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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

 

Grindhouse

I gather that they're re-releasing Quentin Tarantino's half of Grindhouse, after changing their minds about releasing it at all over here after it bombed in the States. When I was a teenager Tarantino was the hottest thing anyone had ever seen. Who'd have thought?

Why do people think it sank so badly? I've got a few speculations, but I'd like to hear other views. I can, at any rate, speak from my own experience, which is to say that I didn't plan on going to see Grindhouse when it came out. I had a couple of basic reasons for this, both of which were to do with possible strategy mistakes on Tarantino's part.

The first was that it sounded, rightly or wrongly, like it was part of the torture porn fashion that's been splashing across our screens lately. That, as I've said elsewhere, is not a trend in movies that I particularly want to watch - dismemberment is fine as long as it serves a plot function, the way I see it - The Last King of Scotland was one of my favourite movies this year - but the current horror fashion seems to be for giggling-little-boy glee at dismemberment for its own sake, which doesn't appeal. In little boys, fine, but to my mind, there's an element of I-can't-believe-I'm-an-adult-and-getting-away-with-this to such films, and I'd rather watch something where the director can believe he's an adult and directs accordingly. As I haven't seen Grindhouse, I may be doing Tarantino and Rodriguez an injustice, but that was pretty much the impression I was getting from the hype.

Now, I'm probably not the audience for those movies anyway (though I would have been part of the audience for a film that was like Reservoir Dogs) - but for the people who like torture porn, who would have gone to see another such film, I wonder if Tarantino may not have accidentally sawn the feet off his own movie by mentoring Eli Roth. Roth, after all, is the current enfant terrible of the torture porn trend, and a big part of his success is down to the fact that he was able to put 'in association with Quentin Tarantino' on his PR. But the thing is, that means Roth wound up the figurehead of the fashion. Roth is making movies that, from what I can gather, are more or less the descendants of the kind of films that grindhouses showed anyway. With new grindhouse movies available, why go to see a revival of the old kind? By supporting his mate, Tarantino seems to have inadvertently put himself out of fashion.

That's just a theory. The second part of the theory, I think I have more grounds for: it sounded too long. Two-for-the-price-of-one works on occasion - but the trouble is, being a Tarantino fan doesn't make you a Rodriguez fan, nor vice versa. They like each other's stuff, but audiences can be perverse; I'd be prepared to bet that a fair proportion of potential viewers ended up saying, in effect, 'Meh. I'd kind of like to see the latest Tarantino/Rodriguez, but I don't think I want to have to sit through a Rodriguez/Tarantino film to get it.' It was a bold artistic experiment, but faced with the prospect of a two-parter, where possibly you'd only enjoy half while suffering the seat cramps and bladder strain of a full-length long movie (as well as paying the full price), I wonder if many people saw it as half-a-movie-for-the-trouble-of-one instead - especially as the fact that they were a double feature meant that each part was unusually short, meaning less of your favourite to make room for the other guy. It's kind of a shame, as experimental collaborations sound like a nice idea in theory, but I think practicality may have defeated it.

I have another reason which is personal, but which again I suspect others may have shared: I saw Kill Bill, and I didn't enjoy it. Now, I'm not going to knock it; it was a slick piece of film-making, and probably very funny - but here's the thing: I wasn't in on the joke. It was a prolonged in-joke about kinds of movies I've never, ever seen. And nor have a huge proportion of the movie-going population. As a result, I just don't think I can judge it on its own terms. I can judge it on my terms, and say that it seemed to me plotless, bitty and rather meaningless - but that may well be because the meaning of it was a comment on certain kinds of schlock films that I'm in no position to pick up on. And Grindhouse sounded like more of the same. Making the kind of movie that the original grindhouse posters always promised but couldn't deliver; that was the rationale. But I don't think I've ever seen a grindhouse poster, or a grindhouse movie (except Night of the Living Dead, which got attention by being lifted out of the grindhouse circuit), so I had no way of knowing whether they'd succeeded in achieving their aim. I think most people will share this difficulty with me; most people never grew up near a grindhouse. Tarantino's early work was brilliant, hilarious, marvellous entertainment - but the fact that I loved watching his films doesn't necessarily mean I'd love every film he ever loved, and that's what Grindhouse seemed to be about. I think he and Rodriguez may have picked too obscure a standard to be judged by, and audiences have ended up begging to abstain.

There was a lot of press about Grindhouse before it actually-didn't-come-out in the UK, and I suspect there was plenty in the States as well, so the movie was failing despite a considerable build-up. But a lot of the stuff in the press wasn't really about the movie; it was about something that I, at any rate, thought sounded more interesting: the grindhouse as a social phenomenon. The original grindhouses, as described in the press, were less a cinematic experience than an anthropological one: a shelter from the rain for transients, alcoholics, prostitutes, the mentally ill, deviants, people hiding, people bored and lonely, and generally speaking, an audience divided between people for whom the main lure was a fairly warm place to sit undisturbed, and people who had serious problems. And the odd horror-movie buff, no doubt. It's not often you get to see a cross-section of society that stark, and I have a shrewd suspicion that the life story of the average audience member was probably more interesting and dramatic than the plot of the average movie onscreen.

The upshot is that the films grindhouses showed weren't really the point. The point was the grindhouses themselves. To my mind, the fact that the posters promised horrors the movies couldn't deliver wasn't a moviemaking failure that deserved correction, it was an essential part of the ethos. The interesting part of the carnival show isn't the six foot man eating chicken, it's the cleverness of the manager who came up with the scheme and the skill of the barker who makes you believe in it. Many of the original grindhouse movie makers were originally carnies, and used to bait-and-switch spectacle: they were deliberately putting their intelligence into the build-up rather than the payoff. That may have made for disappointing movies - but the movies weren't where the thought was going. If they'd been thinking more about the movies, they probably would have been making and promoting different movies in the first place.

I'd have liked to see a movie about a grindhouse, rather than a 'grindhouse' movie. You could put whatever grindhouse in-joke movies you liked playing on their screen if you wanted to have fun with it, but it sounds to me as if grindhouses themselves were the really interesting thing. With the two-hander Rodriguez and Tarantino came up with, for a start, I think they missed one of the most important things about a grindhouse, which is that you could buy your ticket at any point, wander in halfway through, watch till you got bored, then wander out again whenever the fancy took you. If cinemas had tried running the films on a loop and selling the tickets any time, (financially tricky, but if any director had the kudos to swing it, then surely Tarantino's your man), they might have got a better response. The seat-cramps-and-bladder anxieties, and the do-I-like-both-directors-or-just-one issues would have been alleviated, if nothing else. But as it is, I don't think I'm alone in feeling that, as a non-grindhouse-goer, once I'd heard about what a grindhouse was, I felt like I'd heard the best part of the story. After all, the movies they showed were supposed to be bad.

Would you have gone to see it? Reasons? Let's hear from you interesting folk.

Comments:
I think you hit the nail on the head -- it was an in-joke, and the vast majority of filmgoers obviously didn't feel let in on the fun.

I did like the Kill Bill movies (although I preferred the talkier part 2, the twisted logic and skewed morality -- part one wasn't as original as it thought it was, unless a viewer had never seen anime incorporated into a film before). But over the top East Asian cinema is my thing. Also, I think it just had more mass appeal -- bigger stars, maybe? And the action-swordfighting-gunfighting-revenge genre has a bigger audience in general, I'm guessing, than the zombie genre or the slasher genre (and those last two genres don't necessarily overlap in terms of fans, either).

I'll go out on a limb as well and say that Kill Bill likely appealed more to both genders. (Just for starters, even though The Bride was not originally a comic-book character, the film was the only one in recent years to do justice to that type of female action protagonist -- "Electra" was reported to be terrible-to-mediocre, "Aeon Flux" was un-wonderful, and from what I've heard, "Ultraviolet" made the baby Jesus cry). Comic book characters are touch and go on the big screen to begin with, and the female ones, in my opinion, don't even get adequate effort put into them -- dialogue, characterization, motivation, or even basic, nicely choreographed fight scenes (all of Electra's took place in the bloody DARK) -- let alone the labor of love that Kill Bill obviously was for Tarantino.

But Grindhouse set out to recreate an experience that only a small part of the American population ever experienced (let alone the world) for a very short time, just part of the (early?) 70s. The very low-budget, poor quality working class theaters with bad flicks foisted off on a public that didn't have access to or money for better -- you got dropped off in a crappy theater for a set price and stayed there as long as you could get away with. That's the aspect that was really hyped, really marketed "We're recreating this thing from our childhoods and we're going to make it so authentic!" But... there's no guarantee that even the people who were "in on the joke" would look back on that with the remotest fondness.

Not to mention, the demographic who are most into the horror genre right now weren't born early enough to remember.

Personally, I think Tarantino has learned to love listening to himself a little overmuch.
 
Yes, the 'strong female character' can be a tricky one for male artists to pull off, especially in areas that traditionally cater to boys. I'm always suspicious of the phrase; why do you need to say 'strong female', as if the one modifies the other? Does anyone say 'strong male character'? Bah.
 
(Total tangent -- that is pretty much how I feel about the phrase 'strong black woman.' I want to be un-strong, cute, adorable and dainty, dangit. At least for a day or so... ^_____^)

I am... really, really troubled by this "conservative fantasy" argument over on the other blog you cited, by the way. I need to think about this more (and post in the appropriate place!).
 
By all means. What in particular is troubling you? Maybe we can all have a discussion about it - internet politics can be interesting.

Anyway, your very typing tells me that you're a cute, dainty little blossom of a thing. No doubt about it. :-)
 
Hah! :-D Well maybe "cute" can be negotiated, there...

I'm less troubled now, but I'll post in entirety over in the other thread (September 3).
 
Actually, even though I've never been in a grindhouse theater, I'm still strangely familiar with the genre, thanks to the wonders of the video rental store. You won't find those films at Blockbuster, mind you, but some non-chain stores can sustain themselves by specializing in The Weird Stuff. There was a place called Blastoff Video that rented nothing but what they termed "psychotronic video", which contained everything from exploitation films to collections of vintage educational shorts. They ultimately went under, alas, but a place down the street called Videodrome picked up a lot of what they sold off.

The whole B-movie machine didn't actually die, it just shifted into the distribution scheme known as direct-to-video. I dated a guy who turned me on to the joys of watching bad movies for fun. (We must have been quite the sight at the video store--"Man, this looks AWFUL! Let's get it!") We rented a lot of films that never saw the inside of our local multiplex.

I didn't actually watch Grindhouse, because I'm not sure I'd really want to see films like that on a Hollywood budget. Watching a cheesy film from that era is a little easier for me to take because the blood and the zombie makeup are so obviously fake that it doesn't get to me. More sophisticated special effects, however, do get to me, so I tend to avoid them. (I'm the kind of person who can see footage of somebody being stabbed in the eye, and wind up rubbing my eye for the next several days. Which is probably why I haven't seen Un Chien Andalou to this day.)
 
That's a good point. I think that was another reason why I didn't feel like seeing it - not that it would be upsettingly gory, but that it was a big-budget film imitating a tiny-budget one. I tend to feel that with your typical cheezsploitation film, the fact that it has a tiny budget means that it's sort of got an excuse to be that way. It's doing its best considering its limitations and intended milieu. Given a bigger budget, you could do anything you wanted - so why not make something really good?
 
Well, not only that, but from what I could tell about the film (from the ads that took up every single commerical break for the premiere episode of "The Riches") that it wasn't exactly the kind of film shown in a grindhouse as much as it was the kind of film that the movie poster promised but never delivered. If that makes any sense. A chick with a machine-gun leg would have worked in, say, a pulp novel or a comic book, but no way could you actually do that in a film back in 1970-something without the result looking laughable. Adding scratches and blurriness and 'missing reels' to the film doesn't change that.
 
Mm, I heard that. But I tend to think that providing the kind of film that delivers on previous false promises is an odd idea in itself. I mean, the posters weren't supposed to be accurate representations of the films, or even, I suspect, representations of the kind of films the directors would have liked to make had it not been for censorship laws. They were all about getting the audiences to fork over money for tickets. Once the poster had done its job, the main aim had already been accomplised. Really, the posters were the great accomplishment of the whole venture.

Like I said in the article, they were sound as if they were the cinematic equivalent of the carny barker promising you a six-foot man-eating chicken, and going into the tent only to discover a six-foot man, eating chicken. But under those circumstances, I don't think the right artistic response is to make a movie in which there's a big chicken that eats people - or at least, it's not the response that feels right to me. It seems literal-minded about something that was casual, and it kinda smacks of missing the joke.
 
"...the carny barker promising you a six-foot man-eating chicken, and going into the tent only to discover a six-foot man, eating chicken."

I love this.
 
Thanks to that particular image, I wound up with a craving for fried chicken that took my entire lunch hour to satisfy. Dammit.

I'd actually heard of studios back in the day that would come up with the movie poster first and THEN write a movie to match it. I'll have to do a little Googling to confirm that one, stay tuned.
 
Do confirm if you can, it sounds interesting. If so, it would back up my theory that the primary work of art was the poster rather than the movie, and that the grindhouse's artistic tradition really belongs with graphic design and copywriting more than with moviemaking...
 
I can't confirm it precisely, but I found the movie review that claimed this was the case here:

http://www.agonybooth.com/year_5000/

To wit:

Our current subject was clearly cooked up using what was Nicholson and Arkoff's standard recipe in the early days: First, come up with a cool sounding title. Second, make a poster that matches. Third, use both of these to secure enough financial backing to actually make the movie.

Only after all of this is done do you hire a cheap screenwriter (like Robert J. Gurney, Jr., fresh off
Invasion of the Saucer Men, which would ultimately be his career masterpiece) to pound out a script that roughly corresponds to whatever you put on the poster. Get somebody just as cheap to direct it (Gurney again), blend thoroughly, bake half way, and you'll probably end up with something that's a lot like Terror from the Year 5000.

If this is indeed true for AIP, that covers a huge chunk of the B-movie canon right out of the gate. Check the Wikipedia entry:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_International_Pictures
 
Aha! That's interesting, thanks. :-)
 
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