Saturday, September 15, 2007

Death Proof R1 DVD Review

Go out on Tuesday and buy Death Proof on DVD - or, if you aren't in North America, click over to your favourite site and order it now. Really, do.

There: now you know what I think of the film I suppose you might want to know why.

In traditional narrative filmmaking the most important concern is in creating a believable, immersive universe that the viewer can invest in, a world behind the screen that seems to observe simple standards of space and time. Without this, the events and characters portrayed remain more 'fictional' than ideal. Obstacles between the audience and the people, places and things they see act like a devil sitting on your shoulder, constantly whispering into your ear 'It's only a movie... It's only a movie". Indeed, Tarantino is a master at creating these universes - in Reservoir Dogs, most of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and some great stretches of Kill Bill show mastery of techniques in creating fully realised, 3D worlds that we, while 'passively' watching, get lost in. Think back on the scene in Kill Bill vol. 1 in which The Bride and Vernita Green fight in the living room. It's a masterpiece of creating a 'real' illusory space in cinema, hiding the fragmentary nature of how films are, by necessity, filmed, allowing shifting perspectives and an invisible, inobtrusive camera and cuts while maintaining visceral, palpable Experience. And yeah, I meant that capital E.

And while there's work like this in Death Proof - the climactic 'Ships Mast' chase, for example, there's something completely and utterly unlike it too. For much of this film, Tarantino isn't solely concerned with a fictional world on the other side of the screen, but a fictional world on this side of the screen too.

I saw the film at home, on DVD and I still got pricked by it. There's an incredible sense attached to this film of not just the content, but the context. You might swear you're actually in a 42nd street grind house, no matter how clean, tidy and bereft of dodgy practice your DVD room is.

This is much stronger in the first half of the film; later, Tarantino's efforts slip back to the film's universe. By the time we see Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike on the road and motor-stalking a set of moviemaking gals through Lebanon, Tennessee, we're dealing with a much more traditional film in many regards (still a film rooted in 70s exploitation, but branching out in all kinds of contemporary, recognisably-Tarantino directions) and it's reasonable that the goal might now be in making us care for the characters flat-out, and forget where we are and what that means - or, more to the point in this case, our awareness of where we aren't.

As a result, the first half was much more thrilling for me. The experience of a transformative atmosphere seeping out of the screen is very rare indeed, and is uniquely compelling in this case. I was watching a film, it was damaged, it wasn't perfectly preserved, not perfectly created in the first place (though far better constructed than almost all exploitation films, but not in an obvious way; the obvious elements were the ones allowed to slip). That this film features a character as fascinating as Stuntman Mike ends up feeling like a cherry on the top.

Don't kid yourself that this is a simple case of putting some fake scratches in, playing with the saturation levels willy-nilly and taking less care over the matching of edits. There is some very clever filmmaking at work here. Simply pulling a few stunts over and over, for one thing, would seem ridiculously repetitive pretty darn quickly. More than this, it isn't that Tarantino has constantly reminded us of the artifice of what we are watching (a la Godard, say) he's gone further and created a fully rounded, understandable context for the film and hooked audiences into buying into it.

And credit to Sally Menke who has kept the editing walking the fine line between invisible and gently off-kilter, stepping either side as and when necessary.

After the second clear act begins, the film is clearly more intact, though very suddenly we're plunged into black and white. No dropped frames, no splices or cement joins. It's as though the second act of the film comes from a better print, restored in part from a black and white negative, but much smoother overall. That this fictional context extends over a seemingly 'normal' piece of filmmaking is testament to the pervasive, convincing tricks of the first half. To make things more sophisticated and interesting, we're now dealing with a cast of moviemakers and... well... let's not get too fiddly. I won't spoil it, thinking it through yourself is fun, the way it was sifting through Kill Bill's layers of meaning and inference.

The car chases, it almost goes without saying, are very, very good indeed. The film ends with a protracted sequence showcasing the work of a number of stunt drivers and Zoe Bell, formerly a stunt stand-in for Xena and The Bride, herein playing a version of herself. In a series of incredible shots we see her hanging on for dear life on the bonnet of a careering car, under attack from Stuntman Mike and his death proof weapon-on-wheels. If there was a top ten of car chase moments, at least five of them would come from this film - and as Tarantino himself enthuses about in the special features, there's even a shot featuring four legends of stuntwork, all at once. For the geekiest amongst us, it's a wonderful little crash-up of car cinema history.

Note that Quentin Tarantino served as his own director of photography on this film and he's done a wonderful job. I hope he goes on to shoot more of his own films because, honestly, he's got off to an incredible start. Many shots in this film are as well lit, exposed and controlled overall as anything in his previous collaborations with other DPs.

Even if you like the first half ten times more than the second, the two acts are so clearly divided, you could actually return to the first half over and over as though it is a short in its own right. I'm willing to bet the majority of you will want to see the whole thing every time, but even if you don't, I'll be surprised if most of everybody isn't seduced by the opening act.

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