So it turns out that all the marketing in the world can’t make up for the fact that Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and, most importantly, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, sincerely overestimated just how many people were going to want to see Grindhouse, their lovingly detailed replication of a ‘70s B-movie double feature.
Whatever. In the aftermath of Pulp Fiction, similar miscalculations have been made for just about everything released by these directors, with the exception of Sin City which, if memory serves, rang up plenty big box-office cash. No matter how lovingly or relentlessly sold, there just aren’t enough folks in my demographic (just north of 45) who cherish, or are willing to own up to cherishing, B-movies like Switchblade Sisters, Zombie, Coffy, The Swingin’ Cheerleaders or Trip with the Teacher to make Grindhouse a big Wild Hogs-sized hit. And there’s a scene in Tarantino’s Death Proof, the second half of this very special night out at the movies, that provides a razor-sharp critical analysis of the problem at the heart of pitching Grindhouse to the all-important 18-to-25-year-olds that pump the lifeblood through what’s left of Hollywood. A character who goes by the name of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) sits at a bar regaling a group of indulgent young cuties with tales of his past work, throwing out names like “Bob Urich” and Vega$ and, gulp, The Virginian. The young women nod vacantly, but appreciatively, as Mike continues to spin his tales, until he stops for a moment and then asks, “Do you even recognize the names of these shows?” The women, caught, have to admit that they don’t, and Mike is consigned, by all but an unfortunate one of them, to the special zone of irrelevancy occupied by the arcane pop culture of an older generation. In this moment, it’s hard not to see Tarantino himself, as Stephanie Zacharek observed in her review of Grindhouse, as a similar kind of generational proselytizer—Stuntman Quentin—carrying a vast wealth of knowledge of movie history around in that gigantic cranium, preaching the gospel of cinematic and pop culture minutiae and obscure talents to a younger generation that may not so readily relate to his historically minded artist/entertainer’s perspective.
But putting aside Harvey Weinstein’s panicked teeth-gnashing about Grindhouse’s opening weekend box-office and performance, and his utterly illogical notion to split the movies up in a couple of weeks and re-release them with added footage—essentially spending countless more millions to try to resell what he’s already perceived the general moviegoing public either doesn’t understand or even necessarily want— we still have the movie itself (for however much longer Weinstein allows) to consider. The three-hour and 15-minute Grindhouse that is still in theaters, consisting of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, and the surrounding fake trailers and bounty of hilarious details—missing reel cards, scratched reels, bad splices, muddy sound, bleached and tinted patches, et al-- is clearly not for everybody—I don’t even get paid to make savvy marketing guesses, and I could have told Harvey that them what likes Norbit and Wild Hogs and Blades of Glory may not flock to his movie (especially on Easter weekend). But for heathens and film-savvy fans eager to revisit the heyday of pus-and-blood zombie epics, road-rage-fueled revenge thrillers and directors like Jack Hill, Lucio Fulci and George A. Romero, when downtown urban grindhouses and, perhaps even more importantly for my generation (and Tarantino’s), drive-ins served as musty, rickety, sticky cathedrals for exhibiting the violent, sleazy, amoral dregs of movie culture, Grindhouse is a 195-minute bliss-out, a giddy orgy of nostalgia, reinvention and, maybe for some, redemption of a kind of movie most often held beneath contempt by critics and even moviegoers.
After a spectacularly funny phony trailer for a macho vigilante thriller called Machete, directed by Rodriguez and starring the near-iconic badass Danny Trejo (“These guys were fucking with the wrong Mexican!”), the double feature starts in earnest with Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, which, for all the exacting effort put into making the print look like it’s been run through the gears of a series of badly maintained projectors, is pretty much B-movie nostalgia served straight up. It’s a borderline incoherent zombie narrative with a whiff of parody, but never the deadly ironist’s wink, which hangs together just long enough to showcase the latest in zombie gore and lusciously ambivalent sexual iconography, courtesy of Rose MacGowan’s ambitious stripper (she wants to be a stand-up comedian) whose leg is eaten, and then replaced with a machine gun/grenade launcher by her gunslinger boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez).
Planet Terror gathers together a group of societal castoffs and ne’er-do-wells in the battle against a government-created zombie crisis—Howard Hawks by way of John Carpenter—but Rodriguez isn’t so much interested in examining or expanding the form of this kind of cheapie thriller as he is mounting the most spectacular version of it possible. Of course, all the effects are far more sophisticated than those on display in Fulci’s The Beyond or Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Rodriguez’s movie lurches far more rapidly and spastically toward ever-escalating and ever-gorier set pieces than the real thing did—back in the mid ‘70s, the patches in-between eyeball-gougings and decapitations were frequently marred by dull stretches of character drama or other manifestations of listless pacing and bad direction. Rodriguez, ironically, is served well by the pastiche form of Planet Terror, in which coherence is not a high priority, because coherence isn’t exactly one of his strengths either. He’s a sensationalist as a director-- most of his stylistic effects exist in a vacuum created by a relentless pursuit of cool, and this pursuit almost always results in bad movies (Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids 3-D, From Dusk Till Dawn). You get the sense that Rodriguez makes movies primarily so he can sit around on the set with his legs kicked up, strumming a guitar and hiding underneath a cowboy hat between takes, conjuring an image of cool and movies of insistently facile and hollow imagery.
But here Rodriguez seems, for once, to be having fun as a director, staging large-scaled scenes of fleshy destruction—the bodies don’t splatter as much as explode, like balloon people filled with plasma and gristle—and setting up razor-thin parallels to the kind of social commentary that would often provide B-movies of this ilk with some much appreciated (if often ill-advised) political context, or subtext. (Planet Terror could be subtitled Apocalypse Wow!) And whenever the action kicks into gear, Rodriguez responds by striking a stylistic coup by using the textural pleasures of those ragged grindhouse prints as devices to amplify the action on top of the already whirligig editing and sound—the scratches and pops and jittery frames get even scratchier and poppier and jitterier when MacGowan tilts her lovely frame, lifts what used to be her leg and mows down another in an endless line of shuffling undead meat-sacks with another spray of machine gun fire.
Once Planet Terror reaches its conclusion, it’s time for the entertainment before the second feature, which consists of perfectly pitched genre trailers by currently hot genre directors. Rob Zombie’s delirious Werewolf Women of the S.S. climaxes with a suitably bizarre celebrity cameo and is so goddamn weird in itself that I’m sure I must have dreamt it. Fans of the British horror offerings from companies like Amicus will appreciate Edgar Wright’s witty and precise evocation of these relatively sophisticated pictures, though respect for a great joke prevents me from revealing the title of this particular fake thriller. And Eli Roth’s entry in the holiday-themed slasher genre preview, Thanksgiving (“This year there’s no more leftovers!”), may be the best thing he’s ever done, right down to the ghastly surprise awaiting a vivacious cheerleader on a trampoline. (One bonus granted to us at the drive-in where I saw Grindhouse Saturday night—a real 15-minute intermission was inserted after Planet Terror, but before the onslaught of trailers, to accommodate the limits of the reels in the projection booth, which can only hold movies that max out at two hours and 45 minutes, as well as the limits of one's bladder.)
The double feature takes on a completely different tone, however, with Tarantino’s Death Proof. A person whose name I can’t remember to credit commented last week that Rodriguez directs Planet Terror like someone who’s heard all about grindhouse movies, but Tarantino directs Death Proof like a fan who’s really processed them, like someone to whom they actually have meaning and resonance, someone who has a discernable approach that exists outside the original texts but has nevertheless been grounded in them. I think some of the resistance to and/or disappointment in Death Proof can be traced to the way it has been marketed—as a relentless chrome-and-burning-rubber thriller. It’s a bait and switch familiar to Tarantino and any B-movie fan-- in the world of low-budget exploitation filmmaking the posters were often way more satisfying than the movies themselves, trafficking in a spectacular clashing of potent graphic design and hyperbolic ad copy that routinely outstripped the energy and style (or lack thereof) flickering away on screen.
Death Proof promises gruesome, high-octane action, and unlike many of the B-movies of yore (Death Race 2000 being a notable exception) it delivers on its promise. Where the bait and switch comes in is that Tarantino, in Grindhouse’s most radical act of reinvention, mixes the creeping dread of a sinister car thriller with exacting visual and aural recreations of the cheerleader and female-revenge pictures (both Jack Hill specialties) and his own unceasing desire to hang out and listen to the characters he must eventually put in harm’s way, which is here recast in the textural sensitivity and patience of Monte Hellman’s brilliant road movie Two-Lane Blacktop. (And here I must take time out to route you to D.K. Holm’s excellent review of Grindhouse, the only other piece of writing I’ve read that makes note of what is, for me, this crucial connection to Hellman’s film.)
David Edelstein writes of Death Proof: “What makes some critics' knee-jerk derision of Tarantino so vexing is that he's more than a violence peddler. He's a predatory humanist. He loves just to hang out with his soon-to-be beleaguered characters… (He’s) a movie freak who loves women onscreen almost as much as he loves to punish women onscreen, and who (this is what makes him an artist) gets off most on his own ambivalence.” This ambivalence powers the first 20 minutes of the movie, in which we’re introduced to the Austin city lights courtesy of a carload of profane hotties in short-shorts—a local radio personality (Sydney Tamilia Poitier) and her smokin’, drinkin’, sexed-up friends (Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito). Tarantino draws out this loose-limbed night out to near its numbed vanishing point, daring impatient audiences to get fed up with this brooding, bitching posse as they spin their wheels and knock back shots in a dingy hot spot. They eventually catch the eye of Stuntman Mike (Russell), a man who seems to have been haunting one of them—Ferlito’s Arlene spots his muscled-up Chevy Nova, complete with skull and crossbones and a Rubber Duck ornament on the hood, parked ominously outside the bar, and the movie’s inexplicable sense of dread begins to mount. Tarantino likes these largely obnoxious women and doesn’t want to let them out of the cocoon of protective inebriation he’s spun for them (he even plays the dive’s bartender-in-residence), even though he knows he must. And up to now the movie has much of the same cool openness to the rhythm of experience as it comes that was a hallmark of Two-Lane Blacktop, and an ability to see how moving on the road, while here not so much open as haunted, informs the arrogance and entitlement these girls radiate. (To those that don’t respond to the rhythms of Death Proof, however, this openness comes off like aimless indulgence and lack of direction.)
But Stuntman Mike is soon revealed to have far more sinister plans than his jokey barroom John Wayne impersonations, anecdotes of “old” Hollywood, and his honest self-assessments (“Honey, I ain’t stalkin’ you, but that don’t mean I’m not a wolf”) would indicate. And Death Proof, already the second half of a bifurcated B-movie revelry, takes a tonal right turn worthy of Psycho, after a brilliant and terrifying head-on collision that pays tribute to each victim in awful acknowledgment of the violability of their bodies, into the territory where cheerleaders swing, sisters unite in righteous fury and muscle cars thunder along hot pavement on which the likes of Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry are significant name-checks. Tarantino serves up four more hot chicks—an actress decked out in a cheerleader uniform (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a make-up artist (RosarioDawson) and two stuntwomen (Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms)—all on time-out from a movie shoot who kill more time with more patented Tarantino talk, some of it teetering on self-parody, and all of it much sweeter and more entertaining than the banter of the doomed trio of the first half. As D.K. Holm observes, we don’t want to see these women die.
But we know who they will eventually meet, and faster than you can say Samuel Z. Arkoff it happens, while the two stuntwomen test-drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger just like the one in Vanishing Point, with Bell hanging onto the hood by two belt straps. The car chase Tarantino serves up here more than fulfills the harrowing promise of the advertising—the old-school, no-CGI aesthetic of visceral car-chase action is put to the best expression since Ronin, and leads to the movie’s mind-boggling, pulse-pounding switcheroo, a situation that allows Russell to explode out of the scarred, hot-leather mythos he’s constructed for Mike into giddy new territory. (Russell, by the way, is his usual superb self here, and a bit of a brave surprise as well.)
It takes a while to process than there’s a whole lot less futzing around with the scratched-burnt-torn film aesthetic in Death Proof, and the moment you notice it (it’ll come for everyone in a different point in the movie, most probably) is the moment you’ll realize you’ve been sucked in by Death Proof as a movie, not just as an elaborate stunt. It is, I think, one of Tarantino’s best films in that he has found a way to fuse the aesthetic of different of drive-in movie archetypes and apply his relentless cinephilia to a movie that is certainly an homage, but more importantly one that expresses the brutal feeling of a born storyteller for his characters. The movie beautifully apes the stoned, fuzzy aesthetic and flat compositions of a typical Crown International Pictures release (Tarantino was his own director of photography) while offering up something resembling people we’re granted the time to get to know—and some of them are unpleasant as hell—as grist for the grindhouse mill, and it ends up winding a loping, natural path back to the ambivalence of Tarantino’s most emotionally resonant film, Jackie Brown (itself in part a B-movie homage starring Foxy Brown herself, Pam Grier), and a suitably wild, abrupt conclusion.
For some, Grindhouse will be a long sit, and they may welcome the cutting asunder that the Weinsteins allegedly have planned. But I found the movie intoxicating from first jittery frame to last. It’s so packed with authentic film geek love that I felt transported in a way that honors Grindhouse’s intentions and achievements in the presence of the real deal, which is still unspooling nightly at the New Beverly’s L.A. Grindhouse Festival 2007 through the end of May. That response may have had something to do with seeing it at a drive-in too (I’m seeing it again at the Rialto in Pasadena this weekend, so we’ll see), but I think it has more to do with Stuntman Quentin and Sidekick Robert’s desire to connect with the meaning (or lack thereof) found in the discarded refuse of our collective movie past. If you’re of a like mind, as I always knew I was, Grindhouse is a singular event, a pustulant, smokin’ rubber-scented gift for true believers. I’ll give the last word to David Edelstein whose review, along with D.K. Holm’s, expressed my feelings about this movie (these movies) better than I think I have myself:
“There's another reason that Grindhouse is, for some of us misfits, such a happy trip. It affirms our sense of community. No one at the time wrote much about grindhouse fare. It was mostly too sexist and lowbrow for the Voice, and way too lowbrow for the Times. (In her review of Dawn of the Dead, the sequel to the sixties' most seminal horror film, Janet Maslin boasted about walking out in the first fifteen minutes.) It's true that most of these films were depressingly bad. But there was something vital, something electric about the liveness of that culture. I'm sad that most people will see Grindhouse on video. It should be consumed (or, depending on your perspective, endured) in a theater full of shrieking, gasping, cheering, borderline-ashamed exploitation junkies. Nowadays, people smoke dope and drink and jerk off in front of TV screens in the privacy of their homes. They really need to get out more.”
Amen. If you haven’t yet seen Grindhouse, or even if you have, get yourself to a theater (or a drive-in) and see it before Harvey gets his grubby sausage fingers on it and guts it of its purpose and context in the name of the almighty dollar. Sure, exploitation producer Joseph Brenner was known for doing this same kind of crap back in the day. But that’s one grindhouse tradition not worth keeping alive. I hope Tarantino and Rodriguez can somehow get the Weinsteins to see the light, as projected out from one of the clanking, film-shredding beasts of exhibition that gave the grindhouses, and Grindhouse, its name.
Links to further reviews of Grindhouse, from B to Z, some positive, some not so positive, all worth a look: