Saturday, June 5, 2010
A Stuntman's Resurrection
To open, appropriately enough, with a car metaphor: Kill Bill’s looking worse and worse in the rearview mirror. It's a sadly classic case of a ridiculously talented filmmaker believing his own hype, forgetting to temper ambition with restraint, and indulging his weaknesses (shoddy lighting, incoherent pacing, an overreliance on detached framing) while abandoning his strengths (self-deprecating humor, attention to visual detail, dialogue so palpable it becomes the dominant aesthetic). I hate to judge a film by its audience, but I think it’s acceptable in the case of an artist whose work is so synonymous with his personality and a film that so blatantly panders to a core fanbase. That core, unfortunately, is largely composed of the sweaty-palmed fanboys who dismissed Jackie Brown as “boring.”
Of course, Quentin Tarantino will always be king of the fanboys. Yet his still-stellar 90s output found him transcending mere geekery and creating a body of work that manages to (thrillingly) reference dozens of disparate strands of film history while still feeling unique, vibrant, and alive. Taken together, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown are an undeniable argument for fandom as art.
Kill Bill, unfortunately, set that argument back at the moment when QT most needed to prove himself relevant. It was a newly digital era in which his trope-tropes had themselves been wholly absorbed into both blockbuster and “independent” filmmaking—and those quotes are largely his doing. Kill Bill should have been his true blasting-off point, the crossover from (excellently) zeitgeist-bating whiz kid to millennium-guiding cinematic philosopher. Instead, it was somehow both spastic and bloated, failing along lines I never would have associated with Tarantino: the film(s) was ungraceful, unintelligent, and deeply cynical about its styles, subjects, and audience.
Thankfully, “millennium-guiding cinematic philosophy” pretty much exactly describes the furious heights QT re-attained with Inglourious Basterds, an interrogation (both in form and content) of ideological relations to film that is increasingly looking like his finest work yet. Perhaps Tarantino’s best habit, however, is alternating his Babel-sized Projects with his smaller-scale genre pics. Thus Reservoir Dogs, while in many ways a stylistic warm-up for Pulp Fiction, is aging better than its mammoth successor, and Jackie Brown’s interpolation of rich characterization and warm conversation into its heist and blaxploitation riffs mark it as his most human (and perhaps humanist) film to date. Toxic and wearying, Kill Bill exposed Tarantino’s need for a tonic corrective. The Grindhouse project offered the perfect opportunity: working alongside gleeful hack Robert Rodriguez, QT could rediscover his passion in appropriately casual, junky surroundings.
Of course, as one reviewer astutely pointed out, “it’s not in his nature to make a deliberately inept movie,” and Death Proof is far more than a career-correcting throwaway. Indeed, it’s easily his most explicit genre flick to date, reveling in its slasher, softcore, rape-revenge, and, yeah, grindhouse trappings with all the lushness and palpable glee so sorely absent in Kill Bill. While that too-epic saga found Tarantino pulled in dozens of directions at once, a focused genre study re-engaged his creative instincts: “I realized I couldn't do a straight slasher film…there is no other genre quite as rigid. And if you break that up, you aren't really doing it anymore. It's inorganic, so I realized—let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do. My version is going to be fucked up and disjointed, but it seemingly uses the structure of a slasher film, hopefully against you.”
It’s a winking elevation of sex-driven pulp to gleeful classic status, via encyclopedic cinephilia and expert technical filmmaking. So, yeah, Brian de Palma’s shadow is unavoidable, though it doesn’t hang as heavily as it did over Kill Bill, in which the dirty old master (along with Ford, Leone, any kung fu film you can think of, and Pulp Fiction itself) was awkwardly tossed in rather than properly blended. In Death Proof, de Palma’s signature tics are given new life. While the initial killing spree and relentless titillation certainly made me a little queasy the first time around, Tarantino’s sincere character investment and half-exposing, half-stalking camerawork push the film into that ambiguous sweet spot between knowing exploitation and subversive feminism that de Palma defined so well in Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Femme Fatale. Of course, none of de Palma’s leading ladies ever got to say “I’m OK!” quite as delightfully as self-playing Zoë Bell does here. It’s the restoration of the script-as-aesthetic that truly marks Tarantino’s distinctive comeback, above and ahead of his forerunners. Examine such gems as: “You know what happens to motherfuckers who carry knives? They get shot!” It’s simultaneously a parallel moment to Budd’s double-barreled assault on the Bride (only far more succinct, effective, and delightful) and a welcome nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s also a hell of a line, superbly written and flawlessly delivered. Maximum impact, but light on its feet and histrionic-free: vintage Tarantino.
I once made the (in hindsight) obvious mistake of telling a bunch of nervously non-queer guys that the central appeal of Kill Bill’s Bride was her combination of the traditional action hero’s primal sexual tugs: I didn’t know whether I wanted to fuck her or be her. Naturally, they howled at the latter and for the former. I wonder if they squirmed in their seats at Death Proof’s bloody climax, at which point Tarantino’s genre-play flips from elevation to outright reversal. Lord knows what Stuntman Mike would try to do to the Bride, and his last call is nowhere near as clean as Bill’s final ride into the sunset. How many stale Jodie Foster, et al vehicles try and fail to convey that primal, righteous rage, let alone doing it in combination with such artful construction and knowing humor and grace?
Though many of Inglourious Basterds’ most ardent followers seem distressingly unaware of its red-herring brilliance (Brad Pitt’s tangential at best, and it’s in no sense a war film), I’m happy to see it canonized alongside Pulp Fiction as his second unassailable career peak. Still, the temptation to pat Death Proof on the head should be resisted. Perhaps Kill Bill’s greatest disappointment was that it didn’t even feel like Tarantino-for-hire. Instead, it felt like imitation Tarantino, the warmed-over, poorly thought out trash that invaded multiplexes in Fiction’s wake. Death Proof is Tarantino’s resurrection: as a consummate craftsman, a vibrant personality, and an utterly essential contributor to the medium and culture he loves.