Quentin Tarantino has spent the last decade rewriting American history. His business is now poetic justice: the oppressed return in time, through Hollywood, to punish their historical oppressors. Inglorious Basterds (2009) had Jews kill Hitler, Django Unchained (2012) had a liberated slave kill slave owners, and The Hateful Eight (2015) had another liberated black man kill other Southern racists. In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019), the murderous Manson cult is punished.
With these stories, Tarantino is pointing out that the narrative of moral Progress is not the whole truth. Slavery is over and all the Nazis are dead, but evil persists, giving the lie to Progress.
More, the horrible violence in these movies is supposed to reveal something wrong with us. In the name of justice, horrifying passions are vented. Not only is evil still real, but it is part of our own hearts. Tarantino suggests we have a deep, dark desire to practice cruelties on the evil among us, safe in the knowledge we have all the power—safe, too, in the knowledge that we have clean, if bloody, consciences. “They” deserve the worst we can give them, and it turns out that worst is really inside of us.
Going back to his first movies, Tarantino has always pointed out that in our hearts we want revenge, but the ethic of revenge always leads to the slaughterhouse. This is a very moralistic idea. His message is not Jesus’ message of grace and redemption, but for all the irony of his storytelling, as early as Pulp Fiction, he showed us that the man who lives by the gun—Vincent, played by John Travolta—dies a ridiculous, ugly death, whereas the man who puts the gun away—Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson—moved by a miracle to risk his life for the sake of others who threaten his life, lives to preach forgiveness.
But perhaps even more unacceptable to the narrative of Progress is that the fight against evil is fought by manly men who are very dangerous and not at all politically correct. They not only fight evil, but to some extent they also reject moral rules. Their dedication to violence makes them seemingly super-human, but it can also make them look like monsters.
Since movies are a form of storytelling, a fiction rather than a fact, to make sense of this, we should compare these protagonists with the America we see online, where people constantly talk about destroying their enemies, claiming that violence is justified against evil people, if not indeed morally obligatory. The Internet is as ugly as Tarantino has long told us our own hearts are. We thrill to violence because we are not the angels we pretend we are—and in the pursuit of angelic justice, we might turn into beasts.
This is not to deny that Tarantino is a liberal of the kind that has been popular in America until recently, committed to free expression in art and free speech—the kind now under attack by “cancel culture” Progressivism. He’s obviously not a Christian, but he does something Christians desperately need—he persuasively portrays the dark passions of the heart, the evil inside all of us, which cannot be abolished. He reminds us we’re all sinners. None of us are divine agents of justice and we should reject the false pieties of victorious Progressive violence against reactionary evil. History is not redemptive in political terms. We are not really angels compared to the devilish previous generations.
In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, the bad guys are the hippies who murdered Sharon Tate and her guests on August 9, 1969, and, on the subsequent night, murdered the LaBiancas. The good guys are reactionary types who live in the myth of the Western: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
Dalton used to play a Western sheriff on TV, but he failed to transition to the movies, so he’s on his way to obscurity. Booth used to be Dalton’s stuntman, but since work has dried up, he’s a factotum. He lives in a trailer with his dog, but spends most of his time driving Dalton around and they spend evenings drinking and watching film of the smaller and less prestigious roles Dalton still lands. Booth’s the kind of manly man Dalton played on TV. Whatever may have been true of the Old West, in Hollywood stuntmen do not share in the glamour—they only do the dangerous work.
In the 50s ad 60s, everybody liked Westerns, but we cannot have Western heroes without the evil they have to face, which none of us want. Our love of heroes therefore tends to the fake, which we can enjoy in safety. On TV, the good guys win every week during the season and no one minds that Western history is turning into fantasy.
In order, on the other hand, for the non-glamorous stuntman to be a hero, we have to see the ugliness and evil in the glamour. Here, Tarantino is strangely shy. We see almost nothing of Manson and are given no sense of how he got a cult started in L.A. and why he was free to do so, but the relation between glamour and evil would seem to be important to the story.
Tarantino focuses on our protagonists, to show that ugliness is what prepares Dalton and Booth for this ugly deed, which is necessary in order to protect the beautiful people adored as celebrities. The word “hippie” is an insult in their mouths—they have prejudices and they do not apologize. They have sins in their past—Booth is said to have killed his wife, which seems to have been an accident. He got away in the sense of not being convicted, but it’s changed him: now he has blood on his hands. Such men are necessary only if moral Progress is never reliable—if evil can come back in an unexpected way—for example, by way of the hippies we tend to consider good, or at least innocuous. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood shows us how surprising it is when someone out of the blue comes and says he’s come to do the devil’s work, the terrible phrase used by the murderers—normal life is over and the beautiful illusions of California are shattered. The shocking finale to a leisurely, touching, funny movie is intended to encourage moral seriousness. We owe Tarantino a debt of gratitude for that.
Tarantino’s recent movies are beautiful, most of them shot by three-time Oscar-winner Robert Richardson and scored by the famous Ennio Morricone. They are all very long and try to revive the older tradition of Hollywood filmmaking, telling stories that impress audiences and provoke thought and therefore controversy. But they also are meant to correct moral prejudices and remind us we go to the movies because they portray the dangers within our own hearts, including the ethic of revenge now rebranded as Progress.
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