Quentin Tarantino's movies are explosions of meaning. They spew significance of many different kinds in every direction on a shot-by-shot basis. Every element of every shot is fraught with references, usually to other movies. As such, they invite multiple readings from a number of different points of view and philosophical schools. For instance, I just read a book-length monograph on Pulp Fiction that examined every aspect of the movie but one -- what the characters in the movie do and say.
I am not smart enough or cool enough to catch every one of the thousands of references that give Tarantino's movies their postmodern punch -- I've never seen a Shaw Bros kung-fu movie, for instance. So I will limit myself in this analysis to what I do understand: characters and their motivations. And I will leave the examination of angles, design choices, costumes, hairstyles, cultural freight and songs to others.
All of Tarantino's movies have been analyzed to death by people better qualified than me, but for some reason Death Proof has so far escaped the eye of the dissectors, so I hereby offer my thoughts -- again, restricting my comments to pure script issues -- character, motivation, plot -- rather than the myriad subtexts, uber-texts and postmodern commentary that runs through it.
First of all, there are two basic ways of looking at Death Proof. Either it has a central protagonist, or it does not. Not having a central protagonist is not unusual for Tarantino -- neither Reservoir Dogs nor Pulp Fiction has one -- but Death Proof differs from those movies by presenting a highly unusual bifurcated structure: the same "plot" happens, twice, with dramatically different outcomes. I can't think of another movie structured this way.
If one wishes to look at Death Proof as having a central protagonist, it is the story of Stuntman Mike, a dude with a dramatically fucked-up sexual existence -- he drives a "death-proof" stunt car, and uses that car to hunt down, terrorize and kill women in other cars, for the purposes of sexual gratification. The parameters of Stuntman Mike's pathology are central to to the plot structure of Death Proof -- Stuntman Mike doesn't beat women up or shoot them or stab them with a butcher knife, and he doesn't merely run them over with his car. He must pursue his perversion in his car, and his victims must be in their car too (or, in one instance, in Mike's car with him). The car is an imperative to Mike, his penis substitute, and it is so central to his concept of self that his victims must also be in a car before he can fulfill his peculiar pathology. That seems obvious, but Mike's devotion to his pathology ends up being his undoing, as we will see.
As for me, I see Stuntman Mike as the antagonist of Death Proof, and I think the movie has two protagonists, serial protagonists for a serial killer narrative. The same story is told twice: two groups of women are pursued by Stuntman Mike in pursuit of his sexual pathology. The first protagonist, Arlene, represents one specific female mindset, and the other, Zoe, represents a second. Butterfly's situation and response to Stuntman Mike lead to the violent death of Arlene and her friends, while Zoe's situation and response lead to the violent death of Stuntman Mike. Same antagonist, same pathology, same structure, but because Zoe's situation and response are different, the outcome is inverted.
To make things more complicated, Arlene and Zoe are not so much protagonists as "team leaders," central characters in a "posse" of females. That is to say, not only is Death Proof an ensemble picture, it's two ensemble pictures. Arlene travels with Julia and Shanna, and briefly with Lanna, while Zoe travels with Abernathy, Kim and Lee.
So we have two quartets of women, both traveling in their cars. How are they different and how are they the same? Let's look at some of the more obvious examples. Tarantino wants us to see how very much the same they are by giving each group four basic member functions -- The Driver, The Visitor, The One In The Back Seat With Her Feet Up, and The Famous One. He assigns each group these common distinctions in order to then point out how each group is different. Lanna, the Driver in Group 1, is essentially an innocent bystander, the designated driver who takes the team out to the lake house when they're all too drunk to drive. She has no interactions with Stuntman Mike (except for the one that happens milliseconds before her death), has no dialogue to speak of, and we barely get to know her at all before she's killed. Group 2's driver, Kim, is a much more forceful presence and serves as Zoe's backup and right-hand man (so to speak). (Group 1's first Driver, and the owner of the car, Shanna, shares with Kim her dislike of blasphemy.) Because Group 1's Driver, Lanna, doesn't show up until late in the narrative, the "innocent bystander" in Group 2 is also the Famous One -- Lee, the co-star of the movie Group 2 is shooting in Tennesse when their part of the narrative starts. Group 1's Famous One, Julia, doubles as The One In The Back Seat With Her Feet Up, a role fulfilled by Abernathy in Group 2. Lee, Group 2's Famous One, is the one who gets left out of the narrative instead of Group 1's Lanna, and she gets left out of the end of the narrative whereas Lanna gets left out of the beginning (just one of the interesting "mirror" elements of the script). Shanna in Group 1 is kind of "the one who isn't very specific in her function," a role given to Abernathy in Group 2, who doubles as The One In The Back Seat With Her Feet Up. Both protagonists ride shotgun in their cars and are the Visitors of their narratives.
And, as I say, Tarantino draws all these parallels in order to show not so much how the groups are the same but how they are different. Both groups talk about the same things, sometimes down to the smallest details, but their personalities and origins (for lack of a better word) are markedly different, and that's where I think the "meaning" of Death Proof comes from: one group of women behaves one way and thus fall victim to Stuntman Mike's pathology, the other group behaves another way and best him and his predations. Women, Tarantino seems to be saying, are always the same and always completely different, and the differences he chooses to underline mean, literally, the difference between victimhood by male aggression and triumph over it.
The first difference one notices about the two groups of women is their cars. Cars are, obviously, extremely important to the narrative of Death Proof, and what one drives means the difference between life and death. Group 1 drives an utterly anonymous late-model sub-compact that never even gets its own beauty shot, while Group 2 drives a fierce looking, beautifully-detailed Mustang, and then, later, a 1970 Dodge Challenger with a powerful historical significance. Why is this important? Because Stuntman Mike doesn't just drive any old kind of car, he drives, exclusively, 1970s Detroit muscle cars -- that is part of his pathology. He sees great power in them and does not express his pathology in any other vehicle. The women of Group 1 obviously don't think about cars very much except as a way to get around town (or out to the lake house), but the women of Group 2, Kim and Zoe at least, are extremely particular about their cars, which makes all the difference in the world about how their stories turn out.
The second thing one notices about the two groups of women is that they both talk about their experience with men, but they come at those experiences from completely different angles. Group 1, Arlene especially, sees themselves as beholden to male desire -- it is something to be attracted, controlled and managed ("love" never even enters the picture). Arlene spends the whole of her story in a state of anxiety regarding her attractiveness and desirability, Julia puts up a good front but, in her private moments, pines for the big-shot movie director who doesn't show up, Shanna is combative and argumentative with the boy who pays attention to her.
Upon a first viewing, most people find the first half-hour of Death Proof agonizingly boring and the second half dynamically compelling. That's because the protagonist of the first half, Arlene, is a "traditional woman" who sees herself as, by definition, passive, a receptacle for male desire, worthless if not attractive to men. A passive protagonist is no fun to watch, and it takes us a long time to cotton to Arlene and begin to care about her loneliness and discomfort. Zoe, on the other hand, never mentions male desire once in her story (although all the others do) -- her goal is to locate that magical 1970s Dodge Challenger and take it for a test drive.
(Incidentally, this is a good illustration of screen craft. Zoe's goal, to test-drive a car, isn't very interesting in and of itself, but in the context of Death Proof it's fresh, unusual and intriguing. It just goes to show that it almost doesn't even matter how small the protagonist's goal is, as long as they have one and they pursue it with ardor the audience will remain hooked.)
The women of Group 2 also deal with managing and controlling male desire, but are much more savvy and joyful in their discussions. Group 1 sees men as aggressive intruders who need to be carefully dealt with, while Group 2 sees them more as innocent boys to be played with. Each group has their blind spots, but Group 2 seems to feel they have much stronger control over the situation, which allows them to enjoy their relations on a more mutually pleasurable terrain. To use a football metaphor, Group 1 seems to be constantly defending their endzone, but Group 2 is keen to play the field. To pick just one example, Group1's Julia, we learn, has, to her rival's mind at least, achieved her success in radio the old-fashioned way, by sleeping her way to the top -- exploiting male desire for gain. Group 2's Abernathy, meanwhile, is, like Julia, involved with a big-shot movie director, but would rather die a spinster than exploit his desire for gain.
Alas, I am now out of time for the blogging day, but when I return I will look at the narrative of Death Proof beat-by-beat and show how the smallest distinctions of personality make the biggest differences in narrative.