Saturday, September 22, 2007

Death Proof: misogyny unbound...?

(Alternative title: What a woman can do with a piece of scaffolding...)

“Quentin Tarantino makes guy movies, and great ones at that. He's a lad's lad, a cinephile's cinephile, a geek's geek, the thinking man's actioneer... who usually, it must be said, has very little on offer for any woman who happens to find herself in his cinematic space”. (B.Ruby Rich, “Day of the Woman” – Sight and Sound, June 2004)

Being a movie geek, I kinda like Quentin Tarantino. I get a perverse thrill from watching his films and usually that’s about who he is paying homage to, the quaint nods to different film genre, the in-jokes, punchy sharp dialogue and so on. The geek in me was impressed with the scene from Kill Bill Vol. 1, when Ellie Driver was dispatched to kill The Bride and while walking down the hospital corridor holding a deadly syringe she whistles the chilling but distinctive tune from the schlock-horror 60s British cult film, “The Twisted Nerve” and the nod to Sergio Leone by reversing The Man with No Name to The Woman with No Name (known as The Bride) seeking revenge. A common thread is now emerging regarding the woman avenger...

This can be seen as thoroughly irritating but as a film buff, I love spotting them. Tarantino picks and mixes different concepts, creates a montage and reinvents ideas. There usually is nothing new under Tarantino’s sun but I like how he re-develops a story, dialogue and action. I like what ideas he conjures up and I make no apology, I like his work. Taste is subjective.

And now Tarantino is paying homage to the exploitation film. Double features of the ‘B’ movie kind playing at the local Grindhouse. Unfortunately, the two films aren’t shown back to back. Death Proof has been released first. The film is shot like a cheap exploitation flick with dodgy cinematography, interchanging colour and badly spliced.

It revolves around a story of women drivers being terrorised by a man called Stuntman Mike who drives around in a death proof car. The first half of the film is slow and the dialogue is overblown (one gripe I have with Tarantino is since he parted company with partner-in-crime, writer Roger Avary, there’s so much superfluous dialogue that needs to be slashed with a razor sharp blade!).

We see 4 young women who are friends on a road journey and their stop-off at a bar where they encounter Stuntman Mike. One of them, Butterfly, gives Mike an impromptu lap dance. The women are kinda cautious of Mike as Butterfly thinks he has been following them and we, the viewer, know he has been closely watching them with voyeuristic curiosity, and intensity. There is something unnerving, creepy and hostile about Mike.

The way Mike views these women is utter loathing. Loathing for their sexuality and asserting their sexuality. In context of the lap dance, Butterfly is the one in control. Mike is a misogynist and a serial killer (as we see later) who needs to feel in charge and have power over these women.

The violent scenes are actually understated though shocking all the same and not the usual gore fest you get from Tarantino. The car crash is brutal but quick and no slobbering enjoyment of twisted limbs and severed heads. It also reminded me of Cronenberg’s Crash, Thelma and Louise and Spielberg’s Duel (being pursued by a shapeless deadly entity). There’s also elements of the road movie overall. Stuntman Mike gets away with murder but he shunts a car too far with stuntwomen inside and that’s a recipe for revenge where Stuntman Mike gets his final comeuppance…..And the hunter becomes the hunted. A reversal of fortunes and roles.

The car cashes are utterly fantastic and that last 30 minutes are breathtaking. It seems finally film makers are going back to good old fashion stunts and eschewing CGI. I thought Zoë Bell (real life stuntwoman aka Zoë the Cat) doing the Ship’s Mast stunt on a 1970 Dodge Challenger was awesome and fantastic to watch. Pure visual entertainment. And as the viewer, you want these women to get their revenge and there is identification with them (and the final scene in the film a cheer went up in the audience and it wasn’t only women cheering...). And it makes a change from “woman in peril” being rescued by man. These women can hold their own, thanks-very-much!

What of the film’s political message? The film is a parody of exploitation films and tongue in cheek. There has been pickets at the screenings of Death Proof and of Quentin Tarantino when he was in the UK recently promoting the film.

The message from the protesters is that Tarantino's depicting women by objectifying and degrading them. And glorifying violence against women. But isn’t that the whole meaning of this kind of film genre? You can also argue that these women are strong and expressing their own sexuality.

Stuntman Mike is a misogynist who has to be in control yet Tarantino doesn’t choose to revel in it as he exposes Mike as the cowardly loser he is when pursued by confident and strong women. The man is only in power and control when he hides behind his death proof car.

Radical feminists and other supporters of censorship take a literal interpretation of violent films. As Lynne Segal argues that pro-censorship supporters see porn as “literally harming women and creating gender inequality”, can equally be applied to the depiction of women in violent movies or "gorno".

I also think there’s merit in Carol Clover’s view of the “Final Girl” narrative that can be applied in this film where the women are precisely fighting back and not becoming victims. I think it is more important to seek understanding and analyse the politics of these films. An analysis that reflects the power relations in this society and which are expressed in film. If we want to challenge patriarchal norms then in order to create strong loud vibrant confident women challenging the status quo then we need to oppose knee jerk reactions. And this one-dimensional view of "once a victim always a victim"..

Again, taking a literal understanding of violence and sex ignores fantasy and imagination: do men really want to do this to women? I enjoy Tarantino films, what contradictory message does that say about me as a socialist feminist? I identified with those women and sorely wanted them to get their revenge. Watching violent movies can be cathartic as well.

It is easy to point at some film and blame it for violence against women (though violence against women has been around longer than the flicks!) and that argument removes culpability for violent male behaviour; "the movie made me do it, guv".
As Linda Williams rightly states: “Sexual politics must be aware of the diversity of sexual fantasies which cannot be over simplified into an easy scapegoatable aggressive perversion or evil”

The film actually isn’t Tarantino at his best, it is kinda boring and only the last 30mins saves it. Why waste time picketing it? And before anyone accuses me of not being a “real” feminist ‘cos I don’t appear to be taking these issues seriously, I do. It’s just that there are more scary oppressive violent things happening to women in the real world as opposed to the celluloid imaginary world.

Btw: there’s the argument that Tarantino is turning into Michael Winner. But Winner never has cool soundtracks in his films unlike Tarantino. I had forgotten how cool Marc Bolan was………….

There is a sensible and impressive post about the film from Mind the Gap

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