At three hours and change, boasting two rowdy full-length features, a slew of garish fake coming attractions, and steady eruptions of carnage and cruelty, the Quentin Tarantino–Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse is an ode to the era of exploitation houses and an orgy for those who want to live (or relive) the dream. It’s a real Travis Bickle night out—a switchback journey into the belly of the B-movie beast. First, Rodriguez serves up a zombie-infection shoot-’em-up splatterfest called Planet Terror, which plays like a bunch of other horror movies stitched together by a sloppy but high-spirited mad scientist. Then comes Tarantino’s Death Proof, a more intimate and much more disturbing brew. All that’s missing are the scary bathrooms and pungent aromas of urine and dope.
Rodriguez has learned a few moves since his last big Tarantino collaboration, the rhythmless vampire farrago From Dusk Till Dawn. In this Tex-Mex bouillabaisse, he has a luscious object in Rose McGowan, who opens Planet Terror with a lissome, semi-naked pole dance and then sinks to the stage in tears: What a soulful actress, what a bod. Rodriguez’s camera drinks in her pink face with its dimpled chin and pillowy red lips, then hugs her long stems in her short vinyl skirt and go-go boots. There it is, folks—the story in pictures of why he left his wife and kids for her. When rampaging zombies rip off one of those gams and the hot-rod hero (Freddy Rodríguez) screws a submachine gun into her stump, McGowan edges out Uma Thurman in Kill Bill as the ultimate abused-and-fetishized action-movie femme. The other heroine is mangled and fetishized, too—Marley Shelton (the doomed beauty in the overture to Rodriguez’s Sin City) as a skinny blonde lesbian doctor with a set of syringes tucked into her garter. It’s always a trip to watch exploitation auteurs ogle their female characters while those ladies are busy nailing male voyeurs.
Malignant machismo is embodied by Bruce Willis as an infected commando whose face begins to bubble when he stops breathing the (short-term) antidote. (I won’t reveal the source of the contagion—but it has a nice, resonant political tang.) Before long, the maimed and the festering converge on an Austin barbecue joint, where most of the ensemble is shot, blown up, or dismembered. This isn’t your usual exploding-blood-squib splatter, by the way; think exploding water balloons. In Planet Terror’s brief but tumultuous running time, Rodriguez pays homage to a long line of directors, from Howard Hawks to George Romero to John Carpenter to his bad-boy buddy, Tarantino—who shows up as an actor in his favorite kind of role, a sexual sadist who gets a gory comeuppance.
Which brings us to Death Proof, in which the murders are more shocking, insofar as the characters are viewed as something other than receptacles of blood and pus. What makes some critics’ knee-jerk derision of Tarantino so vexing is that he’s more than a violence peddler. He’s a predatory humanist. He loves just to hang out with his soon-to-be-beleaguered characters, in this case two sets of women. The first three—a celebrity Austin D.J. known as Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito)—are chafing under their roles as women of color and objects of lust. (Of course, they do stretch out in short shorts for our delectation.) In a local bar and chili parlor, a pair of geeks (director Eli Roth and Omar Doom) plot ways to get the women drunk and into bed. But they’re lightweights beside the scarred macho man (Kurt Russell) at the bar who calls himself Stuntman Mike, does John Wayne imitations, and drives a black Charger he boasts is reinforced for high-speed collisions and rollovers: deathproof.
The scene in the bar goes on and on, to the point where you wonder just what the point is, although Rose McGowan is delightful in an entirely different role, a blonde hippie chick, and as Tarantino’s camera arcs around the room, the dread becomes increasingly hard to dispel. The second set of women show up before we’ve fully digested the fate of the first group. But these are ladies of a different stripe, fresh from a movie shoot: a makeup person (Rosario Dawson), an actress in a flouncy cheerleader uniform (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and, most significantly, a pair of stuntwomen (Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms) who gush about vintage speedsters and car movies like Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry: macho girls behaving badly. It’s the other side of the grindhouse, from Russ Meyer’s boobalicious kickboxers to Pam Grier’s foxy vigilantes. Chicks you mess with at your peril.
Death Proof, like all of Tarantino’s work, exists in a strange space between homage and masturbation. It’s a grim stalker picture, a car-chase picture, and a raucous anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece, dredged up from the psyche of a movie freak who loves women onscreen almost as much as he loves to punish women onscreen, and who (this is what makes him an artist) gets off most on his own ambivalence.
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.
In spite of my cavils, I urge you not to pass up Black Book, especially on a wide screen. It’s a marvelous movie-movie, with a new screen goddess. Van Houten has a soft, heart-shaped face on top of a body so naturally, ripely beautiful it has its own kind of truth.
Disturbia is a trim little psycho-next-door movie that strives to be a teenpic Rear Window for the Internet age. The young protagonist, Kale (Shia LaBeouf—a good name for a porn actor), doesn’t have a broken leg like James Stewart, but he’s geographically hobbled, sentenced to house arrest for punching out a teacher who nastily invoked his dead father. After his mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) disables the TV set (bitch), Kale begins to take in his surroundings—first the foxy blonde next door (Sarah Roemer), then the icy weirdo (David Morse) with the car that fits the description of one last seen around a woman who never came home. One way you know that D.J. Caruso is a resourceful director is that he scares you silly with a minimum of violence and a few smears of blood. His job was certainly made easier by Morse, whose glassy demeanor and high, soft rasp suggests horrors that not even Quentin Tarantino could imagine.
During Times Square’s porno glory days, grindhouse theaters lined the blocks around 42nd Street. But they started disappearing in the late eighties, after Mayor Koch shut many down during late-night raids. Giuliani completed their eradication. The one lone grindhouse left within city limits, according to the Post (which should know of what it speaks) is the Fair Theatre, in East Elmhurst, which opened on the heels of the 1939 World’s Fair. It can hold 599 people and is said to have separate booths—no extra cost!—at which patrons can privately enjoy … well, whatever it is they came for.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Dimension Films. R.
Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis
Directed by Mary Jordan. Tongue Press. NR.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Sony Pictures Classics. R.
Directed by D.J. Caruso. Paramount Pictures. PG-13.