Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Part of Grindhouse That Really Grinds My Gears

Upon discovering that I had seen Grindhouse in theaters (with Planet Terror and Death Proof viewed together as one experience) and both films in their extended forms separately and that Bill had only seen the two films as independent entities, Bill had a rather brilliant idea for this week’s installment of “She Said, He Said.” I would discuss how Grindhouse as a whole measured up to the two individual films when forced to stand alone and sink or swim on their own merit. Bill would review both films separately, not ever having seen them together in Grindhouse. To say that I’ve had a turbulent relationship with Death Proof is an understatement, but I’ll explain that in our collaboration (check for it late today or early tomorrow here). I rewatched Death Proof in preparation for this undertaking, and I’m extremely conflicted about the film. My thoughts are totally jumbled. If I’m going to do justice to our collaboration, I have to review Death Proof myself first before I can put it in the context of my experiences. I need to make some sense of my feelings.

Death Proof has been, and still is, a huge thorn in my side, so this review has been a long time coming. I have the utmost respect for Quentin Tarantino. I think he’s one of the best filmmakers working today, and I love his extensive knowledge of and appreciation for cinematic history. Clearly, he loves grindhouse films, and Death Proof is his homage to that genre. Or is it an homage to himself? This is his most self-indulgent film by a long shot. His purpose is muddled. He doesn’t go far enough to make it a cheeky, winking reinvention, but he doesn’t have the plot or characters required for a real film. So, I don’t know what it is other than a mess.

Tarantino loves women. We get it. Death Proof is basically Tarantino’s wet dream, complete with his prolific, rather disturbing foot fetish. The film starts with a shot of pretty female feet on a dashboard. Gag. Okay, I’m warning you now – this review is going to be spoiler city. I can’t possibly exorcise my feelings without getting into the plot details. Death Proof is essentially two separate films weakly connected by a character known as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). The first half of the film centers around a group of bitchy, slutty, alcoholic potheads, including Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and local DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, daughter of the legendary Sidney). All the girls talk about is getting laid and getting trashed. I don’t mind women speaking graphically about sex. I love Sex and the City. But in Death Proof, there’s nothing else going on. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. I think Tarantino mistakes women speaking vulgarly for empowerment.

“The Girls,” as the women in Death Proof are billed in the credits, in the first half are being stalked by Stuntman Mike and his scary skull-embossed car. Shanna is practically a non-entity as a character only notable for telling a guy (director Eli Roth) how to pronounce her name: “It’s Shanna Banana, not Shawna Banawna.” Butterfly and Jungle Julia share the spotlight in this part, which takes place in a dive-bar run by no other than Quentin Tarantino in a cameo that way overstays its welcome. Butterfly finds out that Jungle Julia talked about her on the radio and offered a challenge. Any guy that comes up to Butterfly, buys her a drink, and repeats a poem gets a lap dance in return. What a great friend. The girls spend far too long at this bar engaging in inane conversation (there’s lots of inane conversation in Death Proof). Jungle Julia sends some random text messages. The girls dance erotically. They blather on and on. Oh, Stuntman Mike is also at the bar. He eats nachos and strikes up a conversation with Pam (a blonde Rose McGowan), who needs a ride home. Even this description is practically lulling me into a coma. It’s SO boring.

Naturally, Stuntman Mike approaches Butterfly, says the magic words, and after some goading that includes him calling her “chicken shit,” she agrees to give him a lap dance. The lap dance scene is one of the strongest in the film. The music is great, it’s well-shot, and it’s actually pretty empowering, despite the obvious objectification. Also, it’s just plain hot. Ferlito really works it. Then, it ends, and it’s back to more awful dialogue. Pam gets in the car with Stuntman Mike. The car is “death proof,” meaning it’s been fortified for stuntwork in movies. Her seat is all boxed-in and sealed off with plastic from his part. So, he starts driving, gets all homicidal, and slams her around until she croaks. I guess that was just an appetizer. Jungle Julia, Shanna, Butterfly, and their random friend Lena (she’s driving) are cruising around high as a kite and totally drunk. As they listen to some typically cutesy Tarantino music really loudly, Stuntman Mike plows into them head-on, and we see the crash four different ways to see how each girl bites it. If I’m talking about this methodically, it’s because the film IS methodical. It’s so meaningless. The crash would have impact if he actually wrote characters we cared about. There’s some crap at a hospital with a sheriff (Michael Parks) speculating on Stuntman Mike’s vehicular homicide (he’s still alive), but it can’t be proven. Blah blah blah. End of Film One.

Beginning of Film Two. Enter a new set of “girls” to drive us nuts. Aren't we lucky? This group consists of Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), Zoe (Zoe Bell), and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). To be fair, these women at least get equal screen time, the first three anyway. Winstead gets left behind, literally, as you’ll see. Still, these characters are just as shallow as the first group, but slightly less annoying. The second half of the film is better than the first. So, Stuntman Mike has somehow found this batch of girls at a convenience store. He touches a sleeping Rosario Dawson’s feet and drives away. When he reappears at the end of the film, I’d almost forgotten he was in it. These girls are all involved in the movie industry. Zoe Bell, playing herself, is a stuntwoman visiting America from New Zealand. Abernathy does make-up, Lee’s a famous movie star, and Kim is also a stuntwoman. They have leave for a few days, so they decide to raise hell. Whoo. They have a vulgar, insanely annoying, long-winded conversation in the car about sex. Typical. After all, that’s what women do. Apparently, all women do it all the time. Boy, Tarantino really gets us. We also prance around in lingerie, have naked pillow fights, and compare boobs during sleep-overs. Ugh. Anyway, after an intolerably long scene at a restaurant, during which the girls talk about absolutely nothing, with the camera just spinning around the table for like ten minutes, Zoe says she wants to go drive a car like the one in Vanishing Point, some cult classic action movie with a presumably fierce car chase. A local guy is selling one, so they go to his place.

Zoe wants to play a game called “Ship’s Mast” with Kim. They argue about it for a bit, and then Kim agrees. They need to convince the guy to let them take the car for a test drive on their own. When Abernathy learns that they plan on leaving her and Lee behind as collateral, she gets pissed. It’s brought up that Abernathy is a mother. Keep that in mind. Abernathy says that if she gets him to agree, she gets to go along for the ride. Lee is left behind, and the guy clearly wants to have sex with her, so I don’t know if potential rape is supposed to be funny, but it’s not. We don’t ever find out what happens, because that’s the last we see of Lee. Plot hole! Once on the road, Kim and Zoe prepare to do their daredevil business. Ship’s Mast involves Zoe sprawled out on the hood of the car on her back, each hand gripping a belt attached to the car, while Kim drives as fast as she can. Abernathy is freaked out at first but starts loving it. Oh, but wouldn’t you know it, Kurt Russell is still in this movie! Here he comes! He catches up to the girls and slams into the car from behind. This begins what is allegedly one of the greatest car chases ever captured on film. I’m dubious. He slams into them a bunch, Zoe loses her grip, and it goes on like that for about ten minutes. Phase One of the chase ends, the cars stop, Zoe has been projected off the hood and possibly killed, and Kim shoots Stuntman Mike before he speeds off. Abernathy and Kim cry for a few seconds and then Zoe pops out of the bushes completely unharmed.

In Phase Two of the chase, the girls seek revenge. They set out to kill him. Hmm, that’s quite a drastic turn of events. So, they catch up with him and start slamming into him. Eventually, his car flips over, and the girls take turns punching the crap out of him. He finally gets taken down by Zoe’s roundhouse kick to the face. The girls leap into the air, victorious, and the film ends with a freeze frame of this joyous celebration. Cut away to see “Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino,” and then cut back to the girls. A very limber Abernathy extends her leg up as far as possible, holds it there with her hands, and then slams her boot into Stuntman Mike’s face, crushing his skull. The end for real. What…the hell…was THAT? I’m sorry if my plot description was annoying. I was really trying to make it somewhat interesting. If it sounds tedious, it is. In fact, just reliving it like that was torture for me. There are so many problems with this film that I don’t know where to begin. I honestly don’t know what Quentin Tarantino was thinking. I think Tarantino is brilliant, so that’s why I expect more of him, and that’s why Death Proof is such a massive, epic disappointment. Well, it’s a disappointment because it sucks, but also because he can do better.

Here’s how it boils down: I think Tarantino wanted to film a car chase, and then he was like, “Oh crap, now I need to fill 90 minutes.” That’s how it feels. It’s forced, gapingly empty, pointless filler. Death Proof is painfully, often excruciatingly, boring. It borders on torture. The dialogue is an unending nightmare. The character development is pitiful to non-existent. Maybe instead of forcing us to listen to them ramble on incessantly, he could have made them seem like real people. The sad thing is - I think Tarantino actually believes that he created well-developed, strong characters, especially strong females. Stuntman Mike is the most interesting character, but even he’s a lousy specimen. How about some backstory? Why is he like this? Why does he pick out these particular women? Why is Stuntman Mike a killer? We know he likes eating nachos, but not why he kills women with his car. The women in the first half are pathetic. They’re oversexed blow-up dolls with no discernible personalities. They make me ashamed to be a woman. Butterfly is the best female character in the whole film, but even she gets slighted. We don’t get to know her, and I only care about her because Vanessa Ferlito does a spectacular acting job. Rose McGowan’s Pam is sort of sympathetic, but I think I’m just carrying over some of my affection for her from Planet Terror. She hates the other girls, so that makes me empathize with her because I hate them, too, so I suppose that’s something. Shanna is worthless, and Jungle Julia is one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. She delivers a line, repeatedly, that haunts my nightmares and makes me scream inside every time I hear it: “Kinda cute, kinda hot, kinda sexy, hysterically funny, but not funny-looking guy who you could fuck…” And Sydney Poitier gives a terrible performance. She’s so irritating that by the time Stuntman Mike crashed into them and her leg (hanging out the window) gets ripped off, I was ready to tear it off myself and smack her upside the head with it. The accident is well-shot. Fine. Whatever. What does it mean, though? I don’t care about the characters. I don’t know them, so it doesn’t matter that they die. There’s no emotional impact.

It’s so hard to decide which group of girls I hate more. I will say this: I liked the second half a lot more than the first. The dialogue is less aggravating, and the acting is better overall. Also, it’s just more entertaining. Okay, it’s decided. I hate the first group of girls more. But the girls in the second group are no winners either. All the characters are so shallow and vapid. During the car chase, I did find myself occasionally engaged emotionally, or at least viscerally, with the characters. I was with them, at least until they went all homicidal. Even then, though, there were moments when I just felt, on a gut-level, like shouting, “You go, girls! Kick some ass! Damn the man!” But I’m not proud of it. They’re not good role models at all. The second half is better because I did have those brief instances of empathetic involvement. Still, how they reacted bewildered me. First of all, how could they leave Lee behind with the creepy guy in the middle of nowhere? And why don’t we ever find out what happened to her? It’s a plot hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

Okay, let’s discuss the girls turning into killing machines. I don’t buy it. It’s stupid and inexplicable. I know he came after them first, but the answer is NOT to turn them into homicidal maniacs. Does Tarantino really believe that’s empowering? I think he does. It’s not, though. He’s totally wrong. The worst part is Abernathy kicking his face in at the end. Where does that come from?! They made such a big deal out of her being a mother. All of a sudden, this mother is going to put her life on the line to exact some potentially suicidal feminine revenge? The mother is going to be the one to deliver the final blow? Abernathy the Mommy crushes his skull in with her sexy high kick? No, no, no! I don’t get it. Why mention she’s a mom at all? What’s the point? It makes the ending even more offensive and incongruous because of it. The girls in the second part are nothing but action figures, and just as plastic and empty.

Death Proof is well-made. Tarantino is an excellent technician. He knows film. He did his own cinematography, and it looks wonderful, although at times he cares more about making it pretty than making it look grindhouse. The car murder and the car chase are great (but to what end?), his music selection is awesome as always, and there’s some good acting. Kurt Russell is excellent and has a blast but is totally wasted in this movie. Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are good (that’s all the praise I can muster). Zoe Bell (most renowned for being Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill) is a phenomenal stuntwoman but an appalling actress. Tarantino does a commendable job in the first half keeping up the grindhouse look (scratches, skips, etc.), but that look pretty much disappears in the second half. I’ve heard a theory about this that the first half (and the women) represent the old grindhouse films, which is why they’re victimized, and the second half is a modern (hence the lack of skips) depiction of girl power. The first girls lose, and the second girls win. This is a compelling argument, and I agree with it to some extent, but there’s no excuse for such miserable characters or for such a blatantly negative message. The second half is NOT feminist. The characters need to be real human beings, which these women aren't, in order to be empowering paradigms of feminism. They’re nothing. All they are at the end are caricatures, and caricatures can't be empowering. And while they DO win, they win by killing. Whee.

I don’t think the second half is necessarily sexist or misogynistic, but it’s certainly not pro-feminist or empowering. The characters aren't inherently offensive (except maybe for the murderous impulses), but the way Tarantino obviously idolizes them and glowingly depicts them, like superheroes, for no reason or for the wrong reasons, is troublesome. Hmm, when I think about it that way, I guess the second half IS sexist and even misogynistic. The first half, on the other hand, is totally and unquestionably anti-feminist and misogynistic. The characters are disgraceful to all women, and the objectification, which occurs throughout but is most prominent in the first half, is sickening. The characters in the first half are submissive, sleazy, loathsome, grotesque imitations of women, but the characters in the second half, while not as awful or as dangerously represented as their predecessors, go too far in the other direction. They're harmful parodies and grotesquely exaggerated in a different way. They're action figures from the Hot Babes Kicking Ass collection. They have no other identities. Basically, they're
completely naïve projections of men's clichéd fantasies.

I know people will probably say I’m missing the point and that the women are supposed to be one-dimensional symbols. Bullshit! No, they’re not. They're not strong women because there's nothing there! They're totally shallow and hollow. If the characters had depth and three-dimensionality, the film would be more effective in denouncing oppression and misogyny. There’s nothing ironic about it as it stands. The way Tarantino handles it, like a boy just entering puberty, is clumsy and, yes, offensive. I know he loves women (hell, he worships them) and that he isn't a misogynist, and I think he had good intentions, but he fails. Death Proof is not a positive example of feminine strength. It’s the opposite. His idea of feminism is women swearing and talking frankly and graphically about sex, just like men do. Oh, how bold of him. This form of "candid" discussion occurs equally in both halves of the film, but the talk is detrimental and meaningless when the characters have no depth to back it up. For both groups of characters, the dialogue is just sensationalistic exploitation of preconceived notions and socially accepted standards of femininity and feminine behavior that is neither enlightening nor clever. You're not aiding the cause, Quentin.

For awhile, I wasn’t sure if the film was sexist or not. I knew it wasn’t empowering, but I didn’t know if it was just neutral or if it actually crossed the line to sexist. For me, it crosses the line. The film is a whole lot of nothing, but I can’t dismiss the negative female representations, however unintentional. I think Death Proof was intended to be an intellectual experiment, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune from criticism on the feminist front. I think his point was to show the first women as objects and the second women as the predators (for once), but I don’t care. It doesn’t work. He can make that point with fully-fleshed out characters, too. In fact, it’d be better that way.

I can’t help it. I’m offended. I know it’s just a movie, but I see these female characters, and I’m disgusted. They talk and act like Tarantino WANTS women to talk and act. This film is all wish-fulfillment. Not only that, Death Proof is so self-congratulatory on Tarantino’s part. Like I said before, it’s more an homage to himself and his misguided ideas and ideals of womanhood than an homage to grindhouse films. Talk about being stuck in arrested development. “The girls” are his drooling, horny, shallow, perverted, lust-fueled, hormone-ravaged creations. He usually writes strong female characters, which is why I’m so disappointed and angry. There’s none of his usual irony, satire, or intelligence here. I could probably write a book about Death Proof and never reconcile my conflicting thoughts and feelings or be fully satisfied with any sort of conclusion, but this is the best I can do. I’ll leave you with this: Death Proof is nothing more than the delusional, masturbatory fantasy of Quentin Tarantino.

Rating: *1/2 (out of 5) - This is my rating for the extended, solo version of Death Proof. When I saw it as a part of Grindhouse, I HATED it, like I don't think I've ever hated a film. I still hate it with a passion, but I do concede that it's better on its own, and I can swallow my pride and admit that I liked it more away from Planet Terror. Putting the explosive genius of Planet Terror before it was the worst move ever. It just made Death Proof look even worse by comparison. As a part of Grindhouse, I would have given Death Proof half a star or possibly even a zero. It's been a long, hard journey to arrive at the one and a half I give it now.


Sara said...

Hey Lisa,

Which Grind House flicks have you seen? Have you seen Vanishing Point? When the movie came out, Tarantino got a whole lotta flack because his piece of the pie isn't really grind house material. Rodriguez's portion barely falls into that category as well. Knowing Tarantino's tastes like I do, I believe he was more or less trying to channel the feminist exploitation flicks of the 1970's while also attempting to capture the existentialist vibe of Kowalski's character in Vanishing Point. The term “grind house” should only be applied to these two films because they were blanketed together as a double bill.

You already know my feelings about the second half of the film, so I won’t reiterate those points again. I agree that Tarantino is too self-involved to have accurately made a feminist flick (see Switchblade Sisters for an amazing example of one of those), but I will defend his honor for this film because I earnestly believe his heart was in the right place. Also, when was the last time you saw a mainstream film with no less than eight lead(ish) female characters?

In Vanishing Point, almost every single stereotype revolving around gender, race, and creed comes into play at some point. Kowalski is on the run from the police and a wide variety of characters enters into the picture in an effort to aid his journey. But he only agrees to accept help from (at least on the surface level because most of his meetings are brief) progressive thinkers. I think Stuntman Mike is supposed to be a misguided Kowalski - - a crazy man who sucks the life out of the weak of heart and tries to make examples of his victims. This would explain the graphic nature of his murdering spree and would also explain why he preys upon weak females who are drunk, high, or just plain stupid - - no one will raise question as to why a weak female died if she dies because of one of those things. People will just categorize her into “that” category and use their faces to advocate abuse awareness in the future. Stuntman Mike fails with the second set of girls because they don’t succumb to that lifestyle, or if they do, it’s because of their own free will and not because some guy bought a drink for ’em. Stuntman Mike is all about the chase and, in his own deranged way, gets even more pleasure out of being chased than actually chasing, which is why he congratulates Kim, Zoe, and Abernathy for keeping up with him.

I’ve always attributed them leaving Lee behind to the idea that she’s the weakest of the bunch - it’s a survival of the fittest world after all and she would have held them down. I don’t agree with the way they left her behind, but one can only hope she learned something from the stronger bunch and managed to kick some ass.

I also disagree with you amounting the second set of girls to “hot babe action figures” because I don’t think any of them fall into the typical ideal of beauty, not even Rosario Dawson. They’re all too athletic for that.

One of my biggest irritations with the first set of girls is that none of them can really spout the Tarantino dialogue with confidence or ease, it almost feels like they’re junior high students acting in Macbeth or something.

Lisa Draski said...

Hey Sara!

Wow, thanks for your comments. They were very helpful, and I learned a lot, especially about Vanishing Point, which helped me put it in perspective. I can now see where he was going with the character of Stuntman Mike, at least.

I only criticize Tarantino so harshly because I respect him so much and know he's capable of better. I know his heart was in the right place and I mentioned in my review that I believe he had good intentions, but as you say, he got too self-involved to execute them properly. I think Planet Terror is an excellent example of "grindhouse" that also has a great script and strong characters. I think Cherry Darling is fully three-dimensional and has a wonderful arc and is extremely empowering. I'd much rather take one definitively strong female over 8 sketchy, possibly strong females any day. Death Proof may have quantity, but I don't think there's much quality to the women.

Seriously, thanks for all your insight about Stuntman Mike, the girls, and Vanishing Point. It's really, really well-written.

As far as the "hot babe action figures," I think of them less in the sense of mainstream beauty and more in the sense of what Tarantino WANTS them to be. To him, these are his prototypical hot babe action figures. Even if they don't conform to normal ideas of beauty, I think their ability to kick butt like they do, and Kim and Zoe's stunt careers, and their killer bods, make them action figures. And I think when women do get tough like that, it sort of gives them a hot babe edge or vibe. There's something hot or sexy, but intimidating, to a man about a woman being able to kick a man's ass.

Action figure/superhero/cartoon women are all athletic (I worshipped She-Ra when I was little). Look at Lara Croft for a modern example. These women in the second half of Death Proof are unconventionally beautiful, to be sure, and I respect Tarantino for that choice, but I believe that these are HIS fantasty women come to life. They're definitely placed on a pedestal by him. I just don't think there's enough character development for us to do the same.

I think Tarantino is better than this and that he could have been more effective by creating more likeable or believable characters.

And yes, I totally agree that I think the delivery of the dialogue by the girls in the first half is atrocious.

Thanks for the great comments. I appreciate your input, as always, even if we respectfully disagree. :)

Love and hugs,

Sara said...

Hey Lisa,

Sorry I'm just now getting to the response to your response, but ya know how that goes...

Do you think any of Tarantino's women are anything BUT his fantasy? Or any of his other characters, scenarios, or ideas for that matter? Part of the glory of the Tarantino world is his collage-artist sensibilities - that he has the ability to pluck out what he loves from other works and apply them to one film, thereby creating his own little world within many people's worlds? Gah! Sorry if that doesn't make sense.

Lisa Draski said...

Hi Sara!

I agree with you that all of Tarantino's women are his fantasy girls. I totally agree. But, I think in all of his other films, specifically Kill Bill, he manages to bring depth and humanity TO those fantasies. He fleshes them out and makes them sympathetic, strong, and empowering. For me, with Death Proof, he fails to do that. They're fantasies without the usual substance to push them over the one-dimensional edge.

I also love that Tarantino manages to take aspects of cinema and reinterpret them. I think he does it, for the most part, better than almost anyone today. Again, Death Proof fails on that front for me. There's nothing transcendent or worthwhile there.