Picture credit: Frazer Harrison/WireImage

Soon to be pulped non-fiction

Quentin Tarantino’s new book is a disappointment

Growing up in the nineties, Quentin Tarantino was a cinephile’s icon. With an intriguing backstory — movie store clerk turned acclaimed auteur — Tarantino broke through at just the right cultural moment, when Hollywood valued scrappy, quirky indie filmmakers. I can’t count how many times I’ve cemented friendships by swapping lines from Pulp Fiction and I still remember the frisson I felt when Mr. Blonde started doing that creepy dance to the tune of Stuck in the Middle With You in front of that bound cop in Reservoir Dogs.  

Apparently these days, Tarantino would rather write books — a solitary pursuit that must have plenty of appeal given how many plates any director must keep spinning. After unnecessarily novelizing the fun Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, he’s recently published a new book of essays entitled Cinema Speculation. It contains some useful and interesting insights, but for someone who excitedly bought the book I have to admit that after spending a few hundred pages listening to him rave about some of his favourite movies I was painfully underwhelmed.

 For starters, we lack the sense of an editor’s guidance. Cinema Speculation has no established theme, structure, or thesis statement. It’s not Tarantino’s list of greatest achievements in film history, or an exploration of a particular genre, or a close look at a specific director, though some favorites do tend to reappear, such as Sam Peckinpah, Brian DePalma, and Sylvester Stallone. There isn’t any explicit reason given for why he wanted to talk about these particular films other than that he sure likes them a lot, which is already pretty much assumed in a collection like this. The question looms: so what?  

the leather jacket he’s wearing in the author photo … tips his hand a bit

The implicit reasons why Tarantino obsesses over these movies becomes increasingly obvious: they tend to feature iconic tough guys like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Stallone lumbering through various mean streets, prisons, bars, and shady back rooms, kicking ass and taking names. He seems to like these movies primarily because they feature legendary leading men whose ineffable machismo and stoicism is the most noteworthy feature. As some critics have pointed out, the leather jacket he’s wearing in the author photo and the brooding posture tips his hand a bit.   

As Tarantino enthuses over McQueen’s star turn in Bullitt, he fills most of a page trying to think of new ways of explaining Steve McQueen’s coolness, clad in his black turtleneck and stoic squint: “McQueen’s Frank Bullitt is no hothead. He is the epitome of cool…And when I say cool, I don’t mean just the charismatic he-man bad-boy cool McQueen was famous for (though he does have that too)…I mean, emotionally, Frank Bullitt is as cool as a reptile…Nothing makes him get hot. Nothing makes him lose his cool…He doesn’t quietly seethe behind the eyes…he doesn’t even roll his eyes…he doesn’t make a face…he possesses a Herculean power to not get upset.” Right, got it. So what I think I hear you saying is that he’s cool. Really cool. 

I don’t think anyone who would be interested in this book needed to be informed of this — McQueen’s inscrutable unflappability is already a well-established element of his reputation. Why did Tarantino think that we needed to be reminded of it, and at such relentless, hyperventilating length? All that percussive repetition isn’t eased by the relentless stacking of single sentences on top of one another, which recurs throughout the book, was probably intended to make the prose sound punchier and is why I used the ellipses. It often seems like Tarantino might be trying to sound simultaneously terse and ecstatic on the page, which is a weird way to write. And that utterly eccentric and promiscuous use of italics, which doesn’t let up throughout the rest of the book, also gets really old really quickly.  

A similar example is in the chapter about Paradise Alley, a cartoonishly grizzled Sylvester Stallone vehicle about backroom wrestlers which he wrote, directed, and starred in after the triumph of Rocky, which Tarantino also shares his all-caps admiration for. Again, it isn’t exactly news how beloved that scrappy underdog Rocky is. You can see a film nerd’s idea of braggadocio in the way he tries to rank Paradise Alley as “the greatest actor-director directorial [along with Orson Welles] debuts of all time.” Putting it over indie pioneer John Cassavetes’s Shadows and Charles Laughton’s masterful The Night of the Hunter is silly — and putting it over the great Charlie Chaplin is blasphemy. 

There are digressions and free associations galore, where Tarantino lets his encyclopedic knowledge run wild, and the discussion of one film inevitably starts to drift into the plot or premise of another. The book works best when Tarantino calms down and focuses on the pithier moments that often go ignored in major films. The way that the crumpled twenty dollar bill implicates Travis Bickle in Iris the child prostitute’s plight, or the subtle relationship dynamics in The Getaway, or the racial implications of the casting of specific characters in Dirty Harry

Digressions, emotional projection, and unbridled enthusiasm aren’t the worst of sins. But for a longtime fan, the fundamental disappointment with Cinema Speculation is that in an intensely personal book like this you want Tarantino to really dig deep and show us something about himself that we’ve never really seen before. The most heartfelt and vividly drawn moments in the book are, unsurprisingly, experienced through his exuberant cinephilia. The portrait of an enigmatic moviegoing friend from his youth is vivid and sympathetic, as is his sincere tribute to critic Kevin Thomas, who treated all the B-movies he reviewed week after week with care and consideration.

Clearly, Tarantino knows more about movies than most of us ever will. And to his credit he’s made some masterpieces (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) and several very good movies (the Kill Bills, Jackie Brown, Basterds) and one downright terrible movie in The Hateful 8. He really needs to quit his recent bluster about making ten great films and then putting himself out to pasture. One salient criticism of Tarantino is that all he really knows about life comes from watching lots of movies. If he still wants to make them, and make great ones, then he’ll need to step up his game. Time to reach beyond all that intricate, amusing movie trivia at his fingertips — and stop marveling over all those impeccably tough ice-cold leading men — and dare to show us the all-too-human person inside. Unless, of course, he already has.  

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