Reel Missing

A white-hot juggernaut of interminable talking!I got even more to say about Grindhouse. Cory made the point that people are trying to claim if you didn’t like Death Proof, you didn’t “get” it. You can see that in a lot of the internet reviews, and I’m sure if I had a job where I actually talked to people, I’d be hearing even more of that. So at the risk of devolving into yet another internet movie nerd shut-in (too late for that), I want to show that: yes, Tarantino did know what he was doing; and yes, we do get it; but no, we didn’t want it. And okay, yes, it does have some pay off.

But I think to appreciate Death Proof at all, you have to be either really, really horny, or have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen in it. (Or both). The trailers, marketing, and reviewers have done a good job of keeping it under wraps; I didn’t realize how good until I’d seen the movie and noticed how little of the movie actually ended up in the trailer. And since I don’t have a way to do spoilers in the comments yet, here’s a separate post.

I really can’t recommend reading this dissertation about Tarantino, but they do make a couple of good points, one of them that the first group of girls in Death Proof functions the same way as Janet Leigh in Psycho. Fair enough, and it’s easy to see where Tarantino was going with that. The movie really, really wants you to get attached to Jungle Julia and Butterfly.

Two big problems with that: first, Psycho already did it. And, since Brian DePalma has been scavenging Hitchcock’s corpse for so long, Dressed to Kill already did it.

Second, the stuff Janet Leigh was doing at the beginning of Psycho was intriguing. Hitchcock wasn’t just wandering around, killing time and getting “free sympathy” until the action started; he was building tension. Janet Leigh’s character had a story. She was having an affair (back when “having an affair” meant “having sex with a guy you weren’t married to”), she’d stolen some money, and you were wondering when and how she was going to get caught. The shower scene is only half of the shock of Psycho; the other half is when you see the money in the trunk of the car being completely ignored and sunk into the lake. He’d made a contract with the audience that he was telling one story, and then just buried it. It wasn’t just that a woman had been killed, it was that a story had been killed, and the movie audience had a lot more invested in the story.

So Death Proof could’ve easily cut out the entire opening driving segment and just started with the girls in the bar, and then cut out a big chunk of stuff that went on in the bar. Sydney Poitier is undeniably, astoundingly hot, so you want to let her do her thing, as long as her thing isn’t “droning on for hours in a conversation that sounds like it was written by an ex video store clerk.” I got the sense he was trying to build intrigue with her text messages to some guy, but that was ineptly handled — I still don’t know who the guy was, or why he was important.

The sequence with Rose McGowan was fine; he did a good job of setting up the premise and then showing the first pay-off. What was crucial to it was that it was pure violence without being gory. That was more realistic than anything I expected to see in these movies, and it’s the surest sign that Tarantino knew what he was doing. It would’ve been easy to show lots of blood and head trauma, but that doesn’t say “scary,” it just says “bad-ass,” especially to an audience that’s just watched a zombie movie. So he saved that for later.

And once the first batch of girls got into the car, I didn’t have too many problems with the rest of it. I thought the first death scene worked really well, and you could tell that there were little bits of cleverness that set it apart from being nothing more than cheap gore. Julia’s leg, that we’d seen so many times, stretched across a couch or in the back of a car or in a long, slow shot where we pan up it and see it glistening with sweat? Ripped off and lands on the pavement! Butterfly’s face, which the camera has focused on for so long to suggest that she’s the most intelligent and sympathetic character of the bunch, that there’s something going on inside her head that we just can’t figure out? Tire to the face!

So he gets points for “symbolic gore,” but he could’ve gotten the same effect with a hell of a lot less talking. If you’ve got something in a movie that doesn’t do anything for the movie, that’s self-indulgence.

The second half of the movie finally starts to get things in gear. The talking segments were still way too long, but they at least had a purpose. Rain said that the revenge story came out of nowhere, but I don’t think so. These girls weren’t just sexy victims; they were equals. They were a threat. Two of them were stuntwomen, so they could take on a psycho stuntman. It was still clumsy, overly long, and self-indulgent, but there are more signs that he knows what he’s doing. There’s a shot in the trailer that didn’t make the final cut, of the girls picking up Zoe at the airport, and it looks like a T&A scene — appropriate for a grindhouse picture, but unnecessary for this movie.

The scenes at the farm, again, were directionless and overly long, but I’ll give them a pass because they served a bunch of purposes. They meandered and didn’t quite fit, which gets the feel of all the car-heavy B-movies that just had to pad film between action sequences. They built up tension by setting up a con between the girls and the guy selling the car; they’ve just spent forever talking about guns and defending themselves, so is this redneck guy going to attack them? And they leave the young sexy innocent cheerleader there alone to defend herself against the redneck guy, actually telling him that she did pornos.

That last bit is crucial to the whole pay off. Obviously, it sets up that they’ve shed their hot victim mode and are going into bad-ass girls in cars mode. But that “contract with the audience” bit is why it really started working at this point. The reason Grindhouse is an homage and not just a parody is that it says there’s a real appeal to these B-movies, more than just making fun of the cheesy effects and low production values. That appeal is that as soon as the movie starts rolling, all bets are off. They’re so low budget and often so ineptly scripted and edited, that anything can happen.

Hollywood movies have a set of rules that are so deeply ingrained, movie makers break them just for the sake of breaking them. You never, ever kill pets. If you kill a child or an innocent, that’s a significant event that will have retribution. Scenes have to have a purpose (and still, Tarantino’s not getting away with that one). If you see a name or a number or an object, that will be important at some point down the line. There are entire sets of rules for what protagonists can and can’t do; there’s even a set of rules for what anti-heroes can get away with.

Now, you see a lot of movies that break the rules and then pat themselves on the back for being edgy and experimental. These B-movies broke the rules because they either didn’t know any better, or couldn’t afford to go back and fix them. And for all of its excess, Planet Terror still stuck pretty close to the rules; there were only two moments that broke them: hitting a dog with the car, and having the kid accidentally shoot himself in the head. Both of those worked for the most part, I thought, because they seemed thrown in at random without much purpose and all that much fanfare. Still, neither was all that unexpected.

But you just don’t have your sympathetic heroes abandon their friend to get raped by a hillbilly. And once they did that, I bought the rest of the movie as saying that anything goes from here on out. When we saw Kurt Russell’s psycho actually orgasm after running the girls off the road, I thought “Well played, Mr. Tarantino!” When Zoe jumped up out of the bushes and shouted, “I’m okay!” and the whole thing turned to comedy mode, I was along for the ride.

I started to shift uncomfortably in my seat when she was leaning on the door, insisting that she was okay. I just knew that the death proof car would come barrelling out of nowhere and smash into her, knocking the door off and showing her body parts flying across the pavement. Those are the rules for horror movies, after all. So I was totally on board when I saw that this wasn’t a horror movie anymore; it had thrown out all the genres and turned into 2007 post-modern ironic 70s feminist revenge fantasy exploitation farce with car chases. So I loved not just that she hopped in, but she picked up a lead pipe. I loved that they turned Kurt Russell into a sniveling pussy. I loved that they didn’t run him off the road with a fiery explosion. I loved that they actually pulled him out of the car, broken bones and all, and then just started wailing on him.

And I really, really loved that they took it one step further, and had the one who’d been set up to be the most “normal,” relatable, and sympathetic character in the entire movie deliver the final blow. In a grindhouse movie, anybody is capable of suddenly stomping on a psycho’s head if he pisses her off enough.

So yeah, I get it. And I think plenty of it works. But just because plenty of it works, and a bunch of guys on the internets think Tarantino writes the Best Dialogue Evar, doesn’t mean that he can’t use a good editor here and there. I’m going to buy the DVD as soon as it’s released, and will probably even lap up the special edition that comes out later. But if the Weinsteins make good on their promise and re-release Planet Terror and Death Proof as two separate movies, there’s only one that I’ve got any interest in seeing again.