Dreck On Wheels
By Noel Vera

Death Proof
Dir: Quentin Tarantino (2007)

Death Proof (2007), Quentin Tarantino's contribution to the Grindhouse omnibus released together in the USA earlier last year, is having its solo premiere in Manila's commercial theaters. How does this slightly longer version play, so many months later?

Pretty much the same. Tarantino has added a few minutes of eye candy--Vanessa Ferlito manages to do her lap dance for Kurt Russell (who luckily isn't wearing his Escape from New York eyepatch) instead of having the entire scene written off as a 'missing reel' (the film for those that need the explanation replicates every aspect of the grindhouse theater experience including scratched prints, mismatched footage (the film's midpoint sequence is in black and white), and lost scenes).

Russell later manages to caress Rosario Dawson's dangling toes while passing her car door ("He accidentally brushed against my feet. It was creepy"); I'm assuming the director is indulging his fetish for feet (many of the women wear flip-flops or walk about shoeless or prop said limbs up high at the slightest excuse, purely for our delectation) and perhaps Latina women (Russell closely studies Ferlito's lap dance, enjoys the feel of Dawson's soles).

Tarantino does his level best to reproduce '70s style cinematography, from the garish colors to the bright lighting to the racking focus practiced by Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. More anachronistic are the stealthy tracking shots that glide across rooms past people and furniture (a trademark move by a director who (presumably) likes the sense of foreboding), not to mention the numerous long takes of people speaking pages of his dialogue to each other.

The dialogue--Tarantino's talk is more or less enjoyable, but the rhythms, the way his people chat and curse have become (from the eight previous feature films I've seen) terribly familiar. "You know," says Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), "how people say 'You're okay in my book' or 'In my book, that's no good?' Well, I actually have a book. And everybody I ever meet goes in this book. And now I've met you, and you're going in the book."

Rhythm and repetition and recycled twists of syntax are the tricks of his trade, the word 'book' like a regular beat to each sentence (my book, a book, this book), the word 'have' a kind of exclamation point changing the nature of the statement, referring not just to a theoretical 'book' but an actual, physical object Russell produces in his hand. Said dialogue can be funny ("I don't wear their teeth marks on my butt for nothing"), it can be chilling ("It would have been a while before you started getting scared"), but it all sounds as if it had been spoken by the same mouth, composed by the same mind.

Tarantino really needs to listen more to the great variety of speech patterns and accents found in the United States at the very least, maybe throw in a foreign accent or three, maybe even a deaf-mute (maybe not; his Bride in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 didn't talk, and she was a dull, dull girl before she was allowed to express herself more in Kill Bill Vol. 2).

I've always declared that Tarantino was a better writer than filmmaker, and perhaps a genius at casting (John Travolta in Pulp Fiction; Robert Forster and Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, David Carradine in Kill Bill Vol. 2)), that his default style (sinuous or static long takes) was mostly a way for him to present his dialogue properly.

The first half of Death Proof doesn't do much to change my assessment--talk, talk, talk, mostly in the one bar, with maybe Ferlito's lap dance thrown in to relieve the verbiage. Midpoint in the movie, when Russell's Chevy Nova smashes into an oncoming car, the collision is all repeated slow motion and (I'm assuming) digitally enhanced carnage (a severed leg, a tire wheel literally rubbing someone's face out).

The second setpiece sequence, a faceoff between Russell in a Dodge Charger and a second set of girls in a white Dodge Challenger ("Kowalski!" exclaims Tracie Thoms, recognizing the reference to Richard Serafian's great 1971 road movie Vanishing Point) is a different creature altogether; I wouldn't blame anyone for skipping the film's first hour to sit in at this far superior second one, a duel between two muscle car classics that's shot (far as I can see) entirely without computer effects or even an undercranked camera--just real cars racing at real speeds, a real stuntwoman (Bell playing herself) clinging with near-real panic to the hood of the car.

As an advertisement for feminine empowerment the movie is a dodgy proposition: we're asked to accept the dismembering of the first set of girls by Russell's Stuntman Mike as setup for the second set of girls to take vengeance, with the second set's main justification for surviving being that they don't do booze or drugs, that two of them (like Mike) are professional stuntmen, and (most importantly) that one of them (Thoms) carries a gun.

An earlier exchange between the girls ("You can't get around the fact that people who carry guns, tend to get shot more than people who don't." "And you can't get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped.") is entirely justified by Mike's appearance on the scene ("See?" you can imagine the less skeptical in the audience pointing out to each other, "Good thing they were packing.").

I won't go so far as say Tarantino is anti-gun control, only that he's simply following the anarchically amoral conventions of the genre; it follows, then, that just because an innocent biker gets brutally thrown against a roadside signboard and the girls leave one of their own (Lee, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose only crime seems to be a serious case of stupidity) behind, presumably to be raped, one shouldn't be upset; such elements are only to be expected in these kinds of pictures.

Sure, fine; whatever. Perhaps my biggest problem with this tribute to those kinds of pictures is that it seems so superfluous, at least to us Filipinos. We have grindhouse-type theaters showing grindhouse-type fare, in Cubao, in Manila; we have prints full of scratches and missing reels, moldering away in our unairconditioned warehouses.

We have politically incorrect movies--brutal rapes, shameless melodramas, slipshod action vehicles, rubbery monster suits splashing about in gallons of patently faux blood (for some reason, possibly budgetary (and for all I know they've since corrected this), our fake blood is pinker than Hollywood's) of a number and variety to rival any American filmmakers' most outrageous, most perverse tastes.

Here comes Tarantino spending over thirty million dollars (over sixty if you count Robert Rodriguez's contribution) faking what we've been doing for decades and you want to ask--couldn't he just hand all that money over directly to our filmmakers instead? It would be less trouble for everyone all around.

Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@yahoo.com
First published in Businessworld, 12.14.07.

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February 15, 2008