Paul Tims argues that Tarantino's assertion of the value of violence in his latest film has a message for anti-capitalist activists
I’m a huge Tarantino fan. You’re shocked, I can tell. Sarcasm aside, regular readers can probably infer from my writing style and thematic preoccupations that I’m equally enthused by his violent, grind-house sensibilities and the surprisingly astute and nuanced social commentary of his meatier films. Case in point, The Hateful Eight wasn’t just about eight people in a room trying to murder one another, it was a meditation on the way the oft-romanticised values of the Old West arbitrarily legitimated some types of amoral sociopath while condemning others. Likewise, Django Unchained was (obviously) a film about the evils of racism and the historic slave trade, but it was also a portrayal of complicity in that trade by people we usually think of as victims, or at least uninvolved bystanders.
Often, his films are underpinned by a shared theme of vengeance or personal outrage (which you can read more about HERE and which will be important later). My point is that Tarantino films aren’t just entertaining exercises in stylised sex and violence (although they do contain those things in wondrous abundance, thank goodness). They’re also reflections on the state of culture or the history that lead to that culture. Few, however, have felt as relevant and significant as his most recent effort, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
In order to discuss the cultural import of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and what it means for those of us on the left, I need to spoil the ending completely. Throughout the majority of its run-time, the film follows two minor (and entirely fictional) figures in the Hollywood eco-system who used to act in old-fashioned, two-fisted, morally uncomplicated Westerns until they started to become unfashionable and who just happen to live next to Sharon Tate. Clearly, the film is building up to the events of August 8th, 1969, when Tate and four other people were murdered by the Manson family. However, Tarantino being Tarantino, that’s not what happens in the film’s universe. Instead, the Manson family try to attack our fictional protagonists first and end up getting beaten to death themselves, set on fire and (in one case), partially eaten by an adorable pit-bull terrier.
Now, ostensibly, the reason for this is personal and pretty obvious: catharsis. Everyone (including Quentin Tarantino) hates the Manson family, yet as a culture we can’t help but accord them a level of importance and keep their legend alive because of the emotional impact Tate’s murder had. By showing them as a bunch of blundering, easily-eviscerated incompetents, Tarantino robs them of this posthumous power and, in fact, gives us licence to laugh at them. It’s the ultimate and final ‘screw you’ to a group of people who, in the director’s view, did something unforgivable to a cohort he strongly identifies with.
However, this analysis is far too simple. What’s much more interesting to me is the film’s tacit acknowledgement that something is wrong with our culture. The overriding theme of my Culture Punch articles thus far has been that the superficially cheery and harmless cornerstones of our modern western culture are built on a foundation of corruption and decay. The BBC and Facebook share an insidious right-wing bias that affects the type of content they deliver through their different mediums. Disney (whose films define so many childhoods) uses slave labour to make its merch. Even the videogames industry is built on the backs of underpaid, overworked, exploited developers. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is obviously specifically concerned with cinema, not society in general, but it seems to share my underlying belief that something is very wrong with the shape of modern culture. For Tarantino, this something is connected intimately with the way we, as a culture, process violence.
Let’s briefly unpack the film’s ideology and find the evidence for those assertions. Our first clue to the director’s thesis comes from his choice of main characters. Both of them are intimately connected with (but not defined by) a specific type of masculinity in which violence is a central pillar. DiCaprio’s character, Dalton, carved out a niche for himself playing rough-and-ready gunslingers in TV shows and films, even though he’s clearly a soft, sensitive guy in real life. Pitt’s character is a real-life badass who proves to be lethally effective in threatening situations but who, in his day-to-day existence, is content to potter around doing odd-jobs. Considering the wide array of Hollywood archetypes available, I think it’s telling that Tarantino chose to zero in on two men who were familiar and comfortable with violence but who weren’t obsessed with or imprisoned by it.
The second piece of the puzzle comes from the film’s near-constant references to its protagonists’ obsolescence in American cinema. Tarantino constantly reminds us that the world these men represent is on its way out. It’s a world where violence is a tool available to comparatively ordinary people; a tool that can be used to affect positive as well as negative deeds. Indeed, even a passing familiarity with cinematic history bears this out. After the 1960s, Hollywood’s relationship to violence changed profoundly. Throughout the seventies and eighties, it became the province of the exceptional and the inhuman. If you don’t believe me, think about the best-known violent action films of that era. In Terminator and Robocop, violence is enacted primarily by superhuman machines, with lesser violence accorded to society’s outsiders and to specific, exceptional human beings. In the Rambo films, violence is the province of specially-trained individuals who just happen to embody the American military ideal (even though they might have a complicated relationship with the military itself). Then, from the 1990s to the present day, violence became increasingly cartoonified. Supernatural and superhero movies turned it into a stylised affair with very little connection to reality and (in many cases) no visible blood or loss of life beyond that necessary to keep the audience invested.
Finally, Tarantino shows us a version of the Manson family massacre in which the presence of ordinary people who are used to violence leads to a radically different outcome. Instead of the Manson family murdering Tate and her friends, they are defeated completely and totally by an out-of-work actor and his stunt double, one of whom is heavily stoned at the time. Aside from framing the massacre (as it occurred in real life) as the point at which Hollywood turned its back on mundane violence (because it was used against its stars), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also stating that, actually, the type of violence embodied by its lead characters has a right to cultural acknowledgement and can actually serve as a bulwark against the type of violence embodied by the Manson family.
Righteous violence and capitalist exploitation
Now, that’s all very interesting, but what on Earth does it have to do with socialism and cultural democracy? The answer is simple: the film’s model of acceptable and even righteous violence is exactly counter to what capitalism wants us to believe about violence.
No oppressive regime or social structure has ever been dismantled without violence. The 26 Counties of the Republic of Ireland didn’t free themselves from British rule with well-practised tutting: it took an armed uprising (you can read about the Easter Rising and how it turned the tide of public opinion against British occupation HERE). The suffragettes didn’t win the vote for women by peaceful deeds alone: they did it by blowing up private property, putting their own lives on the line and taking other forms of violent action (which you can read about HERE).
Capitalism is a system of exploitation. Atrocities are perpetrated in its name every day. Around the world, people are worked to death in sweatshops. People with treatable conditions die because they or their healthcare providers can’t afford the exorbitant prices charged by Big Pharma. Governments are too afraid of corporate powers to charge enough tax, and as a result welfare budgets are stretched to breaking point and people die in poverty because they don’t qualify for benefits their governments can’t afford. The global capitalist economic system is a plague whose symptoms are inequality, strife, misery, physical sickness, poor mental health, economic slavery and death. And the point is this – you can bet that the people who benefit from this system don’t want ordinary folk realising that it is within their power to commit violence against the apparatus of their system.
Now, I don’t think that there’s a conscious conspiracy in Hollywood to disconnect fantasies of violence from any sense of real-world applicability. I also don’t think that Tarantino is using his latest film to seed an anti-capitalist uprising. However, mainstream Hollywood’s usual refusal to engage with plausible violence is beneficial to capitalism, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not. Likewise, Tarantino’s unexpected assertion of the value of violence is relevant to the struggle, even though he clearly didn’t intend it as a coded message to diehard lefties.
I’m not saying that it’s good or appropriate to go out and physically attack the first venture capitalist or banker that you see. For a start, you’d be arrested and, for another, in a world of impersonal systems, any effective violence would have to be enacted against infrastructure not people. I’m not even calling for a violent uprising against capitalism right here and now. My point is merely that it behoves us to remember that we are capable of fighting back on the physical level as well as the cultural one – and this is something our oppressors would do well to bear in mind.