The basic premise behind Grindhouse, the B-movie double feature from directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, isn’t really all that novel. Director Stanley Donen’s 1978 effort Movie Movie is a strikingly similar package to Grindhouse, albeit Donen flew solo. That package is this: a pair of separate movies sharing some of the same cast members and glued together by nostalgia and fake trailers (Grindhouse‘s fake trailers are a major drawing card, featuring cameo directorial appearances by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth). But while Movie Movie affectionately spoofed the candy-sweetness of Old Hollywood in the midst of the grittier 1970s, Grindhouse longingly harks back to exploitative ’70s cheapies in an era when Hollywood product has grown dishearteningly slick and safe. By marking up their movies with scratches, pops, and intentionally missing reels, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s modus operandi is to transform sanitary suburban multiplexes into grindhouse cinemas that, while undeniably rattier, at least had a kind of dingy individualism intact. The entire enterprise is more about the act of going to see a film than anything else. See it on DVD and you’ve already skipped half the joke.
This may all sound a little high-concept, but really Grindhouse‘s ambition is simple: to have some loud, messy fun. The filmmakers seem to have had a ball; however Grindhouse‘s relatively low opening ticket sales suggest that mainstream audiences aren’t as eager as Rodriguez and Tarantino to swap big budget gloss for faux shoestring grunge. Analysts suggested that the film’s long running time, or the wrongheaded strategy of opening the gory twofer on Easter weekend may have factored into its underperforming box office; perhaps potential customers were also put off by the idea of a pair of hotshots like Tarantino and Rodriguez putting out something that was intentionally bad. And indeed the project’s sizable ambitions are scattered in contradictory directions: toward both celebrating bad movies by faithfully recreating them, and subverting and sending up the same tired conventions that make those films what they are. Rodriguez leans in the former direction, Tarantino the latter, splitting Grindhouse‘s personality as well as critical opinion about which filmmaker fares better. The differences between the two directors are amplified: Rodriguez, unsurprisingly, delivers no-holds-barred splatter with a wink, while Tarantino strives for something somewhat more deliberate and character-driven.
Rodriguez’s feature-length effort Planet Terror, “a horror flick about a mass infection with a vague and underdeveloped connection to the military and Bush’s War on Terror,” reveals again his penchant for memorable action set pieces and strangely iconic missing body parts. (In Once Upon a Time in Mexico we had Johnny Depp’s bloody eye sockets–here it’s Rose McGowan’s machine gun leg.) As was the case with so many of his previous films, it’s fair to say that he flies a bit too far off the handle. Rodriguez has long had a tendency to lose the thread of his story in a muddle of gun fights and explosions, and here that becomes part of the gag: his cheeky placement of a “missing reel” makes a hash of the action and some pivotal character backstory. Faces are covered in disgusting digitally-enhanced pustules and melt, things go boom, most everyone in the cast gets maimed in one or way or another, and we are left mostly clueless as to what’s going on. “Mr. Rodriguez revels in badness for its own sake,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott writes in his review. “Planet Terror is intoxicated by its own absurdity; it tries to raise incompetence to the level of craft, if not art.” We smile because we know that Rodriguez is joshing us, but it’s hard to let him off the hook so easily. Though he manages some genuinely good gags and coaxes solid performances from Freddy Rodriguez (as our mysterious hero El Wray) and Rose McGowan (as the tough but unlucky go-go dancer Cherry), Rodriguez recreates the B-movies that inspired him so faithfully that he recreates their frustrations as well.
So insistent is Planet Terror on its own B-movie-ness that Tarantino’s feature Death Proof, ostensibly a kind of slasher-film-on-wheels, strikes a strong contrast. Tarantino keeps the nudging snap-crackle-pops and technical difficulties to a relative minimum and goes for realism in a way that Rodriguez does not. Of course that may be stating things a little too simply. Death Proof, with its indestructible stuntwoman lead, Zoe (the disarmingly sunny Zoe Bell, playing a version of herself), and rip-roaring car chase finale, is not exactly realistic. Like many of Tarantino’s previous works, his Death Proof is set in a kind of ether between the movie world and the real world. Sure there are killer car chases, but there are also minivans pulling off the road in order to accommodate them. This merging of outlandish cinematic tropes with a dash of reality has an unsettling effect, similar to the moment in Kill Bill Vol. 1 when Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox plot a warriors’ “fight to the death,” only to be unceremoniously interrupted by Fox’s onscreen daughter returning home from school. Tarantino uses this tactic not only with stock movie situations, but also stock movie characters. He got under the tough guy facades of the thieves in Reservoir Dogs and the cool femme fatale veneer of Thurman’s Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction to reveal characters more vulnerable and human than one expects. Here he takes a certain relish in swiping away at the sadistic bravado of his car-wielding villain with results both surprising and absurdly funny. He isn’t just looking to take down the villain of his own film, but to take the mickey out of so many others like him. From the start Tarantino has been aware that cinema is forever locked in a dialogue with itself; one can always trust him to talk back.