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Quentin Tarantino’s New Book Cinema Speculation, is a Groovy Read

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Quentin Tarantino’s New Book Cinema Speculation is a Groovy Read

The legendary writer-director shares his love of movies in his revealing Cinema Speculation

Quentin Tarantino has firmly secured his position among our most important screenwriters and directors, arguably the finest of his generation. Granted, it took me a long time to appreciate this fact. He seemed overhyped in the Nineties, and it was especially annoying as one Quentin-copycat film after another was released right through the turn of this century, none of them equaling their predecessors. Today, I not only look back at Tarantino’s Nineties triptych (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) with great fondness and nostalgia, but feel the same way about the decade’s independent film output as a whole. Not since Alfred Hitchcock had a single director been able to get so many young people fanatical about film, and Tarantino went him one better by guiding many of us through a world of older movies that most of us were up until then unaware of.

Tarantino clearly hopes his new book Cinema Speculation will be regarded as a similar guidebook for today’s film novices, but it’s much more likely to be enjoyed by those who already share his cinematic passions. While it’ll certainly invite well-earned comparisons to such previous books by directors as John Water’s Shock Value and Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Movies, another apt comparison would be to the late Bill Warren’s monumental Keep Watching the Skies, in which the author not only gave critical summaries of every Fifties science fiction film, but explained what those movies, both individually and as a whole, meant to him while growing up during that time. Tarantino’s book is nowhere near as comprehensive, but serves the same purpose. The movies he focuses on in each chapter aren’t necessarily his favorites but are those which left the most lasting impressions on him as a young moviegoer in the Seventies. His memories of watching them in the theater during that most daring period of American film making are interwoven with his personal critiques and interpretations, and while Tarantino the Writer provides plenty of interesting thoughts on each film, even more fascinating is what he reveals about Tarantino the Person.

Quentin Tarantino’s New Book Cinema Speculation, is a Groovy Read

It’s probably self-evident that this no heavy academic tome. There are no references to Roland Barthes or Christian Metz much less Andre Bazin, no falling back on academic jargon or anything else of the sort that would turn off the lay reader, It is nonetheless every bit an intellectually-conceived work, and Tarantino has clearly put a lot of thought into his musings. He’s well known for the tremendous amount of hard work he puts into nearly all of his screenplays, revising them many times for years on end until he is completely satisfied with them, and he hasn’t changed those old habits for his first non-fiction book.  There’s a deceptively breezy tone to the whole enterprise, and the way his discussions keep twisting and turning into seemingly random tangents (for instance, a chapter ostensibly devoted to Sylvester Stallone suddenly becomes an excuse to recount the history of how the Dead End Kids became the Bowery Boys) gives it the feeling of the sort of off-the-cuff discussions Tarantino is known to make in his podcast appearances. Make no mistake though, this is no work of literary improvisation. Each word is carefully chosen, every topic is carefully researched, and all of it is seamlessly integrated into the story of his unusual upbringing. The distinctive fiery wit and verbal playfulness of his dialogue is carried over into his prose style and while it’s no surprise that his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema is on display, he also reveals himself to be extremely well-read, frequently providing critical comparisons of the films to their literary source material.  Reading it all the way through is much like going on a date with someone who won’t stop talking and keeps making what would normally be deal-breakers, but you ultimately don’t care just because their ramblings are so intelligent and entertaining.

Don Gordon and Steve McQueen in Bullitt - Cinema Speculation
Image: Warner Bros./Photofest

Deal-breakers? Well, let’s start with the first film he discusses, Peter Yates’s classic Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt. It’s long been a top favorite of mine, and I was delighted to find that Tarantino shares a similarly exalted opinion of this seminal thriller. And then there’s that great cast, including three of my very favorite actors: Robert Duvall, Simon Oakland and Don Gordon. I told myself “hey, he probably also shares my high opinion of Don Gordon, a terrific character actor who was also great in such other films as The Mack, Out of the Blue, even his bit part in Lethal Weapon. Since he appeared in so many of the sort of films Tarantino himself loves, I’ll bet he has at least an inordinate fondness for him!”  I get to page 43 where Tarantino writes…

“I’ve never liked Don Gordon. I don’t care if it’s his dirty cop in The Mack, as Jim Brown’s goofy sidekick in Slaughter, or Dennis Hopper’s sidekick in The Last Movie….”

Ouch, Quentin.

He does admit that Gordon is perfect as McQueen’s fellow officer, but it comes off as backhanded praise, rooted more in the obvious offscreen friendship between the two actors than Gordon’s own considerable abilities and talent. I found a few other points of significant disagreement with Tarantino, and most other readers probably will as well. You would think that he’d also be a big fan of John Boorman’s Point Blank, what with its hellbent-on-revenge seeking protagonist and storyline that jumps back and forth in time, but he instead dismisses it as being no better than a TV cop drama of the era. Not only is it far better than that, but Boorman’s Expressionist use of color and elliptical editing schemes aren’t things you would find on any TV show of the period. He correctly praises the first third of Boorman’s Deliverance and offers an interesting analysis of Burt Reynolds’s character as well as a thoughtful comparison to James Dickey’s original novel, but thinks the film loses tension after that scene, and especially after Reynolds gets injured. I disagree; after the film’s most infamous moment, it’s cemented that this is a movie where anything can happen to its four heroes, and what happens to Reynolds is essential to understanding both the character and the film’s main themes.

John Boorman's Point Blank and Deliverance
Image: MGM/Warner Bros.

He properly dismisses the overrated Eighties as one of the worst decades for American cinema, but he’s right for the wrong reasons. Instead of criticizing the soulless blockbusters and mindless juvenilia that characterized the American cinema during this period, he reserves his ire for the few studio movies made for thinking adults such as Gandhi and Ordinary People which he regards as middle-of-the-road pablum trying too hard to be likeable. Even the era’s “controversial” films such as 9 ½ Weeks and The Unbearable Lightness of Being get chastised by Tarantino for not being “transgressive” enough. Most baffling is how he dismisses the 1950s as the second-worst decade for American film, attacking it for being a supposed period of great artistic timidity. In reality, the Fifties was the first time since the early Thirties that a large number of movies targeting serious social issues were produced (admittedly a trend that began in the late Forties) and directors such as Elia Kazan and Otto Preminger began pushing the boundaries of censorship and demanding a new commitment to reality in the American cinema. It was the first great decade for science fiction film, the last great decade for musicals, and the best decade ever for Westerns. It was also the era that most inspired the new generation of directors that emerged in the Seventies, as Tarantino himself admits (“They watched Gordon Douglas’s science fiction classic Them! because it was about giant ants”). Since his own movies owe a debt to the great American auteurs of the era (Siegel, Fuller, Ray, Aldrich etc.), you’d think he’d have a more appreciative perspective on the decade’s overall cinematic output.

I have no problem disagreeing with Tarantino when it comes to his interpretation of certain films or criticisms of certain eras. What I do have a problem with is when the attacks border on the personal, as with his extraneous cheap shots at Los Angeles Times critics Kenneth Turan and especially the late Sheila Benson.  While he has a somewhat understandable personal grudge against Turan given that he has panned nearly every Tarantino film from the start, his attacks on Benson are completely inexplicable. Not only was she a much better writer than he gives her credit for, but she was also far from the middlebrow exponent of homogenized taste he accuses her of being. Benson took several daring positions, being one of the earliest champions of the very controversial Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and one of the few major critics to give a wholeheartedly negative review of Back to the Future when it was first released.  She deserves far better than the ad hominem attacks she gets here, especially since she is no longer around to defend herself.

Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle - Cinema Speculation
Credit: Columbia Pictures/Warner Bros.

Fortunately, these lapses are redeemed by the excellent, provocative discussions of individual films he provides throughout the book. In addition to his thoughtful take on Bullitt, he also provides terrific chapters devoted to Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver where he really digs deep into what makes the movies work and how they played to the era’s social anxieties (he also provides a convincing argument for a fan theory I’ve long held about Travis Bickle, that he was actually never in the armed forces and only fantasizes about having been in Vietnam). He not only offers a fresh perspective on those films but also subtly provides new insight into the character development process of his own movies as well.

Underrated director John Flynn gets the spotlight twice, in separate chapters on his films The Outfit and Rolling Thunder, the latter film being so enamored by Tarantino that he named his short-lived distribution company after it. A chapter on Brian De Palma’s Sisters gives him a chance to discuss not just the rest of the director’s oeuvre and the differences between him and other directors of his generation but to shed a much-needed spotlight on his early counter-culture comedies Greetings and Hi Mom! and demonstrate the continuity with his later, more commercial efforts.

Sylvester Stallone - Cinema Speculation
Credit: United Artists/Universal

Best of all is his aforementioned chapter on Sylvester Stallone. Although mainly devoted to the underrated Paradise Alley, it gives him a chance to discuss both The Lords of Flatbush and of course Rocky as well, and how not only these films but Stallone’s own life story inspired him to pursue a screenwriting career. He clearly still reveres Stallone, and reminds us that there is still an intelligent man and fine writer-actor-director behind that unfortunate public persona, expressing the hope that Stallone will someday return to making the personal, character-driven films that made Tarantino and many others a fan to begin with. His description of the thrill of watching Rocky in the theaters all the way back in 1976, and the audience’s passionate cheers to the action on screen is a terrific reminder of what an important shared experience going to the movies used to be, and what we’ve especially missed over the past three years.

His most poignant chapter, however, is devoted to Peter Bogdanovich’s fine but mostly forgotten Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller, a seemingly unusual choice but it gives him a chance to recount the sad story of its star, Barry Brown. In addition to being a promising young actor, Brown was also (like Bogdanovich) an avid historian of old Hollywood, and he was particularly well known among classic horror fans for his contributions to such magazines as Famous Monsters of Filmland. He’s clearly someone Tarantino identified with and the “what if—” Brown had not lost his battles with his inner demons is one of the saddest cinema speculations of them all. The sensitive side of Tarantino, one which is rarely discussed yet is very much present in the best scenes of Jackie Brown and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, comes to the forefront here (“Am I the only one who remembers Barry Brown?”) and although it’s the shortest chapter in the book, it winds up being the most emotionally moving.

In his chapter devoted to Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway he asserts that he loves the movie despite all its flaws and the ways it fails to live up to its Jim Thompson source novel (screenwriter Walter Hill also admits the film’s flaws in the portions of his correspondence with Tarantino that are shared in this chapter), and that he much prefers it to the director’s more acclaimed Ride the High Country and Ballad of Cable Hogue (I don’t). Tarantino may be unwilling to admit it, but he can be every bit as sentimental as Peckinpah was in those films, and it’s quite evident in his book. This is especially true when discussing his mother’s encouragement of his love of movies and her circle of boyfriends and roommates who not only helped in raising him but in taking him to the theater when she was too busy to do so. In a postscript, he provides a particularly moving reminiscence of the boyfriend of a roommate who not only shared his love of movies but his love of talking about them, and the lasting influence he had on him…including the planting of the seeds of Django Unchained.

 Quentin Tarantino has recently announced his intention to retire soon, maintaining he wants to quit while he is still at the peak of his powers. It certainly doesn’t seem possible that he could retire on a higher note after making Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his best film since Pulp Fiction and possibly his masterpiece. So it’s probably best that he pull a Bill Watterson now instead of becoming another entry in the sadly long list of great directors who spent their final years helming pale shadows of previous glories. After reading Cinema Speculation, however, I strongly suspect the real reason is that now that he has a family of his own, he wants to spend as much time with his children as possible, providing them the same sort of warm, creative and (of course) movie-loving environment that allowed him to flourish, only with the stability of a father’s presence. If the giddy anticipation of waiting for a new Tarantino movie is now to be replaced by looking forward to reading a new book from him, then that is a perfectly fair trade.

Written By

Andrew Kidd is a sometimes sessional instructor living in Ontario, where he proudly volunteers for the Windsor International Film Festival. He enjoys classic movies, hard science fiction, and really bad puns.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Quentin Tarantino

    January 31, 2023 at 10:45 pm

    Dear Andrew,
    I’m not bitching, since you wrote such a glowing and lovely review of my book. But since I subscribed to the LA Times and read practically every single review that Benson wrote for the times, and especially considering she ruined my hometown newspapers Calendar section, I had every right to critique her work. Since I paid for every issue that I read, that’s my right to call out her school marm writing. Also, she should defend herself? She’s a critic. You never defend yourself against a critic. Since I paid for her work, it;s my right to criticize it. And there is no double dealing – she never reviewed a movie of mine. I’m calling her a bad dispiriting writer because I put in the time to read her bad dispiriting writing. I dig you defending her (though how her giving Back to the Futrue a bad review is some sort of a defense, I’m sure I don’t know), but I had every rite to call her trash, because I read her trash for ten fucking newspaper ruining years.
    Q

    • Rex Sikes

      February 4, 2023 at 12:25 am

      Dear Quentin,

      What a fascinating point of view. I’d love to hear more about the right to critique based on paying for the work. Truly a fascinating premise. Does it mean if you did not pay for it you could not offer a legitimate critique? I am not trolling here this is a worthy premise you posit. Thanks, Rex

  2. Ricky D

    February 1, 2023 at 11:21 am

    When is Tarantino coming on one of our podcasts? 😛

  3. Rex Sikes

    February 4, 2023 at 10:14 am

    BTW marvelous article. Thanks Andrew for your dedication to the craft.

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