If you've been thinking about seeing Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez' double feature Grindhouse, let me offer some encouragement to check it out, and do it soon. It's getting crushed at the box office, so if you want a big screen, you had better catch it soon.
I loved this picture and I want to encourage folks to see it ... but only if they're the right audience for it, because it certainly isn't for everybody. You have to love movies, and you have to have the ability to process exploitation movies. I warn you: both installments are scary, and Rodriguez' installment Planet Terror goes, with astonishing effectiveness and frequency, for the gross-out.
That's because Planet Terror goes for everything, the entire vocabulary of exploitation film, all packed into a single movie. There's zombies and kung fu and gratuitous sex and guns and bad dialogue and army guys and rednecks and car chases and blood blood blood and crazy-looking extras and strippers and bad acting and quirky characters and doomed romance and Tom Savini and over-the-top dialogue and on and on, every bit of it delivered pitch-perfectly in the voice of those old exploitation movies.
Planet Terror is why you want that big screen, so you can have a few hundred strangers with you while you hoot and cheer and groan and laugh and gasp.
As usual, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon gets it right in describing Rodriguez' work.
Planet Terror packs it all in, but even though the movie may seems haphazard on the surface, it was clearly made with a Zen master's meticulousness.
I'd go a step further and say that this represents a watershed for Rodriguez. He's always been a talented filmmaker, and the kind of filmmaker whose enthusiasm for the medium shines through in all of his work. I really enjoy his films because they click most of the time, and even when they don't, quite, there's something seductive about the fearless voice of Mr Rodriguez underneath exclaiming Hey, I'm making a movie! But in Planet Terror the greatest satisfaction is how it slowly emerges that Rodriguez is in total control of what looks on the surface like chaos. If you have any love for the grubby charms of exploitation movies, then Planet Terror squeezes more entertainment into every single frame than you would have believed possible. It is in no way a serious film, but it is exactly the film that Mr Rodriguez wanted it to be. He is now a master of the craft.
Tarantino seems to hit a new level in his filmmaking, as well. His installment, Death Proof, has a kind of split personality.
There's a little slice of it that's pure terror suspense, dividing the first half from the second. Then there's the long final set piece of the movie, a dazzling car chase. And it is truly dazzling; I keep thinking that I've had it with car chases, and every three or four years someone comes along and shows me that actually, there's still life in that old trick. This is one of those times.
That brief description makes things sound more conventional than they are. In retrospect, it makes Kill Bill look like an elaborate film school exercise, in which Tarantino refined his ability to do various styles of action. A gunfight, a sword fight, a training flashback, a mass meleé, a kung fu wire fight, and so on, spackled together with the character dialogue he already knew how to do. In Death Proof he shows that he can now shake up a cocktail of styles, giving us two parts car chase, one part slasher killer, one part tequila, with a splash of comedy.
But even more interesting is the other 70% of the movie which is just dialogue, most of it women sitting around a table or driving around in cars, telling stories and bullshitting about stuff. It's funny, sexy, and affirming of the pleasures of ordinary life, spending time talking with friends.
Yeah, most of the movie is women talking. Let that sink in a second. How many movies like that do you get to see? Remember Alison Bechdel's rule from Dykes to Watch Out For, commonly known as the Mo Movie Measure.
I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements.
- It has to have at least two women in it who ...
- talk to each other ...
- ... about something besides a man.
Death Proof passes this test, in spades. Because, it becomes clear watching it, Tarantino loves women in a way that I find is characteristic of dorky, verbal guys who have (finally) gotten past their adolescent frustrations. To write and direct dialogue like in Death Proof you have to have listened to women, listened a lot, listened attentively, and cared about what you heard. I sat there thinking, this is the guy who could direct a film adaptation of Jaime Hernandez' Locas stories from Love and Rockets.
Now it's hardly unconventional for a male director to point a camera at actresses with a lover's eye. And it's hardly a direct-hit feminist victory for a man to gather a group of gorgeous actresses and give them a script to read of them telling jokes and talking dirty. And further, Tarantino is still delivering to spec on an exploitation film, so he lingers unashamedly over his actresses' physicality ... including, if you know to look for Mr Tarantino's little fetish, their bare feet.
But his camera does not deliver us fantasy bimbos, made up and plucked and polished into some plastic android femininity. They're not “sexy” like antiseptic starlets, they're sexy like the women you know. They're earthy and fleshy and real and possessed of their own voices. Having that delivered by a male director, wrapped in a genre movie, may not be Final Feminist Victory, but it is a feminist victory, and it suits my tastes just fine.