Monday, April 16, 2007

Movie Chat: Grindhouse


The movie might be playing to "near empty theaters" someplace, but I saw it last Saturday in a full (though not sold out) theater in New York City. And everyone seemed to have a good time - even the women in the audience (there were quite a few couples - although the guy next to me had to keep explaining all the B-movie references to his girlfriend she seemed to be enjoying herself as much as he was).

I had a good time, too. I can see why it didn't make money, though: it's an oddball movie and though the studio was supposed to have spent $30M in marketing, no one involved there seemed to really get exactly how oddball it is. If Harvey Weinstein thought that Grindhouse could ever have been a straightforward teen horror hit (like Disturbia), then he really needs to see more movies.

And how exactly did they spend that $30M? I'm not super hooked into the "coming attractions" scene (I don't seek out trailers on the internet, for example), but I do kinda/sorta pay attention to this stuff and I don't recall seeing anything about Grindhouse (i.e., no TV ads, not as part of the coming attractions when I saw 300 and Zodiac). I guess I saw a poster and a couple of displays, but it seems like $30M should buy a bit more.

Anyway, the movie itself:

First, Planet Terror and Death Proof are really different kinds of movies. Rodriguez and Tarantino take very different approaches to this little exercise. Planet Terror is a pastiche of sub-Romero 1970s horror walking dead flicks.

Visually - in terms of the photography, the design, and the effects - Rodriguez gets it just about perfect. Narratively, there's a little bit too much going on (even with the benefit of a "Missing Reel", the movie is ten minutes too long): in The Crazies, for example, there are really only two plot threads, Planet Terror has two major one plus a bunch of subplots. One of the things that I love about genuine Z-movies is that the filmmakers tried to wring a lot out of very little, but the poverty of the production (not to mention their ideas) usually showed through anyway. Rodriguez obviously wanted to cram everything he loves about this kind of movie into Planet Terror, which is understandable, but undercuts the movie's effectiveness.

Something else I noticed:

Some of the actors seem to "get" how to play this kind of material. Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, (surprisingly?) Marley Shelton, and, especially, Josh Brolin. That is: their performances give the impression of professionals doing a job, not giving their all, but giving just enough to put the material over.

But others in the cast - Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Naveen Andrews, and (surprisingly) Bruce Willis - can't help winking at us, turning in consciously ironic performances. (Andrews does the best, because at least he's precise with his campiness).

I can't help but think that Biehn, Fahey, and Brolin learned this by living it: years of taking roles to pay the bills, artistic excellence be damned. This is one of the more interesting phenomena in movies: they require so many people to make that even on a labor of love, there will probably be some folks who just see it as another job.

Adding these two problems together - too much going on and half the cast letting us know they're in on the joke, too - makes Planet Terror, ultimately, just a little bit disappointing. Of course, hardly any of Rodriguez's movies have been afflicted by both restraint and coherence, but this is another case where I wish someone was there to tell him, "Don't".

Oh - something else about Planet Terror: I read one review of the movie where the gist was that Rodriguez and Tarantino need to put away childish things (i.e., stop making movies about the junk culture they've grown up) and grow up (i.e., start making serious movies that don't have anything to do with kung-fu or zombies). Well, personally, I prefer an unrepentant genre movie like Planet Terror to something like Pan's Labyrinth a genre movie that also wants to make you think "serious" thoughts and feels "seriously" unpleasant.

So, I liked Planet Terror, but, perhaps, more importantly, it set the mood for Death Proof. Michael Newman suggested that the better movie should go first, but, in this case, Death Proof works better coming after Planet Terror.

I don't want to talk too much about Death Proof, since the surprising ways it tweaks its genre are a big part of its fun (I think I'll end up writing a long essay on it at some point though). However, I will say that unlike Planet Terror, this isn't pastiche: it's a real movie and it's genuinely it's own thing. It's probably closest to Reservoir Dogs in that, depending on how you look at it, it's either a B-movie with an art-house sensibility or an art-house movie with a B-movie sensibility. But it's much more relaxed than that movie - for maybe the first time, Tarantino doesn't seem like he's trying to prove anything. This makes it feel almost like a masterclass on how to combine a genre exercise with "personal" filmmaking (hopefully Eli Roth took notes and even Neil Marshall, a favorite of mine, could learn a thing or two).

I also liked the fake trailers: too bad this was a flop, I would have paid to see Grindhouse 2 with a Werewolf Women of the SS and Thanksgiving double feature. (I guess I'll have to make do with Rob Zombie's Halloween remake: the real preview looked pretty interesting).


Steve said...

I "get" PLANET TERROR. I'll admit that I don't really "get" DEATH PROOF, and I look forward to your longer essay on it. One question you might answer for me about DEATH PROOF is, what's it about beyond its own self-referential love of movies like VANISHING POINT and DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY? That is, what does it bring to the party that those movies don't?

I would say that Tarantino gets every small detail right -- the weird, go-nowhere attempts at characterization; the lack of visual and narrative continuity; the off-kilter framing used to mask the lack of budget for sets; the implied threat of rape as a titillation factor; the reduction of all the freefloating character threads to a climactic car chase and shit kicking. It's all perfect -- as a evocation of certain type of no-budget '70s grindhouse movie.

The thing I've decided about Taratino is that he's purely a director of moments -- recreating moments from movies he's loved. And he's a master at recreating those moments and, even more impressively, capturing the overall tone and flavor of those movies. And film critics just bask in that. But at building a narrative or developing a character he's hopeless. And ultimately his movies never add up to anything but a collection of memorable (even sensational) images and the evocation of a certain type of atmosphere. Which isn't nothing, but isn't all that either.

Jon Hastings said...

Hi Steve,

I think you sell Tarantino a little short (but of course I would).

I think Pulp Fiction works as a kind of black comedy and while I don't think it adds up to a kind of grand statement on life as some of its defenders would have it, it's more than just moments. Or, if it is just moments, then it's just moments in the way that a Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields movie is just moments.

I think Death Proof works differently from his other movies though. I do want to write more on this later, but what I liked about the movie was the way it is simultaneously a tribute to grindhouse fare and also the kind of rigorous (!!!) formal experiment we're more apt to associate with European art house filmmakers. I think Tarantino's formal/structural flourishes - the jumbled chronology of Pulp Fiction, for example - are often pretty meaningless: enjoyable enough as puzzles, but not really necessary. In Death Proof, though, I think he makes the central structural conceit (the way the second half both repeats the first half, comments on it, and then turns it inside out) really works.

FWIW, I think Death Proof is also his first film since Reservoir Dogs that hasn't tried to reach a "general audience". It seems much more geared to film buffs and critics than, say, Jackie Brown, which had funnier dialogue and a caper plot.

Steve said...

Thanks for the reply. Some random thoughts (Tarantino does inspire random thoughts, doesn't he?):

I read somewhere that Stuntman Mike doesn't have a scar in the second half of the movie, suggesting that the halves got "switched" in the projection room in a Tarantinoish meta-joke. I haven't personally verified that and don't know what that does to your structural analysis, but thinking about it, it *does* make more narrative sense, if that's your bag (it obviously isn't Tarantino's).

I like your analogy of PULP FICTION to Fields and the Marx Brothers. I took it as scattershot comedy too, enjoyed it, but didn't think it could stand up under the weight of the praise heaped on it at the time.

What was it Kael said about Godard -- his films are machines for turning audiences into film critics, or some such? I think of Tarantino in the same way, though in a more superficial vein. I always go see his movies, and love the individual images and sequences, but the whole never comes together for me. Maybe that's why DEATH PROOF does somehow play like the ultimate Taratino film. It's not coming together was a hallmark of the type of film he's paying homage to.

I once made the point to a film critic friend of mine that Tarantino sure loves actors, and he replied something to the effect of, then why doesn't he give them characters to play? I couldn't disagree. I do think he *does* love actors in the sense of loving to photograph them, but he doesn't give them characters to play in the sense of allowing them to build a character.

Jon Hastings said...

I like your characterization of Tarantino's m.o. as "creating moments" and I think that's partly how he works with actors as well. Actors seem to obviously love working with him, because he's all about giving them everything they need to have these compelling/funny/provocative moments.

I'm not as sure, though, that he doesn't give actors characters to play, but this might be where it gets a little tricky talking about all of his movies in a jumble. That might be true of Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Kill Bill, where all of the actors are riffing on archetypes from other movies, but I don't think it's true of Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, or Death Proof (where Stuntman Mike is Kurt Russell riffing on an archetype and creating a character).

I read an article on Grindhouse that quoted Peter Biskind saying something like: "Tarantino needs to stop playing around with junk culture and get back to what we love him for." That "we" jumped out at me: I'm not sure that there's even a consensus among people who liked Pulp Fiction on exactly what makes it so good (apart from "the dialogue"), let alone a consensus among fans of his movies in general. One of the things I like about Reservoir Dogs, for example, is how nakedly emotional the scenes between Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel get: it's like the primal guy-to-guy exchanges in a Cassavettes movie, but supercharged and teetering on the edge of absurdity. But there's really nothing else like those scenes in his other movies, where any intense emotion is almost always undercut by black comedy.

Mike McKay said...

I think that what Tarantino and Rodriguez did was more important than whether or not we loved or hated the films. They awakened the whole world to this lost art of filmmaking that had almost completely gone to Hollywood in America, covered up my rules and censorship through the new ratings system, and to Italian films of today which are not like the Italian films of the sixties and seventies. I mean, come on...Anthony Brolin in Dario Argento's new movie GIALLO? Is anyone else wondering what in the hell? And bad casting in this lost art was redeemed in GRINDHOUSE. We saw an all-star cast in both movies, which, by the way, is totally not grindhouse. I felt that if they really wanted to make grindhouse films, the best thing they could have done was limited the budget so that they couldn't cast Kurt Russell and Bruce Willis. I think there were just too many things that were forced in GRINDHOUSE. All the things that the directors of the early B movies and zombie flicks did to try to make their films look as good as Hollywood on limited budgets, what Rodriguez and Tarantino did was almost a slap in their face saying that a double feature made with $40 million dollars is true grindhouse. Try movies like the original CLERKS, a classic, not a grindhouse film, but totally filmed with a rented camera and filmed where the actors were working! I think that GRINDHOUSE would have been more received as a genuine article had the Weinsteins not forked out so much money! See my blog at
Posted by Mike McKay