Would-be fiction writers reading texts on learning how to write are often confronted by flat vs. round characters. Flat characters are the folk of genre: the brave hero, the dastardly villain, the salty cook, the whore with a heart of gold. Round characters are the ones with an inner life, Raskolnikov, Becky Sharp. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino could not have set out to make a better illustration of this duality than GRINDHOUSE, their double feature tribute to the exploitation films of the 60s and 70s. One is loud and gruesome, a non-stop cartoon that starts at 11 and never slackens the brain-blasting pace. The other is all pacing and timing, introducing its characters with lengthy set pieces that are actionless and near-tedious, and yet so endearing that when some of these characters meet a brutal fate and others are jeopardized, it creates heart-pounding anxiety. Anyone with any knowledge of the filmmakers involved can figure out which is which, but to find out more, you’ll have to go to the spoiler filled jump. WARNING: I mean it. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen GRINDHOUSE.
In Rodriguez’ PLANET TERROR we are indeed in a world of terror, pus splattering tongue lesions, melting penises, machine-gun-limbed amputees and shambling, bubbling zombie horrors. The question is not will a needle be plunged into someone’s eye but just how many times it will be threatened before we get to the payoff.
The heroine is Rose McGowan’s Cherry Darling, a lissome go-go dancer who quits her night job to find her fortune as a stand up comic. Considering she ends up with only one leg to stand on you can see the joke coming.
Along the way we see Naveen Andrews as a biochemist who collects testicle, an uncredited Bruce Willis as a tough Army guy who killed bin Laden when he wasn’t supposed to, Michael Biehn as a steely sheriff, Jeff Fahey as a cook with a top secret barbecue recipe, Marley Shelton and Josh Brolin as two doctors with a rocky marriage and Freddy Rodriguez as Wray, a tough guy with a mysterious past.
The story such as it is, involves a cannister of nerve gas that turns people into zombies, some trucks and a lot of ordnance. You can kind of figure the rest out. Explosions, severed limbs, severed digits, fireballs and so on.
Rodriguez is an energetic director, to say the least–he acts as cinematographer, composer and screenwriter. But it’s just possible that seeing to all those duties (which he is more than cabaple of) may just be distracting him from really digging into the fine print. By now to expect much in the way of real storytelling from him is beside the point. Part of the GRINDHOUSE gag is that both films have missing reals — in PLANET TERROR’s case it’s the one with all the dialogue-ridden exposition, and no one will feel that they’re missing out on on much.
PLANET TERROR is very imaginative — go-go dancers with machine guns for legs! — and profoundly dumb–the only true pleasure I found in it was the sight of Fergie with her brains sucked out, a wonderful metaphor for our times. Some could also see it as profoundly dumb fun, and I won’t gainsay those who enjoyed it. I would probably have enjoyed it more if Rodriguez had an ironic bone in his body — the kind of occasional sly nod shown to the source material that Police Squad and Garth Marenghi’s DarkPlace (and even Tarantino in a spot or two) used would have been welcome relief here.
After an intermission composed of faux trailers directed by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth — a Nazi women in prison movie, horror thriller DON’T and a Thanksgiving slasher film respetively–the Tarantino episode, DEATH PROOF, begins. And right away the pace slows…to molasses. And here is where we separate the men from the boys.
We open on Jungle Julia (Syndey Tamilia Portier) a saucy DJ in Austin who is out for a night with the girls, including her out of town pal Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito). In patented Tarantino fashion, we meet them via an endless stream of dialogue, played out in various settings — a moving car, a bar. We know Tarantino loves his dialogue set pieces, but this seems excessive even for him. The ladies show up at a bar where they meet Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) a has-been stuntman whose career involves such high points as The Virginian and High Chaparrel. He’s trying to get a little attention from these sassy ladies and who can blame him? He offers to give another girl named Pam (Rose McGowan in a dual role) a ride home in his tricked out stunt car, and suddenly the pitiable has-been becomes a raving psychopath on the road. The first group of women are killed in a gruesome, shocking car crash scene shown four times. It’s horrible and reinforces for many Tarantino’s track record of brutality to women.
And then, we meet a NEW quartet of women — Abernathy, Zoe, Kim and Lee, played by Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Unlike the ordinary woman, these ladies are already part of Stuntman Mike’s world — they’re in town for a B-movie shoot and have a weekend off. Once again, an almost unbearly long set piece introduces them, especially a supposedly one-shot brunch scene in which the camera wheels around all four as they eat toast, eggs, and hash browns, adding ketchup at the necessary moments. It’s a freaking brunch documentary. It turns out Zoe — who is playing herself, a New Zealand stuntwoman who doubloed for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill — has discovered a vintage car she’s always dreamed of driving on sale nearby: a white 1970 Dodge Challenger, the same one used in VANISHING POINT, a 70s road race film. Zoe and Kim know all about it — they’re in “the business” — while Lee and Abby are skeptical. Abby talks the hillbilly selling the car into letting them take an unsupervised spin in the wheels — leaving Lee, in her cheerleader costume behind as bait, collateral or perhaps a sacrifice.
Once they hit the road, Zoe starts a death defying stunt just for kicks — unaware that Stuntman Mike is waiting for them down the highway.
What follows is a car chase shot, as Stuntman Mike says, the old way, for real — or should I say for reel. Bell plays herself, clinging to the hood of the car through hairpin turns and crashes. It’s virtuoso, it’s nailbiting and the payoff is everything it should be.
I’m nearly shocked that several reviewers like PLANET TERROR better or say it is a better film. But DEATH PROOF is almost unbearably talky, it’s true. In this Cinematical roundtable four guys talk about the movie, including the boring talking parts of DEATH PROOF. Guys will be as bored by the women’s chatter in the film as they are by women’s chatter in real life. For me, it was like listening to my girlfriend’s talk; occasionally tedious when they don’t want to listen to me go on about VANISHING POINT (or in my case, ZULU) but a typical night out.
GRINDHOUSE’s two parts are the juxtaposition of old school filmmaking and the video-game cgi era. Many of today’s movie viewers genuinely prefer the laughing gas, non-stop thrills of PLANET TERROR. That’s not me, but I understand I am coming from a different, perhaps atavistic place. In DEATH PROOF, Tarantino uses the minimalism of the limited budget — there is only so much cash for so many action scenes, but when they come, they need to matter, and when they show up, they do matter. Brian Wood does a good job giving the opposite viewpoint, when he is repelled by the unneccesary brutality of the car crash scene.
Tarantino had this to say in USA Today, which may not be much defense:
Tarantino says his violence is no joke, but draws out an ugly side of human nature, even in the audience. “It’s made to be pretty horrible and there ain’t nothing funny about it, to me,” he says. “Part of what’s going on in there is you want the crash to happen. As the cars are heading toward each other, if at the last moment they swerved and missed, you’d feel cheated, you want that impact. And then when you get it, it’s 15 times worse you didn’t want that. “But too bad; you’re already complicit. You wanted it to happen for the exact reason he wanted it to happen for a cheap thrill.” Tarantino adds, laughing: “It doesn’t mean you’re not guilty about it afterward.”
The horrific scene is horrific because we knew these women — it matters more than all the slaughter in PLANET TERROR — a holocaust that destroys the entire United States, it’s implied. Tarantino’s women approach rounded — Jungle Julia is a bitchy, manipulating diva to her friends, but she’s putty in the hands of Chris Masterson, some guy she’s keep texting who just isn’t that into her and doesn’t even bother to show up to claim his booty–leaving Julia at the mercy of Stuntman Mike.
At the screening I was at, anyway, the audience mirrored my own reaction. The hipster opening night crowd giggled and clapped in shock at PLANET TERROR, but in the second half of DEATH PROOF, they were clapping and cheering constantly as the women fight back. They fight back not out of terror, but out of strength. The lengthy dialogue set-ups are to show why these women make and the first bunch doesn’t: they’re from Stuntman Mike’s world, and in that world, they’re his equals.
This message is discomforting to some. I would never hold a message board discussion on the IMDb forums as resembling anything like intelligence, but some viewers are clearly fed up with Tarantino’s last three (or four depending on how you count Kill Bill) women-centric films:
How come Tarrantino is obsessed with having female hero’s in his movies recently? Jackie Brown, Kill Bill movies, and now Death Proof. Does he not have balls anymore?
And another thing… I know that Tarrantino is known for his great dialogue scenes, but the dialogue scenes in Death Proof were pretty bad.. and I think it had to do with the fact that the big dialogue scenes were between females. Females just aren’t as funny as guys. It’s a fact. All that the women were talking about was blowjobs and *beep* Boring.
It’s a movie about a guy that terrorizes women, then he moves onto the next set. The fact that these girls didn’t play by the rules (fighting back) is what makes them so different than the first set. Some women are weak, some are not. How is that feminist?
But egalitarianism is not dead.
Yeah, you seem threatened by women.
And then to the prick below (above me) who got his panties in a twist about QT being described as a feminist:
“Feminist” just means believing in the equal rights of dicks and chicks. Like the civil rights thing.
I gave up reading there, but I can see why these viewers couldn’t relate to these women: they were far too real. While Rodriguez is known for making his women look flawless and hot, Tarantino isn’t so worried about lighting — cellulite is clearly visible in several of the short short butt shots, and to a world raised on airbrushing, that might just come as a shock. Tarantino’s daring mixture of a chick flick and a slasher film is too hardcore for many.
Some hold the opposite view of Tarantino: that he’s really no better than Stuntman Mike, buttering up to women by pretending to listen before slaughtering them in fetishistic glee. (Rasario Dawson offers some corroboration here.) You can see both sides of this in a junket interview with Poitier (Jungle Julia) and Winstead, who plays Lee, the girly-girl.:
Sydney Poitier I think he has a real reverence and respect for women. I think his characters are so fully developed that the sexuality, like she said, was just innate in them. They really own their sexuality. They own their femininity. They re strong, they re confident. They have no issues about their bodies or who they are. I think he has a real appreciation for that and he really treated it really respectfully. One of the first things he said to me when I got the part was he s like, I m going to be doing a lot of leg shots and a lot of butt shots. The camera s going to lovingly caress your body but know that I m a gentleman. And he really, really is, and so you never felt uncomfortable.
You ve gone from low budget Grindhouse to big budget Live Free or Die Hard. How was your experience on that?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead It was great but definitely different from this. On this we were working non-stop. [snip]
Q: Are you in the dangerous scenes or do they CGI you into it?
Mary Elizabeth Winstead Oh well I m not actually in a lot of that danger. I kind of used those examples. I get to throw some punches and I shoot a gun every now and then, but I m not around when most of the big action stuff is going on.
Of course she’s not around — she’s a girl. But in Tarantino’s world, that is no refuge. In an industry where most of the women’s roles are filled by a parade of perky but easily discarded aerobicized and lipo-suctioned cookie cutters, Tarantino has made an action film where women are allowed to be women. Cellulite and all. Unlike the airbrushed, silicon-injected glamazons of the Maxim/WWE era, these women are sexy because they are real — like Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones. Winstead’s Lee stands in for the 00′s view of woman, the actress in the bunch, sexually infantized in a cheerleader costume — brains are not her strong point, and she doesn’t get to go on the adventure because she hasn’t paid her dues. Zoe, Kim and Abernathy are the real deal, with real blood, real hopes and real dreams — some of which don’t even involve boys. And that may just be the most terrifying thing of all about DEATH PROOF.