As for the dialogue in Death Proof, I’ve already mentioned that I find it frankly unbelievable at times, and you’re probably right that there’s not much attempt to differentiate the women as individuals in their speech patterns. What matters to me more than that, though, is the overall flow of the conversation. Even if I don’t always believe in what they’re saying, I believe in how they’re saying it. I believe that they’re friends, and that they’re comfortable with one another. I love Rose McGowan’s delivery of those lines you cite, even if they could just as easily be delivered by several other characters. This is maybe the Tarantino film where his approach to talk is totally pure, with little attempt to really ground it in character. He’s just relishing the fun of good talk for its own sake, putting all this sparkling, stylized dialogue in the mouths of his characters. I can see why this could be grating, of course, though personally I’m enthralled every time I watch. The women in this film are treated as groups rather than as individuals, because Tarantino here is really interested in group dynamics: the way natural leaders emerge, the way some members are naturally a bit outside of the core, and others desperately want to be part of the in-crowd.
At the same time, Tarantino does allow for some non-verbal moments where the spirit of the individual characters really comes out. Like that close-up on Abernathy during the ship’s mast scene: as Tarantino’s camera slowly inches in, her expression shifts, almost imperceptibly, from nervous terror to a bright, dawning grin, childlike in its awe. Or Jungle Julia’s unexpected vulnerability when she’s sending text messages to her celebrity boyfriend who ultimately doesn’t show up. Or Butterfly’s expression after Stuntman Mike reads her disappointment that no one hit on her all night. This is hardly Tarantino’s best film for deep characterization—it’s about genre and archetypes and thus works largely at a formal and thematic level—but that doesn’t mean he completely abandons those piercing moments of insight into his characters.
JB: On that last point we agree, and I’m not attempting to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. Through two viewings now, I like Death Proof, in either incarnation. And you make a good argument for how the talk, talk, talk stretches credibility on an individual basis but finds a kind of symphonic sophistication when considered at a distance—perhaps the closest Tarantino ever gets to the style of another chatter-fond filmmaker, Robert Altman. Beyond that, it’s only fair to note that I find these conversations more convincing than the majority of the group-dialogue scenes that Woody Allen has staged over the past fifteen years or so. (Whereas Allen’s ensemble scenes manage to feel conversely unscripted and regimented, Tarantino’s group chats in Death Proof feel positively of-the-moment, particularly the one at the diner among Abernathy and friends—a long uncut sequence that feels flawless but entirely unrehearsed.) If Death Proof was my only interaction with Tarantino’s dialogue, I’d have few complaints. But to put some punctuation on an argument I was making earlier, the sin of Death Proof’s dialogue is that it diminishes the magic of its predecessors with its redundancy. These women are carrying out conversations that seem to have started fifteen years prior by jewel thieves having breakfast. First there was Madonna. Then there was Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. It’s like Tarantino is a parasite feeding off his own work and taking the life out of it in the process, and that’s a shame.
Beyond those complaints, however, Death Proof deserves a lot of love for its striking simplicity in the Abernathy chapter, when Tarantino abandons the grindhouse gimmickry of the Jungle Julia segment (bye-bye missing footage and scratched celluloid). That diner scene, for instance? It’s one unbroken take around 8 minutes long. But what makes it special is that it isn’t a gratuitous unbroken take. Rather than drawing attention to the filmmaking itself, Tarantino never cuts because, well, he never needs to. Similarly, there’s a great moment in the car chase in which Stuntman Mike runs off the road and ends up having to perform a quick 360 in a dusty field. The camera, which has been trailing the action coming up the road, pauses to capture Stuntman Mike’s car as it kicks up a whirlwind of dirt, and then in one quick move the camera swings down to the right to catch the car reentering the road. After that, Stuntman Mike speeds into the distance and the camera resumes its pursuit of the action. Again, no cuts. No cuts because there’s no need. The entire car chase sequence is an appreciation of stunt work ballet, and Tarantino is wise enough not to spoil that by giving it the rapid-cut treatment. He gives us the distance we need to appreciate the choreography. As a result, even rather simple stunts are made rousing, like the moment when Zoe, having run alongside Stuntman Mike’s car, beating him with a pipe, runs back to the Dodge Challenger with Kim at the wheel and leaps up into and through the open window in one graceful move. This is cinematography at its most efficient, and it’s thrilling to behold.
EH: Maybe it’s just me, but I love the idea of the Death Proof girls continuing the conversation of the bank robbers from Reservoir Dogs—Tarantino even accentuates the connection by shooting the two diner scenes in very similar ways, by whirling his camera in circles around the table (though it’s an unbroken take in Death Proof and not in his debut). It’s a connection that makes even more sense during the final sequence, when Tarantino shoots the three women stalking towards a wounded Stuntman Mike in the same manner as the tough guys walking together during the credits of Reservoir Dogs.
Your appreciation of the stunt choreography in the second half of the film reminds me of another striking connection to Tarantino’s previous films. At one point when the girls are chasing Stuntman Mike, Tarantino cuts away to a long shot of the two cars winding across a country road, while a water pump takes up much of the foreground. As a tranquil stasis in the middle of a frantic chase, it echoes the very Zen pauses built into the fight between O-Ren and Beatrix in Kill Bill, during which Tarantino also cuts away to a long shot of a water pump gurgling in the foreground, with the fighters in the distance. It’s a small touch in Death Proof, but it reinforces my impression of this film as a compendium of Tarantino obsessions, words and images, a summation of his career thus far. In that light, I don’t see the echoes of earlier Tarantino movies as redundant, but as welcome indications of the continuity between all the films that make up the Tarantinoverse.
JB: Hmm. As simple as that argument is, I’d never considered it before, which is strange because within this conversation I’ve frequently praised Tarantino’s awareness of the big picture and his precision with allusions. Still, I’m not sure I buy it, and here’s where we enter one of those incredibly subjective areas. Maybe Tarantino, for as much as I respond to his movies, just doesn’t satisfy my palate. Maybe he’s too sweet for my tastes. There isn’t a single Tarantino film that I dislike, and yet I’ve always felt like I was on the outside looking in. I’ve always been aware of how limited my appreciation of Tarantino is compared to his biggest fans, even though I suspect that I appreciate things about Tarantino that some of his biggest fans overlook.
We’re at the point in this conversation where we have to pause and wait for the release of Inglorious Basterds, so allow me a quick tangent: A few years ago I went to see Raging Bull at the beautiful AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. I’d seen Raging Bull before, but I’d never found it as magical as its reputation and I wanted to see if it would provide a richer experience on the big screen. Before the movie began, there was a trailer for the then-unreleased Double Dare, a documentary prominently featuring Zoë Bell, which is terribly entertaining by the way, if for no other reason than the absolutely hilarious moment in which Bell gets hit on by an intoxicated Gary Busey.
Anyway, within the trailer there was a snippet with Tarantino. The moment Tarantino’s face appeared on screen the 20-something dude behind me yelled, “Awesome!” It was as if it was an involuntary reflex. Just the sight of Tarantino got this guy pumped. Thus it really didn’t surprise me when, a few minutes into Raging Bull, the dude was reciting the Jake La Motta monologue along with De Niro. I turned around on that one and told him kindly to stop narrating the film, and he did, but that didn’t keep him from cheering or from laughing way too hard at every element of Raging Bull that was even slightly funny, as if he was seeing the movie for the first time when clearly he knew it by heart. By the end of this experience I was so annoyed that (in my own head) I was referring to the dude as the “Tarantino-Loving, Scorsese-Worshipping, Scarface-Poster-Hanging Motherfucker.” The last part was just a guess. And, wouldn’t you know it, I saw the dude two weeks later at the AFI Silver and, I shit you not, he was wearing a Scarface T-shirt.
Okay, so what’s the point of this story? It’s certainly not to suggest that Tarantino has one kind of rabid fan. It’s certainly possible to find religion in QT without becoming a kind of gritty-fanboy cliché. (I’ll go out on a limb and assume Keith Uhlich doesn’t have any Scarface apparel.) The point is, while I have found religion in Michael Mann, to recall our previous conversation, I haven’t found it in Tarantino. I attend his church, I go through his rituals and I have moments of bliss. But rapture? No. I’ve never quite seen the light. I don’t fully believe.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.