When young Quentin watched the Oscars broadcast in 1971, he’d seen all five Best Picture nominees (“Patton,” “M*A*S*H,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Airport,” and “Love Story”) and knew well that his movie exposure—and his habit of telling his classmates in detail about what he’d seen—made him stand out. He stood out as well because his mother was dating a Black man named Reggie, who took him to see Blaxploitation films in predominantly Black neighborhoods. He cites their moviegoing habits as the bedrock of his cinematic destiny: “To one degree or another I’ve spent my entire life since both attending movies and making them, trying to re-create the experience of watching a brand-new Jim Brown film, on a Saturday night, in a black cinema in 1972.” The book is centered almost entirely on violent films, action films, horror films, the kinds of films that delighted the child Quentin and the teen Tarantino and that, to all appearances, are still—for better or worse—at the core of his cinematic universe.
“Cinema Speculation” is the work of a filmmaker whose knowledge of movies is prodigious, and who, by dint of his professional experience, can add the insights he has gained from inside the industry, along with interview access to many of the people whose work he writes about. That’s the perspective that informs the book and that raises it above what would in any case be an engagingly garrulous memoir. For instance, Tarantino’s consideration of “Bullitt” is centered on his interviews with the screenwriter and director Walter Hill, who was an assistant director on the film, and with Neile McQueen (known professionally, as an actress, as Neile Adams), Steve McQueen’s wife at the time it was made. Tarantino credits her “good taste and her keen understanding of both her husband’s ability and his iconic persona,” which he identifies as the decisive force behind McQueen’s choice of projects. These interview subjects talk about how McQueen, unlike other actors, would reduce his own dialogue on-set, handing his lines to other actors, knowing that what made his stardom was essentially silent.
Tarantino closely and lovingly scrutinizes the work of character actors, and often makes them the fulcrum of his analysis. He treats “Dirty Harry” as the seminal serial-killer movie and spotlights the performance of Andy Robinson, in the role of the Scorpio killer, as the reason for the movie’s historic effect. He looks closely at John Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder” (which he calls “the best combination of character study and action film ever made”) and tells the story of how, at the age of nineteen, he met and interviewed Flynn. He offers overarching historical views on the changes that took place in Hollywood in the late sixties and early seventies, and the overlapping generations of new directors who worked there (and the underlying cultural differences that marked their movies). In his discussion of Sylvester Stallone’s career, he devotes rapturous attention to both “The Lords of Flatbush” and “Paradise Alley,” along with a recollection of the cultural prominence, in the mid-seventies, of fifties nostalgia and the appreciation (strengthened by film-historical details) of the epochal influence of “Rocky.” And he looks gratefully at the career of the critic Kevin Thomas, whose coverage of genre films in the L.A. Times Tarantino considers crucial to the course of movies in the seventies and beyond.
The book’s title is more than rhetoric. The best sections involve Tarantino’s counterfactual speculations, based on his copious reading of books and articles about Hollywood, his familiarity with early versions of scripts, his acquaintance with Hollywood notables, and his critical insights regarding the careers and passions and inclinations of these notables. In the long chapter on “The Getaway,” there’s a great riff on Peter Bogdanovich being attached to the project before Sam Peckinpah was signed to direct it, an extended discussion of how Ali MacGraw came to co-star in it with McQueen and the effect that her performance and her persona had on its reception; a careful look at how the casting of supporting roles determines the movie’s tone as well as its effect on viewers; and a detailed study of the differences between the film and the novel, by Jim Thompson, on which it’s based. The book’s intellectual engine is its auteurist perspective. As a director as well as a virtual critic, Tarantino delves deep into the kinds of decisions that directors make, both at the macro level of major career moves and the micro level of behavioral details and camera angles, with an absorbing acuity.
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