Once upon a time Empire magazine ran a very cheap but very cool competition. It asked its readers to write in and say where they had got their pirated copy of Reservoir Dogs – Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut movie. The most dubious source would win a t-shirt.
The magazine got quite excited about Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino was the new, hip, cool, baddass wizzkid on the movie scene. With only one movie doing the rounds comparisons were already being made between him and Scorsese. Anyone who has seen the opening slow-motion title sequence to Dogs, and has watched Robert de Niro swagger into the bar – again in slow-motion – with two chicks on his arm in Mean Streets, will know what people were noticing. The combination of cool looking cats, slow-mo and kickass music performed a sort of magic on the viewer.
Dogs also showed picture fans that Tarantino could do a thing which many professional writers cannot do; that is, write dialogue. By ‘write dialogue’ I mean he allows his characters to talk about stuff. The opening sequence in the diner, where a bunch of professional criminals discuss the subtext to Madonna’s Like a Virgin and argue about the practice of tipping the waitress is a perfect example. This guy was different.
Three years later Pulp Fiction came out and the world realised that Tarantino had the elusive “it”.
(At the same time the world realised, for sure, that a cat called Samuel L Jackson was one of the most mesmerising players in the history of pictures. I do not say that lightly. Watch the (now) classic scene – the “with great vengeance and furious anger” scene, or any scene he’s in in Django – and tell me Jackson is not significantly intense and demanding of his audience. He demands you look at him when he’s talking.)
Tarantino pictures are not for everyone. He writes and directs pictures for those folks who love fiction, love revenge and love the event of going to the movies.
He writes and directs pictures for me.
And now I’ve seen all of his pictures and can comment on which I think is his best.
When I say ‘his best’ I mean which one I like the most, for how can anyone compare different movies and apply an objective measure to test for “bestness”? It is impossible.
There were four pictures I could watch again and again without ever getting bored. Each time I watched one of these movies there was more revealed with each viewing. The performances, perhaps, have “something” about them which prevents them from becoming boring; or another detail is noticed, or an example of irony is detected. The four movies in question?
Rope, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and Glengarry Glen Ross.
There are now five and the fifth one is Tarantino’s Death Proof.
It’s a “something” movie. And, being an inquisitive so and so, I have thought about what the “something” Death Proof has which is tickling my subconscious.
Hardly is Death Proof Tarantino’s most commercially or critically successful picture. Those two considerations seem to be the two which are cared and spoken about the most. But what about artistic success?
Critical success just means the critics liked it. Who cares about that? A critic is just another member of the audience and never will every member of an audience like a picture. A critic’s opinion does not have more worth because they get paid to write their opinion. A critic’s opinion might have more effect. That aint the same thing. I am a critic. This is my opinion. I’m writing my opinion for free.
Death Proof is a picture about women. It’s a picture for women. It’s a feminist picture. Now, on the surface of it, that might not be obvious.
Ostensibly Death Proof is about a psychopathic stuntman who drives a grunting muscle-car and uses it to kill women. The car is rigged-up by a stunt-crew and the sicko can smash it into a brick-wall (or a car full of women) at 120mph just for the experience. So, he drives it head-on into females, smashing the car up in the process. This is how he gets his rocks off.
So we have a sort of stalker/slasher movie cut and pasted together to look like a seventies exploitation picture. The film is damaged and scratched and the editing jumps and bounces about as if it was put together by pissed-up projectionist. It’s all deliberate.
It’s also a homage to muscle-car movies like Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. It’s a homage to car-chase movies. The car-chase is something we have all seen and remembered from Christ-knows how many movies in the past.
(Anyone who gets teary-eyed about the car-chase from Bullit should watch the last ten-minutes of Death Proof and understand nostalgia’s power.) Some people do make ‘em like they used to, and some even make ‘em better.
The point is that irony is not for everyone, though Death Proof – in its first half which tells us about Mike’s character – is packed with irony.
If I were playing “give us a clue” I could tell you what irony was with one hand in my pocket, but some think irony needs to be “funny.”
Consider the following scene. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) throws his car keys along the bar because Pam (Rose Mcgowan) asks the bartender if there is anyone he will vouch for to give her a ride home. It’s a classic western shot. Most of the time what gets slid down the bar is a shot of whisky, but this is a modern movie, so it’s a bunch of car keys. (Pam actually asks Mike if he’s a cowboy.) There is irony there, and it’s at the expense of Pam, who knows less than the audience. Of all the guys to ask for a lift, Stuntman Mike is the last dude you’d want driving you home. She doesn’t know it, but we do.
(Think of all the movies you’ve seen where the scream queen wanders down to the cellar without a torch. It’s a cliché. It aint believable, but it’s popular. It works. Why does it work? It works because an audience enjoys knowing more than the characters on the screen. Knowing more than the characters do is irony in action.)
That’s one type of irony, but what about other types? This is where things get a little complicated.
After the car-key slide and a little conversation Pam asks Stuntman Mike if he is offering her a ride home and whether he’ll be okay to drive later. (For completeness ‘icy-hot’ is a logo on the back of Mike’s jacket.)
Follow the conversation closely:
PAM: So, icy-hot, are you offering me a ride home?
MIKE: I’m offering you a lift if when I’m ready to leave, you are too.
PAM: And when are you thinking about leaving?
MIKE: Truthfully, I’m not thinking about it. But when I do you’ll be the first to know.
PAM: Will you be able to drive later?
MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a teetotaller. I’ve been drinking club-soda and lime all night and now I’m building up to my big drink.
PAM: Which is what?
MIKE: Virgin Pina Colada.
Notice that Stuntman Mike corrects Pam. It’s not a ride he’s offering her, it’s a lift. Once you get that the rest of what this exchange actually means should fall into place and allow you to see where old Stuntman Mike is coming from.
Run the same conversation again, but have them say what Tarantino actually means. Pam is just checking if old Mike is going to be getting ‘friendly’ later:
PAM: Do you want to have sex with me?
PAM: Will you try to have sex with me later?
MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a dickless virgin who’s terrified of women. I’m not really interested in you because I’m building up to my big crash scene.
PAM: Which is?
MIKE: The virgin’s penis collider.
So the irony is double layered. There’s what the conversation really means, and in addition there’s poor old Pam who has no idea just how unfriendly Mike is going to become.
So Mike kills Pam by stomping on the brakes and smashing her face into the dashboard. He has a racing driver’s harness but the passenger side doesn’t even have a seatbelt. Then he speeds off to catch the girls he’s been stalking and drives head-on into their car at speed.
The crash-scene is a skin-shredder and a bone-cruncher. The impact is shown four times – once for each passenger in the car, and we see exactly what the impact does to each of them. It’s beautifully done. The girls in the car are head-dancing and playing air-drums to a song called “Hold Tight” no less, unaware that a woman-hating lunatic really is using his car as an extension of his penis.