Cinema Speculation, by Quentin Tarantino, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 400 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1474624220
The best bits of Quentin Tarantino’s first book, the 2021 novelisation Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, happened when the narrative was put on hold and QT spoke right at you ‑ about cinema! ‑ in a voice unmistakeable from TV interviews and the fast-talking wise guy Mr. Brown in Reservoir Dogs. Nestled within the fiction, these passages comprised an absorbing insider’s essay on the lore and backroom machinations of a bygone Hollywood. Two years later, Tarantino has delivered an entire book made up of those bits.
A blend of criticism and industry history with a dash of memoir, Cinema Speculation begins and ends with personal essays about formative filmgoing experiences. In between are chapters devoted to roughly a film per year from 1968 (Bullitt) to 1981 (The Funhouse). These critical engagements are broken up with digressional chapters on beloved film critics, accounts of shifts within Hollywood’s filmmaking culture, and alternative cinema history: ‘what if?’ musings ‑ the titular speculation.
Because his limitations as a filmmaker inevitably contaminate his practice as a critic, let’s first consider the case against Quentin Tarantino. What ultimately turned me off his films ‑ and it’s a defect indivisible from a broader failure of artistic evolution ‑ is his crudely populist moral instincts. In his films about Nazis or slavery or gangsters, the baying of the mob is never far from earshot. Nuance, depth or complexity ‑ human or philosophical ‑ weren’t there in his electrifying early films, and they weren’t there in his lesser later ones either. He has never questioned his servility to the passions of crowds and finds nothing wrong with appealing purely to the base urges of wrath and vengeance. When his third film, Jackie Brown, appeared in 1997, at the time I regarded it as a retreat into teacher’s pet classicism from an auteur whose first two films had blazed forth in a whole new cinematic language. Now though, I see Jackie Brown, with its concern for human depth, as the signpost for a road not taken. Ever since, Tarantino has exclusively made films of juvenile simplemindedness, leaning into a secular iteration of the crude Old Testament vengefulness that Clint Eastwood endorsed throughout his career as a director. While no small part of his attractiveness is his insatiable, promiscuous appetite for movies no matter how schlocky, the lifelong diet hasn’t done much to nourish any deeper sense of the human condition. The industry’s fast food has left him bloated with chronic immaturity, shallowness, unsublimated sadism, and a sensibility that celebrates ‑ or at least has no ambition to transcend ‑ its own coarseness.
Tarantino’s practitioner’s criticism differs from the criticism of, say, David Thompson, who in his celebrated New Biographical Dictionary of Film, assesses filmmakers and actors from the vantage point of a rigorously worked-out critical position, standing far enough back from the screen to appraise cinema not only for its sensory and emotive impact but for its moral weight relative to a broader, humanistic conception of art. Thompson will dismiss a filmmaker’s oeuvre on the charge of sensationalism (William Friedkin) or neglect of empathy in favour of virtuoso technique and the dazzle of a ‘beauty’ without weight or compassion (Brian De Palma). While he is no genre snob (John Carpenter and David Cronenberg win his approval), he asks that cinema live up to an essentially European and literary standard of artistic achievement, with allowances made for the medium’s exciting relative novelty. In the Dictionary, Thompson characterises Tarantino as the Hollywood wunderkind who knows ‘every B picture ever made but nothing else about life’. For his part, Tarantino embodies a New World confidence and self-sufficiency that sees no need for aesthetic valuations external to the mass-entertainment godhead his nation constructed in the twentieth century ‑ all of European culture is an optional extra (it’s interesting in this regard to note that his great idol is Sergio Leone, an Italian who brought cinema’s vaporising of history full circle with his impossibly artful, hallucinated Westerns). He criticises ‑ enthuses over ‑ films from no moral standpoint whatsoever, unless he’s cheering on the mob in its bloodlust (hence his attraction to the ‘Revengeamatic’ films of the 1970s, which offered the catharsis of a lynching without legal peril). His sensibility as a critic mirrors his vision as a filmmaker ‑ all breadth, noise and motion; no depth, stillness or silence.
That’s the case against him. On the other hand, the qualities that made Tarantino the most talked about American filmmaker of his generation have also transferred cleanly into his new role as a writer of books. Quentin Tarantino is to movies what Diego Maradona was to football ‑ not just someone who does it to an exceptional level but a being entirely made of cinema, a tulpa born of the screen whose existence is ecstatically wedded to it. Tarantino has always been a joyous appreciator of movies, and the first thing to be said for his writing is that that infectious fanaticism is there on every page. The core delight of Cinema Speculation is that of being invited into the warmth of someone else’s lifelong love affair. Granted, Tarantino’s enthusiasm is so instinctively anti-hierarchical that it sometimes feels as if he has no capacity for critical discernment at all ‑ and yet, such is the enlivening force of his passion that, rather than serve as a fatal mark against him, this has quite the opposite effect. There is little he hates, or at least he has no interest in talking about anything that bores him or leaves him indifferent (bar the odd swipe at worthy 1980s fare ‑ the 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel, he suggests, ought to have been titled The Unbearable Boredom of Watching). He ardently admires virtually every slasher movie, car-chase spectacle, heist-thriller or splatterhouse revenge-rampage ever filmed, as if discerning in each humble movie an emanation of The Movies, a divine substrate that dwells behind the screen like God beyond the skies. This boundless enthusiasm, along with that unmistakeable voice ‑ relentless, cheerful, vulgar, demotic ‑ make for attractive qualities in a writer. There’s nothing forced in Cinema Speculation; it never feels as if Tarantino is writing merely to fulfil a contractual obligation. The book is the testament of a practitioner who is ravingly passionate and formidably knowledgeable about every aspect of his craft and industry, from the grubby details of economics and studio politics to the dazzling finished product. He’s as much into the lore of how films get made as he is into films, and relishes narrating the dramas of casting decisions, ego-clashes, and what-might-have-beens as much as he does recounting the plots of exploitation movies. While discussing Dirty Harry or The Getaway, he will manoeuvre easefully between the two modes, at one instant rhapsodising about what makes a particular scene work or recalling his boyhood delight at encountering some novel narrative effect, the next zooming out to describe the meta-situation of industry factors at play in getting it all on screen in the first place. He’s always referencing industry biographies, books of film criticism, and contemporary reviews (you can tell the research was no chore).
As he plunges into the 1970s cinema that formed him and still represents a golden age of liberty and invention, he’ll often compare two films: the actual one and its unrealised or speculative mirror. For instance, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (‘when you watch Taxi Driver you become Travis Bickle’) is reconsidered in the light of the version that might have existed had Brian De Palma ‑ the first of the ‘Movie Brat’ directors to read Paul Schrader’s script ‑ directed it instead (a separate chapter on De Palma’s Sisters provides a useful overview of that filmmaker to complement Noah Baumbach’s amiable 2016 documentary De Palma). Comparing the Vietnam-vet revenge film Rolling Thunder (John Flynn, 1977) with the original Paul Schrader screenplay, Tarantino describes a phantom, never-filmed ending in such a way that after reading it you seem to remember it as the actual film’s epilogue. (A juicy tidbit: Schrader’s screenplay included a scene in which the damaged protagonist pulls into a drive-in porno cinema and locks eyes with the no less unhinged man in the car next to his ‑ Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.)
All this what-iffing provokes us to speculate about Cinema Speculation. What if Tarantino had selected for analysis less determinedly lowbrow fare? Aside from Taxi Driver, most of the films discussed are no one’s idea of masterpieces (I watched most of them while reading the book). Rather, they are films rendered sacred to the writer by that shine of initiatory experience that makes the earliest films we see and music we hear so special. In this as in much else Cinema Speculation is strikingly similar to a book published at almost exactly the same time, in which another colossus traces a personal vision of his art form through others’ contributions: Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song. Though richly enjoyable, that book was marred by the perverse mediocrity of quite a few of the sixty-six songs Dylan chose to discuss, and by the corollary, the tantalising ‘what ifs?’ it provoked: what if Dylan had selected, say, ‘Avalanche’ or ‘Tower of Song’ by Leonard Cohen instead of ‘Cheaper to Keep Her’ by Johnnie Taylor ‑ in short, what if he’d had the energy and commitment to match his own greatness with really great songs, instead of spraying his lofty insight all over work that, held up to the light by so illustrious an appreciator, can only betray its flimsiness?
It’s not insignificant that in discussing his early experiences watching films, Tarantino typically describes the exact when and where ‑ ‘I saw Hardcore on opening night at the United Artists Del Amo Mall theatre’ ‑ thus locating himself squarely among the audience, as alert to their responses as to the swerves and skids of plot. For Tarantino, the movies are not an elite, esoteric experience ‑ he makes them for the crowd of which he is a part. There is no appraisal here of remoter talents like Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky or Michelangelo Antonioni (though the last-named’s sadistic compatriot Dario Argento is acknowledged admiringly). Tarantino’s chosen movies are American movies, usually the kind that simultaneously cater to audiences’ base instincts even while provoking them with their transgressive content. He prefers tough, masculine films like The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah, 1972), Escape From Alcatraz (Don Siegel, 1979), and Hardcore (Paul Schrader again ‑ a pivotal figure in ’70s/’80s Hollywood ‑ 1979). He is occasionally dismissive ‑ Hardcore is ‘a phoney-baloney moralistic con job’ ‑ and frequently evangelical: Rolling Thunder ‘blew my fucking mind!’
Autobiographical nuggets gleam throughout. As a nineteen-year-old aspiring critic, Tarantino cold-calls director John Flynn and wangles a visit to his home to interview him for a book he is supposedly writing. While comparing the film The Getaway to its Jim Thompson-penned, nihilistic source novel, he defines himself as ‘someone who equates transgression with art’. In one chapter he pays tribute to ‘second-string critic for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas’. While eulogising this champion of exciting newcomers (‘I loved reading him growing up and practically considered him a friend’), Tarantino does what every artist dreams of doing and takes sweeping revenge on other critics who gave his films bad reviews down the years: ‘I realise the extent of how unhappy they must have been. They wrote with the demeanour of somebody who hates their life, or at least hates their job.’ (His dig echoes the note of ill-concealed sour vengefulness in the foreword to Martin Amis’s book of novelist’s criticism, The War Against Cliché: ‘Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting well into middle age. I have often wondered why this spectacle seems so undignified. Now I know: it’s mutton dressed as lamb.’)
The wonderful opening essay ‘Little Q Watching Big Movies’ shows us the seven-year-old Quentin haunting cinemas in Hollywood with his mother and stepfather, and the book concludes with him as a teenager. Even if ‘Little Q’ was all the nonfiction Tarantino ever turned out, he’d have proven his chops as a writer. He packs so much into its twenty or so pages: a history of Old Hollywood’s transition to the New Hollywood that reigned supreme in the 1970s; a self-portrait of a loved, precocious kid delighted at being allowed to share ‘adult time’ with his hip young mother Connie, stepfather Curt, and their friends; and running through it all a surprisingly subtle account of shifting race relations in America as reflected in the movies showing at theatres along Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. Quentin’s permissive parents took him along to see almost any film no matter how sexy or violent: ‘Because I was allowed to see things other kids weren’t, I appeared sophisticated to my classmates. And because I was watching the most challenging movies of the greatest movie-making era in the history of Hollywood, they were right, I was.’ (Forget Deliverance or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ‑ the film that really fucked him up was Bambi: ‘Nothing prepared me for the harrowing turn of events to come.’) When Connie, Curt and an uncle go to see blaxploitation movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the two men ‘bitch’ about the film for days afterwards, whereas Connie is mysteriously and unusually silent. Before long, she leaves Curt to ‘exclusively date black men for the next three years’. One of her boyfriends is an athlete named Reggie whom young Quentin looks up to; sometimes Reggie takes him to the cinema to see Jim Brown blaxploitation movies (‘My little face was the only white one in the audience’). Looking back across five decades, Tarantino claims he’s spent his entire life ‘trying to re-create the experience of watching a brand-new Jim Brown film, on a Saturday night, in a black cinema in 1972’.
Elsewhere, filling in the textures of the era in filmmaking, Tarantino distinguishes between the original masters of genre movies ‑ Peckinpah, Siegel et al ‑ who worked out of commercial expediency, and the later genre aficionados (John Woo, Eli Roth, Tarantino) who refreshed genre purely for the love of it. A chapter on John Flynn’s action movie The Outfit (1973) contains a revealingly polemical passage. Rhapsodising about the series of ‘Parker’ crime novels it was adapted from, Tarantino claims that reading those violent, nihilistic books ‘served as an antidote to the horrible homogeneous movies Hollywood was making in the eighties’. There follows a denunciation of that decade and its cinema as ‘even worse’ than the sanitised, conformist fifties. The difference between the two decades is that in the eighties, the restrictions were not imposed from on McCarthyist high, but enacted organically: ‘The harshest censorship is self-censorship.’ He lists the few Hollywood filmmakers who never compromised in their work in the 1980s ‑ David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven, Abel Ferrara, Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma (‘sometimes’) and David Cronenberg ‑ and notes that other filmmakers who took risks ‘were usually punished for their perceived transgressions, by the press, the public, and the industry’. In contrast to the ‘anything-goes seventies’, in ‘that fucking wasteland of a decade’ the ‘miserable eighties’, ‘likeability was everything’ and complex, realistic characters were verboten. There’s no reason not to take his distaste for the 1980s at face value, and yet, knowing that Tarantino has found himself in hot water with the moralists of the social media age (‘I reject your hypothesis’, he told a journalist in Cannes who questioned the treatment of women in his films), his outburst also reads like a veiled condemnation of the play-it-safe decade of virtuous art and instantly forgettable cinematic morality plays we’ve just endured. He leaves it to us to fill in the cyclical 30-year schema: the prudishness and timidity of the 1950s were repeated first in the 1980s … and then again in the killingly prim 2010s.
As a filmmaker, Tarantino seems to have said all he had to say ‑ but as an author, approaching sixty he may be just getting going. I found Cinema Speculation an illuminating joy to read, and there’s no reason why Tarantino shouldn’t write more books like it ‑ perhaps one for each subsequent decade, even those terrible eighties (I’d love to hear him going at full pelt on The Terminator or American Gigolo). Because he’s never stopped being a fanatic and a student, he has earned this exciting second life ‑ as ecstatic educator.
Rob Doyle’s most recent books are Autobibliography (Swift Press) and Threshold (Bloomsbury). His novel Here Are the Young Men has been adapted for film, and his writing has appeared in the Observer, New York Times and many other publications.