Friday, September 28, 2007

A Fifty-Fifty Shot

For a long time I’ve felt that if you’re watching a seventies movie, maybe from the early part of the decade, that has an extended title sequence made up of either a song or some Lalo Schifrin-type main title theme, there’s always a period of about thirty seconds of padding, as if the music is gearing up before the big finish when the movie can finally start. The bit of padding always seems to be where the MPAA bug appears. With that bug relegated to the end credits these days, that placement seems to be a lost art. In DEATH PROOF, which we can now evaluate as a full stand-alone feature as opposed to its shorter cut as seen in GRINDHOUSE, Quentin Tarantino makes it a point to put it during the opening credits where it belongs and if this theory I have has never occurred to him, then I honestly believe that he would agree with it.

It should probably be accepted by now that Tarantino can do whatever he wants in his films, including putting the MPAA bug anywhere he damn pleases. In all honesty, I don’t really have a problem with this. His lack of interest in all things digital is to me a refreshing aspect of his films by this point. Even if he’s going to have his characters horrifically killed, you can tell that he takes a great pleasure in them, as opposed to all the directors who are using them as chess pieces for the technology. Whether it’s the joy of having Michael Parks slowly, steadily go through another hypothesis of a particular crime or moving in on loving close-ups of the likes of Sydney Poitier, Rose McGowan and Rosario Dawson, the interest he has in those faces is one of those things you pick up on during multiple viewings.

He’s also interested in those people when they’re just hanging out, in no rush whatsoever to get to the next plot point. This of course is no surprise to anyone who’s seen even one of his films but it’s taken to the most extreme version of the extreme this time around. And DEATH PROOF, for the longest possible time, is a hang out movie, set in a vaguely sinister, 70’s version of a Howard Hawks bar as if HATARI! had been set in Texas with stoners instead of in Africa with big game hunters.

So if Tarantino cut past the bone, as he puts it, when trimming DEATH PROOF down for its maiden voyage as seen in GRINDHOUSE, then he’s made it a point to put back some of that meat in the full version, running about 25 minutes longer. Not everything included in the published script can be found here, so it’s reasonable to assume that the point in this version was never to put back everything, but to fashion what, ideally, would be his preferred cut of the film.

Of course, he’s making his own version of a Grindhouse movie, but he’s also exploring what those films mean to him and commenting on them in the process. More than most people, he’s paid attention to the moments in between the mayhem in those movies, an element of his films that he’s really focused on in DEATH PROOF more than anything. Roger Corman was able to take a simple nightclub set and make ROCK ALL NIGHT in 1957, set mostly in that nightclub. You can’t do that sort of thing anymore, but at the very least he set much of the first half of DEATH PROOF in the same bar, during a long night where the characters do little more than drink and hang out. There’s even a section where a torrential downpour is happening and the characters wait it out as if there was nothing more foreboding than venturing out into that storm. They learn otherwise, of course.

Reinstated to this version is the infamous lapdance scene, as well as a long introductory sequence of the girls in Lebanon, Tennesse which firmly sets this section as taking place 14 months after the first half of the film. Taking place in a convenience store (which, like all good convenience stores, offers Fangoria, Video Watchdog and Shock Cinema on its magazine rack) we also get Stuntman Mike’s first encounter with the girls as he scopes them out with Willy De Ville’s “It’s So Easy” (previously heard over the end credits of CRUISING) on the soundtrack. Some of this section is in black and white before it bursts in the middle of a shot into full-blown color, presumably to continue the illusion that this “print” of DEATH PROOF is being assembled from multiple sources. As a matter of fact, all the film scratches and bad splices seen in the GRINDHOUSE version are still here. I can’t help but think that Tarantino honestly loves the look of the movie this way and maybe to him movies are better with these imperfections. I think I understand where he’s coming from. Also put back are various bits of dialogue throughout including one STROKER ACE comment by Eli Roth in relation to Stuntman Mike. I had to rewind this one to make sure I heard it right. I mean, really…a STROKER ACE reference? It should be mentioned that the only Burt Reynolds comments made about Stuntman Mike all seem to reference his films that were directed by Hal Needham. For whatever that’s worth.

Incidentally, Kurt Russell is fantastic as Stuntman Mike and is probably one of the only viable stars right now who could bring the baggage he offers. You get the feeling that Russell understands the character down to his bones. His long history of working in Hollywood, going back to the sixties has no doubt allowed him to encounter stuntmen with a passing resemblance. I once worked for somebody who is a contemporary of Russell’s—he didn’t become Kurt Russell, but he definitely didn’t become the guy Russell plays here either(he actually became something else altogether, yet still successful). There’s something about the way he considered his acting past that I can recognize in Stuntman Mike and probably exists deep down in Russell as well. The unexplained seething in the character which is clearly there but never commented on becomes stronger with each new viewing.

Of the rest of the cast I particularly like Rose McGowan whose long blonde wig, as is revealed in the special features, is meant to make her resemble Barbara Bouchet, which seems perfectly obvious now that I think about it. And in Rosario Dawson’s face as it changes from terror to elation in one shot as she watches Zoë Bell perform the Ship’s Mast, Tarantino gets someone who can perfectly communicate the experience of what watching one of these movies is supposed to be like in the first place.

Tarantino of course plays Warren, owner of the bar where much of the first half takes place. There’s a bit of a master-of-ceremonies feel to his appearance but it also seems like a reference point to some low-budget movie I can’t think of where the director plays the bartender where much of the film takes place. Maybe I’m thinking of Don Siegel’s appearance in PLAY MISTY FOR ME (which doesn’t apply here) but even so his presence does seem appropriate. Also added back to this version is Stuntman Mike taking pictures of the second group of girls as Ennio Morricone’s theme to Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE plays. Which, after the appearance of the suspense music from CAT O’NINE TAILS now makes two Morricone/Argento pieces now in the film.

So DEATH PROOF incorporates each of these various elements and of course others—I haven’t even mentioned the car chase which appears to be untouched and remains a pretty terrific piece of work. The miles and miles of talk that occurs in DEATH PROOF, and yes there’s still more of it in this version, remain enjoyable to me and give the bursts of terror and excitement that much more potency. Stuntman Mike, when he asks Rose McGowan’s character which direction she’s going, figures there’s a fifty-fifty shot she’ll say a certain direction. Tarantino gives the audience the same choice. I guess a lot of them don’t like the direction he chooses, but if it’s the way he wants to go, I’ll go with him. Somehow, I don’t think he’s finished heading in that direction.


The Shamus (formerly TLRHB) said...

Excellent appreciation. This movie is growing on me, as well, and I liked it the first time.

Mr. Peel said...

Thanks Shamus, glad to hear that the movie is growing on you. I've watched the disc a few times already and I'm sure I'll be popping it in again soon. And I enjoyed the look at PARK ROW, a film I was fortunate to see at a Cinematheque tribute to Fuller a few years ago. I really should pick out a Fuller movie that I haven't seen yet and watch it.

Jeremy Richey said...

This is one of the most intelligent pieces I have read on the film and I agree with you completely.
I think "Death Proof" is a great work and I have been arguing with people for months about it. The strangest thing to me is how angry people seem to be that Tarantino made a Tarantino film...I really enjoyed "Planet Terror" but "Death Proof" was the half of "Grindhouse" that reall blew me away...thanks for writing one of the clearest and most thoughtful pieces on it...Great stuff.

Mr. Peel said...


Thanks very much for saying that. It means a lot. I liked PLANET TERROR--as a matter of fact, I liked it more than I like most of Rodriguez's films. But if I see the DVD, which I probably will, I'm not sure I'm going to have much else to say about it. And I still look forward to the next viewing of DEATH PROOF. Again, thanks for all the compliments.

le0pard13 said...

Excellent! So many great things to appreciate in DEATH PROOF. For whatever reason, it's a love it or hate it experience for many (I'm of the former, as you probably can tell). It's such a great cast, especially Kurt Russell in a rare villain role, and the dialogue (and delivery) I can replay endlessly. I have both versions at present (now that the Blu-ray Disc edition was released and brought the GRINDHOUSE theatrical cuts and experience to home viewers). Great pick to share on Twitter on Kurt's 60th, my friend. Thanks.