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.


Unknown said...

"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. "

Why on earth wouldn't she talk about it that way? That's how me and my [female] friends refer to any of Hughes' ouvre.

Jason Bellamy said...

And right out of the gate, someone identifies one of the lines I'd like to take back entirely. Or at least rewrite.

Anna, that's a great point. Really, what didn't ring true to me was that Abernathy, as presented by Tarantino, would refer to Pretty In Pink that way. The way it's written in my review makes it sound like "no girl would ever say that," which I don't think is true. But I wanted to remain faithful to my original review, despite its flaws.

(Side note: In my sort-of defense, I hope we can recognize that Hughes' recent death has given the phrase "John Hughes movies" more clarity among the average moviegoer than it had a few years ago, when his films were talked about as nostalgic stand-alone entities more often than they were referred to as the collected works of a major auteur.)

Is there sexism to be found in my objection? You didn't outright accuse me of it, but, rest assured, Ed makes that argument in our upcoming Conversations piece. On that point, I hope that within the context of that larger conversation it becomes clear that my objection here is that these women seem to be stand-ins for Tarantino, rather than individual characters, which is an argument I also make in relation to Tarantino's male characters.

Jason Bellamy said...

One more thing. The line that makes me cringe is: "Women who talk like this exist solely in Tarantino’s imagination."

When I wrote it, I was applying it to all the women and all of their conversations in Death Proof, but that's not the way it reads. So pathetic writing on my part.

Now, that's not to say that you can't still disagree with my poorly articulated take that these women are merely Tarantino clones and are fantasy figures rather than convincing characters. But that's the argument I was attempting to make, and I hope folks can see how that fits into the general theme of my other objections in the above review.

Anthony said...

"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."

Actually: I found stuff like the above movingly honest. That QT would lay so bare his intentions and directly appeal to a "entertainment-loving cinema audience" make it a stronger film than I think most people realize. Aside from the fact that I'd (and possibly a few other internet comment-bombers) argue Group of Girls #1 and #2 are actually radically different but in subtle ways – aside from that, DP isn't really about defining character the way, say, Kieslowski does: DP isn't about QT's lack of ability in creating rich, fully-flushed 3-D characters; it's both an exercise in style and a different philosophy of story-telling – one with archetypes or mythic figures or even representative ones.

What's so startling (& wonderful!) about Pulp Fiction isn't something like the final scene where Jules finds "his path" but the audacity of everything leading up to (and away from) moments like that. To expect a QT film to work in the same way as any other director is (1) foolish, obviously, because they're different kettles of fish and (2) impossible, because he has different goals for his films, which goals, I believe, are evident from the precision and purpose in everything he's directed.

Kubrick never, if you really get down to it, I think, wrote out traditional 3-D characters either: he was always driving at something more strange and at the same time interesting. Welles: same story.

A movie like DP would be gawdawful if its characters were like you or me; and it would be especially awful if they had "motivations" or "character" to get into.

Like Roger Ebert said of Psycho (the movie which DP is obviously riffing on): the ending is the only misstep – nobody needs to know the details of Mrs. Bates' son's problems – the psychiatrist talks too damn much; the movie works better when it's left ambiguous and thus more menacing. It can then become pure screen presence, something QT has been in his mind re- and re-shaping since he started working as a video clerk.

The Film Doctor said...

I find it interesting that you have mixed feelings about your review, because I had a hard time reviewing Grindhouse for the newspaper and am still reluctant to post it. I admire Pulp Fiction so much, my responses to other Tarantino films get filtered through that, and I tend to respect Tarantino (or the idea of the guy) more than especially liking much of his work. I had one main problem with Death Proof: in terms of structure, it's like Psycho cubed in the way it kills off principal characters early on and then replaces them, but one can still enjoy the leisurely chatty scenes in the bar or the convenience store regardless of the larger weaknesses in the plot. I didn't get much of anything out of Planet Terror, and I agree that the main problem with Grindhouse is that it is hard for the audience to enjoy the movies as much as the directors did.

One little quibble, though, Jules and Vincent did not bust "into an apartment with guns blazing." They talked at length with their prey, in effect toying with them, and that sense of casual sadism mixed with old testament judgment makes the scene all the more effective.

Jason Bellamy said...

Anthony: Thanks for the comment. Those are terrific arguments, and in many respects I agree with them. Another thing I dislike about my Grindhouse review is its implication that Tarantino shouldn't be allowed to continue making personal films.

However, while the presentation of these characters can be easily defended looking at Death Proof (and Grindhouse) alone, it doesn't erase that the archetype that Tarantino so often runs to is one of his own creation: The Tarantino Character, if you will.

For many of his fans, I realize that's the whole joy of it. They love living in the "Tarantinoverse," as Ed calls it in our still-unfolding Conversations piece. But the effect it has on me, actually, is similar to the one you describe with Norman Bates in Psycho. The more that Tarantino develops the Tarantino Character, the more the lines blur between them and the "character" becomes overexposed.

I wouldn't want to see De Niro do a Travis Bickle monologue in each of his films, for example, as that would take some of the magic off the one in Taxi Driver.

Put yet another way, there was a moment in Seinfeld once when Jerry invites Elaine to see him do his comedy act. "You doing any new material?" she asks hopefully. "No," he says. And she groans, suddenly uninterested.

Tarantino has every right to keep making Tarantino Movies, and there are many ways in which I'm grateful that he does just that. Alas, when some of his characters go into their rants, it's hard to escape the feeling that I'm all too familiar with their routine.

I'd say more, but Ed and I get into this in our upcoming conversation. So I hope you'll check that out when it posts at The House Next Door in a week or so and join the discussion there.

Jason Bellamy said...

FilmDr: Good thoughts. Tarantino is a slippery one to define, for sure.

On this ...

One little quibble, though, Jules and Vincent did not bust "into an apartment with guns blazing." They talked at length with their prey, in effect toying with them, and that sense of casual sadism mixed with old testament judgment makes the scene all the more effective.

Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but they do bust into the apartment with their guns out. Yes, they talk at length -- it's a QT movie, of course they talk! So what I was thinking of in referring to that scene is the beautiful way that those guys talk about daily minutiae right up to the point that they draw their guns and -- just like that -- put on their game faces. They don't shoot immediately, because they don't have to (and in a Tarantino movie, they never would). But they're ready. I should have written it "guns drawn" -- but when Vincent and Jules first enter the apartment, it's with the sense that they're ready to fire away, and that's what I was trying to capture.

So, fair quibble, but that's where I was coming from.

Unknown said...

I have always felt that PLANET TERROR was much more successful in achieving the aims that the filmmakers set out for themselves than DEATH PROOF. If the goal was to pay homage to and basically create modern Grindhouse-style film than DP does not work. It is basically Tarantino making one of his trademark films with conversations that go nowhere, his foot fetish and endlessly quoting from other films.

To me, PT is much more successful because it achieves the goal that these guys set for themselves. It is a balls-out horror film filled with all the cool stuff you want from a film like this: cool action heroes, despicable villains, gooey zombies, sexy women, and loads of action. What more do you want? Altho, if you look at it, Rodriguez seems to paying homage more to genre films from the 1980s, most specifically John Carpenter, which is maybe why I love his film so much more than Tarantino's. While it's all cool and such to reference a film like VANISHING POINT, DP isn't half the film that one is. Whereas, PT could easily slide into Carpenter's body of work and almost feels like a lost film of his.

But I guess it really boils down to matter of personal preference.

Joshua said...

I agree with plenty of your review, Jason, especially the comments regarding Abernathy and the general imbalance of his conversations. However, my distaste for QT extends further than yours, all the way back to Pulp Fiction, which I think suffers from a lot of the same failings his later work does. I will never understand how someone had struck such a delicate balance of reference, reverence and absurd creativity with Reservoir Dogs was able to follow it up with the messy, inconsistent and often downright intolerable Pulp Fiction. It seems all he could remember writing was the coffee shop scene, and so is unable to write any of the great, tense, emotionally complex moments in the warehouse. My only real exception is Kill Bill, which is still a thrill ride for me even if it is vastly inferior to RD.

Great post, I'm looking forward to the conversation with Ed.

Jeff Carroll said...

"...convinced that all he needs to establish truth is a shitload of details."

QT fascinates me, and likely many others, for the very reason that the "shitload of details" work. As the one year anniversary of David Foster Wallace's death nears, I've begun to wonder whether there are strong similarities between these two priests of words, because they establish authority so quickly for themselves and their characters. And I think it has to do with ethos.

Movies, commericals, books often use two methods of persuasion. Pathos, the appeal to emotion, or Logos, the appeal to reason and logic. But there is a third method, Ethos, establish an authority figure by demonstrating that the figure shares your culture and your values, by creating someone you trust, and, perhaps, admire. But where I believe DFW and QT excel is the understanding that you don't have to show a character as an authority on the primary subject. Instead you can have a character demonstrate knowledge in an area (or many areas) shared or just admired by their audience. That gains the viewer or the reader's trust, then they can be as outrageous or as selfish as they desire, and we'll follow happily along, as if we're acolytes to a higher power.

So after Jules and Vincent tell us what we know about foot massage, and what we don't know but intuitively know is right, they become our expert guides for the rest of the movie.

Craig said...

Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but they do bust into the apartment with their guns out.

Actually, they knock and walk in leisurely. That's what makes the scene unsettling from the get-go. Jackson doesn't reveal to the kids in the room that he's armed until he suddenly shoots "Flock of Seagulls" who's lying on the couch. We don't see Travolta unveil his piece until halfway into Jackson's monologue.

Craig said...

And I should have read your reply more carefully. Disregard last transmission.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the further comments everyone. If nothing else, QT always makes for great conversation, and it's wonderful to have such thoughtful comments.

A few replies ...

JD: Well, Rodriguez is probably more faithful to the whole theory. That's true. But, yeah, zombie movies just aren't my preferred genre.

Joshua: Wow. That's a serious takedown of Pulp Fiction. I don't agree with it. But I applaud it. Don't hear that argued much. As for this line though: "It seems all he could remember writing was the coffee shop scene." That gets to the heart of many of my Tarantino complaints across many of his films.

Jeff: That's a great take. I admit that I've only read David Foster Wallace's shorter pieces, but I can see where you're coming from. Interesting. Regardless of how he does it, QT certainly as a knack for getting us to bond with characters we might otherwise despise.

Craig: So they don't even have their guns out? Well, fuck! The spirit of my argument still holds (maybe I should have applied it to the moment they pull the guns out of the trunk). But I do hate getting the details wrong.

Craig said...

Actually, I may be wrong on a detail as well. First we see Vincent and Jules standing before the door arguing over whether or not Vincent's upcoming outing with Mia Wallace constitutes a date; then their "man on the inside" -- the black kid -- opens the door for them. We don't actually see them knock, so they may have just been waiting for the kid to open the door at the designated time.