Apr 20, 2007

Thoughts upon leaving the Grindhouse

I couldn't help myself; I was in Aspen during the NBR's screening of Grindhouse, but I felt compelled to go out, pay my ten dollars (seven at the six screen Cincinnati arthouse where I caught it), and contribute to its fourth place box office finish. Later, while still in the midwest, during a sojourn home that was ostensibly for Easter and business but really more about visiting old, troubled friends, I saw QT's half of the double bill again, fittingly sneaking out of a midnight, 3D screening of Night of The Living Dead (the lamo remake, not the breathtaking original) to catch Tarantino's beautifully realized piece once again.

Harkening back to a bygone era of pre multiplex exploitation cinema while offering an interesting experiment in the limits of auteurism, The Weinstein Co.’s Grindhouse, a double feature consisting of three movie trailers for films that don’t exist (Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is clearly the best), Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, is nothing if not a nostalgic affirmation of a playfully tasteless, less commodified B-cinema and an implicit critique of our homogenized, over budgeted contemporary action/horror cinema. Not that Grindhouse arrives at your local cinema with budgetary constraints; The Weinstein’s spent sixty million dollars on the dual efforts and the studio dropped another thirty on P&A. It goes without saying that the synthetic cheapness these films are imbued with is intentional and perhaps overstates the case for a more homemade B cinema. It is ironic then and oddly fitting, given the marginalization of the lost movie culture that is being appropriated here, for the movie to have done so poorly in its opening weekend, setting off a firestorm of media reports about the Weinstein’s troubled start-up studio. But if the sons of Miriam and Max have anything to worry about, it’s not their material. Getting the best movies in quite some time out of there A-list ex-Miramax directors (Kevin Smith’s career salvaging Clerks 2, Anthony Minghella vastly overlooked and surprisingly powerful Breaking and Entering and now Tarantino’s masterful and Rodriguez’s blissfully incompetent Grindhouse efforts) the most feared producer/distributors in Indiewood have been unable to find the right marketing tenor for any of there prized projects.

To the movies themselves: Planet Terror takes the Grindhouse motif and runs with it in every plausible direction without cleverly reinventing any of the elements. In that way, and when compared to the immensely superior Death Proof, it clearly demarcates Rodriguez at the pure metteur en scene. Consumed with the rules of the genres he’s appropriating on top of each other, his desire is to synthesize the purest of exploitation extravaganzas, but he is unable to make fresh or reinvent that which he is paying homage to; unlike more sophisticated directors, Rodriguez is only able to work within genres, not on top of them. His Planet Terror is pure pastiche, without anything to really communicate about the medium, its characters or the world they inhabit, despite all its cheeky, postmodern posturing. Digitally scratched film stock, poor framing, missing reels (with an apology from the management), inconsistent lighting, C list stars galore, a sci-fi/horror potboiler of a narrative, Planet Terror throws the entire exploitation movie playbook at its audience, but there isn’t really much of a soul there. Its genre hopping, corrupt government, anti-terror, biological weapon on the loose in Texas narrative gives its wonderful performers (especially Josh Brolin as a sadist doctor and C list perennials Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn as brothers in barbeque and the law respectively) a chance to chew the scenary to bits, but that’s all that’s there. The narrative literally floats away to paradise, with Rose McGowan’s machine gun legged ex-stripper inhabiting a beach idyll with humanity’s other last survivers, the movie’s half baked attempts at giving its narrative some political sutbext (our chemical weapons developer personally killed Osama Bin Laden) already yesterdays forgotten news.

Death Proof does something altogether less ambitious and more powerful. Tarantino is out to pay homage to a very specific body of underappreciated cinema, mainly the work of Monte Hellman, vintage slasher movies and Richard C Sarafian’s all but forgotten 1971 Barry Newman, Cleavon Little vehicle Vanishing Point. However, as he always has, his movie and its action film mechanics seems a mere vehicle upon which to mount his digressive, irresistibly amusing dialogue passages and keenly represented observations about human behavior. His life-like multi-character riffs on topics both personal and marginally pop-cultural never feel forced and are staged with more vigor than ever, especially in a virtuoso six minute take at a diner of incredible textual and conceptual force that singled handedly reinvents a tired aesthetic convention: the table circling, multi-character dialogue shot.

If anything, Death Proof proves Tarantino incapable of making a film, however derivative the source material or expansive his scholarly, esoteric film memory, that doesn’t directly address the realm of his personal obsessions and aesthetic motifs. He is an auteur. His film, despite its modest aims, is a by turns uproarious, disquieting and completely satisfying revenge cartoon. Featuring perhaps the greatest film car chase since John Frankenheimer staged J.D. Zeik and David Mamet’s Ronin, Tarantino gets extra props for serving as his own DP for the first time and doing away with the extraneous aesthetic trappings of the Grindhouse cinema that seem to encompass Planet Terror’s raison d’ etre. Instead he stays out of his way with the camera, using the gauzy, bad 16mm look to cleanly photograph his characters and give us a reason to care about them. The set up is golden; An ominous looking black car stalks a pair of women (Vanessa Ferlito and Sydney Tamiia Poitier). Later, at a Tex-Mex serving Austin watering hole, we meet Stuntman Mike (an astonishingly good Kurt Russell). After not winning to many fans among the myriad attractive woman at the joint, he slyly persuades Ferlito’s character into a lap dance, which, of course, is lost during the missing reel. Upon our reintroduction a blonde Rose McGowan to tag along for a ride home, killing her before chasing down the girls from the bar and doing away with them in one of the most elegantly staged car crashes in movie history.

Of course, when he targets another group of women, including the savvy make-up artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson, in an unassuming role that is probably her best to date) and stuntwoman Zoe Bell, playing herself to great effect, he meets his match and reveals himself not to be such a tough guy. The second half of the film, in which Mike stalks the girls and waits for their most vulnerable moment (Zoe playing riding on the hood of a borrowed Dodge Challenger, a la Vanishing Point) before striking unsuccessfully might be the most thrilling passage in Tarantino’s entire oeuvre. Death Proof is akin to sharing the company of the most ravishing woman you always thought unattainable before playing bumper car with Jeff Gordon for eighty minutes, but its probably more fun than either.