Cinema Speculation (2022) is part personal history, part movie criticism, and part film reporting. It takes a look at several key 1970s movies from director Quentin Tarantino’s perspective. While he discusses each movie, he sometimes also indulges in a few what-ifs.
Introduction: See into the mind of Quentin Tarantino.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: See into the mind of Quentin Tarantino.
- Cool kid
- “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?”
- “The days go on and on. And they don’t end.”
- What would a Brian De Palma Taxi Driver have been like?
- “There’s always the possibility that some asshole will be offended. Isn’t there?”
Quentin Tarantino is undoubtedly a phenomenal filmmaker. Even those who aren’t fans would have difficulty denying that his films are the work of a genius.
And it turns out he’s also quite the storyteller. In this summary to Tarantino’s Cinema Speculation, we’ll explore the stories of his childhood and his first cinema experiences, and get a glimpse into his thoughts about three movies from the 1970s – Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, and Escape from Alcatraz. True to form, he not only analyzes each film, but occasionally throws a few what-ifs into the bargain.
Just a word of caution – your discretion is advised as this summary contains some strong language and imagery in keeping with Tarantino’s writing.
So without further ado: Lights! Camera! Action!
It’s 1970, and the Tiffany Theater is in its heyday. The Tiffany doesn’t show mainstream movies like Oliver! or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Here, you’re more likely to see Alice’s Restaurant or Yellow Submarine.
Tarantino is seven years old. And 1970 is the year that he first visits the Tiffany with his mom and stepdad to see a double feature: Joe and Where’s Poppa? It’s not exactly viewing material for a seven-year-old – in Joe, a father kills his daughter’s junkie boyfriend by bashing his head in and then ends up executing his own daughter.
But apart from the violence of the movie, Tarantino thinks it’s funny. The audience that evening watches the beginning of the movie in repulsed silence, but when Joe enters the movie they begin laughing at almost everything he says. Tarantino laughs along even though he doesn’t understand everything. It doesn’t matter – there’s an audience of adults laughing, he’s soaking up the vibe of the performance, and there’s a lot of cussing going on. For a kid his age, there’s nothing funnier.
Tarantino’s parents went to a lot of movies, and he usually tagged along on the proviso that he behaved. And behave he did to avoid staying home with a babysitter. After a movie, Tarantino just loved riding home in the car while listening to his parents talking about what they’d just seen.
He soon realized he was getting to see movies other kids didn’t, and asked his mom about it. Her reply was simple: she was more worried about him watching the news than a movie. He was exposed to many violent images, yes, but in the context of the movie he could “handle” it because he could also understand the plot.
Strangely, though, there was a movie the young Tarantino couldn’t handle – Bambi. He was pretty cut up about Bambi’s mother getting shot and the devastating fire scene. The fact that the movie becomes so tragic so unexpectedly is the reason he believes it’s been messing kids up for generations.
A year or so later, Tarantino’s mom split from his stepdad and, for a few years, exclusively dated Black men. He saw fewer movies during that period because movie nights were usually date nights. But one guy she dated, a football player named Reggie, would do anything to score points with her – including taking the young Tarantino to watch a movie. So one Saturday afternoon, after much discussion about which movie to go to, they settled on Jim Brown’s Black Gunn. It was a double feature with The Bus Is Coming.
When the pair entered the movie theater, The Bus Is Coming was still playing. It was clear that the all Black audience hated the movie with a vengeance, as they were swearing at the screen the whole time. Tarantino found their profanities highly amusing and began to giggle more and more. And when Reggie asked him if he was having a good time, Tarantino told him he thought the audience was hilarious. Reggie replied, “You’re a cool kid, Q.” And with that encouragement, Tarantino joined the crowd and started screaming at the screen too.
The whole experience is particularly memorable for Tarantino. In fact, he says his whole life has been spent trying to get back to that feeling of watching a Jim Brown film back in 1972 in a Black cinema.
“You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?”
Let’s talk about Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry. According to Tarantino, Siegel was a master at shooting action scenes – and in the fifties, there was nobody better. Before becoming a director, Siegel had worked in the montage department of Warner Bros. And it’s that background that allowed him to shoot scenes that could later crosscut in the editing room.
In Tarantino’s view, Siegel stood out from his peers. For the others, fistfights and shoot-outs were merely action. But for Siegel, they were violence – and brutal violence at that.
Siegel and Clint Eastwood had already worked together on three other movies before Dirty Harry. But it was Dirty Harry that allowed Eastwood to break out of the cowboy genre. And it was Dirty Harry that really crowned Siegel as Hollywood’s king of cinematic violence.
Dirty Harry spawned a whole new genre of movie. It pits Eastwood’s transgressive Inspector Harry Callahan against Andrew Robinson’s part-genius, part-insane serial killer, Scorpio – a fictional version of the San Francisco “Zodiac Killer.” And so the cop vs. serial killer genre was born; it has become one of the staples of cop movies ever since.
Tarantino argues that Dirty Harry was very political in nature. Siegel deliberately tailored it to an audience of older Americans who no longer recognized their country – an audience that was frightened because it didn’t understand the pop culture that had taken over America after World War II. As they saw it, Callahan wasn’t just a badass cop. He also represented the answer to the “problems” they were facing – hippies, killer cults, drugs, men burning draft cards, people calling the police “pigs,” free love, and much more.
From the way it’s directed to the way that humor punctuates this gruesome thriller, Tarantino has no doubt that Dirty Harry was the best movie of Siegel’s career.
“The days go on and on. And they don’t end.”
Tarantino saw Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1977 at the Carson Twin Cinema when he was 15. He was the only non-Black audience member that day. Their reaction to Taxi Driver? Well, they just loved it. It captured 1970s New York street life authentically and perfectly.
Taxi Driver, Tarantino argues, isn’t quite – but is almost – a remake of an earlier movie called The Searchers from 1956. It’s as near as you could get, anyway, without actually remaking it.
He notes that Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Scorsese himself freely admits that he was thinking of Edwards when considering Bickle. He’s another character that doesn’t say much and feels like he doesn’t belong. He’s been to war, and has loved and lost.
Tarantino also argues that Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy is Dorothy Jordan’s Martha, and Jodie Foster’s Iris Steensma is Natalie Wood’s Debbie Edwards, and so on.
In Taxi Driver we follow De Niro’s lonely, faceless Travis Bickle and his monotonous routines, which he relieves through his handwritten diary entries. It’s scary to watch how he falls into, as Tarantino puts it, “violent fantasies” and “perceived injustices,” and how his state of mind slowly worsens until he becomes a time bomb waiting to explode.
Bickle is undoubtedly racist even if it’s not stated openly. He refers to Black people by a racial slur when talking about other taxi drivers who won’t take their fares. The film itself makes it clear that Bickle thinks all Black men are criminals – figures to be feared, loathed, and avoided. This hatred mirrors Edwards’s hatred of Comanches in The Searchers.
In Paul Schrader’s original script, all the characters that Bickle kills are Black – even the pimp Sport. But that’s not the case in the movie. Why? Apparently, Columbia Pictures and the producer wanted Sport to be changed from Black to white because the effects of race riots in the US around that time were still tangible. They were afraid that violence could erupt in cinemas – and that would have resulted in the film being pulled from the schedules.
Tarantino argues that such fears were ungrounded. After all, the 1970s had no shortage of movies where Black people were portrayed as criminals. But in the end, he says that although it was a compromise, the idea of Taxi Driver without Harvey Keitel as Sport is simply unimaginable.
There is one big difference between The Searchers and Taxi Driver that Tarantino believes sets them apart. In The Searchers, Debbie never asks to be saved. In Taxi Driver, Iris does. Even though she later forgets about the incident in Bickle’s taxi and insists everything’s OK, Bickle remembers. And it’s not long before he inevitably tries to save her.
Although Scorsese later claimed he was “shocked” by the audience’s reaction to what Tarantino describes as one of the most violent endings in the history of cinema, Tarantino says that simply can’t be true. After all, why wouldn’t the audience be rooting for Bickle to save the 12-year-old Iris and to kill the pimps?
What would a Brian De Palma Taxi Driver have been like?
Tarantino goes on to speculate just how different a Brian De Palma–directed Taxi Driver would have been. In reality, it very nearly happened.
Paul Schrader, the screenplay writer, was a film critic at the time – and during an interview with De Palma, he dropped into the conversation that he’d written a film script. De Palma replied, “Oh no, not another one!” But he did go on to read it. He thought it was great but couldn’t take the project on at the time. He’s since admitted that he thought it was unlikely to become a commercial hit.
Luckily, Columbia Pictures saw the potential and marketed the film as a Death Wish–style vigilante film. And when Scorsese read the script, he was wildly enthusiastic.
But how might it have been different if De Palma had decided to direct? Well, very, according to Tarantino!
First and foremost, he says, it would have had a totally different point of view. He doubts De Palma would have shown any empathy toward Bickle. Scorsese obviously did – even to the extent that when you watch Taxi Driver, Tarantino says, you become Travis Bickle. You might not have any empathy for him, but you come to understand Bickle; he’s no longer simply a monster.
Tarantino suggests that De Palma would have used the script to produce a film more akin to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion than to Death Wish. Instead of being a character analysis parading as a vigilante thriller, he muses, it would have just been a political thriller.
He further speculates that Bickle’s botched assassination attempt would have been shot in slow motion, similar to the prom in De Palma’s Carrie. Actually, since De Palma would have shot Carrie immediately after Taxi Driver, you don’t have to look any further than that scene to see how De Palma would have done it.
Tarantino hypothesizes that the character of Betsy would have been given a more prominent role with De Palma at the helm – maybe even a coleading role. Scorsese shot everything from Travis’s perspective, but De Palma would have had at least some scenes from Betsy’s.
So with De Palma as director, would Robert De Niro still have played Travis Bickle? Tarantino doesn’t think so. Yes, the two started their careers together, but it took until the 1980s for them to collaborate again on The Untouchables. Columbia originally had Jeff Bridges in the lead role, but Scorsese desperately wanted De Niro – even though they had to wait for him to finish shooting other films. De Palma, Tarantino posits, would have gone with Bridges if he’d still been available – or perhaps with Jan-Michael Vincent.
When it comes to Sport, Tarantino says that changing the original Black character to a white character wasn’t a big deal for Scorsese. Not only was he under a lot of pressure from the producers to do so, but he also wanted that role for Harvey Keitel. De Palma, Tarantino suspects, would have had the same pressures but might have been able to keep the character Black as Schrader intended.
“There’s always the possibility that some asshole will be offended. Isn’t there?”
Imagine the scene. Frank Morris, played by Clint Eastwood, is led from the ferry to the isolated island prison during a downpour. Dressed in his old gray suit, he walks into processing, is forced to strip, and has his mouth examined like a vet examines the teeth of a horse. As he marches along, still naked, through the cell block, his footsteps beat out a rhythm on the concrete floor. He enters his cage, and the cell door is slammed shut. Finally, a guard utters the first words of the movie, “Welcome to Alcatraz,” accompanied by a thunderclap and lightning bolt.
That’s the opening sequence to the one movie in which Don Siegel used a cinematic set piece. It’s 1979, and the 17-year-old Tarantino isn’t impressed by the newly released epic. It’s only a few years later, when he rewatches it, that he finally gets it.
Siegel was completely focused on Escape from Alcatraz during its making. He was an old master of prison films and of Eastwood movies. In fact, he considered Riot in Cell Block 11 to be his first good film (Tarantino thinks Riot is the best prison movie ever). Even Richard Tuggle, who wrote the script for Alcatraz, told Siegel that he considered Riot to be his favorite prison film.
This was Siegel and Eastwood’s first collaboration since Dirty Harry. Tarantino imagines Eastwood and Siegel having a script meeting to decide how long the movie should run before Frank Morris speaks – and how few lines he and the other characters should speak throughout the film. Tarantino says the opening is pure “bravura” and that it’s so stark, it creates a “cool boil.”
The first half of Alcatraz depicts the brutal isolation and monotonous routine of prison life, and it introduces us to the warden who’s portrayed as both cruel and sadistic. The second half reveals the meticulously drawn-up escape plan. Most prison-escape movies are nail-biting, suspense-filled affairs; Morris, in stark contrast, chips away at the Rock with nail clippers. It’s an act that Tarantino says at first seems hopeless, then inspiring, and ultimately epic.
Tarantino argues that the real-life escape-story success here was Siegel and Eastwood not letting each other down. Their collaboration over the years had immensely benefited both men. With Siegel, Eastwood had become a major star – escaping from becoming a mere flash in the pan. With Eastwood, Siegel had become an A-list filmmaker – escaping from anonymity.
Siegel and Eastwood respected, loved, and admired each other greatly. Escape from Alcatraz would be their last collaborative endeavor.
Quentin Tarantino’s knowledge of cinema is clearly outstanding – and that’s been the case since he was a boy. In a long footnote, he talks about how he, a ten-year-old white kid, was able to hold his own in conversations with a 37-year-old Black guy named Floyd, who knew all the action and Blaxploitation movies.
When Tarantino was nearly 16, he was getting into more and more trouble – school fights, ditching class, and staying out late. His mother rented a room out to Floyd on the condition that he kept an eye on her wayward son.
The pair watched many movies together, both at theaters and on TV during the year Floyd lodged with Tarantino’s mom. Floyd was clearly a huge influence. He’d written two screenplays – the first ones Tarantino ever read – and spent many hours discussing them with young Quentin. It was Floyd’s scripts that inspired Tarantino to write screenplays, too.
What became of Floyd’s scripts? They were probably thrown out when he died. Tarantino says not one specific “scene, situation, idea, or image” came out of Floyd’s scripts. But the essence of what Floyd wanted to achieve – an epic Western with a Black cowboy at its center – is right at the heart of Tarantino’s hugely successful Django Unchained.
In “Cinema Speculation: Hollywood History Through the Eyes of a Contemporary Filmmaker,” Quentin Tarantino offers a fascinating and unique perspective on the history of Hollywood. As an acclaimed filmmaker known for his distinctive storytelling style and deep understanding of cinema, Tarantino brings his passion and knowledge to the pages of this book.
One of the standout aspects of this book is Tarantino’s ability to blend historical facts with his own personal anecdotes and insights. He takes readers on a journey through the evolution of Hollywood, exploring iconic films, legendary directors, and pivotal moments in the industry. Tarantino’s love for cinema shines through as he delves into the artistry, techniques, and cultural impact of filmmaking.
The book is divided into chapters that cover different eras and themes in Hollywood’s history. Tarantino’s writing style is engaging and conversational, making it easy for readers to immerse themselves in the narrative. He seamlessly weaves together historical accounts, behind-the-scenes stories, and his own interpretations, creating a compelling reading experience.
One of the strengths of “Cinema Speculation” is Tarantino’s ability to analyze films and their contexts. He brings a fresh perspective to well-known movies, providing thought-provoking insights into their themes, symbolism, and cultural significance. His in-depth analysis offers readers a deeper appreciation for the art of filmmaking and encourages them to view these movies through a new lens.
Moreover, Tarantino’s book showcases his extensive knowledge of lesser-known films and filmmakers, shedding light on hidden gems and underappreciated works. This aspect makes “Cinema Speculation” a valuable resource for cinephiles and aspiring filmmakers looking to expand their cinematic horizons.
While the book primarily focuses on Hollywood’s history, Tarantino also reflects on his own experiences as a filmmaker. He shares personal anecdotes, discusses his creative process, and provides glimpses into the challenges and triumphs he has encountered in the industry. These reflections add a personal touch to the book, making it feel like a conversation with Tarantino himself.
However, it’s important to note that “Cinema Speculation” may not be for everyone. The book assumes a certain level of familiarity with cinema history and Tarantino’s filmography. Readers who are less acquainted with these subjects might find some references and discussions difficult to grasp. Additionally, the book’s length and detailed analysis might be overwhelming for casual readers seeking a more concise overview of Hollywood’s history.
In summary, “Cinema Speculation: Hollywood History Through the Eyes of a Contemporary Filmmaker” is a captivating exploration of the film industry. Quentin Tarantino’s passion for cinema shines through his engaging writing style and insightful analysis. While the book may require a certain level of prior knowledge, it is a must-read for film enthusiasts, aspiring filmmakers, and anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Hollywood’s rich history.