Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

By: Jeremiah Sears

I am with my friend in the car, let’s call him Jacaranda, Jack for short. We round the block three or four times before finding parking; it is one of the premiere shows, around 7:30 p.m. The Tarantino-ites are hyped, buying beer, milling, etc.  There’s Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, hippies, and Sharon Tate next door. Jack and I are together having a great time, enjoying each other’s company. This essay is about the importance of good will and the redemptive power of the moment.

Does the quality of the movie we are about to see matter?

No; Jack and I are from Los Angeles; Tarantino is from Los Angeles; we are in LA, in an LA theatre, and the movie is culturally of Los Angeles cinema. The spirit of the art speaks to us, and thus the world speaks to us, as it did to the theatre full of people: we identify with the world and with each other. To put it another way: things are good, we are alive, and we are happy to be together.

The movie is almost 3 hours long; what I mean to say is that one is at risk of boredom; and if one were to enter the theatre heavy with expectation for the sort of visceral energy which has become Tarantino’s stylistic legacy (think Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, Hateful Eight), one is at great risk of boredom. Tarantino’s movies are violent, and that violence is fun; in the moment, assuming you are with him, it is righteous. The people who are brutalized deserve it: Nazis, Rapists, Slavers, etc. But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a tease. It is only in the last minutes—that is, the last fifteen minutes of a two hour and forty minute movie—that the brutal surge of violence comes upon us: acid-Cliff kicks the hooligan’s head in, he holds another attacker by her blonde hair and beats her face into tomato sauce against stone walls, while Rick himself, surely eight drinks in by then, torches the screaming, dog-mangled witch who falls into the pool to death with his flame thrower. Perhaps I am impolite. But these descriptions do justice to the energy of the theatre, which is at once horrified and gleeful. It is a bacchanal experience; a submersion into bestial being. And I mean this: the self is lost in the rush of the moment, the truth of experience which disables the distance necessary for self-consciousness, for a moral judgement. Moral judgement about actions performed are made looking back upon it: here there is no space to look back. Only after may one say “Oh, that was a horrifying thing that Cliff did to the Manson kids.”

This submersion in the moment is not limited to violence, and certainly it is a necessary part of human life: sex, dance, and athletics are more accepted form of bacchanal submersion. And yet the moment’s power, too, allows for a transcendence of the self which is alike to the bacchanal state, but not a forgetting of the self, instead, it is a heightened presence: in good conversation and in love we can find this. Here the world and the other are beautiful and right here with us. Here, we are glad to be. Here our minds (and, I think, our souls) are alive. This is the state called “eudaimonia,” which I think is characterized by an attitude of good will. I do not mean this causally—that good will comes from this state, or that good will leads to this state, but rather that good will is this state. To practice good will is to be in eudaimonia; in other words, it is to be caring, to be empathetic. In this act of good-willing there is the possibility of redemption. Being in the pure presence of the moment, and in doing so being caring, is a persisting act of rejection of the evil that you once were, an ever-renewed commitment to remake the self as a good self. This is redemption: not a point reached, but a goal strived for by being actively good at each moment.

Among the characters of the film, Cliff exemplifies this. Almost certainly he has killed his wife; certainly he is heinously violent. But he is also, perhaps, the most caring character.

He kills the Manson kids not only for himself, but for his good friends. He does not incite violence. He cares for his dog. He checks on George at the ranch to make sure he is all right. And, though being Rick’s friend is his job, he genuinely cares for Rick, too. In short, he means well. He lives with good will.

The theatre climaxes, the bacchanal orgy of violence erupts and calms, and it is the fraternity between Rick and Cliff that makes the story meaningful. Cliff brutally kills two and a half teenagers for the same reason Rick promises to bring bagels to the hospital in the morning. They are loving, and they have good will for one another. They are happy to be together.

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