(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2007)
I definitely like the premise of Grindhouse, because although I don’t come from the culture that inspired it, I carry a lot of nostalgia for my own formative movie-going experiences, and I’ve written about them several times here in the past. I miss the double features, the wayward distribution patterns, the rickety picture palaces, the hokey “Feature Presentation” graphics and terrible local ads (actually, maybe I don’t miss that last one so much). In 1970’s Britain, I recall nothing larger than a triplex within miles of where I lived, but there were a few of those, and the smallest screen was almost invariably showing some garishly advertised soft-core flick. Even Disney films thus seemed mildly racy, given the proximity to such exotic provocations. Projectors would break down all the time, although I don’t remember being aware of entire missing reels (with many of the movies I was seeing back then, it might have been tough to tell). Overall, although I know this is perverse, I miss the time when you could make true discoveries: being a movie fan was way less convenient than it is now, but because of that adversity, it delivered the occasional incredible rush.
Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have devoted an entire three-hour feature to evoking their own perspective on this history: an old-style schlocky double bill along with trailers for coming attractions, scratchy visuals, technical problems, and so on. The movie was highly anticipated, and an instant financial disappointment. I make that point at the outset because it seems relevant to the project’s inherent perversity – however convincing the artifice on screen, how can the illusion possibly persist when viewed in the plush surroundings of today’s multiplexes? And, in any case, how do you sell such an illusion to an audience that knows nothing of these deprivations? We still perhaps think of Tarantino as being young and hip, but he’s 44. Virtually no one from the current mainstream movie audience, it seems, has much idea what he and Rodriguez are getting at, and given that the project’s twisted ethos is based on delivering something that’s deliberately not that good, it’s not so strange that most people didn’t really care about finding out.
Rodriguez’ Planet Terror is a fast-paced, craftily incoherent mash-up of genre ideas and types – something to do with a noxious gas that’s turning people into pus-oozing zombies, and the disparate band of the immune that makes a stand against them. The advertising focuses on the already quasi-ironic image of Rose McGowan as a go-go dancer who loses a leg, and replaces it with a machine gun. It’s a great concept, but the immaculate computer-generated rendering of it seems to me inconsistent with Grindhouse’s broader premise – if we’re watching a movie that can conjure up such visual wonders, why are we putting up with all the other crap? Overall though, Planet Terror seems to achieve the basic mandate: for the most part it might have been made thirty years ago and most people would have instantly forgotten it, but it would still have a lively shadowy existence on the bizarre websites and obscure cable channels.
Tarantino takes a different tack, trying to evoke one of those low-budget gems that, while delivering the action goods, slipped in a little more awareness of character, and a little more authorial pretension. His Death Proof has a charismatic stuntman, played by Kurt Russell, who entices women into his car…he tells them it’s death proof, but he just means the driver’s side. Around this basic concept there’s a lot – and I do mean a lot – of talk, mostly among a couple of female groups that Russell has in his sights. This is patented Tarantino of course, but the talk has never been as dull as it is here. And I can only assume that this continues his tendency to tie himself into a conceptual knot – that the kind of movie he wanted to mimic would only have been this good and so he pitched his work exactly at that secondary level. The picture is better than Planet Terror (although Grindhouse is designed exactly to blur your sense of good and bad), but it’s more annoying, as a more egregious squandering of its director’s gifts.
The fake trailers are all good, and the three hours pass by painlessly enough, but it’s hardly the rollercoaster of sleazy fun that was intended, and overall feels like a distinctly abstracted experience. Sure, commemorate the past – do it on the web, via DVD re-releases, in film festivals, in a book, whatever. But otherwise, it’s gone. And if Tarantino in particular has any hope of reclaiming his status, he clearly needs to return to making movies at least vaguely relevant to the world we live in now.
Moving on, First Snow, directed by Mark Fergus, is a pleasant enough waste of time, but has less energy and flair in its entire length than you feel in any moment of Grindhouse (which only accentuates that film’s overall failure). Guy Pearce is a hustling salesman with a shady past who, while killing time in an edge-of-nowhere town, visits a fortune-teller who foresees his imminent death; Pearce becomes obsessed with the loose ends in his life that might lead to his demise. The movie has elements of noir, shades of Pearce’s earlier film Memento, some lightweight metaphysical blather, lots of meandering, and no discernible point.
The Page Turner
The Page Turner is a classily mounted variation on the can-she-really-be-that-sweet-or-is-she-really-a-bitch-from-hell genre (think The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or The Temp, with better music). A young girl, devoted to her piano studies, fails an important exam when she’s distracted by a careless judge (who’s also an esteemed performer); devastated, she gives up the piano, grows up, and sets out to take revenge, manoeuvring herself first into a nanny position at the other woman’s house, then into the key role as her page-turner. Remember the Hitchcock definition of suspense being when you think something’s going to happen and then it doesn’t? – The Page Turner is full of intimations of schlocky possibilities, none of which materialize in line with our worst fears. This is to say that the film is delicate and nuanced, at times so French that it threatens parody. It’s all good stuff though, and Deborah Francois (the girl from L’Enfant) is excellently ambiguous in the title role. As someone with no knowledge at all of classical music, I also have to say that I hugely enjoyed the Shostakovich music featured so prominently in the film – it was a real discovery. Although then I left, put on my ipod headphones, and resumed listening to Ghostface Killah. See, I ain’t so classy either.