More Action Women

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I wrote a little while ago about why women are still getting short-changed in action movies…and now to competely confute and contradict me, along come two movies with female action stories.  There’s The Brave One with Jodie Foster, which is trailering now; and Quentin Tarantino’s critically pasted Death Proof.

Death Proof, of course, was originally meant to be one half of the Grindhouse project, a double bill of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez exploitation flicks.  The two-films-in-one version bombed in the States because audiences kept leaving before the second film screened (I did that at the theatre once – left at the interval, relieved it finally was over, only to find there was a second half. Oops!) So Harvey Weinstein, the film’s distributor, has now released the two films separately – Rodriguez’ Planet Terror is still to come. 

This process, of course, screws Tarantino’s movie badly. He’s had to add material that he’d previously cut, making it too wordy and too slow at times.  And the spoof trailers which spliced the movies together have also gone, killing most of the joke.

Even so, I found it a fascinating and artistically rich movie.  It shows that Tarantino can write for women as effectively and lusciously as he does for men.  For much of the film, women chat and bicker and insult each other – and it’s done with panache and wit and great verbal dexterity.  And though many critics found the chatting tiresome, I felt it was delightful. 

And the casting is magnificent - the women have energy and chutzpah and verve in abundance and the camaraderie between them is sublime and to be savoured. 

But Tarantino also plays some magnicifent style tricks. The film begins in a mock-70s fashion, complete with scratches on the celluloid, dialogue jumps and dialogue repetitions,  with cheesy, grating music, and at one point there’s a ghastly car-crash (!) of an edit to (apparently) remove a nude scene. 

Later, as a group of women pull up in a car, the image turns to black and white for the duration of an entire scene.  Then abruptly, colour is restored; and from that point on, the celluloid scratches are gone and the screen look is rich and properly graded. 

I can see why some critics think this is all random and silly; but I bought into it.  And I bought into it because of the application of Samuel T. Coleridge’s fundamental principle of how poetry (and by extension, movies) work – through the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’  This phrase is in fact generally misquoted – people talk about not being able to ‘suspend their disbelief’ at a far-fetched piece of storytelling.  But the word ‘willing’ in there is the killer, and truly defines how the process works.  Movies – all drama – all fiction – constitute an entirely interactive experience.  As a movie goer, or a reader, you can choose to suspend disbelief; or you can sit there carping and sneering and hating it.  It’s your choice.  Of course, if the film is bad, no amount of suspended disbelief will make it good; but there is always an early moment in a film when you the audience agree to the deal – yes, I will believe this ridiculous premise, provided you entertain and stimulate me with your movie…

And Tarantino, as a master of genre movie-making, knows this process. And he knows that style tricks are a way of sending coded messages to the audience – ‘this is the experience I’m going to give you,’ ‘this is how to experience and interpret the film’.  In Kill Bill his blatant pastiche of cheesy martial arts movies – evident in his choice of music, his choice of shots, even his casting choices – tells the audience right from the start: ‘This isn’t real, don’t look for psychological truth, it’s this kind of movie.’  And you have to roll with that; because if you don’t, this movie has nothing whatever to offer you….

All genre movies have to define their genre of course – they have to tell us what kind of film we’re watching.  So a  film noir will begin with moody, film noir music; a thriller will begin with action, or at least, with energising music that tells us action will soon occur. 

But Tarantino is playing games with his very art form.  In Kill Bill he switches genre and even switches medium with bewildering dexterity.  He has anime; he has a fight sequence seen entirely through the shadows of the fighters behind the screen – turning the movie into a shadow puppet play.  He has a fight scene in the snow which stops being cinema and becomes an animated version of Chinese plate engraving.  He has cheesy B movie low angle shots; then he has shots worthy of Kurosawa.  He’s like a jazz pianist who switches to classical riffs and back again (as Nina Simone, by the way, does so brilliantly.) 

So with Death Proof, a story with a wacky plot which implies it’s okay to take brutal revenge on nasty men – the style shifts are an essential part of the point of it all.  This film is not one thing, it’s many thing. It’s a No-Brainer (with its laughably simple narrative); it’s also a Much-Brainer, rich in artistic experimentation.  It’s a straight-down-the-line exploitation movie, with great car chases and cheesy moments; it’s also a Nouvelle Vague art film, with rambling dialogue about life and everything; and it’s also a postmodern exploration of the limits of cinema.  There really is no narrative reason for the movie to suddenly be in black and white; but when colour is restored, the characters are standing next to a canary yellow car which spears the retina with its brightness. It’s a particular kind of yellow which Tarantino uses again and again in Kill Bill; and the switch from black and white to such savage colour teaches us to savour the beauty of that yellow, the yellowness of that yellow.  It’s an existential moment.

It’s also a bridge; it allows Tarantino to change register to a ‘modern’ and colour-rich screen image, set much more firmly in the present day. (Though the mobile phone seen earlier tells us that in actual narrative fact, the entire movie is in the present, just shot like a 70s movie.) Then, through a series of ludicrcous contrivances, Tarantino has a climax featuring two vintage 70s cars (I’m not a car person, I can’t remember the damn makes of these cars, though of course that shit really matters to Tarantino’s characters) weaving in and out of traffic on a road filled with Saabs and 4 x 4s, in a wonderfully jarring time-dislocation effect.  In theatre this effect is used often – when characters in a Shakespeare production wear clothes from different eras and different places, for instance with 20s gangsters side by side with Roman centurions.  In movies, it’s less expected, and hence even more effective.

Ultimately, this is a movie which is less than the sum of its parts – but only because the rest of its parts have been severed and (temporarily) cast elsewhere.  But it will, I predict, do massively well on DVD when Grindhouse will be seen as it was intended.  And since the theatrical release of movies these days is often not much more than a warm-up for the DVD release, that means that this project should not be counted as a failure – the judgement can’t be made until it’s watched at home, by an audience of willing disbelief suspenders, with a six pack of beer at the ready. 

I did find it hugely refreshing to see a film with so many distinctive, and vivid, and rich female characters. And I admired Tarantino for creating the two stunt women characters – who can outdo guys at any daring feat, and who really are bona fide Action Women.

The special energy of the film comes from the rapport between the (massive!) cast of women.  Tarantino clearly loves the way women talk, the way they banter, the way the tease, the way they move and dance.  And the life force of each of his actresses is a palpable thing in this movie;  they light up the screen, they radiate personality and life, and they provide the human heart of this shrewd exploitation flick.

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