Death Proof

This morning, I heard a critic on the radio summarily dismiss Death Proof (Tarantino's part of Grindhouse, released separately here) without offering any further qualification. Death Proof (from here on: DP), he said, was a movie honoring bad B movies by being, itself, a bad - and worse: uninteresting- B movie.

I object.

True, DP is, to borrow a phrase from The Squid and the Whale, minor Tarantino. The only QT movie it's arguably superior to is Kill Bill pt. 1. But it's much more interesting than "just" a bad B movie.

QT's films typically take place on one of two levels. His first three (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the underrated Jackie Brown) take place on the first level, which I'll call level A. On level A, every character shares QT's intimate knowledge of and deep interest in pop culture, but this also implies that this level shares its pop culture with the real world. While it is undoubtedly a movie world, the rules of our world apply: gravity sucks, lethal wounds will kill you, and nobody has superpowers. In fact, the one time these "rules" seem to be violated, in Pulp Fiction, it is seen as a miracle. Level A is a tweaked version of our own world: the details might be different (Big Kahuna burgers and so on), the cars are cooler, and there are surreal elements, but the basis is the same. QT points to this, for example with the mostly diegetic music in Reservoir Dogs.

Then there's level B, where the movies take place that the characters on level A would love to watch, as QT himself remarked. Kill Bill is resolutely on this level, which is much more cartoonish and flexible. The "rules" of our world don't apply so much there: gravity is challenged at some points, the Bride survives being buried alive and can certainly be said to have "superpowers", especially in the scene where she beats an incredible number of samourai, blood spouts out in gallons at the time, etc. It's a mythical world centered around a superhero on a quest that she ultimately achieves. Notably, while it's not a linear movie, it does end at the resolution. There are still some resemblances to "the real world": superman, for example, exists there too. But aside from the scene with Vernita Green/Copperhead, it's on its own plane.

What about Death Proof? It seems at first to be on level B as well. There is an intimidating "supervillain" with the stereotypical villain name Stuntman Mike, and a "superweapon": his Death Proof car. The first half of the film plays out as a male fantasy with four girls filmed and objectified as lust objects (with QT's foot fetish clearly on display), and tagged as soon-t0-be victims from the get-go. They're more individualised than they would be in the standard B movie, and the director clearly shows his affection for it, but his camera is predatory. Furthermore, the girls are not real, but designed to embody a fantasy, as evidenced clearly by the lapdance subplot.

As if we needed more evidence about which level we're on, QT even has two characters from Kill Bill, the sheriff and son #1, who we know live on level B, make an appearance.

The second group of girls is very different, but they still fit on level B: Zoe Bell plays a superhuman version of herself. She is already rather extraordinary (and attention is pointedly called to this in an early conversation) but she's admitted that the stunts in the films are impossible even for her. After the first chase, the way in which it's shown she survived is almost cartoonesk, and it comforts us about the rules of this world.

And then QT pulls out the rug from under us.

During the second chase, the "mythical" cars, Mike's black Dodge Charger and the girls' white Dodge Challenger (the color coding also appropriate on this level) suddenly burst onto a road filled with sedans and SUV's, and by this, QT suddenly takes us from this level B movie world not to level A, but straight into the real world, our world. We could be in those cars, and by this trick QT reminds us how vulnerable we are, and while we were at first an audience safely standing on the outside ironically looking in, we are now in this. We're involved. And the chase gets much more thrilling because of it.

It's just a detail. A small thing some might miss. But it shows that DP is not empty, but open, and filled with touches that show that QT is incapable of making an uninteresting movie.

There are many other things I could expound on: the look Kurt Russell gives the camera just before stepping into his Chevy Nova, the nostalgia touch that shows QT is aware many young people might not get his references, the strange theme of abstinence and sexual frustration that comes up in both parts, the differences and parallels between the two groups of girls, etc. The soundtrack choices are inspired, as we're used to from QT by now, and certainly worth a few words. But I think I've written enough for now.


"There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel"