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.  

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/423020

I found this quite relevant to the discussion I’m having with myself...it 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.

Together.

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...

A Movement of Mayhem and Bullets - Patty's POV

As weary as we are of discussing the Newtown, Columbine, and Parkland tragedies, while factoring in growing list of other shootings such as El Paso and Dayton, the silent witnessing of these horrific acts alone will not inspire peace across the land. How do I know this? Because sales for assault rifles skyrocketed on the days following the Sandy Hook shooting…along with magazine clips designed to increase the speed of any assault.

We are slowly making progress in our fight against the NRA, however, for us to further scratch beneath the surface of the usual gun-control debates, we need to identify many other issues that can only be addressed in unity. I think it will take much cooperative effort to effect true change that can make a lasting difference…and not just for our children, but our grandchildren as well. We all must try to understand how Adam (and many other mass shooters) somehow failed to become a part of us as caring members of their communities, and drifting so far beyond our grasp that not only couldn’t we help them, but we couldn’t even defend ourselves, or our children, from them.

Keeping guns out of the wrong hands seems to be the only idea that all civilized people in our nation can agree upon…so, perhaps this can serve as a starting point for our national dialogue, which has become painfully polarized, clichéd, and clouded with confusion; it is crystal clear that the time is now for us to come together and create a safer society, especially for the most vulnerable among us. I believe we do know how to do it, but we still can’t get the powers that be to implement assault rifle bans, expanded background checks, closed loopholes and a buy-back weapons and other such concepts, although I know we will keep trying.

Mental health is the card the NRA plays when they feel we are gaining ground here with them beginning to lose in the court of public opinion; blame it all on the mentally ill and focus on finding ways to ferret them out and fix them in time to prevent all potential tragedies. Trump weighed in just yesterday to say it’s time we began to build those institutions we used to have, the ones we left behind decades ago. This shortsighted view of menta health is dangerous, and rather than yellow stars, I can envision our Trumponian world’s next step as a calculated attempt to dehumanize those deemed “mentally ill” before we detain them, perhaps indefinitely, the way we used to, or kill them, the way the Nazis did not that long ago. In fact, a whole ward full of children, the first children ever diagnosed with Asperger’s by the man himself, were exterminated as the Holocaust was just beginning to pick up steam; please don’t think we this won’t happen again because we are above this level of thought because we seem to be sinking lower every day in our national dialogue.

We all know of certain parents who are a bit askew: the neglectful parents who drank too much, the mothers who weren’t enough of a presence for their children or were way too much of one, and not in a good way. There were also the absentee parents, whose crimes were more neglect than abuse, but whose absence created a painful vacuum rather than full bellies and a hug at bedtime. Certainly not all the children of these wayward parents will end up mass murderers…but many of them will, in fact, end their own lives, with suicide being homicide’s quiet and sneaky cousin, or grow up to face prison time or a lingering depression or domestic abuse.

It would seem that society should create a better safety net for all of these children before the damage has been done; perhaps creating a support system that would allow children to counterbalance the homelife, school life, or social life that is destroying them can make a real difference. If school could expand their goals for students they are supposed to serve far past simple test scores (i.e. their “holy grails of achievement”) to focus more on the social and emotional growth of all of our children, this would definitely help. Yes, it will cost money to do this…but can we really afford for any more children to grow up as alienated as Elliot, or Adam, or the vast majority of mass shooters? If so, can we also continue to allow for such easy access to assault rifles, as well as to the extreme violence available on so many film and television screens?

These questions weren’t on my mind back when I was raising Danny. I did not yet know the deepest of implications behind the struggles he was facing as he tried so hard to conform to social and behavior norms inside his mainstreamed kindergarten classroom. However, Danny did know the name of every one of his classmates, despite the lack of social acknowledgments he offered them; he had also memorized the entire text and musical rendition of the story of Peter and the Wolf. On the second week of school, before he had spoken a pragmatic word to anyone, he surprised his teacher by raising his hand and answering all of her questions about the correlations between the various characters in the story and the haunting melodies of the music itself.

Madison, who was Dan's assistance dog at the time, proceeded to break some social ice for him, year after calendar year. He was a frequent visitor to all of Danny’s classrooms, and he helped tremendously to form and sustain friendships upon our relocation to Mansfield. Here, in this town that exists in the shadow of UConn, they actually cared about Danny’s education, and they did not view our relationship as adversarial. Danny truly began to thrive there, thanks in large part to several great kids who befriended him…and special thanks goes to one extraordinary boy in particular. His name was Brendan, and he served as Danny’s personal angel unaware.

BRENDAN (LEFT) AND DAN (RIGHT)

BRENDAN (LEFT) AND DAN (RIGHT)

Brendan was one of eight Kissane boys who would accompany their mom, Debbie for visits to our home. She was usually in some stage of pregnancy back then; I’d bring a blanket and cold drink out for Debbie so she could lay quietly in the sun, along with a giant box of popsicles for the boys, and they, in turn, gave us every inch of the sense of community we were craving. They taught Danny to play the neighborhood games I was at a loss to teach him; they knew the “rules of the streets” along with my own, but they also knew when it was important to break or bend them. I think, in retrospect, the Kissane boys knew how needed they were by the Gross clan, and they decided to rise to my unspoken challenge. In my gratitude, I treated them with more adult-driven respect than they were usually afforded, which dovetailed with all those popsicles quite nicely. We had several extremely-fun summers, to their everlasting Gaelic credit and considerable charm. 

As the wheels of time turned, we were all slowly, inevitably ushered out of our nirvana. The Kissane boys began to need more from me than just cold popsicles and an above-ground pool to keep them down on my farm, and their loss created a vacuum. Dan was in danger of being gradually left behind, like a door quietly closing on a sleeping baby. I barely noticed this, truth be told, until reality slapped me awake one day; Dan was a junior in high school, and I had to swing by to bring him a book he had forgotten at home. The office directed me to the lunchroom, and that’s where I found him…within a packed cafeteria, Dan was at the only largely-empty table, surrounded by empty chairs, literally boxed out by empty space. 

So, was Dan officially “integrated” in high school? Well, not really, despite the fact that he has been mainstreamed since preschool. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dan’s destiny in being a newborn with autism in 1986 was to avoid institutionalization and electric shocks, and to stay above the fray of segregation and even more severe bullying than he endured. The best he could do was to grow up mainstreamed, well-educated, perhaps even respected, but still roundly-ignored. It was only through Dan’s calculated and persistent efforts (along with his native showmanship) that others began to take note of him.

In Dan’s sophomore year he created a video about his high school class trip to Washington DC (featured above) that was broadcast on the monitors of all the homerooms, which gave Dan a bit of notoriety and a real boost to his confidence. At the beginning of Dan’s junior year, he announced that he would no longer take my advice in “dancing quietly around the edges” of popular cliques; he would now truly begin sharing who he was. It was a disconcerting conversation for me, for although I knew Dan to be a kind and funny person, I was fairly sure that not everyone at E.O. Smith shared my value system. 

This was where I had to again put my trust in the Kissane boys, and their brand of “protection” I’d bought with all those popsicles…particularly Brendan, who was the first Kissane to have befriended him. With Brendan, it wasn’t ever about the bribery…the last time I saw him was over a decade ago, bumping into him in his Mom’s driveway as I was leaving from a visit, in our first-ever private moment as adults. I leaned in to connect with the soft blue of his eyes as I tried to properly thank him for all he had given Dan, who by this time was a junior at UConn with an eye toward film school.

Brendan seemed to think I was just being silly and endearing, as his own lovely Mom could be; he was a loved-up boy and always fundamentally respectful…even when in trouble with the Principal for selling candy at his locker, or literally crawling into a ventilation system and falling through the ceiling of an English classroom, where the students likely needed a bit of waking up. There was a note of chide in his voice when he informed me that no thanks were necessary; I realized then it was his pure authenticity that connected him to Dan for so long, as well as in the first place.

And, for the record, it was Brendan who had pulled the “I-killed-someone prank” Dan spoke of in his column. I watched it all unfold in his junior year, the very aforementioned year when Dan decided to be himself, consequences be damned. As their conversation wore on, I could see how Brendan’s questions became more serious and probing after the prank was well-established; Brendan was a Catholic boy, after all, and I could see that Dan’s references to the morality of redemption was striking a chord with him. It seemed as if he was fostering a cocktail of admiration and amusement that Dan’s heart could be this pure and innocent.

I didn’t inform Dan at the time that he was being pranked; I merely warned him of this possibility, and this was because of how much I trusted Brendan. I also trusted Dan’s decision to put the whole private discussion online, despite my belief that Brendan’s would have kept it a more private prank. I deeply admire the courage Dan must have had to allow others onto the bottom floor of this joke, and his generosity to share not just the giggles, but the thought that if anything outrageously-bad ever happened to a friend of Dan’s, he would be there, ready to help, no questions asked, with no doubts to cloud his empathy, and no cynicism to help him slink away.

It was on a cold February morning when Dan called me from the dorms at UConn and said there was something he needed to tell me in person. A full decade later, I am amazed that Dan waited until he was in the warm back seat of my car before sharing his heart-shattering piece of news with me. In a gentle voice, he informed me that Brendan had died in a car accident on the previous night…he put his hand gently on my shoulder, clearly thinking of my feelings over his own.

Thanks to Brendan, as well as Dan’s ever-widening circle of family, friends, and brothers-in-arms on the filmmaking circuit, I no longer consider Dan disabled. He isn’t cured, because autism isn’t a disease, and he hasn’t secured a traditionally-procured long-term job just yet, but word-of-mouth artists continue to find him. His friends are astonishingly diverse and loyal and his family is solidly behind him. He has built an incredibly safe and stable world for himself, and he is successful by any measure of this word; he accepts his differences and stays modest about his talent, always happy to share his gifts, as well as himself, with others.

I think that to truly stop mass shootings in this country, we need to do more than just change a law, incarcerate more people, have more discussions on political channels or more cleverly composed tweets. We have to actually care about the children we raise…not just mine or yours or theirs, but all of our children.