Since Jackie Brown was released in 1997, Quentin Tarantino has steadily lost favor with the critics who originally anointed him the savior of cinema. They roasted Death Proof in particular, and it tanked at the box office. Although QT later said he was “proud of his flop,” I’m not satisfied with the lackluster critical reaction to Tarantino’s most profound film.
Quentin’s reliance on poetic allusion—which is what his constant quotations from cinematic history are—confuses and upsets an audience that isn’t used to the visual language of film being played with in such eccentric ways. Usually films are told bum-ba-dum-ba-dum, C follows B follows A. On the other end of the spectrum are surrealists like Jodorowsky, Bunel, and their ilk; they create very loose associations between images and ideas and always maintain a high level of detached ambivalence. However, you have to remember that not all poetry is so associative, Narrative Poetry makes up a significant portion of the poetic tradition—especially the Epics. This is the tradition Tarantino belongs to: that of Milton, Dante, and Homer.
“The Poet Laureate of the Drive-In”
Quentin uses various poetic devices in his cinema; the two most important are Metaphor and Allusion. Hitchcock—a crucial reference point for Death Proof—also utilized visual metaphors in the shaping of both his plots and themes.
Hitchcock quickly abandoned this experiment in favor of the intricate editing of objects and glances within a scene. His films abound with objects as visual correlatives—Andrew Sarris
A simple example of this technique in Death Proof is the “visual correlative” drawn between Stuntman Mike’s car, hood ornament, and penis during the climactic car crash. This fairly obvious metaphor is accomplished entirely through poetic montage.
But in addition to such metaphoric shot juxtaposition, QT’s film language is rife with allusions to films of the past. Quentin even provides semi-footnotes by thanking lengthy lists of his heroes at the end of his movies, and together with his jukebox-soundtracks he has a body of work to rival Paradise Lost in terms of intertexuality. This all has it’s roots in Tarantino’s love for that enfant terribles of la nouvelle vague, Jean-Luc Godard, who would regularly quote music, films, philosophers, non-fictions texts, and other source materials in his work.
The references to Tarantino’s favorite films in various genres throughout Death Proof are certainly important, but what should catch the viewer’s attention are the ubiquitous allusions to his own films.
- The foot fetishism
- his own home jukebox
- the Kill Bill ringtone
- the “Lil’ Pussy Wagon”
- “Then why did he fuck Darryl Hannah’s stand-in?”
- dialogue from Pulp Fiction
- “Is that a tasty beverage or is that a tasty beverage?”
- “That’s a little too much information”
- and Kill Bill
- The “Vipers” cheerleader outfit
- Zoe Bell
Which is still only an incomplete lists of the dozens of references to his own films in Death Proof. So what’s the significance of all this navel-gazing? I was reading the introduction to Robert Pinsky’s verse translation of Dante’s Inferno when I stumbled on this quote that perfectly enunciates Tarantino’s poetic strategy.
The great number of autocitations in Dante’s text, passages that clearly hark back to his earlier poetry, are at the same time autobiographical allusions. They, too, are subject to ironic interpretation; in a poet such as Dante, for whom style is of a sacred order, autocitation is autocritique.
This is Tarantino’s agenda; he’s not only deconstructing the Slasher film—he’s deconstructing his own filmography and mythos. The Montreal Film journal put it well when they said they’ve “rarely seen a filmmaker, in current Hollywood at least, expose his sexual and sadistic kinks on screen with such shameless glee!”
“The Gaze of Cool”
Unlike the common masculine, feminine, or any other gaze, Tarantino offers us the gaze of cool—Dror Poleg
Tarantino’s cinema, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill most of all, demonstrates an unusual propensity for female perspectives in historically masculine genres, and significantly, QT shows strong independent women that overcome institutions like the Man, the Law, and the White. However, and it should be said, Tarantino is a man, and an easy application of terms like “feminism” or even “girl power” seems misguided at best—offensive at worst.
His movies are really about himself: references to movies he loves, songs he loves, and storylines that moved him. However strong and independent his female characters are, it’s only in reference to his own psychology. You could write a book about the relationship between Tarantino’s mother and his cinema, but suffice for my purpose is to say that Tarantino’s mom raised him alone, and it sounds like their relationship was a powerful force for good in QT’s life. You wouldn’t call someone doting on their Mother “feminist”, no matter how admirable that doting is, but there’s still something distinctly “female friendly” about his films. Sarris noticed the camera’s neutral gaze in his review of the Kill Bill movies:
On the other hand, many male moviegoers may be disappointed that Mr. Tarantino didn’t seize the opportunity to exploit the sensual physical attributes of such tasty morsels as Ms. Thurman and Ms. Hannah, from Vol. 2 , and Lucy Liu and Vivica A. Fox, from Vol. 1 . Indeed, I’m a little disconcerted that my usual complaint-that American censors pay too much attention to sex and not enough to violence-has been stood on its head by Mr. Tarantino. This is to say that the complete absence of lechery in Mr. Tarantino’s gaze not only empowers Ms. Thurman and the other attractive women who are her enemies, but also ennobles her special mission.—Andrew Sarris in his review for The Observer
It isn’t his characters or their actions that creates this feeling of a “complete absence of lechery.” It’s his camera. That’s how critics recognized his foot fetish so quickly—they’re the only exposed flesh his camera even seems to notice. Tarantino’s direction never leers, sexualizes, or strips his female characters—with the exception of Death Proof. It’s something that every person I’ve ever watched one of his films with notices right away, and watching Death Proof you can’t help but feel like it’s a different guy behind the camera.
The very first shot of the film is a big full frame close up of a pair of feet resting on the dashboard of a moving car with “A Film by Quentin Tarantino” boldy dropped on top like the cherry on a Metaphor Sundae; this is going to be a film about what turns QT on. In the first five minutes there are more bare asses, crotch-shots, and enough slobber in the screenplay to drown a horse. In fact, in the script we’re even given a full scene of Butterfly peeing at the beginning. In a rather asexual career, Death Proof comes out swinging horny Haymakers.
All this drooling direction brings the viewer’s attention to the film’s most important theme: you just can’t trust Quentin Tarantino. In many, many ways he’s Stuntman Mike, but of course, in reality any of the male characters could be stand-ins for the great geek God behind the camera. Hence the constant “autocitation,” he’s trying his best to get you to notice—without having to come out and say it—that this movie is about him.
“To me the movies are very personal…you should be semi-embarassed about certain people seeing your movie when you’re finished.”—QT in an interview with Charlie Rose in 1994
In a career littered with critical accusations of “style-over-substance”, Tarantino has repeatedly released some of the most thematically rich cinema of the era, and Death Proof is his greatest film. A classic of “autocritique”, by revealing his camera’s masculine gaze and dymythologizing his supposed feminist themes Death Proof actually criticizes Tarantino’s oeuvre more thouroghly and thoughtfully than even his greatest critics.
Once is not enough
However, there are different kinds of classics. Certain movies give you an overwhelming first impression—love at first sight, but Death Proof is not that kind of movie. John Carpenter‘s films are often like this. For me, it’s Christine—another Car-ror film with a retro-vibe, but Erich Kuersten over at Acidemic wrote beautifully about the phenomena in Carpenter’s The Fog
Like the westerns of Hawks, you don’t notice how great the FOG is until enough repeat viewings bring out its finer subtleties, while at the same time it never feels like it’s trying to be much good at all. It’s just trying to be any ordinary spookshow to take your date to on a Saturday night.
In a case of Cin-chronicity, Carpenter worked several times with Kurt Russell—Death Proof‘s villainous stuntman, and like many of that King of the B’s cult classics Proof also requires multiple viewings to appreciate its “finer subtleties”.
I would go as far as saying that your first time seeing Death Proof might make you not want to see it again. How many people actually watch Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, or They Call Her One Eye and think to themselves, “hmmm, better rewatch that in case I missed something!” The difference is, where earlier Exploitation classics made you uncomfortable with graphic sexuality, sadism, and gore, Death Proof does it with structure, dialogue, and theme.
You can always count on Tarantino’s Arthouse headshrinkers to deconstruct his Grindhouse neuroses.
Have I seen this before?
The movie opens with three girls driving around Austin, TX chatting, drinking, and eventually going to a grimy little dive bar with the best jukebox ever. You get to know these girls very well: Butterfly’s visiting from out of town, Jungle Julia’s a popular local DJ, and Shanna is their snarky friend who’s Daddy has a lake house for them to use over the weekend. While you’re getting to know them Tarantino teases us more and more with Stuntman Mike, who we’ve seen following the girls around town. When he finally approaches them because Jungle Julia had set Butterfly up for a lapdance dare on the air that morning, you’re shocked that Butterfly says yes. After a lapdance that would melt even the coldest killer’s heart, they all leave and Stuntman Mike finds them on a deserted road. In a climactic crash that outshines anything I’ve ever seen in a movie, he kills the entire posse at once.
In one of only a handful of scenes of exposition in Tarantino’s oeuvre—and one that pays homage to Psycho‘s infamous ending—the Sheriff from Kill Bill explains Stuntman Mike’s psychosexual obsession.
Then it cuts to Lebanon, TN where you’re treated to another thirty minutes of character development. This is the section where most critics just couldn’t bear all the talking any longer, but coming hot on its heels is the film’s piece de resistance: a thirty minute car chase with Zoe Bell doing her own stunts and Stuntman Mike getting some of the best comeuppance in cinema.
An uncomfortable structure
Usually films spoon-feed you all the important plot elements in the first fifteen minutes, and from then on it’s just a case of the main characters dealing with whatever conflict arise early in the mise-en-scene. Tarantino almost never writes this way, and in particular, Death Proof keeps you off balance right up to its shocking last frame.
Death Proof boils down to a simple Frankenstinian premise: Slasher film + Road movie, but Tarantino hacks up the typical Slasher structure into an unrecognizable mess. The most audacious example of this formal irreverence is in Proof‘s violence. Most Slasher movies advance through an escalating series of murders puncuated by scenes of the girls just hanging out and talking. Tarantino dismisses with this structure, opting for an oil-and-water approach where the character development stretches out and the killings occur all at once.
I never do proper genre movies. It’s like using the fact that Reservoir Dogs isn’t a proper heist film even though it fits in the genre, as a slag against it. And what is so good about slasher films is they are all the same. This is why they are so much fun to write subtextual film criticism about, because all your arguments really work for a vast majority of films. And if you try to monkey about just a little too much with it then now you’re not even really making a slasher film.—Tarantino in a Sight & Sound interview
It’s like two separate movies
Besides the interlude with Sheriff McGraw, Psycho also informs the film’s abrubt central division. In the Cahiers Du Cinema‘s critique, Emmanuel Burdeau points out Tarantino’s “decision to start over the same movie twice. One could serve as a model for the other, the other as the commentary for the former, as if repetition sufficed to suggest a relationship.”
Psycho famously builds Janet Leigh’s character up just to bring her down—leaving the audience alone in a room with Norman and no one else to identify with; you’re forced into the psycho’s shoes. Death Proof goes way further toward challenging our concept of identification by making us identify with the first group of girls, a potential Final Girl, and the killer; when the second half finally comes around we have absolutely no idea how to feel about this new set of characters. This is probably the fundamental monkey wrench that got into most critics’s—and audiences’s—gears. It’s also the biggest reason for a rewatch.
Listen your ears off
Unanimously derided, the “lengthy” (actually top-to-bottom only fifteen minutes) conversation at the start of the second half is actually one of Tarantino’s most brilliantly written sections of dialogue. I remember feeling betrayed the first time I saw it. I couldn’t believe that Tarantino would leave something like that in his movie. It felt so boring that it could strip paint, and yet on my second viewing—pure bliss. This is Death Proof‘s biggest mystery.
“The dialogue…is disastrously clunky.”—Derek Malcom (London Evening Standard)
“There are different characters, but no new developments that demand repetition of so much pointless dialogue.”—Todd Gilchrist (IGN)
“…long, long, long stretches of bizarrely inconsequential conversation between the babe avengers.”—Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)
“Tarantino has literally lost the plot, foregoing narrative drive for loquacious idling.”—Anton Bitel (EyeForFilm)
“Death Proof still detours into pointless, geeky discussions about Vanishing Point, a film I don’t believe any of these women have ever heard of, let alone seen…”—Andrew O’Hehir (Salon)
“…punctuated by long, too long, passages of bar-room dialogue. The movie has two speeds—Pause and Overdrive.”—Ebert (Chicago Sun Times)
These reviewers express the first-watch sentiment, but until you’ve seen Death Proof a second time this section of the movie will always feel like a betrayal because Tarantino has just endeared us to three other strong young women whose ugly demise he serves to us like fine steak. It’s so wrong—so Tarantino to get us in Butterfly’s corner, build her up to be the Final Girl, and then make us so complicit in Stuntman Mike’s psychosexual delirium that it feels like the movie should end; you don’t want to take another step with this guy—he could do anything—make you feel anything.
Okay, let’s break this down
The second group’s conversation—first in the car, then at the diner—is filled with some of the most important thematic elements in the film. Crucially, the cameraderie amongst the second posse is repeatedly underlined , and this is the most significant way in which Death Proof breaks the Slasher hegemony. Usually the Final Girl is victorious because of a variety of personal virtues. She’s
- Sexually repressed
- Observant; she notices the danger first
- the “odd girl out”
- Connected to the killer in some way
all of which exclude her from the group dynamic represented by the shallow “body-count” characters that fill up reams of 80s Horror. Of course, Death Proof gives us one of these Final Girls in the first half, but her death indicts the entire Final Girl mythology. Butterfly dies because she—and all the other girls in the first group—have no sense of sisterhood. They are ruthlessly catty: they argue over who should buy the weed, Shanna and Julia seem to have some unresolved Elektra jealousy—Jungle Julia even invited Christian Simonson when it was supposed to be a “girls-night-out” to honor Butterfly’s visit home. This is why the first group dies, and it’s one of the big reasons that they die all at once; they can’t stick together. If they can’t live as a family, they’ll die as one.
The big conversation in the second half is there to grind that cattiness into the asphalt with a go-go-boot, but most of the reviews I’ve read sound like the critics never even heard the words coming out of the girls’ mouths.
In the car the girls’ conversation parallels the first group’s; they talk about boys and the pros and cons of withholding their sexuality. The fascinating thing here is that both posses have the same exact opinions on the matter. You always expect Slasher films to emphasize a Puritanical Final Girl, but Tarantino makes sure you realize that in his world it isn’t women’s sexuality—yay or nay—that gets them killed.
But it’s in the conversation at the Diner when QT really cranks it up to 11. The long story that Abby tells—all about her and Zoe’s adventure near a dangerous pit—is the high point of the entire film. As the camera compulsively circles the girls the film’s central theme—the collective vs. the individual—comes out.
Everyone has their unique talents. Zoe might easily survive a pitfall, but Abby would never fall in the first place. Of course, Abby’s the girl that notices how creepy Stuntman Mike is, and she’s the one who recognizes him later on the highway. Zoe can cling to the hood and survive being ejected. Kim carries a gun and can drive real good, and Lee can keep the redneck occupied. Each girl is absolutely crucial to the team that brings Stuntman Mike down. The second group is more like a Girl Gang than a group of anonymous victims with a Final Girl, and the film’s of Russ Meyer, Switchblade Sisters, and Cheerleader movies inform the thematics of Act II more than Men, Women, and Chainsaws.
Just do it
Death Proof is a legitimate masterpiece—maybe even QT’s finest film. I loathed it upon my first watch, but it grows on you like some suspicious mold under the seats in one of the grimy grindhouses that Tarantino frequented in his youth. Have a few drinks, eat some bad food, saddle up with your significant other, and just let yourself bask in the unashamed love of women, cinema, and much deserved vengeance.