Aging SWM director seeks kickass F, great feet a must
"A tall (maybe 6ft) Amazonian Mulatto goddess walks down her hallway, dressed in a baby tee, and panties that her big ass (a good thing) spill out of, and her long legs grow out of. Her big bare feet slap on the hard wood floor. She moves to the cool rockabilly beat as she paces like a tiger putting on her clothes." –Death Proof screenplay, final draft 2/14/06
It was about halfway through Death Proof that I found myself wondering – why exactly did an overwhelming number of critics shower Grindhouse with heaps of praise? Re-reading a handful of reviews, I realized that there was very little in the way of critical analysis of either Tarantino’s Death Proof or Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. More often that not the approach was form over content – from the basic premise of two directors paying homage to bad cinema, to the (now-questionable) decision to pair the two films into a 191-minute double feature. Grindhouse afforded critics the opportunity to wax nostalgic about their own experiences with sticky floors and bad popcorn, while at the same time legitimizing their admiration for cinematic schlock. It's a shame few took a closer look at the actual films contained within.
It was at the end of Death Proof that I came to the following conclusion – Quentin Tarantino needs a girlfriend.
"A dateless wonder is a guy who thinks about girls alot but doesn't have much social skills. So he doesn't go out alot. But he's not like his geeky friends, or his fat friends, or his confused sexualitys friends, he goes out... every once in a while. Every once in a while he gets the balls to ask a girl out. Now dateless wonders usually make it a point to ask girls out of their league. Since they don't expect to get the date anyway, why not aim high. And every once in a while, they get their shit together long enough to be charming enough, to get a pretty girl to say yes. And you're that pretty girl." – Arlene, Death Proof screenplay, final draft 2/14/06
It’s one thing for Quentin to present us with a bunch of middle-aged guys sitting around a table, hanging out in a hotel room, or driving around in a car engaging in lengthy dialog liberally seasoned with pop-culture references – everything from Like a Virgin, fast food menus, Kung Fu, The Man From Rio, or AM radio hits. These are Tarantino’s geeky obsessions writ large. Yet in Death Proof, black suited guys are replaced by hotties in baby tees and tight pants, and the results come off as little more than male geek fantasy – gorgeous young women sitting around dropping references to Zatoichi, obscure British rock bands, and 70s cult cinema. It’s unbelievably juvenile, and more than a little pathetic.
[NB: Spoilers follow.]
Simply stated, Tarantino can't write dialog for women to save his life. Listening to the palaver of the two disparate groups of women in the film – be it about making out or muscle cars – you'd think the screenwriter had never actually spent time with women. This isn't Quentin trying to write intentionally bad dialog, à la The Cheerleaders– the style is identical to that of his earlier films, except that unlike the nameless hoods of Reservoir Dogs, or the multitude of characters in Pulp Fiction, the women in Death Proof aren't characters at all, they're merely character types; agents for Tarantino's excursions into violence and vengeance. In past films, even minor characters (Gogo Yubari, Honey Bunny) had a certain three-dimensional quality to them. None of that is to be found here. (Unless of course you consider liberal use of "Nigga' please" as character defining.)
Several of the lengthy dialog scenes go absolutely nowhere, fizzle out, or are otherwise pointless. For example, Kim and Zoe's story about the ditch in Thailand – neither funny, revealing, nor particularly interesting, its function (as far as I can tell) is simply to prepare us for Zoe's miraculous survival later in the film. Where's the payoff we've come to expect from such setups?
I don't agree with those who labeled Death Proof misogynistic – Quentin doesn't hate women, but I do find his particular brand of feminism somewhat questionable. To wit: it's perfectly acceptable to terrorize and brutally kill one group of women as long as another steps in to kick some ass. However, looking at the dynamics he created for the two groups says quite a bit. Jungle Julia, Butterfly & Co. are hedonists – they lounge around, get high, and spend their nights getting drunk in dive bars – and die horrible deaths. Abernathy, Zoe, Kim and Lee are all professionals, and in the movie industry no less. On top of than that, we learn that Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) is a mom, a fact unnecessary to the plot, but of major importance to the fatherless director (cf. Kill Bill). The actress, stuntwomen, and makeup artist hang out in coffee shops and discuss Vanishing Point, while the others dance in bars and give lap dances. Is Tarantino passing moral judgment with this obvious good girl/bad girl dichotomy?
Check out this bit of descriptive text from the screenplay:
"Jungle Julia, pint of beer in one hand and lit cigarette in the other, does a very sexy dance to the bluesy rock classic. For the audience in Huck's, as well as the movie theatre she's putting on a one-ho-show."
This is followed by bartender Warren (Tarantino himself) threatening to hit her "upside the head with a horse cock" if she doesn't put out her cigarette. Am I alone in finding it embarrassing that a 44 year-old white director feels the need to use the expression one-ho-show? And is it even necessary?
I'm also not entirely comfortable with Tarantino's handling of Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the John Hughes-loving actress in the cheerleader outfit (labeled Vipers, natch) who is left behind by her friends as rape bait for hillbilly Jasper (Jonathan Loughran, who played the would-be rapist of comatose Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.) It's a bit of nastiness that, while closer in spirit to a genuine grindhouse film, doesn't quite work with everything leading up to it. It's inconsistent, which ultimately is my biggest complaint with the film.
Now I'm sure some will no doubt be saying, "But it's meant to be offensive/sexist, it's a grindhouse film!" Except....it's not. Death Proof is too self-congratulatory and self-aware to work as either pure exploitation or even homage – in fact, it's Tarantino paying tribute to Tarantino more than anything else. He seems unable to distance himself from his auteurist self in order to create something worthy of the grindhouse moniker. It's more adolescent than sleazy, and lacks the salaciousness of, say, a Russ Meyer film, whose unique flavor of girl power Tarantino co-opted. Too self-satisfied with the characters he created, he lacks the conviction to gaze upon them the way Meyer did. What we're left with is neither fish nor fowl; too conscious of itself to adhere to the genre, but not clever enough to subvert it.
Interestingly enough, the films Death Proof directly references –Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry– are not even grindhouse films, they're both straight-up 20th Century Fox releases. Rather than tossing $60 million in their direction, the Weinstein's should have given Tarantino and Rodriguez each $100,000, a limited crew, and an aggressively tight shooting schedule – maybe then we'd see something resembling those cheesy B-pictures we secretly adore.
Regardless, Quentin Tarantino needs to find a new source of inspiration that informs his screenwriting. Like a hyperactive child, his desire to share his encyclopedic knowledge of cult and fringe cinema has gone from supplementing and enhancing his cleverly written screenplays to becoming the sole purpose for their existence. Yes, Quentin, we know you've seen every Chia-liang Lu and William Rotsler film. Time to move on.