It would be easy – and fun – to focus entirely on the good and to co-sign his [Tarantino’s] praise for films that are also favorites of mine such as Bullitt, The Getaway, and Taxi Driver. But I think there is more we can learn – about Tarantino as a cinephile and about the practice of film criticism – from an exploration of the bad and the ugly than from simply rehashing the good.
* ** *
Late in the film True Romance (1993), which was Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,1 the protagonist Clarence (Christian Slater) complains to bigshot Hollywood producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) that far too many films are merely “safe, geriatric, coffee table dogshit.” Counter to such dogshit, Clarence nominates what he considers to be real movies – Mad Max (1979), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Rio Bravo (1959) – and after each nomination, he emphatically declares: “That’s a movie.” Clarence is also seen through the film attending a Sonny Chiba triple feature of The Street Fighter (1974), Return of the Street Fighter (1974), and Sister Street Fighter (1974), as well as watching A Better Tomorrow II (1986) at home and talking about The Mack (1973) after seeing it on a television in a brothel. Action movies, martial arts movies, Westerns, Blaxploitation – in his very first screenplay, Tarantino constructed a character who was an extension of himself, and whose cinematic sensibilities matched his own.
Three decades later, Tarantino shifted from fiction to nonfiction. After penning a novelization of his 2019 hit Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, Tarantino channeled his cinematic spirit guide, Pauline Kael, and wrote a nonfiction book of film criticism entitled Cinema Speculation.2 Across 18 chapters, Tarantino singles out 13 films for analysis: Bullitt (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Getaway (1972), The Outfit (1973), Sisters (1973), Daisy Miller (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), Paradise Alley (1978), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Hardcore (1979), and The Funhouse (1981). As a long-time fan of Tarantino’s, one who knows his films well enough to be able to easily quote dialogue from them as I already have from True Romance, upon reading Cinema Speculation – in which, big surprise, Tarantino finds occasions to discuss action movies, martial arts movies, Westerns, and Blaxploitation – it was impossible for me, each and every time I finished reading a chapter on a film, not to imagine Tarantino thinking to himself about each film: “That’s a movie.” Beyond just the individual films themselves, though, Tarantino’s object of analysis in Cinema Speculation is the New Hollywood of the 1960s and ’70s, the revolutionary period following the dissolution of the Motion Picture Production Code and the demolition of the studio system when new (and a few old) filmmakers set about transforming the American film industry. In an effort to capture the breadth of this period, from the initial groundswell of industrial and cultural change to the lingering aftereffects of the revolutionary explosion, Tarantino’s selection of films covers the years from 1968 to 1981, and he analyzes each film in turn, proceeding in chronological order so as to preserve both the evolutionary timeline of the period in question and the autoethnographic trajectory of his engagements with the films in question.
Before Cinema Speculation was even published, I knew not only that I would buy it immediately and read it very quickly, but also that I would be moved to write about it. The prospect of Tarantino finally, after teasing it for so many years, sitting down and writing a book of film criticism was almost as exciting for me as it is whenever news breaks about him starting production on a new film. And he covers so much ground and expresses opinions on so many films and filmmakers that I would love nothing more than to write about each and every chapter in sequence and in detail. But I do not have space for that in this article. Besides which, everybody who knows anything about film already knows the good about Quentin Tarantino. He is one of our most treasured cinephiles and one of cinema’s greatest ambassadors. His ability to inspire in the general public and to conjure up in his fellow cinephiles – in his films, in appearances on late-night talk shows hosted by the likes of Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel and on podcasts hosted by the likes of Joe Rogan and Tom Segura, and in his fiction and nonfiction writing – the type of excitement about and passion for movies that has fueled his life and career is the best example of the way that he has inherited the tradition of the Movie Brats, the fans-turned-filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg who both changed the cinema forever and have inspired – and continue to inspire – generations of filmmakers. The good is self-evident.3 Rather than dwell on it, I have set for myself instead the far more difficult task of elucidating the bad and the ugly. This is a difficult task for me not just because I am a huge fan of Tarantino’s and so am loath to critique him, but also because I am a huge fan of a number of the films that he analyzes in his book. It would be easy – and fun – to focus entirely on the good and to co-sign his praise for films that are also favorites of mine such as Bullitt, The Getaway, and Taxi Driver. But I think there is more we can learn – about Tarantino as a cinephile and about the practice of film criticism – from an exploration of the bad and the ugly than from simply rehashing the good.
To begin a critique of Cinema Speculation requires examination of Tarantino’s two biggest critical obstacles. The first is an inevitable by-product of enthusiastic, non-scholarly writing: For as strongly as Tarantino may feel something, or for as certain as Tarantino may be about something, he will sometimes lack clarity in expressing himself, content merely to blow past something that requires more explanation than he is able or willing to provide. For an example of what I have in mind, when discussing Escape from Alcatraz, the way that Tarantino sets himself up to enthusiastically praise its “beautiful, practically wordless opening sequence” is by surprisingly claiming that prior to it Don Siegel had “never engaged in cinematic set pieces” (p. 299). Though Tarantino is right to praise the film’s bravura opening sequence, and though I agree with him when he says that the film’s muscular energy is reminiscent of the Siegel of the ’50s, it is precisely because the film is so Siegel-esque that it is so splendid. If it was not until Escape from Alcatraz that Siegel engaged in cinematic set pieces, then I have to wonder what Tarantino would call the opening sequence with the prison riot and the prison guard mobilization in Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), or the sequence at Sutro’s Museum that leads to a murder and a climactic car chase in The Lineup (1958), or the chase scene that follows the bungled interrogation that serves as the inciting incident in Madigan (1968), or any number of scenes from Dirty Harry if not cinematic set pieces. Often in Cinema Speculation, Tarantino will do this, either speak in hyperbole or take for granted something that requires considerable unpacking, and it frequently makes it difficult to understand his points and/or concede his arguments.
The second obstacle is smaller, in that it does not hinder Tarantino in sketching historical portraits or analyzing individual films, but it presents a greater potential for damage in that it can preclude readers from wanting to engage with Cinema Speculation at all. This second obstacle is Pauline Kael. This will likely be specific to me – although I know that it will not be specific to only me – but speaking for myself, I have long found Pauline Kael to be the most insufferable person who has ever written on the cinema. From her bizarrely intense hatred of the films of Stanley Kubrick and her disavowal of Scorsese despite her early championing of him, to her anti-intellectual valorization of cinema-as-trash and her losing efforts arguing against Andrew Sarris and the MOVIE editors on the subject of the auteur theory, she is not someone to whom anyone interested in writing about film should hitch their wagon.4 Yet, having chosen her as his critical model, at many points in Cinema Speculation, Tarantino opts for caustic dismissals and flippant one-liners in the inglorious Kael tradition in place of intelligent argument, as when he writes off the entire 1980s Hollywood output as a “fucking wasteland of a decade” (p. 123), or when he applauds Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979) for being “real movies” but lambasts Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985) for being “single-issue comic books . . . that resemble trailers more than actual movies” (p. 293).
It would be different if these chapters were merely write-ups posted to his website for the New Beverly Cinema. We could chalk up errors and flights of fancy to the speed with which he fired off his unfiltered (and neither spell-checked nor fact-checked) thoughts on all of these films. But that is not what they are. Or, rather, that is not what they should have been. This material was edited, published, and sold for profit. Tarantino did use material from his website reviews, but in the form of a book, wherein his words are supposed to represent informed and thought-out analyses, there is a great deal in Cinema Speculation that is disappointing to see from Tarantino and unacceptable as part of a published book of film criticism. It is one thing to shoot from the hip and call Hollywood’s 1980s output “a fucking wasteland” of cinema. It is quite another to go out of your way to lament the frequency with which critics “set themselves up as superior to the films” about which they write (p. 139) only to then go on and set yourself up as superior to the films about which you write. Sure, those critics looked down on The Outfit and Caged Heat (1974), films that Tarantino loved, so they were obviously wrong. But what about Tarantino looking down on Diner (1982) and Stand by Me (1986), films that were key ingredients in the “cup of weak tea” (p. 141) that he believes was served to moviegoers by Hollywood in the 1980s? Stand by Me in particular was a major childhood classic for me and is still a film that I adore, so it stings in much the same way for me when I see how comfortable Tarantino is so cavalierly – and cruelly – dismissing it along with every other film made in Hollywood that entire decade. Did he not register this contradiction during the writing or editing processes, or is he okay with the hypocrisy?
Granted, this can be written off as a difference in (generational) taste. Stand by Me is not his cup of tea, but it is mine. The hypocrisy is grating, but such differences are to be expected whenever cinephiles start to compare notes. However, the difficulties encountered in Cinema Speculation cannot all be written off as simple matters of personal taste. There is a regrettable lack of attention to detail in Tarantino’s criticism, to say nothing of the (at times significant) historical inaccuracies that distort both the intentions of the filmmakers whose films Tarantino chronicles and the critical assessments that Tarantino makes of those films. For an example of his lack of attention to detail hindering his critical efforts, and this time with reference to a film that he holds in very high esteem and that I also am very fond of, his discussion of The Lord’s of Flatbush (1974) is instructive. In his chapter devoted to Sylvester Stallone’s directorial debut, Paradise Alley, Tarantino sets the stage for his obsession with this film by going back to when he and his friends saw The Lord’s of Flatbush and were first introduced to Stallone, before then seeing Rocky and falling in love with him. At no point does Tarantino spell the title of the film using the ungrammatical “Lord’s,” preferring instead to render it The Lords of Flatbush. He does this in spite of the fact that, in the film’s onscreen title credits, the title of the film is displayed as The Lord’s of Flatbush. (Similarly, not everyone includes the ellipsis in the title of Tarantino’s own Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood . . . though I think that they should.) But when referring to them by their gang name and calling them “Lords” rather than “Lord’s,” that is not just incorrect – it is not just a detail that a super geek like Tarantino should never in a million years have overlooked, especially considering how special this film was and is to him – it renders indiscernible the most brilliant part of the name and the gang. This is a group of knuckleheads who came up with a name for themselves and ordered custom leather jackets with the name on the back . . . with bad grammar. They are completely oblivious, but that is the point. To talk about the “Lords” when referring to The Lord’s of Flatbush is equivalent to talking about the “No Regrets” tattoo that Scottie P. (Mark L. Young) proudly shows off in We’re the Millers (2013). The fact that they have “Lord’s” proudly displayed on their backs is as important to understanding the dim-witted sincerity of the sweet wannabe tough guys in The Lord’s of Flatbush as the fact that the tattoo says “No Ragrets” is to understanding the idiotic rebelliousness of the pseudo-philosopher who has no idea that his credo is misspelled in We’re the Millers. For someone who went out of his way to title one of his films Inglourious Basterds (2009), I wish that Tarantino would have paid more attention to details like this in the course of his criticism.
Most egregious, however, is his analysis of Taxi Driver. Considering that the only time that Tarantino references a “scholar” is when he brings up the actor-turned-horror film magazine writer Barry Brown (pp. 203-208), no one should be surprised that his chapters on Taxi Driver contain no references to, say, Amy Taubin’s entry in the BFI Classics series on the film, or David Greven’s chapter on the film in his insightful account of male desire in the Hitchcockian films of New Hollywood directors.5 But it surely would have helped Tarantino had he not relied on movie geek memories and actually researched the film.6 That said, his first difficulty with Taxi Driver is a methodological one. It is his position that Taxi Driver is something like a remake, or modernization, of The Searchers (1956). To corroborate this, he includes a quote from Scorsese in which Scorsese himself notes the similarities between Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). But then Tarantino pivots and claims that “to get at the heart” of the film “you have to go back to Paul Schrader’s script and his original intention” (p. 213). This, however, is neither self-evident nor productive. Since film is a director’s medium, Tarantino was on firmer ground when exploring Scorsese’s intentions.7 (And Scorsese’s intentions far exceeded Schrader’s obsession with The Searchers, which obsession Schrader continued to work through in such subsequent films as Rolling Thunder and Hardcore.) At the very least, Tarantino should be able to grant that, as Taubin persuasively argues, there is a tension throughout the film – a tension that Schrader himself observed and considered a benefit to the film8 – “between Scorsese’s and Schrader’s frames of references,” and that the salient point, which Taubin rightly makes, is that this tension “gives the film an ambiguity of meaning and affect.”9
For Tarantino’s part, despite paying lip service to the idea that “what makes the film a gutsy masterpiece” is the way that Scorsese asks difficult questions and, rather than spoon-feed audiences easy answers, “allows them to devise their own” (p. 214), he goes to great lengths to find easy answers, and the source to which he continually returns is the first draft of Schrader’s screenplay.10 To Tarantino’s mind, Travis Bickle is “a racist” (p. 213). There are no ifs, ands, or buts about this, nor does he qualify it by saying that Travis as originally conceptualized by Schrader in his first draft of the script is a racist. No. Even though in Scorsese’s film Travis “never says anything overtly racist,” even though he never uses the N-word or says/does things out of anything resembling a hatred of (an)other race(s) or a belief in white supremacy, and even though he “makes a case for his fairness as a taxi driver” when he observes how some cabbies will not drive “spooks” but that the color of one’s skin “don’t make no difference” to him, it is nevertheless “obvious” that Travis “sees black males as figures of malevolent criminality” (p. 214). There is a contradiction here – as there is when Tarantino suddenly shifts from calling Taxi Driver a “gutsy masterpiece” because Scorsese introduced ambiguity into his portrait of Travis to then calling Taxi Driver a “watered-down version of Schrader’s original nihilistic text” (p. 214) because Scorsese refused to “go all the way in indicting the character” (p. 231) – and the tension comes from Tarantino constantly oscillating between analyzing Scorsese’s film and Schrader’s screenplay. This will obviously create interpretive difficulties across the board, but on the subject of whether or not Travis is a racist, it is particularly problematic since, in Schrader’s original screenplay, Travis is a racist who sees black males as figures of malevolent criminality – and who kills them because of this – whereas in Scorsese’s film, the case is not so clear-cut.
In an effort to disentangle the many threads that are woven into Tarantino’s reading of Taxi Driver, I want first to clarify the facts on the basis of which he makes certain claims, after which I will challenge the claims on the basis of which he judges the film to be wanting. First, on a factual level, Tarantino is working with dubious information. In Cinema Speculation, he writes that “according to Schrader, he was asked by the producers and Columbia Pictures to change” the pimp character Sport, played in the film by Harvey Keitel, “from black to white because the race riots of a few years earlier still cast a long shadow,” and there was understandable “fear if any violence broke out in a cinema [that] it would cause the film to be yanked from theatres for public safety” (p. 215). However, Tarantino does not cite a source for this. Did he read it in an interview? If so, which interview? Is this something that Schrader told Tarantino? If so, when and in what context? Without knowing where Tarantino got his information, I am left to compare it to Schrader’s account, quoted by Taubin from an interview that she conducted with him in 1995, according to which neither the producers nor the studio had any say in the matter one way or the other. Far from being what Tarantino derisively refers to as a “societal compromise” (p. 216) agreed to by the backboneless Scorsese for entirely political reasons, Schrader claimed: “When Marty and I started working together . . . we got to the scene where Travis shoots Sport and we just looked at each other and we knew we couldn’t do it the way it was written . . . There wasn’t even a discussion about it.”11 On this account, both Scorsese and Schrader decided to take the character and the film in a different direction, and this decision was made before production had even started.
On this basis alone, Tarantino’s interpretation of Travis as an “obvious” racist comes into question, for not only does Travis not explode in violence directed toward black people, but this change was not a last-minute political compromise made to appease the studio but rather a pre-production creative choice that was made by the filmmakers and that informed the making of the film. This is yet another reason why it is important when analyzing films to analyze the finished film and not drafts of screenplays. For one thing, in light of the fact that Travis’s ultimate violent explosion is not a massacre of black people carried out by a racist white person – indeed, it is important to note, even though Tarantino glosses over it, that Travis’s first target for his violent rage is a white politician, and that it is only after he bungles his assassination attempt that he settles for his second target, who in the film are the white lowlifes who run/patronize a seedy brothel – it makes it difficult (though, importantly, not impossible) to call Travis a racist. For another thing, Scorsese foregrounds Travis’s hatred of “scum,” and we see the myriad people and behaviors that qualify as such to him. In this way, Scorsese ensures that the character’s boiling rage is far more diffuse than just an aversion to black people. (There is also a curious brand of misogyny at work, to say nothing of his broad disillusionment with society as such, both of which take Travis’s pathology far beyond the confines of racism.) Tarantino cites scenes like the “amazing low-angle dolly shot of the black pimp, in the all-night cafeteria, tapping the table with his finger” as evidence of the fact that Travis “sees black males as figures of malevolent criminality” by whom he is “repelled” and contact with whom is to be “avoided” at all costs (p. 214). Yet, he does not mention the black cabbie Charlie T. (Norman Matlock) who always hangs around with Wizard (Peter Boyle) and Doughboy (Harry Northup). Travis apparently does not see Charlie as a figure of malevolent criminality, and he appears neither repelled by nor inclined to avoid him. In fact, in one scene, Charlie asks Travis for the five dollars that he owes him (and Charlie marvels as he watches Travis thumb through his billfold, “My man is loaded, loaded”), intimating at least some measure of closeness if not friendship between the two fellow cabbies. Did they make a bet that Travis lost? Were they playing cards and Travis was five dollars short the night of the game? Did Travis need cash to pay for food and he left his money out in his cab so Charlie covered it? Whatever the case may be, it is a far more complicated case than Tarantino is able or willing to countenance.
So hung up was Tarantino on Schrader’s original intention to replay The Searchers in the modern setting of 1970s New York City (and with a returning Vietnam veteran standing in for the returning Civil War veteran12) that he completely missed Scorsese’s intention to transform Schrader’s austere vision of a Bressonian descent styled after Diary of a Country Priest (1951) into a Hitchcockian phantasmagoria that has far more in common with Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) than with either The Searchers or Diary of a Country Priest.13 Indeed, it is the Hitchcockian tenor of the film’s conclusion that Tarantino misses, and which explains his inability to understand or appreciate what Scorsese was going for with his violent conclusion. Tarantino takes Scorsese to task for being “shocked” that audiences would react to Travis’s violent explosion at the end of the film with excitement and solidarity and without any sense of ambivalence or perturbation – he goes so far as to describe Scorsese’s state of shock as “horseshit,” claiming that Scorsese was “bend[ing] over backwards to disingenuously describe [the] magnificent exhilarating violent scenes he crafted as horrifying” (p. 229) – and proceeds to deny the film its marvelous opacity by reducing it to a “Revengeamatic” ass kicker of an actioner as ethically uncomplicated as Charles Rane (William Devane) and Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) killing the family-slaying criminals in the violent climax of Rolling Thunder. And he ends his tirade by claiming that if Scorsese’s “horseshit” excuse of claiming not to have wanted audiences to pump their fists in the air at the end of Taxi Driver in solidarity with Travis as if they were watching Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) fight for what is right at the end of Billy Jack (1971), then what he should have done was make “a movie about a man who spends the entire movie speaking about cleaning up the scum of the city” and “demonstrate that it’s black males he considers the scum of the city,” and “then at the climax he kills a bunch of black males because of their defilement of a young white girl” before being “turned into a hero by the very same city (i.e., white society).” “That,” Tarantino emphatically asserts, “would have been viewed by audiences as OH MY GOD NO! And that would have been The Searchers” (p. 233).
Except that that is not the film that Scorsese wanted to make (even if it was the film that Schrader wanted to make – and did make multiple times). Travis Bickle is not Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey; he is not Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. He is James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson; he is Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. His mind turns against him; he is consumed by destructive desires. In Vertigo, Scottie is obsessed with two versions of the same woman, Kim Novak’s split character of Madeleine/Judy, but in reality, what he is obsessed with is an Ideal, a pure object of desire whose unreality is powerfully indexed by Hitchcock in the fact that she is literally a fictional creation for the purpose of a murder plot. In Taxi Driver, meanwhile, Travis is obsessed with two different women, Cybill Shepherd’s Madonna character Betsy and Jodie Foster’s Whore character Iris, but in reality, what he is obsessed with is, in as explicit (and troubling) a rendition of the Madonna/Whore complex as one is likely to find in film history, trying to reconcile these two different images of Woman. Travis struggles to achieve his own ideal of manhood, and he struggles equally to formulate a positive conception of an ideal woman.14 And just as Hitchcock allows us to cheer for Scottie (because he is right about Judy being Madeleine and because he has suffered so much from having wrongly thought that he had failed to save the woman he loved out of weakness) while at the same time forcing us to register the terrifying depth to which he has sunk in his crazed obsession (because he violently forces Madeleine back to the scene of the crime and seems to be seething with a potentially homicidal rage at what she put him through), so Scorsese allows us a cathartic release while at the same time forcing us to register the terrifying fact that it was just blind luck and random chance that Travis’s murderous rage was directed toward the murder of criminals who had been exploiting a 12-year-old girl and not toward the assassination of a politician.15
Having said all of that – having gone through the bad and the ugly in Cinema Speculation – I want to repeat that I have ignored the good for the purposes of this review. My critique of Tarantino’s brand of Kael-inspired, blog-style criticism should not imply that there is nothing good about Cinema Speculation. That could not be further from the truth. Tarantino’s chapter on Dirty Harry is possibly my favorite analysis of the film that I have ever read, and his gushing over the demonic portrayal of Scorpio by Andrew Robinson offers an insightful perspective on the evolution of representations of psychotic killers in the cinema as well as a much-deserved appreciation of a great performance that still sickens and chills. The love that he gives to John Flynn for directing The Outfit and Rolling Thunder is long overdue and was great to see, although the super Steven Seagal fan in me would have loved it if Tarantino had connected Flynn’s work in the 1970s to his direction of Seagal in the brutal ’70s-styled actioner Out for Justice (1991).16 And I am hard-pressed to imagine anyone on Earth being a better champion for a forgotten-if-ever-known horror film like Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, which I had never seen before but which I was inspired by Tarantino to check out, thereby giving me yet another film to add to the long list of films that I have watched and enjoyed on the basis of a Tarantino recommendation.
Perhaps this is my bias as a (nearly lifelong) Tarantino fan, but far from wanting to end this review on a note of “Don’t quit your day job, Quentin,” I truly believe that Tarantino is capable of much more than Cinema Speculation. It is a fine first venture into nonfiction writing on cinema, and its joys and insights are enough in quality and quantity to make it easy for me to overlook the bad and the ugly and embrace the good, but as a consumer of all things Tarantino, just as True Romance was an explosive but amateurish first screenplay that showcased more enthusiasm than skill, while Reservoir Dogs (1992) was a powerful and masterful second screenplay that showcased an impressive degree of ingenuity and profundity, I will eagerly await Tarantino’s second book of film criticism in the hopes that it demonstrates a comparable leap forward in thoughtfulness and skill.
- Obviously, I’m not counting such efforts as 12-year-old Tarantino’s Smokey and the Bandit (1977) homage Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit, nor am I counting abandoned screenplays such as Tarantino’s early attempt to write his own Paradise Alley (1978) in the form of a film about three Italian brothers entitled Brooklyn B.R. (p. 290). [↩]
- Tarantino’s connection to Kael runs very deep. In Cinema Speculation, he charts his history not just as a film fan but more specifically as a reader of film criticism, and he explains that he and his first girlfriend were “Pauline Kael devotees” (p. 140). Indeed, so deep is Tarantino’s connection to Kael that even his filmmaking practice is indebted to her: in an interview, he explained that it was her description of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) that proved to be his artistic North Star, more influential even than Godard’s (or anyone else’s) films. [↩]
- Additionally, David Bordwell has already covered this ground in his review of Tarantino’s book. See his “Tarantino and the Criticism of Enthusiasm,” Observations on Film Art, 21 November 2022. [↩]
- On Kubrick, Kael’s abhorrence of his films is covered in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001). On Scorsese, despite championing Mean Streets (1973) (see her “Everyday Inferno,” New York Times, 30 September 1973), she would go on to dismiss Raging Bull (1980) as merely something “that many men must fantasize about” (see her “Religious Pulp, or The Incredible Hulk,” New York Times, 30 November 1980) and even later deny that Goodfellas (1990) warrants appreciation as a great film (see her “Tumescence as Style,” The New York Times, 17 September 1990). On her anti-art and anti-intellectual stance on cinema, see her “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” in American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, Phillip Lopate, ed. (New York: Library of America,  2006), pp. 337-367. On her battles with critics and scholars over the auteur theory, see the debates published in Volumes 16 and 17 of Film Quarterly (1963). [↩]
- Cf. Amy Taubin, Taxi Driver (London: BFI, 2000), and David Greven, Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013). [↩]
- There is nothing like academic notes, nor is there a bibliography or references list, anywhere in Cinema Speculation. And a lot of “facts” cited by Tarantino, as well as an alarming number of quotes, come with no corresponding sources, which leaves readers having to trust Tarantino’s memory as to their accuracy/origins. He does occasionally reference material written by others; however, he evidently did not consult any actual film scholarship, preferring instead to limit his reading to star and filmmaker biographies (p. 33), director profiles and interview collections (pp. 47-48), and investigative journalism (p. 159, p. 168). [↩]
- In the interest of time and space, I am stating this claim baldly because it is my position on the nature of filmmaking and because I have elaborated and defended this position at length in a number of publications. See my “Signs and Meaning: Film Studies and the Legacy of Poststructuralism,” Offscreen, Volume 22, Issue 7 (July 2018), https://offscreen.com/view/signs-and-meaning-film-studies-and-the-legacy-of-poststructuralism); “A Plea for Intention: Stanley Cavell and Ordinary Aesthetic Philosophy,” Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, 9 (2021), https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/movie/movie_journal_issue_9._a_plea_for_intention.pdf; “More than Meets the Eye: Perspectives on William Wyler and the Auteur Theory,” in ReFocus: The Films of William Wyler, John Price, ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2023); and “Alfred Hitchcock and the Moving Camera: Authorship, Style, and Declarative Aesthetics,” Offscreen, Volume 27, Issue 1-2 (February 2023), https://offscreen.com/view/alfred-hitchcock-and-the-moving-camera-authorship-style-and-declarative-aesthetics. I also think that it is worth pointing out, in support of the position that film is a director’s medium, that the screenwriter of Natural Born Killers (1994), who disowned the film upon realizing that it had been transformed completely by its director Oliver Stone and thus was no longer representative of his intentions, would have to concede the point. [↩]
- Schrader quoted in Taubin, Taxi Driver, p. 18. [↩]
- Taubin, Taxi Driver, p. 18. [↩]
- While Scorsese, for his part, is on record saying – in a write-up on The Searchers, in fact – that “in truly great films – the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable – nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved.” See “Guest Reviewer: Martin Scorsese on The Searchers,” The Hollywood Reporter, 8 March 2013. [↩]
- Schrader quoted in Taubin, Taxi Driver, p. 18. [↩]
- Curiously, near the end of his chapter on Taxi Driver, Tarantino promulgates the theory that Travis is actually not a Vietnam veteran and that, just as he lies about doing work for the government to Iris and to his parents, so he lies about having served in Vietnam. This is not a new theory, but given Tarantino’s determination to insist on a reading of Taxi Driver that takes Schrader’s first draft of the screenplay as gospel, it is interesting that he conveniently ignores the part of Schrader’s script – cut by Scorsese for the film – where Travis, when purchasing the guns that he uses in the final shootout, talks about his time in Vietnam and, signalling his unacknowledged PTSD, says, “They’d never get me to go back. They’d have to shoot me first.” [↩]
- Tarantino’s failure to discuss the importance of Hitchcock in the context of Taxi Driver is not surprising, for just like his cinematic spirit guide, Tarantino does not hold Hitchcock in very high regard. (Tarantino also follows Kael in being nonplussed by Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Evidently, once his Kael-sanctioned tastes were formed, they were never questioned and have never been revised.) On Kael’s antipathy for Hitchcock, see Camille Paglia, “The Mysteries of Pauline Kael,” Salon, 26 October 2011). On Kael’s antipathy for Welles, see her “Raising Kane” in The Citizen Kane Book: Raising Kane and the Shooting Script (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1971). On Tarantino’s antipathy for Hitchcock, see Tarantino’s appearance on Tom Segura and Bert Kreischer’s podcast 2 Bears, 1 Cave, specifically the portion of which a clip video was made entitled “Quentin Tarantino Doesn’t Like Alfred Hitchcock,” 23 November 2022. On Tarantino’s antipathy for Welles and Kubrick, see his discussion of his influences included as a special feature on the DVD release of Reservoir Dogs, in which he takes shots at them both. [↩]
- I mentioned earlier in a parenthetical remark the importance of recognizing that Travis sees women through a misogynistic lens. This is the point in his character arc at which his misogyny moves from the background into the foreground. In addition to Schrader’s marvelously complex dealings with female characters in his films and the ways that male characters relate to them – from the troubled father/daughter relationship in Hardcore to the stunted sexuality of Richard Gere’s gigolo character in American Gigolo (1980) – the centrality of the Madonna/Whore complex in Scorsese’s early career, in such films as Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, has been acknowledged by Scorsese himself in an interview with Roger Ebert (https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/interview-with-martin-scorsese) as well as insightfully explored by a number of scholars. Cf. Taubin, Taxi Driver, p. 11, pp. 46-51, pp. 60-63; Greven, Psycho-Sexual, pp. 155-161; Aaron Baker, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Italianamerican: Gender, Ethnicity, and Imagination,” in A Companion to Martin Scorsese, Aaron Baker, ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015); Matt R. Lohr, “Irish-American Identity in the Films of Martin Scorsese,” in A Companion to Martin Scorsese; and Anthony D. Cavaluzzi, “Music as Cultural Signifier of Italian/American Life in Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets,” in A Companion to Martin Scorsese. [↩]
- To clarify, my descriptions of what Hitchcock in Vertigo and Scorsese in Taxi Driver allow “us” to see, think, feel, and do is an extension of Robin Wood’s astute analysis of how Hitchcock draws viewers into Scottie’s descent, that is, of how filmmakers construct specific spectatorial positions. Cf. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press,  2002), pp. 386-387. In fact, Wood describes Vertigo as “a denunciation of male egoism, presumption, and intransigence” (Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, p. 242), and, as such, as “among the most disturbing and painful experiences the cinema has to offer” (Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, p. 387). For the same reasons, and in the same way, so, too, is Taxi Driver. [↩]
- I myself have written about Out for Justice in connection with The Searchers, Taxi Driver, and Rolling Thunder. See my “Blockbuster Ideology: Steven Seagal and the Legacy of Action Cinema,” Offscreen, Volume 17, Issue 4 (April 2013). Given my fondness for Seagal’s films, and the through-line that is discernible in Flynn’s filmmaking from The Outfit up to Out for Justice, I cannot help but wonder what Tarantino thinks of a film like Out for Justice. [↩]