Thursday, August 20, 2009
Boys Will Be Boys: Grindhouse
[With Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds hitting theaters, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]
The double-feature experience Grindhouse, made up of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, is a celebration of 1970s exploitation cinema and an era when B-movies thrived. The film’s target audience is made up of those who cheer excess and misogyny, who find joy in depravity and vulgarity, and who react to films not so much from the head or the heart but from somewhere near the groin. Moviegoers who fit that description will undoubtedly be thrilled by Grindhouse, which is masterfully crafted by a pair of filmmakers who are experts in their chosen genres. But those distant from the edges of Grindhouse’s decidedly fringy fringe entertainment should expect to be uninspired and possibly offended. When dealing with a film that intentionally bucks convention and heartily embraces the taboo, there’s the rub.
Thus determining whether Grindhouse is excellent or excrement depends entirely on one’s point of view. Certainly to the point that its two films capture the unseemly, politically-incorrect spirit of the movies they’re modeled after, Grindhouse is an outright triumph. Rodriguez and Tarantino direct their pictures with a horny reverence that’s sure to titillate like-minded fanboys (and fangirls). With a running time of over 3 hours, Grindhouse is designed to be an adrenaline-overloaded, rousing (and arousing) crowd-pleaser. And it is, if you share the directors’ turnons. But to be a true success, Grindhouse would need to be so thrilling that it couldn’t be refused. So thrilling that, perhaps against our better judgment, the directors’ fantasies would become our own.
In that regard, Grindhouse fails. Even using this double-feature experiment as our sole reference point, Rodriguez and Tarantino demonstrate themselves to be turned on by gross-out humor, extreme violence, gore and boobies. They are not alone in this, of course, as any two of those ingredients have been recipe enough for innumerable hit movies over the years. Yet only once during this 191-minute double-feature – while watching the exhilarating climax to Death Proof, to be exact – did I have the sense that I might be enjoying this experience even half as much as the directors. Otherwise, Grindhouse is such an excessive exercise in directorial self-gratification that to watch is to play the role of Peeping Tom.
That might not be entirely by accident, at least as far as Tarantino is concerned. The celebrated writer/director has the talent to entertain the masses but the ego to put his own enjoyment first. His frequent and always painful acting performances (he has two in Grindhouse) are nothing short of selfish. And yet his time in front of the camera isn’t the problem. Tarantino’s downfall as a storyteller is that he personalizes his films to a fault. Though inarguably creative, Tarantino trusts his own instincts and tastes to the point of forgetting that others have them, too.
The unfortunate result is that the Tarantino characters once lauded for their originality and uniqueness have fast become redundant. In Death Proof, Tarantino shapes a tale about a sadistic stunt driver (played by an impressive Kurt Russell) and two gaggles of chat-happy girls. The ladies’ breathless banter is quintessential QT – full of fuck-yous and obscure pop culture references. But swap the dialogue of Sydney Poitier’s Jungle Julia with that of Rosario Dawson’s Abernathy and you’d detect nothing astray. Tarantino doesn’t actually create characters, it’s becoming clearer by the movie, he just changes settings, conversation topics and costumes.
That might sound like the same thing, but it isn’t. One of the most famous segments of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction follows hitmen Jules and Vincent as they talk about European fast food and the sexual significance of a foot massage in a lively tête-à-tête that remains as casual as a drive through the countryside right up to the point that they bust into an apartment with guns blazing. When Pulp Fiction was released in 1994, scenes like that one were praised for the witty juxtaposition of two tonal opposites – detritus and death. But most recently, in the Kill Bill pictures and Death Proof, Tarantino is undermining his own legacy. There are only a handful of signature phrases in Tarantino’s previous films that couldn’t work in Death Proof. In Tarantino’s world, the only real character is the screenwriter himself.
And so it has come to be that Tarantino’s dialogue, brilliant as it sometimes is, is now more formulaic than Woody Allen’s. Characters swear, discuss entirely random songs/bands/movies and, in general, take as long as possible to establish the obvious. Toss in Tarantino’s obsession with his Red Apple cigarettes (a visual running gag) and style becomes his films’ only dependable substance. Tarantino might take that as a compliment. Since his initial hit, Reservoir Dogs, the writer/director has been getting drunk on his own Kool-Aid and seems to have morphed into Mr. Orange, convinced that all he needs to establish truth is a shitload of details.
And so Tarantino’s movies are filled with words, words, words and details, details, details, but with the exception of a few moments in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill they lack heart and soul. QT’s characters are little more than the sum of their quirky interests. But they’re Tarantino’s interests. In Death Proof, for instance, when stunt chick Zoe Bell talks excitedly about a movie called Vanishing Point, it’s impossible not to wonder how a twentysomething from New Zealand ever managed to see a mostly obscure 1971 flick. Perhaps sensing this, Tarantino backtracks a bit by having two of Bell’s friends profess to be unfamiliar with the movie. Yet just as quickly as Tarantino saves his bacon, he cooks it, having Dawson’s Abernathy refer to Pretty In Pink as a “John Hughes film.” That might be the way he would have said it, but it’s not the way she would have. Women who talk like this exist solely in Tarantino’s imagination.
And it was there, somewhere within the twisted brain of a director so amused with himself that he reportedly keeps the Pussy Wagon from Kill Bill parked in his driveway, that Grindhouse was born. Rodriguez and Tarantino, who according to legend regularly gather with friends to watch old B-movies, decided to pay homage to film’s raunchier and less-polished past. And so in the zombie flick Planet Terror and in Death Proof, Rodriguez and Tarantino go so far as to build their stories around “missing” film reels. Grindhouse also includes campy trailers by Eli Roth and Rob Zombie. And, to look aged and inexpensive, Grindhouse’s film stock has been made to include blips and scratches throughout.
Well, almost throughout. See, it’s no accident that when Tarantino decides to stop bullshitting and send us on a white-knuckle car-chase climax, the blips and scratches mysteriously go away. Paying tribute is one thing, but Tarantino wants nothing to distract from his exhilarating set piece, which – without giving anything away – includes some jaw-dropping stunt work by Bell, who was Uma Thurman’s double in the Kill Bill movies and plays herself here. The automobile antics might run on a bit too long, but a car chase hasn’t gripped me like this since I was a first-grader following the exploits of the General Lee on The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s tremendous!
The rest of Grindhouse? Less so. Planet Terror includes all the trademark zombie-movie conventions, but the only way Rodriguez makes it unique is by making it grotesque. So we get up-close-and-personal with stabbing syringes. We get a character who preserves the testicles of his enemies in a jar. And we get sicko shots of rapidly decomposing male genitalia. But we don’t get any added entertainment, and Death Proof, minus the climax, is the same. Instead of nonstop violence, it’s endless chatter, continuing conversations that seem to have started about 15 years ago among jewel thieves in black suits.
All of this is capable of bringing down the house, of course, but that doesn’t make it impressive. I know this from experience. In 1995, Rodriguez and Tarantino wrote and directed half the vignettes of the outrageous four-part comedy Four Rooms. I happened to see the movie opening night, sitting in the front row of a theater packed with rowdy college students. And though I spent the first half wanting to rip off my fingernails in boredom, by the time the Rodriguez and Tarantino chapters came to an end I was providing full-throated cheers along with the masses. That viewing of Four Rooms goes down as one of my favorite trips to the theater, but it’s a painful experience on DVD.
Given the right audience and the correct frame of mind, any film can be a riot. Mystery Science Theater 3000 built a TV show around that concept. But Grindhouse is too good to be hilariously awful and not good enough to be irrefutably great. If Rodriguez and Tarantino really wanted to do this right, they should have actually made these movies low-budget, and eschewed the CGI. Instead, this retro recapturing is a cop-out, a convenient way for two filmmakers capable of more to get by with less. There will always be some kind of audience for this stuff, but the geek boys who stunned Sundance in the 90s might want to wake up and leave their comfort zone. The armpit noises and spitwads have been perfected. It’s time to graduate.
Addendum: I had a long debate about posting this review given that, with time and repeated Tarantino viewings, I now completely disagree with a few of my above arguments. However, the rest I stand by. I post this now as an honest reflection of my immediate reaction to the material. As for how my opinions have changed, you’ll get a sense of that in the upcoming edition of The Conversations, in which Ed Howard and I debate Tarantino. To date, we have Inglorious Basterds yet to discuss, but I’m guessing that piece will be ready for posting at The House Next Door sometime next week. In the meantime, feel free to point out flaws in the above in responding to this piece.