Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Death Proof

Even though, intellectually, I see and to some extent understand that QT's films aren't for everyone, that they're problematic for some thematically and in their treatment of violence, etc., emotionally it's unfathomable to me. I get such a jolt of pure joy out of these movies--both in the sense that they bring me joy personally and in the sense I get that they bring him joy as well--that when people talk about disliking his oeuvre, it's like when I hear someone say they don't like chocolate. It's just like, what? How can you not love this?

It makes sense that Death Proof would be one of QT's most meta/intertextual films, as it's his installment of a "double feature" made in homage to both a style of cinema as well as the whole experience of consuming these kinds of films, made in concert with his best filmmaking buddy. But revisiting it this past week, I found myself more deeply delighted than I'd remembered by the formal elegance on display here--probably because I was initially distracted by all the trash trappings he was playing with (intentional scratches on the print, sleazy mise-en-scene, sudden shifts from black and white to color, the vintage "feature presentation" and "restricted" animations before the movie actually begins). Not only, obviously, is Grindhouse bifurcated, so is Death Proof, and, it's clear to me now, so too is the second half of Death Proof. The movie seems to be constantly splitting itself in half as it moves farther and farther away from any sort of gesture toward "realism" as it becomes more and more purely about cinematic conventions, so that by the time the girls kill Stuntman Mike, it's not really about whether or not these characters would "actually" behave this way--it's more about the symbolic death of the exploitative male gaze. I mean, obviously, right?

The two casts of women in this film are fairly obvious doubles/recursions of themselves, down to their character "types"/looks, haircuts, hierarchies, conversations, etc. I read this as not just indicative of Stuntman Mike's pathology as a stalker looking to endlessly recreate a pattern in his victims but as a comment on Hollywood's deeply boring tendency to do the same. There's always going to be the naive sweetheart, the sassy New Yorker, the kick-ass black "bitch," and the tough girl somewhere in the movies, right? In a way, it reminded me of those scenes in Inland Empire where all those pretty girls were hanging out in a small room, like veal in a pen, seemingly just waiting to be "killed" by the camera for their youth and beauty. The crucial difference between the two sets of women in Death Proof, though--the difference that the power of the story basically hinges on--is that the second group, the group uniquely capable of defending themselves and exacting revenge, is the group of movie people. I think this is QT's rebuke on the prevailing notion that movie nerdery is strictly a boys' club. It's like he's saying, "women are just as familiar with these tropes as dudes are--and not just familiar with them, but when given the space to do so, uniquely capable of using that familiarity to transform and subvert them."

That's why Rosario Dawson's coup de grace drop kick to the head is absolutely crucial, no matter how uncomfortable it's made some (ahem, male) critics. QT sets it up with the kind of subtlety that his detractors seem pathologically incapable of seeing in his work: in the earlier surveillance scene when Stuntman Mike is taking pictures of the second group of women at the airport, we see Abernathy and Lee vamping around for their own amusement, doing cheerleader-esque high kicks. Filmed through Stuntman Mike's spy-cam, their behavior becomes fetishized, and we're meant to get a voyeuristic thrill out of it--their legs are long and tan, their physical familiarity and affection with each other becoming subtly homoerotic (the key reasons that cheerleader movies ever get made in the first place, right?). But then the same action, the high kick in the air, is transformed into one of power, and, yes, table-turning violence. The message here is that the strength and beauty of her body cuts both ways, and she knows it, and all women should know it.

This is not meant to bag on the characters in the first half of the movie, of course. The sequence in Austin is filled with delights of its own, chief among which comes right before the real violence begins, when Kurt Russell extinguishes his cigarette and then looks directly into the camera. For me, for pure meta-thrill in acknowledging and challenging our gaze, it's got to rival the moment in Y Tu Mama Tambien when in the dive bar, right before the infamous threesome scene, Ana Lopez Mercado similarly breaks the fourth wall as she dances toward the camera. Mike's slight smile and glance back at us makes us 100% complicit in everything that's about to happen, and, just like Rose McGowan locked into the passenger seat (where, as he just explained, the camera would be if the car were being used in the filming of a movie), there's nothing we can do to change or stop it. What a thrown gauntlet.

Speaking of Rose McGowan, I also love her delivery of the line "That pituitary case? Mighta kicked my ass a couple of times--sorry, I'm built like a girl, not a black man--but I'd die before I ever gave Julia Lucai my chocolate milk." I'm generally indifferent to her as an actress, but, shit, she nails that interp so well, with so much humor and musicality, that I want to program it as my phone's ring tone.

I also love the fact that Tarantino casts himself as Warren the bartender in the first half of the movie. Momentarily setting aside the endless debate about his skills as an actor (I will remain respectfully neutral on the point for now), it's such a playful way of heightening the metanarrative here, of reminding us that this movie is unapologetically about movies. The linguistic doubling might be superficially facile, but it's clever: "I love that philosophy: 'Warren says it, we do it!'...Shots first, questions later. Here we go. Post time!" I mean, "shots first, questions later"? Come on. It's cheeky and it's silly, but I love it. He's directing the drunken craziness of the night, like...well, like a director. This bar scene is also where we get those endless shots of frames within frames within frames, the camera constantly set up behind random panes of glass, partitions, doorways, windows, and, of course, windshields. Everything here is mediated; we're always being reminded that we're looking through.

So, there you have it, kittens! My trip through Tarantino's old work is complete, and I'm sooo looking forward to finally checking out Inglourious Basterds. It might take me a while to write something up here, though, since I feel it takes at least three viewings of a well-made movie before I'm able to sufficiently wrap my head around it. Catch you back here soon.


Michael O'D said...

I have really enjoyed your QT retrospective, and look forward to your review of Inglorious Basterds. I hesitate to weigh in with a contrary perspective, but since you opened with an nod to those who are left cold by QT’s ouvre, I’ll offer, in the spirit of good debate on a great blog, three reasons why his movies don't do much for me. The first is indeed the violence. Unless you’re tuned to QT’s frequency, which I’m just not, it’s exhausting trying to decipher which cold-blooded execution is meant ironically and to what end, and which execution is there because QT thinks it looks cool (and there’s more of that than most fans acknowledge). I’m put in mind of a scene from the Simpsons at Lollapalooza circa 1996. Two unsmiling Gen Y types stand before the camera swaying to the grim music of the Smashing Pumpkins. When a cannonball freak (Homer) steps on stage, one of the two fans says in a monotone, “Here comes the cannonball guy. He’s kind of cool.” The other one says, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” And the first replies, “I don’t even know anymore.” If I’m going to watch an ultra-violent movie and am given to understand that its violence is offered in service of something profound, but I have no idea what that “something profound” is, then I guess I’m just watching an ultra-violent movie. I'm also troubled by the notion that if violence on film is so outrageous and sensationalistic that no one can possibly take it seriously, it becomes permissible to laugh at it.

My second problem with QT is his exhausting references to other movies, which delight students of film because it’s fun to spot the allusions, but excludes everyone else. I enjoy as much as the next guy a nod by a novelist to another novel, or by a composer to another symphony. But not if that’s the main thing the novelist or composer has to offer. In his worst moments, it seems that all QT does is skewer up a shish-kabob of (1) allusions to westerns, kung-fu movies, and blaxploitation flicks, and (2) clever dialogue that does not always age well, held together by (3) far too few cinematic moments of his own that do something more than contend, on a meta level, that this thing called cinema has a rich history. QT reminds me of the type of ubiquitous wit who proves how smart he is by incessantly quoting Thackery, Proust, and Henry James rather than making his own argument. At a cocktail party, that’s the person I try to *avoid*.

While QT is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker with a fine eye for framing a shot and cutting a scene (like the Jackie Brown opener), he doesn’t push himself to do nearly enough of that workmanlike business. Instead, it’s all cf this and cf that, plus blood everywhere and a great soundtrack. And since it’s not film buffs who are plastering up all those Reservoir Dogs posters, much of his audience looks to me like frat boys getting off on explicit scenes of antiheroes shooting people or beating them with baseball bats and looking cool while doing it. Perhaps the joke’s on them because QT intends something altogether different, but I don’t find it very satisfying to laugh knowingly.

Third, and finally, it just doesn’t sit right with me that a white guy keeps making all these movies filled with ‘70s soul music in which every third word is nigger. What’s up with that? I don’t know if he holds some honorary membership badge, if Samuel Jackson’s participation operates as an inoculation, or if we just think he’s so cool that he gets a free pass on being the one white guy who's hip to black culture, but this has always discomfitted me. I’m sure he’s watched Shaft many more times than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean he grew up in Harlem.

I don’t mean to come off as a killjoy QT hater--I'm actually not. The level of insight in your great string of essays has been so high that it has inspired me to contribute, and my contrarian bone has been tickled. Now it's back to watching The Day After Tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

AMF--This is hands down the best thing I've read about *Death Proof*. Can't wait to hear your take on *Basterds*.


Anonymous said...

dear felus,
though being married to a QT fan pretty much makes me a QT fan too, i have seemed to grow my own love for Death Proof. i love this film; i have cravings for it. i watch it withOUT ctla! i put it in while cleaning the upstairs rooms so i can hear "hang up the chick habit." thanks for your brilliant comments about male gaze and female strength. i think i felt a hunch that was all there, but hadn't parsed it out yet.

oh, i cannot wait for your IB review.

cheers (and high kicks!)

Donovan said...

Did you watch the theatrical or DVD version? I had very different reactions to each...

Anonymous said...

Sent here from your friend at FIPS - really enjoyed your Tarantino writing - can't wait for your take on Basterds. I thought it was his best since Pulp Fiction, narrowly eclipsing Kill Bill. But that's just me, can't wait to read what you see in it.