[30 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It gets marginalized and joked about, but few film fans really understand the importance of exploitation. Like labeling a movie “Troma-esque” or referencing a title as “torture porn”, the stock cinematic categorization has become a buzzword, a term used to undermine a movie by giving it tacky tenets it may not actually own. Sure, a lot of the films that played in Pussycat Theaters and drive-ins nationwide were geared toward busting taboos and violating common decency. Yet without their envelope pushing chutzpah, their desire to do more with the medium than the cowardly Hollywood hacks, the post-modern phase of filmmaking would have never arrived. It’s true. In addition, without that sensational ‘70s epiphany, a moment where the artform truly found its finesse, new age architects like Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have an inspirational pool to dip in.
Throughout this anarchic auteur’s reign of referencing, the entire history of celluloid has been his memory bank. But when it comes to specific statements, the Me Decade makes this director all hot and bothered. One need look no further than his contribution to the Spring 2007 experiment entitled Grindhouse. In collaboration with fellow indie icon Robert Rodriguez, the man responsible for giving outsider filmmaking its maverick flair decided to revisit the days when double features ruled, and coming attractions were often more impressive that the picture they supported. At over three hours, many moviegoers couldn’t handle the skin and splatter glory of what these inspired box office bad boys were attempting. Now separated for DVD by Genius Products/Dimension Films, and released separately, we are treated to a longer, European cut of Mr. Pulp Fiction’s fabulous Death Proof. Even without its zombie stomp accompaniment, we are witness to everything that made exploitation so important.
Our story begins when three Austin gals – disc jockey Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), her buddy Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and visiting vamp Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) – end up at a local dive bar. Celebrating a girls-only weekend, they run into the creepy, middle aged maniac who calls himself Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). After an eventful evening of cat and mouse, they wind up going head to head with the psycho’s souped up car. A few months later, a quartet of no nonsense chicks – production hairdresser Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), stunt driver Kim (Tracie Thoms), fresh faced actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and visiting Kiwi daredevil Zoë (Zoë Bell) – meet up with Mike on a lonely Tennessee back road. He wants to taunt and tease them, using a 100 mile per hour chase as a means of getting acquainted. But unlike the Texas talent, these babes have the ability to fight back. And when they do, Mike will need more than a well armored vehicle to stop the rampage.
For anyone well versed in the original version, there is definitely more meat here. We are treated to a mid-narrative sequence where Mike literally stalks Abernathy and her pals. It’s a peculiar moment, since it seems to indicate that this character’s pathology is based as much in machismo as it is murderous rage. Also enlightening is Arlene – aka “Butterfly’s” – missing scene lap dance. As he does with most music based moments in his film, Tarantino maximizes the effect of this bravura bump and grind. The rest of the material is marginal – little snippets of conversation, extended moments of non-erotic female bonding. Many of these segments do help flesh out previously paltry backstories, as well as give us a chance to hear more of this man’s amazing dialogue.
Indeed, some consider Death Proof far too talky, and for those who think the original cut was verbally overwrought, this version will test their conversational tolerances. From this critic’s standpoint, the wordiness is warranted. Two hours of Stuntman Mike ramming young blonds into his windshield with his modified auto would be an open invitation to misogyny. One can practically hear the PC proponents complaining that QT is a director who hates women. Hardly – but that’s because of the characterization…which comes directly from the girl’s interaction. In fact, it’s easy to see the 30 minute rap sessions as the set up for what will be a huge horror/high speed chase payoff. The car crash that ends section one is remarkable, perhaps the most grotesque display of gear to gal gonzo ever attempted. Even better, the last act street race showdown is spectacular, a stunning reminder of how effective physical effects and real stuntwork can be.
As part of the ample added content on the two disc Extended and Unrated Special Edition DVD, we get lots of how-to featurettes. Tarantino talks openly about wanting to emulate the old school method of machine mayhem, and he introduces us to the masters of such disasters. We also get some insight into the casting process – why Kurt Russell was a genre must and how the various female faces have intriguing lineages all their own. As with most of his movies, our filmmaker is hyper to the point of distraction. He can barely contain his thoughts, and rambles on almost incoherently about the many bows he built into the film. Without a commentary track which actually highlights these hints however (it’s a feature the disc definitely warranted), we occasionally feel lost. Not to worry though. Death Proof works perfectly well without a brain steeped in the blaxploitation/action epics of the Watergate era.
In fact, part of the fun of this fantastic movie is rediscovering these forgotten filmmaking facets sans their outright connections. Of course, there will be those who don’t know them from a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter sensation or a David F. Friedman flesh feast. If there was one flaw in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s designs, it was assuming that all movie geeks were as goofy for a slice of raincoat revisionism as they were. Part of the problem with Grindhouse as a concept was a lack of proper context and audience perspective. Not everyone in the demo owns the Something Weird Video catalog or rereads The Psychotronic Film Guide like it was a Bible. These novices needed to be immersed in the genre for a while in order to appreciate such worship. Instead, they were tossed into the mix pell mell, and came out confused.
And that’s a shame, because Death Proof has a helluva lot going for it. The performances are flawless, with special recognition going to Russell (who is as terrifying as he is pathetic) and Rosario Dawson, who makes self-effacing cockiness seem downright desirable. Add in Sydney Poitier’s diva dimensions and Zoë Bell’s star making turn and you’ve got a film that easily walks the walk that it talks. Yet it’s Tarantino that once again deserves an equal amount of credit. Only a filmmaker as accomplished as he could take a lamented cinematic style and reinvent it to fit his own diabolical needs. As he did with martial arts in Kill Bill and crime in Reservoir Dogs, Death Proof is ample evidence of this man’s moviemaking prowess. You may bristle at his tricks and transparency, but no one keeps film as kinetic as he does. If anyone could give exploitation a good reputation, it would be this amiable anarchist – and this movie is confirmation of such an artistic acumen.