The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino flick Grindhouse is flopping so badly that the producer is talking about re-releasing each of the films separately and seeing how the box office responds. Considering that Grindhouse itself has a split personality, that strategy would be poetically apt, but the film has so many other problems I doubt it will make a difference.
Apart from the basic idiocy of spending something like $100 million to make and market a film about the tawdry pleasures of ultra-cheap 1970s schlock, Grindhouse fails because it doesn’t really deliver on its own premise. Leaving the film, I wanted to echo Lloyd Bentsen when he sawed Dan Quayle off at the knees during their vice presidential debate: I knew grindhouse movies and you, sir, are no grindhouse movie.
Only the first half of the bill, Rodriguez’s splatter-sodden zombie flick Planet Terror, sticks to the format, but not in a good way — it is grindingly, unrelentingly awful, yet lacking a certain quality that can only be called innocence or sincerity. You see, grindhouse movies were made by Z-grade filmmakers trying to work their way up, not A-list directors trying to dumb themselves down. Crap isn’t improved by being served with a knowing smirk — it just reminds you that everyone involved had better things to do than make this movie, just as you have better things to do than watch it. Even with digitally-generated scratches on the film stock and umpteen shots of Rose McGowan in various states of undress, Planet Terror is about as much fun as a case of kidney stones. If Harvey Weinstein does decide to play Solomon and split Grindhouse in two, Planet Terror is the half that will vanish without a ripple.
But give Rodriguez this much credit: He stuck to the plan. Quentin Tarantino’s half of the bill, Death Proof, shows he either lost track of what he was supposed to do (or got bored with the idea) and made something that is, for better or for worse, entirely his own and nothing at all like a grindhouse movie.
Why “for better or for worse”? Because Death Proof, like Tarantino’s previous film Kill Bill, is good enough to make you wish it were a lot better. It has a genuinely interesting villain — an aging stuntman (superbly played by Kurt Russell) who uses hyper-macho muscle cars to carry on a psychosexual war against young women — and a climactic car chase with hair-raising stunt work by Zoe Bell that should end once and for all any doubts about whether Tarantino can direct an exciting action sequence. It also has some wonderful scenes at an Austin chili parlor in which we see a group of women simply hanging out, shooting the breeze while considering if they should give any of the circling men a shot, that’s so well written and acted that what becomes of them is more disturbing than we have any right to expect.
Death Proof also goes on far too long, has at least two lengthy chit-chat scenes too many (and I like Tarantino’s dialogue) and is generally undermined by the ramshackle self-indulgence that will always make Tarantino his own worst enemy as a filmmaker — unless, of course, the failure of Grindhouse leads him to make more disciplined use of his obvious talent. The reason Pulp Fiction plays so well is that Tarantino takes stock characters and transmutes them into something his own. That’s also what he does in the best parts of Death Proof, and in the process leaves Robert Rodriguez twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.
But violence and T&A are not the only ingredients in the grindhouse recipe. There was also a mindset involved on the part of the viewer as well as the filmmaker, a mindset rooted in the way people used to watch movies. It’s gone now. Even the people who were there at the time have trouble remembering it, so what hope is there for a couple of young film geeks like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez?
People who grew up with videocassettes and DVDs just don’t think of movies the way their elders did. Films were much less commodified, and information about them was harder to come by. Being a movie lover was like living on the beach and waiting to see what washed up. Films would arrive in theaters, and once they went away, that was it — unless you lived in a city with good repertory cinemas, or a college town with great film programs, they were gone. If you ever saw a movie you had liked again, it would be on television, probably edited for content and certainly chopped up to make room for annoying commercials.
Films were mysterious. They carried an aura that existed only in theaters. You went to a grindhouse because something you’d been hearing about for months had suddenly surfaced there, or because everything else in the theaters looked dull and you wanted to see a movie, any movie.
Consider the last two authentic grindhouse bills I saw. The first, viewed at some godforsaken theater outside Philadelphia during my teen years, was a three-decker of Trip With The Teacher (smutty but not outright pornographic flick about two creeps who hijack a busload of teenaged girls), The Pom Pom Girls (low-grade comedy about horny high school kids) and Best Friends (mildly ambitious drama about a neurotic guy who undermines his buddy’s wish to marry and start a mature life). The first was interesting mainly because it starred Zalman King, who was stereotyped in menacing roles and turned to producing softcore flicks like Red Shoe Diaries. The last was noteworthy for starring Richard Hatch (who would go on to Battlestar Galactica) and Susanne Benton (whose career petered out after she played Quilla June in A Boy And His Dog). The movie also had a poster so spectacularly out of synch with its content that it seemed obvious the distributor hadn’t known what to do with such an oddball character study and simply dumped it into the grindhouse/drive-in circuit in order to milk a few bucks. Such bait-and-switch tactics were common on the grindhouse circuit: The Pom Pom Girls was the lowball hit of the summer, so the distributors threw any damn thing into the bottom of the bill. You were promised three movies for two bucks and change, and that’s what you got. Nobody promised you they were going to be good.
A year later, in an East Brunswick two-screen theater on Route 18 that was on its way to becoming a strip mall, I saw a double-bill of Wes Craven’s grimy rape-and-revenge flick, Last House On the Left, and The House By the Lake, a not-bad Brenda Vaccaro thriller about a fashion model whose weekend in the country is marred by the arrival of a bunch of homicidal goons. I had just convinced an equally movie-loving friend to see a revival of Carnival of Souls at a Manhattan theater; I had come across the film on late-night television a few years earlier and I really wanted to see it properly. He in turn wanted me to see the Vaccaro film, which he had considered a sleeper. Also, neither of us had seen Last House On the Left, which had already achieved near-legendary status among exploitation fans.So — we showed each other two of our favorite obscure movies and caught up with a third. I wanted to take a long hot shower after watching the Craven movie, but that was part of the grindhouse experience as well.
Nowadays, we’d simply rent the DVDs. Direct-to-video is the closest the early 21st century can get to what the grindhouse represented in the late 20th century. It ain’t the same thing, though. All I can say to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez is: Sorry, guys, but you had to be there. And as far as your movie is concerned, I wish I hadn’t been.