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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17 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Death Proof”
  1. “a rare treat: a movie in color starring actors who are still alive.”

    Reminds me of my A-level Film Studies class. For the first couple of weeks, we were concerned we might never watch anything with sound.

    Sadly, Hong Kong didn’t get Grindhouse in the cinemas but the two separate films – is it worth hunting for the double bill on DVD or are the separate versions better/as good?

    Oh, and no matter how desperate you get to see Vanishing Point, which I can watch over and over, don’t watch the Viggo Mortensen remake. Or if you do, try not to think about it too much.

    • revfish says:

      As of this point, Grindhouse will not be released as a version with both films on one DVD due to the limitations of standard DVD. They may eventually do an HD version but for now, they are seperate discs.

      What really annoyed me was that none of the fake trailers were on Death Proof. I really wanted to see Machete and Werewolf Women of the SS again. I figured those two will be on Planet Terror but I expected the other two (Don’t and Thanksgiving) to be on Death Proof.

      Oh well. I will just have to wait another month for the Planet Terror DVD to come out.

      • craigjclark says:

        If they have to release them on separate discs, then why not give us the theatrical cut, complete with trailers, with Planet Terror on disc 1 and Death Proof on disc 2? To be perfectly frank, I don’t care about extras on these releases. I just want the movie experience that I saw in a darkened theater earlier this year (and only once, to my regret).

        As for the “limitations of standard DVD,” when Criterion first released Seven Samurai, it put the entire 3 1/2 hour film on a single disc. Of course, this was back when DVD was in its infancy, so when they re-released it they spread it over two discs, breaking it at a natural intermission point. Grindhouse has such a blindingly obvious intermission point I can’t imagine why the Weinsteins can’t see it.

      • Thanks for the info. Shame there’s not the option of a united DVD.

        Of course, I’ll be shopping in Indonesia, so there might be a *cough* unofficial edition around.

  2. Anonymous says:

    What did you think about Tarintino’s appearance in this film? I think it was the first time one of his stupid cameos was actually pertinent to the message of the film he was making; he explicated Stuntman Mike’s backstory, he did a stupid product-placement and he made the dramatic lighting for Stuntman Mike’s appearance.

  3. e_ticket says:

    I, too, was mesmerized by GRINDHOUSE in the theaters. I haven’t been that entertained in a looooong time, and am still baffled by its relative “failure” with U.S. audiences. Did people *really* not “get it”?


    I’m very interested in the extended versions now. How are the extras?

  4. planettom says:

    So, with it being split from PLANET TERROR, which fake trailers from GRINDHOUSE showed up on this DVD? Some, all, none?

    • Todd says:

      As far as I am aware, there are no fake trailers on either movie.

      • teamwak says:

        Apparently the most positive feedback Tarrintino received was for the Trailer Machette with Danny Trejo. It seems it was so popular the QT says he’s now going to make the Machette movie. Danny Trejo keeps talking about it all the time.

  5. tamburlaine says:

    “It’s utterly full of artifice and yet completely real.”

    That a pretty accurate way to sum up much of Tarantino’s films. I had this discussion while fighting over the “misogyny” in Sin City, which was directed by Rodriguez but still had a (the best) scene directed by Tarantino, and he helped collaborate, etc. etc. His essential attitude towards film is the terrific mix utter awe and tribute and then shameless parody. (I still can’t explain why that dork Eli Roth was stuck in there, but whatever, he does his own feeble part in the tribute/parody genre….)

    Every time a Tarantino movie comes up, I get stuck with the knee-jerk feminists who find them “sexist” or even misuse the word “misogynist,” seriously pissing me off in the process. ARG. You’re lucky you get to talk about it in terms of film history and culture. I’d really like to know your opinions on other Tarantino films, since I think he’s just dandy.

    • Todd says:

      My wife and I loved Sin City and we’re both pretty strong feminists, but what really shocked me was that the first recommendation I got to see Grindhouse was from a woman who I would have been really scared to take to it — she left a message on my cell phone saying “Run, don’t walk, this is the funnest movie ever.” So not everyone is so blinkered.

      • tamburlaine says:

        The movies — and Tarantino, in particular — peddle a certain kind of “girl power” that either resonates deeply with That Certain Female in the audience or turns That Other Certain Female off completely. And then there’s the in-between, who are victim to one of Tarantino’s subtle-but-not paradoxes: So, does he worship women or objectify them? Am I being played here?

        My mom has trouble watching Tarantino films because she doesn’t like the violence, but the idea of a mother’s revenge epic or a chick with a shotgun for a leg… she was all over that.

        Women. These third-wavers are so rarely pleased by what comes out of Hollywood these days; they don’t know whether the girls from Sin City are being exploited or whether they’re in power. They don’t know whether characters like Dwight and Hartigan are there for a piece of poon or there because they love and protect women.

        And of course, many were initially repulsed by Death Proof‘s woman-hater Stuntman Mike and then the “chick flick” that dominated the first part of the movie… oh but then they LOVED IT because YAY GIRLS KICK ASS. It’s so funny talking about these movies, myself being a woman who identifies as a feminist but still really dislikes most feminists.

  6. Watching Grindhouse, my buddy was hating Death Proof. After the constant goofy action of Planet Terror, he was squirming in his seat with the non-action of the second film. And then we got about halfway through and he started to realize what was going on in this movie and he loved it. Loved it.

    I’m so disappointed that Grindhouse got cut in half for DVD release.

  7. black13 says:

    That’s how the movies were released here in Germany: as separate movies in the extended cut. Word is that there will be at least one DVD release of the originally intended Grindhouse version, with all the fake commercials and trailers.

    If at all, I’ll probably get that one.

  8. greyaenigma says:

    I realize too late what DVD I should have picked up last night.