If you’ve ever listened to Quentin Tarantino talk—while on a late-night couch, say, or when he’s visiting a podcast—you will recognize the tone and cadence of the writing in Cinema Speculation. The book feels less typed out than dictated, as if he finally has the captive audience he’s always yearned for and he’s got a lot of things to get off his chest.
I mean this in the best way possible, as Quentin Tarantino is one of the most interesting filmmakers on the planet. He’s an inveterate raconteur, less conversationalist than lecturer, one whose head is overflowing with trivia about which Los Angeles dives were playing which cut-rate exploitation pictures at what point in his childhood. And much of the book’s early going is concerned with those dives and those exploitation flicks, as well as the cineaste’s own earned bravado.
“Because I was allowed to see things the other kids weren’t, I appeared sophisticated to my classmates,” he says after recounting being taken to the theater by his folks (and, later, his mom and her suitors) to see films like M*A*S*H and The French Connection as a tween. “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.”
Again, if you’re familiar with the man’s voice, you can practically hear him saying those lines, perhaps emphasizing “because” in each sentence, eyebrows arching and voice inflecting a notch higher on the “they were right.” It’s almost eerie. I loved every page of it.
Cinema Speculation is part memoir, part critical essay, part lament for a past that has departed. Early on he discusses his mother’s theory of violence onscreen—that the act itself is less important than the context in which it occurs—and notes that “this would be a conversation I would have for the rest of my life,” this push and pull between decency and outrage, between scolds who think you shouldn’t blow a guy’s head off in the back of a car and cineastes who appreciate the dark humor in it.
This book is for the appreciators; the scolds can go stew somewhere else.
There are two keys to understanding Tarantino’s body of work in this book, two passages that turn the tumblers and help you make sense of his artistic project. Passage the first:
Bullitt is about action, atmosphere, San Francisco, [director Peter] Yates’ great location photography, Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score, and Steve McQueen, his haircut and wardrobe.
Nothing else matters.
Tarantino has always been a master of the Cinema of Vibes, of making sure what we’re watching onscreen looks cool and composed. Vincent Vega cruising in his convertible as he zones out on some high-grade heroin while The Centurions’ “Bullwinkle Part II” plays in the background; Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” playing as Jackie Brown drives out of Max Cherry’s life; the melodramatic strings and vocals of “Malagueña Salerosa” after the Bride has been reunited with her daughter at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2. Some folks criticized Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for being extravagantly long; certainly, we didn’t need shot after shot of Brad Pitt driving through late-1960s Los Angeles, did we? But this misses the (or at least a) point of the film, which was to re-create that city’s vibe, to suffuse you in it, to see what was lost when the horror of the Manson murders infected La La Land.
The next section comes from a chapter in which Tarantino gushes about the Sylvester Stallone film Paradise Alley—the movies he chooses to praise, the movies he chooses to damn are always amusing—and why it would be impossible for modern audiences to stumble onto Rocky today and receive it the way it was received on initial release. Passage the second:
But the real reason that the film Rocky could never have the impact it did in 1976 is because to have that same impact, you had to live through the tough, gritty, downbeat, pessimistic films of the early seventies to be floored by the feel-good catharsis of Rocky. You had to live in a world where a movie like Papillon was a Hollywood blockbuster.
When even crowd-pleasing comedies like The Longest Yard included the brutal death of characters.
In a Hollywood that had forsaken the Old Hollywood happy ending as bullshit propaganda from “the Man“.
When the senseless death of your hero at the climax was the vogue (Easy Rider, The New Centurions, Electra Glide in Blue, Hustle). When even popular audience movies like Three Days of the Condor counted on a certain amount of cynicism and paranoia from the popcorn eaters.
Consider that passage in the context of Tarantino’s body of work. Ever since Reservoir Dogs—a movie that echoed early-’70s cynicism, with its tragic Mexican standoff ending, and thus played perfectly with the early-’90s Sundance set trying to recapture the spirit of New Hollywood—Tarantino has made movies in which the “good guys,” such as they are, “win.” Sometimes that victory is mixed (in Pulp Fiction one of our black-suited hitmen buys it on a toilet, while the one who pledged to walk the righteous path lives on) or bittersweet (again, Jackie Brown driving out of Max’s life). More recently these victories have been gloriously bloody and done in a way that either literally (in the case of Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood) or figuratively (Django Unchained) rewrites history.
It will be amusing to see how many podcasts this book spawns; I can envision some brave soul attempting to do an episode on every—single—movie Tarantino mentions, even in passing. But one of the joys of Cinema Speculation is seeing the artistic underpinnings of Tarantino’s work; he’s a master of pastiche, and these are the raw materials.
It’s fun to read Tarantino push back against the notion that Dirty Harry is some brand of fascist agitprop while simultaneously understanding the law-and-order appeal it held for audiences (“it is also a plea for New Laws for New Crimes. The serial killer phenom to be exact”). He has an intuitive sense of what works and why, as in his criticism of The Getaway’s choice of actor for the villain (“it’s not that he’s a bad actor or gives a bad performance. It’s more I find his performance physically repellent. … It’s still a movie. I still should want to watch the movie and enjoy it”).
And in one of the nicest chapters of the book, Tarantino sings the praises of Kevin Thomas, the Los Angeles Times’s second-string critic whose focus on genre films was both generous and serious-minded. “It would appear most critics writing for newspapers and magazines set themselves up as superior to the films they were paid to review,” Tarantino writes. “Which I could never understand, because judging from their writing, that was clearly not the case.” Thomas, however, had a keen and discerning eye; a good review from him could help a director get out of Roger Corman’s ghetto and into the world of “real” movies. Praise for movies like Caged Heat, The Howling, and Nomads helped a bevy of Hollywood talents (respectively: Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, and John McTiernan) get going.
Filmmaker, audience, and critic: We all have our part to play. And some of us, like Mr. Tarantino himself, can play all three parts just about perfectly.
by Quentin Tarantino
Harper, 400 pp., $35
Sonny Bunch is culture editor of the Bulwark, where he hosts the podcasts Across the Movie Aisle and The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, and is a contributing columnist at the Washington Post.