Death Proof: Exploring the Screenplay

Death Proof, by Quentin Tarantino.

Death Proof, by Quentin Tarantino.

Reading a screenplay can be interesting, in part because they are often not written for publication.  I’ve recently read some screenplays by Joel and Ethan Coen which I think to be on a par with many plays and works of prose.  Their style of writing, though, is very different from that of Quentin Tarantino.  Tarantino shows flashes of brilliance in his dialogue, but his stage instructions seem to be making an attempt to sell the story more than tell the story, this is certainly the case with the screenplay for Death Proof, but there are elements of greatness that more than compensate for such instances.

 

Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino as Warren in Death Proof.  Tarantino is perhaps the only director who is willing to cast himself as an actor in a film.

Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino as Warren in Death Proof. Tarantino is perhaps the only director who is willing to cast himself as an actor in a film.

Death Proof is an interesting work.  For me it is a feminist tale, though this does not mean that all the women are potentially feminist heroines.  There are two groups of women: Jungle Julia and her crew (which feature Jungle Julia, Arlene and Shanna) and Zoe Bell’s crew (featuring stuntwoman Zoe Bell, Kim, Abernathy and Lee).  Both groups of women have interesting conversation about men, often objectifying the men they speak about in the same fashion that men often objectify women.  This serves as an interesting lampooning of the hyper-masculine and hyper-heterosexual dialogue ascribed to men and though perhaps a male fantasy of how women speak (it is authored by a man after all), it does serve to work in ridiculing the stereotypical male conversations on romance.

 

Sydney Tamiia Poitier as Jungle Julia.  Tarantino draws parallels between the different women within the screenplay, and also those from other works, such as this shot where Julia is juxtaposed along side a post of Briggitte Bardot from the film "The Night Heaven Fell".

Sydney Tamiia Poitier as Jungle Julia. Tarantino draws parallels between the different women within the screenplay, and also those from other works, such as this shot where Julia is juxtaposed along side a post of Briggitte Bardot from the film “The Night Heaven Fell”.

There are some interesting parallels between the two groups of girls.  Jungle Julia, for example, speaks to a desired relationship with a film director named Christian Simonson.  We presume that she has engaged in a physical relationship with him, but he has not spoken to her in six months and failed to call her on her birthday.  Though a strong woman, she seems to have allowed the Simonson to get what he wanted, after which he vanished without consideration for what she wanted.  Adversely, Abernathy also has a crush on a Cecil, who also worked on films.  She though does not sleep with him and is waiting to get what she wants (a committed relationship) before she concedes to sex.  Though not happy with her progress (Cecil “fuck[ed] Daryl Hannah’s stand-in” on her birthday), she does get more from him than Jungle Julia seemed to get from her love interest as Cecil makes a mixed tape for Abernathy on her birthday whereas Julia didn’t receive even as much as a phone call on her birthday.  I don’t get the impression that there is a moral judgement on casual sex in these scenes as both women take different courses and are both upset with the outcome, but there does seem to be a suggestion that if you compromise, you may not get what you want.  Of course, you may also not get what you want if you hold firm, but at least you would be used or exploited.  The two scenarios set the girls apart slightly.

 

 

Kurt Russel as Stuntman Mike in Death Proof.

Kurt Russel as Stuntman Mike in Death Proof.

There is also some interesting dialogue where the women of the film serve to be their own antagonists.  Jungle Julia is successful in a way (she is a morning radio DJ with billboards of her all around town), but Pam, a woman who has also had a relationship with Simonson (this is not revealed in the film, but there is a scene in the screenplay where this is disclosed) has some choice words from Julia and claims that she only got where she is by sleeping with men in power to get there.  She tells Stuntman Mike that if he wants to get to know Julia, all he has to do is become “famous.  The… she’ll find you” before going onto say: “You don’t even want to know what she did for that billboard.”  Pam then says to Pam (under her breath of course): “Enjoy [the billboard], cocksucker, you’ve earned it”.  We see here that when a woman is successful, it is not a man attacking her, but another woman, passing judgement on her.  We see a similar thread when Kim and Zoe are speaking.  Kim says she has a boyfriend and Zoe replies: “Who’d you steal him from?”  Zoe then explains that all “of Kim’s boyfriends started out as somebody else’s boyfriends.”  This again suggests that women are often times too busy competing with each other to look out for one another.  This is problematic as a feminist reading, but it also has an element of truth to it.  The recent Steubenville’s rape trial is a case and point.  While two men were found guilty of raping a girl, the victim ended up receiving threats afterwards, not from boys defending the convicted rapists, but rather from other girls.  In such situations one would assume that women would be supportive of women who had been victimized by men, but in many instances women find little support from other women.  Pam judges Julia for sleeping with men, but it is revealed that Pam also slept with her boss (Simonson) and lost her job because of it (she was Simonson’s personal assistant).  Both women it seems are victims of sexual harassment in the work place, but one girl judges the other rather than offering her support.  This of course doesn’t speak to how all women behave toward each other, but does speak to how some women view other women.

 

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lee in Death Proof.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lee in Death Proof.

Weak masculinity is attacked in the film as well.  Nate, Arlene’s love interest, invites her to make out in his car in the bar parking lot.  When she doesn’t concede right away he begins whining to which Arlene says: “stop with the whine; it’s not attractive.”  She agrees, but defines the terms of the make-out session and demands an agreement that there will be no whining and begging.  Nate, perhaps the hyper-sensitive male, does not make any advances without verbal consent from Arlene.  In a scene which did not make the final cut, Arlene pulls her shorts and panties down and moves Nate’s hand between her legs, but without verbal instruction he does nothing, inciting Arlene to burst out: “Goddamnit.  Do I actually hafta say the words ‘finger fuck me?’”  Nate is apologetic, but it is too late.  This scene carries some interesting implications as well.  It speaks to notions of verbal consent and how problematic it can be.  In conversations about rape culture many people speak to issues of consent, specifically verbal consent.  This is an important thread because body language can often be misinterpreted, but at the same time verbal communication is not always present in intimate acts.  People wait for queues from their partner.  This instance is perhaps more overt than some, but it begs the question as to what consent is.

 

Rose McGowan, one of the many beautiful ladies of Death Proof.

Rose McGowan, one of the many beautiful ladies of Death Proof.

There is also a scene also where two men who are trying to hook up with the ladies in Julia’s group develop a plan to get invited back to the cabin where the girls are planning on going.  The plan is suggestive of rape without consent, though one character, Dov, seems particularly predatory and misogynistic.  Dov suggests buy around of shots and then, “in fairly rapid order, but not obvious… order two more rounds of shots.”  Omar does not think that the girls will fall for that, most especially because Dov suggests going with Jager shots.  Dov reassures Omar stating: “as long as a guy’s buying the booze, a bitch’ll drink anything.”  He assures that Omar that they “can at least get one Jager shot down these bitches’ throats.” It is troubling because Dov never refers to the women as women, or even as girls, but exclusively as bitches, and antagonist term and one that dehumanizes women since the word ‘bitch’ is defined as a female dog.  Clearly a misogynistic character.   Julia though shoots this plan down, refusing to take a Jager shot.  Not a particularly flattering portrayal of men, but one that is tragically accurate in many instances, but the women, Julia especially, prove to assertive and independent to allow themselves to be knowingly victimized by such predators.

 

Speaking to conversations on rape culture is not exclusive to these scenes.  There is a scene with the other group of girls where Kim speaks to owning and carrying a gun.  Kim is a strong woman who will be sure to put herself on equal footing with any man, even if it means carrying a weapon.  Abernathy disapproves but Kim responds: “I don’t know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch needs a gun.”  Kim goes onto say: “if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped.”  This is part of the rape culture.  Women are expected to avoid situations where they might be raped, and if they don’t, they can often find themselves being blamed for the rape with questions like: “What were you doing there at that time of night?”  Women often operate on what is called a “rape schedule”.  They have to understand where and when they may face the risk of rape and if they wish to avoid it, act accordingly and avoid such situations.  To that mentality Kim says: “Fuck that!  I wanna do my laundry whenever the fuck I wanna do my laundry.”  Kim demands equality.  She expects to be able to walk anywhere at any time just like any man would be able to do.  When Abernathy suggests that she carry pepper spray instead of a gun, Kim responds curtly: “Motherfucker try to rape me, I don’t wanna give him a skin rash.  I wanna shut that nigga down.”  The women though, Kim and Zoe most especially, prove equals to men in other ways.  Both a self-proclaimed gear heads who know as much about muscle cars as any man, but at the same time this does not mean that they forfeit any of their femininity as they note that being gear heads and watching movies like: Vanishing Point and Crazy Larry, Dirty Mary does not preclude them from watching John Hughes’ movies like Pretty In Pink.  The two realms are not mutually exclusive and so Kim and Zoe (who are also stuntwomen, jobs stereotypically attributed t men) demonstrate that women can display the full range of human characteristics, not just the ones socially prescribed to men or women.

 

 

Vanessa Ferlito as Arlene in Death Proof, dancing before Stuntman Mike, played by Kurt Russel.

Vanessa Ferlito as Arlene in Death Proof, dancing before Stuntman Mike, played by Kurt Russel.

Though the film’s value is in its dialogue, the meat of the narrative focuses on the antagonist: Stuntman Mike.  Both groups of girls are stalked and pursued by Stuntman Mike.  Jungle Julia and company serve as victims, but the great scene is when Kim, Zoe and Abernathy are attacked.  They survive the attack and scare Stuntman Mike away when Kim pulls out her gun and fires at Stuntman Mike (ah, foreshadowing: whenever you see a gun in the first scene, it will be used in the final scene).  Not content to be victims, the women chase after the villain and then kill him in a fight where no weapons are used, simply their bare hands (and not so bare feet).

 

 

The beautiful Mary Elizabeth Winstead who stars as Lee in Death Proof.

The beautiful Mary Elizabeth Winstead who stars as Lee in Death Proof

The script though is not flawless.  There is a scene where the stage directions describe a dog as an “ugly dog who looks like he just escaped a Korean kitchen.”  For me, this detracts from the work.  If this were the voice of a character I wouldn’t take issue with it as it would like just be a signal for the audience to recognize a character flaw, but when the stage directions start indulging in ethnic stereotyping to get a laugh out of the reader, I do take issue with that.  At times, as I mentioned, it seems like Tarantino is trying to sell the story and not tell the story.  There is a scene where he speaks to Stuntman Mike’s chain smoking and states that it is obvious by the pile of cigarette butts in his ashtray that Stuntman Mike is a chain smoker.  This is an instance of “show and tell”.  In the film this is shown to the viewer and it is up to the viewer to figure out the implications of an ashtray that is full of cigarette butts.  In script though, Tarantino feels like he needs to explain the implications.  He is telling when he should be showing.  Perhaps this is because he doesn’t have much confidence in the folks who are reading the script (which, if they are Hollywood producers I might be inclined to think this is a reasonable assumption), but if the work is being published to a broader audience, the author should perhaps give his readers as much credit as he gives the moviegoers who see his films.  There are editorial mistakes as well (which I do not fault the author for, but rather the publishing company, since they clearly did not see it as important to edit the work properly before publishing), and the introduction leaves a little to be desired.  The guy who wrote it (Elvis Mitchell) seems to be a bit too much in love with himself and appears to be boasting to the reader about his relationship with Tarantino rather than introducing the work.  When I am reading an introduction, I would like a little critical insight into the work, not somebody who seems too eager to name drop.

 

Over all the work is interesting on a number of levels, but most particularly looking at it through a feminist lens as well as examining the content in the context of conversation on rape culture.  It is flawed, but the flaws do not take away from the greatest of the work, and the passages that were cut from the film leaves the reader curious to see how they would have played out.  Likewise, there are scenes in the film that are not in the script.  This also leaves the reader wondering.  As always though, it is an interesting experiment to read script that was not necessarily intended to be published.

The beautiful and talented April March, whose song "Chick Habit" is perhaps the best track featured on the Death Proof sound track.

The beautiful and talented April March, whose song “Chick Habit” is perhaps the best track featured on the Death Proof sound track.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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