It’s been over a week now since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was released in the US. In that time, the movie’s done well for something that’s not another prefab Disney blockbuster and its detractors have had a remarkably difficult time articulating any kind of moral argument against it. The best anyone was able to come up with is that Bruce Lee’s daughter and protégée disapprove of how Lee was portrayed in the film as a bit arrogant. This holds no water, though, for anyone who’s seen any interview with Bruce Lee.
I thought Lee actually came off pretty well in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, particularly in the flashback of Lee training Sharon Tate for The Wrecking Crew.
Over at The Atlantic, reviews have been positive. One—I guess I’ll call it an exceptio—is this article by Spencer Kornhaber. I hesitate to call it an exception because its arguments are so vague and unformed. Sometimes he seems to like the movie, other times he seems to be arguing that it’s empty and callous, even dangerous. But the article interested me because Kornhaber focused on the same thing I focused on in my review, the apparent statement in the film about the difference between fantasy violence and real violence and the nature of how the former might influence the latter. This idea has taken on a new relevance, too, after the recent series of mass shootings which President Trump responded to by putting the blame, in part, on violent video games. Also at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost has written a pretty thorough article on research that has gone into the potential influence of video games on violent behaviour and the history of politicians, on the right and the left, crusading against video games.
In light of this, Kornhaber’s article on the same site seems odd and sloppy, not for expressing a contrary opinion but for the lack of effort Kornhaber put into his argument. In discussing the motives Sadie Atkins (Mikey Madison) expresses in the film for committing murder, Kornhaber asserts “the film could almost be read as taking Atkins’s stance,” without explaining what he means by this. Tarantino gives Atkins some dialogue in which she argues that people who are responsible for creating violent media, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton, are in fact murderers because of the crimes they inspire and should be killed. Where in the movie does Tarantino take a position even “almost” like that?
Kornhaber goes on to write:
Once Upon a Time has been widely interpreted as an elegy for a beloved cinematic era that ended with the cultural shifts of the late ’60s, which were embodied by Manson’s curdled, deranged hippiedom. But it could be argued—and, indeed, is argued by Atkins in the film—that the film industry’s bloodthirstiness corrupted a generation that then murdered its idols. Old Hollywood, in Atkins’s reading, created the Mansons, seeding its own destruction.Sure, “it could be argued,” but not very intelligently or well or anywhere in the movie except by Atkins. Where else in the movie is anyone encouraged to murder the idols of Hollywood?
It’s ironic that Kornhaber claims the film’s argument is incoherent and “facile” as those words fit his own argument pretty well. One quote he pulls from a 1994 interview (but Kornhaber added an exclamation point to the quote) seems especially timely;
[Bruce] Willis - who is currently making a third Die Hard film and also plays a double-crossing boxer in Pulp Fiction - recognizes an essential distinction between the two kinds of productions. In the Die Hard movies, he said, violence is a gimmick.
“In every reel, there has to be some big thing, an explosion or a big action ‘beat,’ “ he explained. In Pulp Fiction, the brutality “all comes out of human beings just behaving, and not because it’s time for an explosion. . . . I think that’s the big difference.”
The suddenness of the new violence also sets it apart.
“In real life,” Tarantino reflected, “when violence enters our world . . . it kind of just rears its ugly head and we are not prepared for it.”
No scary music. No ominous shadows. No warning signs.
The filmmaker suggested an example: You’re in a restaurant, enjoying a pleasant dinner, chatting with some friends.
“All of a sudden, three tables away, some man smacks his wife,” he said. “Whoa! It comes out of nowhere. It affects everything!
“And I’m not interested in just the act - the act of the guy smacking his wife,” he went on. “I’m interested in what happens after that.”
As we’ve seen again and again in mass shootings, the killer’s motives tend to have little or nothing to do with the people he actually killed—the violence, as Tarantino says, seems to come out of nowhere, with no logical context, but obviously it affects everything. Much like the real life Manson killings the motives for which are difficult to untangle from the incoherent testimonies of the killers and other Family members. What had Sharon Tate to do with Manson’s prophesied race war? It all seems likely to have been related to the fact that Manson’s former associate Terry was the former occupant of Tate’s house and she became the victim of his irrational resentment, and maybe the even less concrete class resentment of the Family members who perpetrated the killing. Simply put, mass murder is a crazy thing to do and it tends to be done for crazy reasons.
But in spending so much time talking about whether Once Upon a Time “absolves” fantasy violence of culpability, Kornhaber misses what’s right in front of him, which is the film’s argument for the positive function of fantasy violence. This comes from a general problem in criticism in which critics are unable to differentiate between different kinds of fictional violence. It would of course be inappropriate for there to be a scene in the middle of Schindler’s List where a starving Jewish man is suddenly able to crush every Nazi guard’s skull in a flurry of martial arts prowess. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take pleasure in Indiana Jones wailing on another Nazi in another movie. Some violence in films is there to give us an impression of a horrible experience, some violence is cathartic. And there can be overlap, certainly, as in Yojimbo where we feel the horror of Sanjuro getting worked over—but then it’s even more satisfying and cathartic when he prevails against the people who hurt him.
This is what Tarantino is doing in Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. These aren’t propaganda films, or they’re not meant to be—they’re not misleading us about what really happened. Because we already know. Tarantino is arguing that there’s value in fantasy that’s not about tricking people or deluding them. It’s not such a radical idea—we can read Lord of the Rings and appreciate it without believing in the existence of Hobbits and Elves.
Twitter Sonnet #1264
Contestants change for chocolate dressing capes.
Beneath the suffered hat’s a thorny web.
A town descends to sleep behind the drapes.
Appointed times allow the thoughts to ebb.
The waggon filled with stones began to move.
A push above the hill and time was out.
And then a wobbly wheel was locked a groove.
Became the fabled train and stuck the route.
The stars were bubbles, nights in certain clubs.
Through quiet tunnels certain ghosts remain.
A foreign movie played with English subs.
Immersive tubes could race a bullet train.
In skinny forests, ruins clearly stood.
Translucent dances burn the brittle wood.