Cinema Speculation (400 pages; Harper), billed as Quentin Tarantino’s “first work of nonfiction,” could easily fall into the category of a quickie volume sold on the basis of the Pulp Fiction auteur’s brand value. So it’s a welcome surprise that this book is entertaining, smart, and vivid. Tarantino hasn’t been making the talk-show circuit as much as the pre-streaming old days (for a while, he was a fixture with the now-discredited Charlie Rose), but he brings the same feisty, movie-mad energy to his prose as he did to his early breakthrough films.
Even his book’s title seems like a nod to the avant-garde sensibilities of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, when directors like Godard, Truffaut, and their peers occupied a cultural space unafraid to challenge the torpid preconceptions of moviegoers—to say nothing of critics. (The book’s cover shot of a timelessly cool Steve McQueen conferring with Sam Peckinpah on the set of The Getaway smacks of the same defiance.)
Tarantino is a shameless appropriator, and much of the heart of the book’s “speculations’’ consists of his fond recollections of seeing beloved junk movies with largely Black audiences, who vocally responded to the on-screen action. He recalls first seeing Taxi Driver at the Carson Twin Cinema with an “all-black (except for me) audience.’’
“I dug it, they dug it, and as an audience, we dug it,’’ he writes. “When Betsy walks out of the porno movie theater and leaves Travis alone on the sidewalk, talking to himself, the audience busted out laughing—What the fuck did you think was gonna happen, you stupid motherfucker?”
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Sniping at the artsy world of “tasteful’’ cinema, he settles old scores with the mainstream sensibilities of people like the late Los Angeles Times film critic Charles Champlin (whom he labels a “blurb whore’’) while reserving some kind words for the paper’s second-stringer, Kevin Thomas, who reviewed indie and B-movies that others wouldn’t touch. (Closer to home, the San Francisco Chronicle’s G. Allen Johnson also singles out specialty films otherwise lost in the churn of studio product. And the late Bob Stephens of the San Francisco Examiner specialized in teasing out the possibilities of sci-fi and off the beaten path efforts, winning admiration from the likes of William Friedkin and Unforgiven screenwriter David Webb Peoples.)
Tarantino has always been a proud proponent of the virtues of the “junk’’ that Pauline Kael celebrated in her famed 1969 New Yorker essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies’’ over the static celebrations of Anglophilic class in the works of Merchant-Ivory and their ilk. In a lengthy diatribe against the anti-eroticism of the “horrible homogeneous movies Hollywood was making in the ‘80s,’’ he concedes that Philip Kaufman’s portrayal of sexuality in The Unbearable Lightness of Being “more or less made it to the screen intact,’’ but can’t resist letting fly: “Yeah, if you made it dull enough.’’
Tarantino’s granular, obsessed approach to some of the films he champions piques your curiosity, even if they prove unlikely to live up to the adjectival superlatives lavished on them. (Bob Dylan’s recent tome, The Philosophy of Modern Song, has the same effect of sending you back to the actual tunes, but the director’s enthusiasm—close your eyes, and you can hear him making his case to friends, fellow cineastes, or random strangers—is more endearing than Dylan’s customary pose of studied contrariety.)
We’ll stick with convention and avoid spoilers here. But let’s just say that the coda to Cinema Speculation—a tribute to Floyd Gray Wilson, a family friend of sorts who schooled the young Tarantino on action and Blaxploitation movies, and claimed, among other achievements, to have had an affair with ‘60s go-go queen Joey Heatherton—is sharp and unexpectedly moving.
While Tarantino’s affection for Black culture can veer perilously close to minstrelsy (he includes a tribute to Willie Best, a comic who’s been “erased,’’ as he puts it, along with Stepin Fetchit, for his portrayals of “the black man that’s scared of his own shadow’’), he’s maintained his blue-collar roots, consistently praising vitality over self-conscious craft in film, pop culture, and music.
“I wasn’t into seventies white-boy rock,’’ he recalls. “I didn’t own Frampton Comes Alive.’’ No kidding.
The age of criticism may be on life support. But this lively volume speaks to the ways in which the vibrancy of art, however “lowbrow’’ or disdained in bien-pensant circles, can still beget fanatical fandom—and furor.