Grindhouse touches only itself

The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double-feature Grindhouse pays homage to many things: the depravity of Rodriguez’s mind, perhaps the sickest in cinema today; Tarantino’s foot fetish, invariably attached to the hottest actresses around; and exploitation cinema, itself exploited to little effect but sating the directors’ considerable autocinematic impulses. Grindhouse isn’t really supposed to be good—it is, after all, an ode to schlock—but if a film’s not good, what good is it?

Exploitation movies, in the general sense, are films that rely on sensationalism, rather than artistic merit, to attract viewers. The most common of the bunch have been categorized into subgenres like “blaxploitation” (films starring black actors and made for black audiences) and “sexploitation” (films featuring large-breasted women and a soft-core sensibility), though exploitation films can also extend to zombie, shock, splatter and biker varieties, among others. The peak of the exploitation movie era in the United States was from the late ’60s through the ’70s, and the theaters that showed them—often as double features—were called grindhouses.

Tarantino is, of course, a pop-culture freak, and his nostalgia for the goings-on of the 1970s seems especially keen. So when he and his cohort Rodriguez decided to re-create the grindhouse experience (the idea, purportedly, came from grindhouse sessions that Tarantino cobbled together in his home theater for a close circle of associates), they went full-bore into 1970s cinematic style. They set the intro graphics to a very ’70s score, took a perfectly clean look and treated it so it would appear grainy and marred, and even commissioned a handful of other filmmakers to submit spoof trailers of fictional grindhouse flicks.

This is all fine and campy entertainment, until the first feature, Rodriguez’s blood-and-pus-spattered zombie flick “Planet Terror,” begins—at which point the camp factor stays high, but at a level of gruesomeness it seems impossible to have achieved 30 years ago.

The nominal storyline revolves around Cherry (a smoking-hot Rose McGowan), a disenchanted go-go dancer in Austin, Texas. (As grindhouses often doubled as “bump-and-grind” dance venues—hence their name—her profession is one of a million nods to ’70s pop culture strewn throughout both movies.) To begin, Cherry runs into her former boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a wrecker driver who possesses a mysterious set of ass-kicking abilities. In no time, Austin is overrun with chemical-warfare-spawned, flesh-eating (are there any other kind?) zombies. Cherry gets her leg half eaten off, and Wray bestows her with an assault rifle prosthesis. People get eaten, blown up, run over, smeared with pus and infected, shot and impaled; body parts fall off, including, in one particularly stomach-turning scene, the nether regions of a would-be rapist. Meanwhile, the hipster cameos keep coming, including appearances by Bruce Willis and Tarantino himself, as the aforementioned rapist.

With Rodriguez’s gross-out meter pinned to the red line, it’s a good thing Tarantino’s segment, “Death Proof,” takes a more subdued approach. Also set in Austin, this story follows two separate foursomes of incredibly attractive women who combat a vehicular-homicidal maniac (Kurt Russell).

Along with a bevy of caressing foot-and leg-shots, Tarantino exercises his trademark dialogue fixation here. One of the chick squads, all below-the-line film industry employees (makeup artists, set designers, etc.), gets bent on re-creating a car-chase scene from—you guessed it—an obscure 1971 exploitation flick. Once the talking is over and the rubber meets the road, though, the climatic car chase is a dandy. (In another ironic nod, Tarantino made Zoe Bell—the chief stuntwoman for Uma Thurman in both Kill Bills—the main character, playing herself.)

This is a moviegoing experience unlike any I’ve known, and you can’t fault Tarantino and Rodriguez for the effort and the balls they displayed in making it. They’ve re-created and updated an entire cinematic era in their own images, and they’ve offered up two feature movies for the price of one, to boot.

But Grindhouse is still a swing and a miss, albeit spectacular by the fact its makers swung from the heels. Sacrificing narrative in favor of spectacle and fetish—each movie, in fact, has a “missing reel,” where a whole chunk of the story is lost—Tarantino and Rodriguez stay to grindhouse rules. It’s just that there’s a reason grindhouses no longer exist—the movies they showed almost always sucked, and good movies can now be seen at home with less expense and effort than it takes to go to the theater.

As far as nostalgia goes, there may be a contingent of cinephiles who will truly enjoy this modern grindhouse experience, who will connect with all the obscure references (and self-references) around which Tarantino and Rodriquez built their movies. But the gory sensationalism of Grindhouse is an inadequate anchor for three hours of bombastic cinema, an ode with resonance only for those already in thrall.
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