He Found It at the Movies
Gavin Smith on Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino
When was the last time a filmmaker, let alone a world-famous Hollywood filmmaker, published a book of film criticism? The only one that comes immediately to mind is Lindsay Anderson, who paused in his waning career to write About John Ford back in 1981—to some acclaim. But then, Anderson had been a critic before he began making films and he was hardly a household name.
In terms of enduring American brand recognition, Quentin Tarantino is up there in today’s popular imagination with Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Allen, Lynch, and Lee—meaning that his name is synonymous with a potently successful and singular approach to cinema. So it stands to reason, especially given his pugnacious public persona, that QT’s long-threatened first incursion into film criticism, aimed, as he indicates at one point, at readers primed “hopefully to learn a little something about cinema,” may prove to be one of the most influential books of criticism since the salad days of the Pauline Kael anthologies and Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema. This is especially true for those for whom film history began with Pulp Fiction. Cinema Speculation advocates for films that for the most part are undeniably worthy. But it is marked by a peculiar double-perspective—that of Little Quentin as a child and a teen and that of Grown-Up Quentin as he is today, sitting on his mighty cinephile throne and vested with the authority of being… that guy. (Or as Variety recently proclaimed, “an elder statesman” of cinema.) The writing constantly switches back and forth between these two points of view in the manner of someone afflicted by multiple personality disorder. Regardless, the book just about holds together thanks to its sheer freewheeling enthusiasm and shoot-from-the-hip attitude, dispensing opinions by the yard, almost all of them hyperbolic. And hyperbole is just one of the problems.
It would be all too easy to dismiss Cinema Speculation as a millionaire fanboy’s indulgence, but that would be only a partial description. The Movie Brat generation of the 1970s (some of whom were former critics, such as Paul Schrader) readily acknowledged their film historical indebtedness. But from the very start of his career, to the delight of many, Tarantino proudly flaunted his influences and his love and celebration of Trash and Schlock—not just movies but also television and pop music—which had long-since been sanctioned by Kael, his favorite film critic. Where the Movie Brats alluded to the films that they paid homage to with a degree of restraint and respect, QT cheerfully and brazenly ransacked his alternate film-history canon like a kid in a candy store. And those who could tune into his wavelength willingly went along for the ride—what fan of Sidney Furie’s unsung The Entity didn’t get a kick from QT’s shout-out sampling of one of its signature sound cues in Inglourious Basterds?
Bogdanovich, Scorsese, et al. opened that movie-love door, and 15 years later a rough beast slouched through. Like them, QT seemed to have seen everything (he hasn’t of course), displayed an encyclopedic knowledge, and could quote chapter and verse at the drop of a hat. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing but sincerity behind QT’s taste for the films of William Witney and many equally and perhaps understandably unsung great masters. You can make a fair case that QT is all about sticking up for cinema’s underdogs and sticking it to pantheon directors like John Ford. But the book’s first surprise is that QT doesn’t work in so much as a mention of Witney in his 18 chapters, although he certainly makes sure to take a number of iconoclastic swings at Ford’s westerns for what he sees as their co-signing of Native American genocide. Clearly The Searchers—and the long shadow it casts on more than a few of the Movie Brats’ films—is his white whale.
But sticking up for overlooked gems is hardly this book’s agenda. Cinema Speculation devotes 13 of its chapters to slap-happy chronological exegeses of films from 1968 to 1981 (all by white directors) that, aside from Bambi, made the strongest impression on Little Quentin. Blessed with a mother who had an enviable lack of concern for age suitability, QT’s uncomprehending eleven-year-old self gets to see Deliverance. “I’m fucking bragging,” he declares of the experience, and sure, what budding movie fan wouldn’t want a mother as cool as his? But never accuse Adult Quentin of modesty: “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.”
However, with the exception of Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley, Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, and Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller, the movies QT anoints and elucidates at length are not only more or less widely known and well appreciated today (even to the casual cinephile) but also enjoyed acclaim, popularity, or at least recognition when they were originally released. So while you can’t seriously make the case that these write-ups of old chestnuts like The Getaway and Taxi Driver are correctives to critical and popular neglect, I can’t fault his choices—I like these films as much as he does. But, of course, this book isn’t aimed at cinephiles. It’s for the newbies.
The first essay, on Peter Yates’s Bullitt, doesn’t make for a promising start. QT advances the dubious claim that it singlehandedly created the modern action film, and that, in the first of a number of literacy-challenged sentences, “Nobody had ever shot San Francisco as great as Peter Yates did or ever will again.” The real focus of the essay is an admiring meditation on the genius of Steve McQueen, an actor who he maintains had an unerring ability to pick great material (The Reivers? Tom Horn? Nevada Smith?) and “demonstrates what he could do that Newman and Beatty couldn’t. Which is to be.” It’s a statement that’s as banal as they get. The repeated use of the word “cool” in this chapter (13 times) tempts me to recommend QT buy a thesaurus—although this pales in comparison to the 75 (count ’em) uses of “fuck” or “fucking” or “fucked” across the whole book. But that’s symptomatic of the motormouth down-and-dirty critical voice QT’s chosen to adopt—it reads the way he talks, all right? I like Bullitt just fine, I’m a McQueen fan, and I’m impressed that he quotes from veteran London Sunday Times film critic Dilys Powell, the last critic for whom I’d think QT would have any use. The Bullitt chapter concludes with the certifiably insane statement that “As pure cinema it’s one of the best directed movies ever made.”
QT has gone on record that he’ll retire after his next film rather than endure the decline in quality that inevitably afflicts directors as the years go by. Nevertheless he chooses Don Siegel’s 27th movie, Dirty Harry, as the next film in his personal pantheon (and, at the other end of the book, his 32nd, the masterful Escape from Alcatraz). By my lights there are 18 good Siegel films, and this is certainly one of the best. Here QT’s occasional astute observations (“Dirty Harry would facilitate the move from westerns to cop films that took place in that decade both on screen and television”) are subsumed by his more outrageous claims (Dirty Harry is “the first cops-after-a-serial-killer thriller,” conveniently overlooking, for a start, Richard Fleischer’s 1968 The Boston Strangler) and rather rudimentary insights (regarding the maverick characters in Siegel’s films, “This iconoclasm [sic] seems to resemble Don Siegel’s relationship with producers and the studio heads he worked for”). As with all the other essays, pages are devoted to the extended recounting of the film’s storyline (with an eccentric italicization of every character’s name on first occurrence) and diligent, sometimes illuminating sketches of the filmmaker’s aesthetic ethos and career highs and lows.
QT’s writing is as consistently rambling and digressive as his film work, but while that works on the screen, on the page it makes for a sense of wayward indiscipline. In the Dirty Harry chapter he interjects his nutty, rather literal “alternative [sic] reading” of Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which humanity’s transformation into a race of pod people is all upside since it means the elimination of “messy emotions” and brings everyone together in a state of nirvana, with all social and political ills instantly vanishing. He dispenses altogether with his sound take on the somewhat underrated Daisy Miller in favor of a heartfelt appreciation of the fizzled career of the film’s leading man, Barry Brown, who committed suicide in 1978, oddly concluding the chapter with the lines, “Who was Barry Brown? What did it all mean? Am I the only one who remembers Barry Brown? Am I enough?” (The next few pages are turned over to a reprint of the original layouts of an article Brown wrote about Bela Lugosi’s drug problems for horror fan magazine Castle of Frankenstein in the late 1960s.) The write-up of Paradise Alley veers off to ponder the hydra-like Dead End Kids franchise of the 1930s, parsing its prodigious 1940s offshoots, and citing, along the way, “the dignified black actor Clarence Muse” in Joseph H. Lewis’s 1940 That Gang of Mine—before making the preposterous claim that after this film, no black actor was the subject of a dolly shot until the Sixties (how about Preminger’s Porgy and Bess and Carmen Jones for a start?). And his piece on Escape from Alcatraz takes a lengthy detour to ponder Charles Bronson’s career and his misfired team up with Siegel on the not-so-hot Soviet sleeper agent thriller Telefon. Yup, this book is a sprawling, contradictory mess, no two ways about it.
The next three essays, on John Boorman’s Deliverance, Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, and John Flynn’s The Outfit, seem to have come from a different person’s typewriter. Despite the plot descriptions, they’re well written, genuinely insightful, full of new information. The Getaway chapter is effectively a production history, providing a sharp analysis of the difference between the film and Jim Thompson’s source novel (boosted by an interview with the film’s screenwriter, Walter Hill) and when it comes to the film itself, it’s by no means an unqualified evaluation. As for The Outfit, despite the fact that QT is laboring under the impression that he alone knows the films of John Flynn, the essay takes a new, even more every-which-way approach. It initially focuses on the source novel by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake), part of a series of books centered on a professional armed robber named Parker, before taking a long and not uninteresting tangent to rant about the cop-out mentality of American cinema in the 1980s. Once this is out of his system he circles back to the novels, takes a swipe at the “moralistic functionality” of the ending of Michael Mann’s Heat, and then dismisses Boorman’s Stark adaptation Point Blank as “Sixties television” after its “show-off opening” (seriously?) and Lee Marvin’s performance as Parker in that film as indicative of the actor’s decline. There follows an efficient, perfectly solid appreciation of the merits of The Outfit, itself a model of efficiency, before winding things up with eight excerpts from reviews of the film, both pro and con. As writing, it’s a fascinating dancing-on-the-edge-of-a-volcano volley.
Since QT finds plenty to fault with the second half of Deliverance, why has he assigned it its own chapter? He doesn’t deal with the film until he’s written five unreflecting pages regaling us with the many double features that he attended in the early to mid 1970s and at which theaters he saw them. He fails to convey any sense of how he experienced these pairings or how the films interacted or spoke to each other—he literally just lists them. He’s building up to what’s seemingly the ultimate double-bill: The Wild Bunch and Deliverance. He’s at the Tarzana Six Movies multiplex with his mother and her date Quincy, “a really classy gentleman.” The macho pathos of Peckinpah’s ecstatic, convulsive carnage is the amuse bouche here for Adult Quentin’s perceptive and intelligent anatomizing of the dynamics of Deliverance’s masculine power games, with its “homoerotic courtship” and a transgressive anal rape that seems part of “some sort of ancient ritual.” But after the film’s four campers hold a moral debate about what to do with the rapist’s corpse, the film takes a nosedive in QT’s opinion: the rest of the movie is “half-assed” and “the rite of masculine passage” undertaken by Jon Voight’s character “pro-forma” because QT knows he’s sure to meet the challenge.
Many movies in the 1970s had bleak, downbeat endings, to be sure, but to object to the inevitable physical or moral triumph of a film’s protagonist in the face of existential jeopardy seems absurd and contrary to 99 percent of the conventions and traditions of film history. Even the death of Peckinpah’s outlaws is a kind of glorious fulfillment. And why doesn’t that objection apply to The Getaway or The Outfit? Or A Fistful of Dollars? Or Jackie Brown? QT feels that Boorman, having raised the stakes so unusually high in the first part of Deliverance (“We feel the pull of the picture”), should have discarded the rest of James Dickey’s novel and seen to it that that nothing short of annihilation greeted the film’s three surviving campers. But to want Deliverance to be the “no-turning back adventure film” QT demands is to largely miss the point of the film, which is to register the heavy moral price the characters pay in the name of survival.
There are also some pleasant surprises in Cinema Speculation. The chapter “Second String Samurai” changes gears for a tribute to the Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas, who covered the genre and B-movie beat for decades, and who “always approached every new film… with an openhearted optimism and a measure of respect.” It ends, rather lazily, with excerpts from a few choice Thomas reviews. (But watch out the rest of you snooty reviewers! “It would appear most critics writing for newspapers and magazines set themselves up as superior to the films they were paid to review. Which I could never understand, because judging from their writing, that was clearly not the case.” Double ouch!) And the “New Hollywood in the Seventies” essay offers an intelligent if orthodox take in its description of the way in which the anti-establishment filmmakers and the genre-revisionism in the first half of the decade were overtaken by the commercial-minded, genre-reinstating Movie Brat directors of the second. Alas, it’s also here, in discussing the revisionist westerns of the era, that he finally catches sight of his whale, bravely denouncing “America’s history of fascism, racism, and hypocrisy” and its transmission by Ford and his peers, while improbably claiming that the Movie Brat directors “were usually appalled by the jingoistic white supremacy on display.”
However, QT’s embarrassingly gushing praise for Paradise Alley, Rocky, and Sylvester Stallone in chapter 14 exposes a strange lack of perspective. “Today it’s very easy to romanticize the cynical Seventies era,” he rightly observes, and even as he raves about the success of Rocky, he himself acknowledges that “cynicism in Seventies movies was dead on arrival.” But he doesn’t seem to grasp that it was precisely the success of Rocky, as much as Star Wars, that ushered in the feel-good mentality of 1980s Hollywood that he deplores in his chapter on The Outfit. Instead, he offers this pearl of wisdom: “If you liked the movie Rocky, you probably think the first movie is better. But if you loved the character of Rocky, you definitely think the second movie is best.” A useful insight. How about if you think Rocky, whatever its merits, helped ruin American cinema for the next ten or so years?
Other surprises? Well, despite his reverence for Brian De Palma, the Sisters chapter depicts him as a calculating if not cynical careerist who gravitated to suspense films through “commercial necessity… I don’t believe he made them out of love, I believe he made them to corner a market on a commercial niche he could call his own… While De Palma liked making thrillers… I doubt he loved watching them…. Hitchcockian thrillers were a means to an end.” (Settling another score in a true moment of speculation, QT writes, “I can absolutely see De Palma being appalled at Truffaut’s amateur, clumsy fumbling of The Bride Wore Black.)” And yet, per QT, Sisters suffers from the same second-act problem that blights Deliverance: “Once the big murder moment and the successful coverup [sic] section is through… so are the thrills.”
So where is the speculation in Cinema Speculation? It’s there in the peppering of casting and directing what-ifs here and there, and it finally bursts forth when Taxi Driver rolls into view. Again with the malign influence of The Searchers! QT is sure that the reason Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is a racist is “because it matches Ethan Edwards’s hatred of the Comanches in The Searchers.” And while he allows that it’s a “seminal classic,” he calls out Taxi Driver’s big cop-out: changing the Black pimp of the screenplay into the white pimp of the film. This offends QT because the White Pimp is a “fraudulent” and “mythological” conceit. He then imagines a version of the film in which Jeff Bridges (an early casting prospect) as Travis faces off against Max Julien (of The Mack fame) as the pimp and—hey presto! “Does the subtextual racism of Taxi Driver now become text? Or does it just make it more convincingly authentic?” What a curious hypothetical, almost worthy of David Thomson. (Likewise, elsewhere: “I wonder if Travis has any favorite porn stars?”) Wait, there’s more. After giving us a run-through on the wave of post–Death Wish vigilante thrillers that Taxi Driver rode (which he confuses with movies about straight-up old-as-the-hills “revenge”), he teleports back to the Carson Twin Cinema of his youth to channel the Black audience cracking up at and heckling Scorsese’s film. The plot description resumes and then it’s time to talk smack to “maestro Scorsese” regarding the film’s violence: “Scorsese being ‘shocked’ by the audience’s reaction is the kind of horseshit that film directors sincerely mumble when they’ve crafted a tremendously violent and controversial sequence and they find themselves in the hot seat… Scorsese had to bend over backwards to disingenuously describe those magnificent exhilarating violent scenes he created.”
The next chapter, “Speculation,” embarks on a full-on thought experiment. Since Paul Schrader had originally given De Palma the screenplay before Scorsese came into the picture, OMG, “What If Brian De Palma Had Directed Taxi Driver?” If you’re expected to have your mind blown by this high-school student line of inquiry, you’ll be bummed out, man. Basically, it all comes down to the scene with Travis in full mohawk at the political campaign rally, which QT regards as an assassination attempt rather than a stalking: “As opposed to the clumsy fiasco that Scorsese stages, I see Brian shooting it… as one of his grand, slow-motion ballets.” (This overlooks the fact that De Palma’s grand slow-motion ballets always have a big, violent payoff as in Carrie and The Fury.)
Like the return of the repressed, The Searchers keeps rearing its head, haunting QT’s discussion of Schrader’s Hardcore and even making an appearance in his chapter on John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder. But if The Searchers is QT’s bête noire, Rolling Thunder is certainly his Rosebud. After all, it was the movie “that gave me permission to be a critic. The first time I analyzed a movie… What I used to claim about Rolling Thunder was it was the best combination of character study and action film ever made. And it still is.” The film sure imprinted itself on Teenage Quentin’s psyche—like a Movie Deadhead, he followed the film from theater to theater across Los Angeles, rewatching it countless times over what he claims is a ten-year stretch (well into the home-video era’s maturity). He even tracked Flynn down by calling every John Flynn in the phonebook, then went over to his house and interviewed him. All the same, he gives us an engrossing history of the film’s writing and rewriting, casting, production, and if onlys, bolstering his Flynn interview with input by Rolling Thunder screenwriter Schrader.
It's also somewhat mystifying that QT has a tendency to turn against his pantheon movies. Hardcore proves to be “a phony-baloney moralistic con-job” because Schrader is incapable of writing genre films, and he’s channeling pure uncut Kael when he writes “when filmmaker Schrader makes these decisions, you wonder where film critic Schrader went.” His appreciation of The Funhouse opens by acknowledging that “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the greatest films of all time.” Next, in a digression about carnival movies, QT singles out Carny’s Gary Busey as “one of the Seventies’ greatest actors.” Finally, he announces that “Hell Night was far superior to The Funhouse.” With fans like QT, who needs haters?
Despite my griping, it has to be said that Cinema Speculation is a much more personal book than it seems at face value, with an unmistakable semi-autobiographical thread. As established in chapter one, “Little Q Watching Big Movies,” moviegoing is a kind of primal scene for QT, one which revolves around his mother, Connie, and her boyfriends and the specific movie theaters and the often some would say unsuitable movies they saw there together. (He makes a point of the fact that after splitting up with his father, Connie “would exclusively date black men for the next three years.”) Despite the lack of searching self-examination or any real description, there’s an obvious nostalgia to QT’s fetishistic, italicized namechecking of every theater in which he saw every film. And there’s a poignant early admission: his mother’s then-boyfriend Reggie takes him to see the Jim Brown potboiler Black Gunn at age nine: “My little face was the only white one in the audience…. To one degree or another I’ve spent my entire life since, both attending movies and making them, trying to recreate the experience of watching a brand-new Jim Brown film, on a Saturday night, in a black cinema in 1972.”
The book’s final chapter, “Floyd Footnote,” clinches things, bringing us to the belated realization that Cinema Speculation, with its hurly-burly recollections of going to the movies as a kid, is truly as much a memoir as anything else. In fact, it’s QT's version of a bildungsroman, motherfucka! In by far the most personal piece in the book, QT recounts his relationship not with Connie, but with a man named Floyd Ray Wilson. Wilson was “a black guy of about thirty-seven, who for a year and a half in the late Seventies lived in my house. He used to date my mom’s best friend Jackie…. And every time he came by it was exciting, because I thought Floyd was really cool and I could talk movies with him.” Eventually Connie rents him a room on the condition that he keep an eye on her 16-year-old son. Little Quentin recognizes that “I cared more for Floyd than Floyd cared for me,” adding later “he never lied to me about me. He didn’t care enough about me to lie to me.” All the same, this definition of an Unreliable Adult becomes a mentor figure of incalculable importance, and not just because he loved Blaxploitation films. “I drank in all his hustler/male-centric/streetwise wisdom,” writes QT, who then goes on to supply an exhaustive inventory of Floyd’s favorite actors, favorite movies, favorite music, his eye-opening, counterintuitive appreciation of Black actors like Willie Best and Stepin Fetchit (“he shuffled his black ass all the way to the motherfuckin’ bank!”), and his love of TV’s Amos ’n Andy. Eventually Floyd disappears, and as QT fills in the details of his life, he delivers the kicker: Floyd wanted to be a screenwriter. He had written several scripts, and one of them was an epic western saga about a Black cowboy. The book concludes with QT looking back on the night in 2012 when he accepted the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for Django Unchained and ends with these words: “I don’t know how he died, where he died, or where he’s buried. But I do know I should’ve thanked him.”
Any doubts anyone may have had about the legitimacy of QT’s relationship to Black culture, or his sincerity, are pretty much laid to rest by the end of this book. Nevertheless, on the basis of Cinema Speculation as a whole, my advice is: don’t quit your day job.
Top 10 Wisdom of Q
1. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is “overrated”; Mother, Jugs & Speed is “underrated.”
2. Hitchcock’s Frenzy is “a piece of crap.”
3. “Brewster McCloud is the cinematic equivalent of a bird shitting on your head.”
4. “Jaws is one of the greatest movies ever made.”
5. “If Dirty Harry were a boxer, it would be Mike Tyson in his knock-out prime.”
6. Play It Again, Sam: “I laughed from the beginning of that picture to the end.”
7. Deliverance: “We don’t watch the rape of Bobby, we bear eyewitness.”
8. Daisy Miller: “Peter had a facility with overlapping (non-improvised) comedic dialogue like none of his peers [sic] (it wouldn’t be till Bob Clark, in his Porky’s movies, showed a similar talent.”
9. Rolling Thunder: “It blew my fucking mind.”—see multiple previous entries.
10. Escape from Alcatraz: “One tiny reveal reveals another minutia of opportunity.”