Most great artists know a lot about their field but not all seem to love it. Even fewer show the desire to pass that love on to others. This is why I have a special fondness for directors, authors and musicians who make it a point to write or talk about works dear to them. Their enthusiasm shapes mine. Zadie Smith opened up Nabokov for me. Stephen Fry’s Incomplete And Utter History Of Classical Music was a push at the right time for a classical music neophyte. I discovered Powell & Pressburger through Martin Scorsese’s reverent mentions; their films are among my favourites now.
Aside from Scorsese—surely the undisputed director-as-enthusiast—it’s hard to think of another film-maker with the curiosity, breadth of interest and unflagging energy of Quentin Tarantino. He started out as a guide to cinema, working at the Videos Archives rental store in Los Angeles. And he continued recommending as a writer-director, through his reference-heavy films, his interviews, the erstwhile QT-Fest in Austin, and his current ownership of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.
As he nears his self-declared limit of 10 films, the director is leaning into his role as full-time disseminator of movie opinions. He started writing pieces on the New Beverly site a few years ago, and made marathon appearances on the affiliated Pure Cinema Podcast. In 2022, he started his own podcast with Roger Avary, a friend from his rental shop days (and co-writer of Pulp Fiction). He also wrote his first book, a novelisation of his film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. And now he has published his second, a non-fiction collection called Cinema Speculation.
Primarily a work of film criticism, Cinema Speculation is also a kind of memoir, Tarantino sifting through his memories of growing up in the 1970s, when “New Hollywood became the Hollywood”. In the sweet opening chapter, “Little Q Watching Big Movies”, he recalls how he had to rely on his single mother, her boyfriends and his relatives to keep his insatiable appetite for movies fed. They took him to the movies they were watching: The French Connection, Deliverance, Dirty Harry. “Just a list of the wild violent movies I saw from 1970 to 1972 would appall most readers,” writes the director who had Beatrix Kiddo put her four-year-old to sleep with the unbelievably violent Shogun Assassin.
Most of the chapters are dedicated to single films, with Tarantino taking apart Bullitt, Taxi Driver and other '70s landmarks to see how they worked (or didn’t). His idol Pauline Kael (whose own reviews are mentioned frequently) approached criticism in a similar forensic manner—but where Kael had flowing, quotable prose, Tarantino aims to capture the excitement of speech (after listening to his podcast over the last year, I could literally hear him narrate the book). Paragraphs are kicked off with a conversational “Now…”, “Well…”, “So…”. Sometimes he will pose a series of increasingly animated questions and answer them in “yeses” and “nos”, a device he frequently uses in film-writing. In the chapter on Brian De Palma’s Sisters, in a stretch of 10 paragraphs, four begin with “But”, and one each with “Also” and “However”—an indication of the headlong momentum of Tarantino’s prose.
As is usually the case with Tarantino, it’s a lot—of information, of hypotheses, of declarations. But there’s something thrilling about him in full critic mode, reeling off names of artists and films and characters and expecting it to make sense to the reader. My two favourite chapters aren’t focused on a single film. One is a tribute to Kevin Thomas, a second-string Los Angeles Times critic whom Tarantino adored growing up. The other carries the book’s title as its headline and poses the question: “What If Brian De Palma Directed Taxi Driver Instead of Martin Scorsese?” One can imagine a young Tarantino initiating debates like this at Video Archives, a nobody with thousands of movies already in his head, not least the unmade ones of his own.
Cinema Speculation released on 1 November last year. As it happens, another pop culture mainstay brought out his own book that same day. Fans of Bob Dylan might have expected his next book to be a follow-up to his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One. They got another work of non-fiction, but not a memoir.
The Philosophy Of Modern Song looks at 66 tracks, new and old. Much like Tarantino, Dylan turns the songs inside-out, trying to get a measure of their power and their hold over him. They range from standards like Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ and The Clash’s ‘London Calling’' to obscure gems like Uncle Dave Macon’s 1924 recording of ‘Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy’. Though there are songs from the 1920s to the 2000s, the preference is for mid-20th century music, mostly country, blues, R‘n’B, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll and vintage pop.
For each selection, Dylan writes two small essays. The first is a kind of stream-of-consciousness reckoning with the song in question (“This is Moloch, the cat’s eye pyramid, the underbelly of beauty, where you take away the bottom number and the others fall”; ‘El Paso’, Marty Robbins). Sometimes it’s Dylan talking, sometimes a character from the song. The second essay is a more straightforward assessment. Before long you realise Dylan isn’t married to this format; for some entries, he skips one or the other essay. Sometimes he throws in a list, because why not?
If Tarantino in Cinema Speculation aims for conversational zing, Dylan in Philosophy is after something more literary. As with Chronicles, his prose is a unique amalgam of hard-boiled pulp, folksy wisdom, cultural arcana and Beat flourishes. There’s a spaciness here, though, which makes several entries seem almost like prose poems—or a Dylan song. I must admit my attention wandered and waned on some of the more expansive rambles. But there are startling phrases, sentences, things that only Dylan would think of writing. The Uncle Dave Macon song is “like a silent movie… it shows what it has”, “a unified song, all things in constant motion”, “a spirit guide… an interpreter in foreign lands”, a song that will “milk the cow till it gives blood”.
When he isn’t free-associating, Dylan describes songs and singers with an exactness that can only come from love and a lifetime of close listening. “Time and again he’ll slip the first few words of a line upstairs into the end of the previous line,” he writes of Bobby Darin’s phrasing in ‘Beyond The Sea’. When Dean Martin croons, “Words dissolve into runs of vowels without the traffic lanes of consonants.” “The Clash were always the band they imagined themselves to be”—as succinct an assessment of the socially committed English punks as anyone has done. About bluesman Jimmy Reed’s use of space: “You feel like you can see the light hitting the dust as it swirls under the sway of the music.”
The Philosophy Of Modern Song is steeply priced but stunning to look at. The layout (in hardcover) is eclectic and witty—not obvious images but references of the kind Dylan is making in the text. The entry for ‘Tutti Frutti’ has three accompanying photographs: singer Little Richard, Carmen Miranda with her famous fruit hat, and one of Paul Cezanne’s paintings of apples and pears. For ‘Beyond The Sea’, it’s Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling on the beach in From Here To Eternity and a 19th century wood engraving of boats attacking whales by William James Linton.
In less direct ways than Tarantino, Dylan has been a tastemaker, both through his recent music, which has thrown light on everything from blues and folk traditions to the Great American Songbook, and the radio show he hosted for 102 episodes. The book is as much his voice as ‘Queen Jane Approximately’—and Cinema Speculation reads like Tarantino dictated it. Both are labours of love and should spur months of discovery.