A posting on the recent films.

Death Proof

This film is Quentin Tarantino’s primary contribution to the recent stratosphere-kissing blockbuster smash Grindhouse, although it now seems it might be known in the future as its own little thing, certainly in European nations and likely on dvd. I think it’s therefore worthwhile to discuss it as its own movie, though I’ll readily admit that’s partially because I saw Grindhouse over a week ago and I can already barely recall anything about the rest of the program.

Well, ok, there’s two major things I remember. The first is that Rob Zombie’s fake trailer (amidst a bevy of fake trailers by various directors) was flat-out terrible, and I mean ‘Saturday Night Live lunging toward 1:00 AM oh look at the celebrity guest host mugging’ terrible, which kind of surprised me considering how knowledgeable Zombie seems to be about the broad source material. But it’s far too overtly, artificially parodic, while the rest of the contributions divine much of their humor from emphasizing recognizable characteristics from their chosen subjects so that the humor can ‘naturally’ flow from homage.

I actually thought it was sort of interesting how Eli Roth (and god, I recall when that fellow was doing stuff like a tongue-in-cheek audio commentary for the early Troma dvd release of Bloodsucking Freaks) focused on tropes from a genre of films, while Edgar Wright looked to characteristics of a genus of trailers. It’s a very wide net the ‘grindhouse’ label casts, especially when you mentally associate it with ‘drive-in’ movies; I blame Something Weird Video for putting out those Drive-In Double Feature dvds back in the day, which were pretty much exactly the same thing as Grindhouse (two features, trailers, vintage advertisements) only slightly more extensive and all-authentic. Then again, the whole idea for this thing allegedly came from Tarantino showing people movies at his house anyway.

The second major thing I remember about the non-Death Proof portions of Grindhouse is Bruce Willis. All throughout Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror feature, I was inordinately distracted by the way Willis was shot. I don’t believe he ever interacts with any of the other main characters on a face-to-face basis, in that he and someone else are in the frame at once. Really, anyone who appears on screen with Willis could easily be portrayed by someone who just happened to be standing in the room at the time of shooting, if my memory serves correctly.

At first, I thought this was a clever means of positioning Willis conceptually as a sort of special Hollywood guest star who presumably knocked off all his scenes in one day and got carefully edited into the actual picture. But then I realized that’s probably what Rodriguez actually had to do, regardless of what he’s paying homage to, and that made me think about the fuzzy line that can be drawn between gleeful ‘fake’ badness and actual economic/creative compromise on films of this sort. Regardless, if this was a real grindhouse feature, Willis’ name would be plastered absolutely everywhere. Here, I do believe he’s actually uncredited, though his image appears in the newspaper advertisements.

And need I even mention the greatest failure of Grindhouse in remaining true to its sources? The ads are everything in a low-down feature, so much that you could probably make the argument that the essence of the film extends well out of the screen itself and into the marketing, to the point where The Last House on the Left (let’s say) is incarnated as much in its legendary trailer as its actual being. That was necessary, without $50 million+ in production budget alone behind a film. But I can't even remember the fucking ads for Grindhouse, and that's a real shame.

(granted, the contemporary mega-advertised ‘blockbuster’ film is a sort-of child of vintage exploitation or ‘trash’ films anyway, Jaws having been conceived as a classically exploitable thriller complete with shark effects so shitty that the director was famously forced to conceptualize tighter, and Star Wars acting as an elaborate homage to disposable Saturday serialized juvenilia - in this way, the path of ‘accepted’ film history and the shadow history of exploitation are not entirely separate)

Death Proof, however, does something a bit different.

There’s been a lot of debate on this film already. Some of it’s classic ‘what did they have in the briefcase?’ fan speculation without a lot of support in the film itself (the reels are in the wrong order! it’s two different films with the same star fused into one!). Some of it’s more direct ‘God Tarantino, stop being so boring with the dialogue’ stuff. I guess I’ll get this out of the way right now - not only did I not find the dialogue particularly boring, I also didn’t think it was particularly more bountiful than in, say, Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Really, I thought Death Proof sort of won the entertainment contest all around, if only because it boasted (a) the film’s best (and as luck would have it, final) action scene and (b) hands-down the film’s best performance, courtesy of Kurt Russell.

But I have to admit that Death Proof does have two things working against it on the pure entertainment front: it follows Rodriguez’s hyperactive feature, which is coming from a completely different direction in its homage, and it’s extremely mannered in its structure, so much that it draws attention to its own construction.

I will explain with a plot synopsis. Spoilers, obviously.

Death Proof initially concerns a quartet of women, some with connections to the entertainment industry, out looking for good times. They chat about random things, one of them has a trick played on her, and general amusement is had. They eventually encounter an old-school macho guy called Stuntman Mike, who embodies many traditional slow-burning masculine values. But Stuntman Mike is also a crazed killer, with a death-proofed stunt car that’ll kill anyone in or out of it, save for him. He picks up a woman, and kills her by smushing her to death in the passenger’s compartment with his slick driving moves. Then, he rams the quartet’s vehicle head on and kills them all. Stuntman Mike survives, as we’re told (Psycho-style) about his sexual connection to vehicular collision.

The movie then, for all intents and purposes, starts again. We follow another quarter of women, some with connections to the entertainment industry, out looking for good times. They chat about random things, one of them has a trick played on her, and general amusement is had. But these girls are a bit different; like Stuntman Mike, they also have an affinity for fast driving, vehicular mayhem, and yes - killing. As becomes increasingly clear, this quartet -- or at least two of them, with an additional one eager to be accepted as part of the group -- act as a sort of girl gang, like something out of Russ Meyer. Stuntman Mike attempts to kill them, but their nerve and driving skills are too much for him.

They proceed into a campaign of emasculation, ruining Stuntman Mike’s car, forcing him to drink like a fish, destroying his driving skills, making him cry and moan, and ultimately forcing him into a nasty crash, after which he is dragged out of the car (which, truth in advertising, has not killed him), and beaten to death on the street. The final blow is delivered by the aforementioned young and eager one, Stuntman Mike’s face crushed under her boot - there’s no doubt she’s proven her mettle to the other girls, the Stuntman is killed in a manner ironically similar to his passenger from earlier in the movie, and Quentin Tarantino’s foot fetish reaches an unimaginable extreme.

Hey, I found it entertaining. The final chase scene (as lengthy as the initial vehicular killing is short) is pretty excellent, and in possession of a real enthusiasm about shooting long, unbroken takes of people authentically clinging to hoods at absurd speeds. Tarantino supposedly shot the entire chase scene himself (he served as his own DP for the whole movie, yes, but I mean he didn’t use 2nd unit either), only using computer effects to remove a few wires from the frame, and there is a genuine air of authenticity to everything, of people shooting chases because they love the sensation of chases, and want to preserve it as naturally as possible.

But I think Death Proof is more interesting as a work of criticism than anything else. For its first half, boy - it damn near comes close to being Quentin Tarantino’s Funny Games, complete with gleeful acknowledgement of the audience’s complicit nature in enjoying murder movie mayhem. Just look at Russell’s smirk at the audience right before the killing begins - it’s as if he’s saying “don’t worry folks, the chit-chat’s over, I’ll start killing some women now.” And then, when the murder happens, Tarantino backs the movie up no less than three separate times, so we can gaze upon the grotesque mutilations done to each and every one of the quartet with maximum clarity.

The trick is, I don’t think Tarantino has much of a sweeping statement to make about society or violence or whatnot. I’m not even entirely sure he wants to say anything, or if he’s even particularly equipped as an artist - he just doesn’t strike me as being the type of filmmaker with the detachment or the relative humorlessness of a Michael Haneke. But I do think Tarantino has an interest in experimenting with genre tropes, acknowledging their social implications and smashing seemingly disparate elements together and seeing what happens.

So, we’ve got two groups of women, both of whom act out their own somewhat similar storylines. Some criticisms of the film I’ve read seem to take the first half of the film as ‘punishment’ against the type of woman Tarantino doesn’t favor, as opposed to cool, tough chicks who like good movies and fast cars. My problem with that interpretation is that I never once got the feeling that Tarantino ‘hated’ the first quartet of women. Indeed, they obviously share the director’s taste in music, they’re given sweet little dramas that unfold on the sidelines, and they rarely do anything particularly unsympathetic. Meanwhile, though it’s evident that the second quartet loves action and namedropping influential films, they’re also arguably thieves, they clearly injure at least one innocent person during their pursuit of revenge, and they play an utterly reckless, dangerous prank on one of their friends - compare that to the innocuous joke played by the first quartet.

But in the end, Tarantino treats all of these characters, even the evil ones, as particularly vivid, rounded archetypes. The first quartet are doomed, not because they’re sexually promiscuous or vapid or anything, but because that is their role to play as characters in a slasher film. Yet Tarantino doesn’t give us a ‘last girl.’ He kills them all, and replaces them with new women, absolutely none of whom manage to be killed by Stuntman Mike.

The stuntman himself embodies dual masculine power types, both invincible slasher and fast-driving macho man. Death Proof turns into a chase movie (the print even cleaning itself of scratches in the process), and the Stuntman is delighted to participate; he always sees himself on camera (again, note his grin to the viewer), and finally gets to act in the old-school chase scene of his dreams! I can’t imagine Mickey Rourke (who was initially cast in the role but quickly discharged) playing the character - he’s far too prone to sleaze and sinister looks, while Russell has just enough twinkle in his eye to sell the dreamer in the killer. It’s sex to him, and apparently sex to the girls too, as evidenced by Tarantino’s loving shots of Zoe Bell grinning ecstatically, legs spread on a car hood, shirt gradually hiking itself further and further up her belly. I’m pretty sure at one point Tarantino even juxtaposes this against Stuntman Mike’s phallic hood ornament. Also, he has one of the girls scream “I’m gonna tap that ass!” about three or four billion times during the final movement of the chase, in case anyone was having difficulty.

Ah, that’s the irony for poor Suntman Mike. He wanted to be in a mighty chase film, but had to settle for being a slasher. And then he got his wish, only to wind up powerless against the type of women who might populate Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Tarantino beautifully evoking a real camaraderie among them, so bloodthirsty. The Stuntman’s traditionally masculine traits are useless against women who share the same, and have no time for rugged manly consideration. These girls may love Vanishing Point (and I wonder what they’d make of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop?), but their actions tell us that the power-drunk flailing of Stuntman Mike needs not be exclusively male, not in movies with less strict formula - if Tarantino has any statement to make, it’s that ramming different low-down genres together can create a dizzy upsetting of expectations on the level of what we expect from our garbage.

One last thing - the argument can be made, it occurs to me, that Tarantino is only reinforcing a patriarchic viewpoint by soaking his finale in violent aggression, characterizing his final girls’ victory through traditionally masculine means. Fighting, pummeling, killing. It provides an illusory, even dangerously fraudulent view of ‘empowerment’ while supplicating the very notion of feminine victory before the male gaze, the type of chest-beating ‘win’ that merely reinforces the dominant paradigm of feminine subordination. To this, I can only remind you that the film is titled Grindhouse. And even when it is not titled Grindhouse, it responds to films that are soaked in aggressive activity. But never is Tarantino’s view of things about how a film of this sort concerns men and woman, no.

It need not know gender. It need only know genre.

And even then, why choose just one?

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