I just saw the two halves of Grindhouse. Robert Rodriguez’s bit is pretty lame; instead of a tribute to exploitation films, it comes off as just another comedy-action thriller, though without (quite) the smarts of Charlie’s Angels. It’s all tongue-in-cheek gorey special effects, boring, supposedly ironic revelations (the random dirtball hero is some sort of incredible martial arts, gunman guy. The evil zombified ex-husband comes back at the end. The little boy who was warned not to play with guns kills himself with the gun accidentally…but only offscreen, because the film is just that chickenshit.) It’s not horrible; just another interchangeable bit of Hollywood product, where the line between the thing and the pastiche of the thing has been crossed so many times already it might as well not exist.

Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, on the other hand, is a brilliant movie. The surprise twist in the middle is actually shocking (and is why I’m going to try to be a little circumspect to avoid spoilers.) The violence is brutal and not at all chickenshit. It’s also really rare to see a male director take such care with so many different female characters; the movie really ends up being about female friendships, both as a network that gives women’s lives depth and meaning when the worst happens, and as a protective bond as well. I think that Tarantino also manages to celebrate female violence without fetishizing it, something that is very rarely done (and wasn’t done, for example, in Kill Bill.) If there’s a sexual charge in the second half of the film, it’s one the women feel on their own behalf; they get to enjoy their own violence, rather than having their violence tied into a parade of nudity and phallic symbols (as in, say “Ginger,” or even “Buffy” in a lot of ways.)

I mean, Death Proof is obviously exploitative, and self-consciously crap. But it’s also really heartfelt. The instant before one character dies, when we can see she knows what’s going to happen, and she registers sadness which seems as much for her friends as herself, is really moving. Of all Tarantino’s movies, this is the one that I think most shows Jack Hill’s influence, which is (and which Tarantino would take as) very high praise.

Update: I was poking around online, and it looks like Death Proof was more or less critically panned. I wonder if part of the reason is the genre. Though there isn’t an actual rape, and though payback is administered by a second group of girls related only structurally to the first, the movie is really a rape-revenge film. And if there’s one genre critics tend to loathe, it’s rape-revenge films. Maybe the most critically despised film of all time is “I Spit On Your Grave,” a movie Ebert made famous with his loathing. Carol Clover in her study “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” speculates that movies about celebrating castration freak male critics right the fuck out, and that seems like a fairly safe bet. In this case, too, I wonder if people were thrown by how thoroughly Tarantino focuses here on female concerns. A ton of the movie is devoted to women talking about their relationships, with men and with each other. One of the funniest laugh-lines in the film involves an issue of Italian Vogue, a joke I got because, you know, I married a woman, but I certainly wouldn’t have known what the hell they were talking about otherwise. It seems possible that a lot of reviewers were hoping for Enter the Dragon or Godfather and instead ended up with what looked to them like Waiting to Exhale.

I didn’t see Waiting to Exhale myself, though I did skim the book, and, at least to my (admittedly male) sensibility, Death Proof is way better. One of the most interesting things about it is the way it seems to be thinking about male and female genre conventions. The girls in the first half of the movie are, the script is at pains to tell us, almost completely unfamiliar with male genre conventions (specifically with car chase movies.) They’re less butch than their counterparts in the second half — and this lack of butchness is linked both to their vulnerability and to their age. Part of getting older, more settled, and more comfortable in your skin for women, Tarantino seems to suggest, is becoming more butch, or at least having more access to a masculine side, and its potential for violence. This neatly inverts the usual girl coming of age story, with a tomboy childhood being left behind for a fully feminine adulthood. (I’d be really curious to see what Judith Halberstam, author of “Female Masculinity,” would say about this movie.)

One thing there isn’t in Tarantino’s movie is any suggestion of lesbianism. (There is a lesbian relationship in Rodriguez’s film, but the movie assiduously avoids dealing with it.) It’s an interesting omission since exploitation films were, as near as I can tell, pretty thoroughly obsessed with lesbian themes. On the other hand, Tarantino also avoids the “final girl” slasher sterotype; victims are not chosen on the basis of their sexual activity (everyone is pretty much sexually active) and, even more importantly, survival is about relationships, *not* individual bravery or resilience. The movie also, and adamently, rejects sadism (or, at least, sadism by men). Kurt Russell is certainly charming and compelling as the evil Stuntman Mike, but the movie spends much, much more time telling you about the girls — their ambitions, their hopes, their relationships. I don’t see how you could really be rooting for him at any point. You do feel a little sympathy for him when the tables are turned, perhaps…though even then, he kind of turns into a snivelling crybaby…no going out with glory for him.

Anyway, after Kill Bill 2, which was something of a disappointment, this really restores my faith in Tarantino. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out — go forth and rent it at once.