Chances are you’ve never heard about Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, released in 2007, and that’s okay because even though it’s one of his more obscure films there are those that deem it his best.
Death Proof is the fourth instalment in the 9Lives Movie Club and I chose to add this film, not only because I wanted to watch it again, but because I know it quite well as it formed part of my honours thesis at varsity.
If you haven’t heard about our movie club yet, you can have a look here.
Setting the scene
This film is part of a two-part Grindhouse series directed by Robert Rodriquez (known for films such as Sin City, Once Upon A Time In Mexico and From Dusk Till Dawn), Eli Roth (director of hits like Hostel, Cabin Fever and Hemlock Grove) and Quentin Tarantino. The series is a homage to the exploitation double features in the 60s and 70s with two back-to-back cult films that include previews of coming attractions between them. The two features, in this instance, are Death Proof and Planet Terror.
IMDB gives the official film synopsis as; In Austin, Texas, the girlfriends Julia, Arlene and Shanna meet in a bar to drink, smoke and make out with their boyfriends before travelling alone to Lake LBJ to spend the weekend together. They meet the former Hollywood stuntman Mike, who takes Pam out in his “death-proof” stunt car. Fourteen months later, Mike turns up in Lebanon, Tennessee and chase Abernathy, Zoë and Kim, but these girls are tough and decide to pay-back the attack.
Critics choice awards
Probably the most apt description of this film comes from 2007 Roger Ebert review; “Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror play as if Night of the Living Dead (1967) and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) were combined on a double bill under the parentage of the dark sperm of vengeance.”
This film, which is deliberately edited to reflect the blemishes and scratches from the 60s and 70s B-house films, is everything in overdrive. It is meant to be sleazy, it is meant to skip frames, the characters are meant to be shallow. It is meant to reflect the very nature of these films which mainly existed so men could sneak in to see some “breasts, or, lacking that, stuff blowed up real good,” Ebert explains.
What you notice, almost from the get-go, is that the film is reminiscent of classic slasher films. Which then almost automatically gives it that “chicksploitation” genre feel – but, of course, in overdrive. The male gaze in this film is striking, unapologetic and relentless. In 2019, highsnobiety.com revisited the film stating that “Tarantino understands the male gaze is a construct, and a deliberate one, and the film interrogates and complicates that troubling eye.”
But, and that is a feeling I was keenly aware of as the film ended, the intentionality of the addition of the overt male gaze does not make it any less destructive. It disturbingly links gore and violence to a male gaze that is possessive, unnerving, and, without a doubt, destructive.
The century-old question of how much of an author will always be left in his work, especially with something as nostalgic as this piece, will always be up for discussion. Tarantino not only wrote and directed this film, but also stars in it. As littlewhitelies.com argues about Tarantino; “[there is this] notion that he is unable to write a character – male or female – who is not in some way a direct extension of his own temperament, desires and, ahem, eccentric personality.” They then argue that Death Proof’s characters go even further than just self-projection; it is a Tarantino-esque comment on issues such as gun-control, mass communication and more.
*Side note: Scanning the credits, you’ll notice a bunch of names tied to the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Apart from being produced by Harvey himself, the film sits almost unnoticed within the turmoil. Whistleblower Rose McGowan stars in Grindhouse and has publicly criticised then-boyfriend Robert Rodriquez of selling the film to her abuser. Rodriguez has responded by describing the selling of the film as a F-U to Weinstein. Tarantino has also apologised for not taking action over the years to address Weinstein’s predatory behaviour. And you have to admit, that this exploitative film, amidst all these accusations, is both ironic and telling.
Viewers choice awards
Death Proof is hard to watch, I’ll state that outright. Living in 2020, I cringe at the various shots of women’s legs, their shorts and their feet. The film is nowhere near passing the Bechdel test and in terms of Tarantino’s usual gory demeanour, it almost treads on a new type of gore – objectification. It’s the type of film that you cringe at if you watch it with someone else.
That does not mean that the film is no good. Of all the Tarantino films, I feel that this one comes closest to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It has the same homage to films, albeit B-films instead of glamorous horror films, the use of stuntmen, and the psychology that comes with it, as characters. The film also has loads of easter eggs that you will surely recognise if you are a Tarantino fan.
I spent quite a bit of time, way back in 2014, on why and how the overt use of violence, as seen in this film, excites and intrigues us. The varying levels of desensitisation that I saw in my peers back then fascinated me to the extent that I spent a significant amount of time trying to pin-point the very core of what I identified as ‘schadenfreude’. This term refers to the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others, and what I gathered back in 2014 is that this film does not actually invoke what you would call ‘pleasure’.
So, I turned to another description. Ostranenie or ‘defamiliarisation’. Or even the concept of ‘bad art’. The distinction comes when you consider the difference between aesthetic appreciation and artistic appreciation. The artistic failure in this film is not an artistic vice, but an aesthetic merit; Death Proof is aesthetically good because it’s artistically bad. This implies that the artistic produces an aesthetically positive effect of bizarreness.
What does all of this mean? The film is so bad that it’s good. We owe this logic to the concept of defamiliarisation that forces us to disconnect from the film (look out for a very creepy break in the fourth wall mid-film) and view it as an entity removed from ourselves and this is most definitely where Death Proof and, in effect, Tarantino triumphs. He transports the viewer on this homage to B-films, while all the while providing commentary on a range of issues which he is only able to do in this polarising film because of the defamiliarisation techniques that he’s incorporated.
Want some more film fun? Check out our previous film club entries:
January: St Elmo’s Fire
February: A Royal Affair