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Essay

A TOUCH OF ZEN & VIOLENCE: ON THE FANTASY OF CLIFF BOOTH

As moral panic around fantasy violence flares up, Quentin Tarantino argues for a philosophy of cathartic, ethical screen violence via the charisma of Brad Pitt

“In these circumstances, he can allow himself to enjoy being a ‘great man’, to give way without a qualm to such suppressed impulses as a craving for religious, political, social and sexual matters, and to ‘blow off steam’ every direction in the various grand scenes that form of the life represented on the stage.”

Sigmund Freud, Psychopathic Characters on the Stage (1909)

Words by David G. Hughes

Since Aristotle onwards, drama has been regarded as a means of catharsis (from the Greek katharsis, meaning to cleanse or purge). It is a way to vent, in a socially permissible manner, the frustrations, desires, and impulses of existing in a perpetually unfulfilled human body. If this is the case, it is invariably so that drama, from a sociological perspective, engages in a flirtation with taboo that leads to some degree of individual relief. As much as we — respectable denizens of the dramatic arts — attempt to justify said arts to a position of supreme moral rectitude, we should not dissociate ourselves from the sybaritic, amoral pleasures of the plastic arts. Not without engaging in delusions of grandeur, at least.

Still, it doesn’t stop many from trying, the classic case being the post-Christian concern that fictional depictions of violence inspire real-world violence. When we heap this level of moral responsibility onto an artwork we are, by a misguided sense of moral righteousness, thereby discouraged from engaging in the fantastical representation of unpleasant realities. Thus, we repress our natural instincts even further, making it verboten from our collective fantasy life. Perhaps this is good, conducive to the social fabric, locking the vipers of the human heart securely away. But the Freudian revolution sent this logic packing, and most of us are privy to the basic psychoanalytic notion of that which is repressed will unduly come back to haunt us in ways far more dysfunctional than the occasional dive into the base pleasures of dramatic representation.

When it comes to film, Quentin Tarantino is a director who, perhaps uniquely so, has been questioned ad nausea about the alleged correlation between film violence as he so joyously depicts it on screen and violence as we know it in the habitable world. Repeatedly, and not unreasonably, Tarantino has erected a wall between what he calls “fantasy” violence and real violence, going so far as to call himself an unapologetic “cheerleader” for violence on film and argue that this poses zero contradiction to his revulsion at actual violence (Tarantino has been a campaigner against police brutality, for example). More so, in the case of Japan, he posits evidence that the “most violent cinema” exists in the “least violent society.” Therefore, fictional depravity is either completely inconsequential to the relative harmony of a society or is even a contributing factor towards it.

It’s the sort of argument that, in the mind of moralists and puritans, just cannot be tolerated, tied as they are to the notion that those with an appetite for fictional debauchery must have a penchant to experience it in the real world. Tarantino’s assertion is logically sound if we consider the arts to be essentially cathartic, but it cannot be wholly verified or proven, and the relationship between fantasy and reality is never so obvious, nor simple. Yet, the persistent interrogation of Tarantino’s penchant for blood ‘n’ gore, with its corollary moralist outrage, has unsurprisingly led to the director getting frustrated in tactless interviews.

No wonder Tarantino films find themselves at the centre of the culture war, their unapologetic glee is existentially opposed to prevailing notions of guilt and sin.

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, Margot Robbie at the 2019 Festival de Cannes
Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, Margot Robbie at the 2019 Festival de Cannes

Tarantino, as a filmmaker goes, is hardly repressed in his creative instincts. He is, in actual fact, pure Id. It was film critic Pauline Kael, great De Palma admirer, who once said: “I hope men don’t give up exploring their fantasies, because it’s one of the most fertile fields in movies.” By now we are fully aware that Tarantino, admirably or stubbornly, has taken his critical hero’s advice. His refusal to criminalise or censor his fantasy worlds, replete with impetuous and familiar Tarantino-isms that often leads critics to call him “infantile” or “immature”, has put him in testy exchanges with the commentariat and the political status quo.

Most recently, The Guardian has issued (multiple) warrants for his “cancellation” and have taken it upon themselves to make him their bête noire, with critic Caspar Salmon throwing his weight onto the pile with pejoratives such as “juvenile”, “teenager-ish”, “brainless”, and other complaints born of middle-class passive aggression. His complaint that “Tarantino’s films are not concerned with any sort of etiology of violence” is a tall order for a filmmaker whose never shown a scintilla of interest towards being, as Claire Denis describes it, “a social worker”. And let’s face it: nor does he have to be.

It’s likely that Tarantino’s zero-apology stance, his relative impenetrability to holier than thou moralism is what most irritates his detractors. Often to uncomfortable titters, Tarantino frequently describes his desirous penchants in unashamed, amoral terms, memorably answering a question about why he employs violence by screaming: “Because it’s fun!”. Tarantino, a thoughtful and open interview subject, is clearly only confrontational when questioned on the integrity of his work and, by extension, himself. This occurred during the recent Cannes Film Festival when he refused to answer a loaded question by simply stating “I reject your hypothesis.” It was never the case that artists agreed to the terms that gave them moral responsibility as a result of their “platform” (a morally-infused synonym of “success”), yet the commentariat continually behaves as if such an agreement exists.

It is not likely that Tarantino will begin to self-censor any time soon, especially when considering that he only has one more movie in the pipeline before completing the 10-feature legacy box-set and saying au revior to the cinema, right before the glorious motion-picture empire is overwhelmed by the digital barbarians marauding at the borders. One should not dismiss the appeal that this distinctively unapologetic brand has for audiences, how it entices them to the event of a Quentin Tarantino picture. This is not due to any blood-thirst or lasciviousness, but surely what Jack J. Spector describes as an:

unburdening by a sufferer of the guilt weighing down upon him.

Jack J. Spector, The Aesthetics of Freud (1973)

Tarantino isn’t here to point fingers and make you see the error of your ways, but to offer a reprieve, and show you a world in which vice is a way of life and bad taste is part of its joy. No wonder Tarantino films find themselves at the centre of the culture war, their unapologetic glee is existentially opposed to prevailing notions of guilt and sin.

It is, for sure, Tarantino’s effusive sense of phantasy play when constructing (and destroying) his worlds that brings in patronage and delivers smiles, as well as being for him personally the raison d’etre of filmmaking — it’s just so damn fun. Take as an example of his stubborn sense of play his much-discussed fondness for feet. Even for a director who reads his reviews, most of which like to mention (and shame) this fetish, he hasn’t been discouraged an iota from continuing to project this fixation on screen. The notion that a film displays the personality of its director has always been controversial, but this auteur theory is particularly unfashionable at a time when male creative vision and artistic control is made synonymous with power, or even threat in a post-Weinstein world. Take, for instance, recent footage of David Lynch getting irritated on set. While anyone who has ever worked on a set knows how frequent a relatively tame outburst such as this occurs (they are, after all, spaces of intense labour with high stakes), it has been interpreted as evidence of patriarchal power and no longer seen as an admirable dedication to artistic integrity. This serves to only highlight the rarity (and, indeed, inevitable controversies) of Tarantino’s almost undisputed auteur claim. Like him or loathe him, few discount that a Tarantino film is a projection of his psyche and his psyche alone.

The fantasy life of the film is most telling around the gravitational charisma of Cliff Booth, played with laconic grace by the square-jawed heartthrob Brad Pitt.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019), Sony Pictures, USA, 35 mm / 70 mm, colour, sound, 161 minutes, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)

It is the uncompromising nature of his fantasy that makes Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019) so fascinating as an object. While Tarantino’s films have always operated on a meta-level in its relationship with culture, by setting Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood within the milieu of America’s “Dream Factory”, the film goes even further in making a commentary on fantasy and wish fulfilment, both of Tarantino’s psyche and the culture at large. More than that, it may be his definitive statement — his meta-riposte—on the charge of moral responsibility and the topic of fantasy violence.

Much of the discussion about fantasy has been directed towards Margot Robbie’s luminous, iconic performance of Sharon Tate, who functions as a symbol of effervescent life, unadulterated joy and graceful innocence. But the fantasy life of the film is most telling around the gravitational charisma of Cliff Booth, played with laconic grace by the square-jawed heartthrob Brad Pitt. He is the connecting principle between the narrative threads and sundry of characters more than anyone else in the film and, despite his profession as a stunt man making him invisible, he emits a life force and narrative significance which is compelling and forcible. He’s the loyal stunt double of the neurotic actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former leading man of heroic 50’s TV western Bounty Law, who now lives in a bundle of anxiety about his place in the changing times of 1969, as the counter-culture hippie impulse begins to seep its way into Hollywood production.

For all the merits of DiCaprio’s performance, the character’s psychological stresses prevent him from ever being a stable figure of fantasy for the audience. It is a deliberate irony when considering that he is the movie star within the diegesis — the man who plays in fantasy worlds, but is never an ideal himself. Pitt, on the other hand, has won the audiences and critics over; people really like Cliff, despite the fact that his social standing is low — the obsequious chauffeur to Dalton. To us, Cliff is the movie star and the films hero and, from this, you can salvage a Marxist point about invisible labour and the Substructure. But just as Freud is more penetrating than Marx, it isn’t politics that makes us like Cliff — it’s sex.

At the most obvious level, Cliff is an object of desire. He is handsome, strong, loyal and courageous. Tarantino admitted that he was reluctant to hire Pitt as a stunt man as he’s “far too handsome.” However, in a recent interview with fellow director Paul Thomas Anderson, he revealed that he changed his mind completely, especially in lieu of Pitt’s performance, and now: “I can’t imagine Cliff not being the most handsome guy in Hollywood. It’s such a part of his character.” He doesn’t explain why exactly it’s so important, but it becomes obvious when you consider the prevalent, oneiric theme of fantasy and wish-fulfilment in the film. The most gratuitous display occurs when Cliff, after effortlessly bouncing his way onto the roof of Dalton’s house in a show of immense physical dexterity, is suddenly compelled to remove his shirt under the hot Californian sun. With his tool-belt buckled around his waist and a cigarette between his lips as he labours to fix an antenna, here is a figure of classic, but no less potent, masculine sex appeal.

The spectacle of this serves zero narrative purpose, leading the literary-minded to argue for its removal in an extended film. But Tarantino, always nonchalant to narrative structures and dictums, is motivated almost exclusively by the notion of “a good time at the movies’”. The display is the purpose and the purpose is the fantasy. It’s a fantasy of the gaze, but also of male virility. Cliff is a character that conforms to what Laura Mulvey identified as: “the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego”. That he’s admired by women is part and parcel of this, and so is physical strength. During the same scene, Cliff has a flashback to the time he was working as Dalton’s double on The Green Hornet (1966-1967) and is challenged to a friendly on-set fight by none other than star Bruce Lee, played with uncanny similarity by Mike Moh. The proceeding fight has been controversial for the problematic nature of its racial optics but, taken as a fantasy (as the director has defended it as), it becomes clear that Tarantino, via the proxy of his ego-deal Cliff, is engaging in an infantile wish in which he does what every young boy wants: fight Bruce Lee. This is surely the ultimate litmus test: who, in the culture of then or any time, parallels the grandiosity of fighting Bruce Lee? This was in all reasonable likelihood not intended to mock Lee, whom Tarantino has evident respect and affection for, but to merely depict a toe-to-toe against a martial artist and movie star of mythic proportion. By squaring off against the iconic star, Tarantino births his own mythic creation in Cliff Booth.

A man absent of neurosis gets the term ‘zen’ applied to them all too casually, but in the case of Cliff it may be warranted. In a world obsessed with efficiency, productivity and destructive ambition, Cliff has detached himself and emits an aura of self-assured tranquility.

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019), Sony Pictures, USA, 35 mm / 70 mm, 161 minutes, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh)
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019), Sony Pictures, USA, 35 mm / 70 mm, colour, sound, 161 minutes, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh)

The Cliff Booth fantasy extends beyond these admittedly boyish playground contest. But it is also the case that an ego-inflating wish for physical domination is somewhat deflated through Cliff’s endearing and non-imposing personality. A man absent of neurosis gets the term “zen” applied to them all too casually, but in the case of Cliff it may be warranted. In a world obsessed with efficiency, productivity and destructive ambition, Cliff has detached himself and emits an aura of self-assured tranquillity. He is the counterbalance to Dalton’s first-world catastrophising, part of the Hollywood production system and yet an outsider to all of its deranging influence. He has a clarity of vision and no desire to impress, crafting for himself a life of appealing simplicity that challenges the notion of success as we often think of it, especially when contrasted with Rick. Cliff is a peripatetic with an insouciant attitude to employment and a life of steady routine as he returns home each evening to spend time with Brandy, man’s best friend. With a checkered and mostly mysterious past, Cliff embodies the Buddha’s teaching: “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.” It’s Rick who depends on Cliff, and while Cliff is subservient, his life is in no way played for pity. Cliff is no failure; there is no sense of him being degraded by Dalton. He is forever imbued with a powerful agency. When Cliff tells Rick “I like driving you around”, we believe him and it removes the film from the possibility of Marxist interpretation. Cliff’s strength of character and his audience appeal has nothing to do with his social standing, but rather his solid sense of I in a changing world.

Cliff is an existential fortress of a man within the postmodern Los Angeles wilderness, and his moral rectitude is matched only by his confident, swinging stride. The calm and freedom that he appears to enjoy are grounded on his ability to masterfully control and sublimate his impulses (his fondness for high-speed joy riding is an example of this). Cliff’s focused character is inseparable from his physicality, a union of mind and body. We know this because, as we come to learn, he is a man capable of extreme and barbaric violence. He may be zen, but he is no monk, nor has he adopted the a la mode pacifism of the time. He is, in fact, a “war hero” (the second time Pitt has played a Nazi killer in a Tarantino movie) and we see the residue of conflict marked across his physique. The dynamic equipoise between his generosity as a friend, his peace of mind, and the residing capacity for forcible violence makes Cliff an attractive and intriguing personality, what psychologist Carl Jung called an “integrated personality” — when the individual has become conscious and in control of different aspects of the personality.

Cliff’s dynamic personality is most thrillingly witnessed during the sequence in which he picks up a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) who, unknown to him, belongs to the murderous “Manson Family” cult and is seducing a ride back to the infamous base of operations: Spahn Ranch. It just so happens that Cliff knows the place—he used to shoot westerns on the lot and after he’s introduced to the squatters inhabiting a rundown dog-infested wasteland, he asks for the absent owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern). Not getting convincing answers and withstanding verbal insistence, Cliff negotiates a tense situation that we in the audience know is highly dangerous. Cliff isn’t naive, so he’s not unaware of a threat, but his confrontational manner shows the extent to which Cliff is not just a nice guy who fixes antennas, but a man imbued with an enviable level of courage, enabled by a resolute sense of self-awareness. Cliff is always in control because he knows what he’s capable of. With what can only be described as “big dick energy”, he insists on seeing if his old acquaintance is “alright”. Heading into the lion’s den, he finds George blind and incapacitated but insistent of his health and well-being. Upon leaving with a sigh, Cliff discovers a knife thrust into his tire and spots the attenuated agitator. Cliff proceeds to beat the man senseless and humiliate him by forcing him to “fix it”, a response that seems disproportionate and extreme but perhaps not so much when considering he is outnumbered and keen to showcase the extent of his threat. This is a fantasy of righteous male power, of exhibiting cool control over the aggressive instincts, and releasing the optimal degree of violence when required to control a sticky situation. With maximal sadistic pleasure, the protagonist exerts what Mulvey calls “a satisfying sense of omnipotence”.

Tarantino is fashioning Cliff as the anti-Manson, a fantasy figure of male heroism who operates in stark contrast to the reality of exploitation and depravity. If Charles Manson is Hollywood’s “monster from the id”, then Cliff is its ego-ideal and saviour.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019), Sony Pictures, USA, 35 mm / 70 mm, colour, sound, 161 minutes, Spahn Ranch recreation

As this brutal sequence shows, Cliff is a strange mix of a man. He is a shaggy-haired pot-smoking ruffian of benign temperament. But he also exhibits a military-trained killer instinct. In this union, he is emblematic of the peculiar cultural melange of East and West that the new hippie counter-culture attempted to reconcile, it’s espousing of Buddhism, Taoism and cosmic consciousness sitting awkwardly alongside the Western Renaissance of the individual and Ancient Greek values of Apollonian beauty and strength. Cliff sits between both of these worlds.

But so does, in actual fact, Charles Manson. Cliff is parallel to the mostly absent Charlie, who likewise embodies the contradictions of an era sat between utopianism and Hell (the disastrous Altamont Free Concert occurred the same year — another nail in the coffin of utopian free love). While Cliff has a rigid code of conduct, presumably based in good ole fashioned values, Manson takes his philosophy a la carte, selecting what suits his agenda from Christianity, Beatles lyrics, racist ideology, and Scientology. Both live unconventional lifestyles as outcasts from the Hollywood system, with Manson turning to a resentful desire to redistribute the wealth of the “Piggies” behind the gates by whatever means necessary, and Booth turning to introspection, order and detachment. Cliff has movie-star charisma (maybe we wonder why Cliff never became a star himself, as Bruce Lee remarks: “You’re quite pretty to be a stuntman”), but Charlie—who wanted to break into movies—harnesses his charisma for the purpose of control and seduction, emitting an infamous reality distortion field that persuaded people to do his bidding. Both also use violence in a mediated manner and not during fits of passion. We saw this with Cliff’s visit to the ranch, but it is also the case that, in Charlie’s absence, he became the de facto alpha controlling the space through a masculine sphere of influence. He is even told: “Charlie’s gonna dig you”. It is intriguing how Charles Manson’s sole appearance in the film, as he scouts the Tate-Polanski household, is through the eyes of Cliff as he works on Dalton’s roof. Tarantino has even revealed that he cut a scene in which the two eyes literally meet from across the street (an excerpt of which remains in the trailer), and Tarantino has pondered whether its removal was right. One cannot help but feel that if it stayed, it would have highlighted the parallelism more obviously, perhaps too obviously. By making connections between the two, it is the case that Tarantino is fashioning Cliff as the anti-Manson, a fantasy figure of male heroism who operates in stark contrast to the reality of exploitation and depravity. If Charles Manson, in Peter Biskind’s words from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), is Hollywood’s “monster from the id”, then Cliff is its ego-ideal and saviour.

Presented with a contrast of two powerful male characters capable of extreme violence, the film continually teases their inevitable confrontation right up until the explosive conclusion. By now much discussed, rather than the Manson Family going on to slay multiple victims on the evening between August 8-9 as history knows it, fellow Cielo Drive resident Rick Dalton, neighbour to Tate-Polanski, interrupts the Manson scheming in a drunken stupor, enraged by the encroachment of “hippies” on his hill. Deterred by the raving actor, the Family reverse themselves before changing their plan to murder Dalton instead. With Cliff in the house enjoying a psychedelic trip, he is soon faced-off by a home invasion and confronted by the sharp end of multiple knives and the threat of the “devil’s work.” Unfazed, we are by now aware of Cliff’s essential indestructibility (he’s the man who fought Bruce Lee, after all). He unleashes obscene and lurid violence against the villains, involving a dog food tin, the fragile human cranium and Brandy, Brad’s loyal pitt. The ensuing violence within the scene has proven to be controversial. It is undoubtedly made uncomfortable by the gender optics of witnessing a man beat women to death, as noted by multiple film journalists. But this essentialist approach that questions what gender does what to what gender conveniently and explicitly avoids nuance and context in order to make a point, recalling Albert Maysles quote: “Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance”. If anything, the scene can be described as an Ariadne’s thread: we can approach it through multiple angles and never get a satisfactory or definitive answer, moral, or message. The shocking and uncomfortable violence of the scene is made even more complex by the fact that it is extremely funny, a fascinating display of violence that cuts right through the complicated desires of the human heart: revenge is sweet, but also sour. Yet within all the diversity of responses, cathartic may have been the most frequently cited emotion.

What does this amount to? Is Tarantino engaging in a misogynistic fantasy of violence against women? I find it unlikely but it’s not impossible. More than that, are we in the audience engaging in the same fantasy? Again, it seems unlikely when considering that women are enjoying the scene just as much as the male members of the audience. It’s best not to impugn motives and simply adopt Occam’s Razor here—that the simplest explanation is likely the best one, and that explanation being the Manson Family were bad people. We in the audience feel a sense of reprieve from not only being subjected to seeing what we assumed would be Tate’s murder, but seeing the perpetrators have the situation reversed onto them. That seems like a wholly moral response and one that would explain the catharsis that many have reported.

Between the horrid real violence that we know occurred historically and the fantasy violence that we see in the film, Tarantino is making a firm distinction between cruel real world violence and cathartic fantasy violence.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019), Sony Pictures, USA, 35 mm / 70 mm, colour, sound, 161 minutes, Cielo Drive recreation

Even with all of its potential pleasure, or indeed because of it, the very concept of revenge remains too Old Testament for some, an immoral and queasy business because it too is an act of violence and, therefore, bares no more a redeeming quality. It seems that, in this case, Tarantino simply rejects your hypothesis. This relativist approach, in Tarantino’s mind, is in and of itself a moral failure—a false equivalence. It is clear that Cliff has a firm moral compass and a code, and it is this code on which his violence is predicated. The inability to distinguish between righteous, permissible violence and cruel, evil violence is, for Tarantino, the real problem, the true abandonment of moral responsibility that his critics have levelled against him. This becomes crystallised when violence occurs against people who you’d assume have few redeeming features — Nazis, slave owners, and the Manon Family.

Even bolder, Tarantino suggests that those who are most crusading in their distaste for fictional violence are not only hypocrites but themselves more likely to be complicit in its real-world enactment. To the Manson Family, Rick Dalton, as the heroic male actor, is simply a “Fascist” who teaches people to kill in their living rooms as a TV action star. Their decision to murder Dalton, instead of Tate, is taken under the spell of its juicy irony—a star who kills people on-screen gets killed in real life. It isn’t fake violence that leads to real-world violence, but an ideological crusade. Earlier in the film, we saw Cliff and Rick sit down with some beers to enjoy the latest edition of the T.V. serial, “F.B.I”, starring Dalton as a gung-ho G-Man. Watching together they laugh, Cliff compliments the performance and they joke about the violence in the spirit of tawdry brotherhood. In this, the two are “letting off steam” in much the same manner as we, sitting in the audience, are doing when watching a Tarantino movie. Tarantino here is showing that enjoyment of on-screen violence is entirely healthy and should be enjoyed guilt-free. He has said as much in an interview:

It actually is kind of true, that kids who watch violent movies—again, who like them, not that you force them—but if the kids will respond to that naturally, it won’t make them a violent human being when they grow up.

Quentin Tarantino

Between the horrid real violence that we know occurred historically and the fantasy violence that we see in the film, Tarantino is making a firm distinction between cruel real-world violence and cathartic fantasy violence. His deliberate evocation of our laughter (Tarantino has described how he gets off on making the audience have a myriad of emotions under his orchestral direction), is the phenomenological proof of the distinction he has always made — that violence is fun, and fantasy violence is different. Indeed a large part of the pleasure of the scene is in knowing that we shall not witness the dreaded murder of Tate and others that until this point we assumed to be ominously headed towards. In a sense, this climax is Tarantino’s riposte to those incessant moralists that have dogged him and his artistic statement on aesthetic violence. Reversing the dynamic, we see a fantasy act of violence change a real-world act of violence in a corrective manner.

If we ground these reflections in some sort of empirical literature, we can say that Tarantino’s artistic project corresponds to psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s understanding of “play”. In Winnicott’s “object relations” theory, the child’s first attachment to a toy (a “transitional object”) assists a transition from subjective omnipotence — a type of narcissism in which the world is an extension of you — to an awareness of objective reality in all of its various limitations, as something that we must simply adjust to. Even with the assisted transition that leads to an acceptance of reality in adulthood, we never dispense with the fundamental archaic pleasure of omnipotence that play provides. Winnicott goes as far as to say that all forms of sophisticated culture and religion belong to this formative pleasure principle.

Tarantino is emboldened to alter history in his films because they’re his, his fantasy, and he attaches himself to his film as a child does a transitional object.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019), Sony Pictures, USA, 35 mm / 70 mm, colour, sound, 161 minutes, Hollywood Boulevard recreation

We know that Tarantino is frequently described as “infantile” and “childish”, often with pejorative intent, but through Winnicott we can see just why this association is apt. Tarantino is a filmmaker who operates with an everlasting, unrestricted sense of play to the extent that even history is not safe from his omnipotence. He is emboldened to alter history in his films because they’re his, his fantasy, and he attaches himself to his film as a child does a transitional object. He will explore his fantasies with a level of amoral indiscriminateness as an unsocialised child, or what the (in)famously amoral aestheticians ask of us. Tarantino was six years old during 1969, and it is obvious to see when watching Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood that he’s getting a kick from recreating his childhood. Tarantino himself has made the comparison to Roma (2018), which isn’t unjustified when seeing that both his and Alfonso Cuarón’s film are artworks that embody what psychoanalyst Ernst Kris, in Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (1952), calls “regression in the service of the ego.” That is to say, works that regress into childhood replenish and enrich our ego-conscious. In our lives, we all establish variants of this sphere of play that is neither real nor unreal, that sits between subjective and objective, where fantasy and reality meet.

Without it, in Winnicott’s view, the”True self” disappears and people only behave as oppressive expectations or social propriety will allow, thus becoming unfulfilled and unhappy—a “False self”. Winnicott shows us that when we play we are at our most real. With this in mind, when we demand Tarantino filter his play, usually for reasons of social propriety or collective morality, we ask him to deny his authentic sense of Self. Any artist worth their salt would not concede to such demands, but many do. It’s worth reminding ourself of Oscar Wilde here, who decreed:

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want.

Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891)

We begin to see why Cliff Booth is so essential to Tarantino’s Hollywood fairy-tale. Booth’s Herculean ability to shape the world and remain impervious to its corruption expresses an impervious sense of Self. His appeal corresponds to what Freud termed “omnipotence of thought”: “through this revealing characteristic of invulnerability we can immediately recognise His Majesty the Ego, the hero alike of every day-dream and of every story.” Never do we see Booth in a fluster, or losing control — he is a manifestation of Tarantino’s infantile omnipotence.

Dalton, on the other hand, is a source of overriding anxiety and neurosis. For a director who rallies his cast and crew on set with the cry “we love making movies!”, Dalton’s fundamental unease, his neurotic foreboding and seriousness, puts him at odds with Tarantino’s authorial notion of play that underlies the whole enterprise of movie-making. For, in Winnicott’s words, play does involve anxiety — “There is a degree of anxiety that is unbearable and this destroys playing” — but Dalton has this degree of anxiety to the extent it betrays his sense of play, thus closing him off to himself. Cliff, on the other hand, exhibits play in every situation, including threatening ones, exerting an omnipotent control that is satisfying to watch because we, in the audience, are playing along with him. And that’s why we like Cliff: he is is a playful man in a playful world, wholly at home and at ease. The pleasure of playing with Booth, in Winnicottian terms, comes from this satisfying sense of being present with the Self, a monolithic sense of I. Cliff is the sort of man who looks you in the eye and reminds you of yourself: “You’re Rick fucking Dalton. Don’t you forget it.”

While the enterprise is a fantasy, it is far from a negative one. It’s a fantasy of violence that restores a reality and a wholly positive one at that. It’s a therapy for the culture.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019), Sony Pictures, USA, 35 mm / 70 mm, colour, sound, 161 minutes, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)

What’s crucial here is Winnicott’s overall point that: “Playing is itself a therapy […] and it includes the establishment of a positive social attitude towards playing.” With a Winnicottian ethic, Tarantino is making the case for a more positive social attitude towards the benefits of play and fantasy, which is increasingly criminalised. And he decriminalises it by saving Sharon Tate. For someone obsessed by legacy, it isn’t surprising that Tarantino is highly perturbed by Tate being defined and known solely by the tragedy of her death. Through Cliff Booth, his agent of power, he can, and in a somewhat real sense, he does save her life — her legacy. In his film, Tate is no longer just Manson’s victim, but reborn again in the real culture we inhabit. We have been discussing her (and seeing her) for more than a victim and closer to what she was — a force of life, playful and in love with the world. Booth never meets Tate in the film because they are, essentially, the same person — gendered reflections of each other. It is also why it’s important that Margot Robbie not watch Margot Robbie as Tate at the cinema, but Robbie watches Tate herself. So, while the enterprise is a fantasy, it is far from a negative one. It’s a fantasy of violence that restores a reality and a wholly positive one at that. It’s a therapy for the culture.

Sort of like a partner who accuses the other of cheating in the secret wish that they are, thus having the “moral” excuse to separate, the film commentariat persistently reprimanding on-screen fantasy as irresponsible and dangerous can only lead us to conclude that the very protestations come from a latent desire to see such a hypothetical link manifested and validated in the world. This has become even more acute with the release of Joker (2019), wherein commentators are torn between berating its infantile source material or becoming hysterical about all of the real-world “copy cat” consequences they believe/want to occur. Only cultural denizens are not as immune to fantasy as they believe themselves to be: their own delusions of omnipotence are plain to see via their moral crusading and psychological confirmation bias that absolutely must believe in the validity of their work and therefore of a real link between the real world and the fantasy one that they happen to be the tastemakers of.

Here it is not difficult to see a defence mechanism against the essential impotence of the critical profession and its all-too-bare cultural irrelevance. Through Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Tarantino makes a statement on the salubrious potential of fantasy violence, and he has likely fallen foul of the critical community because he believes in the playful harmlessness of the film medium, reminding those white-collar professionals what every regular cinema attendee knows and feels—that film is fun, a salubrious and cleansing experience. It’s such a shame that we needed Tarantino to communicate the fact that cinema isn’t bad, that its fantasies don’t lead to oppression or violence, but can be a comfort object that inspires, cleanses, and even saves a life.


David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.