Anyone who knows me personally or reads this blog will know one of two things; that I absolutely love Russ Meyer and that Death Proof is my favourite Tarantino film so far. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw that the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton were screening a Grindhouse double bill of Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Death Proof as part of the Scala Forever Film Season.
It’s not surprising that Tarantino references and emulates Faster Pussycat! in Death Proof as it’s well-known that the director loves his films, especially B-movies and exploitation fare. What may interest some people is just how much he uses elements from Meyer’s 1965 masterpiece, from the obvious, a Faster Pussycat! t-shirt used in costume, to the slightly less obvious (depending on how big a fan you might be), such as plot and characterisation points.
The first thing that struck me when I saw Death Proof for the first time years ago was the fetish versus fetish angle. Everyone knows that Russ Meyer had a breast fetish which he practically and successfully based his entire career around. Although Tarantino hasn’t based his entire career so far around his fetish for feet, like Meyer he doesn’t exactly hide it in his films. So just as Faster Pussycat! has its female leads clad in tight tops, bikini’s and sees Tura Satana’s cleavage lovingly and impressively exposed to the world, Death Proof shows us that feet are damn sexy. Need a reminder? There’s the feet that get wet when they’re exposed to the rain, the close up of Butterfly’s feet as she walks across the bar, Stuntman Mike gently tickling Abernathy’s feet, Jungle Julia’s feet at the start of the film and Butterfly’s feet that perfectly place themselves in Stuntman Mike’s crotch during his lap dance.
So whilst I’m sure Meyer and Tarantino aren’t the only directors to show their fetishes so blatantly on-screen, Tarantino certainly owes his depiction of overt female sexuality in Death Proof to Meyer’s characterisation. Faster Pussycat! was one of the first films to portray strong sexually charged women with no apology, paving the way for women to be shown as more than the clichéd innocent and gentle virgin. Just as Varla seduces everyone and anyone she can, knowing full well when it will end on her part, Butterfly makes sure that she is the one with the upper hand when it comes to her relationship with Nate. Both films have the guys chasing after the girls with the girls being the ones in control. Just remember, we have a sexuality too! As Butterfly says, ‘No whining, no begging’.
It’s not just sexuality that Tarantino copied from Meyer but behavioural traits and plot similarities. Tura Satana’s Varla would probably have had a violent war of words with Sydney Poitier’s Julia or Tracie Thoms’ Kim, both of whom Tarantino uses to reference Varla’s bad ass attitude and speech. Satana’s infamous fights in Faster Pussycat! are all emulated in the final fight scene in Death Proof, where the three remaining girls, Kim, Zoe and Abernathy, all beat the crap out of Stuntman Mike. Note the further visual references to Varla in the costume of these three characters, where Zoe is wearing similar gloves and boots, Kim is in leather and Abernathy has lashings of eyeliner and a straight cut fringe. In terms of Varla’s dominance within her group as the leader, Tarantino continues this with Poitier in his first group of girls and Thoms and Bell in his second bunch of chicks, all three being the ones that coerce their friends into acts and determine where they will be going.
The other female caricatures in Meyer’s picture are made up through the rest of Tarantino’s casting. Haji’s exotic beauty Rosie is channelled through Vanessa Ferlito’s Butterfly and Zoe Bell and the all-American good girl up for a bad time, Billie as portrayed by Lori Williams in Faster Pussycat!, is played well through Rosario Dawson’s Abernathy, the single mum who has boundaries but knows how to have fun. Even Susan Bernard’s irritating character of Linda gets a double in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Lee. Both play the naive younger girl in the group left to fend for themselves against men whilst the other girls leave them (Abernathy leaves Lee just as Billie leaves Linda). That and the fact they are both sexually objectified in their costume; Bernard in the bikini and Winstead in the cheerleader outfit.
Lastly, and ridiculously obviously, lets not forget those beautiful babes that are the fast cars that make both these films. Tarantino harks back to the Grindhouse era of the 60s and 70s by featuring old American cars, such as Stuntman Mike’s 1970 Chevy Nova and 1969 Dodge Charger, whilst the girls get to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger towards the end of the film. My personal favourite would have to be Kim’s Ford Mustang Mach I, the gorgeous car with the yellow and black paint job which I have lusted after ever since seeing Death Proof for the first time. Meyer’s girls can be seen drag racing a Porsche 356, an MG-A and a TR-3 Triumph across the Mojave Desert with power and style, whilst the unfortunate drag racer Tommy drives an MG-B. In both instances, it’s the girls who drive more fearlessly, crashing through any gender stereotypes about female drivers.
For those who went, I hope you all found the double bill enjoyable! I couldn’t have picked something more perfect myself, although I may have added Vanishing Point and made it a triple bill! There are another two Russ Meyer screenings as part of the Scala Forever Film Season which I will be attending and I look forward to seeing some of you there…