Sep 18, 2007

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof: The Full Cut


A word of warning: do not drive immediately after watching this film. Especially if you're like me, in that you can't miss the transition of a street light from yellow to red by half a second without getting nabbed by the boys in blue. The vehicular thrumming of Death Proof is far too seductive a call to refuse once you're out in the parking lot, and if you're not careful, the pedal's to the metal before you've even realized it. I've done it twice so far.

The same heed goes for this newly released on DVD version of Tarantino's film, here in its original form, uncut and unedited. Make no mistake, this is no "Unrated" DVD in the sense that an extra F bomb and pair of nipples were spliced back into the mix so as to better popular the racks at Best Buy; the 113 minute version of the film is Quentin's original cut, as it existed before the necessary editing that was undertaken to compact the feature for his collaboration with Robert Rodriguez in Grindhouse. I, a fan of alternate versions of films (even when I don't prefer them to the original cut), am grateful it is here for us to see, as the two versions, side by side, offer us more of a window into the creative process and the mind of the artist behind the camera. The only downfall is that we have to wait for the full Grindhouse experience, the release of which is surely part of yet another DVD milking plan.

So, let's cut to the chase: do I prefer Death Proof a la Grindhouse, or stand alone? Having just finished watching the new cut not 90 minutes ago, my initial impressions are telling me the former, although, seeing as it took me two viewings to come around to the shorter version so as it is, such is a view that could very well change. But my sense is that leaner is better in this case. QT is, among many things, an incredible structuralist filmmaker; from Reservoir Dogs to both Kill Bills, I believe he knows how to provide a film with exactly what it needs, beginning to end, at any given moment, from his tiny, surprising character reveals to whatever hook or melody is required to compliment the mood at hand. So many of these choices defy the usual expectations that it suggests a higher force being channeled, one that even Quentin is unaware of (the same is true of all great artists, to some extent). That his work exists, at least superficially, in the realm of "entertainment" has been a hindrance to their appreciation, methinks; the language is different from what we expect of greatness, but the words remain the same. Though they're blatant regarding their many direct influences and inspirations, Tarantino's films aren't just remixes of films past - they're conversations within the culture, between past and present, breaking down the barriers between the screen, the audience, and the maker.

I'll certainly be revisiting Death Proof 2.0 again in the future, but moments of it felt less than constructive at this first meeting, a rarity for its director. When Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) stalks Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and her sleepy feet in a restored scene now opening the second act, it seems but a pandering set-up for her destruction of his face with her bitchy boots at the film's end. This sequence is interesting, though, in its functioning as another one of Tarantino's stylistic reflections on his own work; the scene begins as a black-and-white reel that later and quite abruptly shifts to color, as if restoring itself mid-process (whereas Kill Bill: Volume 1 was forced to censor itself via the color shift during the Crazy 88 fight scene). Though my thoughts are that additional qualities of the film will ferret themselves out over time, it is an altogether different animal, both in its length and in its being removed from the schlocky (though immensely fun) Planet Terror as the opening act. It is my hope that fans will treat it as such, rather than as a "real" version meant to replace the shorter cut altogether. Both are valuable unto themselves, but even more so with the other in hand.

At a base level, nothing that was removed from the 2-hour cut was necessary, per se, either plotwise or thematically, although much of it is a great deal of fun. The best of the new footage is, without a doubt, Butterfly's lapdance as requested by Stuntman Mike; a sexy, restrained number that better humanizes both our instinctive killer and doomed prey before the terrifying moment of truth. Here, I think, it is obvious just how much Quentin loves and respects women, even if he only knows how to express it through politically incorrect expressions of pop culture. Its absence helped Grindhouse pacing wise but its presence here aids in the dimensionality of these characters, a quality to Tarantino's work that I believe he rarely gets due credit for. Films are his life and actors are part of his most intimate family, and his camera is not unlike a loved one nurturing them, savoring their growth and achievements.

What else is new? I detected some fresh dialogue amidst the Jungle Julia and company's nuttering in the opening scenes (it should be stated here that all my comments are based on memory - no notes were taken during my viewing of the film), while a daytime scene after their arrival to the first club depicts Mike watching from a distance, planning his attack in the shadows. Scenes such as this are cool but, I believe, unnecessary in that they externalize what was previously implied through exchanges and pacing. Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) and her whiny would-be boyfriend discuss their make out plans outside Warren's bar, whereas the previously existing scene of their coming back inside already told us everything we need to know. It's a testament to Quentin's knack for characterization that I find myself enjoying even frivolous time with these individuals, but sometimes a little mystery in the margins is preferable to the overall experience.

Shorter or longer, though, I still believe that Death Proof is indicative of a new phase in Quentin's artistic career, though I suspect it is one we won't be able to truly appreciate except in retrospect. His past cinematic and cultural navigations have contained their own form of profundity as achieved through a reflexive self-analysis (a point on which I disagree with many of my fellows), as well as a distinct, although implicit, sense of morality that has carried over into Death Proof's scathing genre deconstruction. These all remain in the same voice and form but something within seems even more explosive than in those films prior. Is this some new level of auterism only to be revealed with time and additional entries on his resume? Or is this simply the same old Quentin, but with additional years behind him? Either way, Death Proof doesn't simply comment on its genre inspirations - it adds to their very legacy.

5 comments:

  1. Rob,

    I'm gonna have to go with the theatrical cut of Death Proof as my preferred choice. Granted, I did like the addition of the lapdance scene - though it's absence in "Grindhouse" proved better from a comic stance, recreating the low-rent grindhouse experience, and for pacing purposes. But it's inclusion did add a sense of humanity and vulnerability to Buttefly. I also thought it created a palpable sense of danger. The girls are poking the snake with a stick and are oblivious to it's venom. It's Michael Meyers with a sheet over his head posing as a horny boyfriend.

    While I love the first half of DP, and the final setpiece, the introduction of the second group of women is nearly interminable. Not only is there a change in the deliberately shlocky dialogue that smacks of some amalgamation of both seventies exploitation, porn, and typical QT speak, but the look and construction of it feels as if he just got lazy in trying to recreate that cheap slasher look and feel. Missing are the scratches, skips, bad dubbing, old washed out look.

    Instead of four attractive but realistic looking girls, you're given four movie stars. The first girls were real people, who, while hastily sketched, at least gave the feeling of having some depth. With the second group, we're simply told everything about them. It's a violation of the "show, don't tell" policy of character development, and results in me not giving a shit about them. Zoe's predicament during the car chase is exciting, but I don't find myself really caring whether or not she survives. People may compare parts of this movie to 'Psycho', but at least we cared about Janet Leigh.

    Stuntman Mike, whose as much a part of the action and discourse in the first half as anyone, is relegated to the background, before being figuratively castrated in the second half.

    Even the aesthetic feel of the movie does a complete 180. The second portion of the film is clean and clear, and edited smoothly, so the anachronism of two big muscle cars dueling in the
    midst of Camrys and Suburbans is even more jarring.

    I have a big problem with a considerable tonal shift like this. By and large, I love QT's movies, but I do think he, more than alot of auteur directors, is far too much in love with his own creation and the stock from which he draws, and it blinds him to the flaws of including those incongruencies in his movies.

    That being said, when he focuses his energy in creating a tight story (as I consider the first part of Death Proof to be), he's unbelievable at it. I love that first part. It builds and builds and builds and has a stunning climax that literally smashes everything he just built into an irreparable mess. And after that, the let down (for the next 25 minutes or so) is such that it nearly threatens to take the rest of the movie with it.

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  2. Interesting comments josh, about a film I haven't seen yet (it's out in the UK this weekend) but it sounds a lot to me like the tonal differences between the two halves of the film could be deliberate.

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  3. Great analysis about the differences between the two versions. I agree with you: the added moments in the stand-alone version are (almost) all very nice, and they do add something to the movie, but the film was leaner and meaner in its Grindhouse incarnation, and being prefaced by Planet Terror made sure you watched DP in exactly the right mood. I actually liked the foot-fetish being made all that more literal, but I agree that the scene between Vanessa Ferlito and the guy outside the bar made things much too explicit, and turned her into a less interesting character.

    You say QT loves women. I agree he does, he has affection for them at the very least, but I found that this film was very strange when it comes to its sexual politics: most of QT's sympathy seems to go to the "virginal" girls Butterfly and Abby, who both explicitly talk about NOT sleeping with guys. I don't quite know what to make of this clear emphasis, and I have yet to read a good analysis on this point.

    Oh well, I suppose that's what makes QT's films so interesting: they can be analyzed and dissected in so many ways...

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  4. sphodros3:07 PM

    josh:

    I have a memory of Tarantino providing--in some media appearance--a cryptic explanation of the abrupt shift in tone and technical characteristics halfway through the film. He mentioned that during the grindhouse heyday, some exploitation films actually were cobbled together from footage originally filmed for separate features. The combination of repeatedly utilized Z-list exploitation stars, the facelessness and interchangeability of the other actors, and the amateurish plotting meant that you could literally take footage from two unrelated car chase films that featured the same star--say, Kurt Russell--and splice them together into one film. This seems to provide a kind of explanation for the "reset" and scene change in the film. Note that in the second half of the film, Russell's character is never named, and he is driving a completely different car than the one he drove in the first half (albeit with the same paint job). This seems to be reinforced by the momentary "original" title card that flashes before the "replacement" one labeled "Death Proof".

    It has been suggested by others that within the Grindhouse reality, one of the halves of Death Proof is "discovered" footage and the other is Tarantino's "response" film. The second half may be the relic film and Tarantino's film would be the prelude that provides the moral justification for Mike's demise. Or the first half may be the relic film, and Tarantino's film would be the epilogue that delivers the killer's comeuppance. (The more dated look of the first half would seem to suggest the latter interpretation.)

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  5. sphodros3:22 PM

    It was pointed out at The House Next Door that the first group of women are "rooted" (local Austin girls) and the second group are "rootless" (visiting Hollywood workers). It doesn't seem like a mistake that Mike himself is apparently "rootless"--a traveler, wanderer, lone wolf--and it is women of a similar nomadic lifestyle who finally do him in. I don't think this is a statement of the inferiority or natural victimhood of Texas women versus Hollywood women, so much as a challenge to the traditional notions of safety and risk. One tends to feel more at ease in a familiar environment because one knows the landscape well and outsiders can easily be identified. However, familiarity also breeds complacency. Perhaps Tarantino is contending that physical skills, nerve, and preparedness are more important than one's surroundings to surviving peril. Hence, we shouldn't fall into the trap of assuming we are safe because we are hanging out in our favorite bar or driving the same streets we've driven a thousand times before.

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