Quentin Tarantino has written a book about the movies, alright?
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino was just nine years old when he first hurled an obscenity at a movie screen.
It was a crude sexual command, unprintable in a family newspaper. Young “Q,” as they called him then, uttered it in 1972 at the Tower Theatre in a predominantly Black neighbourhood of L.A., his hometown. He was accompanied by Reggie, the erstwhile new boyfriend of his single mom, Connie.
Quentin and Reggie were watching an “amateurish” social drama called “The Bus Is Coming,” part of a double bill topped by the film they’d really come to see, the über-violent “Black Gunn,” starring football great Jim Brown. The mostly male audience wasn’t impressed by “The Bus Is Coming,” to say the least, and unleashed a torrent of profanity that an astonished Tarantino was delighted to join in on.
“And frankly, I’ve never been the same,” Tarantino writes in “Cinema Speculation,” his first nonfiction book and one that delves into his lifelong love of movies, especially ones with taciturn anti-heroes, smoking guns and fast cars. He reckons that every film he’s made in his decades-long career — from “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” to “Django Unchained” and the most recent “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — have been attempts to recreate the rude ecstasy he felt on that wild night in ’72.
All this happens within the first 25 pages of Tarantino’s 400-page book, which should be titled “Cinema Exclamation!” instead of the more sedate handle it goes by. There’s nothing subtle about Tarantino’s riffs and ripostes about films, directors and actors, which are often laced with profanity and italicized words to really drive home his point.
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If the author’s name wasn’t an immediate tip-off, it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t your standard tome of film scholarship, the type where pointy-headed academics throw around phrases like “mise en scène” and “formalist approach” to show how smart they are.
Tarantino occasionally dons the beret of the film professor, albeit a profane one. He does it midway through the book in a chapter titled “New Hollywood in the Seventies: The Post-Sixties Anti-Establishment Auteurs vs. The Movie Brats.” But it’s more of a list of films and directors he admires — almost all of them male — than it is a persuasive argument. You sense he’s included it out of a sense he has to say something that might impress cinema snobs.
He’s at his best and most amusing when he’s simply unpacking a mind stuffed with memories and opinions of favourite films, almost of all them from the 1970s, explaining in detail what he liked or disliked about them.
He has watched an uncountable number of movies, starting from about the age of five in 1968, when like many kids he was terrified by the trauma endured by the title fawn in Disney’s “Bambi.”
Not long after that, at age six, Tarantino’s indulgent mom and his stepfather, Curt, took him to see “Bullitt,” a car chase dressed up as a police drama. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Steve McQueen at the peak of his iconic coolness — “Nobody in the history of movies did nothing like Steve McQueen,” Tarantino exclaims — the film was one of many adult movies that Connie, Curt, Reggie and a cool cat named Floyd took young Quentin to see. They assessed the “parental guidance” rating liberally; only X-rated films were deemed off limits to young Q, also known as “Quent.”
Many of these movies were extremely violent, including Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked “The Wild Bunch” and John Boorman’s wilderness nightmare, “Deliverance,” which Tarantino viewed as a double bill at the age of 11.
“Just making a list of the wild violent images I witnessed from 1970 to 1972 would appal most readers,” Tarantino writes. You can almost hear him chuckling as he types that line, and an earlier one where he describes the “f---ing thrilling” experience of being the only child in a theatre of adults.
To use a favourite Tarantino interjection, that’s how he rolls, alright? And it was all right by Connie, who reasoned, “Quentin, I worry more about you watching the news. A movie’s not going to hurt you.”
That’s a debatable assertion, and it’s worth noting Tarantino didn’t emerge unscathed from his early immersion into adult horrors. He casually mentions he had counselling from a child psychologist for years and also had problems at school, getting into arguments and fist fights.
His reason for writing the book, he states, is the hope his readers might “learn a little something about cinema.” This includes fascinating tidbits about directors and actors, including the note that Steve McQueen hated the printed word so much he’d charge studios $1 million just to read a single script.
We also get to learn more than a little about Tarantino, often through interjections and footnotes, some of which seems contrary to what we’d expect of him.
He found the first two James Bond movies, “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love,” to be “dull as hell” and didn’t really become a fan of the series until “Goldfinger” in 1964 (released when he was one year old, not yet watching movies).
He adores 1970s movies but hates most 1970s music (“I don’t own ‘Frampton Comes Alive,’” he sneers). This is a strange assertion by a filmmaker known for his innovative use of classic pop tunes in his movies, including the 1972 Stealers Wheel hit “Stuck In the Middle With You,” for a torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs.”
Describing how director Peter Bogdanovich flattered and cajoled his star Barbra Streisand during the filming of Bogdanovich’s 1972 comedy “What’s Up, Doc?,” Tarantino adds this comment in a footnote: “Solving the problems, both large and small, of your actors — lead actors especially — is the job of a film director.”
I would love to have read some elaboration of this philosophy, especially in regards to some of the actors he’s worked with. But Tarantino doesn’t expand on that thought and barely mentions most of his own nine feature films to date (he’s vowed he’ll stop at 10).
Maybe he’s saving that for another book titled “Tarantino on Tarantino.” Or maybe, like the tough-guy actors he adores — McQueen and Brown for sure, but also guys like Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and William Holden — he’s taking the less-is-more approach to biographical references.
“Viewers can accept my work or reject it,” he writes, in what might be the book’s defining statement. “Deem it good, bad, or with indifference. But I’ve always approached my cinema with a fearlessness of the eventual outcome. A fearlessness that comes to me naturally — I mean, who cares, really? It’s only a movie.”
Funny he should say that, because it’s clear in a chapter about movie critics that he really does care what people think about him. Naming writers for the Los Angeles Times whom he despises — Tarantino really should have bottled this bile, which is unworthy of him — he unloads on movie critics in general: “It would appear most critics writing for newspapers and magazines set themselves up as superior to the films they were paid to review. Which I could never understand, because judging from their writing, that was clearly not the case.”
Ka-zing! It’s a strange beef given that most critics I know, present company included, adore Quentin Tarantino movies and can’t wait for his next one.
He remains reliably contrary, quotably obdurate and eternally passionate, qualities that make “Cinema Speculation” an entertaining trawl through the man’s mind. 🌓
(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)