And then, suddenly, a kind of masterpiece arrives: Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), his half of the “Grindhouse” double feature conceived with Robert Rodriguez. It’s the only one of his films I hadn’t seen before, and it’s a doozy—a pastiche of old 1970s exploitation flicks that is itself a revisionist comment on 1970s exploitation flicks. Split rather jarringly into two halves, the film opens with a car full of nubile young women headed to a Texas cabin for the weekend; as Tarantino himself notes in one of the special features on the DVD, it’s the premise of countless slasher films, and this first half of the film is nothing of not intentionally derivative. The slasher turns out to be a smooth-talking movie stuntman played by Kurt Russell (pictured), who follows the girls to a roadside bar and proceeds to gun them down with his pimped-out stunt car. These scenes are so ingeniously devised to look and feel like a vintage grindhouse film—complete with scratched negative, bad splices, bleached-out colors, and a hissing, popping soundtrack—that it really feels like it could have been made anytime between 1976 and 1983. (The work of Tarantino’s longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, is truly stunning here.) And because Tarantino’s films (especially from Jackie Brown on) are always about movies, or about themselves as movies, he makes this first half as sleazy and salacious as possible, in order to make us cheekily aware of the generic trappings of so many sleazy and salacious drive-in films, the sole purposes of which seemed to afford male viewers with the spectatorial pleasures of hot chicks, cars, and extreme violence. We’re treated to a shots of leggy girls in tight-fitting short shorts, a somewhat extraneous lap dance sequence, and an extraordinarily bloody massacre. End of Act I.
Act II sends us in a radically different direction. Gone are the bad splices, the scratched and crackly frames. And gone are the traditional male pleasures of Act I. We’re now in a Tarantino film proper, as opposed to Tarantino’s version of an exploitation movie. The second half offers up the same basic ingredients—four hot chicks, one psychopathic stunt driver, a murderous showdown—but with some significant revisions. These hot chicks are, shall we say, in the driver’s seat for this half of the film. To put it bluntly, they don’t take no shit from anybody, and they proceed to kick some serious male-predator ass. It’s a hugely entertaining feminist turn of the tables, right down to the audacious phallic joke of having the women, um, violently ram Russell’s car from behind, as it were. And all of this is peppered with Tarantino’s trademarks: savvy dialogue, killer pop music, fantastically quirky performances, bizarre non sequiturs. It’s not as profoundly, mind-bendingly great as Tarantino’s very best films (Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown), but Death Proof is easily one of the most welcome discoveries of my chronological viewing project.