| April 8, 2007

They arrived together, renegade auteurs of pop art cinema, screeching into the limelight on a wave of white-hot industry buzz, storming the gates of Hollywood with their respective calling-card debuts. Separately but simultaneously, they exploded onto the indie movie scene, united by a deep-rooted love of low culture, the trash art spectacles of their youth: spaghetti westerns, Italian horror romps, Hong Kong shoot-em’-ups. They were B movie connoisseurs, rebels on the backlot, best buddies and kindred spirits–not Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Mr. Brown and the Desperado.
And yet despite the shared interests, the budding partnership, the parallel rises to fame, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are not–repeat, not–cut from the same cloth. A mutual fixation on guns and girls, blood and octane masks the inherent dissimilarities, both in their work and their reputations. Rodriguez is the movie bandit, the do-it-yourself purveyor of low-rent, high-concept pulp entertainment–Howard Hawks with a laptop and a cowboy hat. Tarantino is the art house provocateur, the post-modern pop-culture deconstructionist; he’s a retro-cool hipster who wins Oscars and dates movie stars. Watch a Rodriguez and a Tarantino joint back-to-back and you’re bound to see the vast differences between them–the way that the former tends to mete out cheap thrills early and often, while the latter holds his guns, talks around the action, subverts our expectations. To be sure, both men are die-hard aficionados of violent, lewd, take-no-prisoners underground cinema. Yet only one of them could be said to truly, honestly qualify as an exploitation filmmaker, i.e. the sort of guy who could churn out sinfully enjoyable, unapologetically bad, no-nonsense schlock. Can you guess which one? Here’s a hint: Jack Hill never won an Oscar.
With Grindhouse, Tarantino and Rodriguez have unleashed their most ambitious tag-team effort to date, a ferocious tribute to the down-and-dirty pictures of their formative years. It’s an old-fashioned double feature, two movies for the price of one, with each writer-director contributing a full-length picture to the bill. Aiming to recreate the milieu of the “grind house” experience–beat-up prints of low-budget obscurities, playing at run-down movie palaces in the ’70s and early ’80s–the dynamic duo load their nearly three-hour throwback with nifty traces of authenticity. They scratch up the prints, write missing reels into the films, stick phony teasers for made-up movies in between the two features. Call it a stunt if you like, but it’s a stunt that the filmmakers staunchly commit to. Directed by the splat pack rookies of modern horror, the faux-trailers are both hysterically funny and completely spot-on–these three-minute blasts of giddy genre parody are easily the best things that Rob Zombie and Eli Roth have ever done. And yet they’re just the icing on the cake, mere appetizers to a greasy, high-calorie, two-course meal. An obscenely enjoyable act of Meta homage, Grindhouse should appeal to any true fan of trash cinema, yet it’s fundamentally lopsided and diametrically uneven. Case in point: strip away the retro-camp trimmings, and only one of these flicks actually delivers the goods. It might not be the one you think.
First on the bill is Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s rip-roaring valentine to Reagan-era action/horror/sci-fi mash-ups. Relentlessly gory and hilariously extreme, it’s the sort of no-holds-barred midnight movie that only an obsessive, dyed-in-the-wool fanboy like Rodriguez could pull off. The largely nonsensical plot concerns a small Texas town overrun by gooey, flesh-eating zombies–like last year’s Slither, it’s a veritable remake of Night of the Creeps, except this one doesn’t just rip-off the content of its seminal predecessor, it mimics the look, sound, and very feel of it. Ignore the spectacular CGI effects and the tossed-off references to Osama bin Laden, and you might be watching a lost genre specimen of the early ’80s. Rodriguez doesn’t dance around his influences, he openly exploits them: the lumbering ghouls suggest the best work of George Romero, while the terrific rock-and-synth score draws favorable comparisons to both John Carpenter and Terminator-era James Cameron.
Unquestionably, this is Rodriguez’s finest hour, a propulsive and effortlessly entertaining bit of B movie mayhem. The writer-director keeps throwing new absurdities our way, piling on kinetic thrills and elaborate grotesqueries with the maniacal zeal of a red-blooded huckster–he’s like the P.T. Barnum of splatter epics. The casting is inventive and inspired, with B+ stars of today brushing shoulders with B- character-actors of yesterday. Really, is there anything cooler than Rose McGowan as a saucy go-go dancer with a machine-gun for a leg? How about Aliens/Terminator star Michael Biehn as a grizzled sheriff, or make-up maestro Tom Savini as his destined-to-be-eviscerated deputy? Not even Tarantino, overacting wildly in a misguided cameo, can spoil the good times vibe.
Planet Terror is just a touch too long, but it never stops kicking out the jams–it more or less gives us exactly what we came to see, exactly what we want from it. It was made for us. It takes all but 3 seconds to realize who Death Proof was made for. The first shot of the film is of a woman’s foot, propped up on the dashboard of a car, and we’re immediately back in Tarantino Land, that funky celluloid kingdom that exists entirely in the writer-director’s movie-addled brain. It’s not just QT’s foot fetish that gets a workout here: all of the man’s obsessions and indulgences are on full display. Jive talking soul sisters spouting vague girl-power epithets? Check. Too-cool-for-school pop-culture references? Check. “Naturalistic” banter that goes on for minutes on end, hi-jacking one scene after scene? That’s a big check there. There’s no denying Tarantino’s exceptional gift for gab, his elegant and electrifying way with words. However, as with his last film–the comedown that was Kill Bill: Volume 2–it’s the filmmaker’s preference for showy, elaborate dialogue over real action that casts his B movie aspirations under serious doubt.
Death Proof is meant to be a rough-and-ready nostalgia trip, a slasher movie that morphs into a drag-racing picture, only to bottom-out as a woman’s revenge flick. Trouble is, other than its grainy, ’70s-inspired aesthetic, there’s very little in the film to suggest we’re watching anything other than one of QT’s usual Molotov cocktails–it’s just another cinematic mix-tape, with no real allegiance to any specific genre or tone. There are brief moments of arresting tribute–the first appearance of the villain’s car eerily mirrors Laurie’s first glimpse of Michael Myers in the original Halloween–but Tarantino lacks the focus to keep it together, the single-minded commitment to serving up skuzzy thrills. He’s too in love with his characters, with the rhythmic zing of his own overwritten dialogue.
To be fair, there are at least two spectacular set pieces in Death Proof. One’s a sickeningly brutal car crash, repeated four times in succession; the other’s a wicked chase sequence, a fast and furious bit of automobile bravado, done entirely without digital assistance. And Tarantino’s eye for pitch-perfect casting remains intact: as a psychotic stunt-driver stalking a group of nubile young women, Kurt Russell delivers his best performance in years–a charming and menacing turn, and a salute to every badass he ever played in the Escape from New York days. But these are the fringe benefits of getting on this ride. For the most part, Death Proof fails to excite, and that’s because Tarantino, for all his love of lowbrow cinema, isn’t really that kind of filmmaker. He’s too enamored with wink-wink, buzz-kill irony, too cerebral in his approach to disreputable genre fare. He’s all talk and no action–an arty film geek who’d rather show off his knowledge of grind house movies than make one of his own. He is, in short, too good to make bad movies. Rodriguez, on the other, may never make a masterpiece like Pulp Fiction, but he could spend the rest of his life spitting out first-rate trash art like Planet Terror. Really, it’s like comparing Martin Scorsese to John Carpenter: we have our fair share of Scorseses–it’s the Carpenters that we need more of.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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