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

BRAD PITT AND LEONARDO DICAPRIO IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD”

BRAD PITT AND LEONARDO DICAPRIO IN “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD”

“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.

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...