Monday, June 04, 2007

Grindhouse

2007 *****

I know it's crazy late for this, but I finally finished my Grindhouse review.

Here's my favorite shot in Planet Terror: Rose McGowan is strutting forward with her gun-leg limp, doing a sexy lurch past the bargain basement set while bargain basement explosions go off in the background. Instantly it hit me: here was the Grindhouse vibe finely distilled, poured into a shot glass and knocked gleefully to the back of my throat where it burned like sweet gasoline. Guns, flames, sexy curves and the freakshow touch of watching an amputee in a hurry. Entertain, and damn the freakin' torpedoes.

Jordan put it perfectly during a comment dialogue in March:

"Tarantino is a bullet through the damp kleenex of irony. It has been true ever since Reservoir Dogs; he likes a certain kind of movie and goes and makes more of them. Art-house film types (the world's most naive cinema audience) are so confused by the blood and bullets (having never seen this stuff before, since they can't watch anything without first getting cultural "permission" from the New York Times Arts & Leisure section) that they think, "well, he's got to be 'kidding' on some level, right? I mean, this is 'trash,' right? All this enjoyment must actually be 'meta-enjoyment' or something sophisticated like that." Then they feel better.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Tarantino keeps making awesome movies and we all keep loving them."

Reprinting that here gets me out of a lot of refuting. This guy, for instance, has a whole lot of clever, bitchy stuff to say about Tarantino "canonizing the garbage from his adolescence," but he's so confident about Grindhouse's low purpose I think he completely misses the point. This is more than a retread or an homage, and about far more than air quotes and irony. This is grabbing hold of an unabashed, balls-out vector of storytelling and showing people what you can do with it.

And this is always what Tarantino's thing has been about, just as Jordan mentions above. To borrow some of my own words from later in that same exchange:

"Pulp Fiction came out around the same time as the first Sin City comics, and I noted then (mostly to myself), that it marked a return to pure narrative, to just stop with the commentary already and tell a great fucking story.

A similar attitude spawned Kurt Busiek's Astro City comic book and the slew of titles Alan Moore did with ABC Comics. Both writers wrote introductions that basically said the same thing: Okay, we had the 80's and Watchmen and everything, we did the deconstruction thing and peered inside the machinery of superhero comics and pointed out the various parts to the readers. Now, having done that, it's time to slam the hood shut and, using what we've learned, take it out for a spin."

And what says that better than the revving engine that backs the word "Grindhouse" as it crawls across the screen? Vroom!

But it's better! Take the emerging plot of Planet Terror -- if you look too much at the shocking, gorey trappings, you might miss how damn complex the story is. You get several sets of interpersonal relationships, a growing swarm of infected zombie critters, a military conspiracy, and the perils of opening your car door with anethesized hands -- all woven together with the deftness and breakneck pace of a seventh grader speed-braiding her friend's hair to win a bet.

Consider also the retro pops and scratches that infect the film print. They pop up randomly, but also happen at certain key events, like moments of high-octane sultriness or gruesome zombie mayhem. The film's subject matter is actually affecting the film stock itself, or so we're invited to believe.

I'm not saying there isn't irony in play, that would be naive. But the shape it takes is not about prying open the flaws in the cheapo source material; this isn't a parody. Take for example the scene in which badass Freddy Rodriguez is finally allowed to handle a pistol ("Give him the gun, give him all the guns!"); in his reverie he performs a gun-spinning sideshow act while Deputy Tom Savini's eyes grow ever wider in disbelief. We're not of course meant to take that seriously, but I don't think the detachment is meant to point out how dumb this kind of cheap thrill is, but rather how thrilling. Seriously or not, are we meant to go forward believing in badassedness of Freddy Rodriguez? HELL yes.

Planet Terror was my favorite part of Grindhouse. Honestly, it's nearly perfect. I'd be psyched if the craptastic straight-to-vid horror movies I inflict on myself annually showed one fourth the skill and care putting together their stories. The "missing reel" device is a narrative bulls-eye SO deliciously right-on that I refuse to utter another thing about it lest I spoil it for a single reader. The whole thing is a heaping plateful of What You Want To See, from the occasional background explosions that happen for no reason (hee hee!) to the lustily-shot closeups of some spectacular womanly curves. I'd watch three hours of Senate subcommittee meetings if the opening credits were displayed over Rose McGowan go-go dancing.

(Furthermore -- and I'll try to shut up about irony and people missing the point -- it's not like original grindhouse cinema was ignorant of its own shortcomings. I expect the people who first set sleazy saxophone to the sight of hot, writhing girls in bikinis knew exactly what they were doing.)

My one complaint about Planet Terror is Tarantino's cameo. He has got to stop showing up in his movies, a lesson I thought he'd learned after I saw the QT-free Kill Bill. It's the one time where I feel he deserves the critiques I've been refuting here, but I don't think he does it due to hackneyed vision -- he just wants to play, too. He should resist the temptation; his presence jarred me right out of the movie for those minutes. His monologue sounds suspiciously like a rant from his video clerk days, except instead of a hapless customer it's Rose McGowan he gets to lecture. Can't say I wouldn't do it myself.

Grindhouse's phony trailers are just excellent, and the prospect of them becoming actual movies jolts me with genuine glee. I can't wait to see Danny Trejo carve up the screen as Machete, and it makes me think he should've been given his own action movie ages ago. Eli Roth's Thanksgiving gets a special mention; even among the other Grindhouse offerings with their "damaged" pops and scratches, the combo of Thanksgiving's particular overexposed film glare and the creepily low-toned voiceover manage to hit a note of Actually Disturbing that seems to be Roth's special gift.

Death Proof I liked a lot better on the second viewing, but it does require a bit of endurance. The film is split between two quartets of pretty girls, each of whom spend a lot of time chatting before their respective encounters with Kurt Russell wind up their part of the story. Two problems there.

First, while I am hugely disappointed in American audiences' reluctance to watch more than three hours of movie, Death Proof's structure makes it feel like three movies, and during the dialogue-heavy part of the final act I myself felt pretty worn out. It's been pointed out to me that this pacing is likely intentional; either as part of the Grindhouse's homage to questionable quality or as a counterpoint to the incredible action of the ending car chase. I can't help but happily admit that the climactic payoff is more than worth it, but that's not my point.

My problem is that intentionally making bad art, whatever the intended effect, is still making bad art. Those parts dragged, and it was frustrating and boring to watch. I don't like being made to feel that way, period, and I don't look back on the complete experience with a different attitude. Make your point without boring me, that's the challenge. David Lynch's Lost Highway has excructiatingly glacial scenes, but I never drifted out of the zone the way I did with Death Proof. Tarantino's a famously indulgent writer, and I love that aspect of his work, but for the first time I thought he overdid it.

The second thing I had trouble with, and I seem to be completely alone on this one, was Rosario Dawson. Normally I totally dig Rosario Dawson, but there was a self-consciousness to her words and gestures during those introductory scenes that put me off.

"Thanks for the exstensive tour of your Death Proof complaints, Octopunk, but what else can you say?" This: all of my discontent completely evaporated once the action kicks in (and was much, much easier to enjoy on a second viewing). Despite my problems with the set-up, it does a wonderful job connecting you to the characters, and you wind up feeling every swerve right in your gut. Part of the indulgence of this flick is that it's a huge valentine to stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who plays herself, but my God does she earn it.

If Death Proof is an homage to the art of the car chase, its main sin might be that it outdoes all of the movies it sets out to honor. And, like the old movies, these cars really take a pounding, with no help from CG. Kurt Russell's performance is a hit out of the park, and when the words The End flash on the screen, you'll want to jump out of your chair and applaud. It's a total K.O.

JPX called Grindhouse a masterpiece in his review, and minor flaws aside I'd have to agree. It burns my butt that it did so badly at the box office, but I like to think time will redeem it somewhat. For the rest of the stupid world, that is, I say we Horrorthonners already know better. Inasmuch as we have a philosophy, it flourishes in the dusty back rooms of video stores in which we find our cheap, gory treasures, and that's the same nesting place for the Grindhouse vibe. Make sure you see it.

3 comments:

JohnnySweatpants said...

Dammit, I haven't seen this yet and can't read the review until I have done so.

JPX had pestered me since the day he saw it - "Whatever you do, don't miss this one! And remember, you HAVE to see it in the theater!" Unfortunately it was only in the theaters for 2 weeks and I missed it.

And he's reminded me every day since - "I can't believe you missed Grindhouse! Disgraceful!" etc.

Thanks for digging up old wounds, Octo.

JPX said...

Fantastic review Octo! I'm so happy that you finally ground this out. I didn't find the Death Proof discussions quite as tedious as you did, however, on DVD I'll never watch them again (I'm just bieng honest).

JohnnySweatpants said...

Ok well I read it anyway. Nice review.

Grindhouse & Tarantino will be just fine. This one will just end up in the cult classic section.