I’m trying to keep from writing anything too long, as I want to conserve my energy for something pretty reasonably-sized that I’m going to announce in a week or two. With that said, here’s a look at Tarantino’s Grindhouse feature, Death Proof.
Given that I haven’t been able to get out and see Inglourious Basterds yet, I went back and watched Grindhouse instead – and, it’s funny. Death Proof at times seems to have a hold on the best and worst of Tarantino’s vices, simultaneously – there’s the over-reliance on pointless violence, countered by what is probably the most brilliantly choreographed car stunt sequence of the last ten years. There’s the pop-culture reference heavy dialogue scenes, but here they actually foreshadow what comes later on in the film, instead of falling into that trap that a lot of his films have, and particularly the second volume of Kill Bill, where it’s basically just Tarantino nudging us with his elbow, going “hey! Hey, check out this cool movie I found out about!” over and over again. The female characters reference Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point, and at first it seems extraneous, sandwiched in between a shout-out to Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and some other early seventies American road-movie. But, then it comes out that that the entire reason the New Zealand character came here was because she’d located the same make and model of car used in the film. Of course, the film is – in a way – one big pop-culture reference, Tarantino’s ode to the drive-in A.I.P. films of his youth, and there’s a great sense of fun that runs throughout the whole thing, as he inserts title cards only to have others super-imposed over them, or inserts a jarring, scratchy “reel missing” frame right in the middle of a scene. And, the jumpy editing.
Tarantino’s Death Proof is, in contrast with Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, the better film. Planet Terror seems like, in retrospect, the kind of thing that one would expect from something like Grindhouse, initially – there’s lots of Savini-esque gore, lots of amputee girls with peculiar appendages, lots of this and that, and Bruce Willis; just kind of a hodge-podge of digitized, modernized attempts at half-replicating what Rodriguez is sure everyone thinks of when they hear the words ‘grindhouse movie,’ – those who had heard them before, anyway. Death Proof is conceived as a real film, however, and Tarantino’s bordering-on-fetishistic love for these movies is apparent from the first frame.
Structured in two clearly defined halves, the link is Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike – who we first meet hunched over his beer, dressed in a polyester jumpsuit. Who is Stuntman Mike? Well, in the words of the barman, played by Tarantino, “he’s a stuntman.” Just some guy who used to throw himself down stairs on some old TV show that most young people have never heard of. In the first half of the film, he’s a very morose, quiet character – Tarantino compared this first half’s orchestration to that of a slasher film, and with that in mind, he seems to consciously build the character up in a fashion not at all dissimilar to the yellow-jumpsuited baddie from 2003’s High Tension, watching the girls from behind the wheel of his car, muttering and chuckling, and placing a greasy photograph up in the sun-visor. In the second half of the film, he’s much more spry – all smiles, the whole time. And, I think this ties in to what the sheriff character said earlier in the film, that he’s a guy who does the sort of thing he does for a weird sort of sexual release – so, when we see him for the first time in the second half, peering through binoculars from the hood of his car, he’s effectively the “after-photo” of Bob in all those Viagra ads. Interestingly, Tarantino talked a lot about trying to use this film as a vehicle to show this newer generation the Kurt Russell of the eighties, the badass dude with the ‘tude from Carpenter’s Escape From New York, in place of 2005’s Dreamer, or 2004’s Miracle – and, this is a lot funnier when you consider that the character, who’s ostensibly been through a quite a rough lot as a stunt man, breaks down like a big, blubbery woman after getting grazed by a bullet.
But, man. One of the most popular criticisms of Tarantino is that, like Diablo Cody, none of his characters really have a unique voice – with the exception of, say, Jackie Brown which owes more to the fact that it was based on prior source material. They all sound like the nerd behind the counter at your local video store, even the women – especially the women, for some reason. And, that’s no more apparent in any of his other films than it is, here. Regardless of how well he’s managed to make it relevant to the story, it still just comes off as – as I said earlier – “hey, man. Check out this cool movie I found out about!” over and over again. In contrast to his earlier films where these influences were integrated so well into the style and the aesthetic, lately it just feels as if he’s talking at you about his love of obscure films, rather than to you as a fellow movie lover. I think the problem is that he’s so enthusiastic about these things that he sometimes trips over himself and forgets to try and find somewhere for them all to fit. He can’t make up his mind whether or not to proceed with his story or tell you about this latest film he’s found out about, rather than do both at the same time – although from every indication that we’re getting so far, that’s corrected in Inglourious Basterds.
The film’s real point of interest is the film’s climactic car sequence. Apparently, Tarantino acted as his own cinematographer for the scene – and, if nothing else, he really does seem to have an eye for that low to the ground, head-on style of shooting. The stunt itself makes fair use of Zoe Bell, the only real stunt-woman on the cast, as she hoists herself up onto the hood of the speeding white Dodge, and ties herself down by her belt-straps – and, tries to hold on as Russell tries to run the car off the side of the road, which sends her flailing this-a-way and that, all over the hood. And, no – she’s really being knocked all over the hood. Sure, it’s set up, and, in the words of Australian stunt choreographer Max Aspen, “you don’t just go and do ’em all willy-nilly,” but it’s a testament to the power of the genuine use of stunt-people, and real cars, dirty and dented, shot with a camera six inches off the ground in the afternoon sun. That is, when Tarantino lets his characters shut up for a minute – when the chase turns in favor of the girls, it’s literally just one one-liner after another, from the character played by Tracie Thorns – “You know I cain’t let you go without smackin’ that ass one mo’ time!” and so on, and – after a while, they really do begin to become cloying interruptions to the flow of the kinetic rhythm of the scene.
I think the ending kind of summarizes my problem with Tarantino’s use of violence in his more recent films, and I never really caught on to it until I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine, but it really is true – it’s like Tarantino’s almost consciously put the violence on a sliding scale, and over the course of his films it’s gradually shrunk in emotional importance or impact. In a way, it’s a little unnerving – because, I mean, what does this say about Tarantino, that he really does seem to think this kind of violence is just wicked kewl, dude? And, more than that, what does this mean about his previous films, and their use of violence? Johann Hari, in his article “The Tragedy of Tarantino: He Has Proved His Critics Right,” for The Independent, puts it rather to the letter, I think:
“At the time, many critics recoiled, saying this was sadism served up as style. The film [Reservoir Dogs] was even banned on video in Britain for several years. But I was inclined to defend the film: I thought this violence was more real and repulsive than the glib gore-free massacres of an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. When these characters bleed, they really scream. When they feel pain, you really flinch. Here was a director showing violence as it really is.
But since then, Tarantino has enthusiastically proved his critics right, and his defenders wrong. The moral vision of Reservoir Dogs turns out to have been something well-meaning viewers projected onto it: Tarantino really does think violence is “like, cool.” He has been systematically squandering his cinematic talent ever since – in ways that reflect disturbingly on us, the viewers.
He has turned suffering into a merry joke. From ‘Pulp Fiction’ to ‘Kill Bill’, he encourages the audience to chortle at torture and mutilation and anal rape. A typical punchline is – whoops! – a man being shot in the face. Where there should be a gag reflex, he gives us a gag. In ‘Inglorious Basterds’, a group of Jews undercover in Germany torture and scalp Nazis, and he gets the viewer to roar with laughter as people are carved up, alive and howling.”
Although, the most disturbing passage I found was this, a quote from Tarantino himself:
“You can see this in the responses of Tarantino himself. Not long after 9/11, he said: “It didn’t affect me because there’s, like, a Hong Kong action movie? called Purple Storm and they work in a whole big thing in the plot that they blow up a skyscraper.” It’s a case-study in atrophy of moral senses: to brag you weren’t moved by the murder of two and half thousand actual people, because you’d already seen it simulated in a movie. Only somebody who has never seen violence – who sees the world as made of celluloid – can respond like this.”
That same friend of mine made up a game, among myself and him, and the two other people we were watching the movie with, the first time. By now, I’m pretty certain we weren’t the only ones – but doesn’t it seem like this is the film where Tarantino’s whole foot fetish thing is most apparent?