Grindhouse aims to resurrect movies, not bury them | Film Review | Indy Week
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Grindhouse aims to resurrect movies, not bury them 

Bringing back the dead

Grindhouse is now playing throughout the Triangle.

click to enlarge Screaming skull: Kurt Russell does his thing in the Death Proof half of the Grindhouse double bill. - PHOTO BY ANDREW COOPER/ DIMENSION FILMS

Given that it runs three hours and 11 minutes and comprises two feature-length movies along with an assortment of bogus trailers, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse might be called a cinematic Double Whopper with Cheese, oozing grease, ketchup and a dare to find a better bargain anywhere at the multiplex.

Yet, artistically, Grindhouse turns out to be, in its own deliberately trashy way, far more nutritional than that metaphor might suggest. Teaming up for a double-feature tribute to '70s-style grade-B cult movies, Rodriguez serves up a zombie shocker á la Night of the Living Dead, which Tarantino follows with an offbeat car chase thriller in the mold, roughly, of Vanishing Point.

These are in no way spoofs, parodies or quasi-remakes. They are a double-barreled work of pop art whose success, paradoxically enough, results from filmmakers apparently operating in tandem but actually working at cross-purposes.

Let's put it this way: Rodriguez's film belongs to the realm of movies. Tarantino's is quintessentially a work of cinema. Though we often use these terms synonymously, Grindhouse offers a striking illustration of precisely where and how they part company.

I will return to that distinction later in this review, but will proceed to note that, as its title indicates, Grindhouse doesn't aim simply to re-create two 30-year-old movie types. It's also out to conjure a whole bygone movie-going experience: what it was like to see a genre double-bill in a seedy second-run theater in the 1970s.

The fake previews (the most hilarious is for an actioner called Machete that Rodriguez reportedly now intends to make) is part of that. So is the blizzard of technical deficiencies—scratches, blurs, jump cuts, audio pops, "missing reel" announcements—that's wittily and artificially applied throughout Grindhouse.

But for me, the vintage "Coming Attractions" and "Our Feature Presentation" light-show animations (which Tarantino used previously in Kill Bill) were the popcorn equivalent of Proust's madeleine. I was instantly swept back to the long-gone Village Theatre in Raleigh, after the once elegantly moderne cinema was converted into an unavoidably tacky duplex. I could almost smell the sickly sweet odor of the concession stand. And though I don't recall the Village ever becoming a second-run house, I'm sure I did see plenty of cheesy thriller and horror films there, back in the day.

As for why anyone would bother reinventing that particular day, let us recall that cinematic modernism has always been bound up with a conflicted but crucial nostalgia. The young directors of the French New Wave, whose influence Tarantino has always admitted, legendarily tried to recapture the lost joys of their childhood movie-going, and created something new in their failure to duplicate something old.

Yet when Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to the trashy crime dramas of America's Monogram Pictures at the end of the '50s, in Breathless, the essential movie-going experience hadn't changed appreciably since the introduction of sound three decades before. In 2007, well into cinema's postmodern phase, filmmakers like Tarantino and Rodriguez are well aware that the digitization of most cinematic processes has drastically transformed the medium in the past decade, and the impending widespread digitization of most theatrical projection will soon effectively render it a different medium altogether.

In effect, Grindhouse reminds us of what we've lost, are losing, are soon to lose—and it does so at the most basic of levels. Instead of recalling, say, the gorgeous palette and sensory perfection of a first-run David Lean epic, it gives us the blotches, splices and glitches that signal the "mortality" of any movie. And rather than evoking the aesthetic peaks of a Conformist or a Godfather, it transports us back to the tawdry, low-grade thrills once widely available in cinema's disreputable bargain basement.

There's a curious aspect to the latter effort, though. In a sense, there are two audiences for Grindhouse: those old enough to remember the era of Night of the Living Dead/Vanishing Point, and those too young to recall it.

As a member of the first group, I'll readily allow that I was never a big fan of the films Rodriguez and Tarantino pay tribute to here, yet I'm still unavoidably susceptible to the memory buttons they're pushing. But what about younger viewers? How can you be nostalgic for something you never experienced?

Perhaps the easiest answers are that any viewer can be entranced by Tarantino's and Rodriguez's feel for these old movies, and that such films have long since passed into the collective memory anyway; even if you've never seen Gone in 60 Seconds, you have.

click to enlarge Watch the hand! Quentin Tarantino directing Vanessa Ferlito on Death Proof - PHOTO BY ANDREW COOPER/ DIMENSION FILMS

There's also the "hipster" factor. Ever since Tarantino burst onto the scene with 1992's Reservoir Dogs, it's been axiomatic that the appeal of his films, quite beyond their stylized combination of violence and comedy, owes to their uber-fanboy attitude, which includes audiences in a "hip" knowingness about trashy forms like '70s chopsocky that, in fact, most mainstream filmgoers presumably know little about.

Once upon a time, of course, "hip" and "mainstream" were virtual antonyms. But that was before the turn in American culture (circa the Reagan era, I would venture) when "hip" was drained of its original oppositional meaning and turned into an homogenized, unthreatening stylistic trope suitable for the shopping mall. It's largely due to that cultural sea change that Tarantino has been able to enjoy both commercial clout and cachet, turning out worldwide blockbusters while maintaining the aura of a "cult" director.

All of this is sufficient reason to hold his work in suspicion, at least regarding its ultimate artistic value—and I do. His films are so fashionable that it's entirely possible they offer nothing beyond trendy surfaces and an obsessive's infectious zeal. Yet, somehow, strangely, the best of them manage to vault much higher.

If you suspect I'm about to declare Tarantino's contribution to Grindhouse superior to Rodriguez's—well, not exactly, since that would imply they're each trying to create the same kind of apple and only one succeeds. In fact, it's more a case of apples and orangutans.

Rodriguez's Planet Terror is an appropriately manic and overheated zombie movie of the classic type. It's set in a Texas town overwhelmed by a nocturnal visitation of staggering, oozing human husks bent on dragging the living into their deathly domain. I'll spare you a plot summary. Suffice it to say that our heroes are mysterious hepcat/martial artist Wray (cute Freddy Rodriguez) and disaffected stripper Cherry (curvaceous Rose McGowan). After Cherry's right leg gets eaten by a zombie, it's replaced by a wooden table leg and, then, a machine gun that she uses to blow away hordes of the ornery undead.

The gross-out factor in Rodriguez's opus is pretty high. If you don't like zombie movies with their flying extremities, cataracts of blood and ghastly diseases and deformities (here including severed testicles and dripping genitalia), you'd best give it a wide berth. But viewers with an avidity or a tolerance for the genre will, I think, allow that Rodriguez has done an expertly exuberant job of mimicking its '70s heyday.

One thing to note about these films is that Rodriguez and Tarantino both served as their own directors of photography (the latter for the first time). Yet that similarity touches on a hugely significant difference: Rodriguez shot his work on digital video (made to look like film), presumably because it was necessary for the special effects; Tarantino shot his on film, presumably, as Variety put it, to give a "massive middle finger" to such effects.

That defiance turns out to be crucial, although you wouldn't know it at first. Tarantino's Death Proof starts out, typically, in loquacious mode, with three young women tooling around Austin, Texas, jawing about "weed" and other topics, then repairing to a bar for margaritas and more talk. I won't discuss the story's twists except to say that these friends and another woman eventually find themselves threatened by an odd character named Stuntman Mike (wonderfully played by Kurt Russell). Then there's a break in the tale, the scene shifts to small-town Tennessee (played by the environs of Santa Barbara!), and we're with another group of garrulous female friends who've just arrived to work on a movie. A couple of them are stunt-women, which sets us up for the film's dizzying climax: an automotive duel-to-the-death between them and Stuntman Mike.

Before the women encounter their nemesis, one lies on her back and straps herself to a Dodge Charger's hood for a high-speed ride. It's a game that daredevil stunt-women play, apparently, but its danger increases exponentially when psycho Stuntman Mike roars up, bent on using his car to kill the women.

In the hair-raising chase that ensues, viewers either consciously realize or subliminally sense that there are no special effects involved—it's all real people and real danger. It's at this point that Death Proof (and Grindhouse) launches from moviedom to meta-cinema, using the medium's (old-school) visceral thrills to tell us something of its essential and enduring artistic nature.

The gist is the same as that imparted to the French New Wave's cinéastes by critic Andre Bazin: Cinema is the one art that preserves a direct impression of life itself, and thereby defies death. Bazin compared this impression to the image of Christ's suffering captured on St. Veronica's veil. Tarantino suggests a different image, the one that lurks behind all his work—resurrection—and it's this that sets his film conclusively apart from the one that precedes it.

Rodriguez's film, like most of its kind, is about fear and survival. Tarantino's gives us death turned to triumph. Planet Terror, you might say, is the Old Testament; Death Proof (what better title?) the New. If the combined elements of cinematic self-reflexiveness and Christian symbolism have always been present in Tarantino's work, nowhere are they so clear as here. And that's why the elegiac aspects of Grindhouse end up as something of cheerful illusion. Cinema of the '70s may be dead, we sense, but through audacious uses of celluloid (not CGI!) like that in Death Proof, cinema itself is endlessly reborn.

And you thought it was mere coincidence that this movie hit theaters at Easter?

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