Monday, April 16, 2007


Spoiler alert! Story details discussed

1) Lots of movies show Good battling Evil, but this is the first time I’ve seen the conflict portrayed by juxtaposing the year’s most invigorating gung-ho entertainment (Rodriguez’ Planet Terror) with the most tedious, pompously nonsensical movie I’ve seen in forever (Tarantino’s Death Proof) into one big thrill ride.

2) Damn I had fun at Planet Terror, a viral-zombie flick. It’s plenty icky and lacks that certain Emma Thompson touch, but it’s an astounding triumph for sheer what-happens-next?!?. Shock and horror can be explosively creative, since the whole point is to charge across boundaries. The trick is apparently to know which boundaries to respect, and for how long, to prevent the whole thing from collapsing.

3) Death Proof is excruciating. Every character snarks incessantly like a 14-year-old girl – save one, who is punished for bringing any genuine charisma to the party. (His punishment is to make him a psychotic killer. There are no sane adults in Tarantino movies.)

4) The mock-trailers between the movies were the funniest fifteen minutes of film I’ve seen in years. They’re great parody, great homage, great shock, great schlock, and great wit but without the snooty restraint usually suggested by that word. They’re the part I want to see again.

5) The “Reel Missing” idea is a terrifically invogorating storytelling trick – it’s “cut to the chase” times ten. In Rodriguez’ movie, the trick is used to skip past all that was not absolutely necessary: who cares about a minor cause when the point is its major effect? I cackled with laughter when we dropped all that and got on with the story.

6) “Death Proof” uses the “Reel Missing” trick, like most of its other tricks, in exactly the wrong way: it takes away the one thing we want to see. Ten reels of grating pointless female bonding chatter are left intact, and the one reel of sexual confrontation goes missing. Did QT realize people were paying to watch this?

7) A few characters appear in both films, which hints at an enticing larger vision. The overlap doesn’t do much, however, except to heighten the sense that Tarantino’s movie consists entirely of stuff that was deservedly chopped out of Rodriguez’ movie.

8) In an ideal movie, the characters are in big trouble and the audience is having lots of fun. In Death Proof, the characters are having lots of fun and the audience is bored stiff. Tarantino clearly thinks he knows what he’s doing, and that seems to be the problem.

9) The “Grindhouse” novelty allows Rodriguez and Tarantino each to exaggerate his cinematic style.

Rodriguez’ style is to reward the audience by giving them only what they want – with any deeper meaning or unnecessary explanation “accidentally” chopped out of the final product. The joke is how little substance, explanation or disregard for cliché is actually necessary when the story is working.

Tarantino’s style is all about keeping the audience from the things they want, and punishing the viewer for wanting those things when they arrive. In Pulp Fiction- the movie that made him a genre and gave him license to meander for the rest of his career - Tarantino interrupted the story only long enough to introduce the characters before the mayhem began, and it worked beautifully. The habit of pulling away from the action was there, but it was used in service to the story.

Since winning an audience, however, every shred of charm or excitement in his movies is used only as bait to lure the viewer into another scene of arbitrary conversation or arbitrary violence. Whenever the viewer wants to see more of a certain character, that character is taken away – not to build suspense, but as a kind of punishment; your affection or respect for any character will be used against you. It’s standard practice to delay the audience’s gratification, but it takes an especially malicious artist to leave in place only those scenes that fail to satisfy their cravings.

Many horror movies abuse the audience’s affection for the characters, but good ones (like Planet Terror) at least use the violence to change the direction of the story. When a character is killed in Death Proof, the death doesn’t interrupt anything, since no other story is underway; the deaths were the story. That’s somewhere between cynical and cruel – and it couldn’t be more different from what Rodriguez accomplishes.

10) Quentin Tarantino bothers me more all the time – because the gulf between the movies he obviously can make and the movies he actually does make is so vast. (His Bob-Hope-as-zombie-rapist cameo in Planet Terror didn't impress me either.)

There are two great scenes in Death Proof: the one where Stuntman Mike sweet-talks Butterfly, and the spectacular stunt ride at the end. Both scenes are terrific filmmaking – and neither scene is followed to any resolution. (The first is cut abruptly; the second abruptly hits “The End”.)

The joke with Rodriguez’ film was how little fuel a good story really needs; the joke with Tarantino’s is how much fuel can be wasted to little effect.