Quentin Tarantino’s ‘cinema speculation’ is an obsessive insider view on Hollywood

When young Quentin watched the Oscars broadcast in 1971, he had seen all five Best Picture nominees (“Patton”, “M*A*S*H“, “Five Easy Pieces”, “Airport” and “Love Story”) and knew well that his exposure to the cinema – and his habit of telling his classmates in detail about what he had seen – made him stand out. He also stood out because his mother was dating a black man named Reggie, who took him to see Blaxploitation films in predominantly black neighborhoods. He cites their cinematic habits as the foundation of his cinematic destiny: “To one degree or another, I’ve spent my whole life since attending films and making them, trying to recreate the experience of watching a brand new Jim Brown movie, on a Saturday night, in a black movie theater in 1972.” The book centers almost entirely on violent movies, action movies, horror movies, the kind of movies that thrilled child Quentin and teenage Tarantino and which, by all appearances, are still – for better or worse – central to his cinematic universe.

“Cinema Speculation” is the work of a filmmaker whose knowledge of cinema is prodigious and who, thanks to his professional experience, can add the knowledge he has acquired from inside the industry, as well as the access to interviews with many people whose work he writes about. It’s perspective that informs the book and elevates it above what would otherwise be an engaging, verbose memoir. For example, Tarantino’s reflection on “Bullitt” centers on his interviews with writer-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 he was made. Tarantino credits her “good taste and deep understanding of both her husband’s ability and his iconic personality”, which he identifies as the decisive force behind choosing McQueen’s projects. These interview topics discuss how McQueen, unlike other actors, would cut back on his own on-set dialogue, passing his lines on to other actors, knowing that what made him famous was mostly silent.

Tarantino scrutinizes the work of character actors closely and lovingly, and often makes them the linchpin of his analysis. He treats “Dirty Harry” as the seminal serial killer film and highlights Andy Robinson’s performance as the Scorpion killer as the reason for the film’s historic effect. He carefully watches John Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder” (which he calls “the best combination of character study and action film ever made”) and recounts how, at the age of nineteen, he met and interviewed Flynn. It offers comprehensive historical views of the changes that took place in Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s, and the overlapping generations of new directors who worked there (and the underlying cultural differences that marked their films). In his discussion of Sylvester Stallone’s career, he devotes rapturous attention to both “The Lords of Flatbush” and “Paradise Alley”, as well as a recollection of the cultural significance, in the mid-1970s, of ’50s nostalgia and appreciation (reinforced by historical details from the film) of the historical influence of “Rocky”. And he looks with gratitude on the career of critic Kevin Thomas, whose coverage of genre films in Los Angeles Time Tarantino considers it crucial to how the films unfold in the seventies and beyond.

The title of the book is more than rhetoric. The best sections involve Tarantino’s counterfactual speculations, based on his extensive reading of Hollywood books and articles, his familiarity with early drafts of scripts, his knowledge of Hollywood notables, and his critical ideas regarding careers, passions and the 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 on to direct it, an in-depth discussion of how Ali MacGraw came to co-star with McQueen and the effect his performance and personality had on his reception; a careful look at how the casting of supporting roles determines the tone of the film 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 is based. The intellectual engine of the book is its author’s perspective. As a virtual director and critic, Tarantino delves into the kinds of decisions directors make, both at the macro level of major career moves and at the micro level of behavioral details and camera angles, with absorbing acuity.