GRINDHOUSE: A REVIEW IN TWO PARTS
Part I: A Masterpiece of the Post-Aesthetic
I hope you'll humor me in a bit of indulgence, if I find it necessary to begin with a discussion of an annual bad movie marathon that takes place every January in the suburbs of Chicago.
It's impossible for anyone who has never been to B-Fest to understand what makes it that which it is. For 24 hours in the cold heart of the Illinois winter, some 200 persons sit in the dark and watch some truly awful sci-fi, horror and action movies. They make fun of some of the movies. They cheer at some of the movies. They sleep through some of the movies.
What they (and I really mean "we," of course) never do is watch the movies. That's not the point at all. Of course we are aware of what's onscreen, and we leave the theater with the knowledge of that movie's content, but B-Fest as such is not about the 14-18 movies that screen during it. B-Fest is the experience of sitting in that room with 200 other people, all feeding on some strange energy that surrounds cheap, schlocky movies like an aura. The success of B-Fest is mostly independent of the actual slate of films; the success of B-Fest is that it is B-Fest.
The vast majority of humanity will never experience B-Fest, or any of the other b-movie festivals in the country (of which there are shockingly few, and the only one that comes close to the importance of B-Fest - and how goddamn lucky am I, that the world's most important b-movie festival in my freaking backyard? - is the New Orleans Worst Film Festival), both because it is small and because most healthy people do not sit for 24 hours in the dark watching bad movies just for the "aura."
The reason I bring this up in a review of Grindhouse is that this film, like B-Fest, is basically a post-aesthetic experience, by which I mean that Grindhouse must not be judged as the "quality" of its component parts, but rather by the fact that it exists at all. As we all know from seemingly endless media coverage, Grindhouse is what happened when Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, both men just old enough to remember the waning days of the Golden Age of Exploitation Cinema, decided to recreate a double-feature the way they used to be, two scuzzy cheap-o films with trailers and advertisements in between. Of course, in the 1970s, the reason that double features existed was so that people would come and spend more time in the theater and more money on concessions; the reason that there were trailers in between was to advertise the upcoming movies, which were themselves further attempts to get people into a big black room where they would eat and drink overpriced food.
May I share an anecdote? My mother tells the story of a time when she and my father, and two couples that they were friendly with, discovered that a local drive-in theater was presenting a marathon of the complete Planet of the Apes series of films, from sundown to sunrise. As things actually happened, there were only two Apes films - not the first, good one, she always makes clear - and a third film that nobody can remember anymore.
What always interests me about this story is that just because the marathon turned out to be a lie, and the three films involved weren't "meant" to be seen together, nobody wanted to leave. They were there already, the movie was playing, so why not watch and see whatever was onscreen? But of course, the idea of a "theme" night was out the window - instead, it was suddenly the experience of watching three distinct films for no reason other than convenience.
To me, the second most compelling part of Grindhouse is this: it's not arbitrary. It is designed to be seen in a pre-determined order, and the films and trailers were custom-made for that purpose. In fact, Grindhouse is not a double feature. It is a single film that very cleverly mimics the double feature formula. It is a film pretending to be a commercial.
How weird is that?
No, really stop and think about what I just said: how fucking weird is that? And that's why it's extremely problematic to think about Grindhouse as a "successful" movie; it's not really about it's content at all, but the format in which that content is presented. And of course, the format can't be "unsuccessful": it can only be the format. Like B-Fest, Grindhouse isn't good or bad because it has good or bad movies within it. It's good or bad based on whether or not the thought of watching a fictional reconstruction of the grind house experience of the early 1970s is appealing.
Of course, that's the second most compelling aspect of the film in my eyes. In order to explain the first, I need to quickly outline the film:
-Dimension Films trailer, not part of the feature
Here's where things get really exciting. At the theater at which I saw Grindhouse, the first reels of the features were flipped. So I saw it like this:
-Death Proof, reel 1
-Planet Terror, all but reel 1
-Dimension Films trailer: 1408
-Planet Terror, reel 1
-Remainder of Death Proof
I don't know if this was the projectionist having fun. I don't know if this was the projectionist being terrible at his or her job. I don't know if Grindhouse shipped with labels on the cans saying "feel free to swap these reels." But I do know that it's extraordinarily thrilling to me that this movie, whose primary characteristic is that it puts a standard order on what was originally an arbitrary construction, can itself be reordered. Of course, any movie can be projected out of order. But I can't name another movie in the whole entire history of movies whose self-identity is so totally based on the fact that it takes place in a specific order. To take that order away is to destabilize the entire film, which gives it the same status as the original grind house films: not that it must be re-ordered, but that it can be. Which is to say, the structural vulernability of Grindhouse makes it the same as those things it mimics, even while the very soul of Grindhouse is that, as a mimic, it is not the same thing. Therefore, the film becomes both thesis and antithesis.
Part II: A Masterpiece of the Post-Modern
Obviously, I don't really mean it when I imply that the all that the trailers and features need to do is show up: if it consisted of the trailer for Psycho, sandwiched in between My Little Pony: The Movie and Before Sunrise, Grindhouse would not be a compelling movie at all. It would be idiotic.
So of course it's fair to look at the component parts and judge them accordingly, although it's good not to be disingenuous about such things. "This is bad because it's like a bad horror film," for example, is quite probably true of both Planet Terror and Death Proof, and it is the stupidest thing someone could possibly say. It is precisely the same thing as saying a movie is bad because it is in black-and-white: a critique of medium rather than form or content.
What is the purpose of Grindhouse - to pay tribute through recreation or innovation? That's a false question, actually, although it's one that seemingly every reviewer asked and answered for themselves prior to seeing the movie. At any rate, that seems to be the only way to explain the very curious split that I've seen: without a single exception, smart film people - critics or bloggers or students - all seem to regard Tarantino's Death Proof as the superior film because it pushes the boundaries of b-movies farther, while, also without a single exception, b-movie fanboys and specialists all seem to regard Rodriguez's Planet Terror as the superior film because it is more fun and a better recreation of a vintage film. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that both of these justifications are completely accurate.
Besides, the best parts of the film are clearly the trailers: in particular, Rob Zombie proves what attentive people already knew, that his soul is the soul of an exploitation film director at its very core. His two-minute miracle Werewolf Women of the SS is the most perfect distillation of the b-movie ethos in the entirety of Grindhouse. For the love of Jesus Franco, the title is a slantwise riff on Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and there's not a movie that exists with stronger exploitation bona-fides than that beast!
Everything that makes us loves these movies is on full display: awful make-up effects, needless female nudity, a warped mixture of genres without any clear narrative thrust (in reality, this was because if you had no budget, you shot using whatever set you could get your hands on. The jump from Nazi Germany to the Orient witnessed in WWotSS is not parodistic, so much as it is extremely plausible). And, for God's sake, the title, which promises far more than it can possibly deliver, and yet makes me want badly to see it anyway. Let us face facts: you either want to see a movie titled Werewolf Women of the SS, or you are a liar.
With competition like that, the other three trailers have little chance to make an impact, although they are all playful in their own ways. Rodriguez's own Machete is a gritty and over-lit action film with the sort of solemn overbaked dialogue that puts it firmly in the "bad movie" camp (coming soon as a direct-to-DVD feature, saints be praised). Eli Roth's Thanksgiving is a bit subtler, but it is still a joke on the slasher genre (it is also by far the most violent part of Grindhouse, but that is the vehicle of its joke, not the end). The trailer itself is a brilliantly dour affair, the only one of the four feels like it legitimately could have been produced 25 years ago. The humor comes out if its winking indictment of the inexplicable efficiency and speed of movie psycho killers - it is absurd humor, even surreal. And Edgar Wright's film is a quick little joke, a funny palate-cleanser, whose title is its punchline and hence I will not repeat it.
I'll be returning to the trailers, but for now I shall turn my attention to the films that, given that they occupy some 95% of the total running time of Grindhouse, are at least nominally its main draw. First up is Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez's story of the secret military test that turns normal citizens into braindead killers, and the plucky band of survivors that fight back.
Stop me if you've heard this one.
Anyone could play "spot the reference" here and proceed to list the dozen-or-so movies from which Rodriguez draws his plot, or the countless films from which he takes incidental moments, but that's not much fun for anybody but the obsessed. I think it's enough to merely note that yes, those debts are there, and consider instead what it means that the film is so materially unoriginal.
I'll tip my hand right now: of the two directors, Rodriguez is obviously a lot more excited about the gimmick of the movie, which is "let's make a movie that looks like it's 30 years old!" He goes a little bit nuts with adding scratches and miscolorations and all sorts of post-production delights that age the film (which, unbelievably, was shot on digital video) to look rather effectively like an ancient print (although one with unusually good color retention; but I've seen enough 16mm prints from the 1970s that I can confirm it's not beyond belief). There are occasional moments in which the CGI is a little too obvious, but those moments are few and don't take you out of the film more than it can handle.
In a nutshell, Planet Terror is the "let's recreate the hell out of a vintage movie" half of Grindhouse, and I'd like to think that this is because Rodriguez understands that vintage movies are inherently fun, or at least they are more fun than the soulless effects-bloated monsters that the studios try to convince us, every summer, are worth plunking money upon. Certainly, it is a great deal of fun, although that fun is for an admittedly limited audience.
What makes Planet Terror so tricky is that, like last summer's Snakes on a Plane, it is not really tongue-in-cheek at all, but it is still essentially a self-aware comedy. The iconic image from the poster and trailer, of Rose McGowan with a machine gun in place of her right leg, points to this difficulty. Is it supposed to be funny? Yes. Is it supposed to be awesome? Yes. You can't explain this sort of mentality. Either you are capable of simultaneously laughing at and with a b-movie or you are not, and if you are not I am sorry for you. I think that it's a skill that can be learned, is the good news, just watch a whole fucking lot of Godzilla movies.
My first response to Quentin Tarantino's turn at bat with the serial-killer-in-a-car opus Death Proof was to regard it as an interesting failure, on the grounds that it is not very much of a b-movie, but is instead a Tarantino movie with a b-movie plot (I have similar misgivings about Jackie Brown). All the traits of a Band Apart production are there: close-ups on parts of the human body, especially heads and feet, that tend to isolate those parts from the whole; precise compositions that emphasis the space between characters; and above all the dialogue, full of huge words and lengthy musings on pop cultural minutiae - in this case, the films that formed the inspiration for Death Proof itself, particularly Richard Sarafian's Vanishing Point.
What it is most unmistakably not is an exploitation film. Whereas Planet Terror has a great deal of gore and violence, Death Proof has a fine opening thirty minutes of vague tension, a brilliant closing twenty minutes of a balls-out chase scene, and a middle hour in which four women from the film industry, led by Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill, playing herself) discuss films and cars. Coming as it does on the heels of Rodriguez's gonzo epic, that's a pretty intense shift of tone and pacing.
After all, the opening promises more of the same: after a wordy prologue in which three false protagonists wander around Austin looking for weed, ending up in a classically seedy bar where Kurt Russell waits as Stuntman Mike, the man with a death-proof car and an urge to commit random acts of gruesome vehicular homicide.
As it rolls on, however, Tarantino loses energy and stops putting the same effort into the post-production bells and whistles that Rodriguez did (although his artificially missing reel, a feature of both films, is much more logically placed and sensible than Rodriguez's), and he mostly just gets down to the telling of a gritty story in his own inimitable style.
At first, I found that I resented the way this robbed the film of energy, at a time when it needed it very badly (and to be honest, I think the mere act of swapping the two features would pretty much fix every problem I had and have). Now, I'm not so sure. I think that there's actually two ways to defend this, either one of which could very easily have been Tarantino's deliberate choice, and both of these possibilities run counter to each other.
The first is based on the notion, suggested by the trailers, that Grindhouse wishes to be a Rosetta stone of grind house cinema. Between them, those four shorts suggest just about everything that a b-movie can be: genuinely good, objectively awful, gory, funny, sexually exploitative. At least one of them (Edgar Wright's) seems primarily motivated by parodying the whole idea of a b-movie.
The features, perhaps, follow this lead to stand like a two-faced Janus looking backwards over everything that a grind house movie has been (Planet Terror) and looking forward to what a grind house movie may be capable of (Death Proof). One is a primer on the history of the b-movie, and it is calibrated to look and act like them in every way. The other is a manifesto on how to keep the b-movie relevant, and it is a work of the modern age.
It's a great way to explain one of Death Proof's strangest quirks, which is the cameo appearance of Nurse Dakota (Marley Shelton), a character with a large role in Planet Terror. On the face of it, there's no way to justify this cross-pollination, but if Tarantino is looking to expand the role of exploitation cinema in a postmodern world, this is a rather striking signpost to that effect. He's so wrapped up in metaconstruction that he's even referencing the film that's he's co-directing!
(The presence of Michael Parks as as Earl McGraw in both films, a character who debuted in the Rodriguez-directed/Tarantino-scripted From Dusk Till Dawn, is on beyond what I feel comfortable talking about).
After all, Tarantino has already made a grind house movie - that's all that Kill Bill is, really. And it doesn't take too much to argue that Jackie Brown is just a very avant-garde blaxploitation flick. So he has already proven himself in the b-movie as-it-has-been. Exploring the b-movie as-it-could-be is the next logical step.
The second possibility, and the one that I ever-so-slightly prefer, returns us to the idea that the theme of Grindhouse and the format of Grindhouse are exactly identical. In that case, Death Proof represents the film that all b-movie fans are intimately familiar with, the letdown. It is a film that bears very little resemblance to its marketing (and that is one of the hoariest traditions in the cinema). Consider that for nearly all of the audience for this film, the name "Tarantino" is something of a Holy Grail; Death Proof is then the big draw, and its position at the end of the film is a reflection of that. In any proper double feature, the second film is the one that people really want to see. And very often, it's a disappointment.
The easiest criticisms of Death Proof are of this sort: it's too slow, not enough happens, it's not what I expected, not enough of the nominal star. Those are well-worn criticisms of exploitation films, just as I would expect Werewolf Women of the SS, should it ever be made, to consist of three or four minutes of werewolves near the end, and a whole lot of bad German accents in the hour leading up to that. It would, in other words, be a boring wreck, because most films with a good concept and title were exactly that.
Let me cut to the chase: I think Death Proof is a deliberately bad movie, made on the understanding that most double features will have at least one (and much more often, two) clinkers. And because Tarantino had nothing to prove - Kill Bill - he chose to take that hit.
And so we return to the beginning, and the idea that Grindhouse is a movie of the post-aesthetic, a movie in which its existence is the argument for its existence. There are some flaws that aren't covered by that, of course: I'm not even a breast man, but there is no defense for an exploitation double feature in which the only naked women appear in the trailers.
But that's all minor compared to the totality of the Grindhouse experience. For "experience" is the only word for it. Not in the sense that seeing Star Wars in 1977 was an Experience that we ask our parents about (or tell our children about, if we are not snotty-nosed youngsters like the author). This is an experience in that it does things that movies do not do. It is a movie about watching itself, and that is both solipsistic and pure genius. There has never been a film like Grindhouse, and I cannot begin to fathom how there can ever be another.
or, if you have the grace to find a theater with a clever projectionist, or an incompetent projectionist, or a projectionist who received a little note along with the film cans,