Jon Finally Sees Grindhouse

Grindhouse: Planet Terror (2007)

I finally watched both installments of Grindhouse over the weekend. I really didn’t know what to expect, as I’d heard both good and bad reviews, plus the film bombed at the box office. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is not only a carefully studied homage to the golden age of exploitative horror before the gloss of cgi effects and big budgets, it’s also the most fun I’ve had watching a DVD in a very long time. Of course, the double feature Grindhouse is in part an experiment to see if the look and feel of exploitation film from decades past can be recreated. Planet Terror comes complete with a fake trailer and a wonderfully nostalgic, low-budget bumper. The film even has a grainy look to it, with built-in missing frames. All of this makes you feel as if you’re watching an authentic b-grade film in some small, dirty theater on a lazy Saturday afternoon, and I loved every minute of it. But this film is much more than an experiment. Rodriguez proves that b-grade filmmaking is an art form in its own right. His soundtrack is compelling, the film’s pacing is nearly perfect, and the acting is brilliant. Rose McGowan is especially fun to watch in her role of the iconic hooker with a heart of gold, and Freddy Rodriguez is equally impressive as El Wray (whose name is a nod to Rodriguez’s From Dusk to Dawn). We all know that zombies can be used as metaphors for consumerism, apathy, man’s inhumanity to man, the effects of war, and every societal ill you can think of. But let’s face it, the idea of a zombie film as social criticism gets rather silly after awhile. If you really want to provide trenchant social criticism, there are more sophisticated and cogent metaphors you could use other than zombies. There are obligatory gestures in this film that link the zombies with the evils of the military industrial complex, but, thankfully, Rodriguez doesn’t indulge in this metaphor and instead keeps his thrills transparent and cheap: simple sex appeal, lots of blood and gore, and abstract conflicts between good and evil. Rodriguez is the sort of director that instinctively knows this formula works and that it’s one of the reasons we go to movies in the first place.

Grindhouse: Death Proof (2007)

Death Proof proves that Tarantino has an impeccable ear for music and a good eye for casting. Not only does Tarantino have what must be the world’s largest record collection, he has also mastered the art of choosing a soundtrack that builds mood and atmosphere, while also defining his characters. I suppose it’s a cheap trick, but watching characters on screen listening to their favorite music is infectious, especially when the music is so rare and idiosyncratic. Tarantino knew what he was doing when he cast the then down-on-his-luck actor John Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. It was equally surprising to see Kurt Russell as the grizzled, out-of-work stuntman turned serial killer, but his performance was flawless. Tarantino has obvious gifts as a film maker, and his films are consistently accomplished, but he’s sometimes too clever and too indulgent for his own good. For instance, the snappy dialogue in Pulp Fiction was necessary in defining the ironically charming and laid-back relationship between Vincent and Jules. In Death Proof the barrage of one-liners and studied cool gets a bit annoying. Every syllable the characters utter is chosen for maximum attitude and hip-ness, and I caught myself thinking about how tiresome it would be to be stuck in a car with them. I do love the way Tarantino turns the tables in the second half of the film. Stuntman Mike is emblematic of a past age of filmmaking, and he’s having his revenge against the modern world as much as the scantily clad vixens that no longer find him sexy. While the characters in the first half are all relatively easy prey, the characters in the second half work in the film industry and transform themselves on-screen into the she-devils from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! It’s as if Stuntman Mike becomes trapped in his own nightmarish movie. I enjoy this sort of meta-cinema, and Tarantino is very good at it, but by now he’s worn it all a bit thin. He manages to keep the meta-cinema subtle in Jackie Brown while still having fun with it. But in Death Proof he gets sidetracked too many times by his own artistry. It’s as if Tarantino has fallen so deeply in love with film and his film-making that he over-indulges. Planet Terror never tries to be anything other than a grindhouse film, and this makes it thoroughly successful, while Tarantino can’t help but make a Tarantino film. However, by the end of Death Proof, he seems to remember the task at hand. The ending is fast-paced, gut-wrenching, and, lucky for us, Tarantino gets out of the way long enough to let it actually work.

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