Death Proof: A Collokino Conversation hosted by Jim Wilson

Death Proof

Directed by Quentin Tarantino, 2007

Jim Wilson: Michael, welcome. I hope you’re as excited about this one as I am.

Michael Clawson: Oh, I am stoked about this one, Jim. After having discussed mostly arthouse dramas, for lack of a better phrase, in our previous Collokinos, I’m excited to talk about a film that delivers some first-rate genre thrills.

Tell me, how into cars are you? Would you call yourself a gearhead? Might such an interest have contributed at all to your enthusiasm for Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the film we’re going to talk about?

Jim: No, I’m no gearhead, but I did grow up in the ‘70s, so Death Proof is a great shot of nostalgia for me, as I’m sure it is for Jeff, who will be joining the conversation in a while. I guess like most American boys at the time, I loved muscle cars, though I never drove one, just admired them from afar. In fact, some friends of mine and I, when we were fifteen or so, decided that we were a gang and called ourselves “The Challengers” because we were all in love with the Dodge Challenger. That’s an incredibly embarrassing thing to admit, but it was a long time ago, so…

This being the 20th edition of Collokino, it’s sort of an event. It’s great then to have both you and Jeff together to talk about such a fun movie.

Hey, aren’t you getting married soon?

Michael: That’s right, my fiancée Gabi and I are getting hitched on September 5th, here in Seattle, Washington (side note: Gabi and I watched Death Proof together, and she loved it too). For a while, we were very nervous about possibly having to push our date because of Covid, but now it’s looking like the timing will be kind of perfect, with all of our guests vaccinated and hopefully very ready to party after a long social hibernation. Planning can be a little stressful, but we’re through the worst of it, and have some fun parts coming up, like cake and menu tasting. 

You have any special plans for this summer? 

Jim: No, and that’s kinda the way I like it. I’m really excited for you and Gabi. You guys seem to be perfect for each other. That’s a rare thing, dude. Count your lucky stars. Both you and Jeff.

I just finished watching the new Criterion restoration of Irma Vep. Beautiful. Every time I watch that, it opens up a little more. It’s such an utterly unique film. There’s no plot, no linear direction. It’s really just one continuous digression, and completely engrossing. I’d forgotten that Bulle Ogier’s in it, or maybe it’s just that I’ve become more aware of her, since recently re-watching Celine and Julie, and watching interviews with and about Rivette, in whose films she’s pretty ubiquitous. I love her role in Irma Vep as the obnoxious interloper into Zoé’s affection for Maggie.

What have you been watching lately?

Michael: That’s very kind of you to say. Gabi and I are both pretty thrilled about the big day approaching, to say the least.

Irma Vep, such a great movie. It’s been a few weeks now since I watched it, but a film I saw recently that I loved and haven’t been able to stop thinking about is James Benning’s Ten Skies, an experimental film from 2004. There’s more to it than initially meets the eye, but on the surface, it’s a pretty easy one to describe: it’s ten shots of ten different skies, each shot lasting ten minutes, the camera remaining perfectly still in an upward-facing position for the entirety of the film’s runtime. It’s an exquisite study of light, gradations in color, cloud formations, and duration, and I’m fascinated by how boundless it felt even within its own self-imposed constraints. I’d heard of Benning before, but what prompted me to watch Ten Skies now is a book series that the publisher Fireflies Press is doing. It’s a ten book series about ten different movies, each from a different year of the 2000s, with ten different writers each picking the movie/year they want to write about. The book for Ten Skies is by Erika Balsom, and it’s an absolutely wonderful read.

You in the middle of any books at the moment?

Jim: Pretty much always. Yeah, I’ve heard Olivia Laing interviewed a couple times recently, while she’s touring her new book Everybody, and I knew it was something I had to read. It’s about bodies and their relative, and perceived, freedom. She examines the ideas of some great thinkers and artists, and how they placed the body in relation to the world – the world we create. I have an intuitive radar for writers who emphasize the sex-death theme in their work, and Laing is amazing. Wilhelm Reich is the central figure of the book, around whom Laing tells stories about Marquis de Sade, Susan Sontag, Agnes Martin, Andrea Dworkin, Angela Carter, Sigmund Freud, of course, and others. It’s too much to get into here, but it’s an incredible read. Laing’s intellect is impressive. And her politics are perfect.

Ten Skies sounds fascinating. You know, I’ve always wanted to ask you about your affinity for experimental films. I notice you watch a lot of them. And short films, too, which are often experiments themselves. Did you develop a taste for non-narrative films over time, or is it something you’ve always enjoyed?

Michael: I can’t say I’m familiar with Laing, but your description of Everybody intrigues me. I’ll keep that on my radar.

It was within just the last couple of years that I started really exploring experimental film, but my enthusiasm for it has grown exponentially since then. It’s funny, the interest came about, in part, because there was a period of time where I was consistently working really late hours. I’d come home late and crave just a little something that would excite me aesthetically, but I didn’t really want my brain to have to engage with plot or characters. I bought a collection of experimental shorts, Flicker Alley’s “Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970” (that’s a mouthful, huh?), and have been really into it ever since.

Does the avant-garde realm interest you at all, or not so much? 

Jim: Not directly, but it’s in the immediate background of everything I love, right? I guess I always do lean narratively, but you know how much of an Akerman devotee I am, and she has stuff like La chambre and Hotel Monterey, and Là-bas, that are as visually experimental as anything, then or now.

You seek out avant-garde stuff. I enjoy it whenever it passes by. I guess that’s the difference.

Which is as good a segue as any, I guess, since we’re not talking arthouse this time, though I think you can argue that what Tarantino does with Death Proof is pretty artful. You wanna start things off with your Death Proof origin story? You mentioned watching it with Gabi. When was that? What were your first impressions? How does it hold up for you next to Tarantino’s better-known films?

Michael: It was just a few days after I saw you give Death Proof high marks on Letterboxd, back in March of this year, that I came across a used copy of the Grindhouse Blu-ray at a record store here in Seattle. Between your endorsement and the fact that Death Proof was the last Tarantino feature I hadn’t seen, it was an easy purchase. I’d heard it was a polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it Tarantino movie; some say it’s his best, others, including Tarantino himself, deem it his worst. I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own ranking of Tarantino’s filmography; too much time passed between my first viewing of different Tarantino films. That said, I feel very confident saying that I loved Death Proof!The worn-and-battered texture of the images, the cast, the bifurcated narrative, the hangout movie vibe that gives way to brutal violence and breathtaking stunts; it’s thrilling stuff.

I’ll pause there, since it’s time to bring in our third Collokino participant, who’s been patiently waiting in the wings.

Jeff, how’s it going? Where and when did you first see Death Proof, and what’d you think of it?

Jeff Wilson: Oooooh, bust a nut…redneck fuck…tortellini, small bikini, I dream of Jeanie…BOWWOWOWOWHEEEE.

Oh, hey guys. Just trying out my new audio keyboard. I just talk into it like this: “LUKE, I AM YOUR FATHER,” and it just tipes it al out fopr me, withnoo tipos. I looks kind of phallic and in france, where i am right now, they call it a Mike-eh-rafone-uh.  Amazoing where techno;ogy is at these days. (Gigantic cymbal crash from Digit).

So I know we’ve got this cool-ass movie to talk about, Death Proof, by QT, which I just finished re-watching last night. But I just gotta ask, have either of you seen Planet Terror, the sister film by Rodriguez? I was watching the extras and QT was talking about how he decided to cast Rose McGowan even though she was in PT, and I don’t know, it just made me want to watch it.

HEY, UPTIGHT POTATO FARMER!  MILK-FACE GAS PUMPER!  MURDERING SAVAGE!

Alright just give me back the mike-eh-rafone-uh, Apollo. aPPArently it translates da dirty-ape languageh aswellian. Don’t give me that look, Yoko. Ya know I’d hate to break up the band. Remember the zoo? Wanna go back? Yeah, I thought not.

Alrighty so where am I, was I, ah yes (quick look over my shoulder,) focus…hocus pocus, locusts (quick look over other shoulder).

OK, so, oh yeah, hi, Jim, we’re doing Collokino here, right? Not Wiping Up. Hard to keep it all straight, ya know. I’m doing so many different platforms and such these days.

And is it true we’re doing a threesome this time out? 

Right, Caesar! My toga please, and fetch the nipple clamps, the ball-gag, and some oils. Oh, with Michael, yeah belay that order, Caesar. Well, I’ll take the toga actually.

Hi, Michael. Welcome to Jeff’s World, party on. I first watched this film around when you did, after Jimthrone referenced it to me, one of his highest and most useful qualities. I absolutely loved it and we yakked about it like we’d found the one true ring. “Why have I never heard about this?”

Michael: Glad to hear we all responded to it enthusiastically. Relative to Tarantino’s other movies, it definitely seems to have flown somewhat under the radar. I think I remember reading that it had the worst box office showing of any of his films, but I gather that that was more a consequence of its Grindhouse packaging than a reflection of the movie itself. 

Want to set the table for us, so to speak, and give us a brief rundown on what this film is about?

Jeff: So this is a film, a nice abrupt film. We get right into meeting some rather lovely ladies wearing sparse clothing, so there’s lots of “things” to look at and such. They’re discussing at female length how to compile their day and evening entertainment. The acting (Sydney Poitier [not that one], Vanessa Ferlito and Jordan Ladd) has a very natural, city-feel, let’s-smoke-some-weed-and-drive-around-Austin kinda vibe to it. The look and the sound of the film is, to my mind, the most spot-on retro-est of the retro-est that is QTarantino. There’s vinyl-like crackling, old projector-like lost frames of film, the lighting very ‘70s-ish, and of course Quentin pulls out more gems from his archive of quirky, awesome old soul/blues/surfer music tunes.

“In a honky tonk down in  Mex- I- CO.” I mean, how does he pull that out of the file? Like that song that’s playing during final credit roll, I mean, it’s just perfect.

And you know, what really hits me as this film unfolds is just how deft QT is at writing women characters, doing it well back before it was en vogue, i.e., Alabama Whitman in True Romance, Uma’s iterations in Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bills, Amanda Plummer’s nutty “Honey-Bunny” in PF. And in this film, he manages to pull off not one or two or three, but eight completely self-sustaining, entertaining, female characters, in very short fashion, and is what really draws me into the film. I mean the cars are cool, all of it’s cool, but it’s the core of the believable female characters just trying to have a little fun and get through their day without being bothered, or hunted, by a lonely nutjob dude, that makes the film work for me.

So, first thing I noticed upon rewatch, which hit me as a QTism, was the girl’s bare feet on the dashboard thingee. As soon as the tres amigas get in the car you see bare feet on the dash, and Jungle Julia all stretched out in the back seat. Margot Robbie (in the theater, watching herself on screen) and Margaret Qualley are seen doing this in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Is it just one of his ways of showing how different the feel was back then, or is it a harbinger?

Second thing that hit me was how this film felt like distilled Tarantino, or Pulp Fiction Concentrate, if you will. You get all the great characters, dialogue and action, but with much-less convoluted storylines. This is most probably what causes the division amongst viewers loving it or hating it

Eventually the three ladies end up at Guero’s Taco bar for some drinks and music. And while you’re listening to their conversations you can’t help but notice the voluminous number of old film-posters plastered all over the walls of Guero’s. I believe it is here that Julia (Poitier) first tells Butterfly/Arlene (Ferlito) about how on her radio show today (she’s a well-known local DJ) she has offered that anyone who walks up to Butterfly and recites some poem, she’ll give them a lap dance, ha! So the rest of part one, to some degree, revolves around waiting for this moment to arrive. It’s while smoking alone outside Guero’s that Butterfly first notices a sinister-looking muscle car sitting across the road, which takes off loudly as she’s looking at it. This is the first bad feeling you sense in the film.

 Seeing that this is taking me forever, I’ll throw the ball to you, Jim. What are you loving/noticing most about this film at this point in it?

Jim: You didn’t tell me you were in France. Sticking around for Cannes? Could you get LS to sign something for me? Get a selfie with her and Dumont! Thanks. You’re the best.

So I guess it’s my fault you both watched this. Maybe that’s why I asked you here to talk about it with me. And no, Jeff, I haven’t watched Planet Terror, but I know Michael has, so I’ll leave that for him to pick up.

The ‘70s slasher vibe is perfectly established right away. Girls’ night out before heading up to Lake LBJ for a girls-only weekend. They’re talking about making out with guys, while figuring out how to score some weed. It’s so classic. The bit about Shanna’s Dad coming up to make sure the girls have everything they need is fucking hilarious. Like you said, Jeff, QT has an incredible touch with little details in his writing. These ladies all arrive fully formed. I agree that that’s perhaps the film’s greatest achievement. The languid hang-out feel, the long conversations, the great peripheral characters, the ‘70s-style butt shots, and the color grading that seems both muted and saturated, even the Thunderbolt title card that appears for a fraction of a second before being replaced by the generic white-on-black Death Proof. It’s just endlessly fun. Ferlito’s Arlene is the quintessential outsider character, the quirky, achingly sexy girl that supplies the first part of the film with its central gravitational pull, the character through whom we, the audience, experience the events. All the way from Brooklyn, she’s a rare gem in Austin, with her old-school “San Francisco” t-shirt. She hearkens back, too, to the sexy Italian-American girls that were so common in ‘70s American cinema and TV.

You may have seen this in the extras, Jeff, but I guess Eli Roth took a break from directing Hostel II to be in this. Like a lot of his regulars, I suspect Roth would do anything for his buddy QT. My favorite line in part one comes from his character Dov, when he remarks to Omar, after looking over at the facially scarred Stuntman Mike sitting at the bar: “Dude cut himself falling out of his time machine.” Which is almost literally true. Fucking golden.

Michael: Can’t say I’m a fan of Planet Terror. It has blood, guts, and gross-out humor to spare, but I find the cheesiness of it to be pretty lame and unsatisfying. I’d actually put Robert Rodriguez on a small list of directors whose work and style I actively dislike. So I’m glad we’re only talking about one half of the Grindhouse double-feature!

Jim, since you mention yours, I’ll come right back at you with my favorite line from the first half: “Now is that a tasty beverage or is that a tasty beverage?!” Courtesy of Tarantino himself, in the role of the bartender at the dive bar where Arlene, Shanna, and Julia eventually come face to face with Stuntman Mike. If he hadn’t become a filmmaker, Tarantino could have been a hilarious character actor. 

What really impresses me about Death Proof, especially the film’s first half, is how successfully it melds two genres that I would otherwise say might go as well together as oil and water. Horror is crossed with genres like comedy, action (see Death Proof‘s second half), and sci-fi all the time, but horror meets hangout movie? Horror and hangout movies generally have such diametrically opposed rhythms, the former being all about an accrual of tension, the latter involving a deliberate lack of tension. It’s not an intuitive combination, and I suspect that that has a lot to do with what detractors dislike about the movie. Personally, I love the variation in the film’s tempo, as it sounds like you guys do too.

How about all the great textural detail at the bar that the first group of girls finish their night at? The walls that are plastered with neon signage, posters, and stickers, the jukebox that allows for awesome needle drops (my ears perked up when T. Rex’s “Jeepster” came on), the cheesy nachos we watch Stuntman Mike devouring in close-up; the space really comes to life through all those lived-in details that the cinematography captures so vividly. Half the pleasure of the film’s first half, in my opinion, relates to texture, whether it’s the grunginess of the locations, the easy-going dialogue exchanged between the girls, or the images themselves, battered and scratched as they are.

How’d you guys respond to Stuntman Mike? I personally don’t think the character or Russell’s performance instill the movie with a particularly acute sense of dread – dread isn’t really the tone Tarantino is going for – but I find him to be a very entertaining menace all the same.

Jim: I think Stuntman Mike has to be a ridiculous character. I hope we spend some time talking about the middle transition act, when Michael Parks’ Sheriff McGraw sketches out for his deputy son (Parks’ actual son, of course) the correct motivations of Stuntman Mike. It’s there that Stuntman Mike is explained, an expositional scene that laughs-out-loud at its own on-the-nosedness, and which maybe, in its ironic shift, points out the true horror at the heart of all this fun.

Jeff: On Stuntman Mike, the second time around he mainly just hits me as comedic relief. From the ICY HOT jacket and the Snake Plissken scar to all the various names people refer to him, literally right behind his back, like “Hey, Canonball Run”, “I’m not gonna sleep with him”, “I can hear YOU”,”I can STILL hear you”. We get the one incredibly demonic scene with him loading poor Pam into the crash-box, then “The Crash”. Other than that, he’s just kind of this old timey nut-cake jack-wagon bangin’ around the place…laughing…Oh my god, his laugh is great. It’s almost like QT needed the evil protagonist character for the film, but really didn’t want it to evolve into an unnaturally powerful evil thing, which, when you think about it, is quite refreshing, and is what separates him so far from the likes of Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, ouch! Thanks for the heads-up on Planet Terror, Michael), as well as a lot of others who I’m sure were big influences on him. I think that’s a big kernel in what makes Quentin…Quentin, a singularity. His unique ability to graft pulp and horror with real, gritty characters within the confines of somewhat normal, day-to-day easy going situations, or normal-ish situations, with one big weird thing happening in the middle. It’s why when the over-the-top violence or mayhem finally does come in his films it’s funny while being absurdly well done, but the films themselves could very well stand on their own without it. To some extent, it just seems like his innate need to interject his childhood/fanboy love of that type of film into his own. I’m tangentially supporting Michael’s sharp take on his ability to genre meld.

I love that you bring up the “middle” of the film section with the Sheriff, Jim. I have to admit, I hadn’t really copied that part to my cranial hard drive. When I saw it the other night, it kind of hit me like bolt from on high, lights coming on and such. It’s a genius, self-film-effacing little moment where QT is pulling back the curtain, but the first time you watch it, you don’t catch it that way.

And Michael, awesome bring up of the nachos Mike is just freaking devouring, and the jukeboxes. I was trying to hold off naming the Continental 2 until we got to the Texas Chili Parlor and met its resident bartender, QT himself. I just love that he doesn’t hold back sticking himself right in the middle of his film here and there. I’ve always considered his scene in PF’s “The Bonnie Situation” my favorite part of that film, at least funniest, with all the gourmet coffee lines. And he pretty much pulls it off again here. “Chartreuse, the only drink so good they named a color after it!”  And the “tasty beverage” line is right from Samuel L in PF’s Big Kahuna Burger scene with Brad, “look at the brain on Brad!”…it’s like distilled Q concentrate.

Yeah we get it, Dingeldork.

Lap dance, anyone?

OK, Halotta, let’s work on that chorus, while Apollo and Digit get the rhythm section laid down.

And can someone give me a hand with this toga, how do…you wrap…this…sash thing… around… uuuggh… Oh my god!

Caesar!

Michael: Jeff, I’m actually right there with you in that on my first watch, the hospital scene, the bridge between the two halves, barely registered with me at all. My attention just drifted off, for whatever reason, and I didn’t really catch the Sheriff’s brief spiel about Stuntman Mike’s motivation and method of murder being a “sex thing.” Which it is, of course. Slamming his car into the girls is a kind of substitute, a jaw-droppingly violent one, for his fantasy of getting with girls who see him as the washed-up has-been that he is. And it’s for that reason that the movie is essentially a slasher, even though there’s no slashing per se: it keeps with that sub-genre’s tendency, some would say, to metaphorically represent sex, or more specifically, rape, with some other kind of physical, usually gory, violence. Tarantino has the Sheriff pretty clearly lay that out for us; the “on the nosedness” of that character’s dialogue, as you described it, Jim, is indeed sort of amusing.

So I think Stuntman Mike is serving some contradictory functions in the movie. On the one hand, he’s the heinous villain who commits jaw-dropping acts of violence towards innocent women. That makes him a pretty easy object of contempt. On the other hand, he is, as his name obviously tells us, a former stuntman! He represents a part of what Death Proof is paying tribute to: the art of practical stunts without any digital trickery, the kind you’d see in all the ’70s movies that Death Proof regularly name drops: Vanishing Point, Dirty Larry Crazy Mary, etc. Tarantino is having his cake and eating it too in making Stuntman Mike both abhorrent and someone whose craft he deeply admires and respects.

Jeff: Ah, France in springtime, so lovely, think I’ll stroll over to the Louvre.

It’s only a model, dumbass.

Shut-up, Yoko!

Yes, yes, Michael, I’ll agree with you that Stuntman Mike’s character seems to be filling two or three roles in the film, something I notice bothers me a little, but also allows the film to have its effortless ebb and flow. He’s kind of the red pill you either swallow or you don’t/can’t. While we’re in the bar with him chatting with the other patrons or being quietly harangued (Mr. Roth), Mike is just a very interesting, chiseled old character. We have fun with him, get some cool old knowledge and lore about real stuntmen doing real stunts back in the day.

He then surprises us by bending over close to Butterfly and reciting the poem, wonderfully, poetically, and then asks her if she’d give him the lap dance. She hesitates, seems set upon an edge, he asks her if she scares him. She slightly nods (I think). He asks “Is it my scar?” She replies “It’s your car.” He nods in acknowledgement and replies “Yeah, it is pretty scary, it’s my mom’s”. Fucking LOL. 

This exchange goes on, quite adorably. He wanders into doing a John Wayne impersonation: “Well, ya know, in my book” kinda stuff. Then admits “But ya know what? I actually do have a book. And Butterfly, I’m gonna have to put your name right here…under…Chicken Shit.”

At which point, of course, Butterfly tells him to go get ready for his lap dance.

I’ve waited up to this point to talk much about Vanessa Ferlito’s performance here. Her character grew on me the most of any in this film and really surprised me. Thankfully, Jim gave us all a perfect description/interpretation of her way/look/role here so I don’t have to bumblemuck through doing all that. You nailed it, brother…especially the whole NY-accented Italian-American ‘70s thing. She’s just that, but in a quirky way. But it isn’t until the lap dance she performs for Stuntman Mike to the awesome languid beat and lyrics of “Down in Mexico” that I completely fall in love with her…which is exactly what QT wants to do, and then does, to you. It’s what makes the final few frames of part one so gut- and heart-wrenching.  

There’s a great segment on QT’s thoughts and process behind casting Ferlito in the extras, and how he was ecstatic when she added her own choreography into the dance itself.

Jim: I made a special note (in my actual notes) the third time I watched it about the interplay between Arlene and Mike. There’s a kind of unspoken exchange going on between them from the very first moment she spots him outside Guero’s in his car. Or really, it’s just his car that she’s communicating with, or a car-human combination, about which she’s both clearly fearful and attracted to. Even in the parking lot of the Chili Parlor, it’s his car she’s drawn to. It’s a weird kind of melding, as if she senses the car as an animate object. When she finally experiences him in person, that blend of fear and fascination amplifies tenfold, and though she maintains her cool, aloof exterior, it’s pretty obvious he arouses something in her. I’ll go out on a limb and say I think she senses a bottomless darkness in him, the real darkness beneath the metaphorical darkness of his car and his impenetrably dark windows. Beneath his fun-loving and eloquent façade, Arlene recognizes Stuntman Mike as death, and it thrills her. The energy flowing between Arlene and Stuntman Mike really fascinates me, and is, again, another example of Tarantino’s underhandedly complex writing.

Did either of you guys notice, during the lap dance, the two young ladies standing in front of the mirror, dancing along? I swear they’re there to block the reflection of the camera, since the view is directly at them, not askew.

Now before getting on to the second part of Death Proof, we have to talk about the crash itself, which includes the bit with Pam in the crash-box beforehand. After securing Pam in the box, and before getting into the car himself, Stuntman Mike turns, looks directly into the camera, and winks at us. It’s an obvious, very self-conscious cue that things are about to get pretty heavy. As you both have pointed out, Tarantino has a remarkable way of dropping blood-curdling evil right into the middle of a fun-loving hang-out movie. I think my question for both of you is how he does that. We see it coming, via Arlene, as I’ve just described, but how exactly does Tarantino manifest it? Of course, Kurt Russell has a lot to do with it, in the way he portrays Stuntman Mike, but Tarantino is using a number of cinematic techniques, including stunts, effects, cuts and reaction shots, to name a few, and, of course, just his own unique filmic language; his special brand of ironic detachment. Talk a little about how you see what QT is doing with this explosive sequence at the very heart of the film.

Michael: I noticed the two girls you’re referring to, but I hadn’t thought about the fact that they’re probably there to block the camera’s reflection. I think you’re right about that. And your description of the chemistry between Arlene and Stuntman Mike is spot on. Their back-and-forth on the bar’s porch is one of, if not the most potent exchange in the whole movie. The sultry eye contact, the slow and seductive cadence of their dialogue, the mixture of a sense of dread and desire – it’s such a compelling moment.

The crash at the end of part one and the moments leading up to it are absolutely nuts. Pam’s horrific thrashing in Stuntman Mike’s passenger seat is striking not only for how it ends – with Mike slamming on the brakes and Pam smashing into the dashboard – but also for the effect of the sound, lighting, and camera angles. There’s the metallic rumble of the car and the roar of its engine as Mike accelerates, the glow of signage and traffic lights bleeding in through the car windows, the POV shots that put us in the driver’s seat, and show us, in close up, Pam banging up on the sturdy plastic wall dividing her seat from Mike’s. It’s an intense scene, but it’s not as shocking as what comes right after. After killing Pam, Mike hightails it after Arlene, Shanna, Julia, and another friend of theirs, who we find all blissfully caught up in a song of Julia’s choosing as they drive down a dark road. Before the actual collision, what stood out to me is how totally pitch black it is outside of the girl’s car. You literally can’t see anything on either side of the car in certain shots. It’s such an eerie thing, the contrast between the girls pleasurably moving to the music and the otherworldly darkness outside. When Mike finally plows into their car head-on, at full speed, we see the wreck not once but several times, thanks to some very sharp editing. Each time, we see Mike flipping on his headlights, the reaction of a different girl, and the gruesome bodily carnage dealt to them. It is insane. Would the scene be anywhere as effective if it were done with CGI? Not a chance. The tactility you get from the crash being done practically, as a physical stunt, is singular. 

Jeff: Is it just me, or does trying to give this scene justice with words give you anxiety!? I’ll try my best, but if I fail, suffice it to say that this whole sequence is up there with the chest-burster scene in Alien, right?

First, I’ll try to address Jim’s initial question about just how QT is doing what he’s doing here.

“HOG-FAT SANDWICH EATING LUNATIC EXTINCTION MACHINES!”

This is not the time, Apollo!

Sorry about that. I thought we’d come to a tentative agreement. Things are getting a bit dark down here. I think the band may turn on me before this is all over. I’m certainly not getting in their car. Oh yes, they have a… (just stop).

OK, so first off, I think QT has an incredible sense, or gift, for sudden, fluid juxtaposition. The slow, almost overly wordy contextualizing of the relationships between characters, the physical space you become accustomed to (hang-outs, cool tunes, posters, one-liners) and the almost plodding pace is charged and changed like the flip of a switch (wink at the camera). And then all hell breaks loose with precise choreography, shot-timing, framing, angles and light as well as…

ah, tactility! Yes, Michael, the perfect word – thank you. All his films have extremely loud violence, and this one is no exception, and it incorporates one of the very focuses of the film: real stunts with loud cars. from the second he jiggles in the creepy little metal seat into the steel pipe for Pam to sit on, the film becomes alive with horror, and much of it purely tactile.

Mike’s line to her about which way she’s heading, left or right? Then telling her it’s too bad she said right because if she’d said left, she wouldn’t have to get scared quite yet, but instead she’ll have to get scared Immediately! It’s the final weighing of the anchor and we sail into darkness.

The deep rumble of the engine, the clanking metal, Pam’s head banging off pretty much everything. The deep murk of the night, the cigar-smoking duck hood ornament, the constant reverberating throb of the gunning of the engine…the change in Mike. We see him blow past the other girls without them noticing. They’re deep into listening to yet another cool old tune. He gets way up ahead, turns around, and turns off the headlights. At this point QT has, in a matter of maybe a minute, taken all the fun out the film, flipped it over, and has us painfully worried for the lives of the three women he has spent so much energy getting us to know and like. And when others may flinch, he pours more gas on the fire and exposes to us a spectacularly brutal high-speed, head-on, triple-played headbanger’s ball of a real car wreck. We see our girls’ heads and chests smashed in, a leg torn-off and flopped on the road, and our favorite’s, Butterfly’s, face erased by Stuntman Mike’s smoking rear tire. And just like his car, we are left on our crumpled head slowly spinning amidst the smoke of rubber, oil and carnage.

To really get at Jim’s question, I’m gonna center on detachment, or rather deep attachment as the set-up for deep detachment. I think Quentin writes many of his characters from the get go with their deaths, or how best to kill them, in mind. From the outset, he isn’t writing some character who will amazingly survive, but will amazingly die. And it’s just a writing energy thing, I think, what makes him a great screenplay writer. He doesn’t go lazy on characters who aren’t going to make it, in fact he goes all-in on them so it will really hurt when they go. He then puts a ton of work and energy into the villain and adds non-villainesque traits to them so we wonder at their motivations, and not just see them as some random evil thing. He then casts impeccably, he casts “his character”…not a certain actor. He puts in the homework, hires the greatest still-living stunt people and has a special relationship with his editor. I think it takes all these things to transform what happens leading up to and in that sequence.

It’s a, what – 45 minutes? – of film I will always remember and have a certain unique fondness for, in a few different ways.

I think in a way I get and appreciate Tarantino in a whole new way since watching this film. Because of its stripped-down-ness, I was able to see more into how he operates and constructs things. Pretty fascinating, especially given the genres he supposedly inhabits. But that’s just it, I guess; he lies somewhere in between and amongst it all.

I gotta go, my mike-eh-rafone-ew is burnin’ up.

Jim: Well said. I hope you can keep your band of noisy primates together. It would be eerily quiet over there without them.

Of course, Tarantino has been doing it for three decades now, so it’s nothing new, but I’m always amazed by how he depicts extreme violence with the same casual, unflinching eye that he watches his characters carry on long conversations, with a comprehensive, even fetishistic, eye for every minute detail. It’s a self-conscious quality that de-mystifies the violence. The explicitness of it, the refusal to look away, the exhaustive detail, renders it so self-aware that it ushers it into a domain of body horror that is thoroughly mundane. It’s a view that insists on the banality of evil, an almost bored resignation to the horrors of which humans are incessantly capable, a jaded understanding of the world that is familiar to any post-modern sensibility. I think of other Gen X progenitors who handle violence with the same cool, winking detachment, like the writing of Bret Easton Ellis, and the films of Eli Roth, S. Craig Zahler and Ben Wheatley.

So let’s move on to the film’s second act, with a new crew of lovely ladies. They’re both very similar, and very different, from the women we’ve just seen collectively raped by Stuntman Mike. Who wants to set the scene?

Jeff: Yeah, I think Yoko and Apollo are sewing dissension through the ranks. I may have a labor movement on my hands soon enough.

I was thinking maybe I’ll just write them each a $1200 check and throw ’em a chunk of old bread and they’ll get distracted.


Certainly need to lock up my Blu-ray of Kubrick’s 2001…definitely…don’t want that being shown on movie night…no, no…..that would be bad…..yes…..then maybe get rid of the dissenters, get them transferred overseas, yes. But I’ve spent so much time developing their characters, ah, what would Quentin do?


Meanwhile…
 
Yes, Jim, very sharp point, I like your take that it’s how he manages the manifestation and carry-through of the violence with much the same meticulous detail as the dialogue and atmosphere in all other facets of the film. That he orates through the violence as well.
 
Part deux, scene one, take one (and they’re off!).


Well, again, we’re initially confronted with a gorgeous threesome (what is it with all the threesomes? Must be the toga) of ladies.


Tracie Thoms (Kim), Rosario Dawson (Abernathy), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lee…oh my…).
I just want to thank Quentin right off the top here for seeing the obvious and outfitting Lee in a HS cheerleader’s outfit for the duration, I mean, come on. Pretty sure Jasper agrees, but we’ll get back to that.


We are now in Tennessee, in a convenience store parking lot in a bright yellow Mustang with black racing stripes and a BRAND X license plate. Kim is going into the store, asking what the others want, Lee is at the wheel with her iPod on and Abernathy is lazily stretched out across the backseat, ala Jungle Julia from part one, with her bare feet sticking through the window, resting on passenger-side door. Stuntman Mike is sitting across the road in his car and notices them, takes note of them, then drives over and parks next to them. Lee is pleasantly serenading us with her rendition of the song playing on her iPod.  Creepy fuckin’ machine rapist turd quietly gets out of his car and brushes by Abernathy’s bare feet, touching one with his thumb, WTF, then tosses his keys on the ground and loudly says to himself “Oh there they are!” to excuse himself from their proximity. He then gets in his car and does a wildly loud, screeching, smoking reverse exit from parking lot, with skidding turn-about in middle of the road, followed by loud, smoking, forward thrusting up and away down the straight-away. Lee looks back at Abernathy and raises her little finger in the universal sign for small-penis syndrome, and they both giggle. At the same time, you feel it’s a slightly nervous giggle. So, in this one little moment we get a pretty clear look at all the little things we’ve been wondering at/piecing together about Mike. We just don’t know how it’s gonna go. We also really want to get to know these girls a little better.
 
OK, Michael, help me out.

Michael: All right, a few other things to note as the second half kicks off. First, our new trio of women mirror the first group in some obvious ways: Abernathy, like Arlene, picks up on and is visibly unsettled by Stuntman Mike’s presence, conversation once again involves juicy anecdotes about hooking up with guys, and generally speaking, there’s the same sisterly banter and friendliness between Kim, Abernathy, and Lee that there was between Arlene, Shanna, and Julia. This time, however, Mike and his prey have something in common: we learn that these new girls are in Tennessee working on a movie. Especially once Kim, Abernathy, and Lee pick up Zoë Bell from the airport, there’s a sense that sociopathic Mike may have met his match this time around.

I’ll be curious to hear what you guys thought about this detail, but I love the fact that unlike the other girls, Zoë Bell plays herself. It’s like Tarantino sees who she is and the stunt work she does as way too ridiculously cool to be obscured by an extra layer of artifice. Once she arrives, it’s like some crucial piece of the film that you didn’t even know was missing until then was just put in its place. For me, with her arrival comes a degree of reassurance that this second group of women won’t meet the same fate as the first. Even when we get to the fantastic diner scene, where the camera encircles the girls and reveals, to the attentive observer, Mike sitting at the countertop, I can’t say I felt all that afraid for the girls. We know there’ll be an incendiary confrontation between them and Mike, for sure, but I was pretty confident at that point that we’d eventually see these girls inflict some form of vengeance against Mike, both for whatever he might do to them, and for the murder/metaphorical rape of Arlene, Shanna, and Julia.

Jim, before we get into the extended climax, you have thoughts about these first few scenes in part two? What’s your take on the part where the girls go to pick up the Challenger, and Lee gets thrown under the bus by the other three? That’s arguably the thorniest scene in the movie. I think I read that that was one scene Rosario Dawson was not thrilled about. Does Lee getting left behind with the creepy dude undo the great camaraderie we’ve seen between the girls up until then, or is it that part there for a reason?

Jim: The first thing I’ll point out about the start of part two, which I didn’t figure out until my third watch, is the switch from color to black-and-white when Mike pulls his Charger up to the convenience store, and then the switch back to color when Abernathy sits on the hood of the Mustang to put her boots on. Now I feel like an idiot for not noticing it right away, and maybe you guys did (but we’re even there, since I seized on the import of the Sheriff scene on my first watch). The film quality as Mike pulls into the parking lot, when it’s still color, is the same scratched, worn and muted style as the first part. When it switches to black-and-white, you can tell the picture quality instantly improves. When it finally switches back to color, the image quality pops so hard it’s breath-taking. The old-vinyl-record feel of part one is now replaced by pristine visual fidelity. The yellow of the Mustang’s paint job and the cherry red of its interior, the bright yellow-orange of Lee’s cheerleader outfit, the neon tones of the soda bottles inside the store, explode in visual splendor. And that, and that alone, is a glaring clue that this story is going to be very different. It’s an amazingly effective device that Tarantino quietly employs.

Some delicious details: We first learn that these are film people because Lee tells Abernathy she’s in the newest edition of Allure magazine, which we get to see. That’s some pretty deft exposition. And, as I’m sure you both noticed, when Abernathy walks down the row of magazines, there are at least two magazines featuring Kirsten Dunst on their covers, in her titular role in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which came out right at the time they were making Death Proof in 2006. It’s a great little time capsule to mark the era of cinema this comes from. And I love the whole Italian Vogue thing because a) the clerk is actually hording a copy of it, and b) it’s something only the two “girly girls” of the three (ultimately four) would care about, a detail that works to identify them. So they buy it. And it’s never seen or talked about again, I don’t think, unless it comes up in the longer uncut version. There’s also a visceral midday hush to the scene. It’s sooo hang-out. I could watch that opening scene a hundred times and find something new to love about it each time. It really is my favorite part of the whole movie. What I don’t understand is why they pretended to set it in Tennessee, when it’s obviously California, which lends much to the lazy midday ambience that permeates that scene. Perhaps that’s another meta film point, about the artifice of setting films in various locations, while filming in southern California.

I’m with you on Winstead, Jeff. She is smokin’ hot. The decision to put her in a cheerleader’s outfit is hilarious, and, I think, speaks some to your question, Michael, about how she’s left behind with Jaspar later. I read Lee as a joke character, a send-up to every film that features cheerleaders in danger, distress, or some kind of high drama. She’s making a movie in which she’s a cheerleader! And she’s entirely left out of the drama! It’s too fucking rich. That she ends up the one to stand in as collateral for the Challenger seems to be working somewhere in that range. I think the whole second part is in conversation with the first, that these aren’t ‘70s-style femme fatales, but 21st century women, two of whom are in a traditionally male, physically demanding, career. Lee, however, is an icon that floats between the two eras, the embodiment of a stereotype that the “tough girls” decide ultimately to sideline. There’s no malice there, either from the characters or Tarantino. I think that can go without saying. I think it just works to serve the story and also works as a kind of meta film commentary, as much of part two does. It would be pretentious, and inaccurate, to say that Tarantino is “exploring traditional female gender roles”, but he’s certainly riffing on them. I think you can’t overlook the fact that Lee is an actress still wearing her costume while she’s not on set. We know nothing about her other than that.

I love it when, as Lee is absorbing the situation she’s been left in, she actually says “gulp” as the other three tear out of Jaspar’s place, like a word bubble from a character in a comic strip. I understand the nature of the complaints about her being left behind, but I also know what Tarantino would probably say in response. Is it something that troubles you, Michael?

Michael: It doesn’t trouble me in that I think it’s offensive, unacceptable, or anything like that, but I’m just not sure how well it works. It’s not that I want Tarantino to be precious with his characters – that’s the last thing I’d expect from him – or for him to have the girls treat each other all sweet and nicely. That’s not who these girls are at all, and that’s a great thing. But I do think Winstead maybe isn’t cartoonish enough for me to see her merely as a trope that Tarantino is discarding, and not as an actual member of the friend group that the others are leaving behind to get raped. The cheerleader outfit clearly positions Lee as the girliest, but she doesn’t play, for me, purely as some metaphorical piece that clearly doesn’t fit with the rest. Her chemistry with the other girls is terrific, and they all seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company! And the issue isn’t really that Lee is left behind, but that she’s left behind to get raped, or so it’s implied. Doesn’t that sour some of the satisfaction we might get later, when Kim, Abernathy, and Zoë go get revenge against Mike for not only what he did to them, but also, without them even knowing it, for what he did to the first group of girls, which was one big rape metaphor?

Jim: Do we know so well that she’s raped? If this film does anything, it upends expectations. The thing I most wanted to know after my first watch was what happens when Kim, Zoë, and Abbie return the battered Challenger to Jaspar, and what condition we discover he and Lee are in, since I suspect he won’t be doing well. Or they’ve become besties and are playing chess or something.

Jeff: I think Lee’s essentially the Pam character of part deux, but gets to hang with the group until Zoë shows up…pretty much. Then she gets tossed…to what end? Who knows? Hopefully not as bad as Pam’s. I would have loved to see her and Jasper’s scenes behind his shack run silently while credits rolled. Maybe a few high leg kicks in the cheerleader’s skirt, eh.

On the B&W to color shift…yes! I did notice it, even more so the second time around, and didn’t know what to make of it exactly, other than it was cool….and then I forgot all about it, crap! But you nailed it, Jim, it signals a shift in the type of prey he’s going after, that things are modernizing, that he’s in the big leagues now, that his game may be getting a little stale.

And the Italian Vogue thing…Now that’s funny! That a male Circle A clerk in Tennessee even knows what Italian Vogue is, let alone stashes his own copy of it behind the counter…with hopes that anyone in Tennessee would ever mention it, let alone pay for it…haha.

Jim: I love that. Lee is Pam. You’re on to something.

Michael: Fair points by both of you, about what might have actually transpired between Jasper and Lee. My mind leapt to one of the grimmer possibilities, if only because of how Abernathy acts as if she’s offering Lee up to him. But to Lee’s credit, I’m pretty sure she could outrun Jaspar, and perhaps Abernathy is plenty confident about that. And Jeff, I can’t say I had associated Lee with Pam before, but that’s so true. Great call.

Jim, care to dive into the final act, and tell us how it played for you?

Jim: I’m not a big car chase guy. They all tend to play the same notes over and over again, and this is no exception. What is an exception is what’s happening on top of this chase, namely the ship’s mast thing Zoë is doing, about which Kim and Zoë challenge each other before securing the…Challenger. The way I interpret it is she’s standing in for the masthead of an old sailing ship, which is both wicked cool and wicked stupid. It is a really priceless addition to an otherwise overplayed overture in action-adventure movies, and places Zoë Bell’s agility and prowess front and center in the top-fuel action of the film’s finale.

Michael, you seemed to suggest earlier that Bell’s casting might have been a challenge to Tarantino, in terms of how to place her in-character. I think you’re absolutely right, and it’s the most stand-out pretention of the film to me. But I love it, because after all, I think QT is doing his meta-film here and what better, in this scenario, than Zoë-fucking-Bell? She is the hottest, coolest and smartest of them all. Like Arlene in part one, she’s the outsider, the oddball, the one everyone’s looking at. Who else better then to vanquish Mike in Arlene’s honor? The super-fit Kiwi stuntwoman for the hard-bitten Brooklyn girl, each far outside her comfort zone? I know it works for me.

I’m gonna leave this part to you guys. Who wants to tap that ass?

Michael: I love the giant smile on Zoë’s face just before she climbs out the window and gets on the hood (“Hey Abernathy, check this out.”). Even before Mike pulls up and starts slamming his car into the girls, nearly driving them off the road and ending Zoë, seeing her out on the hood with nothing but a couple leather belts to hold on to and shouting at Kim to drive faster is so exhilarating. Where Mike does his work from within the protective confines of a matte black death-proof car, Zoë actively flirts death just for the sheer thrill of it. More than the punches that the girls throw at Mike at the very end, it’s Zoë’s giddy insistence that they do this ridiculously dangerous stunt that proves how infinitely cooler she is than Stuntman Mike. Even after Kim puts a bullet in Mike and he speeds off, Zoë pretty much brushes off the whole encounter as if it were no big deal! I love it. 

I thought the excitement of the finale would have worn off when I came back to watch the movie a second time, but it didn’t, not in the slightest. It’s such muscular, heart-pounding, dynamic filmmaking, and the humor woven in (“Did you just hit a boat!?”) is a blast.

Jim: That is – hands down, no contest – the funniest part of the whole movie, when Kim, at the helm of the Challenger, in pursuit of Mike’s Charger, blasts through that decrepit old wooden boat on the side of the road, and Abernathy says that, with a strong emphasis on boat, while half laughing. It’s the golden moment. “Did you just hit a boat?!”

Jeff: Yeah I’ll give the “boat?” line a third thumbs up.

“I ‘m gonna bust a nut!”

On the Zoë front, I really just think Tarantino probably kinda fell in love with her as Uma’s stunt double in the Kill Bills, and when thinking of making this film he knew he’d need an awesome stuntwoman and felt that if he could get Zoë comfortable enough with actually “acting” the part, then the repertoire of (face)shots he could garner from not having to double the lead girl would push the chase footage into unchartered territory cinematically. Think of all the mast shots, the clutching the front of hood, while having her beaming face in full view….it was a goldmine. 

On the chase itself, for me, it borders on overkill to some degree but I think because he had Zoë (and all the other best stunt drivers in the world) lined up and firing on all cylinders, he compiled such a tonnage of great footage he just lets it run on, and on. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stunts and the battered cars and the girls’ commentary throughout, I’m just saying it seems to run on a tad. I would have loved to see a few minutes of it replaced with the “Lee & Jasper Love Story”, for instance.

My favorite part of the whole chase is when Mike and them eventually kind of run off the road and it looks like Zoë may be gone, Mike pops up out of his Charger puts his sunglasses up on his head, does his insanely funny laugh, then points both index fingers at them and yells out “Now that was fun!” at which point Kim promptly pulls up her revolver and shoots him in the arm, and he reacts like an incredulous child and quickly clambers back into his Charger and takes off whining and whimpering. The timing within that shot is priceless; from him popping up, saying his hilarious line and Kim getting off the shot in that rapid succession is no small feat. If not shot and edited extraordinarily well, it would come off clumsy. But the main reason I love that scene is it’s the real turning point, the hinge. At that point, Mike, though he hasn’t entirely succeeded, may have gotten Zoë hurt to some degree (we don’t know yet), but given the fight this trio is putting up, he’ll take it as a win, say nice job, and then speed away, seeing that he may no longer indeed be “death-proof”. But when Kim refuses to back down from that redneck cracker ass and proceeds to get off her amazing shot you see the dawning of an unknown feeling in Mike…”I’m not Death Proof against these bitches”, at which moment all of his steel-supported security blanket is ripped off along with all his fake machismo.

And I think this is what Tarantino is really getting at with the title of the film, that it’s easy to be a bully with your chest pumped out (and hair waved back) when you’re unhittable, with overwhelming advantage, but when you look at a person without all that protection, like Zoë hanging on the hood, but who is still up for the fight/thrill, you see who the real bad-asses are.

And then, of course, we are humorously relieved when shiny, bright Zoë pops up out of the tall brush, like the Energizer Bunny, and proceeds to find a nice big rusty lead pipe, secure it in her right armpit, get her left leg up and into the open passenger side window, straddling the door, and Kim guns the Challenger doing an almost 180 in the dirt while Zoë hangs on with just one leg and arm… I don’t know, but that move impressed me the most. Like a stunt cowboy jumping on his horse and yee-hawing in an old western.

Jim: It is all, incontrovertibly, great stuff. There are few, if any other, actions films that thrill me as much as Death Proof. But none of the chase stuff would mean shit if it weren’t for everything else – the character building, the Mike history, Arlene and Julia and Shanna and their shocking demise, the endless easter eggs and brilliant visual aesthetics. I think maybe the joyfulness of the revenge is heightened by the fact that Zoe, Kim, and Abby (and Lee) don’t know that they’re exacting revenge. Is that maybe the source of the joy of it, that by merrily hunting down this maniac, they’re serving up a kind of universal justice? We know the details of it, so we invest in their actions more than they can comprehend. How much does that charge the film?

In the end, after Zoe, Kim and Abernathy punch the shit out of him, Abernathy delivers the fatal blow to Mike, by driving her boot heel into his face. This is the ultimate, grisly payoff for what he did to the ladies in part one, though, again, none of them know about that. As we wrap up this talk, how much do you guys think this is a rape revenge film, or something else?

Michael: Oh, I definitely see it as a rape revenge film, at least on a subtextual level, considering there isn’t any actual rape that’s being avenged. More immediately, and obviously, it’s a nostalgic ode to analog and grimy, disreputable genre fare, be it rape-revenge thrillers, slashers, or muscle car movies. It’s paying homage to ’70s grindhouse cinema specifically, but more than just a lament for bygone aesthetics, I also see Tarantino wanting to prove that movies today don’t have to use CGI and other digital techniques to create something viscerally exciting. So long as there are tremendously badass artists like Zoë Bell willing to climb onto the hood of a car going 80 miles per hour, filmmakers can still do things the old-fashioned way, if they love it and want it badly enough.

Jim: And not only that you don’t have to, but maybe it would be better if you don’t.

You said earlier that Tarantino dislikes this film. What reasons does he give for his disfavor? And more broadly, what do you think it is that some viewers, especially Tarantino fans, don’t like about it? I don’t ask just to be conversational, but because I genuinely can’t wrap my head around it.

Michael: In the little reading and interview-listening I did, I didn’t pick up on anything specific he dislikes about it. I should clarify, I don’t think he’s said that he thinks it’s a bad movie, but just that he thinks it’s his worst. I suspect his comments are more a reflection of his disappointment with how Grindhouse did theatrically, rather than an honest critical judgment. Distancing himself from the movie limits the sting of what was a lackluster commercial response to it. That’d explain the lack of detail he provides for why he ranks it last. 

As to why some Tarantino fans don’t care for Death Proof, I’d guess that what we’re calling the film’s pleasant hang-out vibe, they’d call slack storytelling. Those folks probably also don’t think so highly of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the film with which I think Death Proof has the most in common. Both are less about pressure cooker situations, like those you find in Inglorious Basterds and The Hateful Eight, than about paying tribute to cinematic days of yore at a relatively relaxed tempo (not that OUaTiH and Death Proof are without their own explosions of violence). What might be an even bigger issue for detractors is aesthetic: if, from the get-go, either the garishness of the colors or the timeworn texture of the images strike you as tasteless or gimmicky, you might have trouble ever really getting on the film’s wavelength. 

As is hopefully already plenty clear, these aren’t issues for me. I’d say detractors are missing out!

Jeff: I’ve asked the band to help me with some of the wording here, since my mind seems to be more fried than usual today.

My hope is to assuage some of the naysayers’ hostilities by getting them involved in the creative (how about here, Digit, give me a word…) processeses. (Good, big guy, now go hit the gong.)

To what the film is about, I have to say it never struck me as a rape/revenge film, certainly not in a traditional sense….in fact it didn’t quite hit me as “any” kind of film particularly; that’s what I loved the most about it. I find it incredibly unique, using off-kilter genre mixes, deeply awesome retro (help me out here, Halotta) cine-visualizations (wow, nice one), truly interesting characters, with very different personalities and persuasions, and all the incredible stunts.

And it’s not swimming (drowning) in a bunch of (what about this one, Caesar?) facade, over-convolution and timidity (look at the brain on Caesar!) over what most will think of it. It strikes me as a one-off type of film from a great writer/director just doing a film he’s always wanted to do and just going “fun” with it. Listen, this film Is entertaining! Were you not entertained? I know you guys were, I’m just kind of shouting at anyone who can’t just enjoy a freaking fun retro film with great performances, incredibly funny dialogue, some loud cars smashing through boats and a few people (you take this one, Apollo) getting their feces erased (Did you mean “faces”? …Definitely some anger there).

I’m sure Quentin’s lukewarm public reactions are in some way just covering for what he looks back at as a guilty pleasure of a film to make.

He certainly acts pretty giddy talking about it in the extras.

But yes, I’ll agree that its core origin was his want to build a film around real stunts and real stunt people, which he has an obvious reverence for, seeing that they pop up frequently in his films. I’m pretty sure this film was made right around the height of the newly improved CGI large-scale battle operatics film orgy…moment/thing, and that it really bothered Quentin to see all these hugely popular films literally being constructed on a computer. To watch all the grime and sweat and boots on the ground choreography, analog stunts, and team building, go right out the window had to be his motivation to bring the game back to the real. When it then flops commercially, he divests from it a bit…publicly, but as we know it’s making up ground, it was way ahead as well as behind it’s time, but soon it will rest where it should and people will be all like, wow, QT really knew what he was doing, man. Such a tasty beverage, dude. It’s like he cut himself falling out of his time machine. (OK, go for it, Yoko) Isn’t it true, Butterfly, that you’re a little bit hurt that no one’s approached you yet? (ah yes, there it is).

More damn fun than a fucking barrel of monkeys, eh!

And with that (both index fingers pointing right at ya), guys, I bid you a fond goodnight, and (Go for it, Digit) sweat dreams (that should be “sweet”, not “sw…”, no, no, that’s alright, no need to get angry, Digg, I’m just pointing out…yeah, I know you’re not stupid. Hey, stop it, stop pulling my arm, it’s gonna, it’s…aahh. WTF?  Where did you find all those femurs of your ancestors? Is that a boat? Oh my god! Oh, the horror! This is some real analog shit!)

HOUSTON, THIS IS APOLLO

WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTWOL…

WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTRAL…

WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTROL…

(As the camera pulls back, we see a giant, time-worn, vulgar-graffiti-covered black rectangular slab, sense it sighing heavily, then say, as if to another: “Well, let’s try that again.”  Suddenly it erupts from its ancient resting place and arrows up, into, through, and out of this atmosphere, dodging Russian, US, Chinese, Israeli, Pakistani, Indian, French and English warheads on its way. As it urgently presses its way past a com sat, we hear “North Korea! Really?” as it explodes into a kajillion fragments.)

Jim: Well, Michael, I think it’s safe to say that Jeff has completed his part of the conversation. Thanks to both of you for doing this with me. Death Proof is a film that’s hard to stop talking about, but we are, right now. It was really a lot of fun. Have a good summer!

Michael: Jim, Jeff, it’s been real. Thanks for doing this, it was indeed a great time. Until next time!

Death Proof Trailer

Death Proof is currently available to rent or purchase on most major VOD platforms.

You can connect with Jim Wilson on Letterboxd, as well as review his entire list of Film Conversations.
You can connect with Jeff Wilson on Letterboxd.

MCU Retrospective: Doctor Strange

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And we are back to origin stories… 

70/100

A tortured genius, a bit of an asshole, a lot socially inept—I could be describing any number of the characters Benedict Cumberbatch has played throughout his career, but in this particular case I am describing Stephen Strange, first name-dropped in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now, two years later, making his big screen debut. Yet while Cumberbatch seems destined for the role, and indeed he was the first actor suggested, scheduling conflicts forced Marvel to look at a whole host of other performers, with everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Matthew McConaughey apparently in the running, as well as future co-stars of Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. But, finally, Cumberbatch sealed the deal, cementing his typecast forever.

There’s a reason, though, that Cumberbatch is so well known for playing these rather callous individuals (a trend which started with Sherlock back in 2010)—he’s damn good at it. Stephen Strange, renowned neurosurgeon, is a huge ass. While he seems to have a decent relationship with his colleagues, he regularly touts how superior a surgeon he is (especially to Michael Stuhlbarg—woefully underused here—as Nicodemus West, a minor antagonist to Strange in the comics); he has an obnoxious collection of rotating watches; he turns down patients because he doesn’t want to mess up his perfect record and treats them as experiments rather than people in need of help. His fear of failure and desire to control everything drive him to extremes, so when he gets into a car crash, it’s not exactly heartbreaking.

It kickstarts an existential crisis for Strange, though, who loses the use of his hands—the hands which gave him his livelihood, which vaulted him to excellence—and, in his despair, pushes away the only person who truly cares about him (and his ex), Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), another in the long line of neglected female love interests. Eventually, he sinks so low that he is willing to seek out solutions that come not from science, but magic. Dr. Strange quickly finds his way to the Kamar-Taj in Nepal, where he meets a group of sorcerers led by the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton.

Marvel, as in Iron Man 3, tried to sidestep controversy in casting Swinton, and instead wound up stirring it up as they cast a white woman in a role traditionally occupied by a Tibetan man. Doctor Strange’s director, horror veteran Scott Derrickson, avoided casting an Asian actor in an attempt to steer clear of stereotypes, saying, “In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a Dragon Lady… Who’s the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.” Co-writer (with Derrickson and Jon Spaihts) C. Robert Cargill called the situation “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru,” referencing the impossible training situation from Star Trek: have a mustachioed Asian man dispensing “Eastern wisdom” to the white man, or have accusations of appropriation thrown your way by casting a non-Asian.

Yet the choice shouldn’t be between stereotypical representation or no representation at all. As Kevin Feige would later admit, “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.” (That he declines to elaborate on how he would do this now is perhaps an indicator that he only said this to cover up bad PR from years ago, but…)

Casting Swinton also means that Doctor Strange lacks Asian representation aside from Benedict Wong’s character (named, uh, Wong), something that stings when much of the movie builds itself on Westernized Asian “mysticism,” with monks and magic and chakras and no specificity. The white man goes to Asia, ogles at some things, and finds his spirit healed, hooray! Marvel would have similar problems with Netflix’s critically panned Iron Fist, with Finn Jones’ (white) Danny Rand utilizing his Chi to take down (Asian) bad guys, and to a lesser extent in Daredevil, where season two villainous group The Hand consisted of ninjas that had no characteristics except “foreign/Asian” and “scary.” Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda would even claim that former Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb said, “Nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people. There were three previous Marvel movies, a trilogy called Blade that was made where Wesley Snipes killed 200 Asians each movie. Nobody gives a shit.” 

(Loeb, it should be noted, reported to Ike Perlmutter rather than Kevin Feige until Marvel Television shut down in 2019, giving all television powers to Feige. It also should be noted that Marvel Television had Marvel’s first Asian superhero with Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which also featured Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May as a main character for all seven seasons, and had an Asian co-showrunner in Maurissa Tancharoen, whose brother Kevin helmed some of the series’ best episodes. S.H.I.E.L.D. is where it’s at, folks.)

In the case of Doctor Strange, there is also the small issue that China does not recognize Tibet as a sovereign state, and Marvel didn’t want to lose out on that sweet, sweet Chinese box office. Cargill explained, “[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This was not the first time Marvel catered to China and the CCP, nor will it be the last.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The circumstances around Swinton’s casting (and Marvel’s historically abysmal handling of Asian representation) are unfortunate, as she does a stellar job as the Ancient One, conveying all the wisdom of eternity while still maintaining a sense of playfulness that prevents the character from slipping into caricature or tropes. And, of course, she really looks like she could be an ageless, ancient sorcerer with immense power at her fingertips. “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells Strange, and then opens the door.

What follows is a very trippy sequence involving Strange travelling through outer space, tumbling through different dimensions, and getting dragged to hell by a horde of hands. Up until this point, the MCU has largely tried to ground itself in some kind of implausible plausibility. Even Asgard’s magic was cloaked as science and handwaved away with Arthur C. Clarke quotes, but in Doctor Strange, we dive headfirst into something that cannot be explained with pure science, as much as its titular character would like to think so, and open up innumerable doors within the MCU sandbox. Strange, the ultimate logician, gets pushed so far that he seeks answers outside of the scientific realm he built his life on. It’s an interesting conundrum for a character to find himself in, though he seems to change course quickly enough, which leaves us wanting a bit more emotional turmoil. The revelation that magic exists should entirely upend Strange’s world, but we have a plot to get through, after all, and so after the initial shock of the Ancient One punching Strange’s astral form out of his body, he gets down to work.

Like Ant-Man before it, Doctor Strange has all the elements required for some very kooky shenanigans, yet plays it disappointingly safe. To Doctor Strange’s credit, none of its predecessors have tiny hands swarming around the main character as he tumbles through a strange LSD trip, but it never truly breaks free of the largely uninspiring Marvel visual palette. There’s always the sense that things could and should go even further, even though it certainly breaks new ground for Marvel. But not everything in this universe should just be good for Marvel (though that has certainly satisfied me plenty of times, don’t get me wrong), it should be bold in its own right, and Doctor Strange never quite goes far enough, leaving us only with weak comparisons to Inception and The Matrix.

As Strange throws himself into his sorcerer training, and his old arrogance begins to return, though it’s tempered with a bit more humility this time around. Still, he sees fit to pocket the Eye of Agamotto, a powerful magical object with the ability to reverse the flow of time, for himself. Control freak to the last, it would seem. 

Trouble comes in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student bearing striking resemblance in personality to Strange. Kaecilius wants to fold Earth into the Dark Dimension (whatever that is) and Dormammu (whoever that is, though he is also played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to give everyone eternal life (through locking everyone in a place without time), which is not the most exciting motivation for Marvel villain—world annihilation is so overdone these days—but it’s Mads Mikkelsen, and that gives a measure of gravitas to the proceedings. But it’s not just a desire to avoid the ravages of time that drives Kaecilius: in a reveal that bears less weight than it should, given that the Dark Dimension means virtually nothing to the audience, it turns out that the Ancient One can be so ancient because she draws on force from the Dark Dimension to extend her life, and Kaecilius wishes to drag her hypocrisy out into the light.

That he does, disillusioning fellow sorcerer Karl Mordo, played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor; though Mordo does not have a whole lot to do here, Ejiofor is magnetic, and poised to become one of the more interesting characters in future entries. Mordo is rigid, unyielding, and has no tolerance for the bending or breaking of rules, especially as the Ancient One made herself the only exception.

Kaecilius succeeds in fatally wounding the Ancient One, but before she dies, she and Strange astral project to have one final conversation on a hospital balcony, watching the snow fall. “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning: to know your days are numbered, your time is short,” the Ancient One tells Strange. It’s a beautiful moment frozen in time, and Tilda Swinton is phenomenal; unfortunately, the Ancient One’s excuse for utilizing the Dark Dimension—“Sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good”—rings a bit hollow. Perhaps “hollow” isn’t the right word, but I wish her hypocrisy had been explored more, rather than by and large glossed over, as it adds an interesting dimension to the world Strange now inhabits, the Ancient One, and Kaecilius.

With their leader dead, Strange, Wong, and Mordo set out to stop Kaecilius and Dormammu once and for all. The finale to Doctor Strange serves as one of Marvel’s more unique ones: set in Hong Kong, our sorcerer trio have a relatively small-time fight against Kaecilius and a couple of his lackeys, but what sets it apart is Strange’s use of the Eye of Agamotto, which means that the final showdown happens while everyone around the combatants goes backwards in time. It’s a neat trick that allows for more engagement than, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron’s mind-numbing onslaught of robots. The real kicker comes when Strange enters the Dark Dimension to go toe-to-toe with Dormammu—not with his magical prowess, but with his mind. 

The actual logistics of this sequence don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny (mostly because it’s never really established what the Dark Dimension actually is), but Strange annoying Dormammu to defeat via a time loop and endless repetitions of, “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” is certainly a first for the MCU, and maybe cinema as a whole. (It even became a meme!) If the rest of Doctor Strange had shown the originality it does in its finale, the film would be among the best. As it is, there are brief flashes of brilliance amidst an otherwise rote Marvel story that pretends to be breaking new ground.

To be fair, origin stories are hard. Marvel is at its best when playing in an already-established sandbox, playing its characters off each other and letting them marinate in their interwoven world, but it’s much harder to come out of the gate swinging when so much of your success relies on crossovers and cameos (if that’s a good thing on a storytelling level, well…); if the MCU is a glorified television show, origin stories are a bit like bottle episodes, and like bottle episodes, they don’t always work. Doctor Strange is far from bad, and indeed has some stellar moments, but it’s not exactly memorable, either, though it should have had every right to be.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Well, uh, that’s another Infinity Stone. Cool.
  • Christine Palmer goes by the Night Nurse in the comics, a moniker which goes to the Netflix character Claire Temple in the MCU, portrayed by Rosario Dawson (if we’re still counting the Netflix shows as canon, that is, but with the rumored appearances of Charlie Cox in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Vincent D’Onofrio in Disney+’s Hawkeye, it seems we are).
  • There were rumors flying that one of the potential patients Strange turns down was Captain Marvel, though this turned out not to be the case.
  • “This universe is only one of an infinite number,” the Ancient One says. You could even say that there’s a multiverse of madness out there!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Strange and the Ancient One conversing on the astral plane while the latter lays dying on an operating table, but runner up is Strange and Kaecilius’ minion duking it out on the astral plane while Christine operates on Strange in reality.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy, 4. The Avengers, 5. Captain America: The First Avenger, 6. Iron Man 3, 7. Iron Man, 8. Doctor Strange, 9. Ant-Man, 10. Thor, 11. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 12. Thor: The Dark World, 13. Iron Man 2, 14. The Incredible Hulk

Doctor Strange Trailer

Doctor Strange is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Space Jam: A New Legacy

Written by Patrick Hao

25/100

Last month AT&T announced that they were unloading Warner Media to Discovery for $43 billion after less than three years of merging with Warner Media. This also comes after a lengthy battle with the U.S. Court of Appeals for antitrust claims and a bungled roll out of HBO Max. With the merger with Warner, Discovery is looking to combine their newly released streaming efforts, Discovery+, with HBO Max. I say all this as a precursor to discuss what Space Jam: A New Legacy is. It is a cynical piece of work emblematic of the larger problem within the media industry, art being constructed as content and pre-existing IP as the only cache.

This is not to say that the original Space Jam was not a cynical piece of art when it was released. The film was constructed from a popular Nike commercial that paired Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny. The results were an exercise in branding building for both entities – Michael as the most popular athlete on the planet and returning to basketball and the Looney Tunes with their resurgence in popularity with reruns filling up time slots on the newly created Cartoon Network.

It was a surprise then when the online reactions to the trailers of Space Jam: A New Legacy acted as if the film was an affront or a mockery of the legacy of the original. If anything, the new film is the perfect 2021 follow-up: a bloated film that prioritizes corporate synergy and brands over anything of artistic merit. Lebron James, who has been dogged by comparisons to Michael Jordan throughout his NBA career, is also the perfect successor to Jordan, not only because of his basketball prowess. Jordan was the first athlete that truly capitalized on licensing his name and image as a marketing tool. James, taking a cue from Jordan, has become a mogul of far greater magnitude. His empire includes endorsements, sport franchises, production companies, and restaurants.

There really is not much to say about Space Jam: A New Legacy. As a movie it is nothing. It is bad in what it represents and competent but uninteresting in everything else. Lebron James plays a fictionalized version of himself who hopes his son (Cedric Jones) would follow in his footsteps in basketball, despite his son’s proclivity towards video game design. Meanwhile, a sentient Warner Bros. AI named Al-G Rhythm (Get it: Algorithm), played by a game Don Cheadle, wants to use Lebron James’ fame to lure the public into his virtual reality. To do so, Al-G uses Dom’s resentment towards his father and a basketball game in order to trap Lebron. Lebron must team up with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Merry Melodies gang to beat him.

As one can imagine, the plot is really a serving dish to the antics that could be drummed up from Lebron James interacting with Bugs Bunny. The result is nothing interesting. But it is curious as to the consistent meta-narratives that these giant corporations drum up for these films. As James is being sucked into the virtual reality, he zooms past planets designated as IP worlds – DC, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and inexplicably Casablanca. It is a real testament to how Warner Bros. views the property that they own. And to have the main villain be a sentient soulless algorithm underscores a self-critique that goes unexplored.

Instead, the film tries to root itself in a hollow message about family – whether it is the Looney Tunes or Lebron and his son. The Looney Tunes themselves have never felt so rudderless. In a movie that should’ve been a celebration of them during a period when their cultural influence is at its lowest, they seem like an afterthought for more important IP’s. At one point a character is involved in a parody of The Matrix that seems out of 2001, until I remember that Matrix 4 is due to be released in Q4 of this year.

Is there a good movie to be made here? Possibly, but Warner Bros. was never going to let that happen. Originally, the film was announced to be written and directed by idiosyncratic filmmaker Terence Nance. Maybe he could have produced something interesting and self-critical. However, while he still has writing and producing credit on the film, Nance was replaced by director Malcolm D. Lee, a safe choice whose career is defined by his workmanlike mediocrity. Lee directs the movie as such. There is no personality, no soul.

Ultimately, this is not a Space Jam: A New Legacy problem. This is the corporate world of movie studios. As more studios create their individualized streaming platforms, movies become an advertisement for subscriptions. Space Jam started out as an ad for sneakers. And now A New Legacy is an ad for HBO Max. What a fitting full circle.

Space Jam: A New Legacy Trailer

Space Jam: A New Legacy is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.