Thursday, September 9, 2010
Problems I Have With Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007)
“The most offensive thing about [Straw Dogs] is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel. The perfect criticism of Straw Dogs has already been made. It is The Wild Bunch.”
-from Roger Ebert’s 1971 review of Straw Dogs
Those words of film criticism have stayed with me for a very long time. I’ve spent years and years trying to figure out where I stand on Hollywood violence: I’ve never been against pure cinematic violence as a whole, but even I cannot deny that I have some squeamishes of my own. And while I don’t agree with Roger Ebert’s overall assessment of Straw Dogs, I can certainly understand where he was coming from in his blistering review. For Ebert, it must have been truly bizarre at the time to see a filmmaker like Sam Peckinpah, who had just fashioned an antiviolence masterpiece out of The Wild Bunch, to be following up on his artistic triumph with a film that was suddenly asking Peckinpah’s audiences to take a step back again and empathize with a protagonist who was using ferocious means of violence to defend his home. To me, that is precisely what made Straw Dogs such a powerful film; it was “a fascist work of art”, as Pauline Kael so eloquently dubbed it—but to Ebert, it was as though Peckinpah’s theories about violence had “regressed to a sort of 19th-Century mixture of Kipling and machismo.” It was no longer a pleasant time to feel good about blood and guts at the movies.
Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker whose love of violence in the cinema seems to know no bounds. On his fansite, he’s even made a list of his favorite killing scenes in some of the bloodiest films of recent years (including a scene from Jason X). Fans of Tarantino point out that it’s ridiculous to go to his films and expect lessons to be learned, morals to be taken into account or politics to be debated—he is a filmmaker who makes movies about movies, and for any cinephile, that should be quite enough.
Anybody who knows me well knows that I’ve struggled with Tarantino’s work. That I’ve long been unable to place the source of my reservations towards his style has bothered me year after year, but after about five years of resisting his latest output and attempting to come up with explanations, I think I’ve finally figured out why I've been struggling: Tarantino’s recent choice of genres has disabled me from being fully prepared for the tricks he’s had up his sleeve. I suppose I’ve always had affection for his first two films because they were scripted from genres and filmmaker influences I know for a fact I have always been enamored with. Reservoir Dogs (1992) resurrected the heist picture as Tarantino brought with him the influence of a host of classic filmmakers, among them Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and possibly even John Huston (QT is reportedly a fan of The Asphalt Jungle); and Pulp Fiction (1994) put a new spin on the gangster pictures of Scorsese and Leone while at the same time spicing it all up with a pinch of Godard. These two films, in my opinion, were the work of a cinephile’s filmmaker for sure.
But ever since then, Tarantino has been making films that pay tribute to a lesser kind of cinema, a kind of cinema that cinephiles do not get as much worked up over: exploitation. Some of them have worked and some of them have not, and the key to whether or not each of them has succeeded depends entirely on whether or not Tarantino has been able to transcend exploitation with each new film. Jackie Brown (1996) was an homage to the crude blaxploitation flicks of Jack Hill and Gordon Parks, and although it was a rather conventional movie it nevertheless succeeded because it had likable characters and never succumbed to the filmmaker’s occasional self-indulgences. Inglourious Basterds (2009) repulsed me at first and is still a film I struggle somewhat with because of my inability to decide whether it celebrated the gross macho violence of World War II action flicks; but, in the end, I am able to recommend the film because of Tarantino’s own pointed observations (as stated on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show) about the film’s social relevance to questions about terrorism and criminal torture raised by today’s generation. Of the Kill Bill saga, I had a completely split reaction: I found the pointless violence of the 2003 installment deplorable, and the depth of the 2004 sequel simply irresistible.
To reiterate again the point I’m attempting to make with this piece, here’s why I believe that Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglorious Basterds were all successful films: they transcended their exploitative genres. The thing about me is, I hate exploitation. I think it’s a crass, ugly form of cinema—the kind of filmmaking that gives weight to the high-profile moralist’s complaint that movies can somehow influence people to be violent. Exploitation is not like a great horror or action film that can bring out the raw energy of cinematic violence as a way to exorcise our demons; it’s made primarily for the kind of audience that arrogantly chants out, “Kill! Kill!” and happily applauds when the bad guys are finally eliminated. It’s a one-dimensional artistic outlook and it does nothing to further the progress of the medium. We could debate about Kill Bill Vol. 1 and whether it was such a film, but I know for certain that Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds were not. As much as I wish Tarantino would go back to choosing more tasteful genres from which to make his movies, I can lay any quibbles I have with his current choice of filmmaking to rest—as long as he keeps on transcending it.
Death Proof (2007) is a problematic film for me. I do not believe it is a film that transcends exploitation; it’s a movie that feels a lot like a product of the trashy cinema from which it came. There’s nothing in this movie for cinephiles, and Tarantino seems to have made Death Proof for two purposes: a) to cater to the “Kill! Kill!” crowd, and b) to nostalgically evoke memories from audience members who constantly devoured movies like this back in the 1970’s. Of course, it is also perhaps true that Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez never intended for their Grindhouse project to “transcend” exploitation in the first place. I’m sure their intention was to bring back exploitation for modern audiences in hopes that it would revive enough interest in the genre to lead to more and more movies of the same kind—which may be the case, but I don’t think this sort of filmmaking makes for intriguing cinema in the least.
It isn’t just the vile way Death Proof goes about its business as an exploitive action flick that bothers me, either; it’s the lack of a real heart in the story. Not just in the narrative, either, but in Tarantino’s mixed bag of heroes and villains. The most purely Tarantinian character in all of Death Proof is the antagonist: Stuntman Mike, whose long speeches and B-movie punchlines, I must admit, are a true delight. The performance by Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike is a great one—one of the most enjoyable in all of Tarantino’s films—and like David Carradine’s Bill in the Kill Bill pictures or Cristoph Waltz’s Colonel Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino again confirms his talent for making likable figures out of characters who are, in their nature, despicable human beings. Bill wasted a whole audience of churchgoers, Colonel Landa executed Holocaust refugees, and in Death Proof, Stuntman Mike sadistically murders innocent women in horrifying car crashes. Logically, we should be able to hate Stuntman Mike with a passion and hope to see him killed off in no time, but, like I said, Stuntman Mike is such a living, breathing Tarantinian character that for the audience to look with disgust upon the character entirely is something of a difficult exercise.
Disappointingly, Tarantino fails to balance the villainy of Stuntman Mike with a heroine who can be just as charismatic. The first half of Death Proof is dominated by wild, voluptuous teenage girls (played by Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Jordan Ladd) who are going to spend the evening at a father’s lake house—no boys allowed. But we don’t ever really get to know any of these three girls very well, in the short screen time that they have. As characters, they are not very interesting, and their lengthy scenes of dialogue add up to nothing more than dull, superfluous exposition leading up to the moment when they will all be wiped out by one of Stuntman Mike’s gory car crashes. Tarantino does craft a sexy sequence in which the girls, unaware of Stuntman Mike’s sadistic nature, treat him to a lapdance to the jukebox tune of “Down in Mexico”, and one must commend Tarantino for his inspired decision to use one of The Coasters’ more underrated songs on his soundtrack. But of all the heroines who appear in the first half of Death Proof, the only one who arouses all that much interest is the lone Pam (Rose McGowan), who sadly becomes Stuntman Mike’s first victim—although when he explains to her that his car is “100% death proof” and that “to get the benefit of it, honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat!” it gives one a visual picture of Tarantino putting his tongue in his cheek when writing such absurd lines of dialogue for his colorful serial killer.
The Tennessee heroines who dominate the second half of Death Proof are, unfortunately, just as boring and wooden as the deceased Texas heroines who precede them. Again, Tarantino fails to make any of these women (played by Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tracie Thomas) as charismatic as Stuntman Mike; the only difference between these women and the last is that these women share Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of 1970’s exploitation pictures that most cinephiles have probably never seen (or ever cared to see), such as Vanishing Point and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. I can see no purpose for the long scenes of dialogue that these women spend talking about these films except to fill the undernourished running time of Death Proof and to get Tarantino’s audience members to check out the films his characters are recommending to each other. And why does Tarantino write up an incomprehensible scene in which Stuntman Mike creepily molests one of the women while she is sleeping in the parking lot of a general store? Or the scene where another one of the women is dropped off as collateral for the sexual advantages of a perverted mechanic? These awkward scenes don’t feel like they’re progressing the plot at all—they just feel intentionally awkward.
The only remotely interesting heroine in the second half of Death Proof is Zoe Bell, who plays herself. She’s a feisty stuntwoman from New Zealand whose character does indeed have some of Stuntman Mike’s charisma, and her character so well stands out above the rest of her inferior counterparts that it feels like a missed opportunity for Tarantino not to have her and Stuntman Mike duking it out, one-on-one, at the end of the film; it would have served as an excellent foil for the Bride’s showdown with Bill. But Zoe Bell, as we will later see, spends most of Death Proof on top of a speeding car playing a game of Ship’s Mast. Although we fear for Zoe's safety, and although we are impressed with Tarantino’s relentless direction of the lengthy car chase between Stuntman Mike and the heroines that follows, there is one concrete problem with this sequence: Tarantino doesn't give us anybody to root for. We can't root for Stuntman Mike because he is the murderous villain, and yet we can't much root for the heroines, either, because they are hardly any more likable. Worse, it is only a matter of time before we realize that this car chase is all that the movie has going for it. At this moment, Tarantino throws his story out the window, and we realize that the whole movie has been nothing but a bunch of wasteful meandering in preparation for this big action climax. Was it worth all of those overblown, overwritten scenes that went absolutely nowhere?
I also take objection to the way Tarantino concludes his film. Since exploitation cinema usually calls for the death of the murderous villain, obviously Stuntman Mike has to die at some point—but I’m not satisfied with the way he exits the picture. It’s a tradition for audiences at the multiplex to enjoy the deaths of cinematic villains, but I don’t remember the last time it was pleasurable to see a villain who was sobbing and wailing in extreme pain upon the moment of death. That is exactly how the screenplay of Death Proof dispatches of Stuntman Mike: defeated by the heroines, his car wrecked and his health under serious threat, Stuntman Mike cries out for help. The heroines run up to his car, take him out, and beat him to death. While Tarantino is not entirely to blame for the ultimate circumstances of Stuntman Mike's death (it was Kurt Russell's idea to have the character feel vulnerable and scared at the last minute), I resent how the filmmakers mean for us to cheer at having just seen something that is about as enjoyable as a rabid dog getting strangled for its sins.
We need to ask ourselves this question: what if Bill had died this way? Did any of us want to see Kill Bill Vol. 2 end with the Bride cutting up a screaming Bill, torturing him to death while she departs, her daughter over her shoulder, with a big grin on her face? Is that what we were hoping for? Of course not. The reason I like Kill Bill Vol. 2 so much is because Tarantino did not conform to the stupid limits of exploitation; he cut short the Bride’s greedy mission for revenge by confronting her with the dilemmas surrounding her desires to eliminate Bill, and finally allowed Bill to die honorably. Kill Bill Vol. 2 ended so well because Tarantino made us believe that we had sat through the course of two films for a true purpose—for a climax that we could feel good about, the kind of climax that could leave us, and the Bride, at peace with our thirsts for blood. Death Proof, unfortunately, asks us to take a step backwards from the nirvana of Kill Bill Vol. 2 and celebrate the kind of reactionary violence that the earlier film so eloquently deconstructed. I’ve been told that Death Proof is a critique of the misogyny that plagues exploitation; Tarantino has essentially turned the tables and given power to the women, allowing them to get back at the sick men who have menaced them in so many other movies. But this is nothing new or profound. What Tarantino wants us to gain from Death Proof is no different from what we were meant to gain from garbage like I Spit on Your Grave.
I am reminded of one of my favorite films, James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973). In that film, Robert Blake played John Wintergreen, a motorcycle cop who tries to capitalize on the carnage of the highways he patrols in order to get a gold star and be promoted as a detective who can be safe from all the trouble and filth he has to deal with every single day. Wintergreen then soon finds out that the high life is not what it’s cut out to be and is demoted back to his dangerous, low-paying job. Back on the roads, he harasses a couple of drug-carrying hippies, is shot through the stomach, and is left to die on the highway in one of the most beautiful endings ever slapped onto the tail-end of any American film. What was so wonderful about Electra Glide in Blue was that Guercio had made a film that threatened to be a product of the trashy vigilante cop genre it came from, and yet it wasn’t. To use that dreaded word again, it transcended the material. It was not exploitation. We felt just as devastated as John Wintergreen must have—when he saw that shotgun barrel come out at him, reminding him in a fleeting moment of the highway dangers he should have seen unblinkingly.
Death Proof is what it is: a feminist revenge picture. It is anything more? I have tried to search throughout the movie and find any sort of concrete detail that can help me appreciate it better than I do, and yet I see so little there: the film is cynical, mean-spirited and not a whole lot of fun. No one can deny Tarantino’s wisdom of empowering his heroines, but from that point he should have found a way to rise above the silly boundaries of exploitation cinema—not lower himself to its level, which a talented filmmaker such as he ought to know better. The perfect criticism of Death Proof has already been made. It is Kill Bill Vol. 2.