attack of the killer B’s

Grindhouse is a gutsy move by former indie cinema wunderkinder Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, an attempt to bring back the defunct double-feature concept. A certain middlebrow audience has shown itself consistently willing to sit through movies three hours in length or more (Dances With Wolves, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings), but we forget that lengthy double-features were pretty much standard in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, movies being the primary entertainment and gathering place for the young and hip.

By the Seventies, when Tarantino and Rodriguez were growing up, the era of the “B” picture was already fading, as singular, expensive blockbusters (Jaws, The Godfather) became the new business model, replacing the historical model of producing a variety of reasonably priced films and packaging them together, often with a short or a cartoon. But the evacuation of Hollywood and off-Hollywood from the business of cheap genre thrills had created a space for a small underground of independent exhibitors and highly personal genre filmmakers. Russ Meyer, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, and Melvin van Peebles are only the most well-known names to emerge from a modest galaxy of low-budget filmmakers who thrilled fans by grabbing the viscera and twisting, hard.

In particular, Rodriguez and Tarantino attempt in Grindhouse to honor the more anonymous filmmakers who, unlike Romero or Hooper, had no satirical or philosophical higher aim in their genre explorations; it’s hard, for example, to think of a highbrow auteur of the kind of car-centered Warren Oates thriller Tarantino seems to be aping in his section, Death Proof, and Rodriguez’s zombie actioner Planet Terror is not a commentary on anything in particular, although it does obliquely draw some of its genuine horror from our uneasiness about the military — both its secretive nature and its experiments with the grimmest kinds of weaponry.

It must be said that Rodriguez, always a more populist filmmaker and less obsessed with referring back to the history of popular culture than Tarantino, succeeds better in staying within the bounds of the experiment, delivering a genuine no-strings-attached cheap thrill ride. The story is so familiar as to hardly need exposition: an off-the-books military unit releases toxic goo into the atmosphere, turning a nearby town into bloodthirsty, organ-eating zombies; a band of intrepid survivors must blah blah blah. What’s fun here, as is so often the case with these kind of movies, are the action scenes, as a Rainbow Coalition of good guys unload ridiculous numbers of rounds into previously-loved ones, and the odd thumbnails of characterization that provide most of the humor — the thermometer-chewing doctor, the color-coded anaesthetist, the stripper who loses a leg but gains a grenade-launcher. Rodriguez isn’t afraid to go tasteless to get a laugh — a sequence with a small child left alone in a car is brutally, horrifically funny — and he makes no apologies for the story not holding together all that well. Instead, God bless him, he resurrects Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey to remind us that even B movies turn on the ability of good actors to sell tricky emotional textures.

By contrast, Tarantino seems to use the grindhouse idea as a mere jumping-off point for something less fun but more interesting. It’s not that he doesn’t deliver the goods — he obviously more than mastered stunt choreography on Kill Bill, and the central conceit of his film is, no question, a chiller. But before all that, he takes us through a long, lazy afternoon and evening with a local radio personality and her gorgeous friends, their minor and pointless conversations about pot and men and the other women they hate. Tarantino is never better than when his characters are driving, or drinking, or eating breakfast — his natural ear for how clever, interesting people throw language back and forth when nothing else is happening is what made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction really exciting, and it’s precisely what was missing from the mix in Kill Bill. Bill featured every other element of Tarantino’s style — pop culture in a blender, sporadic but spectacular violence, great songs, stylish and generous visual design. But it lacked the thing that made his earlier outings so enjoyable — the sense of listening in on the off-moments and trivial conversations of highly verbal, funny people.

Halfway through Death Proof, for reasons it would be no fun to reveal, we leave this group of women and start following another group of talky, witty babes, this time a couple of stunt drivers and their film-industry buddies. Here Tarantino’s other familiar tic — kick-ass women bringing the noise to the boys — reaches an awesome apotheosis; you start to feel sorry for the bad guy. (But not very.)

Overall, Grindhouse achieves exactly what it’s meant to — a long evening of variegated fun, where some things don’t work but most do, and the best parts are all that linger in your mind. Strategically placed “missing reels” and faux trailers by Rob Zombie and Eli Roth only add to the carnivalesque fun. This was the last film I saw before deploying to Iraq, and it was not only a perfect escape from grimmer realities, but also, despite the fact that it’s a pair of horror movies, oddly uplifting.

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