creator and figurehead of the “incel movement” is a young man named Elliot Rodger…who once killed six people and injured fourteen others in the UCSB area of Isla Vista, California in 2014, before turning the gun on himself. What truly set him apart from other mass murderers in the minds of many was the elaborate video manifesto (along with an extensive body of writing) he left behind before the killings, with deeply-disturbing lucidity of every inch of his angst and his actions-to-be. His unquestionable primary reason for doing what he did was to deliver retribution against women in general for their rejection of him, and against specific men he knew who seemed successful with women through his eyes. Speaking as a filmmaker, what most grabbed my attention about the video manifesto was how he filmed it in his car right at “magic hour” (i.e. the “golden hour” before the sun sets), which, compounded by the fact that his father is a film/commercial director, made sense as to his desire for maximum visual appeal for the baring of his deeply-disturbed soul. I’m always struck by how high the modern standards are for aesthetic sheen and palpable emotion in written, visual, or sonic outreach…and I find it quite surreal to think that this also applies to mass murderers now.

I do unfortunately believe that any of us are theoretically capable of murder if we fall into precisely-wrong circumstances, with precisely-wrong people, at the precisely-wrong time. I do not condone murder or physical harm of any kind, of course, but I’m never stunned to the point of speechlessness if someone I know finds himself entangled in such a nightmare. In fact, one of my forever-lasting memories in high school was when I became a highly-unconventional “prank victim” (at the machination of one of my best friends at the time), when this friend successfully convinced me over AOL Instant Messenger that he had killed someone in a drunken bar brawl the previous night, and needed advice as to what to do next. I believed it hook, line and sinker, and did my best to offer him deeply-serious and sensitive counsel as to how I would turn myself in and beg for the Lord’s forgiveness…considering he came from a devout Catholic family.

Shortly after this exchange, I found out he was just “messing with me”, when I saw him laughing with a cluster of other high-school kids about it in the lobby; he did look slightly-apologetic as he admitted it. After an hour of being privately-angry, humiliated, and sad about what I’d allowed myself to believe, I decided to just “roll with it”, and I posted the full transcript of the prank on my AIM profile for all my classmates to see (because I knew my friend was a highly-public type of prankster on numerous occasions). Even though none of my peers actually said this to me in the midst of their laughter, I could tell a lot of them were surprised as to the depth of such a seemingly-evil confession I’d allowed myself to instantly, unquestionably believe, and by the depth of caring my words had while being pranked. I could see where they were coming from, of course…but I was inversely surprised at the implication that, if anyone they knew ever privately confessed an awful thing they once did, they would just respond with something like “Hahaha, good joke, man.”

Perhaps one could make an argument that I was a bit “ahead of the sociological curve” in this instance…because I’m aware as to how horribly-different of a world high school is now, compared to how it was when I was there. Facebook and YouTube were in their earliest infancy back when I graduated high school in 2005, and now these two services (combined with many, many other forms of social media) rule every inch of young kids’ lives both inside and outside of the schoolyard, which has given rise to whole new types of cyber-bullying as a result. I think it’s no coincidence that now, as far as I know, almost every American school district has regular “active shooter drills”. Back when I was in school, all I ever had were fire drills, and I could barely even handle THOSE for autism-related sensory reasons.

You can easily imagine how utterly-powerless this kind of constant, hovering fear made me feel…especially when special-ed aides had to bring me out of the school in advance of every fire drill, which I admittedly did need for a while. It was this kind of thing which led the special-ed department to think I was more enfeebled than I actually was back then…which is why I was dismissed from school 2-3 hours earlier than everyone else for a solid year (without anybody consulting with me first), and, on the very rare occasions I had to give a speech to a crowd of fellow students, I had “moral support guides” assigned to be onstage with me (which I never asked for, and did not actually need). These experiences of mine made me wonder as to just how many ways Elliot Rodger had to endure this kind of well-intentioned indignity. Perhaps it was a motivation for THIS particular excerpt from his manifesto: "After I picked up [a] handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who's the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who've looked down on me in the past."

I take comfort in knowing I do NOT want power for the sake of power, and I was never raised to want that, or brainwashed into needing to want that. This is not to suggest that Elliot Rodger’s central issue is the way he was raised; I have read many things that suggest that Elliot Rodger was raised by very fine parents, doing their best with a deeply-troubled child who was in therapy at the age of eight, and flirted with many would-be diagnoses until a doctor unofficially labeled him as PDD (a form of autism) when he was 17. He refused all medications he was ever prescribed for most of his life, and he rejected all other therapies suggested to him after his PDD diagnosis. He was bullied here and there throughout middle school, and then bullied every day with full force in high school.

As it turned out, the only place he could truly find refuge was in the “World of Warcraft”, an immensely-popular video game amongst American men. This is not to suggest that “World of Warcraft” caused or prompted Elliot Rodger to act on his darkest desires, but it is things like this that make me feel justified in my distaste for video games in general. In this sense, I think the sudden rise of socially-lawless cyber-landscapes for American youth has brought about a rise of individual power dynamics amongst young men and women, in the vain hopes of finally distilling their intense social and emotional inadequacies. Available weaponry, unspeakable vulnerability, and the casual onset of a relentlessly-bullying culture have all unfortunately set a stage that cannot easily be unset.

To best prevent bullying in a way that actually educates bullies (rather than just marginalizing them or retailiating against them), I think all Americans should make a vow to allow and encourage the deepest and most honest of communication as the ultimate method of problem-solving and conflict prevention. We must ALL take on the duty of identifying people at their boiling points (or soon about to be), with their self-esteem crumbling like sand…and then attempt to provide them with the communicative outlet they may have never have had for their entire lives. At the very minimum, we have to treat mental and emotional vulnerability with compassion wherever we find it. These are all ways I think we can work together toward peace…which I’m well aware, in such an immensely complex world, is far easier said than done.