Tuesday, August 6, 2019

You know I can't let you leave without tapping that ass one more time


The car chase movie to beat them all, and that's only the beginning of its appeal.

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Spoiler alert: since there's no use talking about it without talking about it, high

People like to rank Quentin Tarantino.  I like to look at their blatantly-incorrect lists.  So: other than his segment from 1995's critically-excoriated anthology film Four Rooms, which people don't even seem to remember—and perhaps now 2015's The Hateful Eight, which is probably held as more nebulously "worthy," but is also such a nasty, unpleasant, and unaccountably-long experience that it's largely wound up a footnote to other conversations—we have 2007's Death Proof, just sitting there at or near the bottom of Tarantino's whole filmography in the public mind, likely the least-rated of all his 10.25 feature films.  And I don't get that at all.

It is, to my mind, his most astonishingly underrated; but then, that's because I'm fairly convinced it's also his best and most interesting.  Which puts me even further out of step, unfortunately: in the first flush of enthusiasm, "most interesting" has been a title occasionally awarded to Tarantino's newest film, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.  It's the exigence for this particular stroll down memory lane, but also a mostly-tedious exercise in shallow self-reflection, with an oddly-punctuated title that I've failed to reproduce here as a sign of my disrespect.  Nevertheless, having arrived with the kind of bombshell critical fanfare that's made me wonder—not for the first time—if watching beige paint drying on a wall could garner strong reviews from film people if it only came attached to a brand name, Hollywood has even more routinely attracted the description, "Tarantino's most personal film."  That part's not based on thin air, but, honestly, I don't know: they don't come more "personal" than Death Proof, though it's only recently we've known how personal, to the point that it's almost a little disgusting about it.

Even the industrial beginnings of the project suggest a labor of love for Tarantino: Death Proof was the second movie in a bespoke double-feature called Grindhouse that Tarantino put together in 2007 alongside his old friend Robert Rodriguez, who wrote and directed the package's first feature, Planet Terror.  Notionally, it was to have been a recreation of the exploitation grindhouse double-features they'd grown up with and been warped by, with the same crappiness applied to its presentation (odd "splices," "missing" reels, "filthy" prints covered in "grit"), and utilizing, also, the talents of several other directors to create a mid-feature "trailer" segment for a bunch of other grindhouse-style films that wouldn't all manage to exist, but would add to the authenticity of the experience.

It wasn't the first time Tarantino and Rodriguez had anthologized their efforts—I didn't mention Four Rooms for no reason.  It wasn't the first time they'd failed together, either; and Grindhouse failed pretty hard, likely because it was well over three hours long and the whole thing is about as niche as niche gets, despite costing a very un-grindhouse-like $53 million to make.  I missed it myself, and I cannot tell you what Planet Terror is like, except that I know that the worst scene in Death Proof by far—cannily enough, mirroring the worst scene in Psycho, to which Death Proof owes such an obvious debt, though it's not even the Hitchcock it most completely resembles—involves a cross-over with Rodriguez's picture.  So that's "personal," and Tarantino took its failure personally enough to internalize the idea that it was his worst film, whether in its truncated Grindhouse cut or its expanded individual release.  I will say this: everything I've read about Planet Terror suggests it's the more faithfully "B-movie" of the two.  Tarantino, for all his love of the low culture of yesteryear, has never actually made a B-movie (Reservoir Dogs possibly excepted).  He makes A-movies out of B-movie (and B-minus-movie) parts.  Death Proof's full-length cut is no exception, deliberate in ways that few if any actual grindhouse movies ever were.

The story of Death Proof is a little strange, but easy enough to summarize: a serial killer named Stuntman Mike—he's a stuntman (Kurt Russell)—stalks two separate groups of women over the course of two extremely-distinct acts, intent on staging their murders to look like innocent car accidents caused by the women, while he, by luck, walks away from the scene by virtue of his heavily-reinforced supercars, a 1970 Chevy Nova and 1969 Dodge Charger, respectively, which he has rendered, as he'll explain to one of his victims who happens to be sitting in the passenger seat (Rose McGowan), "100% death proof."  (And yeah, this description of Mike's method is actually much more true for the first group of women than the second, but Mike getting sloppy the second time around isn't especially important.)  In the very simplest terms, then, Mike kills the first group of women; the second group kills him.

And it's not really much more complex than that even if I attempted more detail: the first group (Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd) wind up in a bar somewhere in Austin, TX, where they while away an evening with drink, pot, boys, the occasional prank, and an enormous amount of circling Tarantinian dialogue that tends to go nowhere even quicker than it usually does, but is mostly extremely pleasant, in a hang-out comedy sort of way.  Yet their frolics are charged with constant suspense, because Death Proof knows that we know what Death Proof is, and as Mike watches and waits, and becomes an active participant in their conversations, we know it's only a matter of time before something terrible happens.  This first act is the one that plays fairest with the Grindhouse conceit, a dingy, atmospheric, sordid-looking thing, full of strange and destabilizing ellipses, nominally due to the poor treatment of the print.  Of course, Death Proof, not actually being a piece of forgotten ephemera, resists this: it's belied, constantly, by the extremely rigorous nature of its dirty aesthetic.  It was the first and only time Tarantino acted as his own DP, acquitting himself marvelously with a tactility and use of plunging blacks that are possibly unparalleled by his "real" cinematographers; his stalwart editor Sally Menke was still alive and made sure those "accidental" splices were always in the right places; and few actual grindhouse films would have bothered having the choreography and cutting and song cue of a certain lap dance all wind up so splendid and mutually-reinforcing.

The film practically starts out with a pair of edits that acknowledge that this is a much more professional work than anything that ever showed up scratched and soiled in some marginal urban theater in the 1970s.  The first amounts to a parody by way of preposterous ineptitude, Death Proof's title card replacing the "preexisting" Quentin Tarantino's Thunderbolt card in such a manner that the "original" title is still on screen, and completely readable, for at least a dozen frames.  The second comes a little bit later, but is no parody.  It's as precise and serendipitous as any "accidentally" missing frames could be, arriving when the women's little sedan starts to round a corner and, in a jarring jump cut, disappears, Mike's Nova rumbling up to overwrite them on the screen.  Needless to say, it's a not-very-subtle but extremely-effective primer for the bloodbath to come.  (Of course, no 1970s grindhouse production could have afforded that Greg Nicotero-designed bloodbath, either, nor could it have afforded to recreate it four times so that each victim's rad death could be recorded individually.)

Which brings us to the second half, which pretty much abandons the Grindhouse concept entirely, and it's where Death Proof gets very, very interesting, as the now-dead false protagonists of the first phase recede in favor of a new group of potential victims (Zoë Bell, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a stuntwoman, a stunt driver, a wardrobe maven, and an actress, respectively, all out in Lebanon, TN, for a movie shoot.  (Bell is, explicitly, playing herself.)  Zoë gets it into her head to seek out a local yokel who's selling a white 1970 Dodge Challenger, such as was made famous in Tarantino's memory by that above-average turn-of-the-70s study of masculinity, Vanishing Point—though the idea that Death Proof and Vanishing Point have much in common besides a car and a crash is really pretty questionable if you've ever actually seen Vanishing Point.  Regardless, Zoë wants this car to do something very stupid with it, and Kim (that's Thoms), reluctantly obliges, and Abernathy (that's Dawson), tired of being ditched by the cool stuntwomen, comes along.  (Winstead's character is the closest Death Proof itself gets to the pointlessness of an actual B-movie, though I'm afraid she probably is here for a reason.)  Unfortunately for everyone involved, Stuntman Mike's back in the business of killing women, and he's found his targets for today.

What this means in practice is probably the single most thrilling vehicular chase ever put on a screen, a testament to practical stuntwork as the active defiance of what looks like a very certain death for poor Zoë Bell, hanging onto the hood of a Goddamn white 1970 Dodge Challenger while Mike rams the car, over and over.  It goes on for some time, and never stops riding the razor's edge where you're very, very sure that Zoë's performer did not survive the process of making this movie, and it never stops being the most exhilarating thing, plausibly the reason cameras were even invented in the first place.

But what's interesting about it, formally, is that the "Lebanon" half of the film, via a black-and-white segue that blasts out into some searing, fully-saturated color (the specific image clashes pink with a lot of yellow), stops being Grindhouse except, arguably, in content.  And what Tarantino's doing is obvious from this formal break—for the story, the structure, and the meaning of Death Proof are all, ultimately, the exact same thing—and what he's doing is  basically saying goodbye to the Z-grade cinema of his youth, the lurid faux-snuff films that got him into cinema in the first place.  Because Zoë does live, and the three women turn the tables on Mike in the most satisfying ways, while Mike weeps like a baby.  (And although the first time I saw Death Proof I registered this negation of Mike's substantial menace as an active flaw, I've come to accept it as a necessary element of the whole.)

I mean, Tarantino's lying, of course; he never has and never will surrender his nostalgia.  But, in theory, it's an all-out effort to redeem the misogynistic trash that fascinates him by turning it into something happier; Kill Bill remaining too arch and self-reflexive to classify as "the oppressed getting their own back," Death Proof is the first overt stirring of the moralistic impulse that Tarantino would soon apply to his (a)historical fiction, in Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  And so that already makes this arguably more important to Tarantino's development than any of his other films, which is one way of saying it was intensely personal—though all of them are personal, intimately and sometimes gratingly so, in some way or another.  But it's even more personal than that, and this is where a film that could be claimed, if you wanted to claim it, as feminist, gets almost as gross and strange as the films it wants to rewrite, a little gearhead Vertigo that nobody would have quite noticed as such at the time.  As we know now, however, Death Proof is packed with symbols that point towards the director himself, usually in some pretty unflattering ways.

Of course, it's always been hard to escape noticing that Stuntman Mike is Tarantino's stand-in.  He's the old man Tarantino has perceived himself as at least as far back as Jackie Brown, yammering to people about obscure movies and television shows they've never seen and wouldn't care about even if they had, who also happens to be into feet and who thinks violence against women is beautiful.  It's Mike, of course, who gets a pair of leering smiles aimed directly at the camera, one for each segment; he exists, after a fashion, outside of a film that, nonetheless, needs to destroy him.  It's... icky.  But compellingly so, as confessional as it is bizarre.  It's also not the Vertigo part, exactly: that's the actual genesis of Death Proof, which almost certainly crystallized in Tarantino's mind at some point immediately after filming Kill Bill, during which an unsafe driving sequence—one that Tarantino insisted upon—almost killed Uma Thurman.  And so Death Proof finds Thurman rebuilt—reinforced in every place she could be, you might say—as Zoë Bell, who was, you know, Thurman's stuntwoman from that very movie.  Death Proof carries that unnerving secondary current in every aspect: overtly, it's Tarantino meting out justice on behalf of victimized women; but it's also Tarantino recreating "femininity" to his specifications and deciding which women are worthy of triumph—the sourest bit in Death Proof isn't even the murders, but when Winstead's character, placed in a frilly cheerleader outfit for spurious reasons, and who (damningly) demonstrates no interest in Vanishing Point, is abandoned to possible rape because she's just not Tarantino's type.  And all along, it's clear that Stuntman Mike serves as the crucible that tests this masculine brand of femininity, though he (who is Tarantino) must, in the end, be annihilated by the women he has wronged, because he's still a disgusting id monster.  It is totally fucked up, is what I'm saying, and how it hasn't come in for reappraisal as the man's "most interesting" film—whether you enjoy Tarantino or despise him, and I've come to the conclusion I kind of do both—is just shocking.

But here's the thing: it's also, well, fun.  Death Proof is a blast, maybe even moreso if you just ignore all the weird shit under its hood.  It's funny, it's exciting.  It shares with most of Tarantino's films a whole lot of well-calibrated, extravagantly-good performances.  Bell, to my mind the star of this show, is a little obviously not used to reading lines, especially not in the context of an eight-minute long-take—but she compensates by pairing her physical capability with an appealing cutesiness, and she's rarely outright bad.  Meanwhile, though the "Austin" segment benefits from the doom that we know is waiting at the end of it, and their vibe-out would never have half of its irresistible, magnetic energy without it, Poitier, Ferlito, and Ladd do a fantastic job of conjuring up that ironic counterpoint, simply by making their vibe-out so lived-in and inviting.  (Personally, I think it's at least a little notable that everyone in Death Proof, except Mike, is nice—well, McGowan's character is pretty racist, surprisingly so in a Tarantino movie that, for once, has muted the racial edgelording almost down to nothing more than the name of Poitier's radio DJ character, "Jungle Julia," and the girls' boys are certainly a trio of whiney, objectifying dicks—but, anyway, everyone else is nice.  This is an enormous departure from a writer-director whose modal character is a murderous borderline-sociopath.)

There are standouts, naturally.  Of the women, Dawson's handed a moment of dawning pleasure that's one of my favorite flashes of humanity in any Tarantino movie.  And Russell, given the most substantial part, is truly incredible: the way he layers Mike's various notes is nothing short of a masterpiece of screen acting, moving smoothly across all his character's various roles, from a mysterious force of nature lurking in the dark, to a cool uncle with rambling stories, to exactly as lame as any old man would realistically come off whilst badgering a young woman to give him a lapdance—yet still managing to be terribly charismatic about this and everything else he does, including killing people, right up until that decisive moment in the climax where the pretense of "cool" is finally dropped.  It's nothing short of a miracle, and I could easily name it Russell's career-best performance.

Death Proof has basically everything a student of cinema could want out of any movie, at least besides it being born out of someone being seriously hurt in real life: the great photography; the unconventional but finely-tuned editing; the superb acting; the ugly secrets and the psychoanalytic autobiography; the sex and the violence and the greatest car chase of all time; even the 127 minute runtime, which is, by its director's standards, extremely brief, and, for the only time since Reservoir Dogs, entirely to the fucking point.  It should rank nowhere near the bottom of anybody's Tarantino list.  Like I said, for me, it ranks right at the top.

Score: 10/10


  1. I've finally found someone that likes this movie more than I do.

    1. Finding someone who rates it at all is hard enough.

    2. I mean, I'm at more of an 8/10, but my letterboxd review was literally "AKA the good half of Grindhouse"