Rose McGowan as a pole-dancer turned vigilante in Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror.”
With the three-hour-and-eleven-minute “Grindhouse,” the writer-directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have put together an entire evening’s entertainment devoted to the violent schlock movies and decrepit theatres that they loved as kids and never stopped loving. “Grindhouse” is a single film with no intermission, but it includes two new features and such divertissements as trailers for ridiculous imaginary pictures (“Werewolf Women of the S.S.”), ads for revolting food at local restaurants, and artifacts of down-at-the-heels moviegoing from decades ago. At climactic moments in the two features—say, just as the hero and the heroine are about to get it on—the scene sometimes comes to an abrupt halt, and the words “Missing reel” flash on the screen. Now and then, the movie develops hiccups, as if frames had been chopped out—a tribute to needy projectionists of old who kept the images they liked best. And deep scratches, as lovingly inscribed as the speckled antiquing on a blanket chest, run through long stretches of film. The general intent here is to louse up the surface of the movie as much as possible and make that degraded surface, in a kind of high-tech punk conceit, a central part of the experience. Tarantino and Rodriguez are trying to re-create their memories of moviegoing as a blissfully sullied urban folk ritual in which sprawling teens squandered their time in seedy picture palaces.
Why would such technically sophisticated filmmakers, who have the power to do whatever they want, make a movie like this? Because it amuses them, and because the movie just might irritate the squares—the schoolteacherish elements in the audience who still believe that movies should be nice. And also, perhaps, to free themselves. Embracing trash is a way of not giving a damn about feelings or art or anything else except craft. Down there on the sticky floor of the theatre, you can be as crazily violent or as sleazily erotic as you want. What surprises me, I suppose, is not the impulse itself—who hasn’t, in a foul mood, felt something like it?—but the widespread notion in the press that Tarantino and Rodriguez have become moviemaking radicals. They haven’t: genteel, middlebrow culture lost its sway years ago, and plenty of other filmmakers are doing hyper-violence and sleaze. Tarantino and Rodriguez aren’t going against the flow; they’re trying to get ahead of the flow. What they’d like, of course, is to bring to their version of trash that extra touch of madness which turns exploitation into wit.
In the first of the two features, “Planet Terror,” Rodriguez, the co-director of “Sin City,” unleashes a plague on a small town in Texas. People who are infected become zombies that prey on the living. Or something like that. In any case, this dawn-of-the-dead fantasia is gleefully disgusting: flesh melts, bodies explode like packages of liquid squeezed too hard, testicles roll around on the ground like spilled Brussels sprouts. The slaughterhouse outrages, combined with a complete absence of meaning, are what’s supposed to be cool about “Planet Terror,” and the audience (largely young men) whoops and hollers on cue. I closed my eyes here and there, and then opened them again, looking for signs of irony. I found a few. Rodriguez did the cinematography himself, and the camera occasionally loses interest in what’s going on, pausing to leer at an actress’s cleavage. Continuity is intentionally spotty, focus intermittent. Rose McGowan, as the heroine, Cherry, a retired pole-dancer, seems as entranced by her own sexual splendor as a ruby-lipped tomato on the cover of a Mickey Spillane novel. (Yes, I know, wrong period—but that’s what she looks like.) When Cherry loses a leg to the ghouls, her old lover (Freddy Rodriguez, who’s a pocket-size dynamo) outfits her with a machine gun for a stump; she raises it like a dog taking a pee and blows away anyone within fifty yards. Some of this flaming luridness is exciting, but Rodriguez quickly becomes desperate. The movie is as repetitive as hell and, despite his continual attempts to raise the ante, quite boring. At a certain point, of course, a loving re-creation of something tawdry isn’t all that different from the original. Even a postmodernist bloodbath is wet, sticky, and red.
Tarantino’s feature, “Death Proof,” though it’s based on seventies car-chase movies like “White Line Fever,” isn’t as flagrantly imitative as “Planet Terror”; nor are its images as rigorously defaced. The movie begins with a chummy girl posse (Sydney Poitier, Jordan Ladd, Vanessa Ferlito) riding around Austin in a red Honda Civic hatchback, and then settling into a comfortable bar for the night. The talk is intimate, detailed, funny. Tarantino demonstrates his usual insistence on sociability: everyone gets a chance to elaborately explain herself, curse up a storm, and wrangle with friends. Then Kurt Russell enters the bar; he’s the legendary Stuntman Mike, a veteran stunt-car driver, and, as he sweet-talks Ferlito in his soft voice, his weathered ease is enormously charming. Something like normality appears to be taking over the screen. But Mike, it turns out, has a mysterious grudge against young women. His stunt car has been reinforced against crashes—made deathproof—and he rams into the three women on the highway in the dark. Homicide by vehicular assault is a gooney teen fantasy, and Tarantino goes all the way with the extreme violence of it, showing us the women’s bodies being pulled apart over and over.
Tarantino obviously likes his characters a great deal, but he’s caught in the contradictions of making an hommage à schlock: he has to kill the women in order to set up the rest of the movie. It’s as if he couldn’t decide whether to be a humanist or a nihilist, so he opportunistically becomes both. Immediately, he brings on another group of chattering girls, two of whom (Zoë Bell and the fast-talking Tracie Thoms) are movie stuntwomen themselves. Just for fun, Bell straps herself to the hood of a roaring 1970 Dodge Challenger, with nothing more than two belts tied to the window posts. When Stuntman Mike shows up and starts banging his death car into the Dodge, the women refuse to give in, and a classic battle follows. As the cars try to force each other off the road, the struggle rages across backcountry Texas terrain, in (as far as we can tell) real space, at good speed, and without digital enhancement. Nothing quite this exciting has been seen since Steven Spielberg’s 1971 film “Duel.”
In the end, Tarantino has his triumph in “Grindhouse,” but, apart from this scene and a few good jokes, the movie won’t do much for anyone who doesn’t have an academic or fanboy absorption in junk. Tarantino and Rodriguez assume that we’ll relish the movie’s violence or shrug it off as play, as they do, but not everyone in the audience will want his enjoyment of it taken for granted that way—the mashed and maimed bodies leave depressing images in the mind and, at this moment in history, carry terrible associations. The two men love movies, love movie culture, love audiences, but how can you accept a love that expresses itself obsessively with an assault on the human body?
“Truthfully, ‘original’ scares me a little,” says Lenny (Sigourney Weaver), the head of a television network in Jake Kasdan’s satirical comedy “The TV Set.” Lenny is the chief nemesis of Kasdan’s hard-pressed hero, the writer-producer Mike Klein (David Duchovny), a veteran of the TV wars who has a challenging idea for a new show—“The Wexler Chronicles,” it’s called, and it’s about what happens to a young man when his brother commits suicide. It’s meant to be a serious idea with comic overtones, but we never find out whether it would have worked, because Lenny keeps squeezing and altering the original conception until the show—now titled “Call Me Crazy!”—becomes a piece of conventional whimsy. Lenny, whose latest smash is “Slut Wars,” a reality show in which long-stemmed tootsies stand around in bikinis, openly loathes art, which she considers not only a waste of time but an insult to her. Ferociously, she insists on blandness. Weaver, never one to hold back, gives her readings a crushing vehemence. As a comedienne, she doesn’t have the lyrical gift—the charge of fantasy—that Faye Dunaway brought to a similar character thirty years ago in “Network,” but she’s effectively hateful, and poor, earnest Mike doesn’t stand a chance.
Kasdan, the son of the Hollywood insiders Lawrence and Meg Kasdan, has been working in movies and television since his début as a child actor, in “The Big Chill,” in 1983, and he appears to know, with an almost nauseated sense of familiarity, all the ways in which the TV industry can cheat, cozen, seduce, and buy even a halfway serious writer out of his convictions. Kasdan is shrewd and funny about such things as the ease with which powerful people can mimic, when they need to, the forms of sincerity and concern. The satire is unrelenting but not too broad; it stays close to common observation. Kasdan’s special target: the astonishing Hollywood habit of prefacing even the most negative opinions of a writer or an actor’s work with upbeat panegyrics (“We loved it! Loved it!”), followed by the inevitable “But we have some concerns,” which, it turns out, completely undermine whatever it was that the writer or the actor was trying to do.