Quentin Tarantino and the False Catharsis of Violent Revenge Stories

Spoiler level: Moderate. I discuss the climactic scene of "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" which, based on real events, is depicted in an unusual way. The rest of the film is not discussed.

I recently watched Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (shortened to Hollywood going forward). I watched it on a plane, a viewing choice that accurately summarizes how I feel about about his recent work. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but despite an impressive career, to me, none of his recent films come close to the genius of Pulp Fiction. It’s not that his films since then haven’t been compelling, it’s that there appears to be a set of themes present in most of these movies that, when combined, synthesize into a problematic message. Specifically, I am concerned about Tarantino’s obsession with three things: (1) ultra-violence (2) revenge stories and (3) rewriting history.

Now, before we dive into these items, let’s be clear: Tarantino is very talented. His movies are dazzling, and in purely technical terms, they’re all very well made. Not only do audiences enjoy his movies, but he has influenced many other film makers and has affected both the style and substance of American cinema. Few directors have as much creative freedom as Tarantino has enjoyed for most of his career. He’s a Hollywood powerhouse. It is precisely because he is so influential, however, that I feel it is important that we consider the core messages encoded in his films.

Let’s start with number one: violence. From the ear cutting scene in his first film, Reservoir Dogs, in 1992 through to the climax of Hollywood released this year, every single one of Tarantino’s movies contains at least one scene of extreme violence. They are often heavily stylized and many have a comic book quality to them, but they are always graphic and often quite jarring. Some are so over the top that the impact of the violence is lessened and one can appreciate the shear spectacle of the scene. The Bride taking down scores of yakuza with her samurai sword all while donning her famous yellow jump suit in Kill Bill Vol. 1 comes to mind. It’s a great scene.

Then there are those scenes that revel in the violence a little too much and don’t seem to serve any real purpose. The “Bear Jew” scene in Inglourious Basterds makes me uncomfortable just thinking about it. If you are unfamiliar, a Jewish commando beats a Nazi solider to death with a baseball bat and “commentates” the action as though it were a baseball game. In no way does this scene serve to show us the “horrors of war” which one would expect from a WWII film. It’s an ugly scene — awkwardly acted and out of place.

A great deal of human history is defined by violence, and it certainly has its place in art. Whether it is through art or other mediums, I actually believe it is important that we collectively acknowledge the barbarism of our past if we wish to create a more peaceful future. Where this gets tricky is when the act we wish to admonish can be so realistically depicted, as in the case with film. It’s difficult to know for sure just how violent movies (and other media like video games) truly affect us, but there is absolutely some effect. We wouldn’t have content-based rating systems like the MPAA if we didn’t believe so. I would argue that our diet of media and ideas define the way we think and perceive the world around us, regardless of age, and often in ways we are entirely unconscious of.

It seems that even Tarantino is aware of this conundrum. In Hollywood’s final act, four drug-fuelled members of the Manson Family sit in a car running through their plan to commit a series of murders. A young girl justifies their proposal for senseless killing by recounting how they’ve been watching shows about “murder” on TV ever since they were kids. In other words, they’ve been taught to be violent. But what does Tarantino show us immediately after this meta-commentary? A graphic scene in which three people are brutally killed. One of them has her nose completely broken by a can of dog food. Another has her face repeatedly smashed against a mantlepiece before she is torched to death by a flamethrower. As I will elaborate on more below, it doesn’t actually matter that it is the aggressors who end up dead in this case. What matters is what we actually see on the screen.

The second of Tarantino’s obsessions — revenge — seems to mandate these depictions of violence. The Kill Bill films are an epic story about a woman’s bloody rampage against a squad of fellow assassins that wrong her and leave her for dead. One of the primary stories in Inglourious Basterds is that of a band of Jewish-American soldiers on a mission to collect the scalps of Nazi soldiers. Vengeance is also at the core of Django Unchained in which a black slave gets retribution on his white oppressors. Finally, in Hollywood, despite dedicating a great deal of screen time to other storylines, the climax is ultimately a revenge story gone wrong. It’s an inescapable theme in the world of Tarantino.

By itself, revenge is a perfectly good motivator for a story. But when it is such an overt theme in an auteur’s entire body of work, it raises deeper questions. Based on Tarantino’s films, one might deduce that all human behaviour can be explained by simple tit-for-tat logic. In fact, his glorification of the violence associated with settling a score is so prevalent, it would not be a stretch to argue that he in fact condones such behaviour. While this is problematic by itself, things get even more troublesome when we add Tarantino’s latest fascination: revising historical events.

In Inglourious Basterds, all the prominent leaders of the Nazi party are burned to death in a film theatre. In reality, not only did many Nazis escape Germany to places like South America, but there is strong evidence that Hitler also escaped. The official story that he committed suicide is hazy at best and there are many interesting theories about where he might have gone. More horrifying is the historical fact that after the war, thousands of Nazi engineers were covertly transported to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip and were given instrumental roles in NASA and other military and technology institutions.

Instead of exploring these and the many other uncomfortable aspects of history, Tarantino chose to rewrite the ending of the war to a more “satisfying” one in which the evil Nazis get what they deserved. Were this a one time trope, it might be interesting, but this exact scenario is echoed again in Hollywood. Here, a clip from The 14 Fists of McCluskey, a made up movie featuring Rick Dalton (played by DiCaprio), depicts him torching a group of Nazis with a flamethrower. Similarly, history is loosely interpreted in Django Unchained to create a story in which a black slave is violently victorious over his owners. History is not fully rewritten in this case — the horrors of slavery are depicted unapologetically — but the spirit of the film is the same. We, the viewers, get to see the oppressed exact revenge on their oppressors, regards of how little it reflects the reality in post-slavery America.

This revisionist approach to handling uncomfortable parts of history is most blatantly used in Hollywood. On August 8th, 1969, Sharon Tate and four others were murdered at home in the most horrendous way. It was a sensational news story, especially once the public learned about the Manson Family cult that perpetrated the crimes. But instead, what we are shown is a reversed outcome in which, the “bad guys” get what’s coming to them and the “good guys” live to see another day. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

It is one thing for a society to unburden itself from its ugly past; it is a very different thing to pretend those things never happened. The Holocaust happened. The Germans lost the war, but Nazism hasn’t truly died. American slavery happened and its legacy still plagues the United States through institutional and economic oppression. Charles Manson, the leader of the group behind the murders, may have died in prison, but the true source of that terror remains enigmatic. It seems to me that Tarantino believes that his vengeful movies help us collectively heal the wounds of our bloody history, but by reshaping the facts, he is creating a repressive form of cognitive dissonance. How are we expected to change our future when we don’t acknowledge and understand our past?

The Manson Family were a cult of roughly a hundred young “hippies” who frequently used LSD and lived an alternative lifestyle in Laurel Canyon, California during the 1960s. How does a man like Charles Manson assemble a group like that and what lead them to such violent ends? If you’re going to plumb this terrain for artistic inspiration, I think it’s essential that these questions are asked. “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work”, says Tex, the leader in the gang, to Cliff (Brad Pitt) in the film. Was this the devil’s doing? What does that even mean?

Laurel Canyon was a hot spot for a number of bizarre and potentially connected events. While I will avoid going down the rabbit hole here, there are links between counterculture and government-funded LSD programs, Hollywood and the mysterious Lookout Mountain Studios, the burgeoning music scene and US intelligence agencies. Manson himself was a musician with ties to the Beach Boys and other well known acts. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a fascinating part of history that cannot fully be explained. Sure, this territory requires a certain degree of speculation, but there is no shortage of intriguing things that were happening in the surrounding area that could be explored in relation to the Manson Family murders.

Tarantino, however, doesn’t want to go there. Now to be fair, he isn’t a documentarian; he’s an entertainer. But in Hollywood, because of his blind adoration of cinema itself, we get a taste of an interesting period of history without any of its real substance. It’s almost as if he wants us to actively ignore real history and engage purely with the silver screen version of events. Were the Manson murders simply a backdrop to his Hollywood story, it might have been appropriate, but he chose to engage with the history head on, deliberately incorporating key characters and events. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Like many other viewers, during the films final build up, I expected the Tate murders to be depicted or at least implied. Had Tarantino chose to end the film with a graphic depiction of the events, one might question its purpose and appropriateness, but it would have at least been more honest. I don’t think, however, that anything gratuitous really belongs in this film. As mentioned earlier, Tarantino heavily relies on violence to the point of it being a crutch, and it takes away from his other talents. Perhaps the shock of the massacre could have been used as a backdrop for a simpler story about Rick Dalton and the plight of those navigating the ruthless Hollywood machine? I can think of many interesting parallels — no gratuituous violence required. But of course, that would require Tarantino to remove his rose-tinted glasses and consider the impact and the purpose of the violence in his movies. And that’s not nearly as much fun as a flamethrower.