Quentin Tarantino came bouncing into his press conference here for "Death Proof" -- or, as it will be known here, "Boulevard de la mort" -- flashed us a pair of peace signs and exclaimed: "Hello! Au revoir!" Whether this was a joke or the result of nonexistent French lessons was not entirely clear, but it set the tone for an alternately awkward and adulatory meeting with reporters.
Admittedly George Clooney is not yet in town, but the mad crush to get into Tarantino's press conference was like nothing I've experienced in two years at Cannes. Several of the festival's trademark tan-suited, bouncerish security guards had to hold back the mob by main force, trying to prevent adoring TV reporters from former Soviet republics from being trampled underfoot in the Quentin rush.
You may think I'm kidding about the Soviet republics. I'm not. A reporter from Uzbekistan got up during the press conference to thank Tarantino, on behalf of "all the women of central Asia," for making his chick-revenge car-chase flick. (He seemed suitably impressed.) One Russian journalist asked him how it felt to be the most inspirational director of his time. A guy who I think was Croatian took the mike and exclaimed "'Death Proof' rocks!" before asking Tarantino whether it was true that his long-brewing war film, "Inglorious Bastards," would star Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. (Sadly, it will not.)
After the press conference was over, a group of British journalists stood around eagerly discussing what the term "grindhouse" meant, along with the intriguing fact that "Death Proof" had previously existed inside some larger and stranger context and the question of whether it was ever really meant to stand on its own. As one of their countrymen once said, Ay, there's the rub.
I guess Harvey Weinstein didn't hear the Brits talking or he'd have knocked some good old-fashioned American sense into them. Much of the awkwardness of the "Death Proof" news conference arose from the fact that Weinstein stood glowering in the shadows, like a Rolex-wearing Sauron, while Tarantino and stars Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thomas cheerfully held forth. Right next to Weinstein, in his trademark black cowboy hat, was Robert Rodriguez, whose "Planet Terror" segment from "Grindhouse" was very definitely not selected for Cannes. (Weinstein implied, without quite promising, that "Planet Terror" will play the Venice Film Festival this summer.)
Most strange and striking of all was the moment when Weinstein moved in to squelch all further discussion of "Grindhouse," and in the process seemed to deliver a slap-down to Kurt Russell. Most of the participants stayed on message most of the time, meaning that Tarantino insisted that the longer, "Boulevard of Death" version of the film is closer to his original intentions. Russell, who plays impressively evil Stuntman Mike, wasn't having it. "I'm sorry for people who won't get the 'Grindhouse' experience," he said. "That's what it was all about for me. So I prefer the shorter version. Now ['Death Proof' and 'Terror Planet'] are gonna go off and stand on their own, and hopefully you'll enjoy them. But in 20 years, you will want the full 'Grindhouse' experience, because there's nothing else like it."
Weinstein held his peace at that moment, but a few minutes later, when another eastern European journalist asked why none of the fake trailers from "Grindhouse" are being shown with "Death Proof," he stepped up to the mike. "We had a great time with the whole 'Grindhouse' thing," he began, in the tones of a man not having any fun at all. "Now European audiences will get to see these new movies by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, and they'll enjoy them much more [than 'Grindhouse']. You'll see Robert Rodriguez making a true Robert Rodriguez movie, you'll see Quentin making a pure-essence Quentin movie. It's a completely different experience. They will dwarf 'Grindhouse,' trust me."
Tarantino added: "There are essentially three movies here. 'Death Proof' is its own movie and 'Terror Planet' is its own movie. Then 'Grindhouse' was something else, a full evening's entertainment." To get from his original edit of "Death Proof" to the "Grindhouse" version, he said, "we didn't cut to the bone. We cut past the bone."
No question, the cut of "Death Proof" that screens in Cannes on Tuesday night, which is almost half an hour longer than the "Grindhouse" version, feels more like a complete motion picture. (It is not 127 minutes, as advertised; I timed it at about 114.) Of course Tarantino's fans and camp followers back home will need to see this one too, and no doubt Weinstein will make that possible, either in theaters or on disc or both. Is it a better motion picture than the first "Death Proof"? Maybe. But I'm not sure that's the right question.
This film features a much slower build and much more development of character and atmosphere around the ill-fated Austin, Texas, group of gals (headed by Rose McGowan's dye-job Southern belle) being stalked by Russell's nefarious Stuntman Mike. It also restores Vanessa Ferlito's "missing" lap-dance sequence and adds a "reel" in black-and-white (in the "Grindhouse" universe, that would result from a projection error) and a good deal of additional Tarantino-esque banter. Much of this material is terrific in purely cinematic terms; one of Tarantino's saving graces as a filmmaker is his often surprising capacity for contemplative moments and patches of plotlessness.
"Death Proof" still detours into pointless, geeky discussions about "Vanishing Point," a film I don't believe any of these women have ever heard of, let alone seen, and the plot still virtually squeals to a halt just before the climactic car chase finally begins. Tarantino told us that the new version of the film "has changed 180 degrees in terms of emotion," but I would calculate the change as much less than that. This new version is a looser, slightly darker picture, still gruesome, funny and self-aware in about the right proportions.
I think I'm with Kurt Russell on this one. (In a showdown between Russell and Weinstein, my heart wants to bet one way and my head another.) There's now more of "Death Proof," but without its oddly hilarious context it has less reason to exist. That said, while it's easy to poke fun at the European reaction to Tarantino's evocation of trash Americana, there was nothing forced or false about the explosive applause after the press screening here, or the prodigious affection showered on Q.T. from all parts of the globe. If the women of central Asia love "Death Proof," it won't be because they grasp its postmodern repurposing of exploitation cinema. It'll be because it really works as a movie -- and because they really want to see those chicks kick Stuntman Mike's ass.
"If you have to be a diehard grindhouse fan to enjoy this movie," Tarantino observed, "then the movie's probably pretty limited. I'm not saying my movie is better than that genre, but I am trying to transcend it. I have my own agenda I'm trying to get across, and it's not the agenda of most drive-in movies."
When another eastern European asked how it felt to be a "big star" at Cannes, Tarantino showed some uncharacteristic humility. "To the extent that I could call myself a favorite son of Cannes, and I'm only saying that because you're saying it," he said, "I just don't have the adjectives for it. I was probably a teenager before I figured out what Cannes was, or even knew what a film festival was. I probably rented some movie that had the Palme d'Or on the box. Once I figured it out, it seemed like Mount Olympus, where the gods go, where the greatest films ever made premiere. Just to be invited here was amazing, and the possibility that I might someday win the Palme d'Or [as he did for 'Pulp Fiction'] was so far beyond anything I could have imagined. There's nothing I'm prouder of in my whole career."
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