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“Ladies, That Was Fun”: What’s Happening Under the Hood in “Death Proof”…

Okay… Warren’s sending over shots, and you know the house rules. If he sends over shots, you gotta do them.

What?

Hey, them’s the rules, baby.

Warren says it, we do it!

I love that philosophy! “Warren says it, we do it.”

The filming of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 took nine arduous months. There were a variety of reasons for this, most obviously that the film represented a departure from the stylistic sensibilities and aesthetic associated with Quentin Tarantino. A director best known for his snappy dialogue and vivid characters was pushing himself outside of his comfort zone, building a movie that would incorporate elaborate action sequences and even an animated interlude. In fact, the films came after something of a short break in the director’s career. The six year gap following Jackie Brown was the longest in his career to that point.

As shooting was winding down, an incident occurred on the set. Details of that incident would not be made public for more than a decade and a half, although it would have a profound impact on all involved. By all accounts, Tarantino pressured Uma Thurman into driving a stunt car herself, leading to an accident. Thurman recalls, “The steering wheel was at my belly and my legs were jammed under me. I felt this searing pain and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to walk again.’” Thurman was not paralysed, but she was scarred by the experience, with a “permanently damaged neck and […] screwed-up knees.”

It was an act of reckless malfeasance from a director who had – with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – announced himself as one of the preeminent directorial voices of his generation. Tarantino is remarkable among directors of his generation for establishing a cult of personality, being as effective on the chat show circuit as behind the camera. Tarantino has been known for making brass pronouncements and asserting his authority, from his famous assertion that he is god within his fictional universes to his insistence on shutting down lines of questioning in interviews to rejecting reporters’ questions outright.

The case involving Tarantino and Thurman is perhaps more complicated than a lot of the similar stories of directorial abuse that have entered the spotlight since the #metoo movement rippled through Hollywood. This complexity is compounded by the fact that Thurman has publicly forgiven Tarantino for his part in the accident, and for Tarantino’s contrition on that point. (Tarantino’s public support of progressive causes like Black Lives Matter also plays a part, even if there is still a larger debate to be had about Tarantino’s relationship with African American culture.)

Even if none of this was made public until after the release of The Hateful Eight, these details hang over a lot of Tarantino’s work since the accident. Tarantino has conceded, “Beyond one of the biggest regrets of my career, it is one of the biggest regrets of my life.” It is notable that Tarantino had always been particularly close to Thurman. The story for the Kill Bill films is credited to “Q and U”, the pair practically living together during the development of the story. (Tarantino allegedly promised the script to the actor as a thirtieth birthday present.)

The tragedy echoes through a lot of Tarantino’s subsequent work. It is notable, for example, that a lot of Tarantino’s later work focuses explicitly on the idea of rewriting history. Inglourious Basterds famously offers an alternate ending to the Second World War, a striking piece of historical revisionism. There are also shades of the tragedy to be found in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which features two protagonists that are – to quote actor Brad Pitt – “two sides of the same coin.” Rick is a washed-up has-been who worries he is out of touch. However, his best friend is a reckless stuntman who may have killed his wife.

A lot of the discussion around Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has likened it to Inglourious Basterds. This makes a great deal of sense. Both stories are effectively historical revisionist fairy tales. Notably, the opening chapter of Inglourious Basterds is even helpfully subtitled “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.” It is a logical point of comparison, but one that conveniently glosses over an even more obvious reference point for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood within Tarantino’s filmography.

That point of comparison is Death Proof.

Death Proof is often overlooked in terms of Tarantino’s filmography. It was initially excluded from a recent Time magazine article looking at how many lines female characters had in a Tarantino film; a curious exclusion considering that it was the Quentin Tarantino film with the most female characters. Indeed, the question of whether the film “counts” often comes up in trying to take stock of Tarantino’s filmography – along with “is Kill Bill really one film?” – when considering the director’s arbitrarily self-imposed suggestion that he should retire after ten films.

There are several reasons why Death Proof tends to draw the short shrift in the Tarantino filmography. The most obvious is that it arguably exists more as a playful experiment than a fully-formed film. It was originally released in the United States as part of the double-feature Grindhouse, paired with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. The whole project was an excuse for famous directors to affectionately riff on the b-movie cinema of their childhood, with directors like Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright even contributing fake trailers to the project.

As such, it is often folded into the material that exists outside of (but related to) the core body of Tarantino’s work; his contribution to the Four Rooms anthology, his direction of Motherhood for E.R., his direction of a single scene in Sin City, his television movie Buried Alive for C.S.I. Of course, this is somewhat disingenuous. These projects were all very distinctly outside the formal constraints of cinema. Death Proof is very much (and very clearly) its own film. In fact, it was even released overseas as its own theatrical film, independent of Planet Terror.

The other reason that Death Proof tends to get overlooked is because its reputation is considerably weaker than any other Tarantino film. Most notably, Grindhouse flopped at the American box office. Even separated from Planet Terror, Death Proof bombed in the United Kingdom. Although reviews were still positive, the critical consensus ranks Death Proof as the weakest of Tarantino’s films. Even Tarantino himself seems to agree with that assessment, considering Death Proof to be his “left-handed movie.”

This assessment is not unfair. Death Proof is comfortably the weakest of Tarantino’s films. It has a number of sizable flaws. The biggest problem with Death Proof is that it is the only Tarantino film that feels too long. There is no small irony in this; even in its full theatrical presentation, Death Proof is actually Tarantino’s third-shortest feature. If one is inclined to treat Kill Bill as a single movie cut in half, then Death Proof is the shortest film in the director’s filmography excluding Reservoir Dog. However, its pacing is a nightmare, notably the way in which it tells the same story twice. (This is clever, but “clever” doesn’t always mean “good.”)

More than that, the film feels a little clumsy and ill-formed in places, occasionally undercutting its central thematic thrust. This is most notable in the second half, when three of the four heroines leave their friend Lee in the custody of a (frankly creepy) stranger in order to take a joyride in his muscle car. “What are you gonna do, blow him?” the girls ask Abernathy when she conspires to convince the stranger to let her take the car out on the road. “No,” she quickly corrects them. She then clarifies, “I’m gonna insinuate that Lee’s gonna blow him.”

It’s a deeply creepy moment, and one that even actor Rosario Dawson acknowledged in contemporaneous interviews. (“I know I know, it’s pretty terrible,” she conceded of the decision. “I talked to Quentin about it several times, because I had a huge problem with leaving her there. I don’t leave that girl behind – I love that girl, we’re friends.”) It casts a bit of a pallour over the rest of the film, particularly given the emphasis that (especially the second half of) Death Proof places on the importance of female friendship in the face of misogyny and abuse. Leaving Lee alone with a creepy pervy stranger is a very poor choice.

These problems aside, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening within Death Proof, especially in hindsight. It is tempting to read certain aspects of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as Tarantino meditating on his own culpability and his own place in modern Hollywood, and a lot of those aspects overlap with Death Proof. Most obviously, the spectre of Harvey Weinstein hangs heavily over both movies. In fact, this is notable because Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is the first Tarantino movie made without any involvement from Weinstein.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood features a celebrity whose best friend is accused of crimes against women, but who pretends not to know about it. Like Rick’s relationship with Cliff, Tarantino’s relationship with Weinstein was more than just a business partnership. As Amber Tamblyn describes it, Tarantino’s struggles to come to terms with Weinstein’s abuse involved “a larger psychological reckoning than just the guy who financed his movies.” Tarantino would admit of Weinstein, in retrospect, “I knew enough to more than I did.” In fact, he even managed to get Weinstein to apologise to Thurman, although he kept working with him.

There are aspects of Death Proof that evoke this spectre, albeit obliquely. Stuntman Mike is explicitly a misogynist who targets women. However, in hindsight, two minor details stand out. The most obvious is that Stuntman Mike’s brother works in the same business, and is called “Stuntman Bob.” More than that, although Stuntman Mike kills five young women in the first half of the film, the movie devotes the most time to his victimisation of Pam. Pam is played by Rose McGowan, her hair bleached blonde.

This is notable for several reasons. A number of actors appear in both Planet Terror and Death Proof, including Michael Parks and Quentin Tarantino. Marley Shelton even briefly reprises her role as Doctor Dakota Block from Planet Terror to make a cameo in Death Proof. However, Rose McGowan is the only actor have a prominent role in both Planet Terror and Death Proof. In Planet Terror, McGowan is cast as the unlikely hero of the piece. In Death Proof, she is cast as the first victim. Both very significant roles.

In the years since the release of Grindhouse, Rose McGowan has come forward as a victim of Harvey Weinstein. She has detailed how the producer assaulted her and attempted to derail her career. Since the story broke, Robert Rodriguez has argued that casting McGowan as the hero in Planet Terror was intended to be a very direct rebuke to Weinstein. It seems fair to consider her role in Death Proof in a similar light, particularly given how the film frames her as the victim of an exploitative misogynist monster.

Of course, it may be reductive to read Stuntman Mike as a stand-in for Weinstein, just as it might be reductive to read Cliff as a meditation on the same ideas. Perhaps these characters touch on Tarantino’s culpability in a different way. Tarantino affords himself an extended cameo in Death Proof. This is not unusual. Tarantino habitually casts himself in small roles in his own films, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. However, there is something interesting about nature of his role in Death Proof.

Tarantino casts himself as the owner and operator of the bar where the girls drink in the first half of the movie. Reflecting Tarantino’s proclamation that he is “god” on his movies, the establishment in Death Proof has one simple rule: Warren says it, you do it. Naturally, this evokes Thurman’s memory of being told to drive the car herself on the set of Kill Bill, of a man who “didn’t like to hear no, like any director.” Tarantino pressured Thurman to get behind the wheel of car when she was not qualified. Warren liquors up the women of Death Proof so that they are easy prey for Stuntman Mike on their drive home.

Death Proof repeatedly suggests that Warren is perfectly fine with Stuntman Mike, despite the fact that he is obviously a creep. “Hey, Warren!” Pam announces to the bar. “Is there anybody you could vouch for to give me a ride home?” Although Stuntman Mike interjects before Warren can answer, it is clear that the two do share something of a friendship. Despite claiming to be a teetotaler, Stuntman Mike cites “the fellowship of some fascinating individuals, like Warren here” as one of the perks of the bar. Warren jokes with his customers about Stuntman Mike’s career, suggesting the two get along well enough.

Even outside of this small role, Tarantino’s signatures are all over Death Proof. The first image on screen is the shot of a woman’s feet dangling on a car dashboard, with the words “written and directed by Quentin Tarantino” superimposed over them. This initially appears to be the director tacitly acknowledging his (in)famous foot fetish in the most indulgent manner possible. However, Death Proof keeps coming back to that image. The next notably allusion comes during Stuntman Mike’s attack on the women, in which a leg is severed and thrown through the air, landing (and bouncing) on the tarmac.

There is perhaps a quiet acknowledgement in this. Stuntman Mike has – like most misogynists – reduced these women to little more than an instrument for his own sexual gratification. However, there is something slightly self-aware (and perhaps even self-critical) in the way that Stuntman Mike most explicitly dismembers one of the party in a manner that alludes directly to the director’s known proclivities. Stuntman Mike reduces these women to little more than body parts, but is the same true of Tarantino’s gaze?

Repeatedly over the course of the film, Tarantino puts the camera in Stuntman Mike’s perspective, casting him as something of a director rather than just a stuntman. A lot of the opening credits are shot through the windscreen of Stuntman Mike’s car. Stuntman Mike watches women through binoculars and photographs them on film. He keeps photographs of his victims in the visor. The film even compares these photographs to the photographs of female cast members that flash up on screen during the closing credits.

That said, Grindhouse is decidedly unflattering in its incorporation of directors into its world. Notably, Planet Terror casts Tarantino in the role of a would-be rapist, a more explicitly and graphically misogynist role. Death Proof settles for consigning fellow director Eli Roth into a small role as predatory Dov. Dov is not as explicitly a monster as Stuntman Mike, his misogyny operating on a lower-key level than that of the primary villain. Instead, Roth plans to simply get the girls drunk enough that he can have sex with them despite their initial refusal to invite him back to their place.

This recurring motif of men trying to get women women drunk to take advantage of them pays off at the midway mark in Death Proof, after Stuntman Mike has used his car to brutally murder five women. Sheriff Earl McGraw investigates the case, but claims that the killer would never face prosecution. “D.A. says there ain’t no crime here,” McGraw tells his son. “Every one of them gals was swimming in alcohol and floatin’ on weed, and old Hooper in there came out clean as a whistle.” In other words, in the world of the first half of Death Proof, the women are ultimately to blame for the violence inflicted upon them.

This is very much in keeping with some of the more reactionary genre conventions within exploitation cinema. In horror and slasher movies, younger characters often “transgress” before they suffer, which provides not only a clear ordering framework for the narrative but also a clear moral structure. (Cabin in the Woods literalises this narrative process as the characters effectively stage a horror film.) For young women, that transgression is often sexual in nature; women who are sexually active tend to get murdered. This often plays – intentionally or not – as a narrative of punishment. (Scream explicitly discusses the trope.)

More than that, though, it also applies outside the fictional worlds of the horror genre. Women who come forward with stories of assault and abuse are often subject to victim-blaming. Women are told that they should not drink, that they should not wear revealing clothes, that they should not got out alone. Women who are sexually active are slandered in these sorts of cases. The underlying assumption is that women share some culpability for men’s crimes by putting themselves in certain positions. This is a regressive position, but one that has been absorbed passively through culture.

This is what makes the pivot at the midpoint of Death Proof so effective. Once Stuntman Mike has murdered Pam and the other four girls, the film starts over again. This isn’t entirely satisfying in terms of pacing and structuring. To the casual observer, this can make the first half of Death Proof feel like an indulgent shaggy dog tale, even if they understand the logic at play. Still, it’s a very clever and effective move, one that underscores the core themes of the film and which makes sense of the project as a whole.

In connecting Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood to Inglourious Basterds, many critics have pointed out that both movies are effectively historical revisionist fantasies. However, Inglourious Basterds is not the first time that Tarantino revises history. The symmetrical structure of Death Proof offers its own form of historical revisionism. The second half of Death Proof revises the first half, offering a more modern and socially conscious meditation on the tropes and conventions of the exploitation genre, which is notable in the context of the more personal themes that echo through Death Proof.

The second half of Death Proof suggests that it is possible to have a “do over.” In the first half of the film, in the manner of a classic exploitation film, Stuntman Mike is free to act out his violent fantasies on a bunch of young women and escape any consequences. In the second half of the film, reflecting a more modern sensibility, Quentin Tarantino suggests that these genre tropes could use a little modernisation and revision. The second half of Death Proof is effectively a remake of the first half, ditching a lot of its exploitation cinema baggage in favour of something more contemporary.

This is obvious even in the way that the film is shot. The first half is shot in the style of a classic exploitation film. The footage is grainy and scratched. There are moments when it seems like footage has been lost, with scenes skipping and jumping. Even the cinematic style is more old-fashioned, leaning heavily on cuts and night-time shots. Everything is a bit more heightened and stylised, from the skull and crossbones on the car to the manner in which the film treats text messages on Nokia mobile phones as a cinematic love story in miniature, with a tender score and straight-on insert shots.

In contrast, the second half of the film is a lot more polished – something even more noticeable when Planet Terror and Death Proof are watched back-to-back. The footage is cleaner. The sequence opens in black-and-white, but then quickly cuts to full colour that is not as muddy or saturated as the colours in the first section. The stylised deserted roads of the first half give way to a more realistic world in the second, with the young women forcing Stuntman Mike out into a freeway during the second half.

Even beyond the changes to the world of the film, the directorial style is a lot more confident; there are longer takes and more sweeping camera movements. Tarantino even makes a point to include an extended breakfast conversation between his second set of protagonists, evoking the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. The second half also gleefully embraces postmodernism; Zoë Bell plays herself, all the women work in film production, and there’s even an extended discussion of great car chase movies.

The inclusion of Zoë Bell is interesting, because Bell was most obviously Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill. It is interesting to wonder if Bell – and arguably McGowan’s blonde Pam – might be read as stand-ins for Thurman as Tarantino alludes to the stunt that caused so much pain to one of his close friends. It is notable that the climax of Death Proof overs something approaching a historical revision of that misbegotten stunt from Kill Bill. However, this time the cynical controlling asshole has to deal with a qualified stunt person who knows how to deal with anything that might arise during a dangerous car stunt.

All of this clearly communicates Tarantino’s intent. The first half of Death Proof is a shout-out to the tropes and rhythms of seventies cinema, but this drags those conventions into the modern world. Although the Nokia telephone in the first half confirms that the film is (roughly) contemporaneous, it doesn’t feel like Death Proof has reached the present day until the second half kicks off in earnest. (Indeed, the second half is arguably too modern. Tarantino’s pop cultural references have tended to be comfortably nostalgic, so it’s strange to hear the protagonists of the second half discussing Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.)

The second half of Death Proof explicitly repudiates a lot of the genre conventions articulated in the first. Most obviously, the film repeatedly and consciously rejects the idea of victim-blaming. Over breakfast, Kim tries to justify carrying a firearm. “You can’t get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped,” she states. Lee responds, “Don’t do your laundry at midnight.” Kim rejects the assertion that she should have her life dictated by such concerns. “F$!k that! I wanna do my laundry whenever the f$!k I want to.”

Notably, the second half of Death Proof pits Stuntman Mike against two younger stunt women – Zoë and Kim. The emphasis on stuntwomen in the second half of Death Proof is thematically important, because it reinforces the idea that women should be able to take the same risks as men without being shamed for it, and without facing apocalyptic consequences for minor transgressions. Abernathy recalls trying to take Zoë’s picture, only for Zoë to fall into a seven-foot concrete ditch filled with stones and broken bottles.

“If I fell in that f$!kin’ thing, they would have had to helicopter me out of there,” Abernathy reflects. “Zoë just lands on her feet. But then later I started feeling a little bad about myself… Zoë falls in the ditch and it’s nothing. If I fell in that f$!king thing, I probably would have been paralysed.” At its core, Death Proof seems to argue that women should be free to go “f$!kin’ around” and fall in the occasional ditch without it being the end of the world. There is something vaguely liberating in that argument, a firm rejection of the idea that women should have to take greater care than men for fear of male violence.

Death Proof features Stuntman Mike harassing these women, trying to kill Zoë. However, the film allows the women to survive that initial assault and avenge themselves on their assailant. They track Stuntman Mike down, they beat him savagely, they force him off the road, they drive him into oncoming traffic. They systematically dismantle his black car and reveal him to be nothing more than a frightened loser. “I’m sorry!” he begs at one point, trying desperately to escape their wrath. “I didn’t mean anything. I was just playing around.” He is practically sobbing. (Treating a gunshot wound, he cries, “All right, get it together, man.”)

All of this is seeded very carefully in the first half of the film. Stuntman Mike is repeatedly demonstrated to be pathetic and impotent. In one short interaction, he tries to sneeze that the young women, but finds himself unable to perform with an audience. The most notable thing that Stuntman Mike does in those bar scenes is to receive a lap dance, the ultimate expression of sexual frustration – all teasing with no release. There is even some small sense of frustration when he realises that none of the women at the bar know – or care – who he is or what he’s done. “Do you know any of these shows or people I’m talkin’ about?”

Still, there is something satisfying as the women pull a whimpering Stuntman Mike from the car, a man who took sadistic pleasure in torturing and murdering women. “Oh, help me!” he pleads. “Be careful! My right arm’s broken!” Tying back to the film’s opening image, the last thing that Stuntman Mike sees is Abernathy’s foot as it drives through his skull. It’s shocking, brutal and cathartic. Again, there feels like some small self-awareness and self-criticism in this, given Tarantino’s acknowledged foot fetish. Stuntman Mike had earlier perved on Abernathy’s feet as she lay sleeping, but she ultimately uses them to kill him.

Death Proof has perhaps aged in ways that nobody could have anticipated when it was produced and released in 2007. Certainly, the idea of a pathetic and hateful man using his car to murder a young woman certainly resonates in a post-Charlottesville world. (Particularly given the nexus that exists between misogyny and the alt-right.) Much like The Hateful Eight demanded reevaluation after the election of Donald Trump, the closing sequence of a violent misogynist begging and whimpering for mercy recalls a lot of the press coverage of “outed” alt-right supporters when held to account.

Indeed, Death Proof feels very much like something of an evolution for Tarantino as a filmmaker. It represents a conscious halfway point between his more personal meditations on violence and retribution in films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill towards the broader cultural explorations of revenge fantasies in Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. It is a shame that Death Proof isn’t more often considered as part of the latter group, dealing with misogyny just as brutally as Inglourious Basterds deals with Nazism or Django Unchained deals with racism.

It is remarkable how much of Death Proof carries over to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Of course, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood incorporates countless shoutouts to Tarantino’s other works. Still, the context of these references feels important. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood again features a stuntman accused of violence against women. It once again features a stuntman played by Kurt Russell, although Stuntman Randy is more culpable than misogynistic. He hires Cliff to work on The Green Hornet despite believing that Cliff killed his wife. (Randy also narrates Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.)

Notably, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood also casts Zoë Bell as a stuntwoman; this time one married to Kurt Russell’s stuntman. However, even in the less explicitly violent film, Bell is presented as the voice of reason. After Cliff causes trouble on the set of The Green Hornet, it is Janet who fires him. More than that, Cliff’s transgression involves heavy damage to Janet’s car; during an on-set brawl with Bruce Lee, Cliff hurls the martial artist into the side of the car causing a massive dent. Once again, all the familiar elements are at play; a man violent to women, a stunt gone wrong, a stand-in for Uma Thurman, damage to a car.

Death Proof is undoubtedly the weakest film in Tarantino’s body of work, but it is a film that has only gotten more and more interesting in the decade-and-change since its original release.

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One Response

  1. Whenever I’m about to read one of your pieces I always have my dictionary on stanby. Thx.

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