Quentin Tarantino’s Cinema Speculation

Quentin Tarantino on the set of Django Unchained (2012)

Quentin Tarantino will wrap up his current book tour when he appears at New York’s Town Hall on Wednesday evening to talk about Cinema Speculation, a collection of riffs on and deep dives into American films of the 1970s, both paradigmatic and obscure, framed by recollections of experiencing them for the first, second, or dozenth time. “Blending together criticism, historical analysis, and Tarantino’s own origin story,” writes Chris Stanton at Vulture, “the book is an informative but self-indulgent journey through the past, in which the author makes characteristically idiosyncratic arguments, acts as a hype man for underappreciated movies, and talks a whole lot of shit—some of it funny, and some just plain ugly.”

Cinema Speculation is bookended by Tarantino’s memories of being thrilled by the very adult movies his mom and stepfather took him to when he was only seven, and then, as a teenager, watching blaxploitation double features and westerns with Floyd Ray Wilson, a drifter who rented a room from his mother and wrote never-realized screenplays. Tarantino credits Wilson with inspiring Django Unchained (2012) and regrets not having thanked him when he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Between these flashbacks, Tarantino plays with a series of what-ifs: What if he had cast John Saxon opposite Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997) instead of Robert Forster? What if Brian De Palma had directed Taxi Driver (1976) rather than Martin Scorsese? What if, instead of Robert De Niro, Travis Bickle were played by the actor the studio originally had in mind, Jeff Bridges? What if the pimp played by Harvey Keitel was Black, as screenwriter Paul Schrader intended him to be?

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody finds that the book’s “intellectual engine is its auteurist perspective. As a director as well as a virtual critic, Tarantino delves deep into the kinds of decisions that directors make, both at the macro level of major career moves and the micro level of behavioral details and camera angles, with an absorbing acuity.” In the New York Times, Tom Shone points out that Tarantino is also “an unabashed celebrant of cinema’s dirtier pleasures, writing about the ‘liquid ballet’ of Sam Peckinpah, or the ‘consequences-be-damned moxie’ of Cybill Shepherd in [Peter] Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller, with a precision and gusto that cannot help recalling the mixture of violence and tenderness in his own films.”

Tarantino “takes Pauline Kael’s great strengths—liveliness, recklessness, humanity, her sheer readability—and weds them with his understanding of Hollywood as a business and his rat-a-tat verbosity as a former video clerk and fashions a singular style,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “From the very first page,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “the author’s unmistakable voice ricochets between the reader’s ears: giggling, provoking, digressing, seducing, and dropping deadpan little hints about his own life.” The Guardian’s Xan Brooks, too, finds that Tarantino “writes exactly as he speaks, in a torrent of information and opinions fueled by breathless enthusiasm and unexplained grudges, rhetorical questions and full-throttle digressions.”

A few reviewers wish there had been a bit more editorial oversight. “Search if you dare for the wordsmith behind some of the most lauded and radical screenplays of the modern age, but he’s most assuredly MIA in the pages of Cinema Speculation,” writes Little White LiesDavid Jenkins. The book is “entertaining and infuriating, revelatory and repetitive, provocative and boorish, often within the same sentence, sometimes the same clause.” Writing in Prospect, Sukhdev Sandhu observes that while Tarantino “can be overly feisty, few pages go by without a telling insight.”

Glenn Kenny found himself “startled at times about how blunt and brash he can be. He’s not at all afraid of potentially ticking off filmmakers one infers that he’s been friendly with in the past. ‘De Palma would fall on his face and never really get back up again after fucking up Tom Wolfe’ is a weird thing to say, given De Palma then went on to make Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale (maybe the ultimate De Palma film in my opinion), and Mission Impossible.

Tarantino can’t help but be frank. “Bluntness for Tarantino suggests communal honesty devoid of patronizing,” writes Chuck Bowen, “a willingness to get down with people he’s seeing a movie with, regardless of race or age or gender, and talk about what they’re seeing. A white kid who saw many Black movies in all-Black theaters in the ’60s and ’70s, Tarantino wants to belong in such places, and the first step to belonging for him is telling it like it is.”

Throughout November, the New Beverly, the Los Angeles repertory theater Tarantino owns, is screening several of the films featured in the book—on 35 mm, of course. The program also features a show spotlighting Video Archives, the podcast in which Tarantino and Pulp Fiction cowriter Roger Avary talk up a storm about the movies they eagerly recommended to customers at the video rental outlet in Manhattan Beach back in the 1980s. Tarantino “joked recently that if podcasts had been around in the 1990s, he might not have gone into filmmaking,” notes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “The form suits him.”

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