Onan the Barbarian
By Jeannette Catsoulis
Dirs. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, U.S., The Weinstein Company/Dimension
A three-hour-plus wet dream of babes, boils, and boilerplate scenarios, Grindhouse is a balls-to-the-wall extravaganza of geek love for all things sleazy, nauseating, hyper-violent, and degenerate. With drooling devotion, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino have constructed a double-barreled homage not only to 1970s exploitation films but to the theaters that trafficked in their exhibition—theaters frequented mainly by cinephile completists and the chronically unlaid. Which leaves the directors in the challenging position of having enshrined venues that no longer exist for an audience too young to have visited them. So, you might ask, why bother? Because they can.
A vanity project of butt-numbing proportions (even Braveheart had an intermission), Grindhouse deposits us in the all-too-familiar male adolescent fantasyland of fast cars, cocked weapons, short-shorts, and erupting cleavage. Resurrecting the B-movie double feature complete with fake “prevues” and missing reels, Rodriguez and Tarantino divide their labor of love to produce an uneven, hyperventilating whole high on its own audacity. First up is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, a deliriously revolting tale of an abandoned military base, biochemical experiments, and pustule-covered zombies. Among the living are Six Feet Under’s Freddy Rodriguez (ingeniously filmed to appear a few inches taller than his rifle) and a very funny Josh Brolin as a creepy, cuckolded doctor. Overacting agrees with him.
Essentially a well-executed nostalgia trip with no new detours, Planet Terror scavenges Romero and Fulci with less artistry and more secretions. Eschewing satire, Rodriguez has made a straight-up splatterfest, coloring carefully inside B-movie lines with suspect acting, a smidgen of plot and gore-saturated set pieces like the use of helicopter blades as the most efficient method of zombie decapitation. All of which are just backdrop for Rose McGowan’s damp-eyed go-go dancer, Cherry Darling, whose milky-white thigh becomes the socket for a machine-gun prosthesis and whose industrial-strength lip gloss reflects all human suffering. The image of her amputee avenger—spraying bullets from a stump arcing lewdly through 360 degrees—is as perfectly iconic as the nudie mudflaps on a redneck-driven 18-wheeler. It’s a wonder Rodriguez didn’t give her a flat head.
Filling the screen with spraying pus and flying gonads (castration is a recurring theme in Grindhouse—Tarantino himself shows up in this segment as a rapist suffering from an oozing case of dick rot), Rodriguez shoves his camera into suppurating pustules and Cherry’s bra, equally entranced by both kinds of swelling. Powered by these twin engines of lust and disgust, Planet Terror allows him to do what he does best—amusing, meaningless entertainment—without having to sweat the small stuff like coherence or character development. The movie may be pastiche, but the groove is all his own.
Tarantino, however, just can’t let himself off the hook. It’s not in his nature to make a deliberately inept movie, however much he might admire Herschell Gordon Lewis or Melvin Van Peebles. Consequently his Death Proof—a sniggering ode to T. Rex, titties and Two-Lane Blacktop—strains repeatedly, and counterproductively, for higher ground. Slacker than [insert transgressive metaphor here], the movie is a Russ Meyer-esque tale of female vengeance on a psychopathic character known as Stuntman Mike (a delicious Kurt Russell), who stalks underdressed babes in a tricked-out Dodge Charger. After disposing of the first four—in a stunning crash sequence reprised to show the precise fate of each victim—Mike meets his match in the form of two stuntwomen who turn the tables faster than you can say “Kill! Kill!” Enthusiastically played by Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill), and Tracie Thoms, the women serve less as prime examples of girl-power than as titillation for Tarantino’s camera. One can only hope their Daisy Dukes are waterproof.
This isn’t surprising, really, as Tarantino loves women as only a nerd can, which is to say he’s also a little afraid of them (see also: castration). He’s a stalker of prey he was never allowed to touch, and words are his camouflage. (In his movies, the violence serves mainly as an excuse for the talking.) Death Proof may climax in a gut-churning car chase, but the movie’s heart remains firmly in its mouth; most of the time, the girls just gab, long, rambling conversations about sex and cars that sound as natural as Stallone and Willis nattering about macramé and silverware. These interludes—one captured by the swooning director as he circles the girls like a giddy peeper—are like a horny boy’s wish list of hot-chick chitchat (how many women truly give a damn about Vanishing Point?). More surprising, the chat itself is sloppy: as invested as Tarantino is in obscure cultural references, he still manages to get the name of Sixties Britpop band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch wrong. Three times.
The objectification of women is of course a requirement of the genre, and only offensive when it appears to breach a movie’s particular frame of reference. The real problem with Death Proof is its absolute failure to engage our emotions; compared to the revenge-driven heroine of the Meir Zarchi classic I Spit on Your Grave, these gals are as expendable as blowup dolls. In fact, if we’re rooting for anyone, it’s Mike; from the moment we see him slurping his food and sucking grease from his fingers he’s already more human than anyone else onscreen. Russell is a gift in this movie, and if Tarantino had been more interested in invention rather than simply imitation he would have subverted our expectations and turned the picture over to Mike’s chrome-plated psychosis. Instead he emasculates both of them.
With its perfectly reproduced imperfections and tiresome air of backslapping self-regard, Grindhouse is a lubricious act of replication that sits on the screen like a cinematic folly. The original grindhouse—acted by amateurs and directed, more often than not, by hacks—was defined as much by its bargain-basement budget as its transgressive subject matter, a fact that makes this reportedly $67-million homage as ludicrous as artfully shredded designer jeans. Yet the movie’s real power lies in its immunity from criticism; by definition, the genre can never sink too low. Lazy plotting, random acts of unkindness, and orgasmic explosions of pointless violence are not only expected but required. When you can claim the intention of making a horrible movie, you succeed even when you fail.