There's certainly no guarantee another director in charge would have downplayed the violence at end of a movie about the Manson family murders. Certainly I could imagine Tony Scott, director of Tarantino's script to "True Romance" and director of the scenes Tarantino doctored for "Crimson Tide," would have been willing to give us a grisly conclusion. But so would an arguably more "classy" director like Michael Mann. He and Jonathan Demme were willing to do near as much when depicting a totally fictionalized serial killer. But also, I think downplaying or removing the murder scene would really unbalance the entire affair.
Even though "Once Upon a Time" doesn't follow history, if the scene averting the Manson family murders were wrapped up with more "restraint," it wouldn't square in our minds as an equivalent alternative to what we know of history. I actually think it's significant that the gruesome nature of the scene mirrors that of the actual incident, only with the Manson family members suffering instead of their victims; just imagine if it were a happier ending, where the villains were dispatched in a quick way, like in a western. The cognitive dissonance with what we know of the actual crime would be immense. It's a little like watching the happy ending in "Il Grande Silencio"––the one filmed for "secondary markets"––after seeing the more affecting brutal and dour ending, with its conscious evocation of the Mai Ly Massacre. The happy ending is so dissonant and insincere it makes you feel like your brain is melting. It's hard to imagine it ever could have played well in those "secondary markets" where it was shown. The balance between the feeling, weight and sincerity of the two endings is overwhelmingly in favor of the original, unremittingly brutal ending. I think for the experience of the end of "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" to feel sincere and affecting, it has to somehow approximate the weight of the actual history we hold in our heads going into the movie. The history is horrible, and Tarantino gives us horrible violence in return, but refracted in a different way. Tarantino's violence is almost a parody of the event it's avoiding. It's a fantasy of rewriting history and of cheating death and degradation, but it's so over-the-top it's funny, as well. That's part of what makes the ending such a cathartic moment. It's not just a release from the pressure of impending historical tragedy; it's a release from the seriousness you felt was building in the background of the picture.
I've never really understood the many complaints about Tarantino as a purveyor of "violence," and it's probably because I make an extra distinction in his case. As I see it, directors like Tony Scott are purveyors of casual violence. His movies exist in many cases to bring sleek violence across with a casual attitude and an invitation to enjoy it. I can't say I haven't enjoyed it on many occasions––not so much in Tony Scott movies, but in films I love, like the Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher westerns, or in blaxploitation films like Trouble Man, or in the thousands of kung fu and swordplay films I've seen out of Hong Kong and Japan. But I have to admit that that enjoyment comes at a certain cost, and that I and many viewers like me have likely been somewhat desensitized towards the presence of violence in our lives. In these films the violence is justified, and considerably distanced from the pain and suffering it causes. Yet people don't excoriate these movies the way they do Tarantino movies, and I find that strange because the way these films deal with violence and the way Tarantino deals with violence are really distinct things. When I think of the action in Tarantino films, I hardly think of the actual on-screen violence––which happens and is over with quite quickly in most of his films ("Kill Bill" being the notable exception here)––and I don't think much of the gore, which is glimpsed only very quickly and not indulged in the way of, say, Peter Jackson's early movies, or the films of Herschel Gordon Lewis. I think of the pain the violence causes, because that's the thing that lingers extra long in Tarantino movies. Far past the point of reasonable endurance, injured people suffer in Tarantino pictures. What's so memorable from the famous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir dogs? Not the suave, super-cool ear-cutting itself; we never see it. It's the cop's miserable screams, muffled by the gag in his mouth––the feeling that the actor is expressing the shock and horror of having a vital appendage permanently separated from his body. The final act of Hateful Eight is a miasma of pain, in which each character is bleeding to death in the most painful of ways possible. Tim Roth bleeds to death over the entire runtime of Reservoir Dogs, suffering, screaming, gasping for breath, crying, fainting, and reviving again to experience the pain anew. Archie Hickox and Officer Kong emasculate one another with bullets. Brigitte Von Hammersmarck gets nastily mutilated, and then propped up on her mauled and festering leg only to be strangled in a protracted scene where we can feel every bit of air leave her lungs. The emphasis in all these scenes is very clearly on the pain that violence causes, and unlike most filmmakers who trade in intense action in a casual way (most popular filmmakers), it's hard to leave a Tarantino movie with the sense that the violence in the movie was right, a sense that nobody was hurt by it who didn't deserve it. Even the concept of "deserving" violence seems absurd when characters suffer as hugely, clearly and loudly as Tarantino's characters do.
Contrast that against a filmmaker like Luc Besson, who manages to sneak outrageously violent acts into PG-13 movies. "The Fifth Element" is a movie people of a certain generation remember quite fondly as inventive and fun sci-fi. But I'll never forget it for quite a different experience it offered; a very casual murder, one of the most brutal I've ever seen on film. There's a scene in the movie where, for comic effect, Bruce Willis solves a hostage crisis by walking into the room very matter-of-factly, sticking a gun in the hostage-takers face, and blowing his face apart. The filming is very shocking; Bruce points the gun straight at the camera, and the editing matches this with a shot of the alien hostage-taker's surprised face. We actually see it get hit with a bullet from Willis' gun. But a grey dust emerges from the wound, rather than blood, so the film was able to hold on to a PG-13 rating. But hey, I guess that dog-faced alien deserved it. He wasn't anything like a person. That'll teach him, and everyone like him, to take hostages. Audiences generally laugh at that scene; even though I was a teenager when I saw it, and very wired in to "enjoying the ride" a movie was taking me on, I cringed at that particular moment. It took me out of the movie entirely. Recently I saw Besson's PG-13 Valerian movie, and in it Besson puts Valerian through the same wild ride. At one point Valerian climbs onto a villain's back, sticks his gun right up against the top of his head, and blows his brains out. But don't worry; the villain was a robot. Earlier in the film Valerian, armed with an enormous sword, starts cutting these large, warlike aliens' achilles tendons. This happens below camera, so we don't see it; but we hear it in incredible detail. I was disturbed by "Valerian." I loved the comic series from childhood. I went back and reviewed all the books, because I don't recall Valerian shooting or killing many people in the books. I remember one character getting definitively murdered, in all the books I read. 20+ books and one on-the-page murder. And the character who does the murder lives to regret it deeply. He reappears in later stories, filled with remorse. But Besson's Valerian is a very casual killer, ready to maim or simply put someone "out of their misery," whichever is easier for him at the time.
That attitude, measured against Tarantino's I think reveals two filmmakers very different uses and positions towards violence. In Tarantino movies, the violence is essential, close to the subject matter of the movie, and given the treatment of central subject matter, placed front and center on the screen so we can study it. In Besson's world, violence is high on cool factor, low on realistic gore, and suffering is shoved off stage like a magician masking the machinery of his trick. In interviews Tarantino makes light of people's complaints about the violence of his movies; I don't think he's particularly articulate in those situations, and his films reveal a more obvious care and clear-eyed insistence on suffering as the result of violence. And those of us paying attention to his films can hardly escape the pain and suffering the action in his movies engenders. We live through actors doing some of the most vividly and creatively mounted sufferings and death throes in all of film. It's not like watching a Tony Scott movie, or a "family–friendly" Besson adventure; we don't get away clean. That said, there does appear to be this weird contingent of fans who arrive opening day to cheer at the misery in Tarantino movies. I really don't know what that's about. But it's not everyone; it's not even most people. And I think the rest of us, rather than becoming desensitized, are still affected by the pain we see on screen in Tarantino's movies. It disturbs our fun, but I believe it's supposed to. So I've always found the public singling-out of Tarantino as some kind of "sicko" to be pretty strange.
BTW, thank you, Mr. Sausage. It's good to be back. I'm going to try and avoid getting too worked-up over things, as I sometimes used to do. But it's really a good feeling to take part in a fun, in–depth movie discussion again!