Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Lonesome Death of Stuntman Mike: DEATH PROOF and the Grand GRINDHOUSE Experiment

Almost ten years on from its release, Grindhouse, the epic three-hour exploitation homage double feature from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, seems both more prescient and more bizarre than ever. On paper, the project seemed like a dream pairing for film fanatics of a certain mien, the twin exemplars of DIY ‘90s indie film success (at least on a pop consciousness level) joined together for their ultimate tribute to the horror and exploitation films that shaped their formative years. Both had steadily risen through the ranks of mainstream Hollywood success, but they still swore fealty to the childlike enthusiasms of the fan imperative.

Or, as some would say, the childish enthusiasms. It’s always been a thin line that these two directors have walked between those sensibilities. At the heart of each of their oeuvres lies a deeply ingrained sense of fetishization. Rodriguez made his mark rehashing ‘70s and ‘80s vigilante action tropes through the split diopter lens of the Latino experience and the Spaghetti Western. After establishing his DIY credentials with the $7000 shooting budget of El Mariachi, he elevated that film’s story to the level of quasi-mythology via Antonio Banderas’s smoldering charisma, Salma Hayek’s vibrant sexuality, and the studio luxuries afforded to him in making Desperado (he would fully embrace that mythos with the finale of the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico.) But as time passed, his fetish seemed to shift toward the emerging digital technology that allowed him to control more and more aspects of his productions. Taking full advantage of green screen imaging, he was able to unleash some of the more fantastical elements of his imagination in the Spy Kids films and, most notably, in the two Sin City omnibuses. The latter films are intriguing deconstructions of the noir genre, eschewing any sense of connection to standard notions of the real world in playing out as fugue states borne from a lifetime of cinema madness. Unfortunately, that lack of connection to reality began to bleed into all of his projects as he embraced the freedom of green screen. Rodriguez isn’t quite to George Lucas levels of digital onanism, but there’s a certain weight that’s gone missing in many of his films.

Of course, Tarantino’s fetishes embrace nearly all forms of the classic cinema of the cool, from Spaghetti Westerns to Italian gialli and gore films to Blaxploitation to ‘70s crime sagas to the entire AIP universe (there’s also his passion for feet…but that’s a different essay altogether.) Kill Bill seemed to be his final say on those preoccupations, a heady brew of stylistic influences filtered through revenge archetypes. Critics and fans alike wondered if he could strike out in a new direction after such a seemingly exhaustive endeavor. So when Grindhouse was announced, it almost felt like maybe this was the natural end point for his fetishization of the ‘70s cinematic world, one final blowout that not only paid tribute to those films but actually aped their style and presentation. After all, in a culture soaked in retro instincts, a loving recreation of a ‘70s grindhouse double bill by the two chief proponents for that era seemed a wholly fitting expression of the zeitgeist and a distillation of the cut-up imperative that the internet era had so greatly accelerated.

Ah, but the best laid plans…

Released over Easter weekend in 2007, Grindhouse was a resounding financial flop, even though its critical reception was strong. Even though I had a total blast seeing it on opening day, in retrospect a lot about this project seems a bit daft. Sure, it’s a tag team effort from two of the biggest directors in the then-burgeoning geek universe, but it’s also a three-hour double feature that was sold partially as one big film and partially as a double feature. I’m still not sure who thought that Easter weekend would be a good time to release this profane enterprise, and I can’t believe that timing didn’t have an effect on its success. Watching it on video all these years later, I was struck by just how much of a niche enterprise it’s become (and probably was at the time.) The fake ‘70s-era trailers, the drive-in snipes, the faux scratches and pops, the missing footage….even in 2007 these markers were relics of the past, pitched directly at the hardcore or aging audience who spoke that language. A general audience of those unschooled in that cinematic milieu (or those too young to have experienced it) were likely dumbfounded by some of the tricks on display. Ironically, the digital innovations that Rodriguez so embraced have helped turn Grindhouse into even more of a curiosity in this near post-film world.

The genius of Tarantino’s previous films lies in the canny way that he melds references to the past with characters who feel totally modern and complex, thus making them much more than a wax museum with a pulse, as Vincent Vega famously says in Pulp Fiction. I still find Grindhouse to be thrilling on a nostalgic level, but there’s now a wax museum feel to many of its charms. Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s extended paean to Cannon Films via George Romero, is a fun little potboiler with some fantastic gore effects, but much of it also feels like a bunch of actors playing archetypes (as opposed to breathing life into those archetypes.) Of course, my qualms might be completely missing the point; cheap thrills are the lingua franca of such an endeavor.

Death Proof, on the other hand, has really grown on me since that maiden screening. In recreating the grindhouse experience, Rodriguez and QT consciously set out to make the A-picture more readily accessible and dynamic, while allowing the B-feature to stretch out in sometimes confounding, yet still interesting, ways. The most common contemporary criticism of Grindhouse (one which still pops up here and there) was that with Death Proof, Tarantino had given in to his own worst tendencies, falling so in love with his dialogue that he created a film that foregrounded boredom at the expense of the car chase thrills at the end of the picture. That critique remains an odd take on the film, because viewed in immediate succession to his other works, Death Proof reveals itself as no less talky or digressive than QT’s more lauded works. Well, maybe a bit more digressive, as many of the extended conversations on display here are very much in the minutiae-obsessed vein of the stoner mindset. But there’s also a bit of a curdled, misogynist undertone to some of the knocks against a story that places so many of those conversations in the mouths of women. Plot is not the central focus of much of the film, but the evocation of these characters’ worlds, of the often minor concerns that make up their lives, captures a sense of neo-realism that is often absent from QT’s work.

And it’s only through the extended focus on those shaggy dog passages that Tarantino can spring the film’s narrative trap. In discussing Death Proof, he compared it to a mixture of the car chase and slasher film, except the slasher’s weapon was a car. The wielder of that murderous instrument is Stuntman Mike, marvelously embodied by Kurt Russell. In a cast of relative unknowns and character actors (Rosario Dawson was the only major name at the time,) Russell brings a palpable old Hollywood presence and grandeur to his portrayal of a man who was once a major film player, but whose career has been reduced by age and the industry’s reliance on CGI. When they meet him, the film’s first group of women poke fun at Mike for his anachronistic wardrobe, ducktail hairdo, and mildly geeky demeanor. But there’s a seductive charm that age, experience, and his own psychotic self-confidence have endowed him with, enough to lull all of these women into believing that he’s just another good-looking barfly. When he drives his custom stunt car straight through their ride, graphically severing legs and heads in a shocking act of brutality, it’s still a shock, even when you know that it’s coming. The killer on the road, brain squirming like a toad….

Death Proof’s second half serves as a refutation to the semi-misogynist thrills that the slasher film often provided, summoning forth a cadre of badass ladies headed up by real-life stunt woman Zoe Bell (who served as Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill double.) It’s telling that Mike never gets to work his sly charms on this group, eschewing that foreplay for a direct road confrontation that ranks as one of the most thrilling action sequences in modern cinema, Bell barely strapped to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger and flailing about as the death proof car pursues she and her friends. Seeing this chase on a giant screen in 2007 had me literally on the edge of my seat, the danger made so vivid by the obvious and complete lack of computer chicanery on display. If Stuntman Mike is a living elegy to analog cinema, Bell is a reminder that the pleasures of that world haven’t all disappeared. Sans any flirtatious affectations, Mike is satisfied with merely threatening their lives (a variation on skipping dinner to make out in the back seat?) But his male bravado is completely deflated when they first shoot him in the arm, and then turn the tables by engaging him in a high speed pursuit of their own. The visceral delight that Bell, Dawson, and the hyper-aggressive Tracie Thoms take in mowing him down is still quite the subversive thrill, especially in a society that too often relegates feminist power to a polite and conciliatory realm. And it’s matched by how much of a sniveling coward Russell and QT reveal Mike to be. In a career marked by accusations that he only lives vicariously through the cool of his cinematic heroes, it’s here that Tarantino offers a meta-commentary on that very mindset in this slug of a human being who’s convinced himself that he’s the cock of the walk.

It was impossible to know at the time, but Stuntman Mike’s existence as a man out of time would be very prescient. Death Proof would be Tarantino’s swan song to the contemporary era (at least as of this writing.) It’s hard to know how much of his departure to the ’40s and the Civil War era in his subsequent films has been driven by the accelerated encroachment of technology on a world that he still views through a distinctly analog lens. Nonetheless, his retreat even further into the past wouldn’t prove to be a matter of retrograde infantilism. Indeed, the films that followed Death Proof would contain some of his finest work, and serve as a fascinating document of his evolution as an artist. And it all began once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France…

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