Saturday, April 07, 2007

Grindhouse: Did you just hit a boat?!

Death Proof

by Ryland Walker Knight

It’s a shame Quentin Tarantino is so tight with Robert Rodriguez. Grindhouse, their new joint opus of nonsense, doesn’t have to be coherent by design but it’s so backloaded by Tarantino’s brilliant Death Proof that one wishes one could just skip over Rodriguez’s inane Planet Terror to get to the good stuff right away. Much how Kill Bill was mostly spoiled by its marketing split (it deserves to be three hours, unlike this mess), Death Proof is tainted by an apparent geek-out greed fest. As we’ve been given it, as the backend segment of Grindhouse’s carnival of idiocy, Death Proof’s glee almost erases Planet Terror’s numbing parade of bad choices; had it stood alone, Death Proof would be one of the best American movies of the year.

The problem with Planet Terror (and all of Rodriguez’s movies, really) is he’s not quite as smart as he thinks, nor does he try to be as smart as he thinks he’s attempting to be. His idea of playing with the audience is to spoon-feed it clichés with a smile and pat them on the back for recognizing said clichés. It’s not really post-modern as much as post-thought. He does do casting right, however, and to see Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn play brothers is something of a treat, even if it tastes kind of shitty and looks like gruel. Really, though, I doubt I’ll spoil it by saying, yes, Rodriguez goes there and name drops not only the US involvement in Afghanistan but Osama Bin Laden — and, as expected, it is hardly a novel surprise to make the government the ultimate evil or kill off key characters late in the third act. And Rodriguez is fully aware of this since each turn is wholly schematic — and banal. So, watching Planet Terror is kind of like saying “D’uh!” for 90 minutes.

There’s a little light ahead when three fake trailers are shoehorned in between the features (there’s also one that opens the, uh, experience) that are almost worth something. At the least, the one made by Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead fame), called Don’t, shares a similar wit and skill with Death Proof that, briefly, shows you all the possibilities of this trash genre Tarantino has so expertly perfected: a hyper-awareness of the medium manifest through puns (visual and auditory) and the silly joy of watching movies.

marleyproof poster

Death Proof’s first great move shows the delicious Vanessa Ferlito racing up a flight of stairs holding her crotch saying, “I have to take the biggest fucking piss of all time.” We’ve just watched a movie and this implicates the audience — of course! we need to pee, too! — so, whether or not those in attendance do, in fact, need to urinate they’ve already begun to think about it. Later, closer to the end but before the quite literal climax (more later), Rosario Dawson is told to stay in the backseat of a car and has a door slammed on her dialogue as she pleads, “But I really have to piss!” Tarantino knows people are watching this and those people are people with bodies and fears and needs and, being whip-smart like his most obvious influence Godard, he plays with his ever captive audience and its bodies and fears and needs. I really had to piss too.

For all his fanboy inanity and no matter his actual intentions, Tarantino, unlike his buddy Rodriguez, makes smart films that are fully aware of the film medium — and how it works onscreen, and on an audience. His films demonstrate his realization that film is not necessarily or primarily a narrative vehicle. The narrative is always subsumed by the spectacle in an unexpected, peculiar fashion. Despite this insistence on visuals, however, there’s a greater insistence on words, as in Godard. Both these filmmakers toy with narrative progression to the point where it’s hardly important but each knows how to make it resound with the audience, somehow, dramatically or not. Again similar to Godard, Tarantino’s films appear narrative but are really outright incidental captures: things just happen. And a lot of those things are awful.

Death Proof stars Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, owner of a black 1971 Chevy Nova, who may or may not really have been a stuntman and says he was on a lot of television shows from the 1970s. But the young girls he’s telling his story to have no idea what he’s talking about. His story isn’t validated, he’s not trustworthy. He’s just some creepy dude with sideburns, a frightening scar along the left side of his face, a goofy pompadour, a satin rainbow driving jacket and a badass muscle car. The Hostel director Eli Roth cameos long enough to say Stuntman Mike must have cut his face falling out of his time machine. Our knowledge that this is an homage (and campy send-up) is winked at once again.

Yet, try as he may, Tarantino’s attempts at camp always play earnest. His best film, 1997’s Jackie Brown, is a similar homage/send-up of a similar exploitation genre but it plays it straight at all times, even with the deadpan jokes (even Chris Tucker). The few times Jackie Brown gets a wicked grin and winks at the audience it’s not for any camp value, it’s for love, as in its deadly final sing-a-long scene. Death Proof’s signature camp moment is pure joy but also one of menacing hollowness: Kurt Russell stands at the door to his so-called “Death proof” vehicle (which, from the inside, appears empty and made chiefly of metal roll bars), watches his target car drive away and then turns his head to look straight into the camera for that wicked grin that erupts into a laugh. Of course he’s going to kill. But this glee is the scary thing. It’s important to note, though, Stuntman Mike’s glee is not Tarantino’s glee. Mike’s first kill is horrific, not orgasmic. That comes later.


In what may be the biggest formal stroke of brilliance in Death Proof, the movie is split in two like its host, Grindhouse. And, as the film only gets better, the second half of the second half — while name-dropping and visually quoting Vanishing Point by way of a very specific car — is unlike anything else, yet the same as everything else in movies: it is the joy of movies. It’s what Kill Bill should and could have been. Simply, it’s a movie about chasing tail that chases tails all over the map and yet, oddly, while chaotic, it's more unrelenting and rigorous than Cronenberg’s Crash. It’s fucking absurd. It adores the absurdity. And it’s absurd how much fun it is to see so much terror and wreckage and, most shocking, the glee of it all its bloody fallout. We forget we have to pee and we surrender to the hell ride. We almost want to be Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stand-in for a lot of Kill Bill’s stunts) out there on the hood, defying death, proving she’s the one who’s death proof, clinging taut and lithe to centimeters of iron. (Tarantino’s nimble camera adores her limbs, too.) And like Rosario Dawson’s ever-widening smile, we get giddy, we are overcome, we tap that ass and we shoot our hands to the sky!

When Tracie Thoms’ Kim smashes the 1970 Dodge Challenger 440 (with a white paint job) through an out-of-water, abandoned boat stranded aside the road and Dawson screams, “Did you just hit a boat?!” the absurdity is eruptive. Seconds later Thoms yells “I’m the horniest motherfucker on the road!” That Death Proof ends in a devastating orgy of blood can’t come as a surprise but it certainly is a welcome release. Tarantino’s film ends abruptly, like the jarring absence of the missing reels (another possibility Rodriguez plain ruins and Tarantino nails), but, being sudden, we aren’t allowed to question the spectacle — it’s its right to do that, just as it’s the women’s right to do what they do, however terrifying. Still, it’s too bad I had to sit through Planet Terror beforehand.

Give it to me
[This is Quentin Tarantino, he will fuck you up.]

02007: 191 minutes: written and directed by Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez and Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie & Eli Roth.

[This is Jungle Julie, she will fuck you up.]
foot fetish


  1. I had a hard time with both features. While the Rodriguez half was bad for all of the reasons you mentioned, it at least held my attention with the boiling-face infectees and the splattering and the Tom Savini cameos.

    The Tarantino half, however, I found to be tediously boring for the most part (a la "Kill Bill 2"). The dialogue, which is what you want to be dope in a Tarantino film which relies so heavily on words, was just so blah.

    The characters are just kinda sexy and annoying, I thought, and I kind of relished watching the climax to the first story. These are the kind of chicks I wouldn't want to hang out with for more than ten minutes, let alone pay money to watch them sit around and blab about nothing onscreen.

    The chase scene in the second half was definitely cool. But it took sooo long to build up to it, how they keep being like "Omigosh are we really gonna go through with this dangerous activity", "I dunno I'm having second thoughts", and twenty minutes more of that. If he wants such a big buildup to the admittedly dope climax, he's got to keep us interested with some endearing characters and dialogue. Otherwise I'm just hoping they die and get it over with.

    Just my take. Nice piece though, playa...

  2. I'm curious why you thought RR flubbed his missing reel but QT got it right. Was it RR's combo with the "burn" of the previous "reel"? I thought cutting to the burning restaurant after the film "resumed" was hilarious, and so did the rest of the theater I was in.

    Zoe Bell's stunts on that car hood made my palms sweat more than they have in a long time.

  3. LO - I think it's boring on purpose, to heighten the action, but that said, I could live in his dialogue and smile a lot. Also, they's bootifull.

    Trevor - It's a lazy laugh, tho. I could have told you that it would be jumping back into the middle of action with the way that shit was set up. Plus, the kick in the balls (boner?) that QT pulls off is pretty genius: that denial is maddening and hilarious. Sure, you sense it coming, too, what with the sound track fuckups and repeated frames leading up throughout, and all that sexy talk right up to the cut, but it works beyond the punchline, unlike the Rodriguez stunt, which is only a gag and nothing more. It is a kind of good visual pun, though, as we just watched the film burn up and then we cut to a house burning, but it's still a lazy move that can't rival anything in Death Proof.

    Also, Zoe Bell did a lot of work on my palms, my brain, my, uh, ... I like her. A lot.

  4. LO: "I had a hard time with both features."

    That's a great way to start thinking (and writing) about anything. It shows you're trying to work through why you had a hard time. However, you may have a totally different kind of "hard time" with either segment. For instance, it's hard for me to stomach something as bloatedly banal as Planet Terror in a very banal, dismissive way. Whereas my difficulty with the Tarantino film is that boredom, and why can't we just listen? I actually had a fun time dropping in and listening. I also like the ending of Kill Bill 2, in fact I like the whole movie a lot more than the first one, because it's so antithetical to us as movie goers, with the ultimate confrontation deferred and deferred and deferred and deferred and then it's supposed to happen and it's delayed a few more times. And its quite literal heartbreak is really poignant, I think, because it's so awkward a resolution. The dude knows how to wrap up a story, if you want to call his movies stories, as such. (I'm not sure they're really stories, though, as expressed above, in the essay.) I have my doubts as to whether or not Tarantino knows how rich his films are but there's fuckton of shit going on, even in something as flawed and bloated as Kill Bill or as meager as Reservoir Dogs, which I fear hasn't aged well with me. Anyways, I guess I'm saying I like the slow build up as a means to lay the framework of why there even IS a chase sequence, let alone why she's on the fucking hood, as a part of the car almost, for half of it. Then, that frightening ending is so damned complex I'm having trouble expressing all that's going on in it -- there's the climax, fists up; there's the fact that they're now no better than Stuntman Mike at the end of the first half, they're killers, too; there's the words "THE END" coming out of Mike's dead body; there's that boot to the face, too, as a final punctuation, furthering the horror inside the celebration; there's a lot. More will be written a lot better than that, with actual claims to defend and back up.

  5. Hee hee, yeah, The End is pretty off the hook. Abrupt, which I thought was kind of funny more than anything else, but do you think Tarantino had alterior motives? It's interesting how each audience member must react differently to a conclusion like that. For me, I had a good cackle and got up and finally took that pee I'd been meaning to take. And while I was peeing I was thinking, "That movie took too long."

    But I like your read into THE END --I had forgotten to consider the moral implications of what these women are doing to Stuntman Mike. What's more is to consider whether or not Tarentino considers the morality in this conclusion? You almost get the feeling he just likes watching these sexy chicks kick the shit out of this sleazy dude. Perhaps it's the only way he can "Get rid of his goo", as suggested by his own script.

    I suppose in the end, it's as if the filmmaker's intentions don't matter. There are so many different reactions people can have with this medium...or with any work of art for that matter. The ending that I get a mild chuckle over is the ending that convinces the next man to consider justice and ethics, is the ending that gives the guy in the back row a boner...and all three conclusions are legit!

    The diamond blings from many angles.

  6. This is my first visit here. I like that the first image is of Tarkovsky. The second being Biggie, I hereby award you a high-contrast award. Anyway, nice writing. Looking forward to seeing this one myself. I'm forever sympathetic to Rodriguez after reading his book, so I'll be curious how my thoughts compare to yours on this one.

  7. GS - Thanks for stopping by and saying hi. Glad to share.

    And I, too, have a soft spot for Rodriguez's ethos -- but his films are just about all bad.

  8. I don't know what you're talking about with Planet Terror, it's like you watched a completely different movie. Rodriguez flubs the missing reel while Tarantino nails it? Please, it's the same joke, and in the context of OT it's hilarious.

    I don't think the girls killed Stuntman Mike. I think the whole second half was a flashback to when Mike picked up his serial killer perversion.

    I dug both halves a lot. Planet Terror for its pomo camp and Death Proof for its true time machine trip back to when exploitation films bothered to develop characters before letting the thrills take over. The combination of the two is essential.

  9. RWK, while your pee reference maybe be apropos for making his audience have to sit in seats and hold bladders full of urine (it's own form of torture), as an injoke for the back end of a 3 1/2 hrs movie marathon, don't forget Quentin Tarantino uses "I got to pee/piss" in all his films, every single one (maybe there are valid analyses for why.)

    Your analysis for both QT and RR is spot on for their movie contributions to "Grindhouse."

    I have been browsing the internet for serious critical analyses for "Death Proof." I am quite pleased to know that there are several people (bloggers) who have given this little gem of a film the serious thoughts it deserves. There is indeed a lot going on in this movie for the senses and the mind. Thank you for thoughtful writing. I an just an average film fan (my collection of DVDs is about 60 films that I really like, yes "Raging Bull" is included).