Why I Love… #17: Death Proof

Year: 2007

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Stars: Kurt Russell (Stuntman Mike), Rosario Dawson (Abernathy), Vanessa Ferlito (Butterfly), Zoe Bell (Herself), Sydney Poitier (Jungle Julia), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lee), Rose McGowan (Pam), Tracie Thoms (Kim), Jordan Ladd (Shanna)

Genre: Exploitation / Thriller

Something tells me this is going to be a hard one to justify for a lot of people. When people argue over the best Tarantino picture, they’re usually discussing Pulp Fiction versus Reservoir Dogs. Others will also argue for his penned-efforts True Romance or Natural Born Killers. His half of the Grindhouse double feature never comes up. I understand why people don’t like it. Some see it as boring, overlong. Others argue that it’s too violent, that the explicit scenes are unnecessary, even misogynistic. That the quotes on the DVD jacket come from Nuts and Maxim magazine doesn’t help. These arguments are valid, but they miss the point a little.

Believe it or not, Death Proof is my favourite Quentin Tarantino movie. Here’s 9 reasons why.

1. I have a soft spot for the movies that inspired this double-feature.

The Grindhouse double-header (Death Proof backed with Planet Terror) celebrates the drive-in double features of America’s classic decade of exploitation cinema (roughly 1965 to 1975). Crude B-movies that drew crowds for their explicit scenarios, mixing a promise of trashy titillation, action, violence and a general exposure to the seedier side of society. More often than not, these films failed to deliver, sometimes on all counts. But they were also a breeding ground for some of the most bizarre, comical and occasionally thought-provoking of failed experiments. Kitsch has a lot to do with it. But there are some outright classics. Particularly the twomovies that seem to influence Death Proof the most; Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (John Waters’ favourite movie) and Richard Sarafian’s stunt-driving spectacle and requiem for the 60s Vanishing Point (Why I Love… #2). Whilst Stuntman Mike’s photography of the girls and the dreamy music beneath it are a direct reference to The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.

Fun as Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is, it doesn’t stick to the rules as much as Death Proof does. Planet Terror is too populated by CG effects, too peppered with big stars (which also harmed Machete). Death Proof feels more authentic, and more specific in its affections. Tarantino here playing to particular genre milestones. So a lot of Death Proof is talking, but a lot of exploitation films pad, this one just happens to have been padded by one of the best in the business for smart dialogue. Death Proof includes some of Tarantino’s smartest wordplay.

2. It has the best soundtrack of any Tarantino movie.

Yep, even more-so than Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown. Sure those soundtracks are superb, but Death Proof’s is even cooler, and more consistent.

3. Repeat viewings bring out the little details.

Okay, that’s true of all Tarantino movies, and really, any movie worth its salt, but there is a little more going on here than initially meets the eye. The opening extended conversation in the car between the first set of girls, for instance, joyfully sends up the cavalier editing attitudes of the grindhouse films of old. Keep an eye on the gloriously inconsistent scenery drifting by out the windows, a fun nod to the slapdash editing of Death Proof’s progenitors. Homage, rather than laziness. And how about the extended café conversation between the second set of girls? You may note that it’s all one-take. Yet the camera is constantly circling the table, following the conversation from girl to girl. A masterpiece of choreography.

Or how about how the movie seems to speed through time? At the beginning, the film is saturated with fake scratches and burn marks, rip-cuts and jumps, hallmarks of neglected films of the 60s and 70s. However as the film progresses… these disappear. And whilst the bar, and outfits of the Austin, Texas set of girls are decidedly retro, once we flip to the Lebanon, Tennessee gang things modern up quickly. The picture sharpens, the scratches disappear. The world literally catches up with Stuntman Mike.

4. It’s got Kurt Russell (see Why I Love… #15: The Thing)

5. The car chase.

It is one of the greats. Tarantino was aiming for the big leagues here. Vanishing Point, Bullitt et all. He shoots, and he scores. It takes us a good 90 minutes to get there, but from Zoe Bell taking her turn at ‘ship’s mast’ onward, the film does not let up. And you can tell it’s all real stunt driving being done here. Cameras strapped to cars ripping it raw and dangerously. Witness the shot in which Stuntman Mike’s car is eaten up in a cloud of dust. The camera holds, only for the car to suddenly come ripping out from a direction we didn’t near expect. It’s brilliant.

6. The girls. Just sayin’. C’mon. Mary Elizabeth Winstead dressed as a cheerleader? I’m only human.

7. It’s a great no-brainer.

We all have ‘those’ movies. Not exactly guilty pleasures per se, but films we turn to when we want something easy to digest, something we know inside out, something that appeals to our aesthetics but doesn’t have to press us intellectually. The dialogue crackles with wit. The saturated film oozes with garish colours in the first half, and gleams sharply with bright ones in the second. I love the look and feel of the thing. For me, Death Proof is friendly that way… But then, for me, so is The Shining

8. It contains one of the most beautiful moments in Tarantino’s catalogue.

No… I’m serious. Control-freak Abernathy panics as Zoe Bell takes to the hood of the Dodge Challenger to play ‘ship’s mast’. She’s nervous, afraid. And Tarantino pushes in as this gives way to childlike excitement, wonder and joy. It’s a small moment, but a wonderful one. Up there with Robert Forster’s realisation at the end of Jackie Brown that he’s just let the love of his life slip through his fingers. Tarantino rarely goes for genuine emotion, but he shows here he can capture it just fine.

9. It’s a movie that loves movies.

Okay, we covered this a little in point one, but really, for a movie geek, there’s something fun about films that celebrate film, that wink at classics, no matter what the genre, even if it is as kooky and ill-advised as the exploitation flick. When Stuntman Mike breaks the fourth wall and smirks at the audience, it’s Tarantino as well behind that smile. A glint in the eye for all the fellow movie-buffs out there. Hell, he even references himself (Abernathy’s ringtone, his own continuing foot fetish, and isn’t there a Big Kahuna Burger just down the road from Warren’s?).

So… yeah. I admit it has flaws. Tarantino, despite everything still insists on ‘acting’. Same goes for Eli Roth. And some characters (Shanna in particular) get short shrift. But if you’re after a trashy movie to watch after a long or shitty day, one you can stick on with a beer or a bourbon in your hand… Death Proof is a good bet.

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