Oddly, the film could almost be read as taking Atkins’s stance. Once Upon a Time has been widely interpreted as an elegy for a beloved cinematic era that ended with the cultural shifts of the late ’60s, which were embodied by Manson’s curdled, deranged hippiedom. But it could be argued—and, indeed, is argued by Atkins in the film—that the film industry’s bloodthirstiness corrupted a generation that then murdered its idols. Old Hollywood, in Atkins’s reading, created the Mansons, seeding its own destruction.
Except … Tarantino makes Atkins and the other Mansons out to be buffoons. Atkins’s spiel about killing “the people who taught us to kill” is incoherent and plays as an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Her squad’s approach up Cielo Drive can be described only as “bumbling.” When their bloody downfall arrives, it feels righteous and deserved, not to mention amusing. Why did these kids set out to do, as Tex put it, “devil shit”? The movie doesn’t venture a guess, and Tarantino doesn’t have a theory. “How [Manson] was able to get these girls and young boys to submit to him just seems unfathomable,” Tarantino said recently. “I studied a lot about it, and the more you learn about it and the more information you get, it doesn’t make it any clearer.”
So there’s no indication that Tarantino actually thinks violent movies make people violent. Rather, he seems to hold to what he said to the Orlando Sentinel in 2004: “In real life, when violence enters our world … it kind of just rears its ugly head and we are not prepared for it … It comes out of nowhere!” Once Upon a Time’s “real” calamities—the death of Booth’s wife, the conflict in Vietnam, the many horrors committed by the Manson family—lurk on the edge, undepicted and uninvestigated. Dalton and his peers live in a bubble, and their job is to create other bubbles. If those bubbles happen to include distorted reflections of the globe’s actual violence, as the uproarious end of the movie would seem to prove, that stuff can be entertaining.
By insisting that filmic violence and real violence are so separate, though, Tarantino is working from an incoherent justification of his own. The notion that movies are just movies, that what happens on-screen really only ever amounts to harmless fun, might explain his much-noted cavalier treatment of race and gender. It also would seem to contradict the director’s own ambitions. Hollywood’s products may not have killed Sharon Tate, but they surely did shape society on a level deeper than momentary amusement. After all, Tarantino’s movies often seek to do just that. Or is it wrong to look for commentary on the Civil War in Django Unchained, or on family and womanhood in Kill Bill, or on genocide in Inglourious Basterds, and so on?
The director does unambiguously reserve one special power for movie violence: to comfort in the face of true nightmares. Tarantino has said that he hesitated for years about going ahead with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, because the real-world Manson murders were too heinous to contemplate. To deal with that problem, it appears, he rewrote history as a fairy tale, just as he did with Hitler, and just as he did with slaveowners. In the movie’s final scenes, the lovably humdrum and lived-in 1969 Los Angeles of the previous two hours becomes something more surreal—call it an acid trip, a fantasy, or an action movie. With licks of flames inspiring LOLs and awe, a real horror is temporarily supplanted by a spectacle of good beating bad. Then the lights come on and the viewers have to cope, on their own, with the world they live in.