Highbrow’s Enemy

An enormously promising title, Quentin Tarantino’s Cinema Speculation arrives suggesting a tantalizing combination of coming-of-age movie memoir and deep dive into the spectacular films of the 1970s – Hollywood’s last golden age – via a celebrated and accomplished filmmaker with an infectious enthusiasm for the movies and a breathtaking facility with an impossible number of features, renowned and obscure. Tarantino has an encyclopedic knowledge of postwar American film history, often well-deployed in the book, and a keen eye for assessing source material. Most importantly, he understands and is able to convey what made the seventies special – and the eighties dismal: ‘After growing up in the anything-goes seventies, the eighties marked a play-it-safe decade.’ Unlike in the classic studio era, where films were subject to the draconian prohibitions of the Production Code Administration, ‘in the eighties, the restrictions Hollywood imposed on their own product were self-imposed . . . After the seventies, it seemed like film went back to the restraints of the fifties.’ In contrast, Tarantino captures the thrilling, liberating moral ambiguity that defined the New Hollywood, reminding the reader (or explaining to a younger audience raised on a steady diet of Marvel Movies and Message Movies), ‘Complex characters aren’t always sympathetic. Interesting people aren’t always likeable.’

Unfortunately, the literary equivalent of driving cross-country with Quentin Tarantino, whose best films include skilled sequences that force viewers to the edge of their seats, turns out to be an unpleasant prospect that few will wish to endure. Admittedly, there were reasons to be wary of climbing into the car in the first place. From a distance, on screen and off, the writer-director can give the impression of a vulgarian, with a taste for numbingly gratuitous, blood-soaked violence, and a serial weakness for that laziest and most irresponsible trope in cinema – the revenge fantasy (a genre invariably celebrated throughout this volume, with numerous entries lovingly referred to as ‘Revengeamatics’).

Such proclivities, however, turn out to be the least of this book’s problems. The Quentin Tarantino of Cinema Speculation comes across as a man of towering ego (the jacket copy describes its author as ‘possibly the most joyously infectious movie-lover alive’), modest insight and questionable taste. The self-regard is overwhelming, even by Hollywood standards. Describing his approach to filmmaking, Tarantino boasts of ‘a fearlessness that comes to me naturally.’ What begins as praise for some very fine directors takes this sudden turn: ‘But they don’t make genre films the way Jean Pierre Melville did. The way I do.’ The only thing missing from that particular reflection is Lloyd Bentsen entering the room to intone, ‘Senator, I knew Jean Pierre Melville.’ It is, regrettably, no surprise to find that the last eight lines of the book are a reminiscence of the moment he won an academy award for a film that was ‘a worldwide smash’ and include six invocations of either ‘me’ or ‘I’.  

Indeed, despite Tarantino’s zeal for the cinema of this era, his prose is a chore to read. The style is exhausting, characterized by an avalanche of obscenities which are presumably intended to seem honest and unbuckled, but which strike the reader as a tiresome affectation. Similarly disfiguring is the endless stream of unmotivated name dropping (‘The comedian Robert Wuhl once told me, “I’ve seen Bullitt four times and I couldn’t tell you what the plot is about’’’), all in the service of confidently expressed, unreflective assertions presented as gospel. This is not writing, it is talking – endless talking, and it is more than a little repetitive, as if the chapters were written individually and never intended to form a coherent whole.

It may be that there is ultimately no daylight between this writer-director of undeniably large talent, his (often-grating) public persona, and the uninterruptable know-it-all loudmouth riffing and sub-referencing revealed in these pages. Absurd as it is to invoke Gore Vidal in this context, a quote of his well describes what the reader will learn – or not learn – about Tarantino from this book: ‘I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.’ Yet I still harbour the suspicion that our narrator is actually more sophisticated than he lets on.

Cinema Speculation features chapters on films from 1968 to 1981 – the glory days of the New Hollywood – interspersed with thematic essays. There is no table of contents – and it is easy to imagine Tarantino explaining why: ‘If you’re gonna read it, who the fuck needs a fucking table of contents? Bruce Willis once told me he skipped over all that crap and just dove into the action of the fucking book.’ This disposition also likely explains the lack of a preface and acknowledgements as well. A summary overview of the chapters is nevertheless informative. The essays include a memoir of young Quentin’s voracious, very early exposure to the New Hollywood revolution, an appreciation of long-serving Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas, and a chapter that promises to express the essence of the enterprise, ‘The New Hollywood in the Seventies’. The movies selected for canonization are Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Deliverance, The Getaway, The Outfit, Sisters, Daisy Miller, Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, Paradise Alley, Escape from Alcatraz, Hardcore, and The Funhouse.

‘Little Q Watching Big Movies’ provides a guided tour of some of the films that Tarantino saw at too young an age:  ‘In that year of 1970, I saw a lot of intense shit.’ That shit included M*A*S*H, whose seven-year-old viewer especially enjoyed the scene with Radar ‘placing the microphone under the bed as Hot Lips and Frank Burns fucked.’ More generally, he recalls, ‘some of those adult movies were fucking amazing!’ Two things emerge from this opening chapter. One is that Big Q is not much different from Little Q, who protested to his mother that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid shouldn’t have ended in a freeze frame, but instead shown the protagonists shredded to bloody ribbons. Why suggest, when you can show? ‘Despite how iconic that image has become, I still agree with me, “They should have shown it.’’ ’ Less is not more, more is more, and even more, especially if it’s blood-soaked, is even more still. The child is indeed the father of the man.

The second motif established early in the book is Tarantino’s idiosyncratic taste, expressed with little regard for logical consistency from one pronouncement to the next. He prefers, for example, the Roger Vadim clunker All the Pretty Maids in a Row – a mildly amusing curiosity at best – to John Boorman’s seminal Point Blank, which is waved off as a ‘nonentity crime film’. Ironically, All the Pretty Maids to its discredit looks like it was shot in the style of a made-for-TV movie, and is littered with small screen players – two condemnations that Tarantino erroneously hurls at Point Blank in his summary dismissal of that masterpiece. 

The ode to Kevin Thomas, a critic at the Times since 1962 who shares Tarantino’s taste for grindhouse cinema (and who has an uncommon reverence for the directing chops of breastsploitation maestro Russ Meyer), is an odd interregnum in Cinema Speculation’s narrative flow. Here the author pauses, often at length, to dump on critics he dislikes and to gripe a bit about some negative reviews. A highlight of this discussion is that it features the only potentially self-aware sentence in the entire book: when their tastes diverged, if was often due to the fact that ‘Thomas had a real distaste for mean-spirited violence.’ Speaking of a critic who gave a rave review to the generally reviled, blood-soaked Supervixens, Tarantino observes, ‘Is my taste in cinema more bloodthirsty than Kevin Thomas’? Clearly.’

‘The New Hollywood in the Seventies’ is particularly disappointing, as the title suggests it should get to the heart of what this book is all about. Instead, it is a slim and hurried rehash of material that seems scraped from Peter Biskind’s well-worn Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) and a handful of other studies name checked along the way, including James Monaco’s superb American Film Now (1979). (And probably others – you didn’t think this book would have a fucking bibliography did you?) Rather than articulating a distinct perspective, the chapter is not much more than a list of names and films – almost everybody gets their sentence. Surprisingly, Tarantino occasionally loses his bearings on what should be home turf, as when he lumps Peter Bogdanovich’s relentlessly downbeat The Last Picture Show (shot in black and white, then commercial poison) with The Sting and Star Wars – all of them dismissed as ‘cut for maximum audience enjoyment.’ Yet in what could be charitably described as something of a paradox, a few chapters later Tarantino reminds readers that Rocky is probably his all-time favorite film (though soon after he rates Rocky II even higher). It is hard to imagine a movie more purposefully, relentlessly and transparently designed to make its audience feel good. Don’t take it from me, take it from Tarantino: he ‘never . . . repeat never’ heard an audience cheer with such exuberance in a movie theater.

Of course, ‘feel good’ needs to be calibrated to taste: ‘The closest I came to an audience cheering like we did in Rocky was George Kennedy and William Devane blowing the fuck out of the killers that murdered their families.’ It is also more than passing strange that someone who incisively castigated eighties films for playing it safe would champion a movie that plays it safer than any film in the history of cinema. In any event, Stallone’s average-lug-beats-the-odds-and-gets-the-girl flick is, to say the least, an odd choice to represent the pinnacle ‘of a time when movies were fucking incredible.’ A throwback to simple times, simple stories, and pandering, spoon-fed finales, Rocky would have been just another boxing picture among many in the 1930s. Whereas for Tarantino, ‘Everything about Rocky took audiences by complete surprise.’ Another theory is that, at age thirteen, it took him by surprise.

The movie chapters are a little better – or at least more distinct – but collectively they amount to something less than a mixed bag. Things get off to an unpromising start with Bullitt, fifteen pages that are essentially a mash note to Steve McQueen, with nary a glimmer of insight into this rich and multifaceted film. The treatment of Dirty Harry, in contrast, is a pleasant surprise. In the best and most thoughtful chapter in the book, Tarantino shines, contextualizing the film in the context of director Don Siegel’s long career, and engages with uncharacteristic nuance in the debate surrounding the film’s problematic politics. Even here, though, the tendency to speak in breathless soundbites (‘If Dirty Harry were a boxer it would be Mike Tyson in his knockout prime’) derails the momentum of sustained analysis. Still, if every chapter in Cinema Speculation flashed the strengths of this one, it would be worth pushing through all the braggadocio and monologuing.

Perhaps the biggest bust in this volume is its treatment of The Getaway. A still from that production graces the cover, featuring the filmmaker’s favorites Sam Peckinpah and McQueen, so presumably Tarantino would have something to say about this one. Instead we are treated to twenty-five pages of not very much. Our raconteur picks apart a few holes in the plot, and tells us that ‘I asked Peter [Bogdanovich] what he thought about [the] novel.’ Observations about the movie, however, are limited to tossed-off remarks such as ‘It’s my feeling that Ali McGraw’s moment to moment work in this film is essential’ and ‘I used to like the ending more than I do now.’ The Getaway is no masterpiece, but it is a film worth talking about, and even taking seriously. Christina Newland, in a thoughtful, engaging and enthusiastic essay for Little White Lies, says more in a thousand words than Tarantino offers here.

Sisters provides the opportunity for an appreciation of the early films of Brian de Palma, and its long discussion of Taxi Driver knows enough to ask a key question: is this a movie about a racist or is it a racist movie? Unfortunately, yet again, over thirty pages there is not a single moment of critical acumen (nor any appreciation of the filmmaking). Instead, now too recognizably on brand, serious engagement with one of the landmarks of the New Hollywood is eschewed in favour of here’s-what-I-think-off-the-top-of-my-head. There is a time and place for such things – check out Tarantino’s brilliant revisionist interpretation (in character) of Top Gun from the 1994 movie Sleep with Me – but this isn’t it. Cinema Speculation gives the impression that any hint of visual analysis or even appreciation would fall under the category of highbrow – which, to Tarantino, is the ultimate obscenity. According to the index (yes, the book has a fucking index, probably to help people look themselves up), Alfred Hitchcock appears over twenty-five times in the text. Yet there is no engagement with the marvellous Hitchcockian flourishes that characterize some of Taxi Driver’s finest scenes. Instead, the discussion is limited to observations like ‘Travis was a fucking loon,’ and ‘no fucking way was Travis in Vietnam’ (um, okay, if you say so); and a report of the audience reaction at a favorite grindhouse cinema: ‘I dug it, they dug it, and as an audience, we dug it.’ Say what you will about these comments, but they are definitely not highbrow.

Quentin Tarantino is an accomplished filmmaker, and, necessarily, a capable artisan. One could not tell that from this book, which reads like a movie geek perhaps terrified at being seen as a movie nerd. This likely accounts for some of the odd gaps in the narrative, which runs away screaming from anything that might be remotely characterized as thoughtful. Robert Altman, whose many seventies landmarks include McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, is barely noted, invoked primarily as the target of ad hominem broadsides; Alan J. Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View) goes unmentioned; Woody Allen’s output is reduced to a few words of high praise for the ‘early funny ones’. This list could easily be elaborated, but these examples raise a larger, more general concern.

Cinema Speculation presents itself as a celebration of ‘the most challenging movies of the greatest movie making era in the history of Hollywood.’ A sentiment that I (and many others) share. What is, finally, most bizarre about its baker’s dozen of features is not so much the idiosyncratic films included, but those that are left out. In trying to make the case that the seventies were indeed a golden age, it is unlikely that this set of movies would convince anybody of anything (although Taxi Driver soars, and you could argue the case for a couple of the others). Even Tarantino isn’t sold on some of them, largely deploying Hardcore as a vehicle to trash Paul Schrader (this is a book that pauses to settle numerous scores), and noting ‘Nothing that deep happens in Paradise Alley. It’s all surface.’ As for Fun House, Tarantino rates Hell Night from the same year as ‘far superior’. I haven’t seen Hell Night, which concerns a fraternity hazing ritual wherein four pledges are dropped off at an (apparently) abandoned mansion, but Roger Ebert’s one-star review plausibly describes it as ‘a relentlessly lackluster example of the Dead Teenager Movie.’ 

Maybe for some Hell Night is a towering achievement of the New Hollywood era, but while reading page after page about low-budget slasher flicks of modest repute, it is hard not to think of fifty treasures from that extraordinary decade left on the cutting room floor. Of course, much of this may simply boil down to questions of taste. In my view, Peter Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of the landmarks of the seventies film – among its enormous strengths: razor-sharp dialogue, bravura location work, and the contributions of the players, including, arguably, Robert Mitchum’s greatest performance. Yates’s Mother, Juggs, & Speed, by contrast, is an unmotivated, incoherent mess, an embarrassment to its distinguished cast, and littered with car crashes about once a reel as if fearful the audience would otherwise nod off (or walk out). In Tarantino’s assessment, Eddie Coyle is ‘overrated’ and Juggs ‘underrated.’ For those who share that view, Cinema Speculation might be a book worth reading.

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, Hollywood’s New Wave’, NLR 121