THE BACK PAGES

The Bionic Woman gets a tune-up

JAIME J. WEINMAN April 16 2007
THE BACK PAGES

The Bionic Woman gets a tune-up

JAIME J. WEINMAN April 16 2007

BURNING DOWN THE GRINDHOUSE

Tarantino takes a badass harem on a retro joyride that’s all over the road BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON

film

It’s hard to say if it’s even possible to “spoil” a picture like Grindhouse. But if you’re the sort of moviegoer who likes every shattered bone, splattered skull and fountain of gore to come as a surprise, consider this a spoiler alert. In Planet Terror— one of two ersatz exploitation movies that play back-to-back under the title Grindhouse—Rose McGowan portrays a gogo dancer whose leg is ripped from her body by zombies and replaced by a stick that’s jammed into her stump. She later drives the broken end of the peg leg through the eye of a rapist played by Quentin Tarantino, then has it upgraded to a machine-gun prosthesis that allows her to blow the living dead to a pulp while swivelling on her rear in a black leather micro-skirt.

Tarantino calls this a “chick flick.” Which is a bit like calling a meat-packing plant an animal shelter. Still, you can see his point. Grindhouse is chock full of empowered chicks, er, women. Badass babes firing guns, gunning cars, kicking butt, and showing butt, as they turn the tables on one macho psychopath after another. The good guys are almost all girls. If Thelma and Louise—two dames with a gun, a car and a score to settle—is your idea of a chick flick, forget it. This is not your mamma’s feminist revenge fantasy.

Grindhouse consists of two 90-minute features, Planet Terror and

Death Proof, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino respectively. They unspool back-to-back, padded with satirical trailers for B movies that don’t exist. To simulate the experience of a ’70s “grindhouse” (a rundown theatre devoted to cheap horror and sexploitation), the films are mutilated with faux scratches, jerky edits and missing reels. Tarantino and Rodriguez have come up with the cinematic equivalent to distressed jeans. Making a fetish of vintage genres, Grindhouse offers a theme-park trip through mondo madness, careening between fawning homage and ironic caricature. Along the way, there are some cheap thrills and a few laughs. But it adds up to a self-indulgent exercise in cult nostalgia. And in Tarantino’s case, it shows a director who has become intoxicated by his own prodigious talent: he’s like the host who’s having too much fun at his own party.

Grindhouse is a passionate yet smug tribute to the outlaw aesthetic of the B movies that inspired Tarantino and Rodriguez as they became rock stars of American independent cinema. If Spielberg and Lucas ushered in the age of blockbuster special effects in the early ’80s, it was Tarantino and Rodriguez who led the punk backlash a decade later. Hailing from Tennessee and Texas, these two Southern renegades both burst onto the scene in 1992—Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs and Rodriguez with El Mariachi. That was the

year they met, at the Toronto International Film Festival, and they’ve been brothers-inarms ever since. Rodriguez made his name with loaves-and-fishes budgeting—El Mariachi cost $7,000—but grew up to be just another slick action director (Spy Kids, Sin City). Tarantino became, for better or worse, the most influential filmmaker of his generation.

Their contributions to Grindhouse are a study in contrast. With Planet Terror, Rodriguez doggedly sticks to the B-movie mandate and delivers zombie horror straight-up, as an unrelenting onslaught of slime and gore. It’s exhausting and, on the whole, tedious. Then, after a giddy interlude of ingenious fake trailers (the highlight of the movie), along comes Tarantino’s Death Proof, which feels strangely languorous and literate after the Rodriguez film. Compared to Planet Terror, it plays like Shakespeare.

Tarantino has concocted a hybrid slasher/ car-chase movie, with Kurt Russell starring as a serial-killer stunt driver. But the director seems more interested in foreplay than action. The first half of the movie is largely talk, including a marathon discussion that has the camera slowly circling four women sitting around a table—a distaff answer to the opening restaurant scene in Reservoir Dogs.

Tarantino may be most famous for his brutal depictions of cruelty and violence. But his real forte is dialogue. What made Reservoir Dogs truly groundbreaking is the way his gangsters talked to each other about things other than crime, right from the opening gabfest about Madonna and the ethics of tipping. That marked a radical break from oper-

atic films of Mafia manners by the likes of Coppola and Scorsese. And Tarantino took the idea further with Pulp Fiction, which had hit men talking about foot massages and French hamburgers. Now, as The Sopranos enters its final season, it’s being hailed as the most important show in television history, but you can’t imagine all that gangster small talk in The Sopranos without the precedents of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

As Tarantino has explained, with Dogs he was “taking genre characters and giving them a real-life spin—have them sound like real people, like me and my friends, and talk about shit other than The Plot. Most of us don’t talk about The Plot in our lives.” Letting dialogue

digress into idle chat and letting the plot trip up on “all these constant little monkey wrenches that smack true of life,” says Tarantino, is something he learned from novelist Elmore Leonard. He took that style to the screen and re-engineered the grammar of the gangster movie. He also juiced up the language. Like a white rapper, he wrote dialogue that played as savage bebop, syncopated with countless variations of the f-word.

With Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino also taught mainstream audiences to accept non-linear narrative, fostering a new sub-genre of time-twisted movies ranging from Crash to Babel. Countering Hollywood stardom with auteur flash, he set the bar for virtuosic filmmaking that draws attention to its own devices. He made movies about movies, with characters trapped in a post-modern funhouse of homage. And that’s his most pervasive, and potentially toxic, influence. As the Tarantino Effect rubbed off on less gifted directors, North American cinema has begun to turn into one big grindhouse—cannibalizing itself in a zombie death spiral of filmmaker narcissism.

That, of course, is an exaggeration. Tarantino didn’t invent post-modern cinema. JeanLuc Godard deserves most of the credit for that. Along with directors like Steven Soderbergh and Atom Egoyan, he merely picked up where Jean-Luc left off. And with Grindhouse, Tarantino has said he’s just doing what Godard did 50 years ago—redeeming American movie genres by finding art in what had been dismissed as trash. Needless to say, the viral progress of the Internet has also had a lot to do with pop culture cannibalizing itself: the DNA of every film and TV show ever made can now replicate itself ad nauseum in cyberspace. But no filmmaker has infected the mainstream with the idea of the meta-movie as boldly as Tarantino.

One of the ways he keeps reminding us that we’re watching a movie is by dissecting the business of acting, and ironically that opens up a new dimension of realism. In Reservoir Dogs, Tim Roth plays an undercover cop whose handler gives him a script of a fake anecdote to support his cover, telling him, “An undercover cop’s gotta be Marlon Brando. To do this job you gotta be a great actor.”

Tarantino loves actors so much he keeps trying to be one. Even as his movies have become more cartoon-like and reckless, behind all the flamboyant conceits is an actor’s director. In Grindhouse, he digs a darkness out of Kurt Russell that we’ve never seen before. And no one has drawn better performances from John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson—or Uma Thurman. Casting Thurman in Pulp Fiction, and later Kill Bill, Tarantino seemed to find his muse, and his own closet feminism. Amid the martial arts mayhem of Kill Bill, Thurman’s most compelling scene comes down to a heartbreaking conflict between mission and motherhood—as the man she has come to kill introduces her to their child.

In Death Proof, Tarantino has cast Thurman’s Kill Bill stunt double, Zoë Bell, as the movie’s ultimate heroine. Playing herself, Bell is one of a quartet of women who end up in a demolition duel with Kurt Russell’s road warrior. The others are an actress, a makeup artist and a stunt driver. The climactic chase scene—which has Bell clinging to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger—is an adoring tribute to Vanishing Point and half a dozen other vintage chase movies. But it’s not half as much fun as the restaurant conversation leading up to it.

Since Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino has gone from all-male gangsters to a bad-girl quilting bee. In his quest to subvert cliché, and turn genre on its ear, he’s become the director who loves women—a thinking man’s Roger Vadim. But in the end, Grindhouse is a grind. If only Quentin could put away the toys and leave the actors to their own devices, who knows what he could do. Maybe once again he could be a director of influence, and not a slave to it. M