Book review: Cinema Speculation

Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino
My rating: four stars

Are you a film nerd?

You probably are if you’re interested in reading this book. I mean, you’d probably have to be a film nerd to be interested in the very specific period of filmmaking (and styles of film) that are this title’s focus.

There’s one thing I can guarantee, however: you are not and will never be as big a film nerd as Quentin Tarantino. (Or as big a dick as he is, some might add. Some)

Thankfully, the Tarantino on display between the covers of Cinema Speculation is the amiable nerd who wants to share his passion rather than a ponytail-free Comic Book Guy. In fact, the copy within might prove to be some of the best QT PR in quite some time.

Cinema Speculation is a collection of essays about film in a particular period: the ’70s and ’80s. It’s a period that’s well covered in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, a great record of the transition from the older studio system to the new Film Brat period (think Scorsese, Spielberg and so on). Except while Tarantino has firm knowledge of behind-the-scenes and historical machinations – largely through being a curious nerd who now has access to key players because, oh, he’s also one of the most influential filmmakers of the past 30 years – that’s not his purpose. What this book wants to do is to communicate how films work as a member of the audience.

This is the draw of the text. Tarantino presents a memoir through film: discussing his mother and her assorted partners through the lens of the films they saw together. He discusses the way audiences responded to films, both on a close, in-the-screening level, as well as in terms of larger cultural reactions. It’s winning writing: I’ve long thought the man a talented dickhead – there’s that art/artist thing I guess – but he comes across a lot less frenetically and a lot more endearingly in the text here. He’s a loudmouth, sure, but his love for films (and his knowledge thereof) is vast. And the enthusiasm is infectious: I guarantee there’s films in here that you haven’t seen, and that you’ll want to seek out before you finish.

(For those playing at home, Letterboxd has a bunch of lists people have culled from the book – either in terms of films with their own essay, or all those mentioned in the work. There’s quite a bit of homework.)

There’s some ’70s classics covered in depth in the work: Dirty Harry, The Getaway, Deliverance and so on. There’s a speculative section on what might have happened had a director other than Scorsese filmed Taxi Driver. There’s thoughts about race and racism, about sex, and about the appeal of Sylvester Stallone. It’s rough around the edges, and there’s a distinct feeling that the pieces have been corralled pretty loosely – there’s not necessarily an overriding point to the work, other than the acknowledgement that movies are cool – but it’s an enjoyable ride.

The book is inspired by the writing of Pauline Kael, according to its author. That is, it’s a collection of essays that unspool the writer’s very personal reaction to particular films, while being unafraid to show his working. While he’s not a film school grad, Tarantino’s consumption allows him to draw particular links (often bolstered by first-hand conversations with directors or actors) between films. The writing also offers a bit of an explanation of some of the choices made in Tarantino’s own films: violence, particularly, is discussed at length, and the way his interpretation of violent acts is described, in particular – hello, Sam Peckinpah! – casts some light on some of the grosser corners of the QT canon.

I found Cinema Speculation to be a pretty easy read that made me want to watch more films. That’s good enough.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph.

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