Movie Night With Urbaniak: Death Proof

For Movie Night With

  , a rare treat: a movie in color starring actors who are still alive.

I saw Grindhouse three times in the theater, partly because I liked it and partly because, for the first time in a long time, I walked out of a big-budget American movie and didn’t know quite what to make of it — I didn’t actually understand what it was. It threw me completely off-balance, the structure of the thing seemed so odd and lopsided and peculiar. The first time around I was excited but baffled, the second time around I knew what was coming and loved it, the third time I started to actually put together the complexities that lay beneath the surface. For my money, Grindhouse is still the movie to beat for the American movie of the year.

That said, Death Proof works fine on its own as a stand-alone feature. It’s about 25 minutes longer, which may sound padded, even bloated, to someone who hasn’t seen the “extended cut,” but those 25 minutes actually make the movie breathe in a more natural, interesting way and include a number of suspense beats that weren’t in the theatrical version that help the movie work as a horror thriller.

Did I say horror thriller? That’s too limiting and gets to the heart of Tarantino’s accomplishment here. He starts out promising a horror thriller, a slasher movie precisely, but repeatedly and consistently upends and quashes your expectations until, by the end, you have no idea what might be comingnext.


So he starts off promising a horror thriller, then gives you this weird, off-center, booze-soaked chick flick. Or, as Urbaniak put it, “It’s amazing how accurately Tarantino gets across exactly how it feels to hang out in a bar all night.” And just when you’ve relaxed and about a half-hour has gone past in your chick flick, he reminds you that you’re watching a horror thriller — although you couldn’t be prepared for what kind.

In the slasher movie, the dumb teenagers head up to the secluded house by the lake and get picked off by the serial killer one by one. I once sat in a theater and timed one of those movies, and a teenager died, literally, every 11 minutes — about once a reel. You could set your watch by it. Tarantino introduces his comely young things, then tells us he’s making a slasher movie, then has us wait for about 45 minutes until anyone gets killed. Like Stuntman Mike, the audience is kept in a state of frustrated desire, and Tarantino keeps us there so long that when the shocking, unspeakable horror finally happens, you really don’t want it to happen any more. He takes the conventions of the slasher movie, the dumb kids who deserve to get killed, and turns them into human beings whose deaths are ugly, tragic and truly horrifying. You start out liking Stuntman Mike because he’s a movie geek like you (and like Tarantino) and you’re just aching for some action, then he gives you the action and you feel sick to your stomach because you realize that identifying with Stuntman Mike implicates you in the murders, and not in a fun way.

Then, with his movie halfway done, he starts the whole thing over again. Another group of women, all having the exact same conversations as the first group, being stalked by Stuntman Mike again. The difference is, this second group is also a group of movie geeks, which is what makes them more than Stuntman Mike bargained for. In Death Proof, being a movie geek is literally the difference between life and death, between dying and killing.

Then, again, just when you’re getting used to the movie being a horror movie, he goes and pulls the same trick again, and it becomes a chick flick again, except these chicks eventually stop talking about men and start talking about cars and stunts. And the adventure they head off on is so peculiar and singular that, by the time Stuntman Mike shows up again, Tarantino has, somehow, made you forget all about him again, so that his re-appearance is yet another surprise. With the simplest of tools in a movie with very few, very long scenes (some go on for ten minutes or more), Tarantino manages, again, to construct something very deceptive, unique and unexpectedly deep and convincing.

Urbaniak says “Stuntman Mike is a man out of time. His way of life is over (no one knows about the TV shows he was on, and no one makes car-crash movies the way they used to), and he wants to destroy the world.” And that’s one level of Death Proof, but there’s more to it than that. “It’s weird, because on the one hand it feels like a very minor work,” says Urbaniak, “but on the other hand he’s really pushing the envelope, making a movie that is so unreal, so full of devices, so much a movie about making movies, but on the other hand he’s making a real thing about the human condition. It’s almost like a French New Wave movie, a movie made in reaction to and critiquing Hollywood movies, and yet also saying something new and fresh and interesting on its own. There’s something very Godardian about it, how he’s both in love with these conventions and trying to subvert them at the same time. It’s utterly full of artifice and yet completely real.”

For me, my favorite level of Death Proof is the parts about the objectification of women. It was a great joke in the Grindhouse cut when thelap dance was deleted with a “REEL MISSING” message, since the movie spends a great deal of time building up to that lapdance and then chides you for being upset when it goes missing. Well, the lap dance is back in the movie for the DVD and while I miss that joke, the lapdance scene does help build the sexual tension. Stuntman Mike photographs the women he kills, and Tarantino makes explicit the connection between Stuntman Mike’s view of women and Hollywood’s view of women both by constantly fooling with our notions of how the female characters are “supposed” to act, and then for the ending credits, inserting the vintage “color test” frames on the vamps of the insanely catchy closing song “Chick Habit” (chick habit, indeed). Film, Tarantino seems to be saying, exists to objectify women — no color test frame ever included a photo of a handsome man. He teases and cajoles us with his parody/tribute to objectified women of movies gone by, then gives us a group of women who refuse to play by Hollywood rules.

Tarantino is the George Cukor of the 21st century — who knew?

There’s more to say, there generally is about a Tarantino movie, but it’s late. Let me just add that the day after I saw Grindhouse I went to my local video store to rent Vanishing Point, one of the classic car-chase movies cited within Death Proof, but the clerk just scoffed at me — “Dude, you picked the worst day in history to try to rent that movie.” That was five months ago, and Vanishing Point hasn’t come back in yet.

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Esoteric 3 1/2-hour Art Film Disappoints at Box Office: Experts Baffled

All Hollywood is a-twitter about Grindhouse failing to meet expectations.

Why did it fail? Critics loved it.  Audiences, such as they are, loved it.  I loved it (I want to see it again before I write anything about it — it’s quite an experience, but I can almost guarantee you it is not what you expect it will be).

(I got a phone call from a female friend, no fan of violence against women or cinematic esoterica, on opening night, imploring me to run, don’t walk, to see it immediately.)

Rodriguez, Tarantino and the Weinsteins offered audiences a feast: two full-length features, plus fake previews, for the price of a single ticket (I saw it at a matinee for six dollars.  Six dollars!)  The package is a cinematic marvel, the movies are great, there are all kinds of extra gewgaws that come with it (fake trailers, fake scratches on the prints, all manner of filmic in-jokes).  Why did people stay away?

I blame the marketing.  My wife and I saw a trailer for Grindhouse in front of a sold-out house for the opening night of 300.  In theory, it should have been the perfect house for the trailer: young, film-savvy couples hopped up on bloodlust.  But the trailer, in its rush to tell us all the things Grindhouse is, got very confusing.  It’s a movie called Grindhouse!  And it’s got a movie called Planet Terror in it!  And it’s got another movie called Death Proof in it!  And it’s some kind of homage to 70s explotation cinema!  And it’s directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino!  And it’s got all your favorite movie stars in it!  And there’s a woman with a machine-gun for a leg!  And there’s Kurt Russell driving a car!  And, and, and —

And I, there in the audience, who love both Rodriguez and Tarantino, should be the ideal audience for this movie, and indeed I have been waiting anxiously to see it, and yet by the time the trailer is done, I’m completely confused.  Is it a movie?  Is it two movies?  Is it three movies?  Is it some kind of anthology film, made up of several short movies?  Did Rodriguez and Tarantino collaborate on the movie, or did they each direct separate movies?  What the hell is it?  And you could feel it all around in the audience too, five hundred young filmgoers wanting to see this movie, but being utterly confused as to what the hell was just advertised.  And any time an audience sees an advertisement and responds by saying “What was that?” the movie is doomed.

Look at the poster above.  As far as being a spot-on parody of a sleazy drive-in double-feature poster from 1972, it’s perfect, beyond perfect.  As an advertisement for a $100 million product of mainstream American entertainment, it’s confusing as hell.  Two movies?  A double feature?  Is it a joke?  Is it for real?  Is it parody?  Of what?  What kind of movie is it?  They’re asking me for ten dollars (say Mr. and Ms. Moviegoer) — I want to know what it is.

This movie (these movies — wait, what is this?) was heavily marketed — here in LA, there were enormous cardboard displays, taking up whole sections of theater lobbies, in addition to the regular posters and displays, but the displays, like the trailer and the poster here, either tried to sell the entire package, confusingly, or else, even more bafflingly, tried to sell each movie as its own entity (there are bus-bench ads for Death Proof all over LA, making it look like Quentin Tarantino has a new movie out, but with no mention of the Grindhouse title).

On top of that, lest we forget, this is an art movie.  It’s part send-up, part critique, part sendup, part genre-mashup, all brilliant, but it is not straightforward commercial filmmaking.  Wild Hogs is straightforward commericial filmmaking (and, not coincidentally, easily marketable).  A 3 1/2-hour meditation on 30-year-old exploitation movies is not straightforward commercial filmmaking.  (It is also something of a workout, two vastly different features, with a lot of meta commentary laid on top of it — it’s both one movie and two movies at the same time, with a bunch of other stuff in there at once; not so easily taken in.) (I should also add — per the title of this blog — that neither of the features offered has a single, easily-identifiable protagonist.)

I commend Rodriguez for producing the project, I commend Tarantino for his contribution to it, I commend the Weinsteins for giving their artists full power in achieving their goals, I commend the whole project — it’s American filmmaking at it’s most daring and exciting.  But I am not surprised that audiences didn’t know what to think of it.

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Glengarry Dogs

Shelley tries to persuade Williamson, while Mr. White and Mr. Pink have troubles of their own.

Time for the smackdown of the century (well, the late 20th century, anyway): 1992 Guy-movie titans Glengarry Glen Ross vs. Reservoir Dogs.

Back in 1992 I jokingly referred to Reservoir Dogs as Glengarry Glen Ross with guns, but now that I examine both films, I was closer to the mark than I suspected.

1. Both films are about “a bunch of guys” who are involved in a not-quite-legal enterprise.  One group sells Florida swampland to rubes, the other robs a jewelry store.

2. Both films deal with “manly” issues of responsibility, trust, betrayal, identity and “work” as a defining trait.

3. Both films revolve around a criminal act we never see happen.  One has an office robbery, the other has the jewelry-store robbery.

4. Both films deftly shift points-of-view to keep up the supense of “whodunit.”  In Glengarry it’s “who robbed the office,” in Dogs it’s “who’s the cop?”

5. Both films refuse the audience the pleasure of a protagonist, a hero, or even a “central character.”

6. Both film have a central location where the climax of the narrative takes place, which makes the movie feel like a filmed play.  Glengarry has the real-estate office, Dogs has the mortuary warehouse.

Now then.  One would say that Dogs is not structured the same way as Glengarry, but look at what Tarantino has done.

Here is the narrative of Reservoir Dogs laid out in chronological order (spoiler alert):

1. Joe Cabot wants to rob a jewelry store.
2. He gets his gang of men together.  We meet them one by one.
3. The Cops find out about the robbery and plan to stop Joe and his gang.
4. The Cops get Tim Roth to go undercover.
5. Tim Roth practices his “story” that will get him credibility with the gang.
6. He tries it out: it works!
7. Tim Roth hangs out with the gang before the job.
8. The morning of the job, the gang goes to a coffee shop.  Here, they discuss Madonna and how much to tip a waitress.
9. The job happens.  Something goes wrong.  We don’t see what.
10. Afterthe job, everyone high-tails it back to the rendevous point
11. Everybody sooner or later makes it back to the rendevous point and hilarity ensues.

Everything after this is one full hour of the movie.  The rest of it is backstory.

Tarantino could have put the movie together this way, but look what happens.  You know who the mole is from the very beginning, there’s no mystery as to “what happened at the jewelry store,” and only mild suspense for about ten minutes where Tim Roth is hanging out with the gang and they don’t know he’s a cop.  And then he would have gotten to the rendevous point, at which point he’s got an hour of movie left and one location to shoot it in.

Which, strangely, is exactly what happens in Glengarry Glen Ross.  There is the first forty-five minutes of the movie, which chops up, expands upon, and moves around the first act of the play very nicely, and then there is the last 50 minutes of the movie, where we’re stuck in that real-estate office and might as well be watching a play.  A Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, but a play nonetheless.

Just think of the movie we could have had, oh so very easily, if Mamet had Tarantino-ized his script (again, spoiler alert).  What if Glengarry began with Jack Lemmon walking out ot the Nyborg’s house, having just closed his deal with them, getting in his car and heading over to the office, only to find that the place had been broken into.

Then, we could have cut to Al Pacino hustling Jonathan Pryce the evening before, stopping to wink at Ed Harris, who’s in the middle of a conversation with Alan Arkin.  Then we could cut to Kevin Spacey having a conversation with Alec Baldwin while they’re waiting for the guys to show up for the sales conference.  Then we could cut back to the next day, and there’s Kevin again having to deal with the police and Mitch and Murray because the place has been ripped off.  Then we could cut to Jack Lemmon, the night before, trying to get his daughter on the phone at the hospital.  Then we could go back to the big scene with Alec Baldwin doing his great speech, then back to Al hustling Jonathan, and so on.

It would have been a little “artier,” but jeez, the thing is already based on a play, how much artier could a movie be in 1992?  It would have made it all the way to being a “real movie,” instead of half of one.

Glengarry Glen Ross is one of the great American plays of the 20th century and my second-favorite play ever written (#1 would be Endgame).  But I’m afraid that in this contest, Tarantino and his time-shuffling gimmick takes the screenplay prize. hit counter html code

True Romance

I’ve never really thought of Tony Scott as an actor’s director, but the acting in this picture is consistently astonishing.  Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Saul Rubinek, Chris Walken, James Gandolfini, all of them take their roles in sly, unexpected directions, playing their scenes with genuine humor and humanity.

Now that the shock of Tarantino has worn off, it’s possible to look at his writing a little more objectively.  His plots tend toward the unlikely, his characters are not real people.  Tarantino World exists within the framework of “the movies,” he’s not concerned about the real world, he lives, breathes and eats movies, and his scripts reflect that.

His characters tend to sound the same.  Almost without exception, they spout pop-culture trivia and announce who they are and what they stand for.  The audience rarely has to wonder what a character is thinking, because they never shut up about what they’re thinking.  When he directs his own script, this all becomes part of an all-encompassing style.  We enter Tarantino World, we buy that ticket and we get on that ride.  And so far, he has yet to disappoint.

And while Tarantino has entered the pop consciousness as an icon, his movies are still, in essence, art films, cult films, movies about movies.  Even Pulp Fiction I remember seeing and thinking “If Jim Jarmusch made a gangster movie, it would feel like this.”  (Of course,  Jarmusch eventually made a gangster movie, Ghost Dog, which feels nothing like Pulp Fiction.)

Tony Scott does not make Art Films.  He makes Commercial Blockbusters.  And his task here is to take Tarantino’s extremely Tarantino-esque screenplay and somehow turn it into a Commercial Blockbuster.

The fact that True Romance didn’t do well upon initial release is beside the point.  What Scott’s has acheived here is to take the pure, undiluted pop fantasy of Tarantino’s script and, quite apart from “making it commercial,” he’s somehow make it his warmest, most humane film.

Only the feathers seem like a little much for me.

I’ve heard that the original script of True Romance, like most other Tarantino scripts, shuffled time and told the story in a more novelistic way, and that Tony Scott shot the script as written but, in the editing room, made it more linear.  I would give anything (within reason) to see the first cut.
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