Book Talk: Cinema Speculation

“Because I was allowed to see things the other kids weren’t, I appeared sophisticated to my classmates. 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. To one degree or another I’ve spent my entire life since both attending movies and making them, trying to re-create the experience of watching a brand-new Jim Brown film, on a Saturday night, in a black cinema in 1972.”


Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino (2022)


It seems that, since the release of his 9th film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has turned a corner of sorts. While the majority – perhaps all – of his previous 8 films have harkened back in some way to the cinema of previous eras, it seems his love letter to Hollywood has made many people realize that although he is a starkly original filmmaker, his head and his heart are locked in the past. For me personally, ever since OUATIH, I have felt that Quentin is a kindred spirit. His novelization of his Oscar-winning 9th film was loaded with the kind of references that I have long found myself interested in. This his first non-fiction work promised to be more of the same – a regular joe talking about the type of films I love. I was not disappointed.

In Cinema Speculation, Tarantino is able to straddle two worlds; it is equal parts academic film theory and after hours coffee shop breeze-shooting. With little preamble, Quentin tells of his personal experiences going to the movies with his mom and stepfather and later with his mom and her various boyfriends. He speaks of some of the R-rated movies he saw as a child but dismisses their effect on him; he notes that of all the disturbing scenes he saw in these violent films, the worst for him were the darker moments of the Disney film Bambi. He takes time to roll out his long history with and his fondness for black cinema. His mother dated many black guys who befriended little Quint and would take him to theatres in which he was the only white person. Then QT gets specific and devotes chapters to single films.

The author charts Hollywood’s path through the late Sixties and into the 1970s by discussing classic films like Bullitt, Dirty Harry and Deliverance and lesser-known cult favourites like The Outfit, Sisters and Rolling Thunder. In the chapter on Bullitt, QT provides insight courtesy of his discussions with Steve McQueen’s first wife, Neile. And here he makes a point about film plots and the fact that many viewers cared little for them. Movies like Bullitt were given free rein to be more exciting as they veered away from specific plotting. Tarantino says this “broke the back” of the police procedural and celebrated style over substance.

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.”

QT gives me permission to do what I often want to do – disregard plot and dig the vibe

The whole purpose of this book, I suppose, is for Quentin Tarantino to share his opinions and for us readers to learn of his perspective. Therefore, you need to be at least somewhat interested in his takes or at least be willing to hear what one of the greatest filmmakers of this age has to say about these seminal films from this groundbreaking era. And the book is not just Tarantino’s opinion but it’s partly a discussion of how movies get made. Of particular interest for readers will be what happens to a screenwriter’s script once it gets into the hands of a director working with who and what he’s got when on location. Additional changes to scripts during filming come as a result of what Quentin calls “societal compromise”; the races of some of a script’s villains and victims were often tweaked to make the movies more acceptable.

Q then devotes a chapter to film critics – interesting considering what we learned in March of 2023 about Tarantino’s next film. He decries critics’ “institutional indifference” to genre films, calls Charles Champlin a “blurb-whore” and trumpets the praises of L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas.

“If you’re reading this cinema book, hopefully to learn a little something about cinema, and your head is swimming from all the names you don’t recognize, congratulations, you’re learning something.”

The most compelling chapter in Cinema Speculation bears a title that sums up the whole book: New Hollywood in the Seventies – The Post-Sixties Anti-Establishment Auteurs vs. The Movie Brats. In this chapter that bears multiple readings, Q makes a point about movies in post-war America becoming more adult and moving away from being entertainment for the whole family. Part of this, he says, can be seen in historical films made by the new breed that finally examined America’s troubling history as opposed to the whitewashing techniques of the previous fifty years. Tarantino cannily discusses audiences at the dawn of the Seventies being subjected to “bummer” films that were “anti-everything” until relief came thanks to the “movie brats” – the first crop of film school-educated directors – and their understandable, entertaining films. Fascinating discourse here.

“These were the Hollywood Hills Hippies, The Malibu Beach Beatniks. And it was foreign directors of the fifties and sixties (plus Orson Welles) that had made them want to be filmmakers. But it was the counterculture that had made them want to be artists.”

Discussion later turns to Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley and this section is particularly interesting. Here, Tarantino displays his expertise on the East Side Kids and provides insight on what the success of Sly’s Rocky did to the entirety of late-Seventies cinema. Later still, Quentin shares a thought-provoking take on directors blaming studios for neutering great scripts, turning them into spineless movies. Tarantino says he would rather that some films were never made, that it is better to have a film abandoned in pre-production than to listen to directors deride their movies for all eternity.

The style and tone of the writing here is about as you would expect coming from Quentin Tarantino. Q uses F bombs more than he uses a thesaurus but this conversational method makes it feel like having a chat about film with a buddy, a feeling particularly aided by the many personal remembrances related here. Make no mistake, though, this is no lightweight work. This book is loaded with many deep, academic observances that may have you pausing to make a concentrated effort to pick up some of what Quentin is putting down.

Buried in the text is a key of sorts to accepting all of the specifics that Tarantino shares in Cinema Speculation. When talking about Sisters (1973), QT briefly mentions that director Brian De Palma did not grow up devouring classic film “nor did he keep scrapbooks, make notes, and keep files on index cards of all the movies he saw growing up (like Peter Bogdanovich and I did)”. So, here in a quick aside the reader understands how Tarantino remembers that he saw this movie on a double bill with that movie at that theatre on that date – he has simply accessed his own ample archives. Not just the what and when but also his thoughts on the films and his perspectives have been saved down through the years. I’m sure this helped to make this book pretty easy for Q to write.

The reader should come away from this book discerning Quentin Tarantino’s wealth of film knowledge. And this should in turn cause people to appreciate anew his own 9 movies as you will now know where many of his film “ideas” came from. We also should come away with fresh appreciation of the directors and films he highlights.

“Viewers can accept my work or reject it. Deem it good, bad, or with indifference. But I’ve always approached my cinema with a fearlessness of the eventual outcome. A fearlessness that comes to me naturally – I mean, who cares, really? It’s only a movie.”

For me, personally, I love that Tarantino endorses my long-held feeling that films are to be enjoyed for what you get from them and this includes movies that you know are “bad” or fail in some way but you love the experience anyways. As Tarantino notes late in this excellent book “we didn’t love the movie, we loved watching it”. It’s about more than just the critique. My thoughts, exactly.

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4 comments

  1. A really fantastic and thought-provoking review, with some great insights. As I was reading it, I was also thinking of the late British director Alan Parker, he also wasn’t all that keen on movie critics, and didn’t mind saying so. (He particularly despised Pauline Kael). I thought of this quote of his, in light of the issue of the conflict between the studio ‘front office’ and and director that QT raised,

    “…I’ve been directing since I was 24, and every day was a battle, every day it was difficult, whether you’re fighting the producer who has opinions that you don’t agree with, the studios or whoever it is, because film, unlike art, pure art, film is hugely expensive, and the moment it gets expensive, you have people you have to serve…I’ve been punching out, all my life…to fight for the work…for our right to make our movie, the way we want to do it, and that’s hugely difficult, because it seems that you’re forever punching out. There comes a time, when you think, I don’t want to do that…”

    It’s interesting that QT seems to have been blessed with huge creative freedom to make the movies he has wanted to, and create his own genre like John Ford, Hitchcock or the Coens. Not everyone has been so lucky, or has managed to realise a vision in such a way. Lots to think about here, thanks for another great article.

    • So, Alan Parker understood, as well. There was an interesting point (well, many) in the book I wanted to drill down on. Tarantino says that directors use the excuse that the “big, bad studio” insisted on changes to a script and then says that they could have refused to make these changes. The retort would be that then the film likely doesn’t get made – “Good!”, Q says. Better it doesn’t get made, then.

      Just a great balance of casual conversation and academic theory in this book. This, I think, really elevates Quentin.

      • I think this is a great point, artistically, but the real consequences of a (major) movie not being made are loss of employment and opportunity for many hundreds of people along the production and distribution chain. Could we argue that it’s an easy sentiment for someone like QT to express, as he comes at his own projects from a position of power and financial security that not all directors have? Tony Scott is an example, he had a certain vision for the original Top Gun that would have taken it more in an ‘Apocalypse Now’ kind of direction, but was overridden by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and their vision prevailed. (Tony Scott conceded that they were right). I guess it comes down to where the money is coming from, whether the film is a producers project, for which they bring in a ‘director for hire’, or the auteur director is the leading force behind the film.

        Director King Vidor is an interesting example from the very early days, he did all the second-rate production line movies the studio gave him, worked hard, never complained, and in return was granted the latitude, and money, to do some really ground-breaking material on his own initiative that no one else would have been allowed to at the time.

        Just one footnote to the Alan Parker quote, in the context of QT saying ‘it’s only a movie’. Parker said that his art (painting and sketching) was for himself, and he didn’t care if people liked it or not. He also said, “if people don’t like my films, I want to kill ’em” 🙂

        I think there might be the basis for a fascinating podcast discussion here…

      • You make a lot of good points, as usual. And I was thinking the same thing about a podcast discussion!

        Fascinating, though, to compare; on one hand it could be “we have this great property that just needs someone to shepherd it through to completion”. On the other hand is the story being created in someone’s head. This person has the vision and can write the words and then aim the camera and coach the actors, etc. There is much discourse to be had here.

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