As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Bonus double feature: Quentin’s gals

Posted by Hedwig on May 28, 2008

The advantage of having a rather sizeable DVD-collection is that nothing is easier than organizing an impromptu movie night. The recipe: just invite a bunch of people (say, some housemates) into your room, tell them to pick whatever they like, and watch it.

By sheer accident, this meant that on two consecutive nights I watched Death Proof and Jackie Brown, making for a neat Tarantino double feature. Arguably, these two are at the opposite ends of Tarantino’s work, two films as disparate as you can pick them. Still, they share a lot of themes, and maybe even more.

Why opposite? Well, Death Proof is Tarantino’s most artificial movie, even more so, I’d argue, than Kill Bill. It’s a pure homage: of course, there was nothing like it in the original Grindhouses, but the spirit is replicated precisely, and the love shines through. Jackie Brown, on the other hand, is the only movie he ever made that contains real people, or as close as you can get in the cinema.

Tarantino works with archetypes in all his movies, and this is not a criticism: he does it well, playing with our expectations, using our knowledge of certain types, twisting them around or at least putting them in a new light. He knows them so well: the bank robber, the crime boss, the amped cop, the boxer, the chinese martial arts master, and yes, the kick-ass girl/lady.

What makes Jackie Brown and Max Cherry different is one simple thing: motivation. Archetypes don’t need motivation, after all, or at least not anything nuanced: money or revenge will usually do. Jackie Brown is just as much of a genre homage as Death Proof, and it contains quite a few archetypes, but what makes Jackie and Max “real” is their doubts, their fears, their ambivalent stance. Jackie’s not after money, alone: she’s after a way out, some security, and she no longer want to be commanded around by dumber men. Max doesn’t even take the money, in the end. Doesn’t even get the girl. But he gets what he missed in his life: a sense of adventure, or romance.

Jackie Brown is often dismissed as being ‘too slow’. I disagree. Deliberate, yes. But watch how in command of the tempo Tarantino is. Watch how the movie flows with the music, accelerating and decelerating as it does. Watch how he varies the rhythm, stretching some parts out deliberately, taking his time, only to deliver a staccato conclusion. It makes for a long movie, and the craftsmanship isn’t as showy, but pay attention and you see just how perfectly it’s made.

Death Proof is a different beast. Messier, to begin with, more a jazzy riff on a genre than a thoughtful, melancholy meditation. Part of a double feature, it is in itself a movie in two parts. We can recognize in each half the same trick: a long, leisurely build-up, then a fast, shocking conclusion. But the girls, especially the first set, are definitely not real. They’re objects of desire, pure and simple. They’re there so that we can look at them lecherously, can get progressively more annoyed with them, and then both relish, and feel bad about, the resolution to the first chapter.

But then the second half. This was the 4.5th time I saw Death Proof , and I’m still not done thinking about it. This time, what occupied me mostly was the question: what does Tarantino really think of these girls?

I can’t figure it out. Of course, if you want to go for easy psychology, his getting raised largely by women can be used to explain his conflicted relationship with them. He’s fascinated by them, he admires them, puts them on a pedestal… but they also clearly intimidate him on a certain level.

Regardless of what he thinks – or maybe as a consequence of it – he’s one of the few male writers who writes truly strong roles for women, and many of them: more than half of his films have women/girls as their main protagonists. His women and girls are strong both physically and mentally, and while they’re preyed upon at every turn, the predators had better beware. At the same time, the camera is the biggest predator of them all, and they never even try to resist it, making Tarantino himself the victor after all.

It’s hard to mind, though, when he makes a gorgeous woman like Pam Grier look so amazing, without attempting to hide her age. She’s glorious in Jackie Brown, truly a sight to behold, and there are few female characters like her in cinema. And while the Death Proof girls are much simpler, they get the upper hand all by themselves, and at the end I was yet again left feeling – as much as I dislike the word – empowered.

Girls kick ass. Says so on the T-shirt.

I’m glad Tarantino agrees

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7 Responses to “Bonus double feature: Quentin’s gals”

  1. Kaj said

    He’s fascinated by them, he admires them, puts them on a pedestal… but they also clearly intimidate him on a certain level. Sounds a bit like Freud…

    and while they’re preyed upon at every turn, the predators had better beware. At the same time, the camera is the biggest predator of them all, and they never even try to resist it,Add huge breasts and that’s all Russ Meyer. Ever seen Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!?

    Anyway, I always wonder if Tarantino could actually write “real people”, since the characters from Jackie Brown aren’t his but Elmore Leonards.

  2. sarcastig said

    Hehe, well, I said it was easy psychology… I generally don’t believe that so much depends on a person’s youth, and of course there are myriad ways to respond to being raised by women, but hey, it seemed to fit.

    I actually thought of Russ Meyer, too. I didn’t mention him because, while I know quite a bit about him, I’ve never actually seen one of his films start to finish. I’ve almost bought one of the DVDs more than once, but I never actually made the purchase.

    One big difference between them: Meyer is undoubtedly all about breasts, while Tarantino is a leg (and foot!) man through and through.

  3. “One big difference between them: Meyer is undoubtedly all about breasts, while Tarantino is a leg (and foot!) man through and through.”

    Ahahaha…

    Beautiful dual write-up here, Hedwig. And of course the Kill Bill saga between these two movies is all about girl power, too. I agree that Tarantino is equally fascinated and intimidated by strong women, and I suspect he writes these roles with that partly in mind, as creating seems to be his one most potent way of venting.

    Jackie Brown is still his masterpiece in my opinion. Deliberate, certainly. But more than his other films, it’s fundamentally a sensitive tale; a crime drama, a mood piece and a love story all in one. As much as I love his more naked riffs and homages like Death Proof–and it keeps going up in my estimation the more I see it, like you–because of its multifacetedness, Jackie Brown remains his richest achievement to date.

    Again, excellent write-up!

  4. Nice comparison Hedwig.

    In the Cannes interview that’s making the internet rounds wherein QT pumps his theoretical WWII project, he also makes a couple of disturbing statements about only working from his own original material from now on. This is disturbing to me because Jackie Brown is fabulous. Sometimes I think great artists really shine when they’re restricted in some way, like by maintaining fidelity to original source material. It checks some of their indulgent impulses when they have to sit down and tell someone else’s story.

    Ah well. QT will be QT and I’ll be in line for whatever he serves up.

  5. Kaj said

    It checks some of their indulgent impulses

    And that’s something Tarantino could use, considering Kill Bill vol. 2 and Death Proof. The rythm and pacing in the first half hour/three quartes of Vol. 2 really seem off to me, especially when watched right after vol. 1. And the scene with Esteban Vihaio, however fun in itself, really has no place or purpose in the movie except for giving Michael Parks a second role. Besides, it always ticks me off that after all we’ve seen her do, The Bride has to ask a pimp for directions.

    As for Death Proof: the Grindhouse version really seemed better paced than the eventual worldwide theatrical release. It really could’ve done without the extension of the dialogue scenes between the girls in the first part, and the magazine scene, for instance. I feel that Tarantino could’ve made his last two features work better if he could kill some more darlings, and/or check his sense of selfsatisfaction, which he appears to have in spades everytime he speaks.

  6. I concur, Craig. Sometimes the most satisfying autuerist films were based on an existing property. Sometimes you truly get the best of both worlds, with the filmmaker making a deeply personal film that nevertheless exhibits great fidelity to its source, which in turn gives the filmmaker a firm structure with which to work.

    A film with coins, a bizarre haircut and an old man lost in thought from last year comes to mind.

  7. Nothing like revisiting a thread long after it’s past its sell-by date, eh?

    Kaj. I agree with you about DP and KB being indulgent…luckily for me I happen to love the indulgence and it doesn’t bother me. I think a little discipline would’ve bought them both greater acceptance however.

    I also agree with you about the original Grindhouse version of DP to a point. Though I liked the additional depth of the DVD version, I liked the lean and mean quality of the original, plus I think a lot of the fun was the whole Grindhouse vibe with the double feature and whatnot.

    Alexander. That film was exactly what I was thinking of…but then I’m always thinking Coens, aren’t I?

    Another way movies can be limited in good ways are when they’re low budget. The creative ways filmmakers work around problems is sometimes more original and satisfying than when they can just throw money at it.

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