Death Proof: a car crash of a movie

Quentin Tarantino’s fifth film confirms that the former master is stuck in professional purgatory, churning out gorno rip-offs.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Culture

Four years ago, I argued on spiked that: ‘The gap between the grindhouse and the multiplex has been narrowing. Everywhere you look, it seems that the difference between mainstream movies, exploitation flicks and Sight and Sound’s stock-in-trade is becoming less clear’ (1). Four years later, I’ve been vindicated by directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez joining forces to put a film called Grindhouse in the multiplex.

To date, Grindhouse is a commercial disaster. Sure, the double bill appealed to its directors and to a particular type of cult film fan. Yet for most audiences, the deliberate scratches, faked missing reels and distorted sound were turn-offs. In many parts of the world, viewers over 30 were reminded of the piss-poor projection they had recently escaped. The best thing about Grindhouse was the hilarious mock trailer featuring Nicolas Cage scenery-chewing as Fu Manchu.

Grindhouse cinema was part of a world with limited options for home entertainment. Erstwhile first-run prints of movies ran and ran until they were worn out. With no internet to source vicarious thrills from, punters got their kicks elsewhere. Hence the grindhouse, an outlet for a trail of exploitation movies, obscure horror pictures and early 1970s flicks knocked out in the aftermath of Easy Rider (1969).

Prior to home video, the grindhouse was where one went for an inexpensive escape from a handful of mainstream TV channels. Terrestrial broadcasts of feature films seemed both needlessly dated – this was in the days when Hollywood saw TV as a competitor and not a revenue stream – and prudishly tame. Every town had a grindhouse, struggling on into the 1980s amid more prestigious rivals that were becoming bingo halls and, a little later, chain pubs. One trip to my childhood local, the Cinecentre, involved a double bill of Gremlins and a film where Patrick Mower’s character struggled to give up smoking. Rosie Dixon, Night Nurse played next door on Screen 2. Illicit memories of cheap outings on a teenage or student budget matter more than the films themselves. The Cinecentre is now a Bollywood venue, leaving one of the few remaining grindhouse experiences to be had at London’s Prince Charles Cinema. Home video let the stories live on, but as a night out, the grindhouse soon went the same way as the roller disco.

Tarantino and Rodriguez’s abortive Grindhouse double bill represents mourning for a bygone age, the extinction of an obsolete form of entertainment. All that was missing from their version was sticky carpeting underfoot. With the near-death of the grindhouse, there’s not really much to mourn – if Robert and Quentin were true to their faith in this archaic institution, they would now be releasing their flopped double bill on Betamax. (And yes, brothers, I’m geek enough to know that Betamax had better playback quality than the more popular VHS system.)

Commercial failure is not evidence of a bad film, of course, but the Grindhouse concept was poor from the start. Whereas self-indulgence meant that Kill Bill evolved into two separate genre pieces, this time Tarantino set out to bodge two movies together, not unlike the amateurish projectionists working the local fleapit. As spiked observed of Kill Bill, a ‘three-hour grindhouse movie in one instalment is indeed pretentious, but a four-hour grindhouse movie in two instalments is even more so’ (2). This time around, the three-hour grindhouse movie died a commercial death.

Act two, scene one. Horrified at haemorrhaging money like a Shogun Assassin-style neck wound, Miramax stepped in and broke up the US double bill of Grindhouse into two films for separate release. Out went the bogus trailers and fake scratched prints: in came souped-up sound design, making the muscle cars of Tarantino’s Death Proof sound spectacular. The overlap between Tarantino and the ‘gorno’/splat pack behind Hostel, The Devil’s Rejects etc also sends strong commercial signals to a niche audience. Stripped of its gimmicky form, Grindhouse round two – now called Death Proof, ‘Quentin Tarantino’s Fifth Movie’ – has a better shot at impressing a mass audience. But is it any good?

Critics have responded to this movie by treating it as yet another round of clever borrowing from other films. The riffing off earlier films that got Tarantino recognised as a major talent – and minor ethicist! (3) – some 15 years ago is now seen as tired and derivative. Tarantino’s dialogue was once his strong card for winning over the sceptics, at a time when opponents of screen violence were spewing reservoirs of dogma at him. Not any more: in Death Proof, this has failed to impress.

Shock cinema has always played a role in Tarantino’s output. A colleague and drinking partner of mine – Paul Gormley, author of The New Brutality Film – argues that this is the contemporary equivalent of early cinema’s side effects, where big-screen motion induced bodily reactions in viewers. These days we know what to expect from projected images, unlike our ancestors who would duck under their seats to avoid oncoming trains. (That said, last week I nearly cut my head open by walking into a 103-inch plasma screen, but I digress.) Gormley argues that, today, stomachs churn in cinemas when prompted by torture scenes, racist responses to African-Americans on screen and anti-racist flinching at hearing the word ‘nigger’ (4). Maybe. But what happens when this film content itself becomes utterly predictable? Death Proof is a by-the-numbers job if ever there was one.

Studded with so-called homages to schlock road movies of the early 1970s, Death Proof nods to Two Lane Blacktop and especially Vanishing Point (both 1971). Along with Electra Glide in Blue (1973), the three movies constitute an informal – and formally unrelated – trilogy of borderline nihilistic features which suggest the closing down of the road movie and a curtailed Summer of Love. It’s Altamont versus Woodstock on screen: the age of Aquarius has drowned.

Narratives of road travel express a variety of US concerns, as Kris Lackey shows us in his book Roadframes: American Highway Narrative (5). Yet by the early 1970s, road movies were also a vehicle for US self-doubt, if not active self-loathing. Repeat viewings of several muscle car classics before writing this article confirmed that the 1970s originals are nothing to shout about. As if caught in its own headlights, Two Lane Blacktop signs off with the visual effect of the film reel itself burning up, because snagged in the projector.

If this review seems to hint at some plagiarism on Tarantino’s part, it’s because there is little new to say about the movie itself. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, on fine form) stalks a group of beautiful, half-dressed women. It’s no spoiler to say he kills them in a deliberate head-on car smash – Mike survives because his car is ‘death proof’. And that’s it.

There’s plenty of gorno in the collision, before Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) shows up to do some psychosexual plot exposition. Then it’s on to the second crowd of would-be victims. Oddly, some useful plot foreshadowing from the original double bill has been edited out, making way for more pop-culture jabbering from the victims. Stranger still, stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoë Bell plays herself: does this mean that Uma Thurman’s stunt double was really involved in dishing out some vigilante justice to vicious Stuntman Mike? Obviously not, but this is more evidence of a playful movie that hasn’t thought through its own implications. In short, even re-cut to reflect its expense and appeal to conventional audience tastes, Death Proof is still symptomatic of a stagnant entertainment industry.

My sense of déjà vu here comes from the debt to the 1970s and the predictability of the whole affair. The whole movie mirrors Tarantino’s leftover genre hang-ups that were not pumped into the overproduction of Kill Bill (6). Audiences and critics alike are coming back for sloppy seconds. So repetitive now is Quentin’s mix of bad acting and magpie moviemaking that I’m now starting to feel like I’ve been writing the same article about him every year, as the notes to this review suggest. Once touted as the last great hope of independent American cinema, this is a director who is stuck with making modest variations of the same film. He has yet to realise he is in professional purgatory, while the twentysomethings who cheered Reservoir Dogs have grown up and moved on. Someone give the guy a costume drama to direct, for crying out loud.

Tarantino’s problems of originality are further amplified by the fact that an arthouse-based extreme cinema genre is now firmly established. In a typical extreme flick, people yack about the state of the world and the human condition, bookended by extreme acts of violence. This structure is personified by Irreversible (2002) and multiplex nasty Wolf Creek (2005); now Tarantino joins a long line of imitators, trapped in the conventional expectations of jaded audiences. It is sad to see the master reduced to mimicking the so-called splat pack of gory directors he inspired.

Graham Barnfield blogs at the Loneliest Jukebox, and has a bit-part in Number One Longing, Number Two Regret. (Buy this film from Amazon(UK).)

Read on:

spiked issue: Film

(1) From one extreme to another, Graham Barnfield, 26 August 2003

(2) Taking Tarantino to task, Sandy Starr, 27 April 2004

(3) See The Tarantinian Ethics

(4) Paul Gormley, The New Brutality Film: Race and Affect in Contemporary American Cinema (Intellect Books, 2005)].

(5) Not everyone would treat Vanishing Point as an apolitical hippie flick. See John Beck, ‘Resistance Becomes Ballistic: Vanishing Point and the End of the Road’, Cultural Politics: an International Journal, Vol 3, No 1, March 2007, pp35-50.

(6) Killing Kill Bill, Graham Barnfield, 21 October 2003

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