Friday, May 4, 2007
The Quick, The Naked, and The Dead
The following column is reprinted from the May 2007 issue of Providence Monthly
EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel
We all know the type. The purist. The cultist. The collector. The aficionado. The maven. The expert. The encyclopedic hipster. The nitcrit. The specialist. The cinephile. The genre snob. Why is it, according to each and all of the above, that it was always better, cooler, smarter, hipper, more subversive, more creative, more dangerous, back in the day when somebuddy was kicking it old school? Is it myth, memory, an upfront seat at the in-club, or simply the assaultive imprint that the first viewing of a movie (or a series of movies) leaves stamped on the brainpan, that propels so many tawkers and know-it-all gawkers (including myself) to continually proclaim “you hadda be there”, or “that was then, this is now”, and (oh yeah) “they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore”. Simple. Most of the time,a lot of the time, it’s the truth, Ruth. The wonderfully excessive bounty of 1970’s exploitation films, movies that came in a wide assortment of bloody colors and naked skin tones, movies that were crafted both adroitly and heavy-handedly, often with miniscule budgets and shot guerilla style left those of us wide-eyed and lucky enough to be hunkered down against tattered seats and glued to sticky floors in some deteriorating inner city movie palace with sharpest of cinematic memories, gleefully swallowing the kitsch, the camp, and the under-the-surface reflection of American mores in huge, ungodly gulps. Grindhouse, the double feature dually dreamed up and executed by fun-loving auteurs Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino, does it’s best to re-carve out the good old bad days, and it largely succeeds.
Grindhouse is presented and has been conceived as a boldfaced paean to the trashy ‘70’s and it unfolds with scratchy film stock, missing reels, and four downright hilarious trailers for such fictional classics as Machete, Don’t, and (heh-heh) Werewolf Women of the S.S., (helmed by real life horrormeisters like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie). The two features, Rodriquez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof both cruise along at 85 minutes, fueled by equal doses of comic brutality, eye-winking sensationalism, and highfalutin copycatting.
Planet Terror is a zombie carnival with a touch of post-apocalyptic cautionary plotting, basically an excuse to trot a deadpan array of gooey and primitive special effects, video game gun fare, dripping and oozing body parts, and a whole lotta heads getting blown up real, real good. Rose McGowan takes center stage as a tough talking stripper who is also wanna-be stand-up comedian who winds up with a machine gun as a prosthetic leg, aided and abetted by a cranky band of survivors that includes Freddy Rodriquez, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn and Michael Parks, plus some very funny cameos from the likes of big dog Bruce Willis, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, and co-conspirator Tarantino.
Rodriquez perfectly captures the slo-mo tone of yer basic zombie pic, complete with overripe bits of ironic dialogue, hammerhead editing techniques, squint-your-eyes visuals, and that peculiar overriding sense of dread that are the essence of the zombie movie. Much of the action on display is a bit too repetitive, although one cannot fault the filmmaker for being too ambitious—Planet Terror is a simple homage, not a genre twist up,
and Rodriquez tosses in everything but the kitchen sink with a some palatable, authentic, and faithful enthusiasm.
Death Proof seems like more of the same, but in actuality it’s quite a bit different in both tone and substance. Although the movie is undoubtedly an exercise in genre (a hell-bent road trip flic), it’s just as much a Tarantino outing. Dialogue-filled and peopled with trash-tawking women, Death Proof
takes its time springing into action, and it fearlessly jumbles it’s tone, flitting from arch hipster patter through a touch of secondary humor to a pinch of suspense. Then suddenly, action icon Kurt Russell saddles up into the corner of the frame, and his character, Stuntman Mike, wheels the movie onto the high travelin’ black top. Tarantino then pulls out one of his favorite tricks and abruptly starts and stops one story line in order to bop onto another more amped up one, and the period piece the film seemed to be settling into mutates to a more audacious, rowdy extended set piece, aka car chase heaven.
Tarantino the writer is a wonderfully erudite screenplay author, and the mostly female characters (including Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier, and Tracie Thoms) in Death Proof go to town dishing the sex speak, elucidating obscure sixties pop hits, ragging each other, and even managing to name check some of the big screen’s most memorable road trips: Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds (the original), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. All that is just delicious set-up for a rollicking, bravura straight-up automobile duel that fulfills all expectations. It’s fast and furious, brutal and funny, and, like many of the well-oiled exploitation movies that trafficked in revenge, it will leave you rooting on the revengers with primal, delicious indignity. Tarantino has also made his mark as a wizard like casting guy, and his surprise casting here is one Zoe Bell an infamous contemporary stuntwoman from New Zealand who plays one of the gals, whose name is Zoe and who happens, of course to be a stuntwoman. She’s a fresh face with a vibrant personality and her on-the-car stunt stuff puts any comparable CGI effects to complete shame.
Grindhouse is filled with gratuitous violence, tempered with quasi-redeemable characters, and chock full of purely exploitive razzle-dazzle movie-movie pleasure. It’s a hell of a good time.