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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2007)

7. Grindhouse
Segment: "Death Proof"

“Grindhouse” was the movie nerd event film of 2007. Quentin Tarantino, the God of the Movie Nerds, got together with his filmmaker BBF Robert Rodriguez. (Who, if not a God of Movie Nerds, is at least a Movie Nerd Disciple.) Two guys who had spent their entire careers riffing on classic exploitation flicks got together to make a proper homage to the genre. Better yet, they were determined to recreate the experience of a 42nd Street double feature, with grainy film reels, vintage bumpers, and trailers before and between. The best part? You were getting two movies for the price of one. In a time when all movie theaters are the same, Tarantino and Rodriguez were determined to make a unique film-going experience.

That “Grindhouse” failed to connect with a mainstream audience really shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It was always a weird, niche product, even with big-time filmmakers like Tarantino and Rodriguez behind the camera. What was more surprising was the harsh reaction the film received from film nuts, especially “Death Proof,” Tarantino’s half. People called it self-indulgent and, worse yet, boring. Most notably, the director himself considers it his worse film. Some still loved it, myself included. I went as far as to call it my favorite film of the year. Would such a divisive film like “Death Proof” hold up, especially separate from the overall “Grindhouse” experience?

It’s definitely my least favorite Tarantino film. Which is to say there’s still things I like about it. However, “Death Proof,” at times, seems designed to defy expectations and test fanboys’ patience. After “Kill Bill,” I think a lot of casual fans got the impression that Tarantino is an action director. He’s not, not really. I mean, his movies have action in them, some times a lot of action. But the meat still is and has always been the dialogue. “Death Proof” has action in it but the ratio widely leans towards the dialogue. I doubt it was intentional but if it is that makes “Death Proof” Tarantino’s “Through Being Cool,” a dismissal towards the hanger-ons and posers.

“Death Proof” was suppose to be Tarantino’s first horror film, a combination of an eighties slasher flick and a seventies car movie. Not so much in actuality. The horror elements take up one major scene and a handful of minor others. What’s “Death Proof” actually about? Girl talk! The first hour or so is devoted to a batch of female characters yakking about unimportant shit. Then they all die. The film then introduces a new batch of women before committing to another half-hour of girl talk. It’s a problematic structure. Switching protagonists mid-way through a film throws the audience off, forcing us to realign after an hour. Tarantino was experimenting with this but it doesn’t work. The film’s biggest flaw is that it completely starts over in that fashion.

The film’s other biggest problem is that first batch of chicks aren’t very likable. Arlene, Shanna, and Jungle Julia are introduced complaining about weed. They start bitching about boys in petty, small ways. We spend the next hour with them and the characters never really drift out of that bitchy mode. The story gets very small, contained briefly within a Mexican restaurant but mostly within a noisy, crowded bar. The dialogue between the girls and the other bar patrons are meant to be charming. Arlene makes out with a random guy in a car. Shanna complains to some dude about how her name is pronounced. The three girls share shots with the bartender, played by Tarantino himself in his most mugging, self-aggravating mode. They come off like a group of mean girls. Unlike the director’s best characters, we wind up spending more time with them then we’d ever want too.

The script tries to give us peaks inside the girls’ minds. Julia gets sad about a guy who won’t text her back. Arlene has her doubts about lap-dancing. All of these humanizing bits come off as deeply superficial. The actresses are not charming enough to carry their ugly characters. Vanessa Ferlito’s Jersey accent is grating. The actress isn’t bad. You can easily see her doing better with different material. The depth just isn’t in the script. Sydney Poitier's best attribute is that she can easily navigate Tarantino’s arch dialogue. Some of the words and references are ridiculous, like an out-of-the-blue shout out to Zatochi or a repeated mantra concerning taste in men. Poitier’s tongue is quick enough to handle these words. They’re never realistic but at least they sound good. Jordan Ladd, who is talented, is given little to work with. Most of her performance comes from playing off of Eli Roth... Who is as obnoxious an actor as Tarantino is. The horny teen character doesn’t do the guy any favors.

What does work about the first half of “Death Proof?” Mostly Kurt Russell. You imagine Russell was on Tarantino’s list of actors he wanted to work with. Kurt spouts the director’s trademark dialogue with ease. A monologue about Stuntman Mike’s history as a stuntman is especially entertaining, Kurt making a list of old TV references sound natural. Stuntman Mike is, naturally, a despicable human being, a misogynistic serial killer and a total sleazeball. However, Kurt makes him likable. He winds up being more relaxed and humble then his female victims. Was this intentional, a possible comment on slasher conventions? Maybe. Kurt’s fourth-wall busting glance at the viewer certainly suggests it. But if so, why do we spend so much time with the girls? For the record, Rose McGowen’s Pam is more likable then her peers and McGowen, comatose in Rodriguez’ half, is likable and quick-witted here.

You know what else works about the first half? The fucking crash. Mike’s sinister intentions are hinted at, his car lurking in the shadows. When Pam’s face smashes into the dashboard, “Death Proof” starts to lumber to life. The crash is brilliantly orchestrated. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s propulsive garage-rock classic “Hold Tight” powers the scene with its thrashing guitar beat. The flashing lights and shrieking sound effects add a layer of shock. The collision is shown four times, the effect on each girl focused on. The violence ramps up with each shock, a simple shattered neck elevating to a tire peeling out on a face. The scene climaxes with a car flipping repeatedly, real metal smashing against concrete. It’s amazing.

And then the movie starts over again. Which is frustrating. Tarantino is at least smart enough to make the second batch of ladies far more likable. Much of that has to do with the actresses involved. Zoe, Kim, Lee, and Abernathy talk about the same shit as the original girls did. They discuss guys, sex, work, and movies. The dialogue is on the same level, artificial but poetic in its own way. However, the cast is much more likable with a visible chemistry. The film is largely a vehicle for Zoe Bell, playing herself, proving to be immensely charming. Rosario Dawson’s infinite charisma takes Abernathy a far way and it helps that she’s the most down-to-earth of the girls. Flighty Lee adds some levity, provided mostly by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s all-smiles appeal. Tracie Thoms’ Kim is the thorniest of the girl but still proves humorous. Are the long scenes of the girl sitting around a table talking still tedious? To a degree, yes. Are the “Vanishing Point” and other references too on the nose? Oh yeah. They certainly go on far too long. Still, the far more interesting cast helps makes the ride easier.

Finally, in the last third, “Death Proof” gets really good. The slasher premise is abandoned entirely, the film transiting into a car chase flick completed. The action proves bracing and exciting. Metal smashes on metal, the chrome twisting. The car weaves around traffic, innocent bystanders occasionally paying the price. The direction frequently puts us right in the action, careening around tight corners and through debris. The cars leaping off an inexplicable mound is a great stunt. When the Dodge Charger comes off that ramp, smashing into Mike’s car, flipping it… Man, that’s satisfying. Tarantino set up to pay homage to and top the carsploitation classics of the seventies and more then succeeded. From that perspective, the film is hugely successful.

Even then, there are issues. “Death Proof” is a revenge movie too. However, this time, the heroes are on the wrong side. The audience knows Stuntman Mike is a serial killer. Zoe, Kim, and Abernathy don’t know that. As far as they know, Mike was just some asshole who tried to run them off the road. Their reprisal seems somewhat disproportional. Had the girls just thrashed Mike, that probably would have been fine. But Abernathy collapsing his head with her boot? Too much. Should one of the girls been murdered? Should Mike and Jasper, the hick who probably rapes Lee, been combined into one character? Reason is sacrificed for a flimsy girl power message.

I mentioned that “Kill Bill” is considered the start of Quentin’s self-indulgent period. Maybe “Death Proof” is the actual marker of that change. The bar’s jukebox is filled with the kind of music that the director loves, sixties soul and classic garage rock. “It’s So Easy” from “Cruising” and “Chick Habit,” probably a reference to “But I’m a Cheerleader!,” are prominently featured. There are repeated, lascivious shots of the girl’s feet, legs, and asses. This is especially notable in the extended cut, which features a scene of Mike all-but licking Abernathy’s feet. Not to mention the excised lap-dance scene, which is all about Vanessa Ferlito’s ass. I mean, it’s a nice ass but the director is bordering creepy old man territory on that one. And what about the convenience store that stocks “Fangoria,” “Video Watchdog,” and has SOTA’s Johnny Cash figure on the counter? I don't think such a place exists. Stick with the “Grindhouse” cut if you can, a leaner version of a film that desperately needed more editing.

My biggest problem with “Death Proof” is that it flatly explains its own themes. In the connecting scene between the two stories, Sheriff Earl McGraw explains that, for Stuntman Mike, murder is sex. This is especially egregious since the pseudo-feminist themes are fairly apparent. Maybe the movie needed more shots of Mike sitting on his car hood, the duck hood ornament from “Convoy” nestled between his legs. That’s comparatively subtle. I also have a problem with text messaging being such a plot point. The movie keeps up the grindhouse aesthetic, with grainy film and weirdly looped audio. Yet the modern phones and references really takes me out of the setting.

I tear “Death Proof” down but, really, the film is enjoyable. When it works, it’s fantastic. The problem is there’s a lot of bullshit to wade through to get to those memorable moments. It is, without question, the director’s most inessential film. When combined with “Planet Terror,” it proves more manageable simply because the “Grindhouse” presentation works so well. Those fake trailers and bumpers help a lot. On its own, “Death Proof” is the first Tarantino movie that is skipable. [“Death Proof:” B-, “Grindhouse:” B+]

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