Cinema Speculation is Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Quentin Tarantino's first published work on film criticism. This comes after his recent novel, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which takes its title from his own film. The director-turned-author presents a remarkable and unmistakable voice that both studies and critiques his personal favourites of the 'New American Cinema Era' like Peter Yates' Bullitt, John G Avildsen’s Joe, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, John Boorman’s Deliverance, Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley.
The American film director's impassioned knowledge of movies and TV is both breathtaking and eerie, for the reader; but considering his coming-of-age years, one can understand the roots of his inspiration. At a young age, when his peers were watching the likes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a young Quentin Tarantino accompanied his mother, alongside her suitors, to films far beyond his reach and age like JoeThe French Connection, MASH, Superfly and Dirty Harry (some of which he critiques in the book).
The Inglorious Bastards' director entered non-fiction writing with Cinema Speculation, fulfilling his long-time desire to put his thoughts and film theories on paper. He does exactly this by knit-picking certain key American films from the 70s. Giving a thorough chapter-to-chapter breakdown of each film, his unique voice is filled with footnotes, personal recollections, opinions, and criticisms. With this book, he does not intend to just discuss a couple of his favourite movies, rather, he remarks on the realm of cinema itself.
Critics consider Cinema Speculation a ‘good non-fiction,’ as it emerges not just from his personal anecdotes but also from a thorough research, analytical insight, clarity, diverse knowledge, and a unique writing style. In other words, Cinema Speculation is an iconic work of the virtuoso filmmaker whose knowledge of movies is both wide and manifold and who does not choose the traditional route. For instance, Tarantino’s chapter on Bullitt is centred on his interviews with screenwriter and director, Walter Hill, who was an assistant director on the film, and on his interactions with Neil McQueen (professionally known to be actress Neil Adams) who was Steve McQueen’s wife at the time. He talks about her “good taste and keen understanding of both her husband’s ability and his iconic persona” which was pivotal to his selection of projects.
The 370-page hefty book is both an autobiography as well as an analytical work. It is but a coincidence that Tarantino’s childhood coincides with a surprisingly fertile period of American cinema. Gaining an affinity to Blaxploitation films through his mother's football-player boyfriend, Reggie, Tarantino recollects being brought to a downtown L.A grindhouse to watch Black Gunn on a sold-out Saturday night, in 1972. He was the only white kid in the room. He describes this experience as “the most masculine experience he had been a part of" with the audience ecstatically foul-mouthing Brown’s Blaxploitation heroics.
This could possibly explain his cinematic sensibility and obsession with Black machismo and dismissing message-oriented movies, as one can also find in Pulp Fiction (a crowd-pulling absolute favourite). It was that one movie which made people change the way they viewed films. But he did more than that, he also changed the types of films people talked about. Whether it was his inclination towards Blaxploitation or Spaghetti Westerns or Shaw Brothers and obscure slashers, it was Tarantino who brought these topics into sophisticated discussions. One was expected to speak the language of B-movie thrillers just as fluently as they talked about Jean Renoir’s filmmaking.
The audience and a movie's impact on the audience has been an important parameter of Tarantino’s work. It is well-known that he worships at the altar of New Hollywood and wunderkinds like Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, amongst others; this can be observed by their names and works being suffused in almost every chapter of Cinema Speculation. He discusses how films like Deliverance and Dirty Harry manipulate our emotions as watchers, and he does so by scrutinising them in-depth, breaking them down for the reader, despite their stellar reputation.
With an exceptionally spirited defence of Peter Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller, which is otherwise rather maligned, the book is an exploration of a varied era of American films, especially violent action movies. A large chunk of the book is dedicated to ‘death-wish’ era fantasies of retribution and what writers would refer to as ‘revenge matics’ and the book also misreads Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as a part of this genre. It is from this section onwards, what can be identified as the midsection, that the book might appear wearying, and filled with typing errors, incessant repetitions, and overly excessive use of italics.
The best chapter of Cinema Speculation, in my opinion, might be the chapter with Tarantino’s generous appreciation of LA Times critic, Kevin Thomas, who for decades religiously covered low-budget, independent, and exploitation movies. There is much to appreciate here, as other, bigger writers of papers did not want to cover films below their own or popular standards. Tarantino voraciously pays tribute to Thomas’s review of Second-String Samurai, Jonathan Demme’s women-in-prison picture Caged Heat—saluting the critic’s spirit of discovery, in sharing movies, that were rare gems, with the masses, and acknowledging this trait at the heart of what critics ought to do. Even if these films weren’t spectacular compared to other well-known films, Tarantino emphasises, through this writing, that discovery is the key.
If one expects Tarantino to publish an in-depth analysis of his own films like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown, they will only find glimpses of it, nothing more; as they are only mentioned in passing. On the other hand, any aspiring filmmaker, lover of 70s cinema or a die-hard lover of Tarantino would find Cinema Speculation greatly entertaining, inspiring, and informative.