Like any great figure of mythology, Quentin Tarantino’s first name alone contains his very essence, a kind of emblem in the oldest sense. His mother named him Quentin in honor of two of her favorite fictional characters: Quint Asper, a half-white, half-Cherokee played by Burt Reynolds in 50 episodes of the TV series Gunsmoke; and a character from Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury—not the Harvard educated suicide Quentin, but rather his niece, Miss Quentin, she with “the fire in her eyes and on her mouth.”
A better literary scholar or psychoanalyst than I could probably read everything important about Quentin from this. But I draw only the most obvious meaning—that here in one artist are yoked together the most popular of pop culture and the most esoteric of high culture. The very essence of Quentin Tarantino and the Tarantinoesque is magically contained in that inspired twining of the forked branches of twentieth-century American culture, as are the very reasons why his work, love it or hate it, is amongst the most important of—and for—our time. Tarantino fully understood that modern life was being radically reshaped by media, especially film. But instead of trying to escape the hall of mirrors through more “authentic” forms of art, he teaches us how to live in it, without sacrificing the things that make life worthwhile.
Every aspect of Tarantino’s life and career is both iconic and ironic. The trajectory that took him from teenage usher in a porn movie house (when such things existed) to know-it-all clerk in a video store (when such things existed) to the toast of the Cannes Film Festival and multi-Academy Award winner (while such things exist for a little while longer) is the best Horatio Alger story Hollywood ever produced. And now he has repaid the favor. This auto-didact, idiot savant, and high school dropout has written the most idiosyncratic, insightful, inspiring, maddeningly erratic, and mind-blowingly encyclopedic book that any American filmmaker has ever written. One which not only illuminates his life and work but also hints at how the tragicomic Irony of his vision might hold a key for us, filmmakers and viewers alike, on how to transmute our twentieth-century culture, both high and low, into a twenty-first-century culture that is not doomed to either ignore, repeat, worship, or merely denigrate all that’s come before.
There are in fact surprisingly few great books written by great filmmakers. And in its own shaggy-dog, shambolic, second-run-dive-movie-theater-rancid-popcorn-and-sticky-floor way, Tarentino’s Cinema Speculation deserves comparison with the very best books by our most revered film creators: Bergman’s The Magic Lantern, Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography, and Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time. And as fascinating and inspiring as those cherished tomes are, none of them contain a sentence quite like this:
To one degree or another I’ve spent my entire life attending movies and making them, trying to recreate the experience of watching a brand new Jim Brown film, on a Saturday night in a black cinema in 1972.
So much of what’s important, not only in this book but in Tarantino’s films, could be unpacked from that statement—from the lost nature of moviegoing in the ‘70s to issues of race and genre in America, from the centrality of stars to the very way Tarantino writes and directs as an actor. But above all, it reminds us of the thing Tarantino knows possibly better than any of his contemporaries: that a film is not a text but an experience. An experience for an audience.
No director since Hitchcock has been so aware of the audience and of his own role in playing with the audience. Hitchcock told Truffaut that he considered himself a conductor, and the audience his orchestra. And what a director directs is not so much the script, or the actors and craftspeople making the film, but the audience itself. Tarantino understands this down to his marrow. And so does this book. It’s no slice of life, but much more what Hitchcock always said he preferred to a slice of life—a slice of cake.
Cinema Speculation is, in no particular order: a kind of autobiography; a series of lessons in filmmaking, film writing and film acting, not only from Tarantino but from a host of other voices; a history of the changes in the very mode of film viewing from the late ‘60s to today; an acute social and aesthetic disquisition on the violent urban Revenge films of the ‘70s; a psychogeography of the lesser known suburbs of Los Angeles county; an insightful analysis of the generational differences between filmmakers; a collection of passionate paeons to lesser known films, filmmakers, critics, and even various film spectators—including a raw tribute to a loveable, but rather untrustworthy couch surfing man named Floyd who lived in Tarantino’s mother’s house for a time in the ‘70s and was in an odd way directly responsible both for Tarantino’s first attempts at screenwriting and ultimately for Django Unchained.
It also boasts some truly bizarre counterfactuals and thought experiments. Like the chapter that gives its name to the book itself, Cinema Speculation, where Tarantino imagines Brian De Palma rather than Martin Scorsese directing Paul Schrader’s script Taxi Driver. (And frankly, if that last possibility leaves you either cold or simply bewildered this may not be a book for you.) In my favorite of his wild digressions, he gets us to wonder how our attitude to the evil aliens of Invasion of the Body Snatchers would change had they not taken over a nice quiet civilized town in Northern California but instead a KKK-dominated town in the deep south where their brand of hive mind would bring peace and harmony.
The rap against Tarantino and his films has generally been that they are hyper-violent fantasies with no relation to the real world—puerile, post-modern play with the tragedies of reality. The case is aptly made by one of the filmmakers Tarantino admires most and quotes most often in his book—Paul Schrader himself. Shrader famously distinguishes his own (and Scorsese’s) work from Tarantino’s: “I’m of the existential tradition. Tarantino is of the Ironic, where you don’t kill someone you ‘kill’ them. Where it doesn’t matter if you put a baby in front of a runaway car because it’s only a ‘baby’ and it’s only a ‘car.‘”
For many, this is the failure of Tarantino’s work—but as they say in our tech besotted day, this might in fact be a “feature not a bug”—not only because he reflects the layers of irony and self-consciousness and image saturation of our own culture, but because he may be teaching us that in our time the Ironic may be as valid, if not a more valid, stance than the Existential.
After all, Socrates and Kierkegaard too were Ironists, not Existentialists. This is not to claim Tarantino as our Socrates or our Kierkegaard. But a reminder that film, even (or perhaps especially) Hollywood film, can itself be a kind of philosophy. By which I mean no more nor less than that like Stoicism, Epicureanism, Existentialism, and other schools, Hollywood films have always been a set of instructions for how to be in the world.
It’s simply true for better and for worse: Generations of us learned how to walk, talk, smirk, smoke, kiss—even kill—from the movies.
Think then of Classic Hollywood films perhaps as a branch of Pragmatism, presented in its most American (especially African-American) form, the philosophy of “Cool.” And if that other “coolest” of philosophies, the very existentialism that Schrader claims for his films, was the absolutely necessary response to the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, Tarantino’s Irony might just be the equally necessary response to the very different horrors and anomies (especially the anomie of affluence) of the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Irony—in its deepest, most tragicomic sense—is the very beating heart of the Tarantinoesque. A clue to that effect is hidden in an easter egg in his sophomore masterpiece Pulp Fiction. One of the key locations of the film is a ‘50s theme diner, Jack Rabbit Slim’s. There’s one dish on the menu named for a filmmaker—the Douglas Sirk Steak, which John Travolta orders “bloody as hell.” Sirk was, perhaps like Tarantino, a philosopher hidden, at times, as a schlockmeister. An erudite émigré Ironist, Sirk made his excellent living as an auteur of lush, lurid, and utterly brilliant melodramas like Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, and The Magnificent Obsession. All Tarantino’s films, especially Pulp Fiction, are in many ways like re-imagined Douglas Sirk films, rendered bloody as hell.
The Sirk reference at the very heart of Pulp Fiction raises the fundamental question of the relation between Quentin’s work and the films he loves. Or really, of any filmmaker’s work and the films they’ve seen. To understand this and just how important Tarantino and his brand of cinematic Irony might be, we need to step back and ask—just where are we in film history?
A painter today comes more than twenty generations after the death of Raphael—perhaps as many as 800 generations since the painter(s) of the caves at Chauvet.
A contemporary playwright draws upon a hundred generations since Sophocles and at least 16 generations since Shakespeare. Even in the comparatively young medium of the novel, the contemporary novelist writes more than 10 generations after Jane Austin.
But the film director and writer? Tarantino’s generation was more or less merely the third generation of people ever to make a film.
I thought about this a lot the first time I met Quentin. He joined Martin Scorsese and others in a film I made about a favorite director of ours, Sam Fuller. I was acutely aware of the differences between the three generations of directors in this unholy trio of Fuller, Scorsese, and Tarantino—all three known especially for their passionate, violent crime films. At the time, this succession of creators seemed to me a tragic, inexorable movement ever further away from reality itself. Fuller’s films sprang directly out of his experience of life as a tabloid journalist on the mean streets of New York in the ’30s and as a 31-year-old rifleman in his beloved Big Red One from North Africa to Normandy in the ’40s. So Fuller was there—in the real. Scorsese was kind of there—not actually down in the mean streets, but up in his family’s apartment in Little Italy, watching the action down below in the streets from his window, while drawing storyboards for imaginary movies. He filtered the reality he witnessed through the lens of the films he obsessed over, like Ford’s The Searchers. But Tarantino, in effect, grew up inside a video store, where even the windows to the world were functionally blacked out by shelves of lurid VHS boxes.
Now thinking back on this, and on the situation of Tarantino and all of us in that third generation, I wonder. Perhaps a move away from realism was not a move away from reality. Maybe reality itself had become in the meantime a hall of mirrors, an image world. A world where the best, perhaps only, philosophical tool at hand is no longer in fact existentialism, but precisely irony.
Harold Bloom, looking at the long history of poetry and the relation between generations of poets, coined the phrase “the anxiety of influence” in the book of that name where he says “I define influence simply as literary love, tempered by defense.” As writers, we are constantly instructed to write what we “know.” But maybe we have always misinterpreted that in an autobiographical sense—resulting in the surfeit of misery memoirs, coming-of-age stories, and auto-fiction. Bloom suggests that for artists, what we know is what we love. We are all under the sign of influence—of love tempered by defense. Which is another pretty good definition of Irony.
It may well be that today’s fourth- and fifth-generation filmmakers—and however many generations follow—are already less influenced by, less in love with, and less needful of defense from Hollywood history. The real power of some of our current young filmmakers—especially in the genre I know best, Horror—is their freedom from the history of our medium and perhaps from history itself. But that may only be possible because of the ironic genius of Tarantino and this third generation. What you see in Tarantino’s work—and in his marvelous book—is a profound sense of what it means to have been in this third generation, and to have loved (and lost?) all that came before. He’s not alone in this, nor in a turn to irony as the means of “defense.” I think it’s a quality shared by many—the Coen Brothers, Soderbergh, and P. T. Anderson, to name just some of the very best of our generation. And what to me distinguishes them is the combination of their irony and their courageous creative freedom.
It takes courage to stand amidst the beautiful ruins of the monumental achievements of those who literally created our medium from scratch and not simply fall to your knees and worship, or merely imitate, or worst of all, set upon these relics with picks and hammers to destroy them. But it is possible instead, to make of them a kind of playground or a sandbox, a new laboratory of creation. And Irony, especially Tarantino’s Irony, may be the best tool, at least the best available to those of us in that third generation, to build something meaningful out of the stony weight of our history.
Think in particular of some of the most popular and contentious of Tarantino’s work—what I like to think of as his “revenge-on-history” trilogy: Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and the aptly named fairy tale Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In these films, contra history: a rag-tag band of kookie, brave resistance fighters and AWOL troops succeed in murdering Hitler in (of course) a movie theater; an escaped slave wreaks violent, redemptive vengeance on white supremacy and its enablers; and a has-been actor and his stunt-double buddy prevent the Manson killings, righteously slaughter Charley and his gang, and somehow redeem all the ghosts of old Hollywood and the denizens of what we call the City of Angels but the Chumash knew as the valley of smoke and dreams.
Maybe this is precisely an example of Hollywood films as a philosophy. Tarantino’s films, and this equally romantic and somehow necromantic book, do teach us a way of being in the world, of accepting that we might, at least at times, inhabit an image world, an endless hall of mirrors. When we do, they instruct us not to fear. Take a swing at those distorted reflections, and smash the mirrors, even if that too is just an image. Or, as the least-mentioned of Tarantino’s guiding lights, Godard (after whose film Bande a part Quentin named his own company) might have said—not just an image, but a just image.
This is a philosophy that teaches that there is a liberating power precisely in dreaming—dreaming we could kill Hitler, stop the Manson killings, or somehow revenge once and for all the evils of slavery. Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus says that history is a nightmare he’s trying to wake up from. Tarantino’s characters in his films, and in this book, suggest that dreams, at least cinematic dreams, might instead be our escape from—even our revenge on—history. In this sense, all of Tarantino’s work is pure escapism. But as C. S. Lewis said, “Escapism is only a dirty word to those who are by instinct, Jailers.”