Cinema Speculation: An Evening (and Decade) with Quentin Tarantino

Chapter 1 – Dallas, Texas: December 26, 2012

On a cold December afternoon, my dad, brother, and I did what we usually do when we weren’t at school or work: go to the movies. The movie in question? A 3:40 screening of “Django Unchained” at Studio Movie Grill’s Spring Valley location.

I’d never seen a Quentin Tarantino film before Django. Of course, I had heard of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds and the quotes that have since been ingrained in normal, everyday speech. I didn’t know what to expect, apart from a lotta violence, a lotta blood, and a hemorrhage-inducing amount of the n-word.

At that time, I had a pretty decent movie palette. Granted, I was 16 at the time so I wasn’t hunting down showtimes for Oscar-hopeful films like I do now. Still, I more or less had an idea of what I look for in the movies I watch. I’ve been watching movies all my life, having core memories revolve around the buzzing of a movie projector and the wonderland that once was known as Blockbuster.

Even then, with a probably above-average handle on the cinematic language for a 16-year-old, I wasn’t prepared for what awaited me that night at the cinemas.

Chapter 2 – Cinema Speculation

Tarantino has been going on a book tour to promote his new book Cinema Speculation. His second foray into book writing, this one differs wildly from his Once Upon a Time in Hollywood novelization. While that was a literary adaptation of his film (a damn good one I should say), Cinema Speculation is a collection of film essays. All of the films here were released in the 1970s, all of them Tarantino had seen when they were first released. Quentin was born in ’63, meaning he’d seen the likes of Taxi Driver and Deliverance when he was in middle school.

Though I haven’t finished reading the book at the time of writing (about ~90 pages away), I’m fairly certain my loves and misgivings of the book remain in the final stretch. They are as follows:

You’re likely reading Cinema Speculation if you’re a fan of Tarantino, meaning you’ll likely love how his characters longwindedly wax poetic about any which subject. That writing style remains intact here and shines during the more memoir-ish chapters.

The book is bookended by these chapters, where Quentin recounts his moviegoing experiences as a kid and teenager. He gives profiles on the people who shape those experiences — his mother, his mother’s boyfriends, his mother’s roommates, his stepfather, and a guy named Reggie, on whom the final chapter is focused.

He gives these “characters” the kind of care and attention he famously gives to his films’ characters. A Tarantino memoir written in Tarantino prose — you already know if you’re on board or not.

As for the film essays themselves, that’s where the book becomes a mixed bag. I’m not going to critique the book based on how few of the films here I’ve seen (I’ve only seen Taxi Driver). What I will say is Quentin does very little to contextualize whatever he’s referencing. The man has a dense cinematic vocabulary and he’ll name films and actors someone like me has never heard of.

Though I don’t expect Quentin to stop the narrative by explaining every little reference, the reader is likely left to draw their own conclusions as to what he’s referring to.
This isn’t an isolated incident, however. Films like Pulp Fiction and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are fueled by pop culture references that you’d only know if you lived during those times.

It just works better in films because (1. You can infer what they’re talking about within the context of the conversation. (2. It’s not the narrative’s focus, whereas Cinema Speculation more or less depends on these references to get its point across.

Granted, there is a charm to Tarantino knowingly or unknowingly flexing his film knowledge with little regard. He’s a film geek through and through, a filmmaker’s filmmaker. Whether he’s writing or directing, his craftsmanship is shaped by what he’s seen, not by rigid academic theory.

In that regard, my biggest problem with the book can be seen as a likable quirk. For better or worse, it sure is a Quentin Tarantino book written exactly how you think it would be.

Part film essay collection and film memoir, Quentin Tarantino’s Cinematic Speculation is a fun and interesting read. At the very least, his analyses of the films here are thorough and, well, interesting compared to other written pieces.

Reading him analyze a filmmaker’s storytelling abilities also reveals how he tells stories. One line stands out when talking about the morality of a film’s characters:

“It takes a magnificent filmmaker to thoroughly corrupt an audience.”

Do I think Tarantino is calling himself a magnificent filmmaker? No, or at least not knowingly. He’s in full audience member mode here, appreciating how the best storytellers can enchant their audience with even the despicable of characters.

Chapter 3 – Austin, Texas: November 12, 2022

I’m sitting down at the upper middle level of the Paramount Theatre with my best friend Luca. I’d only heard that Tarantino was promoting his new book a week or so before the event. Ten years after I’d seen Django Unchained for the first time, I’ve now seen all of his films multiple times and can comfortably call him my favorite filmmaker. And here I was, about to see the man himself LIVE and in the flesh.

Anyone who’s seen a Tarantino interview knows how gregarious and animated he can be. It’s such a disorienting feeling to have some of the most violent and at-times mean spirited films to be created by a cheery, extroverted guy.

I was starstruck to see Tarantino with my own eyes. To physically see someone who you’ve only known through a television or film projector prior genuinely confused my brain.

The event goes at the typical pace of a book panel: the author talks about the book’s inception, the author gives anecdotes that are already found in the book before saying “but you gotta read the book to know the rest of the story.”

Side note: all ticketholders received a free copy of Cinema Speculation. It’s cool in concept, but if you don’t have a tote bag and want to walk around Austin nightlife afterward, you’ll be carrying that book with you looking like a salesman.

What struck me about the event was whenever Quentin talked about his writing process. He didn’t detail how he writes, but he did describe something all writers go through: struggling with half-baked ideas, turning in a piece that isn’t as strong as you know it can be, or not doing the amount of work you know you’re capable of.

It was incredibly eye-opening to hear a two-time Oscar-winning writer reflect on his struggles as a writer. Though Tarantino has a legendary body of work, he ceases to come off as pretentious or overly serious when talking about his craft. Filmmaking is work, and he knows it’s work. He just so happens to love it.

The event concluded with Quentin reading a chapter of the book, the last chapter of the book. Titled “*Floyd Footnote,” he tells the story of a man named Reggie, a Black man who his mom was dating at the time.

By this point of the book, it’s well established how his mother would have her boyfriend accompany little Quentin to the movie theaters. If you can hang with little Quentin (which is a tall order when it comes to movies), you’re alright in her book.

What makes Reggie a cut above (for little Quentin at least) her mom’s potential suitors is his impressive film knowledge. The book goes into little Quentin’s vetting process, which is both endearing and not-at-all surprising to know what that process consisted of.

Long story short, Reggie was an aspiring screenwriter. He’d even written a screenplay, which became the very first script little Quentin had ever read.

What was the screenplay about? A western starring a Black cowboy.

Epilogue – Dallas, Texas: December 26, 2012

I credit Django Unchained for making me see film through a different lens. Something clicked on that cold December night. I realized that a film could be so much more than a way to kill the time. With the right filmmaker, it could be an immersive, visceral, enlightening, and personal experience. It is a superb way for a filmmaker to express themselves with the unwieldy combination of sight and sound.

Django Unchained
is a wildly creative, expressive, and at-times maniacal piece of filmmaking. Its writing, directing, performances, and soundtrack all blend together to make something wholly unique and entertaining. In parts hilarious, terrifying, disturbing, endearing, epic, and genuinely sweet, it’s a perfect example of a filmmaker seeing their creative vision through to the end.

Is it perfect? No. It’s not even my second or third favorite Tarantino film.

Is it a masterpiece? To me, yes.

Are the controversies and criticisms surrounding the film — particularly the use of the n-word — valid? In short, yes. *

Nevertheless, my film palette and my reason for loving film as an art form forever changed that night 10 years ago, and I genuinely believe that no one other than Quentin Tarantino could do that.

To hear that Django Unchained came from a deeply personal part of Quentin’s life, where he was basically given the blueprint on how to make movies, was heartwarming. My love for the film had little to do with his personal life and more with my own, the context of my life at the time.

I have a deeply personal connection to that film, which makes films so magical. We all watch the same film but get different things out of it, whether those opinions are shaped by our personal experiences, our moods, or even how we felt going into the theater.

I knew very little about Tarantino’s process in making Django Unchained compared to his other works. However, hearing him talk about how a seminal, bittersweet memory of his youth made me love the film even more.

He’ll never know how much it shaped my current love for film, nor does he have to. He made the film he wanted to make with unbridled passion and maybe even a touch of bittersweetness. The rest took care of itself.

*However, Quentin sees to it that all those slave owners and brutal bigots get their violent comeuppance in ultra-satisfying fashion. I don’t buy the argument that Quentin is racist or malicious with his writing (To me, Pulp Fiction has a more questionable use of the word than Django. And the scene in question involves the writer/director himself).