Minutiae: The Smile in Death Proof

This week Ennio Morricone was reported to have taken potshots at Quentin Tarantino in an interview with claims that he called the director a ‘cretin’ whose movies are ‘trash’; something Morricone has since vehemently denied. Whether he did or not, it seemed like a viable time to take a look back at my favourite moment from the director’s spotted, oft-overpraised body of work. Ironically – or perhaps just contrarily – I’d point toward his most derided movie as my pick of the litter; 2007’s Death Proof, made in conjuncture with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and released as a gimmicky double feature under the Grindhouse umbrella.

Now, Grindhouse has a lot to answer for, not least a decade’s worth of lousy imitators who have mistaken a genuine fondness for 60’s and 70’s B-pictures for an excuse to glorify bygone stereotypes and social attitudes. See also the propensity for attempting (and failing) to make modern work look artificially aged. Adding grain and scratches to digitally shot work short-circuits the intention. It doesn’t compute and it looks dreadful.

Anyway…

Tarantino has evidenced a consistent magpie approach throughout his career; taking the work of his heroes and reconstituting it as something supposedly new. Were Morricone’s statement true, it would make for a blunt, almost unnecessary accusation. Tarantino’s output has always been clearly in homage to something-or-other, that is when he isn’t outright remaking cult curios. To his credit, Tarantino hasn’t exactly been coy about this, acknowledging the debts he owes to Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Jack Hill, Kenji Misume, Shunya Ito and many, many others. What this patchwork, collage-style filmmaking leads to, however, is a body of work that lacks sincerity.

There’s always a sense of the hyper-real or meta with Tarantino. Though he frequently cameos in his films (including this one), the ego behind the camera is always present in the work itself. You can feel him prodding you to catch a reference, while his idiosyncratic dialogue sequences (of which there are many in Death Proof) are flat-out showboating, regardless of their degree of success. These are films made to enjoy, yes, but that also eagerly seek your approval. It’s like he’s watching over your shoulder the entire time.

Rare are the moments that feel free of this self-conscious yearn for validation. Rarer still, therefore, are moments of genuine emotional honesty.

Which brings us to Death Proof and The Smile.

Rosario Dawson plays Abernathy, whom we meet in the movie’s second half. The first half of the movie sets up the premise; Kurt Russell is a deranged stuntman who has fitted his car as a murder weapon, and he preys on young women. After the midway intermission with Michael and James Parks, we jump a year and meet a new set of ‘girls’. Abernathy is out shooting a movie in Lebanon, Tennessee with Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Kim (Tracie Thoms). They pick up stunt woman Zoe Bell (herself) from the airport and then, following a plan set out by Zoe in a virtuoso cafe conversation captured in a single take, dupe a local redneck into allowing them to take out his white Dodge Challenger for a test drive. This is all so that Zoe can drive a facsimile of the car from Vanishing Point (1971, Richard C Sarafian).

But there’s more. Zoe doesn’t just want to drive the car, she wants to perform a particularly crazy stunt. With belts strapped to each door, Zoe exits the car while Kim drives, climbing up onto the roof and then sliding herself gingerly onto the bonnet (or hood, if you’d prefer to remain culturally accurate). It’s a game she called ‘Ship’s Mast’. And it’ll become even deadlier when Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike catches up with them…

But before that happens, as Zoe begins the stunt, Tarantino captures magic.

Abernathy has already been chastised by the group for her sensibility. We’re made aware that she’s the only one of them who is a mother. True enough, the scenes we share with these women mark her out as something of a pragmatist. Lee – in her cheerleader outfit – is the child, Zoe and Kim are the tomboys… Abernathy is the grown-up. But as Zoe stretches out in front of the windscreen, Abernathy’s motherly concern breaks. Tarantino pushes in on her expression as Abernathy becomes wrapped up in the moment. She allows herself joy. She’s having fun. And Rosario Dawson breaks out a white-toothed smile that shines with the kind of simple, open honesty we don’t usually find in a Tarantino flick. It’s like seeing a bird let out of a cage.

There are precedents in his films for this, barely. The look on Robert Forster’s face at the end of Jackie Brown feels like the most naked moment of humanity in his work, but that’s a moment of realisation of a different stripe. That’s a portrait of a man acknowledging regret. Of knowing he’s let love walk out of his life. The smile in Death Proof has none of this ruefulness, none of the cynicism. It’s a moment of unbridled elation. Tarantino’s finest ‘no filter’ moment. Fleeting, gone in a moment, but wonderful. And, by extension, possibly the best thing he’s ever captured.

 

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