Cinema Speculation by Quentin Tarantino

In Pauline Kael’s review of the late New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) for The New Republic, she wrote, “It’s as if a French poet took a banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.”

Kael’s singularly influential career was defined not just by the aesthetic of her writing, but also by an uncommonly honest embrace of the subjectivity inherent in cinematic experience and pleasure. Unlike her more consumer-minded peers, Kael took an unapologetically personal approach to film analysis, often going against consensus in the process. Whether a virtual lone voice in panning Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) as a “ventriloquial harangue” or cheerleading Brian De Palma’s then loathed, now revered sleazy early work, she always provided astute and entertaining proofs for her takes.

Of all the contemporary directors who spent their pre-filmmaking cinephilic days imbibing Kael’s criticism, Quentin Tarantino is easily the most vocal devotee. “The critic that’s had the most impact on me is, hands down, Pauline Kael,” he said on Pure Cinema, a podcast hosted by his own repertory house, New Beverly, in 2020. “To me [she] was my film professor, and at the end of the day ended up being more influential to me as a filmmaker than any director.”

One afternoon in the 80s, a twentysomething Tarantino was enjoying a greasy French-dip sandwich at Johnnie’s Pastrami in Culver City while reading a paperback of Kael’s sophomore anthology Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. When he came across her review of Band of Outsiders—a film he liked but admittedly struggled with—her observation about Godard finding the poetry between the lines of pulp was revelatory. “Well, that’s what I want to do,” he thought to himself. “That actually encompasses the aesthetic that I want to bring to cinema.”

A poster for Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders). Tarantino would go on to name his production company after the film’s original French title.

Later, in 1991 (the year Kael retired from her more than two-decade tenure at The New Yorker), when Tarantino formed a production company ahead of his breakthrough debut, Reservoir Dogs, he called the L.L.C. “A Band Apart”—named more in reference to, or perhaps in honor of, Kael’s Rosetta stone–esque review than Godard’s film itself.

Ever since exploding onto the scene, in the 90s, the former video clerk with an encyclopedic zeal for film, both high-end and lowbrow, has achieved a cultish influence. Much like his fellow motion-picture obsessive Martin Scorsese before him, Tarantino has a knowledge and passion that redefined the movie canon. (When Bong Joon-ho accepted his Oscar, for Parasite, in 2019, he thanked Tarantino for always including his films on his nerd-devoured “best of” lists, long before Americans had any idea who the South Korean filmmaker was.)

This week, HarperCollins published their second book by Tarantino, following last year’s best-selling novelization of his ninth—and apparently penultimate—film, Once upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019). Titled Cinema Speculation, this new release is a collection of film essays, diatribes, musings, tributes, and so forth.

Of all the contemporary directors who spent their pre-filmmaking cinephilic days imbibing Pauline Kael’s criticism, Quentin Tarantino is easily the most vocal devotee.

“In many ways when it comes to [watching a] film, I think about it more like a film critic than I do as a colleague filmmaker,” Tarantino said on the same Pure Cinema podcast. “I tend to look at it from a critical perspective.”

With this debut work of nonfiction, Tarantino is reverse-engineering the more familiar critic-turned-director trajectory of past auteur icons (i.e., Godard). As he heads into the self-imposed end of his consistently successful directorial career, the 59-year-old is positioning himself in his planned retirement from filmmaking to occupy a role he was born for: as a critical institution of movies as a whole. (If I had to guess, I’d say there’s a good chance he won’t even bother making a 10th “final” film—how could one beat the superlative Once upon a Time … in Hollywood as a career-capping coda?)

Besides a few fully autobiographical chapters (rendered in charmingly unpretentious prose, somewhat reminiscent of Kill Bill’s David Carradine’s wonderful 1995 memoir, Endless Highway), Cinema Speculation is mostly comprised of entries ostensibly focused on a single film. There isn’t necessarily any cohering theme to the selections, though most of the flicks analyzed are 70s New Hollywood vintage, which Tarantino recalls seeing in his young childhood on double and triple features with wild fidelity.

Expect many blowhard declarations, illuminating digressions, and insightful interviews peppered throughout the enthusiastic-to-the-point-of-horniness text. We get Tarantino’s thoughts on everything from the infamous sodomizing of Ned Beatty in Deliverance (“Like the extremities of the Romans’ beating of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, not without its sadomasochistic allure”) to Taxi Driver’s über-violent dénouement (“Scorsese has jerked us off so hard throughout the film, now that we’re heading towards the climax … we can’t wait to cum”).

It all adds up to something akin to a one-of-a-kind and compulsively readable volume of film criticism as self-portrait. After all, what better way for Tarantino, who has lived and breathed 35-mm. his whole life, to tell his personal story than via moviegoing? And who knows—Cinema Speculation might decades from now be referenced by a future director as a revelatory sandwich read for a germinating cinephile today, the way Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was for a young Q.T.

Spike Carter is a writer and filmmaker. His next project is a documentary about Eric Roberts