Once Upon a Time of Violence

Four Manson Family goons sit in a rattletrap car at the bottom of Cielo Dr. girding themselves for what they are about to do. One of them, a girl with jet-black hair and a face white as a sheet, is having a revelation about their generation. We all grew up watching violence on TV, and that is how we learned to kill. Wouldn't it be trippy and righteous (not her words, but close enough) if we murdered all those who taught us how to murder. This is a scene from near the end of Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, a film whose news reports and teasers lead us to believe will revisit the grisly Tate Murders of 1969.

I have been sitting with this scene now for almost two weeks, running it forwards and backwards in my head. I even went to see the film a second time to make sure I had heard it correctly, understood exactly who says what, when, and to whom. I wanted to study the girl’s tone of voice and the look on her face when she says it. I needed to see it again, so I could observe how the others in the car react, and how I react—how it makes me feel. What I am after, I realize, as I am sitting in the dark by myself, is whether or not I am supposed to take her seriously.

The power of the line in the film (as trite as it might seem to some) is that it comes from the mouth of a young girl who seems to have no reason to hate the world—at least none that is apparent to us—and yet the anger and desire for revenge runs deep in her. There is a venom in her that is hard to comprehend, and I feel an urgent pull to try to understand where this hate is coming from, so that we might defuse it, disrupt it, save her, and her victims. However, in Tarantino's world, the only thing that typically disrupts violence is more violence. I will not give away what happens next, but suffice it to say it just might help us begin to get a handle on the spiritual sickness and confusion at the heart of such wanton violence.

Had you told me before seeing the film—and even after my first viewing—that this was the case, I would not have believed you. For years, I have engaged in all kinds of moral, theological, and literary gymnastics to see Tarantino’s films as trenchant critiques of the violence Rene Girard believes stems from scapegoating, which lies at the heart of what he calls “mimetic desire,” but it has always ended up feeling unsatisfying, inauthentic.

This is not to say that Tarantino is a stylish lout or a beautiful pornographer, but it is to say that he simply seems to be in the business of creating viral stories, stories that retold—retold in the locker room, retold while getting your hair washed at the salon, in the Whole Foods check-out line, around the watercooler, around the keg, in the teacher’s lounge, and under the bleachers at Friday night football game—gain the teller a sort of social capital or credibility. Of course, this depends on the values and the currency of that circle, but all indications right now suggest that we live in a culture that rewards this sort of behavior as we lavish it with what has become, according to political philosopher Matthew Crawford, our most valuable possession, our attention.

I am no pearl clutching snowflake—when I was in 8th grade my main ambition in life was to be a horror movie special effects artist—but given the large number of mass shootings over the past 20 years, and increase in the amount of extremist ideology advocating for violence being spewed online, a new Tarantino film, especially one about one of the most famous and grisly murders in American history, seems a good occasion for reviewing our moral and theological attitudes toward media violence.

There is nothing that grabs the modern viewer and drives ratings like violence. Yet, this is nothing new. The Iliad, and all of Greek tragedy from Aeschylus to Eurpides are memorable to even the most indifferent of readers because they are punctuated by moments of spectacular violence. Aristotle writes in his Poetics, “Objects [such as dead bodies] which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity,” He continues, “The reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.’” But beyond the pleasure of being exposed to imitations, even of dreadful things, they are also important because they force us to confront and recognize our mortality: Ah, that is me.

Tarantino’s victims are part of this tradition, too, though many would argue that his films are hardly so deliberately philosophical. In comparison to the Greek tradition, the violence in Tarantino’s films feels random, senseless, and thuggish. The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane nails this popular sentiment in his 1994 review of Pulp Fiction by quoting legendary detective novelist Raymond Chandler: “It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.”

But this grotesque humor is the active ingredient behind the viral nature of Tarantino’s violent plots. The gleeful sadism of his heroes (and villains) strikes many fans as liberating and entertaining. But what of moral and theologically based claims that argue the very opposite; that such violence degrades the dignity of humans, and, over years of exposure, leads people to see violence as entertaining and the preferred way to solve problems.

For me, this hand-wringing starts all over again with each new Tarantino film, and every time I am told by friends and scholars that the connection between being exposed to mediated violence, whether through film, TV, video games, music, or news media, does not cause people to behave violently, period; that it is simply a case of “citation bias” and gross exaggerations of the number of corroborating studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which, in 2016 released a policy statement on “Virtual Violence” advising severe limits on exposing children to mediated violence based on what the report characterizes as a consensus in the scientific community that media violence leads to aggressive behavior.

Given the controversy surrounding the AAP’s report, and the recent news reports following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, once again debating the connection between media violence, aggression, and mass shootings, let us take a step back and consider a different tack, one that considers the impact of violence media and rhetoric on the soul.

It seems a fact of human nature that we are concerned with mortality. Mortality is not a phenomenon like sex, which we can eventually domesticate, through experience, as a natural and healthy part of our lives. Violence and death command our attention, because it is an unknown territory that we trifle with at our own peril. Thus, depictions of violence and death present us with a safe alternative. Developmentally-speaking, psychologists speak of this fascination and desire to know the unknown and test boundaries as developmentally appropriate and even healthy behavior.

Yet, if there is anything that the hundreds of studies show is that exposure to such media has an unpredictable effect. In some, it can lead to imitative acts, and later, addiction. In others, it can lead to such moral and physical disgust that they become critics of such depictions.

A completely unscientific poll of my Catholic friends on their view of art and media that portrays moments of vulgarity and violence is mixed. On the one hand, there is an Augustinian “all is sacred except for sin” stance that is supportive, especially, of depictions of transgression for an artistic purpose. On the other hand, there is the pacifist Dorothy Day stance that will not even participate in air-raid drills because they dignify the fact that civil society tolerates the madness that is nuclear weaponry.

Over the past 30 years, the Church, when it comes to this issue, has focused on the idea that art and media are tools that can be used for good or ill. A 1989 Pontifical Council on Communications report “Pornography and Violence in the Communications Media: A Pastoral Response” concerns itself with the “widespread increase of pornography and wanton violence in the media.” The report takes as its occasion the belief that we are living “at a time of widespread and unfortunate confusion about moral norms,” and that though media can be, “effective instruments of unity and understanding [they] can also sometimes be the vehicles of a deformed outlook on life, on the family, on religion and on morality.”

According to the report, the most susceptible and at-risk of deformation are children and young people who “may not be able to distinguish readily between fantasy and reality.” The report goes so far to claim “at a later stage, violence in the media can condition impressionable persons, especially those who are young, to regard this as normal and acceptable behavior, suitable for imitation.” The report concludes with recommendations all relying on an appeal to reject the disordered nature of pornographic sex and the ways that sadistic violence dehumanizes and objectifies humans.

Tarantino’s films have certainly raised this kind of concern over the years. From the torture of a cop with a straight razor in Reservoir Dogs, to the brutal rape scene in Pulp Fiction, or, more recently, the repeated beating of a female prisoner at the hands of a bounty hunter in The Hateful Eight. But Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a more complicated case. Of all of his films, it might be his most thoughtful and savviest in terms of the portrayal of violence, especially violence as a means of exacting revenge with what you might call an Aeschlyian aim, of achieving a sense of justice and balance to society. Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds had elements of this, though depictions of seeing slaveholders mowed down at the hands of the enslaved or Nazis immolated by Jewish soldiers appeal to a kind of bloodlust that we allow ourselves only in special circumstances. It is a kind of scapegoating. Here is the embodiment of evil in our midst: let us relieve and relive our angst and grief, pour out all of our rage and desire for revenge on these cartoonishly evil people and then cast them out.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a special case because it seems to acknowledge that scapegoating has shaped our most pervasive cultural narratives and myths, and shows just how thin they are, and, ultimately how harmful they can be. The film follows Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio) a TV star famous for his depiction of a Wild West bounty hunter, and his stunt double and personal driver/gofer Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as Dalton (and, as a result, Booth) comes to terms with the fact that he is approaching the dénouement of his career. We observe their existential crises against the backdrop of Los Angeles, 1969.

In the hands of Tarantino, the "once upon a time" in the title is a both an homage to the Spaghetti Western master Serigio Leone (director of Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America), but it also feels like a nod to the fairytale trope, the very utterance of which casts us into a strange liminal space. It causes us to be prepared for something charming and magical. It is a signal that the story we are about to hear will feature events that are only possible in the distant past or realm. “Once upon a time” is also emotionally manipulative: “I’m only asking you to believe this once . . .”

In fact, viewing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the end of a 48 hour period during which two mass shootings were perpetrated—one in El Paso and the other in Dayton—had me experiencing “feelings of unreality,” a sensation that is a classic symptom of what psychologists call derealization or depersonalization, when you seem to be standing outside yourself observing your actions and thoughts; time seems distorted and recent events feel like they happened in the distant past. In this way, all of Tarantino’s films might as well begin “Once upon a time . . . ” The title screen for Ingloroius Basterds is followed by “Chapter One,” then, “Once upon a time . . . in Nazi-Occupied France.” They are pulpy fictions that could not care less about the white, bourgeois aesthetic sensibilities of realism and social uplift. Tarantino wants to mangle the audience’s expectations and pieties.

But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is much less sophomoric. It has less of the swagger and braggadocio of Tarantino’s previous films and more of a satirical bite, with the violence ultimately owing more to Aristophanes than Aeschylus. Late 1960’s California is an easy setting to satirize, a land of young kids from respectable suburban families who play at becoming free-loving, acid-dropping, hippies who sit around admiring their own lack of “hang-ups,” but those are not the kind of hippies Tarantino is concerned with here. He is dealing with a less innocuous breed of hippie, one weaponized by Charlie Manson who convinced his misfit band of kids in their teens and early twenties that he was the Second Coming and they were the embattled descendents of the first Christians, whose job was to save the world by instigating a race war that would lead to Armageddon. And if that were not enough, in these end times, Satan would reconcile with Jesus and both preside over the final judgment of humanity.

But unlike in Pulp Fiction, there is no mention of God, just Satan. The bizarre eschatology is not given room in the film at all, which seems prudent because the sense that the film gives is that the Manson Family disciples are no religious extremists. Their desire to wreak havoc on the Hollywood elite comes from their hatred of what they have become and what they think has been done to them. The “pigs” that Manson told them to slaughter were not spiritual enemies, instead they stood for the prosperity that they achieved through corporate greed. The (perverted) genius of Manson’s ministry was that he was teaching religion in a way that eliminated a sense of eternal good and evil, and focused instead on a belief that this world has been corrupted by the greed of white corporate elites, and that the only thing to do is to burn it down and start over.

This is where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood derives its real satirical power from. If you watch closely, in nearly every scene in the film someone is smoking a cigarette. In every scene in which a character is driving a car, or watching a TV, an advertisement pushes in to claim our attention: perfume and Noxema, a travel agency ad for Miami Beach, a place where you will get so tan people will think you vacationed in Waikiki.

In an early scene, reminiscent of the opening of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, we are introduced to a shambolic singing troupe of Charlie Manson’s hippy girls. The skinny barefoot waifs forage in a dumpster then the camera tracks them as they walk past a huge, iconic mural of the reclining Marlboro Man, cowboy hat tipped forward, cigarette dangling from his mouth.

All of this cultural atmospherics, which comes off as a goofy love of kitsch in Tarantino’s previous films, now begins to take on an air of the sinister. The passive audience for these commercials are unwittingly influenced by the ads. Maybe it has always been there. Maybe the sinister feeling is more amplified by the similarities between this historical moment (2019) and 1969, but whatever the case, it is there and the stakes seem higher because children, adolescents, and young adults are involved.

Sharon Tate, it is well-known, was eight months pregnant when she was murdered, and the murderers were all in their late teens or early twenties. What makes this so striking is that Tarantino’s films rarely feature children or parents on screen, with the notable exception of Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) in the Kill Bill films, who becomes a mother as the result of rape, and so Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, whose narrative suspense relies heavily on the audience’s knowledge of the Manson Family and the Tate Murder, seems to be interested young people, especially how impressionistic they are.

One subplot in particular that stands out involves a precocious child actor who shares two scenes with DiCaprio in television pilot. Her earnestness and innocence stands in stinging contrast to DiCaprio who is grappling with the fact that his career as a leading man is all but over, a crisis made worse by a massive hangover after a night in which we learn he drank eight whiskey sours. She sits in a canvas director’s chair reading a biography of Walt Disney, and he sits next to her reading a paperback about a bronco buster who, like him, is past his prime. She is skeptical of him, but after they film their scene together, she confesses to him that it is the best acting she has ever seen in person. It might just be the sweetest, most uplifting scene in all of Tarantino’s films.

Also bringing light into the film is Sharon Tate (Margot Robie). She is portrayed as a kind-hearted and fun-loving soul, which makes the two and a half hours of the film even more excruciatingly suspenseful. We do not want to this kind, golden-haired mother-to-be to die—again. The end of the film is, like all of Tarantino’s films a big, old violent romp, and so it is hard to keep one’s bearings, to keep your eye and ear focused on the tone of the grisly violence.

In the end perhaps Tarantino is aware, perhaps not, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ultimately becomes a critique of how materialism and essentialism are in cahoots to create an America whose fractures and factions are not political but borne of a spiritual vacuousness, of a selling of the soul to whichever master helps us to throw off our feelings of victimhood and master our world. But maybe that is too heady? Maybe the real moral is this: We should be listening to our kids. We should be taking them seriously when they say that they are angry and are thinking about harming themselves or others.

No matter what your view of Girard is, one of things he was correct about is that the narratives that inform our scapegoating practices, our bullying and belittling, our reticence to believe the victim of abuse, clearly have deeper and more profound effects than we have cared to admit. But they are not only playing themselves out in the mediated world of the once upon a time, they are real forces that can keep us from becoming spiritually fulfilled and whole.

Featured Image: Leonardo DiCaprio in a still from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Source: IMDB.org, fair use.


David Griffith

David Griffith is a writer and educator. His work has appeared in the Utne Reader, Paris Review Daily, Image, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America.

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