Idle curiosity took me to the cinema last weekend to see Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s much-maligned attempt to recreate a sleazy low budget 1960s/70s double bill. After a disastrous performance at the US box office and a fall out with Tarantino’s patrons at Miramax over the film’s 3 hour plus running time, the film was split into its constituent parts – Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof – in the hope this would make the films more a more attractive prospect. This didn’t prevent them attracting near-universal hostility from critics and widespread indifference from cinema goers.
The concept certainly sounded pretty bad: another opportunity for Rodriguez and Tarantinto to indulge their shared adolescent obsession with trash culture. I’ve not seen any of Rodriguez’s films before, but Tarantino, who has already spent a fair amount of his career making films based on genres such as blaxploitation, kung fu and heist films, has certainly shown every sign of having directed himself into a dead end. Kill Bill didn’t stand up to a second viewing and rumours that his next project was to be a remake of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! just seemed to confirm a severe case of arrested development. Wasn’t it about time that he started looking outside cinema for his inspiration?
It’s fair to say my expectations for Grindhouse were pretty low, but what do you know, the film was a blast and those 119 minutes flew by. Planet Terror turned out to be a wittier, bloodier, and more entertaining Shaun of the Dead. But it was Death Proof, Tarantino’s serial killer / car chase segment, which left my head spinning for days.
On the surface Tarantino just seems to be repeating himself – his trademark snappy dialogue, lengthy conversations in cars and bars, trash culture references and surf guitar music are all present and correct – but there’s a lot else going on in the film. Tarantino just sidesteps cinematic convention so often, so effortlessly, and with such skill and flair that’s it’s easy to miss what he’s up to even though it’s staring you in the face.
There’s more to him than the sum of his influences. Just look what he does with the most meagre of material. B-movies were sometimes structured rather haphazardly, due to deficiencies of craft, imagination and/or budget. Characters could appear and disappear for no good dramatic reason, major plot lines would be go nowhere and films would sometimes end without warning or fanfare the moment the story reached its climax. Paradoxically though, now that almost all films (be they mainstream or alternative) have the same three act structure, this is one of the things that makes B-movies of the past unpredictable and interesting. Tarantino realises this and sets out to make a film which is deliberately structured along B-movie fault lines.
And it’s this almost avant garde approach to structure that seems to have baffled a lot of Death Proof’s critics, prompting cries of ‘where’s the story?’. Well there is a story, but it lacks the usual signposts that tell us: where we are in a film; how to feel about it; and what’s coming next. Where there are signposts, they all point in the wrong direction.
And true to B-Movie form, Death Proof ends without warning the moment where the film’s protagonists achieve what they had set out to do. A normal film would follow this with a 5 or so minute coda where the characters reflect on the events of the film and we get a glimpse of what the future holds for them. None of this in Death Proof, which leaves us with no guidance about how to make sense of the brutal, exhilarating, unpleasant events we’ve just witnessed. We have no choice but to make our own minds up. Sure, Tarantino’s films are known for their violence, but this is uncomfortable and challenging for the viewer in a way that Pulp Fiction wasn’t.
Of course, not all B-movies are blessed with interesting eccentricities and Tarantino is also aware that more often than not they promised much (via attention-getting titles and advertising campaigns) but delivered little. Salacious titles like Beast from the Haunted Cave and Hot Rod Girl disguised rather tame and conventional films – many of which could now be shown on afternoon telly without controversy. Tarantino said his aim was to recreate the B-Movie experience but deliver on the promise. Well the biggest promise of B-movies usually related to sex, and both Rodriguez and Tarantino (deliberately) cop out on that front, but I won’t tell you how as that would spoil the fun.
In all other respects, they deliver a note-perfect pastiche of the 70s American cinema experience, down to the degraded picture quality, audio glitches and cheap and cheerful graphics advertising forthcoming attractions – familiar to a Brit like me from our equivalent of a grindhouse cinema, the ‘flea pit’. Plus of course, there’s the fake trailers for non-existent films, widely considered to be the funniest parts of the film.
Enjoyable as this was, I hope it signals an end to the fashion for pastishing film and television of the past – we’ve already had Mr Cholmondley-Warner, Look Around You, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and even Macdonalds adverts doing the same. Enough already.
As for the double bill concept, it does work after all; the segments complement each other well and there’s running gags and other little details that build up across the films. No doubt the impact was lessened when the films were split up. Their box office failure is a shame, for the wonderful cast if no one else, and in particular stuntwoman Zoe Bell who plays herself and treats us to the lengthy and frankly breathtaking stunt which takes up a large part of Death Proof.
Grindhouse and it’s children now join the ranks of some sadly underrated films by generally well-thought-of directors, films which just seemed to catch people in the wrong frame of mind and about which no critic now dare say a good thing – the others that come to mind are Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Manchausen and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter. In the case of Death Proof, some of the film’s most vehement critics don’t appear to have even watched the film, judging by the way they got the film’s premise wrong. C’est la vie.
Looking forward to that remake of Faster Pussycat…