Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse was fortunately released separately in Europe, which means one doesn’t have to sit through Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror to get to it. This version also adds some 20 minutes of scenes to the Grindhouse version, which should be source of enthusiasm for the fans. Unfortunately, it’s probably no better than Planet Terror, since it appears that Tarantino has dug himself a hole so deep in his own “mythology” that his film is only a rehashing of his previous work and old films. It’s even more pointless than Kill Bill: it’s about nothing and contains nothing.
Back in the 90s, when Tarantino was good, he had aptly infused his first films with an awareness of their debt to the past, filling them with references and “witty” ironic dialogue. But Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown were not just empty pastiches and homages to old movies, they had a life and style of their own (endlessly imitated and parodied). With Kill Bill, he apparently decided that he was tired of the irony: he wanted his movies to be anachronistic 70s exploitation films, and devised a three-hour pastiche of kung fu movies and spaghetti westerns, rooted in the most reliable of plot devices: revenge. Death Proof is in the exact same mode, but even less reliant on conventional movie structures. Plot is nonexistent, instead there are drawn-out, protracted dialogue scenes swarming with references not only to Tarantino’s favorites, but his own body of work. It’s as if the dialogue is there as a check list or test of how much of a Tarantino expert you are and how many allusions you can spot. He abuses of effects to convey the appearance of a 70s exploitation film (the cheesy titles, film specks and scratches, and clumsy splices), as if he wants us to really believe this time that this is no different: he is making a exploitation film.
It’s not, obviously, as he thinks he can improve the template. It wouldn’t have much of an artistic merit if it were an all-out imitation of an old film (Gus Van Sant did that with Psycho, and look how it turned out), and Tarantino knows this. Halfway through the movie he abandons the silly effects, clearly signaling (by having the entire middle reel in black and white, and then moving to perfect, crisp, color film, with no defects) that he only wanted to lure you in. From that point on, it’s a modern film in all aspects (one particular scene in a diner emphasizes this by using a contemporary and even annoying camera setup). It also divides the movie in two distinct halves.
In the first, a group of girls spend an evening in a bar in Austin, Texas, and Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a stunt driver who has a “death proof” car, uses it as a weapon to murder them. He gets away with it, as the two cops from Kill Bill tell us, there’s no way of proving it was homicide, and he gets off sexually through it. More on that later. In the second part, Stuntman Mike is stalking another group of girls. Two of these are also stunts working on a film, and they want to perform some dangerous stunts with a 1970 Dodge Challenger, the same make of car that was used in the movie Vanishing Point. The homage here is not only explicit, but the characters themselves are engaged in reliving a movie experience. It’s their chance to “live the dream” as it were, and perform a kind of real-life pastiche and catharsis. Therein may lie the key to the film.
In horror movies, the killer or monster always shows up at this moment of fulfilling — which is usually associated with sex, e.g. the kids are finally going to do it — almost a paternal forbidding that disallows the realization of desire. Stuntman Mike shows up, in another car, to stop the girls from doing this, almost killing them. He’s not careful though, and gets shot when he leaves the car for an instant. He cries and whines like a baby, and the girls chase him down. In here, unlike Kill Bill, there’s not even a reversal of values, and the movie ends with the three girls kicking Stuntman Mike’s ass, almost in cop-out fashion, without any further contextualizing. The whole movie has been driving to this conclusion, and their actions have no further consequences.
What is odd is the de-sexualization that occurs in Death Proof. The film opens with sexy girls talking about sex, but there’s none of it, or nudity, even. An in-joke is that, apparently, in true “grindhouse” fashion, the reel with all the sex is missing (I’ve been told this is more true of Planet Terror) — but it hardly explains why all the sex is only alluded to indirectly, and there’s not even a single bare breast in sight. In a true exploitation film there would be dozens.
All the sex has been diverted to the figure of the car. Stuntman Mike literally uses the car for sexual fulfillment, conflating sex and death as he kills the first set of girls. A number of critics have raised the comparison with J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, in which there is a similar act of charging the car with sexual meaning. It’s a long stretch because Stuntman Mike is an all-out psychopath who’s only interested in using the car as a weapon to chase and murder girls, whereas Ballard’s Vaughan is a far more complex and confused creation. The point about diverting sexuality to the car is interesting, though. We see the second set of girls finding some sort of liberation as they are driving the Dodge Challenger. It also empowers them — sexually — to chase down Stuntman Mike and emasculate him. The closest to regular sex we have in Death Proof is a tame lap dance performed by Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito), which is of little sexual value to Stuntman Mike and to the viewer. Who’s really sexy is Zoe Bell, atop the hood of the moving Dodge Challenger.
In this sense, Death Proof has nothing to do with Crash: it is, like Crash, a response to the conflation of sex and cars particular to the late 60s and early 70s: the fetish of the car paralleling a courtship, the car chase a sex scene, and the crash as orgasm. Tarantino has lost either the ability or the will to say anything new or even his own: now he’s just mouthing the words made by others, and Death Proof is the confirmation of this decline and total acceptance of his influences — he’s no longer using Pam Grier to act in a Tarantino film, he’s driving the 1970 Dodge Challenger in the Vanishing Point roads listening to songs by Jack Nitzsche, crashing into Pulp Fiction.