12 March 2008 | ThreeSadTigers
Probably the most misunderstood film of this decade
Given the vast majority of major criticisms levelled at this film, it would appear that a large percentage of the audience has completely missed the joke, or simply, didn't find it at all amusing. With Death Proof (2007), Tarantino creates such a loving homage to a notoriously cult cinematic sub-culture that many people seem unaware of how to approach it or even how to appreciate the sheer fact that the film purposely goes out of its way to ape the style of late 60's and early 70's exploitation cinema in look, feel and content. The film isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, but rather, is a parody and/or pastiche of the kind of films that the vast majority of mainstream audiences simply wouldn't want to see. I'm talking about films such as Two-Thousand Maniacs (1964), Ride the Whirlwind (1965), Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), Satan's Sadists (1968), The Big Bird Cage (1971), Boxcar Bertha (1972), Fight for Your Life (1977) or Satan's Cheerleaders (1977); low-budget films made with often-non-professional actors, little in the way of conventional film logic, and highly controversial in terms of plot, theme and content.
It also sets out to pastiche the "grindhouse" cinema phenomena, with the original idea of two films being shown as a double feature at drive-in movie theatres from state to state, with both films often being re-cut and re-edited, not by the filmmakers, but by the theatre owners themselves. This is evident in the amusing switch in title; with the film opening with the caption 'Quentin Tarantino's Thunderbolt', before awkwardly cutting to an obviously out of place title card with 'Death Proof' crudely emblazoned across the screen. This is also the explanation for the purposeful mistakes in continuity, the sloppy editing and the switch between colour and black and white, as well as the façade of severely deteriorating film stock. It's not sloppy film-making, but rather, a purposeful appropriation of sloppy film-making geared towards appealing to the kind of obsessive movie aficionado who gets the references and can appreciate the joke that Tarantino is attempting to pull.
With this in mind, it seems hard to understand what people are complaining about. Do audiences actual expect this film to keep them enthralled and entertained when the vast majority of them would balk at experiencing many of the low-budget, semi-obscure films that influenced it? Hardly! The accusation here that "nothing happens" is fascicle. The fact that there is film running through the camera is proof enough that something is happening, with the hilariously bland dialog deconstructing the film in much the same way as the purposely amateurish composition, editing and sound all intended to fracture the cinematic language in the same way that Godard did; by reminding the audience that this is the film and the point of the film is to experience the sights and sounds that unfold before us. Added to this the colourful iconography, the music, the characters, the girls in tight t-shirts, the for once entirely justified performance from the man himself, all reminding us that this is a joyous, darkly comic romp in which the point is not "why?" but "why not?".
The effect is reminiscent of Kill Bill (2003), which at times felt superficial or perhaps even too knowing for its own good, but still demonstrated to us the filmmaker's great use of tone, texture, colour and movement, as well as turning many people on to a whole new world of cult Japanese cinema; from the works of highly individual filmmakers like Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku and Takashi Miike, to cult performers like Sony Chiba. Death Proof attempts to do something similar with the likes of the American revisionist road movie, the B-cinema of Roger Corman and the femsploitation subgenre of films like The Big Bird Cage (1972), Caged Heat (1975), Day of the Woman (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981); a coolly ironic series of films in which wronged women take bloody revenge in an often elaborate and over the top style, chiefly intended to give a feminist slant to the still rampant degradation and misogyny prevalent in the exploitation genre.
Other reference points are more obvious as they're mentioned explicitly in the film; notably car chase cinema such as Vanishing Point (1971), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), Gone in 60 Seconds (1974) and even Spielberg's Duel (1971). Some have complained that the film fails on account of its lack of action and emphasis on dialog and technique, but this seems churlish when you think of the films being referenced; with Vanishing Point featuring a number of cryptic, desert-set sequences in which characters talk and talk and talk, while Two-Lane Blacktop punctuates its scenes of hard driving and drag-racing with much in the way of meandering small-talk. Then we have the fact that films like Reservoir Dogs - which takes place almost entirely within a single setting - and Jackie Brown - which places emphasis entirely on character - use dialog to not only create the characters but to also tell the story.
Regardless of this, Death Proof is meant as a piece of entertainment. There's no real desire here for Tarantino to prove what kind of filmmaker he is because he's already done that with the number of great films that came before. Sure, it can be seen as self-indulgent, but surely those of us familiar with the style of film-making being referenced here will revel in this particular kind of extravagance, loving everything from the continually inane female banter to the awesome scenes of high speed carnage. If you're not a fan cult cinema or exploitation cinema or indeed a devotee of Tarantino's work then this film really isn't going to impress you. There's no shame in that. Some films are made for a niche audience, destined to be a cult in their own right. However, for those who get it, Death Proof has the potential to be a truly exhilarating, one-off piece of film-making.