“He’s old enough to be my dad!”
Seeing the expanded DVD version of Death Proof is a definitively different experience from seeing it as part of Grindhouse in the theaters (if you were one of us few who managed to make the effort). Tarantino‘s film — which was the bottom half of the Grindhouse double feature — is really two films in itself — and maybe more, and at least one of those is a deconstructive art film, and who wants to deal with that after the 100+ minutes of over-the-top gonzo blood splattering which is Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, and assorted trailers? Even the best of early Godard, such as Breathless and Pierrot Le Fou, can be an ordeal after an hour or so, due to all their Brechtian devices keeping one from getting “swept up” in the narrative, as it were. For me at least, Godard’s films are better the second or third time anyway, and the same seems true of Tarantino‘s Death Proof. Like the best of “cult cinema,” it offers pleasures both transgressive and visceral, and like the best of “art cinema,” it offers deconstruction of same, even as it’s roaring along at 200 mph.
The biggest addition to the DVD “extended cut” is a scene at a rural Tennessee gas station that bridges the two halves of the film and adds enough termite art-style details to confirm Death Proof as a work of post-nouvelle vague gold. What was once just seemingly extraneous female characterization, car stunts and highway safety film gore mixed unevenly together becomes — with this scene — an edgy intellectual critique of the aging male gaze and its tenuous relationship to feminine bonding rituals that — once completed — will preclude it, in a sacrificial orobous-like snap of the neck as past and present zip past each other, eliminating the need for the male spectator, who assumed he was safe from the perspective of his death-proof viewing chair. Oh foolish vain male viewer, beware!
French theorists no doubt will love this restored gas station scene, recognizing in it a quadruple-Lolita-simulacrum: the ghosts of Baudrillard and Nabokov hang back in the empty sky, slowly filling up the film in both directions like the wave of spilled petrol in The Birds. Rather than being just a “normal” convenience store, the gas station convenience mart carries a wide array of magazines such as Film Comment, Fangoria, and Pulp Cinema. There’s even Italian Vogue (which the cashier keeps “under the counter,”) the mere mention of which causes the girls to perk up with desire. The mix of cineaste wish-fulfillment with consumerism-satire is a direct link to l’esprit de Godard but true to his American auteur roots, Tarantino keeps it all sun-baked and rural. The spirit of Baudrillard may be in the back seat, taking notes, but the spirit of Russ Meyer is clearly at the wheel.
This new scene fills in some important story info that was lost in the edited theatrical version: we learn these girls here are part of a location film shoot. The never-seen Christian Simonson is the director, the same guy Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamilia Poitier) was dating in the previous segment. Now the foursome is much more “professional.” They are film people: Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) are the beauties, and Kim (Tracy Thoms) and Zoe Bell (playing herself) are badass stuntwomen. As the scene begins, Abernathy lounges in the back seat of their car, her feet sticking up through the rear window while Lee sits in the driver’s seat, singing along to her iPod. Stuntman Mike watches them from his death car, parked a few spots away, forming his obsession (like Tarantino presumably, he has a real thing for strong women with cute feet).
The playful furor over the Italian Vogue could have ended with the girls buying and forgetting about it, burying it under newspapers or tossing it out of the car after a precursory flip-through (ala Jeff Beck’s guitar neck in Blow Up); instead here comes Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), the psycho-motive maniac who spies, leers and otherwise scopes the girls in the lounging, even licking one of their toes on the sly, as he lines them up in his sights as the next target for his obscene auto-erotic Crash-collision practice. For Mike, all these girls are sweeter than Italian Vogue, all the more so for being unavailable to him at any price.
Just by being “present” in le mise-en-scene, the men in Death Proof — Stuntman Mike included — become, in effect, Bosleys (to use the Charlie’s Angels vernacular). Only the men who are never on camera maintain a “Charlie”-style innocence; all the men onscreen seem to know this and cringe in the presence of these goddesses like unworthy eunuchs. Stuntman Mike, however, is the only one who does anything about it, lashing out with automotive fury, a fury born from the burden of immaturity and age in tandem. He’s too old to win these girls, too young to give up gracefully. When it’s hinted that Rose McGowan’s character might go home with him after their evening in the Texas Chili Parlor, she turns around and whispers loud enough for him to hear, “He’s old enough to be my dad!” He doesn’t act hurt, then, but it’s only because he’s a sociopath; his revenge is already laid out. If he can’t play, he will wreck the game.
With Tarantino’s sly penchant for deconstruction, the Stuntman Mike voyeur scenes carry the queasy feeling of sudden proximity of the Lacanian object petit a. For my non-Lacanian readers, this translates to a loss of fixed identity in the presence of your idealized desire, which is usually sexual and is so strong that it incites panic in your average guy, and homicide in your average Norman Bates. Coming into contact with the petit a is akin to being suddenly confronted by the end credits to the film of your life when the movie is only halfway through. There are only two ways to survive this trauma: art (transformation/sublimation) or attack (elimination). The director sublimates his desire for the actress into the film, capturing the image of his chosen goddess and making her his own that way. The artist paints her, the viewer locks into her identity as a baby watching giant mommy vacuum from the safety of the playpen. Unlike us lucky invisible camera-eye viewers, the embittered stuntman can only run her over.
In real life there are straight males who can be friends with beautiful, smart women and not let feel the need to have sex with them: usually these are artists; able to harness the otherwise unbearable attraction to a nobler purpose. Nonetheless, any man who continues hanging around young hotties for more than a decade or so becomes suddenly old. He has to deal with the feeling he is a bit of a creep, living in a state of arrested development. Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark get bad reputations mooning over the hunky mid-western male skate punk set, and everyone suspects Samuel Jackson’s been sleeping with Christina Ricci (above) in Black Snake Moan. The truth may be less corrupting and more positive, but it thrives on the close proximity of corruption and negativity; scandal is as foul-smelling mulch to its fragrant fruit. Sam Jackson’s preacher in Moan would not have the same grace and power in our eyes if the Christina Ricci character was, say, old and unattractive. Thus the desire is always present, no matter how saintly those involved; it can’t be fulfilled, only transmuted — whether it’s turned to shit or gold is perhaps a matter of personal alchemical discipline.
Meanwhile, the girls your own age are getting old, man. You look in the rearview mirror and see wrinkles around your eyes; isn’t this what horror movies are all about? Ask not for whom the bell tolls? Tarantino was already exploring that shit in Jackie Brown; by the time he gets to Death Proof he has found a dozen new ways to rationalize his continued role in these girls’ lives: he’s the bartender; he’s the off-screen director; he’s in the death-proof driver’s seat and he’s not afraid to take a punch.
Thus the new adult cinema: weathered old dudes like the Big Liebowski, Stuntman Mike, and Elvis in Bubba Ho Tep, standing at the lip of the void and making crazy surfing gestures to mask their world-weary terror. It’s a terror you freeze-frame on; you play it back in slow motion in a loop of weiderholungszwang.1 The only alternative to that slow, sad waste-away is the auto-erotic release, a la Ballard’s Crash. Because Stuntman Mike is no longer tied to the movies and TV, he is cut out of the loop that would allow him even a cursory role in the lives of these packs of cool girls. Once inside the screen he is now an outsider, neither in nor out of the movie (re: his continual acknowledgments of the camera).
When walking out of Grindhouse last spring I felt confused and bothered by Death Proof; I loved the shock of the ending, but felt that overall its construction was slipshod. It was too sure of itself; it had too much pointless exposition for characters so casually slaughtered. But now, seeing it on its own, without Planet Terror still pulsing through my synapses, I realize Death Proof is simply another step forward for the titanic and magnificent poet whom the angels name Tarantino. The best cult films always shock us and alienate us just a little the first time; they are transgressive in that they spread our boundaries for us. But if we return for another viewing, we may find a whole new film waiting for us, one with cool new catchphrases we can add to our lexicon; the film has changed us, so seems changed itself. And so obsession creeps in to the watching process, the movie becomes a persona training manual. It’s we and the eternal auteur looking at each other through an identical mirror-keyhole eye whom the angels named Janet Leigh.
As with 1960’s Psycho and Horror Hotel (or City of the Living Dead), or even Vertigo, the slicing of Death Proof at the halfway point — marked by a violent murder of the central protagonist/s up to that point — becomes the cinematic parallel to the direct experience of a (subjective) murder itself. In committing this act of cinematic rupture, the director plunges us as viewers into a purgatory wherein we have no character with which to identify; we embody the killer in that our gaze is wrestling the psychotic concept of being beyond life and death — of seeing death and rebirth as little more than a reset button on a skee-ball game. In Psycho, the break occurs when Janet Leigh is murdered and our narrative locus of “glacial blonde” pre-egoic identification is left to drift around the hotel room, watching the janitorial antics of Norman Bates unsure whether to fear him, laugh at him, or identify with him. Then, like a child left with a babysitter, we learned to transfer some of our mom-addiction onto Nancy Loomis, as she flitters in from Phoenix to investigate. In Vertigo, the break occurs with Madeline’s apparent plunge off the church; we’re left spinning in cicles with sexless Midge’s Mozart records in the nuthouse until our Kim Novack comes back — dampened down — as Judy. In Death Proof, the gruesome splatter smash-up that occurs midway tears a hole in the film, ala the burning celluloid in Jack Hill’s Big Bird Cage, or Bergman’s Persona (above). Our insatiable peeping tom — bloated to Tarantinoesque proportions with the advent of DVD — now must voyeur himself into the car of no less than four hot babes in order to get off. But for Tarantino, the J. G. Ballard Crash death drive complex isn’t obsessed on to the point of time-melting abstraction as in Cronenberg’s adaptation; instead it’s filtered through the diegetic language of the 1970s highway safety film.
As 16-year-old driving students, we’re all subjugated to the risk of the health class highway safety film, which shows grisly auto fatalities — the original Faces of Death locus of attraction-repulsion. Some of the scenes are allegedly real shots from accidents, but most are faked (and we’ve no way of knowing which is which) as a way of scaring young viewers into sober vigilance. With Death Proof, Tarantino seems to recognize that this gory educational interlude is in fact a cinematic rite of passage. Once we survive the trauma of this public education-sanctioned gorefest, we’re ready to move into symbolic adulthood, out of the college-like world of the Texas Chili Parlor and into the working world of film crews, the people behind the illusion. Thus the smashing of the car full of Jungle Julia and friends refracts the idea of the PE cautionary tale (the accidents portrayed in the gory highway safety films are usually caused by just such a carload — drunken rowdy friends packed into a car driving around desolate roads in the dead of night too fast) and perverts it. Stuntman Mike deliberately stays sober and refrains from the proffered pipe so that when all the blood of the accident victims is measured, his comes off as pure and theirs as tainted. For Tarantino, drugs and alcohol on the road don’t kill, sobriety does. As in the kinky Inquisition torture films, it’s the Christians not the witches who are the true monsters. This is all part of growing up: the realization that nothing is what it seems, and authority and order are just figments of mass hypnosis.
The thing most critics and viewers disliked most about this film in the theaters was the seemingly pointless character exposition, such as the lengthy scene at the Texas Chili Parlor wherein we see Jungle Julia and friends knocking back margaritas and dancing to the music on the juke box . . . all for no apparent reason, since they’re so quickly slaughtered. A second or third viewing opens up the perspective to all that’s going on in this scene though, and the interactions become a fascinating springboard for the carnage to follow. For example, there’s a gorgeous slow-mo shot of Jungle Julia abandoning herself to the sounds of “Baby it’s You,” swinging her long and gorgeous hair in a primal abandon. She’s so sexy in this shot that you sense, for a reason you can’t quite pinpoint, that she’s exposing herself to a terrible danger by being so free. As an “average” male spectator you are somehow cock-blocked by your own feelings of inadequacy in front of such lack of modest and inhibition, such conspicuous enjoyment. The viewer is lowered into a position of alternating envy and concern. Similarly, the neon and rainy atmosphere of the Texas Chili Parlor is simultaneously inviting, sad, and a little spooky. Here is a public space which the ladies drunkenly assume is safe for them to go nuts on margaritas and pot, in the safety of their girl posse and symbolically castrated guy friends. However, death waits just outside the perimeter of safety, illuminated with the sudden turning-on of the parking lot lights.
Then there is the music itself; Tarantino always makes good use of it and as an ironic Greek chorus we have “Chick Habit,” a schoolyard taunt sung by April March and written by that perennially debauched Frenchman, Serge Gainsbourg. An old reprobate who made sure to be surrounded by many younger lovelies through most of his life, Gainsbourg’s lyrics concern a female protagonist taunting some interloper “daddy” from presumably the safe proximity of her biker gang. We’re instantly put on our guard as some sort of unwelcome interloper in the insular girls-with-the-girls world (it’s clear that, like me, Tarantino and Gainsbourg never had sisters, since boys who do — according to my therapist — usually don’t enter adulthood with such an inexhaustible fascination for girly minutiae).
Then there’s also the postmodern persona of April March herself, a 21st-century American California girl lost in a time capsule of 1960s French “yeh-yeh” songs. Much like Tarantino’s use of the 1970s “Feature Presentation” logo and film scratches, March plays retro-futurist with audience expectations, bringing us in at a remove that irony-loving hipsters find relaxing in its chilliness, but that typical middle-states rubes might find off-putting (all the more reason for the hipsters to love it).
Thus the inherent masochistic voyeur quality of film-going is heightened as if by some cinematic version of crystal meth. These girls are not only too independent and sharp to appear capable of being possessed; they are en-cushioned in Tarantino’s Brechtian 1970s genre-framing devices. Yet this only increases the desire, for as Steven Shaviro says: “The fact is that distancing and alienation-effects serve not to dispel but only to intensify the captivating power of cinematic spectacle.”2 This is as a result of “proximity without presence.” In other words, what happens on the cinema screen passes too fast and too immediate for us to develop a stance from which to critique it in the matter Brecht intended. We come into the experience already alienated: “Alienation-effects are already in secret accord with the basic anti-theatricality of cinematic representation.”3 The only way to escape the pain of our unfulfilled longing for these “already gone” women is to get in our death-driver’s seat and speed up faster than the film itself; smashing the whole narrative to a dead, bloody halt. Of course even that only lasts a short time as a remedy; soon another set of girls, another movie begins, the grindhouse line-up stretches endlessly on, through countless murders and rolling of credits.
The sweet pain of unfulfilled desire reaches beyond death, beyond even the barrier between screen and self. Cinema and fantasy are the only respites, the only means by which we can be close to that which we desire but which scares us in real life, which threatens us with its own rapacious needs and wants. In the real world we wouldn’t even hurt a fly — or sexually satisfy an Amazon like Jungle Julia. We’ve grown too old, too set in our ways, we’re tied to our death-proof wheelchair for life, watching the big womb screen like we’re Stuntman Mike in anguished spermatozoa size, squiggling eagerly but ineffectually towards the gigantic glowing Bardot on the drive-in screen; that damned prophylactic silver screen.