A reservoir dog's dinner

This 1970s B-movie homage is Tarantino on autopilot - two hours of utter trash

<strong>Death Proo

In spring this year, US audiences were presented with Grindhouse, a three-hour-plus homage to sleazy 1970s exploitation cinema comprising two features - Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof - and a handful of trailers for fake B-movies. But most people baulked at the prospect of a long, gory paean to an art form they never loved in the first place and so Grindhouse was a huge flop. Its constituent parts are now being released separately, with Death Proof the first to arrive here. Extended from its original running time of 90 minutes to almost two hours, it represents a sort of embarrassment of riches, only without the riches.

Tarantino has suffered in the past from a size problem. Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown felt perfectly scaled (and pretty much perfect all round), but Pulp Fiction was seriously flabby and Kill Bill was so overweight that it had to be carved into two parts. The director's eagerness to dish up such generous portions would be endearing if he weren't serving slop these days. For anyone who believed Tarantino was capable of greatness, Death Proof can only induce despair.

The picture follows the efforts of a craggy psychopath called Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) to slaughter as many comely young women as possible with his customised Dodge Charger - either by speeding towards their oncoming vehicles or by swerving so violently that any unfortunate passenger he's carrying will be smashed against the partition separating her from him. (You'll know the feeling if you've ever been on a double-decker bus going over speed bumps.) Mike sets his sights on a gang of friends boozing in Texas, but the heart sinks when the whole scenario starts again an hour later with Mike terrorising a different group led by Zoë (Zoë Bell, who was Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill). The jive talk that goes pointlessly round in circles, and the familiar references to old films and TV shows, suggest Tarantino is writing on autopilot, while the interminable takes make you think he's switched on the camera and then wandered off for a burrito. The credits read "Edited by Sally Menke", but "Not edited by anyone" would be more accurate.

There was always a tacky, low-rent undercurrent to Tarantino, but what's missing here is the imaginative skill that once offset it. In his best work, he purloined elements from the crummy films that shaped his sensibility and took them to a higher level. With Death Proof, he shows that he can make irredeemable trash without any artistic aspirations. That he succeeds is no cause for cheer, any more than it would be if, say, Burt Bacharach confined himself to composing football chants.

I liked the attempts to pass the film off as an authentic poor-quality relic - the deliberately scratched, faded print keeps jumping, and slips into black and white at one point. It would have been more convincing if the film itself had been a period piece, but the sight of mobile phones and the mentions of iPods and CGI pull us out of any such illusion. The trouble is that Death Proof needs that illusion in order to work.

It's uncomfortable enough when the camera leers over female behinds in tight shorts, or when Zoë persuades a redneck to let her borrow his car by inviting him to have his wicked way with her oblivious friend, who is dressed conveniently as a cheerleader. The pretence that we're watching a genuine 1970s B-movie at least offers some tenuous justification for such immature touches - that is how these films really were, we can tell ourselves. Without that, Death Proof loses its thin protective coating of irony, which is about all it has going for it.

Goodness knows Tarantino needs whatever armour he can get. Nothing in his writing suggests he has ever actually spoken to a member of the opposite sex - he gives his female characters pages of dialogue, then has them talk like a comic-book nerd's idea of the perfect woman. That's the least of the film's woes. We should ask instead how a director who was on fire only 15 years ago can have resorted so quickly to treading water. If Death Proof proves anything, it's that creative death can strike the liveliest talents. All told, it's a right reservoir dog's dinner.

Pick of the week

A Mighty Heart (15)
dir: Michael Winterbottom
The Daniel Pearl story, starring Angelina Jolie as his wife, Mariane.

Syndromes and a Century (15)
dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
A bewitching curiosity about life at a hospital, from the promising Thai director of Tropical Malady.

Yella (12A)
dir: Christian Petzold
A woman from east Germany begins a new life in Hanover in this disconcerting thriller.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.