Media @ McGill

Caroline Bem | From Writing Tablets to System Reboots: Death Proof and the Cinematic Diptych

Submitted by Media@McGill on


My thesis draws on writings which span the fields of art history, media theory, and narrative theory, primarily, to explore a single artifact, Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof, from a variety of angles. I posit that Death Proof is a cinematic diptych and note that, through its “low” status, my object of study finds a direct correlate in the diptych form itself: Death Proof is a film made to resemble a 1970s B-movie, a fact which is mirrored by the visual diptych’s longstanding history as a widespread but comparatively “minor” form (the diptych is associated primarily with relatively small, portable objects made for private use). Yet, I argue that the diptych is in fact unique, and thus of great historical and cultural relevance, in its ability to both perpetuate and reinvent itself by adapting to the specificities of a number of media and formats.[i] From a methodological perspective, then, my thesis follows an approach that I have come to term “medial-formalist analysis:” in spite of its unassuming status as the most frequently overlooked title in Tarantino’s filmography, Death Proof’s overarching material, visual, narrative, and temporal organization allows it to transcend the boundaries of the film medium in significant ways that question, act out and negotiate a range of issues pertaining to a series of media and systems of thought.

In chapter one, I offer a survey of visual diptychs ranging from Late Antiquity to the present day: historical examples include consular diptychs—physical objects (bound ivory tablets) that could be opened and closed like a codex[ii]—and devotional diptychs, which were particularly popular in the Northern Renaissance and could be positioned upright to create “‘booklike’ little altars.”[iii] As I argue, there are two universal characteristics present within all visual diptychs: a capacity for metamorphosis (often symbolized through the movement of the diptych from one object-state into another) and a rootedness in the temporal logic of simultaneity. After surveying the (scant) existing literature on the diptych in the cinema, I make clear how Death Proof, too, performs similar metamorphoses. I show how the diptych’s ability to migrate, not only from form to form, as evidenced for instance in the transition between diptych and triptych in altarpieces, but also from object to object, as shown in the transformation of two flat ivory tablets into a three-dimensional codex, or of two painted panels into a mini-altar, has been preserved within the cinematic diptych.

In chapter two, I argue that Death Proof’s narratological structure is particularly fruitfully theorized in terms of law (retribution) and psychoanalysis (masochism), the two systems which shape and preserve the film’s narrative coherence and unity. Emphasizing the transferable aspect of vengeance through, in particular, an analysis of its temporal and economic dimensions, I bring to light how a revenge contract is carried out or, indeed, carried across from one segment of the film into the second. After showing how Death Proof is informed, primarily, by the conventions of what has been termed the “rape-revenge cycle,”[iv] I argue that Death Proof is hinged on a moral paradox and that the two halves of the film must thusly be viewed as the two segments of a (reversible) masochistic contract similar to those described in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs (1870).[v] Ultimately then, this chapter shows how, through the film’s formal narrative organization, the binaries which permeate Death Proof—male/female, attacker/victim, sadist/masochist—and the ethical positions to which they correspond are proven, over the course of the film, to be fully reversible. This reversal, I make clear, is not simply one facet of Death Proof but is, in fact, central to its organization as a cinematic diptych.

Chapter three examines how the cinematic diptych gives rise to a unique kind of temporality which is highly reminiscent of the temporal mode observed in digital artifacts that are characterized primarily by the reset or system reboot. Turning to the concept of uchronia, a specific temporality first theorized by Roland Barthes and later applied to new media artifacts by Edmond Couchot,[vi] I argue that Death Proof can fruitfully be read as a videogame resetting itself and, throughout the chapter, I ask what it might mean for a film to feel like a playable new media product.[vii] In addition, I also bring to light a further important feature of the cinematic diptych: while cinematic time has long been characterized by a rift between the temporality of the events recorded and the time of the film’s viewing, Death Proof’s organization as a videogame reveals a different temporality, characteristic of the time of doing (Couchot’s concept of temps du faire) unique to digital artifacts.

In chapter four, I build upon the methodological possibilities opened up in chapter three to put forward the final and most ambitious reading of Death Proof this thesis proposes: building on Michel Butor’s observation that every book is a diptych,[viii] I argue that Death Proof exhibits a range of characteristics which make it possible to apprehend it as a film that feels itself to be a material book-object. By drawing on a range of writings that engage with the historical significance of the page in Western culture and its subsequent translation into digital media,[ix] I show how Death Proof partakes obliquely of ongoing discussions pertaining to the (im)materiality of the codex in the wake of digitization.

While the formal rigor and ambiguous double-sidedness of Death Proof in many ways epitomize the diptych form, my four successive readings of the film also allow me to shed light on the largely under-theorized complexity of the diptych form itself. Furthermore, the fact that these analyses result from multiple readings of a single film becomes indissociable from the very terms of the kind of analysis I propose. On the one hand, this thesis hopes to open up the question of the renewal of formalist approaches within film studies and, on the other hand, it also hopes to lay a foundation for a philosophy of the particular within film theory.


[i] I draw on recent developments within media studies, such as the emergence of format and platform studies, to allow me to speak more specifically about the material substrates of “new” media. See for instance Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012). See also Tarleton Gillespie, “The Politics of ‘Platforms.’” New Media & Society 12 3 (2010): 347-364. See also Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009).

[ii] See Wolfgan Kermer, Studien zum Diptychon in der Sakralen Malerei: Von den Anfängen bis zur Mitte des Sechzehnten Jahrhunderts (mit einem Katalog) (Düsseldorf: Rudolf Stehle GmbH & Co. KG, 1967) 6-11. See also Kim Bowes, “Ivory Lists: Consular Diptychs, Christian Appropriation and Polemics of Time in Late Antiquity.” Art History 24 3 (June 2001): 338-57.

[iii] Laura D. Gelfand, “The Devotional Portrait Diptych and the Manuscript Tradition,” in John Oliver Hand and Ron Spronk (eds.), Essays in Context: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2006) 49.

[iv] See Carol J. Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992). See also Jacinda Read, The New Avengers: Feminism, Femininity and the Rape-Revenge Cycle (Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2000). See also Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).

[v] Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty / Venus in Furs [1967 /1870], (New York: Zone Books, 1989).

[vi] Edmond Couchot, Des Images, du temps et des machines dans les arts et la communication (Paris: Actes Sud, 2007).

[vii] Here, I follow an approach opened up by Jan Simons in his book Playing the Waves: Lars Von Trier’s Game Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

[viii] Michel Butor. “The Book as Object,” in Inventory: Essays by Michel Butor (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968) 55.

[ix] See Garrett Stewart, The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006) and Bookwork: Medium to Object to Concept to Art Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011). See also Anthony Grafton, La Page, de l’Antiquité à l’ère du numérique (Paris: Louvre éditions, 2012). See also Andrew Piper, Book was There: Reading in Electronic Times (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2012).