A Revved-Up Chick Flick

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Death Proof
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
2007, USA
**Contains Spoilers***

Tarantino’s many skills set him apart from other auteurs working in the film industry today, but none of them dominate in his work as much as his ability to seamlessly weave his narratives through genre/sub-genre mash-ups. The Nouvelle Vague coolness and lurid noir of Pulp Fiction, the samurai western Kill Bill, and the World War II spaghetti western Inglourious Basterds illustrate just how well he can work combining two genres, but his most successful blending of genres comes from his second-billed Grindhouse flick: Death Proof.

Death Proof encompasses more genres in its one hundred minutes than any other film can possibly contain. As a homage to the double-billed b-movies of the ’60s and ’70s, Death Proof is structured like many films produced by American International Pictures and New World Pictures – a big hook early on and a strong climax. Death Proof can also be seen as being structured as two films in a series of Stuntman Mike slasher films spliced together after years of circuit rotations, similar to the way first two Lone Wolf and Cub films were cut into Shogun Assassin for an American release. Structure aside, Tarantino weaves his film through six sub-genres: giallo, the “hang-out” movie, the “movie about movies,” chick flicks, the car film, and the revenge film.

Despite using a loud 1970 Chevy Nova as weapon-of-choice to murder young women, one-of-a-kind villain Stuntman Mike is introduced like a giallo killer: lurking in the shadows and obscured from our view. Music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O’ Nine Tails – two giallo films from Dario Argento – sets a sleek and operatic tone of terror. The scene in which Stuntman Mike photographs his “new girlfriends” is lifted straight from the opening of Crystal Plumage, keeping his stalking terror out of reach. However, when Stuntman Mike mingles with the rest of the cast he is likeable person. Tarantino has created some very terrifying characters in his films but in his one true horror film he crafts, his villain is rather tame.

Tarantino has defined the “hang-out” film with his praise of Rio Bravo and Dazed and Confused. “Hang-out” films are movies primarily watched for the returned pleasure of watching the characters interact, and as Tarantino describes them in his Sky Movies Top 20 films of the last 20 years: “If you watch it [a hang-out film] every three years or four years, the characters are like your friends and it’s like you’re hanging out with them again, seeing your old friends.” Mostly all of his Tarantino’s films strive for a level of the “hang-out” film. His dialogue-heavy films are completely engrossing, no matter what the subjects of those conversations. Tarantino called Jackie Brown his “hang-out” film, but Death Proof surpasses his earlier work with plenty of friends hanging out in bars, diners, and while driving. He even lets his villain in . If one were to take out the scenes with Stuntman Mike (the plot’s catalyst), the film would really be women hanging out with one another. Through these scenes, Tarantino lets his characters explain themselves without the plot forcing exposition. We learn about about their sex lives, their careers, their pasts, their taste in music and movies, and their knowledge of their crafts.

The craft that several of the characters in Death Proof are involved in is the motion picture industry. Like all of Tarantino’s films, movies are a large part of them. Never before has he directly addressed the blue collar craftsmen and craftswomen of cinema like he explores the stuntman and stuntwoman. Three of the characters in the film work in stunts and Tarantino takes the time to explore the adrenaline rush that attracts people to the occupation both through Stuntman Mike’s murderous use of his death proof car and Zoe and Kim playing ship’s mast. Although no actual filming of movies is in the film, the craft of stunts is both represented as professional and recreational. Stuntman Mike’s explanation of the death proof car just before he murders Pam is as informative as it is terrifying – shifting between genres seamlessly.

When Stuntman Mike departs the Texas Chili Parlor in pursuit of his victims, the horror of the film is at center stage, but so is the muscle car. Shrugging off the modern overuse of CGI to create car chases and crashes, Death Proof features “real cars crashing into real cars and real dumb people driving ‘em,” as Stuntman Mike points out. As a first time cinematographer, Tarantino shoots the car chases and crashes with perfection. Using four different sequences to film the crash in which Stuntman Mike murders his victims is the highest point in the film. In climactic chase scene, Tarantino pays homage to Vanishing Point and other car films with a white 1970 Dodge Challenger and Stuntman Mike’s Black 1969 Dodger Charger speeding down two-lane blacktop and country roads towards the final spin through the genre mash-up.

After Stuntman Mike has terrorized the women then tucks tail and runs, Tarantino switches into his familiar revenge mode. Directly inspired by Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the victims become the heroines of the story as the girls chase down Stuntman Mike. The comedic high point of the film occurs when Stuntman Mike nurses an injury (one of Russell’s best performances to date). The final scene’s confrontation, shot using Nouvelle Vague freeze frames, evoke the tough girl attitude of Varla, Rosie, and Billie from Pussycat.

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Death Proof is an eclectic blend of exploitation and b-movie homages, but the sum of its parts is Tarantino’s chick flick. The film is essentially the stories of two groups of female friends. Many of the images and music in the film lend to a feminine attitude with large prints of Ye-Ye singer Bridgette Bardot as well as ending the with a Ye-Ye style track “Chick Habit” by April March. Death Proof in some way can be the opposite of the testosterone dose that is Reservoir Dogs. The women in the film are an exclusive group. The men, including Stuntman Mike, are only allowed to interact with them when the girls allow them. Because these groups are so exclusive, they contain the only relatable characters. And because these characters are women, this makes the film a chick flick.

Gregory Day

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By Gregory Day

Gregory is a Boston based film blogger. He has a lifelong love of cinema and pursues a career in screenwriting. He has directed and assistant directed films as well as work for film festivals. He is constantly striving to find what it is that is considered "good" cinema by consuming art, trash, commercial, and indie filmmaking of all styles and genres. His favorite genres of cinema are film noir, horror, western, and crime.

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