You may recall from the ‘90s, dimly if at all, the Eric Stoltz comedy Sleep with Me, in which Quentin Tarantino first indulged his penchant for film criticism: “What is Top Gun really about?” he pigeonholes Stoltz during a party. “It’s a story about a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality.” He then proceeds to deliver his hilarious thesis on the “subtext” of Top Gun that everybody pretty much accepts to this day.
Not so deep below the surface of QT is a film critic, screaming to get out. And in his first nonfiction book, Cinema Speculation, he lets loose— both barrels—delving into some of his pivotal ‘70s films (a lot of these he’s raved about before in interviews), with lots of back stories and digressions that are exactly his style. The thing that makes his lengthy reviews here so interesting is they’re not academic, they’re just methodical dissections of films that basically turned him on; or, if they did not, why they did not. He can surprise with the things he does not rate—such as Jon Boorman’s widely regarded 1967 neo-noir, Point Blank—but it’s his meticulous reasons for finding faults, for nitpicking, that make the book feel exactly like standing next to the director at a party as he holds forth.
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What Tarantino expressed in his Sleep with Me cameo was something that was on the rise by the ‘90s: the supergeek fan, and his backpack of opinions (yes, almost always “his”). The supergeek fan expects a lot from the things he’s fanatical about, so his critical faculties are sharp and funny.
And it’s a fascinating read. Even if you didn’t share his experience of growing up in Torrance, California in the ‘70s and being allowed by his single mom to see movies way above his maturity level (everything from Carnal Knowledge to Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasss Song), his insistence on deep-diving into the background details of each film he dissects—whether it’s The Getaway or Rolling Thunder—is part of this book’s idiosyncratic charm. He doesn’t need to give us 20 pages on the background of hiring Ali McGraw to play opposite Steve McQueen in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway; he just does it because it’s interesting to him. And that could explain around 90 percent of his own philosophy as a director. His oeuvre is not just about carefully, artfully embroidered homages to other favorite movies; it’s really a catalog of what he loves.
And what he loves, generally, is strong characters. Loves to see someone he can feast on, as a viewer. As he makes clear, charismatic male actors receive his highest attention (a lot about Burt Reynolds in his Deliverance prime). But of course, he’s made a point out of elevating Pam Grier and Uma Thurman to action goddess status as well (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill). And race is not just something he manages to somehow work into his movies, disregarding any threat of cancellation; his back story (expanded in a heartfelt epilogue to a black friend of his mother’s, “Floyd”) gives us the bona fides as to why he feels okay having his characters rattle off the “N-word” whenever he sees fit. (Is it okay? Not for me to say.)
He doesn’t need to resort to academic theories, like a Robert Colker or Pauline Kael. There’s no guiding 'aesthetic criteria' here, and he doesn’t pretend there is.
And he can come off as reactionary at times—lashing out at the anti-hero, the anti-establishment trend of movies in the wake of Easy Rider. (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood certainly went out of its way to trash hippies). And perhaps he has a point about the “bummer” cinema of the ‘70s where the hero always died. But for QT, it seems the worst sin is not failing to examine America’s turbulent and troubled history—but failing to be entertaining. He blames film critics for the snobbish elevation of “bummer” films.
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. They looked down on films that gave pleasure, and on the filmmakers who had an understanding of the audience that they did not.
As Tarantino has made clear again and again, genre is something he embraces, because it’s always been just as valid—and more fun to watch—than so-called “art” cinema.
The other thing that animates QT the most as a movie fan is violence—big surprise—and he will sit through what he admits is a pedestrian Russ Meyer film like Supervixen because the opening shower murder scene featuring Shari Eubank and Charles Napier is so amazing. We can only speculate why violence on film was so captivating to a young boy growing up in Torrance, but the opening chapter “Little Q Watching Big Movies” does help dissect the appeal of things like the violent exploitation film Joe to a seven-year-old: not just the shotgun blasts, but the humor and dialogue spoken by Peter Boyle’s blue-collar character. It probably felt more real to him than most of the junk on television.
He even slams Scorsese and other directors for disavowing their balletic screen violence (“They never say cinematic violence is fun. They never say, I just wanted to end the movie with a bang. They never say, I wanted to shock the audience out of their movie-trope-fed complacency”). Well, we knew Tarantino dug onscreen mayhem from the very first buoyant little dance that Michael Madsen does while slicing an ear in Reservoir Dogs.
Mostly, we can thank (or blame) Tarantino’s Top Gun spiel in that ‘90s indie flick for creating a platform for the supergeek fan to come: a world where everyone’s opinions on movies are strongly held, and can be expressed any moment of the day (thanks to YouTube). His rabid fan has become an entire industry, a subculture. He doesn’t need to resort to academic theories, like a Robert Colker or Pauline Kael. There’s no guiding “aesthetic criteria” here (though someone could write a thesis on it, just in case), and he doesn’t pretend there is. Because the beauty of being a critic who also happens to make brilliant movies is that making movies is your real job. The rest is just for fun.