Competent to Care For (not Kill)

Review of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino.

By Sam Andreades, with Mary K. Andreades


A Movie Worth Watching

I find I keep citing this movie in conversation about masculinity, so I thought it apt to pen reflections on it here. About five years ago, Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this, his most engrossing film (except for maybe Pulp Fiction). Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood does lead to a violent climax, which Tarantino movies tend to do, though in the end the violence is justified and the viewer is grateful for it. At least, in this instance, the violence is key to the movie’s meaning.


I cite the film here for its picture of a competent 1960s man. Other things are going on in this highly crafted movie, some of which I am sure go over my head. Set amidst the historical events of the Charles Manson cult, the fantasy entertains us with Hollywood innards and recognizable characters from the ‘60s. We get to see a Bruce Lee back when he was Kato in the Green Hornet. And a Steve McQueen ruminating at a party. But what impressed me was the portrait in the Brad Pitt character, Cliff Booth, of mid-20th century ability.  It shows us a time back when men knew how to do things.


Mr. Tarantino questions whether you can have a competent man who is not also an abusively violent man. Cliff Booth allegedly killed his wife in his past, but the question of whether he actually did is never resolved. It is a good question, but the Christian hope is that you can.


The Forgotten Art of Competence

The movie Cliff fascinated me in being able to do what whatever was needed. He reminded me of my father. My dad built his own screened in porch on the back of his house (twice). He put together, from Radio Shack electronics, a stereo, made his own bread and fermented his own wine. I still remember him recruiting my sisters and I to crush the grapes with our feet. My dad was a particularly successful 1950s man, but he wasn’t entirely unusual. You were expected to learn many skills to secure a home, just as a woman was expected to learn many different skills to keep it.


I could go on for many paragraphs about what my 1950s dad could do. He was an amateur airplane pilot, that is, until having kids took too much money to maintain the license. He could mix chemicals to make a show for children. And, he could fix his car, and then his children’s cars, keeping them running long after they should have died. (Emblematic in the movie is the tire-changing scene. Not only could Cliff do it, he could make the one responsible for creating the flat do it.) And yes, like Cliff Booth’s pooch, the dog in my dad’s house which he got for me, was well-trained.


Just like with Cliff, the sense one got around my dad is that he always knew what needed to be done. He wasn’t being moved by what happened around him. He was moving through those things with purpose. One hopes the movement was to righteous purposes. For this is an asymmetry of gender.




Violence as Part of the Package?

The fight scene between Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee is telling. A competent man was not going to back down, even if it got him beat. And those in the habit of not backing down tended to not get beat. The threats of our world sometimes need violent defense. And a man cannot back down from that.


As I said, there are some dubious moral choices in Cliff’s background, though in the action of the film, he makes soundly moral choices. This makes him an attractive character. But his ability to marshal violence as needed carries with it the suggestion that he would be violent even for non-righteous purposes (like killing his wife).


My father, in all his competence, was also given to rage. He alienated his daughters with his periodic belligerence such that one remains, even today years after his death, embittered against him.


It is a sad thing, because ability to be violent is part of the securing competence, and it is something in some scenarios, such as those in the movie, for which we end up desperately grateful.


Another ingredient

But the question is whether one who can be violent must be violent. Quentin Tarantino suggests that you cannot have 1950s competent man without the same being an abusive man, that the two must always go together. We know that he is wrong because, as Christians, we know the Christian virtue of meekness (the ability to not do what you can do). Cliff in the movie seems to exhibit this meekness at times. But still, didn’t he kill his wife? This quality in operation makes a competent man able to store violence for godly purposes. Turn over the money tables when they threaten worship. Break the glass only when needed.


Competence with meekness makes for someone who can most make a woman secure. I enjoyed seeing some of that masculinity on display in this movie, a competence largely lost in our day, though I grieve the meekness that is also in short supply.

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