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Saturday, April 21, 2007

*sploitation: Plant Terror + Death Proof = Grindhouse

So anyone who cares plus a large chunk of those who don't know that Grindhouse, as originally conceived by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, is a miserable failure. So miserable a failure, in fact, that as early as one week after its opening (on Easter weekend? Really?), the Weinstein brothers had already decided on and executed a plan to separate the conjoined exploitation twins Planet Terror & Death Proof and show them separately. This makes baby, adult, and risen Jesus cry.

That Ain't it Cool piece is a little strange in its shock regarding this plan. After all, this has been the plan in Europe, where the double-feature concept is said to be, well, foreign, for a while. Anyway, we wanted to see it in its original format, which proved tricky enough that we nearly gave up and went for separate showings. But lack of information on the fate of the trailers/prevues accompanying the movies carried the day, and we headed out to the theater to which we'd planned to avoid forevermore.

As should be obvious to anyone who knows us, we are the target audience for Grindhouse: We rush out to see Jason Statham movies as soon as humanly possible; I, at least, make pilgrimages to the former studio of Herschell Gordon Lewis; we eat up blaxploitation within blaxploitation with a spoon (seriously, people, find a copy of Baadassssss! and watch it, will you?); and to us, Black Snake Moan was downright homey; and I think I can speak for M when I say that a time or two, our MST3K viewing was complicated by getting caught up in the rotten movie. As far as Grindhouse goes, there is my Rodriguez problem (or, rather, my Sin City problem), but that's a mere trifle when we're talking over-the-top gore, action, and silliness.

We've all skipped ahead now and know that Grindhouse, as conceived by Tarantino and Rodriguez, is a miserable failure: Audiences complain that it's too long, it's to weird, they didn't get it, what the hell was with the scratches and the missing reels and how dare you keep me from seeing Freddy Rodriguez and Rose McGowan having butt sex!?!?!

On the one hand, the concept's failure with the kind of audience that just shows up and buys a ticket for whatever's playing next is somewhat perplexing. The success of people like Kroger Babb and David Friedman, to some extent, depended on the inertia of movie-going audiences. Those careers also depended on being the only game in small towns as well as that proportion of the audience that was at least as titillated as it was repelled by tasteless subject matter, but even in those cases, unthinking knee-jerk reactions helped to sell the films.

As far as that goes, Grindhouse is a loving homage to the early exploitation film and I doubt anyone will accuse of Tarantino and Rodriguez of challenging the audience or trying to make them think. It's sad but true, Snakes on a Plane had more grist for the social commentary mill (and Black Snake Moan certainly had a lot more) than did Grindhouse.. In that sense, Grindhouse is out of step with the exploitation films of the 70s and 80s. Rudy Ray Moore, Melvin Van Peebles (who was, of course, much more than just an exploitation filmmaker), and even Doris Wishman either had something to say or were saying something whether or not they intended to.

I don't know if Grindhouse is failing with its natural audience because that natural audience consists of just us two, or if the natural audience represents the opening weekend's $12 million and the movie fails to tap into the obsessive nature of the exploitation fan, which would normally have us dragging an ever larger posse to repeat viewings. (It's probably more likely that exploitation buffs scorn Tarantino and Rodriguez as too cool, too mainstream, and too well-funded for the outsider club.) Certainly I'm glad I saw it in its original form, but I'm not moved to make a passionate argument about why everyone needs to rush out and see it for babies and puppies and Christmas.

Whatever the reasons for its dismal showing, though, I really can't see how splitting it into two movies is going to help anything. First of all, there's the nagging issue of the trailers. These masterpieces by Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz opens in the US this weekend, people), Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Rodriguez himself hit some of the highest and most delightfully cracked points of the exploitation genre. Both movies within Grindhouse make more sense in the context of those trailers (and in the context of one another, for that matter).

The second problem with splitting the movies up is the uneven quality of the main features. Going in, both M and I suspected that we would like Planet Terror (Rodriguez's contribution) better than Death Proof (Tarantino's). I mean, come on: Zombies, Naveen Andrews as a sleazy, vaguely foreign 80s criminal middle man displaced from his permanent home on the set of Miami Vice, PROSTHETIC MACHINE GUN? What is not to love? Well, a lot as it happens. Rodriguez seems to have gone into the movie with one goal in mind: To cram in as many cliches of the genre as possible with no regard for anything else. It's 90 minutes of silly, gross-out sight gags held together by not much.

I'm not trying to claim that any exploitation movie has ever been plot driven. Part of the joy of learning what went on behind the scenes of exploitation films is finding out how some of the more bizarre elements made it in: The climax was scripted to take place on a boat? Sorry, all we have is a hay wagon. REWRITE! Hey, my cousin's parole officer has a dune buggy, let's work it in! I'm all for incoherence in the name of outsider art, but Rodriguez's incoherence is intellectually dishonest and masturbatory. And not in a good way. Damnit!

There are good parts to Planet Terror. Naveen Andrews, Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, and Josh Brolin. They, respectively, manage to look too cool for school in a grimy headband and jheri curls, maintain the teeth grit for 90 minutes, cry and go go dance their hearts out, and chew the scenery. The plot leading to zombies and the heroes' antizombie plan is impenetrable enough to satisfy anyone. But there are too many plot switchbacks and too much self-conscious schtick by half.

Death Proof has its own issues. I am so not on the Cool Kid Memo Distribution List, so I'm always left liking movies by directors who are no longer cool and so on, so I think it must be inarguably true that Tarantino has started to believe his own hype. There is a looooooot of DP that smacks of QT wanting to see just how much strange entirely-lateral-to-the-plot-(such-as-it-is) conversation his devotees will watch. It's not that it's unfunny or without its charms.

In the first part, Sydney Tamiia Poitier handles what's nearly a 45-minute monologue well. All I could think about Vanessa Ferlito is that she has seriously weird and asymmetrical nostrils (although she was convincingly repelled-yet-hypnotized by poetry-reciting Kurt Russell). Rose McGowan as the hippie-nerd, picked on by STP in HS . . . well, really, who's going to buy that, but she came closer to selling it than I would've thought.

Part two, which begins with another incredibly drawn-out series of chats, is the stronger section of the movie. Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman by trade, is a real joy to watch, and her work up against Tracie Thoms (whom I applaud for not thinking that "Cold Case" makes her too legit for Tarantino) is absolutely stellar. However, Rosario Dawson leaves me absolutely cold (and I've marked her as an actor who will never really get the quirk). Mary Elizabeth Winstead was ok as the one of these things that just doesn't belong, but overall, I'd have traded her for Jordan Ladd (the blonde, mainstream-cute girl from the first half).

But by the time we get to the payoff in part II, almost all is forgiven. I'm not particularly drawn to extended car chases and automotive stunts, but sheee-it, that was some kick-ass suspense and fancified road maneuvers. And Kurt Russell screaming is the funniest thing ever. He screams and he screams and he screams and it gets more hilarious each time, making his eventual comeuppance at the hands of our kickass band of babes incredibly gratifying.

There's no question to me that Death Proof is the better of the two movies, and I really did hoot and holler and laugh it up throughout a lot of it, during the talky quirkfests and the gratifying spots of violence alike. But something about it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I have a suspicion that QT is patting himself on the back for making a real Girl Power exploitation movie. And he has made parts of a movie that fit the bill better than some of the quaint attempts of the 70s (including Ted V. Mikels Doll Squad, and Cirio Santiago's multicultural extravaganza, Ebony, Ivory, & Jade). And yet, there are things that are so glaringly, gallingly, appallingly misogynistic and I know—I just know—that reference to them is likely to be met with blank stares at best and impassioned defenses of their crucial contributions to the plot, etc.

Let's start with the disturbing end of Pam (Rose McGowan) in part 1. I've mentioned that it's a weird casting decision, she mostly makes it work. At least she does right up until the the bizarre, tacked on moments before she gets in The Car: She denies to the other group of women folk that she's going to fuck Stuntman Mike for a ride home. She makes reference to how old he is (retreading ground already covered in earlier pop-culture-reference-riddled conversation that reveals the generation gap). He overhears, but seems indulgent about it (probably because he got a lap dance from Vanessa Ferlito during the missing reel). The scene is just not up to the level of the rest of the movie. It's awkward and it really does seem to have been shoved in to give Stuntman Mike some basis for his beef with her, and therefore it's ok that he kills her in drawn-out, repulsively violent fashion.

Of course, he then kills all four of the other women (the Jungle Julia posse has picked up a pot-having, pointless, possibly lesbian addition along the way) in short order, so my squeamishness at the death of the lone hippy chyck might seem strange. The graphic, visceral end for a lone victim is certainly "legit" within the confines of the exploitation movie (murderous violence and pornography routinely blur into one another), although it's rarely so closely juxtaposed with such silly, over-the-top multiple murder. I can even see the argument that Pam's murder establishes that Stuntman Mike is an Evil, Woman-Hating Guy, not just a thrill seeker. (And, by extension, this revelation justifies Stuntman Mike's end at the hands of our Stuntwomen, who might otherwise be seen as evil, gratuitously vicious feminazis.)

But it still rankles that Pam's end is a punishment for daring to deny Stuntman Mike sexual access to her, especially when her denial of said access flies in the face of the standard film and television of convention of pairing aging men with women young enough to be their daughter. Is he any less psychotic and woman-hating without that? Is there any reason at all to give anyone anywhere an iota of a leg to stand on when they say, "Well, she was kind of a bitch to him . . . "

If Pam's death had been the lone troubling misogynist rumble . . . well I'd still have felt dirty and uncomfortable watching the scene of her murder. But worse still is an absolute throwaway joke. The intersection of our second group of women with Stuntman Mike hinges on them being able to take a particular car for a test drive without the Deliverance Denizen who is selling it coming along for the ride. "Abernathy" (Rosario Dawson) secures her backseat vantage point on the test drive by gifting the very conventionally-cute-popular-girl,-actress Lee (who is dressed in a fucking cheerleader outfit for fuck's sake) to the yokel as banjos duel in the distance (yes, I know that Deliverance is all about male fear of rape, but trust me, QT is trading on the vibe).

Certainly my current head space about misogyny is fueling the rankle. So color me a sour-pussed harpy who pointlessly ruined an awesome fatal axe kick for herself, but I am not making this shit up. It's not as though I wish failure on the endeavor for these sins (or any others cited in the course of this entry), but somehow I don't think it's going to come up in casual conversation about where the project went wrong.

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