I don’t want to spoil the in-jokes in Grindhouse. The fun is in the one-thing-after-another delirium the movie induces, and in our breathless anticipation of what they’ll hurl at us next: trailers by genre specialists like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, and sundry ragged interstitial logos and “messages from the management” that look, to these aged eyes, authentic. The frames have been lovingly speckled and scratched and spliced up. In the heyday of drive-ins and decaying urban palaces (the fifties through the early eighties), a small number of prints would make their way around the country: Old projectors would mangle them and wanker projectionists would snip off frames of bare-breasted actresses.
There’s another reason that Grindhouse is, for some of us misfits, such a happy trip. It affirms our sense of community. No one at the time wrote much about grindhouse fare. It was mostly too sexist and lowbrow for the Voice, and way too lowbrow for the Times. (In her review of Dawn of the Dead, the sequel to the sixties’ most seminal horror film, Janet Maslin boasted about walking out in the first fifteen minutes.) It’s true that most of these films were depressingly bad. But there was something vital, something electric about the liveness of that culture. I’m sad that most people will see Grindhouse on video. It should be consumed (or, depending on your perspective, endured) in a theater full of shrieking, gasping, cheering, borderline-ashamed exploitation junkies. Nowadays, people smoke dope and drink and jerk off in front of TV screens in the privacy of their homes. They really need to get out more.
The late Jack Smith dreamed up a different brand of underground cinema: transgressive, non-narrative, exotically and flamingly pansexual—the kinds of films that on the Deuce could get a projectionist lynched. The subject of Mary Jordan’s entrancing documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis applied the adjectives flaming and exotic to his work in the sixties and seventies. But the figure that emerges here is joyless—a slender man who hung back warily, a glowerer given to incantatory monologues of loss. If Quentin Tarantino’s imagination flowered in the hothouse of the grindhouse, Smith found his Atlantis—his lost continent—in costume epics starring Maria Montez, a terrible actress but a radiant icon for a motherless gay adolescent. Andy Warhol admitted to borrowing much of Smith’s aesthetic (represented in Smith’s legendary Flaming Creatures)—but Warhol denuded it of emotion and commodified it. Smith, despite his lifelong poverty, refused to finish another feature, preferring to screen his works-in-progress (sometimes editing them before his audience’s eyes) and staging all-night pageants in his East Village apartment.
In Jordan’s documentary you see the roots of camp as distinctly melancholy and yearning, a world of the spirit that can never be made flesh. In subsequent years, it has been travestied and cheapened, overdosed with irony, made—at its most sparkling—an occasion for Wildean epigrams. But watch the fragments here of Flaming Creatures and Normal Love and you’ll never laugh so freely again. It’s Jordan’s feat to make a linear, talking-heads documentary (among the heads are Jonas Mekas, Robert Wilson, John Waters, Nick Zedd, and John Zorn) that still manages to evoke something of Smith’s floating, ravishingly colorful dreamscapes—a menagerie of creatures that, even as they’re captured on film, are already fading into the air.
The director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) returned to his native Holland to make Black Book, a lush and sexy cloak-and-dagger picture in which a young Jewish woman, Rachel (Carice van Houten), watches her family machine-gunned by Nazis and ends up working for the Dutch Resistance—for which she dyes her hair blonde, goes undercover at Gestapo headquarters, and sleeps with the head man (Sebastian Koch, the conscience-ridden playwright of The Lives of Others). The vast majority of filmmakers drop to their knees whenever Nazis and Jews show up in the same movie, but Verhoeven doesn’t let the Holocaust bog him down. That’s not an altogether bad thing. Through Rachel’s eyes we see the German occupation in a way that’s morally destabilizing. We see the Dutch who risk their lives to hide Jews and yet are human—who sometimes let their resentment of Jews show. And we see Nazis who know how to throw a swell party. Black Book peaks when Rachel, a lovely chanteuse, finds herself singing about “naughty Lola” accompanied by the piano stylings of the fat Nazi who ordered her family shot down. The scene is frightening, glamorous, disgusting, exhilarating. It seems taboo to be this turned on by Jews and Nazis making whoopee.
At the start, I couldn’t believe that the floridly cynical Verhoeven could make a movie this romantic, this thrillingly old-fashioned, this straight; I thought he must have had surgery to get his tongue out of his cheek. The Verhoevenisms that do creep in recall Hitchcock’s emotionally labyrinthine double-agent melodrama Notorious. But before you can yell, “Auteur! Auteur!” Verhoeven reasserts himself with a vengeance. In the last half-hour, the Jewish heroine ends up being jeered, Carrie style, under the contents of a giant vat of shit, and there are so many crosses and double-crosses I gave up trying to diagram the whole conspiracy. For all the moral upheavals of the first days of the post-war era, something is kerflooey when you’re rooting for the Jewish girl to end up with the nice Gestapo fella.