There’s a version of this film that only I have ever seen. In between the ‘grindhouse’ cut and the international cut lies a version of the film that I edited myself. It’s chopped around, made even scratchier and messier than the version you’ve seen and includes a 1980’s David Bowie song for utterly arbitrary reasons. Every now and then I come across this poor quality (both technically and artistically) cut of the film in a folder on my desktop and stop and watch a few minutes of it. It’s as real to me as the versions I have on Blu-Ray.
All of Tarantino’s films have an openness to them. They encourage you to read between the lines – to chase the references, imagine backstories and futurestories for the characters, to dream of additional chapters that could be included in longer cuts. He invites you to dwell in these films long after any viewing has concluded.
Death Proof dwelt in me longer than any other. It took up residence in me as I walked to work and restlessly tried to get to sleep at night. What had I seen? It seemed to me to be a half-remembered, massacred version of some other Tarantino film that only he had seen. ‘Quentin Tarantino’s Thunderbolt’ flickers on the screen for just a few seconds. What was that film? There were rumours that Death Proof was two unrelated films starring Kurt Russell edited together for release, or that the two halves of the film were shown out of order, the first half being the vengeful ghost of the murdered bully in the second half.
Neither of these rumours is true; sitting there taking apart the movie scene by scene, you see how deliberate Tarantino’s writing is. The film is the film. But I had to find out for sure. To see if the film could stand up to the damage that a talentless amateur like myself could wreck upon it. So I took it apart. Put the second half at the start. Took scenes out. Put back in scenes from the longer cut. Made it a bit nastier and with the appearance that it was even more damaged. Added subtitles. No artistic worth to any of these acts, but it was the only way I could explore this film. It was following me wherever I went.
The scars I wrought upon the film are burned into the crappy copy I own.
Tarantino took two of the purest cinematic forms; the car chase and the slasher movie and shmushed them together. Death Proof remains the purest expression of his cinematic vision. The tension of his dialogue, the rush of his action scenes, the meatiness to his characters (and the actors who delight in playing them). From the opening titles, which dwell upon many, many feet, we are aware that this film is going to indulge his every perversion (which includes his own acting).
(Feet – 99% of the world hate them, but that other one per cent…they just can’t get enough and ruin it for the rest of us.)
Tarantino understands the genres he is working in, and it’s interesting to see him play in and around the rules of these genres. Unlike other slasher films, Tarantino is unable to place his stalker in the shadows; for him, the shape (the car in this instance) has to be placed front and centre of the frame. He is dedicated to presenting independently-minded, likeable women on screen and yet knows he will have to inflict horror upon them. Their openness and ownership of sex will be punished, no matter how much he is trying to push it away.
For many people, the groups of women we follow don’t actually sound like groups of women, and that’s certainly true for any person he’s ever written. But Tarantino understands group dynamics better than individuals. He plays with the bickering and love that old friends have. The groups have quiet, sensible, loyal ones, they have innocent hangers-on who just enjoy being around their louder, bolder friends. These people are not looked down upon by their friends, but they are secondary. And bro’nerds will always violate these groups; their manipulation and sexism will go broadly unpunished, except by Tarantino, who will deliberately cast significantly weaker actors in these roles.
A stubbornly analogue director, for whom the purest expression of love remains a mixtape (A MIXTAPE!), Tarantino captures better than any other (only Coppola’s The Bling Ring does it as well) how modern technology has changed our relation to the world. Strange, that most movies ignore (or omit) the prevalence and dominance of mobile phones. Yet we know what it is like to live in a cellular world. You can be surrounded by your closest friends and only care about the text in your pocket. These texts often provide a truer insight into our selves. The protection of the screen, the identity we can assume, is often deeper and more honest than the public front we present to the world.
Two halves to a film. Night, then day. They’re different looking films: the first half dark greens and reds and full of quicker cuts. The second half is more consciously retro, filled with longer takes and split diopter shots. The first half is world we understand (and thus can’t escape from) – well-planned nights out with our friends. The second half is one we don’t – movie sets and muscle cars. As much as Tarantino will play with the aesthetics of the grindhouse experience (violence and gore, scratched prints, missing reels), he will abandon it whenever it suits him. Most significantly in the running time, which even in its shorter cut will still run longer than most of these cheap thrills he is drawing upon ever did.
When we reach the climax of the car chase, Tarantino chooses to shy away from many of the shots that have characterised the best of these sequences that have gone before him. Rather than keeping the camera low to the road surface and then regularly cutting to close-ups of the respective driver’s faces, Tarantino swings his camera in and about the vehicle. His camera moves just as much as the car it is chasing. It’s thrilling, and a satisfactory release to the cruelty of the first vehicular murder (which he delights in showing again and again). We needed to experience that release, and he knew it.
Any hope of critical distance has disappeared. I can’t pretend that I don’t do anything but love this film. I love how every character actually eats in this film. I love that it is everything I love about a superb director condensed into its purest form. I love car chases and slasher films. I love Twisted Nerve music cues (that a few years later will be unironically used to sell crappy cars on British television). I love that my cut of the film ended with the 12” version of ‘Spacer’ by Sheila & B. Devotion. No shame, no apologies; one of my favourite movies of all time.