Today’s cinema adventure: Death Proof, writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 homage to the cheap exploitation movies of the sixties and seventies, originally released as half of the Grindhouse double feature (paired with Richard Rodriguez’ Planet Terror). With his trademark style on full display, Tarantino sets out to emulate- and surpass- the violent and titillating “anti-classics” he clearly loves with this tale of a psychopathic ex-stunt driver who stalks and kills young women in his souped-up, “death-proofed” muscle car. Though Kurt Russell delivers a delightful performance in the central role, and the director’s impressive visual style is as dazzling as ever, the film is ultimately sabotaged by several factors. First of all, with its conceit of recreating the genre which inspired it, Death Proof severely impairs its own ability to engage the viewer in its proceedings: the deliberately grainy cinematography, scratched film and bad splicing constantly serve as a reminder that it’s all just an elaborate gimmick; the inherently shallow formula prevents the far-fetched and sensationalistic plotline from ever becoming believable or compelling; and the characters, for all the self-consciously clever dialogue Tarantino puts in their mouths, are doomed to remain one-dimensional ciphers who exist merely to enact the filmmaker’s cars-sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll fantasy. All these criticisms, of course, could easily serve as a description of any of the B-movies upon which Tarantino’s opus is based; and it would be correct to point out that what really matters in those films (and in this one) is the nail-biting, balls-to-the-wall action and the gratuitous violence for which everything else simply provides a framework. But where the original films managed, at their visceral best, to thrill and delight, transcending their shoddiness with their lack of pretense and their unapologetic devotion to providing guilty pleasure, Tarantino’s would-be tribute fails to achieve any of these ends. To be sure, his talent is clearly visible here: but that’s part of the problem, for where the drive-in fodder he emulates was often so bad it was good, here we have an obviously good filmmaker deliberately trying to be bad, and succeeding in just being, well, bad; and though the action sequences- two of them, to be exact- are unquestionably well-done, in order to get to them (thanks to Tarantino’s self-indulgent insistence on maintaining his own signature tension-building style) we have to sit through interminable stretches of hip, foul-mouthed dialogue, which may be meant to invest us in the characters but instead results in repeated glancing at our watches. Seriously, there was never this much talking in Death Race 2000. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not criticizing Tarantino for embracing and championing the grindhouse genre. After all, these humble movies are touchstones for a generation and have had a major influence on contemporary cinema; and in his best work (such as the Kill Bill movies and Inglorious Basterds), the director has masterfully drawn inspiration from them while incorporating their elements into his larger personal vision. With Death Proof, however, he has only succeeded in making a pale shadow of the original works, which, like a replica of some crude masterpiece of outsider art, seems pointless and unnecessary.
Today’s cinema adventure: Chris and Don: A Love Story, a 2007 documentary detailing the 34-year relationship between acclaimed writer Christopher Isherwood and his life partner, artist Don Bachardy. Practicing documentary filmmaking at its finest, directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi piece together the remarkable shared life of the couple while also presenting a portrait of each man individually, utilizing footage and narration from surviving partner Bachardy, excerpts from Isherwood’s diaries (read, appropriately enough, by Michael York, who portrayed the author’s alter-ego in the film version of the musical Cabaret, based on Isherwood’s Berlin Stories), interviews with various friends and archivists, and copious home movies and photographs of the couple’s life together. The relationship, which began when the 48-year old British expatriate author met the 18-year old Los Angeles boy on a beach in Santa Monica and defied the odds- and the cynical expectations of the pair’s acquaintances- to endure until Isherwood’s death in 1986, is presented with a restraint and an objective journalistic detachment which preserves the dignity of its subject matter and results in a cumulative emotional wallop, leaving the viewer moved and uplifted by the triumph of an unlikely love. Documentary purists may quibble over the occasional use of re-enactments to depict key moments in the relationship (presented only in brief, out-of-focus snippets without dialogue) and animations derived from Isherwood’s fanciful sketches from his correspondence to his partner, but these touches do nothing to alter or affect the facts presented. Though the film depicts the lives of a gay couple, it is suitable for all audiences; and anyone who watches it is bound to be, as I was, filled with admiration for two people who disregarded social prejudices from every direction and inspired by their success at building a love to last a lifetime.