Monday, August 8, 2011

Sally's theme

While watching the new Criterion DVD of Brian De Palma's Blow Out, I was struck by a piece of music from Pino Donaggio's score. It plays often in the scenes between Jack (John Travolta) and Sally (Nancy Allen). I couldn't remember where I'd heard it before, and then it hit me: this same theme plays in an early scene of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.

Nancy Allen as Sally in Brian De Palma's Blow Out
Tarantino is famous for this sort of thing: filling his movies with hyperlinks to other movies. Often, the references will fly right over my head. (His knowledge of film lore is formidable to say the least.) But when I know where he's coming from, rather than distracting me, the reference will serve to deepen my appreciation of the film and the experience of watching it. That was certainly true in this case.

In Death Proof, we hear Sally's theme in a scene at the Texas Chili Parlor. Austin DJ/would-be record producer Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) is texting the guy she likes, a movie director we never see named Christian Simonson. As the two flirt, the music blasting from the bar's awesomely eclectic jukebox fades away and Donaggio's score takes over.

Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike: "I ain't stalkin' y'all but I didn't say I wasn't a wolf."
If you happen to know the movie Tarantino is quoting here, then this scene works on a few different levels. Blow Out and Death Proof both feature sex killers who mercilessly stalk and butcher women: Burke in the case of Blow Out (played by John Lithgow, even scarier here than he is on Dexter) and Stuntman Mike in the case of Death Proof (played by Kurt Russell in his greatest latter-day role). But, at this point in Death Proof, the audience hasn't been let in on Mike's M.O. So on one level the music serves to build suspense: we wonder if Jungle Julia will share the same fate as Sally, Burke's final victim.

Uma Thurman wearing Bruce Lee's track suit in Kill Bill: Vol. 1
It's the same dynamic that's at play when Uma Thurman dons Bruce Lee's famous yellow-and-black track suit, thus solidifying our image of The Bride as an unstoppable killing machine in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Or when Tarantino quotes John Ford's The Searchers in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, depicting the Nazis as savage marauders and introducing themes like hunting, scalping and familial retribution that will recur throughout the rest of that scorching WWII masterpiece. Unlike many of the filmmakers who imitate him, Tarantino chooses his references very carefully.

On another level, the music brings an element of tragedy to the whole Jungle Julia/Christian Simonson subplot. Earlier in Death Proof, we heard Julia complain about how Christian is never around and he doesn't call her on her birthday. And, sure enough, he never shows up (as promised) to the Texas Chili Parlor. Things might have turned out differently for Julia if he had. He could have saved her – just like Jack could have saved Sally if he'd been there when she was in danger.

The savage marauder as polite Nazi in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds
That's fairly reactionary, and indeed much of the first half of Death Proof is shown from Stuntman Mike's POV. Tarantino indulges his villain's predatory male gaze, climaxing in a series of incredibly gory money shots where we see a head-on collision from four different perspectives, one of which shows Jungle Julia's leg being ripped off. But the director turns all of that on its head in the second half of the film, when the female victims become the perpetrators. De Palma never gave us Sally the Avenger, but Death Proof does. That's a major part of Tarantino's genius: not to borrow from the past, but to *expand* on it. His movies don't require you to be a film geek to enjoy them, but you'll certainly get a lot more out of them if you are one. And they encourage film geeks to keep the faith. There's another scene in Death Proof where Stuntman Mike is talking to a group of girls about the TV work he's done ("You know the show The Virginian?"). When he realizes the girls have never heard of any of the shows or actors he's talking about, his reaction is one of withering disappointment. It's the only moment in the movie where the filmmaker is completely sympathetic to his villain.

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