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Killer Double Bill: Grindhouse

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino
(Weinstein Co.)

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez got famous together, around the winter of ’92-’93. Tarantino hit high profile first with Reservoir Dogs, and Rodriguez followed with El Mariachi, a roundly unremarkable Spanish-language action flick that gradually attained legendary status through ad nauseam repetition of its $7,000 budget (that a hundred wilder, better underground films had been shot for as much or less never seems to come up in the same sentence — what’s important is that Rodriguez understood America’s fixation with the numbers of the picture business and, like the bright self-promoter he is, exploited it to write his own legend). The ability of both men to whip up press has not diminished much since.

The duo have collaborated frequently since they first paired on 1995's From Dusk Till Dawn — directed by Rodriguez from an old Tarantino script, and co-starring Q.T. — a film whose brokeback criminals-on-the-lam-cum-Tex-Mex-vampire-blowout storyline anticipated the bisected structure of Grindhouse. For those who have miraculously managed to keep out of hollering distance from the Weinsteins’ marketing department, Grindhouse is Tarantino and Rodriguez's attempt to replicate the double-bill-of-fare prevalent in rancid urban theaters circa The Seventies. Each director contributes a full feature, and to more accurately evoke the ambiance of the since-condemned fleapits, the film stock is digitally pocked and pitted, aiming to approximate the battle-scarred state of a veteran roadshow print. Intertitle cards apologize for missing reels, the film seems to shimmy in and out of the projector gate, and between features a gallery of guest directors contribute "Coming Attractions" for never-to-be-made movies (represented are Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright, whose trailer for Don’t is the funniest thing in the movie by a mile).

Rodriguez's splurt of sci-fi gibberish, Planet Terror, leads off. Some have looked at this director's ready embrace of new technology (he's a vocal proselytizer for digital filmmaking, and his segment is by far more reliant on the phony wear-and-tear), his one-man-band production methods (not unusually, he boasts director, screenwriter, cinematographer, and composer credits here), his anti-Hollywood homebasing in Austin, his admirable economy, his frightful prolificacy, and proclaimed Rodriguez a rogue innovator, the future of the medium, etc. But while some of the ineptitude in Planet Terror is obviously affected — the camera swaying as a door slams, the jumbled close-ups that disorientingly lead into a scene — it strikes me, looking back over his career, that his imitation of a graceless, bludgeoning hack is remarkably similar to, well, Robert Rodriguez working at full tilt.

After watching this cacophony of F/X shots tied around some astro-zombies bullshit smudged together from, say, Carpenter’s The Thing, Dr. Butcher, M.D., and Return of the Living Dead, I can recollect about 5 seconds of footage that struck me as genuinely clever: namely, when Freddy Rodriguez’s rockabilly berserker-hero slits a zombie’s throat, then awkwardly cranes his head back to avoid the squirt of infected blood. R.R., who doesn’t seem to know any way to approach filmmaking except as a challenge to one-upmanship, sets out to do grindhouse one better than the grindhouse: “The posters were much better than the movies, but we’re actually making something that lives up to the posters.” Unlike his forebears, Rodriguez has the money and the ready technology to make his wildest imaginations realizable; the resultant “style” is enervating virtuosity, like one of those divas who do vocal calisthenics on every line of a song just because they’ve got the pipes for it. The only guiding principle he follows here is the smothering accretion of effects-upon-effects, image-upon-image: Pavlovian pop recognition makes a “gag” out of a Cheech Marin cameo; Rose McGowan gets an M-60 prosthesis leg grafted on; gross-out medical pictures are downloaded off the internet (handing your movie off to somethingawful.com? That’s just lazy). I will say this at least: Planet Terror’s squibs are the juiciest I’ve ever seen; they splash out jellybean-sized globs of plasma, like a first-person shooter with the violence level maxed out.

I guess the unconvincing patina of damaged emulsion is supposed to underscore the novelty of “doing” drive-in with a major studio bankbook, but here Grindhouse’s lesson in film history is banking on audience ignorance to put over an outright fallacy: the plain fact is that exploitation and A-budget moviemaking have been cross-bred for decades and, ignoring Rodriguez’s accented homage, his tweaked-out shrillness isn’t worth a reel of Tremors.

*****

Which takes us to Death Proof. Now, if you were a young person who was getting into movies in the mid-Nineties, you can’t pretend to talk indifferently about Quentin Tarantino. This is something it will be difficult to properly communicate to future generations: it was weird how popular he was; I remember seeing Four Rooms in its opening week and hearing a section of the audience erupt into cheers at the sight of Tarantino’s screen credit, like a bunch of 14-year-olds watching Tommy Lee spin over the audience in his drum cage. Doubtless the director-as-rock-star marketing tack had existed before — names-above-the-title like Fellini, Warhol, Spike Lee, and Tim Burton come to mind — but Q.T.’s flamboyant-autistic garrulity, Horatio Alger video-store-clerk-made-good backstory, and unblinking wigger bluff set fire the imaginations of a million sexually retarded adolescents in a way that beggars comparison. Maybe it’s just that no other director has seemed to want his fame so badly; the rock star comparison is one he openly courts: in video of Grindhouse’s announcement at the ’06 San Diego Comic Con you can see Tarantino wearing a T-shirt that sports a mock-up of the AC/DC “Back in Black” album cover, reading “RR/QT” — guess who? — ”Back to Back.”

Mainstream press garlanded Pulp Fiction in hyperbolic praise while “alternative” was still hot marketing lexicon, but there was also a murmur of po-faced essayists itching to step up to the Next Big Thing, censuring Tarantino for a dearth of originality and authenticity — though if that’s going to be your yardstick for judging a text, you’d better be willing to apply it indiscriminately, and you may be dispirited by how little you’re left to appreciate when you’re done. Around the crest of Tarantinomania a cutting essay by Dr. Peter Lunenfeld on the phenomena of “Hipbrow,” “a majority with minority tastes,” was much-circulated; alongside a circa-1994 Time cover story by David Brooks, “Everybody’s Hip (and That’s Not Cool),” it seems like a quaint epistle from that bygone era when “taste” wasn’t something that anybody with broadband access could download.

As to if the sum total of Tarantino’s effect on American film was for better or for worse is almost a moot argument now (though those of us who lived through the neo-noir glut of Destiny Turns on the Radio, Two Days in the Valley and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, or the mercifully brief popularity of Urge Overkill, can all agree we wouldn’t want to do it again). It happened, we’re living with it, and new frauds leap up every day to make Quentin’s postmodern hully gully seem positively innocuous. Would film culture be richer, smarter, or more soulful if James Gray, Hal Hartley, Nick Gomez, Jim Jarmusch, or Whit Stillman had moved $100 million in tickets? Almost definitely yes, but then worrying about the disproportionate relation between artistry and popular approbation is a bit like fretting over the earth turning. When I was skulking around film school at the fin-de-millennium, it might’ve still seemed like a vital issue. If only for seeing some truly insufferable egos completely self-identify with the fantasy of Tarantino’s career trajectory, it seemed important to pack a heavy counter-opinion; he could not merely “suck,” he had to “fucking suck.”

Time has eroded any such brutal judgments, though overviewing Tarantino’s career at the 15-year mark still brings up plenty of what-ifs. As maybe the biggest certifiable “auteur” celebrity since — who? Fellini? — he certainly walked into some outsized expectations. But where Federico, whatever his perceived crimes of egoism and largesse, still plugged his art into Italian society in the decades of “Il Boom,” the Montesi scandal, and, basically, the world around him, Q.T.’s main preoccupations have always been the solipsistic hyper-refining of his personal idea of vintage West Coast “cool,” something to do with cute ashtrays, cocktail lounges, bowling shirts, paperback art, L.A. greasy spoons, car culture — a life-proof bathysphere of fetishized plastic. At its worst, the result is something as bourgeoisie-accessible and watered-down-retro as a family outing to Johnny Rockets, though garnished with edgy violence. So Quentin probably won’t transmogrify into an avatar of the arthouse’s Second Coming anytime soon, but, with the benefit of hindsight, why would anybody have thought he would? He never promised us a rose garden and, speaking pragmatically, he at least used his clout to get Chungking Express into flyover-country Blockbusters in the Nineties; what has Dr. Peter Lunenfeld done for anybody lately?

*****

After Jackie Brown, the best and most bittersweet piece of moviemaking Tarantino’s done to date, his stock of scripts seemed to run dry, and a six-year working vacation followed. When he returned, he took a turn for the macro, as if only overkill could justify his sabbatical. The resultant Kill Bills were a landmark of cinematic bloviation, a torrential, diarrheic downpour after a long, long constipation. For a vocal admirer of the fast, hard, and efficient — Stax shouters, garage rock stompers, exploitation cheapies — Tarantino was wanking on an arena rock scale (and releasing according to the Foghat principal: the fourth album should be Double Live*).

If his B-side Death Proof had been released on its own, it would have accounted for some of the most taut, toe-tapping, and consummately enjoyable filmmaking of Tarantino’s career — but it seems that a slim, streamlined model like that wouldn’t suffice to meet perceived expectations of Quentin’s showboat sensationalism, hence Grindhouse and its unique double-bill structure (he seems to be addicted to the game of “bigger and better”; rumors abound of his legendary WWII script The Inglorious Bastards, swollen over the years to 600+ pages in length). It would take a sterner viewer than I to knock the sense of fun inherent in the novelty premise: the sheer bang-for-the-buck shows a desire to give audiences something, anything, in a time when much American studio fare seems almost to contemptuously assume acquiescent attendance (this isn’t the only example of horror movies playing with distribution orthodoxy — see last year’s roadshow festival “8 Films to Die For”). The Weinsteins have caused some uproar in announcing that the Grindhouse movies will be released separately in non-English speaking countries, though really, being able to see Death Proof without having to pass the endurance test of Planet Terror is nothing less than a privilege.

As ever, so much of Tarantino’s creative process can be summarized as the curation of pet obsessions — the ennobling recollection of actors-that-casting-directors-forgot, the cranked-up foregrounding of “You’ve got to hear this” jams — and Death Proof is no exception: T Rex’s “Jeepster” on the soundtrack means screeching tires are on the way, and Kurt Russell, of late relapsed into Disney fare, is reinstated as an ironic pulp icon. “Convoluted” doesn’t even begin to do justice to the setup. Characters exist solely for the purpose of carrying out directorial whim; when Q.T. wants to put that doted-on soundtrack front-and-center, he introduces deejay “Jungle” Julia (Sydney Poitier), out for a night with her girlfriends, to steer the mix. After Russell, as a vehicular-homicidal-maniac “Stuntman” Mike, crashes their party, Q.T. sets his next collision course into… a posse of dead game stuntwomen (though Death Proof straddles several subgenres, Mike, using his Chevy Nova SS to violate female flesh and “shoot his goo,” puts the film firmly in “rape revenge” territory). When the grand finale car chase ensues, it’s a situation that could only conceivably happen under the circumstance that two trained stunt drivers were ambushed by another stunt driver while showing off, leading both parties to try to kill each other — the lead-up is so surreally impossible and the action so unmistakably real that the sequence is almost a pseudodocumentary about its own making.

Russell straight-up winking at the camera might be a bit much, but that’s okay, because at under 90 minutes Death Proof is engineered solidly enough not to sag under its own self-satisfaction. The pure pleasure — of the set piece as an ends to itself, of Poitier whipping her hair in front of the jukebox, of pretty rain-slicked legs, of crash dummy-style slow-mo death, of Russell’s womanish shrieks when wounded — is infectious here. If the film seems a model of classical restraint through its pairing with Planet Terror, Death Proof feels positively jubilant during the current drought of fun in the American multiplex; the last American movies to revel so gleefully in the cinematic possibilities of violence and velocity were those nutty Rube Goldberg devices released under the Final Destination imprimatur. That those horror titles are thrown to the third-string critics while Tarantino gets cover stories and thinkpieces is no fault of his, though it does reflect on his ability to make critics say the darndest things, prompting sentences that anybody over thirty should be embarrassed to write, as A.O. Scott in the NY Times recommends the kids “should ideally sneak in during school hours,” and “might do well to seek out a 45-year-old underemployed bachelor with a large DVD and comic book collection,” for further edification (uh...), while Nathan Lee at the Village Voice one-ups on the “creepy older guy overcompensatorily trying to rap with neighborhood teens” factor: “Go wasted, go stoned, go without your parents’ permission”; oh Nate, you’re just terrible!

Tarantino’s had his share of trouble writing women — not that the dialogue he writes for his ladies is any more or less “stylized” than what he writes for his men, but they’re eerily similar voices: supersmooth assertive, bristling with colorfully profane patois, and showing a good working knowledge of pop culture minutiae. It’s said that he’d originally planned to shoot his Reservoir Dogs script on the cheap, with a group of friends — did the lack of available actresses determine that film’s limitation to masculine speaking roles? I don’t want to be a shit, but let’s remember that grindhouses were almost exclusively male enclaves (and often cruising hotspots; they somehow forgot this point in my presskit) pushing sexual hysteria for isolated men, and so this angle shouldn’t be ignored. True Romance, the first screenplay Tarantino sold, easily lends itself to interpretation as an squirmingly intimate glimpse into pre-fame Q.T.’s fantasy life: the chronically un-laid comic counter jockey meets the hotpantsed quintessence of his pulp fantasies, and the encounter turns his daydreams of hardboiled masculinity into reality: in the first reel he’s reading about Marvel Comic’s one-eyed avenger Nick Fury; by the last, he’s earned his own eyepatch. It’s an abominable movie, but strangely touching in the earnestness of its unexamined Walter Mitty complexes.

True Romance’s Alabama is the nadir — the wish-fulfillment cipher girlfriend as accessory to vintage collection, available in matching leopardskin prints, ready to purr “You’re so cool” while you fuck on your mound of collectibles — though I don’t rate the Kill Bill action figures much better. But Death Proof seems to tap into something slightly more honest with its mixed tone of affection, misogynist rage, and little-boy awe toward femininity. It divides its attentions between two cliques of hip, self-possessed ladies, “Jungle” Julia’s posse (rounded out by Vanessa Ferlito and Jordan Ladd) and the stuntwomen (Alpha chicks Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms, accompanied by Rosario Dawson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead), devoting plenty of screentime to getting acquainted with them. The filming of these hang-outs is rapt in a surprisingly relaxed, tender way; there is the feeling of attentively admiring the girls from a neighboring table, with the stalker implications not unexplored. The women are still unmistakably Tarantino creations, if only because they seem to love the same shit that Quentin Tarantino does, but their establishing scenes are leisurely enough to let the actors’ inherent charm assert above the self-conscious smack of the dialogue; in fact to cede the movie to that charm. Dawson, an immensely likeable actress who made even the arbitrary, mechanical provocation of Clerks 2 seem fitfully effervescent, shows all the stuff of a superb light comedienne, while real-life stuntwoman Bell, previously best-unknown for absorbing Lucy Lawless and Uma Thurman’s lumps, is a fine, unaffected, natural actress, an elastic-faced, goofy-sweet charmer. The film, which basks in the privilege of all this female company while its motor of sexual aggression thrums away underneath, could just about be summed up as: “These gorgeous girls — I love ’em but I hate ’em.”


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