Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Alamo Drafthouse and Tarantino's "Death Proof"

[See update at the bottom for a very brief review of Death Proof.]

2007 saw the closing of the original Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin, TX.  Quentin Tarantino marked the event with an on-location film festival.  It was not his first at the Alamo Downtown, a theater which reveled in the independent, low-budget, nitty gritty feel that he and Robert Rodriguez celebrated in Grindhouse (including Death Proof and Planet Terror), which also came out in 2007.

I had gone to a Tarantino film festival at the Alamo Downtown just two years earlier, in 2005, the year Entertainment Weekly ranked the Alamo Drafthouse as the #1 movie house in America.  (That was when the Alamo Drafthouse had just begun to expand outside of Austin, but was still limited to Texas locales.)  It was Tarantino's sixth film festival, "QT6."  I and about ten or so others managed to attend all of the screenings, including the all-night horror marathon.

Tarantino introduced one of those horror films, Silent Night, Deadly Night, with a funny story.  Robert Rodriguez called him one day while he was going through his collection of prints, picking movies for the upcoming festival.  Tarantino said he spent hours upon hours going through his collection, and that Rodriguez could never understand how he could do that.  So Rodriguez asked what he was watching, and it was Silent Night, Deadly Night.  It turns out Rodriguez was a huge fan and surprised Tarantino by reciting a full monologue from the beginning of the movie.  It was the crazy grandpa bit, warning about the horrors of Santa Claus.  Rodriguez knew it by heart.

It was quite a treat when, a week later, on the last night of the festival, Rodriguez showed up and the two of them acted it out in front of the audience.  Tarantino played the part of the little boy and Rodriguez was the grandpa.

As far as I know, none of that has anything to do with Death Proof, which came out two years later.  However, Tarantino did reveal some of his inspirations for Death Proof at QT6.  It's fun (for me, at least) to connect some of the dots, since they lead to some strange and interesting places.

The first is from a film he showed us called Fistful of Talons. He emphasized how impressed he was by the last shot of the movie, and that it was the best last shot of any movie he had ever seen.  That's all he said.  He didn't mention any connection to any films he was working on.  Maybe he didn't know he was going to use it at the time.  But the last shot of Fistful of Talons is indeed impressive and quite unusual, and it is not hard to see how it inspired the last shot of Death Proof.

Fortunately, you can see it on YouTube.  Here's how I recommend you do it.  First, get a feel for the style and characters by watching this ten-minute, edited compilation of scenes from the movie.  It sets up and gives you a taste of the final fight sequence:

Now watch the last 45 seconds of the film:

I can't recall another film that ends like that, except for Death Proof.    (Incidentally, Tarantino also said that a scene in Fistful of Talons had convinced him that outside shots on sound stages can look pretty damn cool, and that he would have to try it some time.  That has nothing to do with Death Proof, though, and I don't know if Tarantino ever has used a sound stage for an outside shot.)

Now for the second round of connect-the-dots.  Tarantino devoted a night to Australian films, but there was one he said he couldn't show us because he claimed to be using a scene from it for his upcoming movie.  His upcoming movie was, of course, Death Proof.

The movie he didn't want us to know about was Fair Game, directed by Mario Andreacchio.  In it, Cassandra Delaney plays a tormented wildlife preservationist who gets strapped to the hood of a moving car.  That scene inspired the scene at the end of Death Proof where Zoë Bell is terrorized on the hood of a racing Dodge Challenger.

That scene is the best part of Death Proof, in my opinion.  It wasn't stolen from Fair Game, either.  Tarantino did his own thing, so he should have been able to show us Fair Game at QT6.  Maybe at the time he wasn't sure exactly how he was going to use it, and so he thought it was best to just keep the inspiration to himself.  In any case, Fair Game is a tight, beautifully shot and superbly acted thriller, and it deserves to be seen.  (The director of photography is Andrew Lesnie.  That's Peter Jackson's cinematographer of choice, and he also shot George Miller's Babe films.)

At QT6, and presumably at other of his film festivals, Tarantino was passionately clear about his love of old, damaged and incomplete prints, especially of exploitation flics.  That was the point of Grindhouse, after all: to recreate and celebrate the feel of those prints, the ones he poured over planning his film festivals at the Downtown Alamo Drafthouse.

So the Downtown Drafthouse is gone, but Austin's other Alamo Drafthouses remain and the franchise is growing on a national scale.  That's a good thing.  The Drafthouse is one of the main things I miss about living in Austin.  The only thing I might miss more is I Luv Video.

Update, 7-12-2012:  It occurs to me that I might want to make known my opinion of Death Proof:  I don't think it's a great film.  I think it's an interesting film with some great elements.  Some of the dialogue feels too forced and some of the characterization is too obvious.  The first half is way too long.  Finally, I have a pretty big problem with the conclusion.  Stuntman Mike is a badass.  He risks death for a living and for thrills.  He has been hospitalized and scarred from who knows how many intentional car crashes.  Yet, he keeps seeking them out.  The climax of the movie should bring Stuntman Mike's badness to extreme levels.  He should push the envelope.  But he doesn't.  Worse, as soon as he gets shot in the arm--a relatively minor injury, considering his history--he cries like a baby.  I thought it was funny the first time I saw it.  The second time, it just seemed silly.