Monday, January 7, 2008

My Beef With "Grindhouse"

I have to discharge my thoughts regarding Grindhouse (2007). Those who know me (friends, colleagues, and students especially) knew full well I was really looking forward to this "Exploitation" extravaganza/homage. It is after all, a major part of my profession. I was invariably disappointed however on many levels. I'm not exactly sure just what I was expecting, but, I know that what I was presented with was NOT what I was hoping for. For the record, I "enjoyed" the films (Planet Terror more so than Death Proof) but both movies left me, sadly, as empty as the popcorn I had just eaten. My thoughts are simply this: one of the reasons Exploitation films are so, shall we say, sublime is that they were constructed under pressure cooker situations: short on time and with little-to-no money; scripts were streams of consciousness/unconsciousness, often leaping from the dreams of the writer onto the page that very morning. There was no time for executive decisions to be made by executives cut from purely economic cloths, no movie by "committee" decisions to quibble and endlessly debate over. Make em' fast, make em cheap, get a fucking good poster and book em' into theaters region by region. Simple.

The Paramount decision opened the door for the indepen- dents and the exploitation picture became a serious threat to the oligopoly; they competed successfully for decades with studio pictures that were constricted by the Hays office and their production code. Yes, this was the beauty of relatively unrestricted modes of production. Independent studios like, American International Pictures, (and other non vertically integrated studios prior, Poverty Row, Monogram, etc) provided an economic template for other independents to mimic. So, primarily, this is the exploitation diet that I originally digested, much like Messrs. Rodriguez and Tarantino.

Grindhouse is a double feature of ahem, "exploitation" films that, to me at least, ultimately lack the most salient characteristics of the very "genre" that they are trying to aesthetically and thematically replicate (Pictured at left: Planet Terror and Death Proof). To begin, I was uncomfortable watching the frenetic postmodern visual/cinematic language or grammar of these two pictures, and to make it worse - this visual grammar was wrapped around (cheaply, like pigs in a blanket, with gobs of blood substituting for the "it's "not" ketchup sauce) the classic narrative tropes of elder exploitation. The balance didn't work for me and seemed - a bit out of place. I'm used to classical cutting and pacing in my exploitation - especially domestic fare.

Next, the films lacked HEART - they were the product of what?? 40-60 million dollars??? I don't know what the budget was on these films, maybe 30 mil a piece? This is anathema to exploiteers. Boy, what David Friedman would've done with that money (and yes of course, even in adjusted dollars). These two pictures are just somehow, well for lack of a better word - - - - - False. They lack heart. Clearly I know what to expect from a film. I understand the industry - but these two efforts were too on the nose in their commercialization; too much a culture industry commodity for my tastes. The chain of command in the independents, from talent, to crew, to production company, to distributor also bear markings of commodity and commercialization - of course. But, I'd say that, for example, Count Yorga: Vampire has more heart in five minutes of its running time than Planet Terror or Death Proof have in their 3 plus hours.

To be honest, Quentin has never impressed me all THAT much. I'm a major sucker for his script to True Romance - I think it's excellent. But, his films have never impressed me all that much. Rodriguez on the other hand frequently impresses me, especially with Sin City, which I felt was a unique cinema-going experience. And, while I did enjoy the pastiche trailers in Grindhouse, I just found the films and subsequently, the experience, to be dissatisfying. Quentin seems to be going on endlessly with his postmodern playfulness, homage, pastiche, parody, satire, irony, theft, intertextuality, self-reflexivity - a veritable machine of cultural capital in-jokes, he's becoming cinema's equivalent of Family Guy. Where's the versatility that is part and parcel to the proper definition of "auteur"? And, further, I find Death Proof to be a semi-remake of not Vanishing Point which is referenced many times in the film, but, Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill! (1965) The primary difference being that Russ Meyer didn't feel it necessary to punish and torture his heroines before they went on their rampage, they just WENT. Death Proof requires us to witness the women be subjected to deeds that facilitate revenge. I could say a lot about that, but it would turn into a major digression.

Planet Terror was entertaining, I suppose. But, can this film really join the ranks of any Romero zombie film, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, Cemetery Man, Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead, Fulci's trilogy, Deathdream, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, etc? I mean, Shaun of the Dead has more heart in its little Zombie pinky than Planet Terror... If you're making a film, why not make it the best one you can? Why NOT say, I hope that this film will be remembered, that maybe it will be culturally significant in some way. Especially when a major studio is bankrolling the pic, distributing it etc. Maybe that's asking too much... I dunno. I don't think any filmmaker sets out to make something "important" - time and an age are the decider's of this fate. But, is this really the best these two talented and very smart filmmakers could do? The age of the classic exploiteer in cinema is long gone, I applaud and appreciate Quentin and Robert's decision to bring back the grindhouse era - concentrate it into two films and try and relive the moment. But, the moment is and has been gone for at least two decades now and that is reflected BIG TIME in these two texts. Sad that.

Taken on their own merit and value, perhaps the films worked tremendously for you. But, if contextualized and held up to a yard stick made up of the films this project was trying to emulate - I feel let down. Big Budget, Name Stars, Name Directors, Major Distributor, Major Soundtrack, Multiple Streams of Merchandising Revenue, and on and on. This was inevitable given the structure of multinationals today, I knew this going in, what I didn't count on was just such emptiness afterwards...

A friend of mine once commented that he felt these films were tantamount to "looking at pre-ripped jeans covered with flower power patches for sale at some generic trendy store in some generic American super mall." I quite liked that.

No offense intended to the directors of this project, who are tough and take criticism well, (yeah, like they'd ever stumble across this blog) but perhaps in light of all my gripes GRINDHOUSE was doomed (for me) from the get go. And why? Because I CARE about exploitation, about low culture, about taste distinctions. I've made it my life's work in many respects.

And my last point is minor but major at the same time. I want to know if JOE DANTE was approached to make a trailer for Grindhouse. Look, Quentin is an amazing source of knowledge when it comes to film - and not just facts, the man knows his stuff and has read a good deal of theory. But, in truth, Joe Fucking Dante is truly more knowledgeable than any other living filmmaker (with the exception of Marty Scorcese and maybe, MAYBE Guillermo Del Toro). If Joe Dante wasn't approached - it is a travesty of major proportions! Shame on you both if you didn't give him a ring. Shame I say! Doesn't anyone remember the genius of MANT? Half Man, Half Ant, ALL TERROR! Here's a link to the MATINEE trailer - ENJOY!

1 comment:

Lara said...

Tarantino-just saying his name brings up my love/hate relationship with him. I recently watched True Romance again and it was as good at eating pie after a movie.