Media @ McGill

Caroline Bem | Working Title: “Death Proof and the Cinematic Diptych”

Submitted by Justin on


My thesis is structured entirely around a single artifact: Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof. Thus, it takes a stance against typological approaches to emphasize, instead, how the concept of the cinematic diptych and Death Proof, taken as a multifaceted object of study, work together as a tandem: their interplay draws attention to the possibilities that arise from the unique (and singular) meeting between an object and a theoretical tool when neither is fixed, that is to say, when neither the object nor its context—methodological, historical—are stable. Insisting on the “low” status of my object of study, I emphasize how this object finds a direct correlate in the diptych form itself since, historically, the diptych has been regarded as a widespread but relatively “minor” form. Finally, I address the interdisciplinary nature of my topic: beyond the multi-disciplinary approach I apply to textual analyses of Death Proof, my thesis aligns itself with current work emerging in other areas within the humanities. From a methodological perspective my project shares a growing interest in a renewal of formalist approaches, such as close reading or viewing, which appear in recent writings such as those of English literature scholar Susan J. Wolfson, English and cultural theorist Ellen Rooney, or art historian Linda Seidel.

Chapter 1: here, I situate Death Proof within Tarantino’s filmography and the Grindhouse project (Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, 2007) by focusing on its relation to 1970s cinema and the B-movie tradition. I also provide an overview of the few existing academic writings on Death Proof and discuss reasons for this paucity. A possible explanation lies in the particularly virulent type of fan culture Tarantino’s films have elicited, which seems to sweep aside academic inquiry. I also discuss and position myself in relation to the two most common approaches to Tarantino’s work: auteur theory and postmodern theory.

In Chapter 2, I argue that the implementation of a revenge contract is central to Death Proof, both from the viewpoint of the film’s narrative organization and, at the level of content, as the mechanism by which reversible ethical positions are made manifest. Insisting on the transferable character of revenge (its mirroring and economical aspects), I show how a revenge contract is carried out or, indeed, carried across from one segment of Death Proof into the second. As a result, I argue that the film perpetuates and radicalizes both the temporal and archaic dimensions of revenge.

Chapter 3 traces the history of the diptych as a visual form which, following Gilles Deleuze, opposes linearity (diptych) to circularity (triptych), by focusing on three key historical moments: Late Antiquity (Roman consular diptychs), the Flemish Renaissance (diptychs as private devotional images) and 20th/ 21st century art (Andy Warhol’s Marilyn diptych and the black diptychs of Pierre Soulages). The poster art for Death Proof serves as a through-thread for this chapter, which concludes with a short historical overview of the split screen film (Abel Gance’s Napoléon [1927], Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls [1966], and Sisters [Brian De Palma, 1973]). Throughout the chapter, I seek to bring to light the formal connections between the diptych, the grid (R. Krauss), the window (A. Friedberg), the frame or parergon (J. Derrida) and the codex, which is embedded within the diptych form from the outset (K. Bowes, A. Grafton). With the final discussion of split screen films, a transition takes place from a purely spatial definition of the visual diptych—two images side by side—, to the addition of a temporal dimension of simultaneity.

Chapter 4 takes up the narrative aspect of the diptych form. The chapter opens with an overview of doubling in 19th Century literature (Guy de Maupassant, Otto Rank) and subsequently draws on examples from the Nouveau Roman (L. Dällenbach),  the late modernist theatre of Samuel Beckett and experimental narrative cinema (Marguerite Duras and Alain Renais), to highlight key characteristics of the narrative diptych (repetition, mise-en-abyme). These examples are put into dialogue with the commercial history of double-bill screenings within which Death Proof originates.

Chapter 5 offers a reading of Death Proof in terms of (video) game studies, which construes the film as a succession of two resets or playthroughs. Reflecting on Deleuze’s proposition that the “diptych in the cinema is fundamentally theatrical” (1985), this chapter explores the rules which govern the narrative of Death Proof as well as the film’s inherent playfulness (reenactment and performative scenes). Thus, the chapter addresses the ways in which the diptych form gives rise to realms of possibility, or alternative worlds, rejoining a focal point common to both video games and a recent current within narrative cinema (D. Bordwell and N. Carroll, E. Branigan, T. Elsaesser, W. Buckland).

Chapter 6 focuses on an analysis of the car crash scene (really a montage of four different crashes) which is the central climax of Death Proof.  Drawing heavily on the history of car crash films put forward by Karen Beckman, I argue that the car crash in Death Proof is not about multiple possibilities/outcomes or perspectives/viewpoints as much as it is about gaining absolute mastery over cinematic space and time. Thus, the chapter takes further the notion of differed time (M. A. Doane) to establish it as a defining feature of the cinematic diptych.

Finally, in the Conclusion (which could expand into a full-sized chapter), I move beyond the diptych’s inherent dualism to analyze the film’s use of multi-character narrative (M. Del Mar Arzcona). In light of accounts of early mathematics from the perspectives of anthropology, ethnography and theology, I show how Death Proof performs a veritable arithmetic of protagonists and objects leading, ultimately, to the formulation of what might be termed a filmic pop theory of numbers. Echoing the way in which my thesis as a whole is concerned with a return to basic formalist structures in recent cinema, this final section hopes to demonstrate how numbers literally cut across the narrative structure of Death Proof to underline the formalist potential of arithmetical organization within contemporary narrative cinema.