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22 September, 2007

Back to the Grind: Why Tarantino and Rodriguez’s GRINDHOUSE Succeeded—and Failed

One of the most highly touted films to premiere in the last few years was Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s paean to 42nd St., GRINDHOUSE. This cleverly constructed film, designed from the outset to resemble the D-grade exploitation, horror, and sex films that would play out in a nearly unceasing rotation in seedy, low-rent theaters in larger cities, delivered precisely what its creators promised. And in so doing, it failed spectacularly at the box-office, earning just over $11 million in its opening weekend.

Why did this film, from two such talented filmmakers, working in a genre with which they have had such success, so completely fail to capture an audience, even among the young males upon which it would seem to be targeted? A demographic that has driven both directors to blockbuster status time and again? Was it the quality of the film, or the quality of the images that composed it?

First, the film definitely has flaws. It is long, nearly three hours, and it does tend to drag in parts, especially Tarantino’s segment DEATH PROOF. It is too self-referential, with little mentions scattered about the script referencing nearly every film with which Tarantino or Rodriguez were ever connected. Some of that is excusable, even enjoyable. But too much of it, as we have here, seems self-centered and egotistical.

Also, the directors efforts to replicate the look and feel of true Grindhouse films may have been just a little too successful. I remember watching those old films… quality wasn’t great, and scratches, skips, and splices were common; entire missing reels were not. I understand the filmmaker’s intent in leaving segments of the story unseen… I just wish the technique used had been a little more subtle—and that the unseen segments hadn’t included Rose McGowan’s lap dance for Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike character.

But problems aside, you have two excellent, low-budget movies here. I realize that sounds ridiculous considering the $67 million budget the film had, but the stories themselves could’ve been told at a far cheaper price than they were. Rodriguez’s movie, PLANET TERROR, is dependent on Special Effects for most of its narrative, but could’ve eliminated some of the splashier elements; and DEATH-PROOF was composed primarily of good, old-fashioned, practical car crashes. Perhaps the best features of the film, however, are the four trailers that play before the first half, and in the intermission between the two halves of the film. The faux trailers, directed by Rodriguez, Rob (HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES…) Zombie, Eli (HOSTEL…) Roth, and Edgar (SHAUN OF THE DEAD…) Wright, are easily the most entertaining trailers I’ve seen in some time… I just wish the movies they promote were available to watch! Overall, I would say the premise was a good one, and for those with fond memories of the grindhouse era, an enjoyable trip back in time.

The true trouble with the film, though, lies in the fact that few people have those warm memories, or indeed any memories, of grindhouse films. To have truly experienced grindhouse at its peak, you would have to be in your fifties now; only the fact that I came of age in a locale where a grindhouse-style theater survived well into the ‘80’s allowed me to experience it in some small way… and I’m forty-three.

Anyone younger than forty is unlikely to have more than a passing knowledge of the genre, and those in the target audience, young males in their late teens and early ‘20’s, would be more than likely completely unfamiliar with it. Where scratched-up, spliced-together film reels were once accepted as part of the price of seeing provocative, no-holds-barred movies, now even the cheapest, low & no-budget films are expected to have a pristine, digitally-enhanced look. While the psychedelic light show and music that heralded the coming attractions reel brought back instant memories to us “geezers”, it struck no such chord among a generation that has never even seen a Drive-In, much less a true grindhouse theater.

Grindhouse, as a genre, gave us many shocking, terrific, wonderfully decadent movies… movies such as Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Russ Meyer’s FASTER PUSSYCAT… KILL, KILL, and Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES ~aka~ ONE THOUSAND CRIES HAS THE NIGHT. But in making the film GRINDHOUSE, I think that Tarantino and Rodriguez forgot what killed the genre in the first place.

What led to the growth of grindhouse cinema was the fact that they would show movies that touched upon subject matter that the “legitimate” studios and distributors wouldn’t come near… sex, drugs, gore, violence. Once these themes were no longer taboo for mainstream filmmakers, there was no longer a need to travel downtown, to sit in a dank, smelly, seedy, run-down shell of a theater for your exploitation fix… you could get the same thing, minus the poor quality, at your suburban multiplex. Even today, grindhouse isn’t gone, it’s just become mainstream, with directors such as Zombie, Roth, Wright, and others carrying on the traditions began in squalid, 42nd St. holes-in-the-wall.

Where Tarantino and Rodriguez succeeded was in perfectly capturing the look and feel of a grindhouse double-feature from the ‘70’s; where they failed was in making it a box-office winner. Ironically, the reason for the failure was the same as for the success—they did too good a job of it.

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