By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 31, 2010 at 3:44AM
In anticipation of the new film "Machete," which opens this Friday, I'm making a point to familiarize myself with some must-see forerunners. They're not all necessarily linked in an official manner to Robert Rodriguez's latest, which is based on a (then) fake trailer included in the double-feature release of "Grindhouse," but I consider them relative predecessors. First up is Quentin Tarantino's half of "Grindhouse," "Death Proof." I guess it makes sense to see this after the Rodriguez half, "Planet Terror," but I was more excited by this, if only because it received more praise. I also, like many, prefer Tarantino's films to Rodriguez's. Stay tuned, though, to find out if I'm yet another person who favors "Death Proof" after I watch and write about the other.
"Death Proof" itself is itself divided into two halves, the first set in Austin and the second set in Lebanon, Tennessee. The main character connecting the sections is Stuntman Mike, a supposed former stunt stand-in for TV actors like Robert Ulrich who gets off on killing young girls in car crashes after ramming their vehicle with his "death proof" stunt car. Each part features a small group of girls he stalks and then hunts with his special autos. Overall, I was less into the talky sections compared to Tarantino's other films, but I love it as a tribute to the craft of stunt work. There will probably never be a better homage to gearhead movies (and related, old driver's ed films), either, though I have to say I'm disappointed in the lack of truckers and smokies.
After the jump I share some random thoughts about the film. Share your own in the comments.
Old vs. New
Going into "Death Proof" I'd assumed the film was set in the '70s. I thought Rodriguez and Tarantino's idea was to make movies that looked like they could have been made back then. As if they could have been mistaken for real Grindhouse movies 200 years in the future by some film historian of the time. But suddenly I noticed the car being driven by the first group of girls. Then I started to see the other modern items. And I think Tarantino made an extra effort to spotlight these things, like cell phones, ATMs, Red Bull, etc. to constantly remind us that we're not watching something old. I think I would have liked it to be a period piece, though. However, I realize a lot of the '70s movie and TV references that go over the women's heads would not have been so obscure.
"Death Proof" closes with April March's song "Girl Habit" (which you may know as the opening tune in "But I'm a Cheerleader"), a joke on Stuntman Mike's disturbing fetish, but it also made me think of Tarantino's own penchant for featuring kick-ass female characters (and his thing for women's feet). Now anyway. Thinking back to "Reservoir Dogs" I can't believe there's only two women in the whole film, and they're both very minor. I'll give the woman who shoots Mr. Orange credit, though. She's the closest thing to a The Bride or a Shoshanna or any of the second-half "Death Proof" ladies (played by Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Zoe Bell, as herself). Even "Pulp Fiction" is overly masculine compared to Tarantino's films since (and including the kick-ass women in his scripts for "True Romance" and "Natural Born Killers"). Is it still a positive female story, though, if only three girls get the last kick to the face in balance against the five poor women killed in the first half? And what happened to Winstead's character, Lee, anyway?
What Happened to Lee?
If this was an earlier Tarantino movie, we would have likely found out the fate of Winstead's character in another vignette either before or after the one in which the trio of girls have their run-in with Stuntman Mike and ultimately stomp his head. But we kind of just forget about her. She's left behind with Jasper, the possibly rapist redneck who got her as collateral when the girls took his Dodge Challenger for a test drive. Did he presume he was getting that blow job, as Abernathy implied? Did he take whatever he wanted regardless? And what happens when the car is returned to Jasper all smashed up? Does he get to keep the young cheerleader-costumed actress tied up in his dungeon along with his own Zeke? Maybe the guy is an angel, who knows, but with such a left-open storyline it sure is fun to use our imagination. I prefer thinking Jasper tries something and Lee goes all "Kill Bill" on him, only cheerleader-style. There's got to be a reason her outfit is colored similar to The Bride's, right?
The main attraction of "Death Proof" -- with all apologies to Kurt Russell getting to be awesome again -- is Zoe Bell, who spends much of the second half hanging onto the Challenger's hood, first intentionally and then for dear life. And that's actually Bell doing her own stunts, because she is by profession first and foremost a stuntwoman. She first worked with Tarantino as Uma Thurman's stunt double in the "Kill Bill" movies and has since also stood in for both Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent in "Inglorious Basterds." You can see her audition for and get the "Kill Bill" gig in the decent documentary "Double Dare," directed by Amanda Micheli. In fact, I believe Bell's current level of stardom is entirely thanks to the doc, through which she meets stunt legend Jeannie Epper, who helps her find work in Hollywood. Micheli's film is an interesting look into the world of stunt people, especially stunt women, and yet I think "Death Proof" might be the better appreciation. Also look for Darryl Hannah's "Kill Bill" double, Monica Staggs as the driver of the car in the first half's accident.
Engines and Genders - What's Under the Hood?
There's a lot going on in "Death Proof" regarding gender roles and sexuality, far too much to properly go through in this space. From Stuntman Mike's symphorophilia to Zoe Bell's erotic straddle of the Charger, from the contrast of the girls in the first half against the women of the second half, from the equal tribute to muscle cars and Russ Meyer and John Hughes and fashion magazines to questions about the male spectator as semi-feminist filmmaker. I will at least address Kurt Russell's suddenly higher vocal pitch and whininess as being a good touch. Despite it's appropriateness for this man whose masculinity is crushed, it's still the last thing I was expecting from this return to the Carpenter-era Russell.