Monday, June 23, 2008

Death, Cars and the Power of Names

A thought upon seeing Death Proof for the third time.

As I said in my first blogged essay on the film, the first set of girls — Syndey Poitier, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito’s characters, plus Rose McGowan, depending on how you look at it — function in a significantly different way than do the second set — Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson, and Zoe Bell, plus Mary Elizabeth Winstead, depending on how you look at it, and I’m not just talking about how the fact that the second group survives the film. In essence, the first group are the film’s Marion Cranes — the flighty ladies ultimately doomed by their inability to act as adults. The second group act more sensibly and manage to defeat the film’s big bad, so I’ll call them the Lila Cranes.

left to right: Marion Crane, Marion Crane and Marion Crane

Seeing the film for a third time has helped me notice a strange trend in the first half, with the Marions. There’s some strange goings-on with these characters’ names. Maybe it’s unintentional on Quentin Tarantino’s part, but the fact his other films have included some names that indicate that he does, in fact, name his characters for a reason make me think he could have planned this out. Fun with names abound in Tarantino films, by the way. In Kill Bill alone, there’s a staggering amount of “letter play” going on, with this name and that name referencing individual letters: Beatrix (B), Bill (B), their daughter BB, Bill’s brother Budd (another B), O-ren (O), Jeanie Bell (G), Elle Driver (L), Karen Kim (a double K), Gogo Yubari (a double G), and two axed characters, Yuki Yubari (a double Y) and L.F. O’Boyle. Aside from that, a lot of the characters have more than one name. Uma Thurman’s character alone goes variously by The Bride, Beatrix Kiddo, Black Mamba and Arlene Machiavelli and is damn near buried under a gravestone marked Paula Schulz.

But back to Death Proof.

Back when I took classes, I can remember literature professors speaking more than once of an old superstition about wariness about telling strangers your name. Knowing a person’s name, in various senses, gives others a certain power over that person. You can call them out, curse them out, Google them ad nauseam, file a lawsuit against them, stalk them on MySpace or, at the very least, tell everybody you know that So-and-So isn’t the superstar he or she claims to be.

I’ve talked up the point too much by now, but I feel like it’s worth pointing out that the three main Marions — who, again, meet bad ends — each encounter some odd business with men and their names. (I’m only picking the three, because they’re the only real main characters in the first part. Lana Franks, who dies in the big crash scene midway through the scene, basically has three lines and only serves to drive the Marions into certain death. Pam (McGowan), who gets more than three lines, is clearly excluded from the main group.) Julia (Poitier), for example, is almost universally known as Jungle Julia, the name she uses as a DJ. The only person who ever uses her full name is Pam, who’s known Julia since childhood and freely divulges that Julia wasn’t always the statuesque beauty she is today. (Or was, given that she’s dead now.) There’s a big difference between Jungle Julia and Julia Lucai, and there’s a big difference between knock-out and a gangly junior high schooler. With Arlene (Ferlito), a fake name manages to simultaneously protect her and put her in danger. Julia, as part of her radio show, announces that her friend will be visiting from out of town and encourages men to approach her, buy her a drink and recite a passage from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Only Julia tells her listeners that this friend is named “Butterfly,” which manages to protect her identity a little bit. And finally there’s Shanna (Ladd), who takes offense to a bar dude accidentally calling her “Shauna.” She’s protective of her name, a rightly so. “Now there is one thing every girl in the whole world whose name is ‘Shanna’ has in common with each other: We all hate the name ‘Shauna.’ And we really hate when people call us ‘Shawna.’ Remember it’s Shanna Banana, not Shauna Banahnah.”

It’s all a moot point, this name protectiveness, I guess, because, as I said, they all die. The women in the second half of Death Proof don’t, and no one seems to talk about their names all that much. Maybe that’s intentional and maybe it’s not, but there’s a lot that Tarantino wrote to parallel between the film’s two halves — bad things happening on birthdays, lousy Hollywood boyfriends, nasty business with legs — and other elements that don’t, in an apparent effort to contrast the second group against the first group.

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