Quentin Tarantino’s New Kind of Violence

If you’ve seen any of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, you know he earned a reputation for depicting violence in both gratuitous and necessary ways. What do I mean by that? The violence of his movies was both integral to the characters and the plot but also, some would say, extreme, stylized, over-the-top.

I will admit that I have never been his biggest fan, although certainly I have enjoyed some of his movies. My favorite was Pulp Fiction until Inglorious Basterds came out. I hated Kill Bill Vol. 1 and didn’t even bother with Vol. 2 because I didn’t see how any amount of brilliance in the second could make up for the ridiculous trash that the first one was.

Yesterday morning something happened that doesn’t usually: my husband called me on the phone to ask me on a date. He thought Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood would be a pretty fun movie and suggested we go see it.

“I’d love to,” I said, enjoying the novelty of the formal invitation. The trailer had made the movie look like interesting Tarantino fare without giving away the whole story. What we hadn’t realized is that the original trailer we’d seen––and even the synoptic blurb for the movie––really doesn’t tell you much about the movie at all that you don’t learn in the first fifteen minutes.

This film has violence, yes, including some of the bloody and incredible violence that we have come to know Tarantino for. But in this film, he’s experimenting with a different kind: emotional violence based on the audience’s expectations, targeted at a subset of the audience that is likely above a certain age. If you don’t fall into that subset of the demographic, it’s possible you won’t have any idea what I’m talking about. It’s possible you will have seen this movie and found it to be an entertaining romp, an occasionally funny look at some marginally likable characters, a meta story about a past-his-prime actor and his equally near-washed-up stunt double played by two actors who were hot leading men in their prime but who have clearly moved on past all that now. And there’s nothing wrong with that if this is your perception of the movie; it’s a fair read.

But if you’re like my husband and me, closer to fifty than we are to forty, if you know about pop culture history and the darkest stains of humanity that were left on it, if you have a sense of what Tarantino is capable of and was very wont to do in the early days of his career, then this movie might have made you stop halfway through and think, Oh no, this is the worst date movie ever.

Spoilers follow. You have been warned.

Margo Robbie as Sharon Tate

In Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio plays an actor, Rick Dalton, whose roles have dwindled to being the “heavy,” a consistent and dependable bad guy itinerant all over the TV Guide listings whose subtextual purpose is to give new leading men a career victory over him. Brad Pitt plays his stunt double, Cliff Booth, who is also his employee and best friend, who chauffeurs him around and hangs out with him and watches his house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills and is generally cheerful about accepting whatever dregs jobs Rick maneuvers for him. Next door to Rick live Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie and arguably the most appealing character in the film, aside from one precocious little girl who is awesome.

Julia Butters is The Bomb.

For about the first half of the movie, there are multiple story threads that feel somewhat random, somewhat disconnected, but Tarantino is no slouch and we can expect that all these disparate threads and sketches of Hollywood circa 1969 will come together and mean something. And then they start to, when a hippie rings the doorbell at the Polanski home, and you realize where and when and who all of this is, and if you’re up on your mid-late-20th-century American history, you make the assumption that the stranger ringing the doorbell is Charles Manson.

And that’s when the movie becomes violent. Not in a literal, Kill Bill kind of way, but in an emotional, anxiety-riddled kind of way. Suddenly you realize that this movie has a long way to go, and it was made by Quentin Tarantino, and you know what happens to Sharon Tate because you remember what happened to Sharon Tate in real life in 1969. And then every part of you silently freaks out and you say to yourself, Oh shit. Suddenly this movie has become the worst date movie ever, and you’re stuck with it.

The movie then goes on to toy with your expectations further on a number of levels.

First, when Cliff ends up at Spahn’s Movie Ranch with the group of hippies and everything in their commune is Just Not Right, but he’s a stunt double who can fight and isn’t afraid of a bunch of teenage hippie girls being all weird, he goes in to find his friend George who works there, and you expect him to head down that dark and decrepit hallway and find either a dead body or a booby trap, but instead he finds George, in exactly the state the hippies said he would be. You breathe a sigh of relief.

But that’s not the whole experience, because you know that “Charlie” isn’t there and that spectre of who he really is reinforces the trauma you know is coming. From that point in the movie on, everything is tinged with this expectation that the end of the movie is going to hurt you. And that anxiety is what I mean by Tarantino’s new violence: anticipatory emotional trauma, a trigger warning of the worst kind — that comes too late — because the rest of the movie is actually good enough that you don’t want to stop watching it. Eventually, you begin to wonder what the hell Tarantino was thinking and why on earth is he doing this? Because you know what he’s capable of, and you still haven’t forgiven him for the awfulness of Kill Bill.

But remember what I said about defying expectations? This whole movie he’s been doing that, because it hasn’t been a literally violent film. It’s been hard to watch, maybe, filled with the grotesque. Seeing DiCaprio and Pitt as kind of gross has-beens defies your expectations. The crest and plummet of the suspense in some parts defies your expectations. The non-linear storytelling defies your expectations. And finally, what happens to Sharon Tate does too.

Tarantino gives us his characteristic over-the-top blood and gore when the Manson family killers show up on Cielo Drive. The documentary style kitsch of the filmmaking at that point mimics those true-crime TV shows. You feel every dreadful thing coming. And then, it comes in a different way. A bloody and crazy and even at times funny way.

A revisionist history way that you think might have been a better ending for the real story.

And then you sit through every last second of the credits to make sure Tarantino doesn’t take it back.

You call your kids on the drive home and make sure they’re okay. You tell yourselves, Wow, that could have been really bad. You remind yourself, Wow, in real life it actually was really bad. You don’t go to sleep immediately when you get home.

I won’t say that I loved this movie, or that I even liked it as much as Inglorious Basterds, which was absolutely incredible. But it was, on balance, a good movie. One worth seeing. A movie that might kick you in the chest like Bruce Le does to Cliff Booth. (Okay, that scene was really funny.)

But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Monday Earworm: Suzanne Vega (No Idea Why)

I have no idea why “The Queen and the Solider” by Suzanne Vega is stuck in my head this morning, but please, share it with me. This is lauded as one of her most popular old songs, even though I don’t think it ever had a wide reception. (This particular concert clip has a bonus track afterward of “World Before Columbus.”)

And look, I like Suzanne Vega. A lot. Her music is really enjoyable. I don’t think she has the lyric genius or musical complexity of, say, Ani diFranco, but wow, I will almost never turn down Vega’s music in exchange for something else. It’s fun to listen to, makes an excellent soundtrack for driving across the desert southwest, and even works well as background music. It’s just good stuff.

Opinions on what the main theme of this song is are varied. What do you think it is? Leave your idea in the comments below.

Anyway, this one is stuck in my head. Maybe it’s because I’m finishing up edits on a novel in which a very young queen contends with power dynamics and struggles of agency and sovereignty in her relationships. Maybe it’s because I love Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, and this song reminds me of those books. No idea. But here, enjoy.

Moss Wood Writing Retreat 2019

Two years ago I did something for myself that was so far outside of my self-care comfort zone it changed me: I attended a writing retreat. That’s right, I left my family for the better part of a week and went to Maine to focus entirely on writing. While I was there, I realized that I hadn’t done anything so expansive to nurture my creative self in…well, way too many years. Definitely not since before I had my own family, and maybe not even then.

Last month, I went back.

The Moss Wood Retreats on Penobscot Bay in Maine are a gift to writers. Run by director and author Patricia McMahon, this experience gives you the chance to escape from whatever nightmarish summer weather you’ve been experiencing and settle in with a handful of other authors and just focus on your craft for several days. Two years ago I attended a workshop led by Gregory Maguire, which was glorious, but this year’s retreat, led by poet Josh Kalscheur and Patricia herself, was really different and completely fulfilling. Patricia has moved to a generative format, which means that the bulk of the group sessions focus on the generation of new material.

So most mornings we would have four writing exercises which included excellent prompts and then writing time, followed by voluntary sharing. In the afternoons we were on our own and could work on the pieces we’d written that morning; in the evenings during our after-dinner salons, we would share what we’d worked on, if we wanted to, as well as other poems that we found meaningful or enlivening. I also found time outside of these, including at night in my room before I went to sleep, to work on my own other projects if I wished. (I’ve been editing one of my novels this summer.)

I can honestly say this year’s retreat might have been the most productive week of writing I’ve had in a really long time. Aside from the novel work I did on my own solitary time, I wrote so much poetry. Possibly eight or ten of the poems I produced that week will turn into something publishable.

One of the fun exercises we did over the course of the week was to produce a collection of centos. At its simplest, a cento is a type of found poem in which all the lines come from other places. So every person at the retreat anonymously contributed a page of their writing, either a poem or a page of prose. We then browsed these pages and harvested from them lines we particularly liked and then fashioned those seemingly random lines into new poems. We shared these on our last evening together, and the centos were all so very different in scope and tone and subject! They were also delightful; I really loved finding out which fragments resonated with everyone. Here is my poem:

Moss Wood Cento
            Moss Wood Writing Retreat, 2019

Carnivals always start the same way:
three boys, three sharp-rocked beginnings
grabbing clandestine hand-holds;
spirits of slain warriors speaking from open mouths;
a tarantula stabbed with a stick;
the occasional hint of cabaret music.
Between the border of yellow birch and
the far shore of rockbound pine,
the tether of some other-than-temporal sea
pulls and pulls with the urgency of future demands
on the boy-man stashed behind the garage,
dreadful poverty and sadness floating across his face,
a grunt-crank biscuit in one hand and
a two hundred-year-old scroll in the other.
The memory of children’s cotton candied fingers
keeps his brusque demeanor at arm’s length.
He works in the negative, his pattern
a mystery to me, but a crease between the bridge
of his nose and his eyebrows is the absence
of sailboats long since stored for the winter.
Will we learn something by the weight of them?
He and I will never be young enough
again to think that friends don’t die.
You can keep your emptiness;
all I hear is sirens and defiance,
loud as a burst of gunfire through ghosts.
I’ve stopped believing in magic.
We are all dodging death,
scattered, secluded, incidents of light.

The phrase “two hundred-year-old scroll” is from one of my novels, a work in progress, but everything else in this poem came from the other nine people’s fragments. I offer my sincere thanks to all of them for their contributions to my poem.

Late on the last night of the retreat, a bunch of us new friends put on temporary Sherlock tattoos as a lark. (Mine read, “I never guess.”) Then around midnight, when three of us in the upstairs bedrooms were still awake and packing for our departures the next day, some spontaneous slumber party fun broke out. Two of the other ladies decided they wanted to see how long my hair really was and flat-ironed it for me. We squealed like adolescents as we did each other’s hair and helped each other pick out the clothes we would be wearing to travel in the next day — clothes we would wear home to Houston, to Louisiana, to Scotland. We shared pictures of our families from our phones and promised to write. And to write and to write and to write.

 

If I could, I would attend this retreat every year. It happens in early June, so if it sounds like something you would benefit from, put it on your calendar now. And if you want to hear more about this retreat and its marvelous director, Patricia McMahon, I’ll be interviewing her tonight on the LivingArt show on KPFT; the show begins at 6 p.m. central time.

While you’re waiting for that to happen, please enjoy these lovely photos of the landscape I looked at every day I was there.

This is the view of the bay from the screened-in porch where we had a lot of our morning group sessions.

 

The sun setting on this distant, unused lighthouse pretends to set it on fire. (The faint lines are from the window screen.)

 

Here’s the view from one side of my bedroom this year. (The faint lines are from the window screen.)

“Women Writers Wednesday” Meets “Whom I’ve Been Reading”: Naomi Novik

Sometimes you read a book that defies some of the more basic “rules” of writing, or one that’s outside your usual category, but it works for you in so many ways that you can’t help but tell people about it. Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, which I just finished reading on vacation last week, embodies both of these for me.

This book follows Novik’s Uprooted in what I hope will become a series of standalone novels. Both these excellent stories take familiar western European fairy tales and then transform them into an uncanny valley version of themselves, blow them up and out into something so original that you might not recognize the source material in it. Whereas Uprooted played fast and loose with “Beauty and the Beast” in a medieval Slavic world with magic, Spinning Silver borrows key elements of “Rumpelstiltskin” and drops them in the middle of…Russia perhaps? At the time of horse-drawn wagons, the Jews as money-lenders in walled communities inside of walled towns, the tsar and the boyars.

And how does this story break conventional wisdom? It’s a multi-POV novel where all POVs are told from the first person, and new perspectives come into the story late in the novel. Yet all the voices are distinctive and clear, and they all enhance the story well. This is a novel where marriages are strategic and the three young women at the center of the story grow and think and create agency within the limits of their world and the situations, magical or mundane, they find themselves in.

Spinning Silver falls squarely in the YA category, which I often enjoy but which is not usually my very first choice. It doesn’t shy away from genuine violence now and then, but those scenes are vital and artfully crafted, and I could easily recommend this book to any sharp reader as young as late middle school. If I could find a way to weave it into the curriculum for one of my high school classes, I would. The writing is gorgeous, and the structure of the novel really lends itself to deconstructive analysis as a model for what works.

And for those of you who like a long book for your money, this one will do — without feeling like its pacing drags. You should also look into Uprooted if you like fairy tales, and if you like alt-history, Novik’s Temeraire series is particularly charming: the Napoleonic Wars fought from the sky on the backs of dragons.

Spinning Silver won the 2019 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel (also in 2019). I am just not remotely surprised.

Monday Earworm: Taylor Swift

I don’t always love all of Taylor Swift’s music, but I do like a lot of it, and her newest single is just mahvelous.

 

 

And just for fun — if you’re like me and think analysis is fun — check out this explanation of most of the Easter eggs in the video. Are there any that they missed? I can think of one; if you can too, leave it in the comments!

Happy Monday!

Monday Earworm: Eric Carmen

Over the weekend we started watching the third season of Stranger Things. I love this show; the writing and acting have always been so good. I’m not a fan of horror myself, so this show is definitely the creepiest thing I’ve ever willingly watched on television.

I admit, though, the first episode of S3 felt a little transitional to me, but maybe that’s because the incredible friendship dynamic that feels to me like the foundation of these characters wasn’t solid in episode 1. Adolescence is rough stuff. This is not a show I binge-watch (I almost never binge-watch anything), so I’m hoping things will get better. Please, no spoilers.

But anyway, the 80s are on my mind — 80s music in particular — and this song is now stuck in my head. The video for it is so cringe-worthy, it becomes almost funny while still making me feel a little embarrassed for having gone through that decade in the first place. And now I’m inviting you to share my hilariously melodramatic misery.

What’s your favorite amusing cringey moment from this video? Tell us in the comments!

 

 

In Which I Join The Instagram Situation

So this week I branched out and did something new: I joined Instagram. I’ve resisted it for a long time because I wasn’t sure I could keep up with it. It’s hard enough to find time to post anywhere on social media — you, dear blog readers, are no doubt aware of my lack of free time! — but I think I’ve learned enough about how to do it and how to plan to do it that it won’t be onerous. And honestly, even though it’s been just a few days, already I think it’s pretty fun.

So if you’re on IG, pop on over and give us some love. Here I am over there. You may expect to see photos of my cats, my handmade jewelry, and my paintings, as well as whatever else strikes my fancy. Enjoy!