Quentin Tarantino has directed some of the greatest films my generation has ever seen. I’m generally not a movie reviewer, though I’ve certainly seen one or two, but recently he’s crossed over into the book world with a novelization of his latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), and also, Cinema Speculation, a book of film criticism about exploitation and action movies of from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Though, come to think of it, the dialogue-driven Reservoir Dogs (1994) has a special place in the heart of writers everywhere, whether they admit it or not.
Now, I’ll try to avoid further references to Tarantino’s movies and leave that to the comments section, but let’s be real: you love those movies, and I love those movies. Cinema Speculation is a book about the movies Tarantino watched as a kid. But it’s not a list of movies you’d expect unless you also grew up under the circumstances that he did. Nor is it, by Tarantino’s own admission, a list of the best movies ever. Instead, it’s a list of his movies, love ’em, hate ’em, and how they affected him. At one point, it’s mentioned that while he did see the era’s Disney movies in theaters, instead, Tarantino analyzes “grown-up” movies from the genre that he saw with his mother and other adults. Most of these follow also deal with the themes of violence, race, and action that we see in Tarantino films, and he’s usually playing homage to these sorts of pictures.
Tarantino initially tracks the development in particular of action movies with chapters on Bullitt (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but this only begins a wider window where Hollywood movies are bleak before the explosion of mainstream, family-friendly movies in the 1980s. Action movies about laconic detectives without much of a home life come into vogue after a series of Joe Friday clones, but a whole bunch of other violence plays out on the screen as well. Tarantino moves away from police movies with his analysis of Deliverance (1972) and, for the rest of the book, focuses on mostly non-police thrillers, with an interlude to discuss Peter Bogdanovich and Daisy Miller (1974). The work discussed heavily relies on figures like Don Siegel, John Flynn, Paul Schrader, and Sam Peckinpah but marks a more cerebral look at film with a muddier distinction between good and evil.
For Tarantino, this explosion of violent, transgressive movies seems to be a liberation of an underlying impulse within American culture. He speaks with reverence for the legacy but not the content of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), even as he tires of Martin Scorsese referencing it. Filmmakers like Scorsese, he seems to feel, were always trying to make edgier movies, and it’s seen through their older pictures. Tarantino repeatedly references, though never analyzes, the now-obscure Siegel Western, The Duel at Silver Creek (1953), for an example of these directors itching for an era when their groundbreaking ideas could be given center stage. So, he’s pretty dismissive of the 1980s in general, when film tries to become family-friendly again.
However, it’s then just a look at this era with rose-colored glasses. Tarantino doesn’t really like Hardcore (1979), or at least, he’s got a funny way of writing about it if he does. He’s also not recommending Paradise Alley (1978) so much, using it as a way of explaining Sylvester Stallone’s entrance to the Hollywood canon. Oh, don’t get me wrong, most of the forgotten movies referenced are worth digging up on HBO Max – The Outfit (1973) is loads of fun – and others, especially Taxi Driver (1976), seemingly can’t be forgotten. Still, this book is a landscape portrait of film when times are broadly complicated, and the culture responds.
Three out of four stars.