Just on the halfway mark in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Death Proof, there is a key sequence that feels like a moment of self-revelation. Whether inadvertent or not, it reads as the movie’s own admission of what it is doing.
The villain of the piece, played by Ken Russell, is looking at four young women through a long camera lens, taking pictures of them in almost stereotypically frolicsome poses. He’s spying on them, and we saw him kill four other young women in the first half — so we are to take this action on his part as thrillingly sinister.
People who used cameras before the days of digital auto-focus will recognise the focusing device in this camera: at the centre of the camera’s eye is a circle of two halves, bisecting the image on which you want to focus. Align the two halves of the circle and you’re in focus.
In the film, shooting on the run as he is, the villain doesn’t quite manage to focus before the click, so the girl’s faces he sees through his long lens are repeatedly cut in half. This is a clear, and clever, visual analogue of what he wants to do to the girls. Big plot question (in fact, the only plot question): Will he fulfil his desires?
But before we consider that, let us pause on the image of a man looking through a camera, unobserved himself, at four girls he wants to mutilate and destroy. Surely Tarantino is a clever enough filmmaker to know that if, in a movie, you show a person looking through a lens, he becomes an image of the filmmaker himself. This much has to be deliberate: the correspondence of villain and filmmaker is made clearer in Death Proof because the shape of the frame within the frame is of the same proportions as that of the film itself — extravagant widescreen. Unusual in most ordinary stills cameras.
Perhaps this is a candid admission from Tarantino of the primary drive behind the fantasy that is this movie: to hurt and kill women. That is, rape — sex turned violent. Even if the sequence with the big phallic lens isn’t a conscious confession on Tarantino’s part and it’s just the film itself giving the game away, as it were, the fact remains that Death Proof is about raping women to death.
Like a boy with too many electronic toys, Tarantino is enjoying himself. And indulging himself. Between the moments of female flesh being battered, the young women mimic the men in other Tarantino movies, producing lots of fake jive-ass banter. They can say ‘muthafucka” and ‘nigga” with the best of them and, believe me, they do. Unlike in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, though (where Tarantino had help from Roger Avary on the scripts), here the dialogue or trialogue is simply not funny. In blithe unawareness of that fact Tarantino drags it out for what feels like hours. You want to leap up and shout at the screen: ‘Cut! For heaven’s sake, cut!”
But all that gabble is just waiting to get to the next sadistic set piece. There’s no actual content here, no character, hence no real story.
This is all quite as bad as the terrible 1970s sexploitation pics Tarantino is reproducing here. He might well glory in the fact that he can expensively pastiche cheap crap, lovingly recreating the exact feel of a real fleapit movie, down to the digitally produced scratches and blemishes, the bad cuts of an old print that has been across the country a few times. There’s even a bizarre cinematic purity in it.
But without a real narrative, or any texture or characters who are vaguely plausible or realistic, the film is stripped down to its most basic material, which is its creator’s fantasy.
Death Proof is a classic example of how fantasy works, as described by psychoanalysts, and the plot is an exact demonstration of its power. Fantasy allows the fantasiser to take different roles, to switch from the tormented to the tormentor. This makes him, her or it feel powerful. Even more empowering for the fantasiser is to become the overseer of the whole fantasy, the voyeur-in-chief, and here Tarantino is of course in his element.
Hence, in Death Proof, we have women being subjected to horrific violence and then other women (women are pretty generic here) get a chance to reverse the equation. What could be more fun than women being smashed and having their body parts hurled about in a horrifying car crash? Well, Tarantino will tell you what: women terrorising a man and then beating him to a bloody pulp. And, because the earlier carnage showed us what a bad guy this is, the new carnage is notionally justified. Any guilt is now technically expunged. We, the audience, are invited to take untrammelled pleasure in it, as Tarantino does.
That switch is going as an exciting plot twist. But fantasies also carry with them a freight of fear and the switch of victims and tormentors reveals that. Behind the empowerment of fantasy, when the fantasiser becomes the dominating figure, is the victim position — the fear that generates the fantasy in the first place.
It’s noteworthy that in Tarantino’s earlier Pulp Fiction, a man getting his head blown off by accident is played for laughs, but when Tarantino really wants to shock us and instil what Aristotle called the tragic emotions of ‘pity and terror”, he gives us the spectre of a man being raped. Moreover, to make it even scarier, he gives us a rapist who is a ludicrous ‘gay” figure in a rubber suit, who appears from a box like some inhuman monster from the depths of the id.
It’s obvious that a rape fantasy, with its freight of desire and fear, is the primary underlying drive in Death Proof. It’s no accident, so to speak, that there are no scenes of actual rape in the film: the villain appears to go straight from voyeurism to murder without having the balls to actually get his cock out. But that’s because the car crashes are themselves the rapes. That the killer uses his car as his chief weapon in this scenario of women being raped to death is only to make the standard analogy of car and penis and here the penis is a battering ram that mangles and dismembers.
Most of Death Proof is staggeringly dull and the rest is nauseatingly ugly. I suppose that’s what you’re likely to get when you make a sort of concentrated version of all those tacky 1970s late-night video-nasties — and without interrogating them or even adding a meaningful layer of irony. What Tarantino thinks is irony is really the smirk of a teenage boy who’s just had a good wank.