How QUENTIN TARANTINO Became a Film Critic

In contrast to everyone else: Tarantino first became a filmmaker, and only later a critic.

Jan Brzozowski

23 June 2024

tarantino critic

As usual, I’m late. My whole life I’ve done things at the last minute, and I have chronic problems with planning and sticking to plans. In the case of “Cinema Speculation” by Quentin Tarantino, however, I’m doubly late. I bought the book nearly two years ago in its English version, right after it hit the American market. I only read it now. So, my Tarantino book has been sitting on the shelf, but maybe that’s for the best. In the meantime, I finished my studies and found a bit more time to watch movies, which, absurd as it sounds in the context of film studies, is essential because “Speculation” demand a reading supported by film screenings.

Tarantino’s book is essentially a collection of essays, often devoted to specific titles. The selection criteria are simple: the 1970s and the author’s personal taste. Both criteria are closely intertwined. Tarantino was born in 1963, so the second half of the seventies marks his formative period. The films he watched then became permanently embedded in his subconscious, becoming a lifelong point of reference. The director writes about this directly in the opening essay titled “Little Q Watching Big Movies.” The text is somewhat like a childhood report – a childhood spent in the cinema, to which teenage Quentin was taken by his mother or one of her constantly changing partners. Accompanied by adults, Tarantino had no problem getting into movies that kids today wouldn’t be allowed to watch – full of sex, violence, and camouflaged Vietnamese trauma. The next day, he would report to his schoolmates, unknowingly learning what he still does best: storytelling.

tarantino dirty harry

The 1970s were a golden age in the history of American cinema, Tarantino argues, and it’s hard to disagree. Somewhere between the birth of New Hollywood, the fall of the Hays Code, and the beginning of the blockbuster era – for a moment, practically everything could be shown on the big screen. On the fringes, exploitation cinema flourished. On one side were films signed by Roger Corman, and on the other, blacksploitation, which Corman eventually also embraced. However, Tarantino mainly dedicates his essays to mainstream films: “Bullitt,” “Dirty Harry,” “Deliverance,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Escape from Alcatraz.” He overwhelms us with a sea of contexts – which often turn out to be the most interesting elements of the story. The text on “Taxi Driver,” for example, includes a comprehensive addendum where the author not only describes the complicated path of Paul Schrader’s script but also speculates on how the film would have looked if it had been directed by Brian De Palma – the first filmmaker Schrader entrusted with his material.

Tarantino’s knack for film history combines with the temperament of a film critic. The language he uses is lively and exciting: full of vulgarities, abbreviations, sexual analogies, and slang terms. At its best, it recalls the texts of Pauline Kael, whom Tarantino loves. At its worst (see: Scorsese masturbating the audience during a “Taxi Driver” screening), it resembles the infamous reviews of Harry Knowles. Every sentence can surprise you. Anecdotes and film history contexts suddenly give way to strong opinions, bold analyses, and interpretations. Remember the famous scene from “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”? Let’s not kid ourselves, almost no one remembers Rory Kelly’s film today, but almost everyone knows one scene. Here’s Quentin Tarantino, as the fictional Sid, explaining at a party what “Top Gun” is really about – “a man struggling with his homosexuality.” The thesis may seem absurd, but two minutes of Tarantino’s monologue are enough to make us believe – even be certain – that this was exactly what Tony Scott’s screenwriters intended. The same goes for the essays in “Speculation”: the author’s persuasive power is cosmic. When he states that Steve McQueen chose projects better than Paul Newman or Warren Beatty, we take his word for it. When he writes that “Rolling Thunder” is the best combination of character study and action cinema ever made – we humbly agree. I decided to test the latter thesis empirically and watched John Flynn’s film the same day: suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

In my favorite essay, titled “Second-String Samurai,” Tarantino briefly steps away from cinema proper to focus on a first-rate critic of second-rate films – Kevin Thomas. Thomas spent most of his professional life writing for the “Los Angeles Times.” He was a so-called supplementary critic, which meant his duty was to review films that the main critic, consciously or not, overlooked. Over time, Thomas specialized in reporting on the achievements of B-movies – like a sports journalist regularly scanning Roger Corman’s stable for the most talented individuals. “Looking for that one player with enough talent and potential to make it to the big leagues.” He thus discovered, among others, Jonathan Demme, whom he actively supported from his debut.

tarantino cinema speculation

Tarantino notes something very important about Thomas. Admiring the critic’s writing skills, he recalls that Thomas’s reviews could be better than the films they covered. A well-written text acted as bait – young viewers often faced disappointment in the cinema because the scene they had read about and imagined didn’t measure up to their expectations. Frankly, it’s hard to think of a higher compliment for a film critic. Good reviews broaden our film experiences; the best ones can become their surrogates. Therefore, a slight feeling of disappointment may arise when confronting the text with the on-screen reality, stemming from high expectations. Watching some of the films Tarantino mentions, I had similar experiences. “Thief” turned out to be an interesting, unconventional love story but a mediocre action movie. “Escape from Alcatraz,” compared to “The Hole” or “A Man Escaped,” is just a decent prison film. De Palma’s “Sisters” today strike one as kitschy, with an overstretched climax built around a series of banal flashbacks. Tarantino doesn’t write about these films uncritically, but with enthusiasm and love that I can’t share after watching. But during the reading of “Speculation,” the author’s fervent feelings become contagious. For a moment, we see cinema through someone else’s eyes.

Gabriel Krawczyk predicted the future. I remember reading his excellent text titled “Tarantino: A Filmmaker Who Could Have Become a Critic” in 2019. As you might guess, the author posited that the director of “Pulp Fiction,” had he not become a filmmaker, would have thrived as the enfant terrible of American film criticism. “Instead of shocking Cannes audiences with his films, he would have been blowing up the pages of cultural magazines with his texts.” “Cinema Speculation” is the best proof that this would have been the case. Tarantino, and it’s hard to blame him for this, decided to take a different path – he didn’t brush against film criticism like the French and British New Wave directors, Paul Schrader, or Peter Bogdanovich. From an obsessed cinephile and video store clerk, he advanced to screenwriter and eventually to director. In contrast to everyone else: he first became a filmmaker and only later a critic.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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