Can it really be 30 years since Quentin Tarantino’s first movie was released? reservoir dogs? He seemed to be everywhere in the 1990s: the high school dropout and video library savant credited with the career turnaround of C-list artists; a specialist in trashy B movies whose plots, techniques and kinetic energy he hacked with the cunning of a hip-hop DJ sampling old funk records; a shameless apostle of glamorous violence who made big money for Miramax from Harvey and Bob Weinstein. No student residence was complete without posters of his films lining its walls.
To his detractors – and there were many – Tarantino was all style and no content. He was accused of being a nihilist, a sexist, a peddler of racial kitsch. Stuart Jeffries, in his recent cultural history, Everything, all the time, everywhere (2021), calls him “a high priest of post-modernism” whose output is such an echo chamber that it ends up “diverting thought and encouraging acceptance of self and the status quo”.
For a long time Tarantino, who turns 60 next year, insisted he would only make 10 films. His most recent, Once upon a time… in Hollywood (2019), was his ninth. (Kill Billreleased in two “volumes”, was to be a stand-alone feature.) Writing is his passion these days: a fictionalized version of Once upon a time well sold. Now he published Cinema Speculationa series of interlocking essays that pay homage to the American New Wave of the late 1960s and 1970s from which he was weaned.
The book includes talkative and informed celebrations of Bullit-“one of the best movies ever made” -and films such as John Boorman’s Issuanceby Brian DePalma sistersby Martin Scorsese Taxi driverby Paul Schrader Hardcore. He defends that of Sylvester Stallone alley of paradise, a wrestling drama set in 1940s New York City, which he recalls hailing as “one of the greatest directorial debuts of the ’70s”. There doesn’t seem to be a gunfight, fight scene, or gory action sequence he can’t describe in vivid, frame-by-frame detail. The movies he likes are often “screwed up” or full of “wild shit”; he is less attracted to “speeches” or intellectual debates.
Tarantino calls himself a “hotheaded, know-it-all movie geek” and isn’t kind to critics who dismiss films or genres he adores. “Snide assholes” is one of his sweetest teasers. But while it may be too fiery, few pages pass without a revealing insight. Reflecting on his heroes, like Don (dirty harry) Siegel and Sam (straw dogs) Peckinpah, he says he and fellow violence choreographers Eli Roth and John Woo “make genre films because we to like genre movies. They made genre films because they were good at it and that’s why the studios hired them.
Once, when describing to his colleagues at the video store the kinds of films he dreamed of making, he quoted the opening scene of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 film Matador. Remember? The one where “a character masturbates to a montage of the goriest scenes from slasher movies”? At the same time, paradoxically, he abhors the “juvenilization of cinema” – something which he says started in the 1980s and was a “typically American problem”. He thinks the Brits had better luck because we had Alan Clarke’s luck Made in Britainthat of Alex Cox Sid and Nancy and Stephen Frears My beautiful laundromat.
Tarantino has often been challenged for his liberal use of racial epithets and his passion for Blaxploitation films. “If you’ve made money as a critic of black culture in the last 20 years,” he once boasted, “you have to do business with me.” In Cinema Speculation, his fondest memories are of going to California movie theaters with all-black audiences as a kid and hearing people yell swear words at characters they didn’t like. There’s a lot of psychosexual stuff – he talks about a three-year period when his mother only dated black men. He also attacks Columbia Pictures for insisting that Schrader water down his script to Taxi driver. (In the original, everyone Travis Bickle kills at the end is black.)
Is Tarantino arrogant? Without a doubt. “If you’re reading this film book, hopefully to learn a little something about film, and your head is swimming with all the names you don’t recognize, congratulations, you learn something,” he wrote. Still, it’s hard to blame him for his vainglory. In the age of digital projection, his love of film – as film – is endearingly evangelical. Its belief in film as the medium of directors is a welcome counterpoint to modern streaming platforms and their focus on writers. Tarantino may not be as fashionable as he was in the 1990s, but he will be sorely missed if he abandons films for the printed page.