Monday, 23 December 2013

Condensing Grindhouse

The Grindhouse ventures- two films, the former by Robert Rodriguez, the latter by Quentin Tarantino- were an interesting revival of 70s schlock B-movie. They were all, in honesty, pretty shitty movies. But these films are worth watching just to see what the directors could have achieved, had they collaborated closer and put their storytelling abilities to better effect.

Grindhouse is comprised of two movies, Planet Terror and Death Proof. These movies also include a fake trailer for a movie called Machete, which Rodriguez later expanded into a full feature film and filmed in a similar style to the previous two.

Planet Terror (2007)
A go-go dancer and her ex-boyfriend lead a gang of stragglers through a zombie-populated night in a small Texas town.

Death Proof (2007)
Psycho stuntman murders girls in his protective stunt car in staged “accidents”. Heroine latches on to his plot and seeks revenge with her feminist girl-buddies.

Machete (2010)
Former Mexican Federal and general hard bastard Machete is still searching for the men who murdered his family three years ago. He's offered- or forced to take- a contract job on the head of the corrupt Texas Senator. When he's double-crossed and left for dead, he now has another enemy to seek vengeance on.

The first two of these films I thought were over-long. Machete, however, I thought could have been of a similar length but still could have portrayed a slightly deeper message.

The titular character is a bad man, a hired gun, an anti-hero who has sex with his enemies' wives and daughters, posting humiliating videos online and then murdering his enemies anyway. Some investigation into the Machete character would have rewarded the audience. He's a bad man. He knows it. Everyone else knows it when they meet him, whether they cross him or not. But he's a stereotype, an irredeemable violent gringo murdering his way through a cliché-ridden OTT revenge/action movie that doesn't add anything to the genre it nods towards.

Also, what are we supposed to feel about Machete and other characters being illegal immigrants? Are we supposed to sympathise with them? I suppose so. We're asked to share the perspective of many criminals when we watch certain movies. If it was a film about people trying to enter the UK illegally, however, I wouldn't want to sympathise with them. I wonder how American audiences reacted to this aspect of the movie, considering illegal immigration is the main catalyst for the story.

These films were all shot with a certain feel in mind, that of the grainy, low-quality budget image of 70s exploitation movies. It's an interesting deviation from the uber-high-quality image resolution that directors today usually prefer. The digital era has allowed film-makers to produce sharp, focussed photography. It's also allowed cinemas to use digital projectors that has left us with only faint memories of what 16mm prints look like. The Grindhouse movies are a throwback to the image and atmosphere of pre-digital cinemas.

I always thought, however, that the three movies above could all have been enjoyably shown with much less screen time. By the time Planet Terror came out, Tarantino's talky, steady style of exposition had already been adopted by a thousand copycat film-makers. Watching Death Proof's rambling, inconsequential opening we are no longer thrilled by watching characters in their natural habitat, unrestrained by narratives or dramatic need. Tarantino's work had started to become tedious, almost caricaturist when compared to his earlier offerings.

The directors, however, could have lifted the Grindhouse movies out of mediocrity with a collaboration and a very apt switching of format.

A grindhouse is an American term for a cinema that mainly shows low-budget exploitation films, the genre that the three films mentioned above attempted to emulate. As a pitch for an improved version of Grindhouse, picture this: The movie opens with a man running from the law. He darts, Oswald-like, into the Grindhouse theatre. There he hides, and the first movie trailer rolls. We watch this full-screen, like we are in the Grindhouse with him. Then the first movie starts: Planet Terror. The film runs for 20 minutes, with all the exposition crammed into quick-fire scenes. No old-hat waffling, no elongated lap dance musical numbers or torture- just fast, shocking plot.

Between the short films, we see the law close in on the protagonist. The theatre owner insists that the officers do not disturb the rest of the patrons. The police stop to watch the films, captivated by the stories. Whilst distracted, their suspect makes his getaway.

My Grindhouse pitch would have made a lot less money, being one single-standing film as opposed to a double-bill and a spin-off, but wouldn't it have been a more enjoyable and less tiresome feature?

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