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The Moviegoer

The Moviegoer

A Review of Quentin Tarantino’s 'Cinema Speculation'

For a filmmaker who hasn’t released a movie in four years, Quentin Tarantino remains a perennial media fixture. His novel adaptation of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood became a bestseller in 2021. Each episode of The Video Archives Podcast, which Tarantino began hosting last year with his Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary, has spawned a barrage of news stories while spearheading America’s current VHS revival. Even his trip to the movies for a Barbie/Oppenheimer double feature with Avary led to prominent coverage in the Hollywood trades.

After years of expressing a desire to write a book of film criticism, Tarantino finally released Cinema Speculation last fall. Though it may seem little more than a name director passing the time between COVID shutdowns and the delayed preparation for his swansong project, The Movie Critic, his first foray into nonfiction proves to be much more. Not content to revolutionize the style of indie film when he burst onto the scene in the early 90s, Tarantino seems to have now set his sights on the critical class, taking the antiseptic quality of academic writing to task while dismantling the memoir’s navel-gazing tendencies. And most impressive of all, he doesn’t even seem to be trying. 

Tarantino’s cultural impact results from his ability to remain ubiquitous but fiercely private, largely through his near-total rejection of technology. If the legends are true, the pop-culture icon who has now become a leading podcast personality still writes by hand, opts for a landline, abhors streaming, and never really caught on to the whole email thing.

While Cinema Speculation is certainly not a self-help book about avoiding the distractions of our modern world, it is a thorough document of what happens when an unparalleled cinematic mind dedicates his life fully to his craft without needless interruption. One gets the impression that Tarantino didn’t really have to research this deep dive into the American Film Renaissance of the 1970s. Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution remain towering works of film journalism and the seminal books on the period, but Tarantino's take on the most influential decade of American movies more than holds its own.

Tarantino structures the book as a series of chapters that each covers one film. But those who’ve heard the filmmaker on Video Archives or during his frequent late show appearances will be unsurprised to learn each chapter leads to wonderful rabbit holes that provide easily accessible historical context awash in the director’s childlike awe of the movies that’s endured throughout his career.

That the book favors a black separating page that mimics a film strip’s flicker as opposed to a table of contents or even numbered chapters only adds to its immersive effect. While he doesn’t avoid the era’s touchstones like Bullit, Dirty Harry, Deliverance, Carrie, Rocky, and Taxi Driver, Tarantino’s hybrid approach to criticism also allows him to make the case for neglected gems spanning numerous genres that he’s taken on as causes célèbre like Rolling Thunder, Daisy Miller, Escape from Alcatraz, The Funhouse, and The Outfit.

Despite reveling in its diversions, the book has a clear central argument: the decade’s most renowned personalities were not a monolithic counterculture front, but could more accurately be divided into what Tarantino calls the “Post-Sixties Anti-Establishment Auteurs” and “The Movie Brats.” While the latter is not a new term, Tarantino makes it much more wide-ranging.

Up to this point, the general consensus about New Hollywood was that the counterculture took a stand with Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, cemented its dominion with The Godfather, and fell out of favor when sellouts like Spielberg and Lucas took over and ushered in the blockbuster era. 

Yet, as a student of genre, Tarantino cares less about the dichotomy between bleak fables and popcorn entertainment than how directors respond to the legacies of those who came before. In his view, the Anti-Establishment crowd like Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and John Cassavetes, who abhorred classic  Hollywood, differed from those who revered it like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Spielberg. Claiming audiences not living on the coasts, “became weary of anti-everything cynicism,” Tarantino posits that the Movie Brats merged post-60s introspection and good old movie magic to reach heights the medium had never seen.

In melding film criticism, memoir, and journalism, Tarantino offers a fresh way to view the films of the past at a time when certain factions of the culture class would rather leave anything remotely “problematic” either buried forever or held up as a cautionary tale. Wading into Dirty Harry’s contemporary revaluations as fascist and racist, Tarantino offers the perspective of someone who lived through the time and works in the same tradition: “These qualities give Siegel’s film a dubious morality and a faintly disturbing undercurrent…Siegel’s Harry Callahan is both a troubled and troubling character. Well, that makes him a classic Siegelini-hero.” 

Consequently, the book’s greatest strength is Tarantino’s choice to lean into his status as both a witness to this pivotal age in American movies and as a filmmaker whose success allows him access to the same Hollywood social milieu as those behind that decade’s greatest films. However, Cinema Speculation never devolves into a braggadocious celebrity tell-all meant to justify its author's enduring cool.

Tarantino is confident enough to know he’s been setting the current definition of cool since the mid-90s. But he’s also gracious enough to pay tribute to the personalities and movies that got him there. While he doesn’t hold back, he never forgets that a real person is behind the movies—regardless of whether he considers certain titles all-time masterpieces or resounding failures. 

Cinema Speculatuion’s most telling moment comes when Tarantino gives his clear-eyed assessment of writer/director Paul Schrader, calling him, “a magnificent screenwriter with one, gigantic glaring weakness. He can’t write genre films.”

Since Schrader either penned drafts of or directed nearly a quarter of the films the book discusses–including Taxi Driver and Tarantino all-time favorite Rolling Thunder–one may think the filmmakers have some sort of enduring beef. But, in his chapter on Hardcore, Tarantino includes a recent conversation between the two over the film’s unwieldy third act in which Schrader blames a producer for changing the ending. Not content with the answer, Tarantino loops in John Milius, co-producer of Hardcore, writer of Apocalypse Now, and director of Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. Milius responds, “Nobody made him change anything.” Left with conflicting accounts from two cinema gods who casually reside in his social circle, Tarantino makes his final call:

Then, I believed Milius. But today I believe Schrader. I do believe that the head of the studio made him turn his “wonderful script” into a “lousy movie.”
But I still blame Schrader.
I blame him for giving the same spineless excuse a lot of directors of fiascos claim after the fact, the big bad studio made me.
As if they couldn’t say no.
Well, then they wouldn’t have made it.

As this passage indicates, Tarantino makes the case for cinema as an art that achieves the heights of its powers when most ambivalent. He decries movies that are self-serious and exist solely to pontificate on social problems while reserving a particular contempt for those who felt the artform was beneath them (he harbors particular antipathy toward Dennis Hopper in his recounting of the mind behind Easy Rider telling My Fair Lady and Bringing Up Baby director George Cukor that, “We are going to bury you,” at a fancy Hollywood dinner).

Cinema Speculation also advocates for a holistic approach to film that respects all aspects of the ecosystem from auteur directors and actors to film critics and audience members. In a book of welcome digressions, Tarantino’s most poignant is his chapter-long tribute to Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas, the paper's “secondstring” critic charged with seeing low-budget grindhouse releases in limited rotation.

Citing Thomas’s rave review of Jaws ripoff Alligator as his catalyst for casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, Tarantino deflates the idea of the self-made auteur: “Thomas wrote about exploitation movies the way a devoted sportswriter might write about a good high school team. Looking for that one player who might possibly possess the talent and potential to take themselves to the next level. And then when they moved up to the college level, he followed them, and wrote whether or not they realized that potential.” 

Tarantino’s detractors often paint him (and his many imitators) as an insular film snob in love with his precious cinephilia. If Cinema Speculation proves anything, it’s that Tarantino feels a personal call to share his love of the movies. It’s why he has written a book that is as exhaustive as it is accessible, leaving his most casual of fans with a formidable knowledge enviable to those enrolled in graduate film studies programs. He’s now no longer just America’s most important director but perhaps its best film critic–all because he’s never forgotten that the movie theater remains the backbone of American populism. 

Cinema Speculation is available now.