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They Shoulda Lost More Reels

April 7th, 2007

This afternoon, I made the horrible, horrible mistake of taking Vicky to see Grindhouse , the pastiche of bad ’70s cinema by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarentino. To say that Vic disliked Grindhouse would be to stick a mere pinky toe into the seething cauldron of bile this movie inspired in her. I will be paying off this karmic debt for years to come. On my deathbed, she will undoubtedly remind me of the time I wasted three hours (three and a half, counting the commercials and seven[!] trailers that preceded it) of her life seeing Grindhouse.

Granted, her reaction was not entirely unexpected. She went along–despite her reservations–so that I wouldn’t have to go alone. (I gave her the Ol’ Pouty Lip.) I knew that she was pretty dubious about it, but on the other hand, I’ve subjected her to all manner of cheesy cinema, from Glen or Glenda to Snakes on a Plane, and she’s generally enjoyed them.

What did surprise me was just how much I agreed with her. This should’ve been straight up my alley; indeed, I’d been anticipating it for weeks. About 10 minutes into the second feature–Quentin Tarentino’s “Death Proof”–I turned to her and said, “I am so, so sorry.” Unfortunately there was still over an hour to go.

The trouble with pastiches is that they so often simply become the thing they’re sending up, and that goes doubly for intentionally bad films. Unintentionally bad films can be a lot of fun; jaw-dropping madness can ensue when both talent and self-awareness are lacking. But when the awfulness is calculated, much of the joy is artificial as well.

That’s not to say that there weren’t things to like about Grindhouse. The opening feature, Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror”, is–despite what you may have read in the ridiculously positive reviews–the more enjoyable of the double-bill. Certainly, Rose McGowan and her machine-gun leg are awesome, though you’ve already seen the best bits in the commercials.

However, there were a couple of aspects of it I didn’t care for. One is that it’s a little too goopy for my liking. Yes, it’s a zombie splatter film, but above and beyond the usual blood and entrails is an awful lot of pus. I have a low tolerance for oozing, spurting blisters. And I should never, never have to see Zombie Quentin Tarentino’s diseased and melting penis, or Naveen Andrews’ collection of pickled, severed testicles.

Second is that it’s ultimately unnecessary. There have already been a number of good zombie flick pastiches in the past few years, from Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later to Slither and, of course, Shaun of the Dead. This really isn’t adding anything new to the mix, either in terms of scares or silliness. Even the weapon-as-prosthetic limb gag is cribbed from the far superior Evil Dead 2. (Rose McGowen soooo needs to team up with Bruce Campbell.)

The best thing about Grindhouse is the selection of fake trailers that serve as its “intermission,” including ones for the slasher film “Thanksgiving” and the barking mad monster epic “Werewolf Women of the S.S.” (starring Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu!). And I think we’d’ve both felt a lot better about Grindhouse if we’d left after the intermission.

Unfortunately, we stuck around for “Death Proof.” I gather that it’s meant to invoke Steven Spielberg’s Duel, slasher films and a variety of women’s revenge pictures. I’m not as familiar with the tropes of the latter, so I’m not certain how on the mark it was. But I would hope the original films didn’t spend the first ten minutes listening to a bunch of women in a bar talk about nothing. That’s a lot of tedium to absorb at what is really the two-hour mark of a three-hour-plus experience. (Both features could and should have lost twenty minutes each.) And because these chatty Cathys die–murdered by Kurt Russell’s “Stuntman Mike”–it means another fifteen minutes introducing an entirely unrelated second group of women. Talking. In a bar.

This later quartet are refugees from a film crew, and so they blather on about movies that Tarentino himself happens to like. After this directorial circle-jerking, they “test drive” some guy’s ’70s muscle car and use it to play a reckless game which involves one of the women–a real-life stuntwoman portraying herself–riding on the front hood with only a couple of leather belts to hold onto. Homicidal driver Stuntman Mike, who has been stalking the foursome, chooses this moment to attempt to force them off the road. And it must be said that the ensuing old-school vehicular stunt sequences are pretty cool. But they’re not enough to save the film

Again, I’m not all that familiar with women’s revenge flicks, but I believe that usually something bad happens to the women in question before they go on their own payback rampage. Not so here. Stuntman Mike’s attack not only fails, but leaves them barely shaken. They are, after all, hard-drinking, tough-talking babes out for a good time, so it’s all just a laugh.

And yet, within moments, they decide to murder him in turn. With a hoot and a holler, they’re off in mad pursuit, endangering dozens of other drivers and giggling all the way. Am I supposed to root for them? If they’re out for fiery vengeance, why are they so damned happy about it?

Grindhouse wants to evoke run-down, inner-city theaters of the ’70s. Most of “Planet Terror” looks as though the print has been stomped on by the spiked boots of the Werewolf Women of the S.S., with plentiful scratches, juddery sprocket holes and even a “missing reel” (right in the middle of the sex scene, natch). Oddly, Tarentino’s film is mostly intact, with only a few audio synch problems and another missing reel, which makes me wonder if directorial hubris ultimately won out over the desire to emulate the grindhouse experience.

Finally, there’s a basic disconnect about all of this. For all the vintage intermission film clips and bad hairstyles of days gone by, the films themselves are clearly set in the present day, with copious use of cellphones and even a reference to Osama bin Laden. And both features use directorial techniques and modern effects technology that would never have been employed by exploitation filmmakers. It’s cheating.

When it was all over, I wanted nothing more than to get in my own car and chase down Quentin Tarentino, or at least to revoke his video store rental card. At some point, it might be nice if this directorial wunderkind found his own voice rather than sticking his movie geek obsessions in a blender and splashing the results on the screen.

Vic, do you forgive me? Vic?

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