QT Speculates

A speculative look at Tarantino’s ‘Cinema Speculation’

Quentn Tarantino’s been jabbering at us about movies for as long as he’s been making them, which is why it’s so surprising that only now, 30 years into his public career, has he published his first book of film analysis. We’ve seen disappointingly few essays but plenty of commentary, in talks and speeches, movie monologues, extended passages in his novelization of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, and, of course, talk-show appearances. YouTube features every clip you remember from the ‘90s of talk-show hosts goosing QT on, getting him to riff on his favorite classics, then sitting transfixed at those powerful gusts of enthusiastic analysis that would shoot from QT when he was really on a roll.

He’s always been jabbering at us about the movies, and we’ve always loved to listen.

Now we get to listen in a more sustained, methodical manner. We get the patience of composition. Cinema Speculation consists of 18 chapters, most of them covering a single movie from Tarantino’s extremely formative filmgoing childhood. The oddball chapters include a kind of prologue in which Tarantino remembers what it was like to be in those theaters and see the way adults really behaved “when they weren’t around children,” how they “socialized,” as well as (and this is crucial) “what they talked about” and “the shit they find funny.”

Tarantino’s always had to field way too much grief for what his characters talk about and the shit they find funny. I have no intention of relitigating those arguments; I only want to say that the book’s final chapter is an essay about one of his mom’s black boyfriends, a man named Floyd, and all the movies they watched and discussed together.

Tarantino has mentioned his mom’s black boyfriends before, especially in the context of his racial education, and has received plenty of grief for that, too, from Spike Lee and others. He’s too smart to engage in much of that here, at least directly; instead he tells the story of the film education he and Floyd received together (with Floyd acting as mentor) during the period Tarantino covers in the book, and during which Floyd was in and out of his life, in various contexts. Then, in its last few pages, the story takes a satisfying sharp hook in an unexpected direction, and I think you deserve to hear it for yourself.

Cinema Speculation

It would be irresponsible if I didn’t mention that Tarantino does not call this essay the book’s final chapter, or its coda, which is what it really acts as, at least if read in sequence. He calls it the “Floyd Footnote,” even though it’s 20 printed pages long and refers to something on page 333. I assume this was some kind of defiant aesthetic choice on Tarantino’s part.

The 13 movies that receive dedicated chapters, and that comprise the core of Cinema Speculation, run from 1968 to 1981, covering for Tarantino those crucial ages from five to 18. He saw every one of these movies in theaters and responded to  them strongly. Everybody who reads the book is going to have their favorite chapters; each is well-researched, with original interviews from the filmmakers and, of course, Tarantino’s matchless expertise as film-goer and -maker buttressing the whole edifice.

Tarantino has a haphazard way with punctuation. He deploys paragraph breaks that make no sense, sentence fragments that never properly link up, and italicization in ridiculous categories, such as actor names. This will drive some readers to exasperation, but he always makes up for it with that impossible-to-fake QT enthusiasm. His exuberance and mastery of the material bulldoze away any distraction caused by poor punctuation. Tarantino isn’t here to just riff on his favorite movies; he brings an iron-strong thesis statement to all but two or three of these essays. Not even the most stringent academic would claim Tarantino has nothing pointedly specific to say throughout.

He has plenty to say in the Rolling Thunder essay, easily my favorite in the book. The level of understanding he brings to Paul Schrader’s original script, later significantly altered by another writer and director, as well as his interviews with the principals, allows him to understand why it is that Schrader wrote a “savage critique of fascist Revengeamatic flicks,” only to see it turned into “the greatest savage, fascist, Revengeamatic flick ever made,” and, moreover, why this all “frustrates Schrader this day.” Tarantino takes 24 pages to explain all this, and somehow not a one of them seems wasted.

Near the middle of the book is an essay called “Cinema Speculation: What If Brian De Palma Directed Taxi Driver Instead of Martin Scorsese,” in which Tarantino proposes more than a few intriguing possibilities for what maybe, probably, and surely would have been different. Although the essay is every bit as good as you’d expect, why is this the only chapter here with “Cinema Speculation” in its title? And why is it located near the book’s literal center? Is this supposed to be the thematic centerpiece of the book? That certainly doesn’t seem the case.

And why does he call the book ‘Cinema Speculation’ in the first place? Certainty Tarantino makes plenty of speculations throughout the book, but doesn’t all textual analysis do that? And if all the essays here contain speculation, then why label any of them with “Cinema Speculation”? It’s such a generic, clunky, expository title, not at all like Kill Bill, more like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to How to Murder William.

This is some of what goes through your head as you read, but it doesn’t really bother you. You forget about it. You read on.

His affection for actors always comes through. This isn’t true merely in Cinema Speculation; check out the extended passages on Old Hollywood actors in the Once Upon a Time novel, particularly the stuff on Alan Ladd. He writes about them with a sensitivity and nuance that demonstrate his genuine appreciation. There’s a wonderful tribute to Burt Reynolds’ performance in Deliverance, and, in the Dirty Harry essay, Tarantino credits Andrew Robinson, as the Scorpio Killer, with nothing less than giving “us a forward-looking glance at what would replace the monsters of old in the collective nightmare of a society to come.”

Of course, Tarantino is famous for reviving the careers of aging actors Hollywood has forgotten or failed to appreciate. He writes about the first time he saw one such actor, Robert Forster, whom Tarantino would later cast in Jackie Brown as Max Cherry, when he remembered his performance in Alligator, which Tarantino saw when he was 17. It was a film critic who’d hipped him to the movie; one of his chapters is a tribute to that critic. Kevin Thomas, who in Tarantino’s formative years reviewed low-budget genre flicks for the L.A. Times, was “so unique in the world of seventies and eighties film criticism,” for “he seemed like one of the only few [sic] practitioners who truly enjoyed their job.”

As with actors, Tarantino has more than a mere soft spot for critics; he absolutely reveres them, the ones he considers worth revering. He’s mentioned in the past how Pauline Kael’s review of Band of Outsiders helped him do nothing less than define his filmmaking aesthetic. He mentions none of this in Cinema Speculation, where, outside of Kevin Thomas, he has the most salient things to say about the critics he always hated, particularly two from the L.A. Times in those years: Charles Champlin, who “wrote as if appearing in as many movie ad pull quotes as possible was an editorial imperative,” and Sheila Benson, whose “movie reviews read closer to book reports written by a housewife for a night school class on modern American lit.”

Since Cinema Speculation lacks any coherent structure other than the chronological organization of the movie chapters, maybe it’s best to look at this book as a stuffed Christmas stocking full of an assortment of QT paraphernalia: enthusiastic obsessions, virtuoso flourishes, sharp recollections, and random observations. All that and expert film analysis that finally has somewhere to go beyond the Q&A podium or the comedian’s couch.

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Lary Wallace

Lary Wallace writes the Fever Dreams film-analysis column on Medium.

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