Skip to main content

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof
(2007)

(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

My recollection of the movie was one of, as the phrase goes, hot garbage, hotter even than Robert Rodriquez’s companion piece Planet Terror (which, like it or not, seemed more invested in its messy tapestry; it also helps that he’s a slipshod director of slipshod movies intentionally making a slipshod movie, so there aren’t any real joins to see). This revisit confirmed that assessment, although in fairness, I had written off the opening hour – kind of Tarantino’s equivalent of a Psycho misdirection, whereby, Janet Leigh style, the heroes you meet at the start aren’t the ones you end up with, but devoid of any accompanying quality – as a series of mind-numbingly banal conversations only truncated when Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike fashions a grisly demise for them all.

That part is accurate – and whether or not Tarantino might argue the banality is intentional, crap is no less crap for wanting it to be crap – but they’re really appreciably no worse than the second half’s quartet’s interactions. In tandem with this, our auteur has a whale of a time fetishising the bodies of his stars, be it Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s and Vanessa Ferlito’s bottoms or Sydney Poitier’s legs. Or Rosario Dawson’s toes. But he can do that, okay, because it’s self-aware… Yes… But then, Tarantino’s take suggests he’s not that self-conscious about the movie (“let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do”).

Indeed, I’d say that, despite the presence of three more recognisable actors – Winstead, Dawson and Tracie Thoms – in the second half, they fare less well due to the encumbrance of Tarantino’s attempt to turn Zoë Bell into an actor and failing in a manner that, by comparison, makes his own acting career suddenly appear wholly viable. Bell is shockingly bad, and no heavy lifting by her supporting cast is going to remedy that. I suppose you could use the get out that Zoë Bell is playing Zoë Bell, so this is her, but what, is Tarantino going to claim his intention was for Bell to be really bad at being herself?

Even the ostensible reason for having her there – the picture revolves around a “death proof” stunt car, of the type Stuntman Mike drives, that protects its driver’s seat no matter what, and thus Quentin figures, he can justify an actual stuntperson playing an actual stuntperson going up against another stuntperson, or some such suspect reasoning – crashes and burns in the face of Tarantino shooting the chase material in the most tedious and long-winded manner. Because he wants it to be authentic, okay, with Bell flailing about all over a bonnet while pulling a “ship’s mast” stunt.

The first half consists of a protracted sequence showing Mike up to his insidious agenda. Which may be entirely creepy, and Mike is easily the least engaging role Russell has taken – which doesn’t mean he’s unengaging in it, just that you wish it had been worthy of him – but it’s about the only time the picture really holds the attention. The reveal that Mike had the evening’s gory pile up planned out in advance, spurning alcohol and covering his tracks, as offhandedly theorised by Michael Parks’ Earl McGraw, is the one point in the proceedings where Tarantino’s actually come up with something worthy of past talents, rather than draping himself in the flag of mutton dressed as mutton while hoping his audience comes along for the ride, the way he previously hoodwinked them with his previous exploitation riff, Kill Bill. But this is much closer to the earlier From Dusk Til Dawn. Notably, all three feature McGraw, affiliating them in a scuzzy, seedy backwater of Tarantino fare that he’d probably engage with even more actively if he thought he could bring the viewers along in sufficient numbers.

From Dusk Til Dawn was exactly as crappy as most Rodriguez movies (the only reason I can figure James Cameron wanted him for Alita: Battle Angel was that he didn’t want anyone on board – such as a Kathryn Bigelow – who might make a better movie than he could, the same for Terminator: Dark Fate). Kill Bill showed off Quentin’s express intent – proving he could do action – but had little else really going for it. It did allow him to shoehorn a lot of self-conscious movie trickery into the mix, though, and he clearly thought that had given him enough rope to go forward with his Grindhouse concept (film jumps and assorted damage, including hairs, scratches etc). Which absolutely no one bought into. When even the Tarantino faithful – and there are a either lot of them or they’re just very vocal – don’t want to know, that’s saying something.

Kill Bill isn’t a particularly good movie, but it isn’t a boring one (although, I’d argue the succession of fights does get tedious, particularly viewing the parts back to back). Death Proof commits the capital crime that, luckily, he hasn’t steered clear of since (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tests the patience, but it at least does so in an interesting way). It’s dull. It’s dull, it’s ugly, and it has no interesting characters. You might argue this is all intentional homage, but what then are you left with, precisely?

There are various links here, however, that definitely make Death Proof of a piece with subsequent fare. In particular, you can hang this with Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in its focus on a “rousing” revenge fantasy climax. Those are all revisionist histories to some degree (Django Unchained in terms of period permissibility rather than actual events), but they link by dint of their crude – and being aware of the crudity doesn’t, like the general issue of quality, somehow make it meritorious in a post-modern sense – righting of wrongs committed by racists/ Nazis/ murderous cults/ misogynists.

Taken collectively, they suggest a filmmaker gripped by permanent adolescence in the way he responds to such issues. Which tend to reveal that he has no real way of responding to such issues, as he responds to them in a movie way. The misogynist, in the form of Stuntman Mike, comes in for beating here. But rather than rousing, it’s simply irritating, as Tarantino – again, in the name of exploitation cinema – goes for the most obvious. So Mike is revealed as a coward beneath it all, blubbering when he gets shot, and proceeding to show what an inadequate man he is when the trio of Bell, Dawson and Thoms give chase. Because I guess they’re actually insane psychos themselves deep down, in a movie-movie with no connection to the real world – Tarantino will probably point to this at some point and say Brad Pitt’s actions in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are no different, to counter misogyny charges there – suddenly reveal how, with no prior indication, they’re happy as punch to beat a man to death. And stomp his head in.

I mean sure, if that’s your bag. I just don’t have an “in” here. For this kind of ultra-violence to be cathartic, you need to be invested in the first place. At very least, when movies riff or offer homages (Joe Dante or John Landis, say), they’re usually done with a modicum of wit, but there’s none of that here.

I’ll warrant though, that Tarantino has continued to nurse the scars of Grindhouse’s reception, which is why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has proven a stealth reheat of many of Death Proof’s elements (some were bafflingly conjecturing that Kurt would again be playing Mike – what, when he’s ten years older and the movie’s set forty years earlier?) Both have a stuntman in a central role again, with a shady possibly murderous past, there’s a flourish of references to old TV shows no one remembers (here The High Chaparral, The Virginian, Vegas, The Men of Shiloh, Gavilan, as well as namechecking unknown stuntman Lee Majors). Half of each picture is set in the world of movies (obviously, all Tarantino’s movies revolve around movies to some degree) and both end in the protagonists slaughtering the antagonist(s) with impunity. So yeah, Quentin spruced up his grindhouse with big name actors, gave it a polish and an air of respectability, and passed it off as non-defective goods.

Inevitably, Quentin shows up here, as the first half’s bar owner (Warren). He appears to have effected a peculiarly gargoyle-like transformation of himself at this stage of his career, resembling a Bob Hope as Elvis Halloween mask. For an embarrassment of displeasures, he’s joined in the same scene by Eli Roth. So I guess there’s a degree of authenticity here; the idea that the pair of them would show up acting in dodgy grindhouse fare isn’t beyond the ken. Hilariously, a 127-minute version of Death Proof was screened in competition at Cannes that year. I mean, maybe it was great… If Cahiers du Cinéma put it at number two for the year, it clearly tickled those French critics. Just not enough to persuade anyone else. Tarantino said of it that it “has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right?” No, Quentin. It was.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?

Doctor Who  Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive quality by contrast).

Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see ho…