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Towards the end of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, the second of two full-length features slapped together in the gratuitously schlocky Grindhouse, the much-loved director momentarily pulls back from a roller-coaster ride car chase to reveal a slowly chugging oil well perched on the hilly Texas countryside. It's a rare chance to catch our breath amidst an exhilarating sequence of film, but it's also distinctly representative of the Grindhouse project as a whole. While the rest of Hollywood mechanically pumps out one flaccid blockbuster after another, Tarantino and his pal Robert Rodriguez are speeding down the back roads of cinema with bad-ass women and beautiful cars.
There are no valuable life lessons to be found in either Death Proof or Rodriguez's Planet Terror, but there are buckets of thrills. From the gory mess of zombie attacks to the sultry smoke of bar stool chitchat, this is ecstatic visceral cinema from frame one to the last. Grindhouse isn't just an ode to the grimy theatres and films of the past; it's a wake-up call for an industry lulled into mediocrity by the Passion of moral censorship.
Yet while witty dialogue, obscure referencing and pop-cultural relativism have always shielded Tarantino from critics of his narrative depth, the same can't be said for Rodriguez - who seems to excel in actually making bad movies. His Planet Terror is the more immediately exciting of the two pictures, featuring a brilliant over-the-top performance from Marley Shelton and more than one moment of gross-out hilarity. But without the context of Tarantino's accompanying commentary or the showy missing reels and intentionally fractured print, we are left with a pretty typical Rodriguez film - in the vein of Once Upon a Time in Mexico or even Spy Kids 3-D. And that's not a good thing.
It is telling that even prior to coming up with the 70's Grindhouse homage concept, Planet Terror was an actual script Rodriguez had written and considered producing. The director is currently in pre-production talks to make a full-length Machete film based on the ridiculous fake trailer that runs before Planet Terror. These ideas work well enough within the confines of Grindhouse, but it's hard to justify their existence at the cinema otherwise. We may no longer have dirty and dangerous movie theatres in which to watch exploitative, sexually charged zombie adventures like Planet Terror, but Z-grade films still exist. You can rent hundreds of bad, misogynistic modern movies at your local Blockbuster, and most of them were formed from scripts on par with Rodriguez's work.
What separates Tarantino's Death Proof from the rest of Grindhouse are its long passages of seemingly pointless dialogue. Tarantino is clearly setting us up in classic horror-style for the "shocking" kill, but it could also be said that he is literally in love with his characters. It isn't simply a matter of showing off the ability to turn a phrase (the dialogue isn't flawless here anyway), but the director has a genuine affinity for human interaction.
Sydney Poitier (daughter of Oscar-winner Sidney) is particularly electric as Jungle Julia, lying leisurely in the backseat of her friend's car discussing the previous night's sexual escapades or playfully teasing the men who ogle her ever-present legs. Later there's a particularly revealing text-message exchange between Julia and an unseen boyfriend; it amounts to very little in the plot of the film, but Tarantino hangs on every letter as it is punched meticulously into the phone. This is the type of everyday moment that the director loves to surreally celebrate. Much like the obscure films he references, most people never give a second thought to the mundane activities and conversations of the day. But one could imagine that the inherent beauty that exists in every flawed moment of human desire and self-expression is exactly what Tarantino's been trying to show us all these years.
Perhaps there are life-lessons to be found at the Grindhouse after all. SEE ALSO: www.grindhousemovie.net
Imran Siddiquee is a freelance writer pursuing self-expression in all its forms. This includes the occasional contribution to LAS as well as writing blogs, essays, short stories, an unpublished novel and some screenplays. He also creates horribly amateur music with his brother Yusuf.
See other articles by Imran Siddiquee.
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