Grindhouse Is Girls, Guns, Cars — But No Sex

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Rico Torres / Dimension Films

Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson is Tammy in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror/Grindhouse.

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No surprise here. The director's four or five previous features — Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and the Kill Bill tandem — paid elaborate homage to, and ran elegant twists on, action films by otherwise-forgotten journeymen who were in no recognized sense auteurs; they were no-teurs. That's been a tonic corrective to the received wisdom about films: that, yes, there are still pearls worth diving for; you just have to look in ranker, more roiled waters. Hence, Vanishing Point's Richard Sarafian, and John Hough of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and a true indie daredevil, H.B. Halicki, who died during a stunt scene while shooting the sequel to Gone in 60 Seconds.

What's odd about Death Proof is that it's equally indebted to the chatty, girl-obsessed, no-action comedies of the Frenchman Eric Rohmer. In such films as Chloe in the Afternoon and Pauline at the Beach, Rohmer fondly presents the extensive conversations of young women. Even more fully than Rohmer, Tarantino is beguiled by putting dialogue in the cute, potty mouths of two trios of girls who just wanna have fun. They talk and talk, and it ain't Shakespeare. Sure, most the actresses, especially in the first batch (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito), are pretty, but pretty you can get online, without the gaseous gabble. Well, aside from the car chases, that's the whole movie. And since tin-ear syndrome has apparently inflicted Tarantino, the chat seems pointless, witless, endless.


Enter the hope for salvation in the person of Stuntman Mike (Russell). He's a grizzled charmer who amiably boasts to the girls about the stars he's doubled for in movies, until he realizes that these kids can't be impressed by people they're too young to have heard of. To the pretty, troubled Ferlito, Mike gruffly coos, "There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel." The movie's one moment of unforced charisma comes when Russell catches the camera watching him, and smiles. The viewer just naturally smiles back. Why would these women be inching away from Mike? Because he's a motorpsycho killer in an imperishable death car.

Your reward for sitting through the logorrheic stretches of the movie is, first, a car crash — which, in the manner of Hong Kong action films, is shown as an instant replay, from four views — and then a long car chase. Here's the set-up: On a film shoot in Tennessee, a stuntwoman (played by Zoe Bell, who was Uma Thurman's double on Kill Bill) hears that 1970 Dodge Challenger, just like the one in Vanishing Point, is for sale. She and her girlfriends visit the peckerwood who has the car, and three of them take it for a test drive while one of them stays behind to keep the guy company. Zoe has a mind to perform a stunt on the hood of the car: strapped to it at high speed. This caprice naturally attracts the attention of Mike, who is either in the neighborhood or has truly amazing car-dar. The chase consumes the last half-hour of the film.

Choosing sides is difficult here, if you're not as entranced with the sassy talk of tough broads as Tarantino is (at least when he's supplying the talk). Or maybe he didn't care much about delineating heroes and villains. Perhaps he wanted to set up an old-fashioned competition: stunt driver vs. stunt girl. Nonetheless, Zoe is asking for it. If you strap yourself to the hood of a car going 120 mph, don't be surprised if you and your friends get in trouble, with or without the menace of a Stuntman Mike. And if you're a filmmaker who wants to build sympathy for your heroines, don't make them as bat-poop crazy as the villain. Also, don't give Zoe three or four chances (when they momentarily lose Mike) to get off the hood of the car.

And, as long as I'm parsing plot here, what happened to the friend they left alone in the woods with a possible Norman Bates? She's trying to keep him diverted while her posse is in the process of demolishing his car. By the time they get back, she might be dead. As Shakespeare would have said, "Jeez!"

Tarantino does offer an explicit poetic reference: one of the girls is supposed to give a lap dance to the first guy who comes up to her and quotes lines from Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening." (The QT version of that poem might end: "The road is kewl for this white trash / But I've a Challenger to smash /And miles to go before I crash...") But there's not much poetry, I mean of the pulp variety, in Death Proof. It doesn't show me much innovation, or much fidelity to the old grindhouse tropes. For example, in the seminal road movies of the late '60s and early '70s — Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry — all those careening, careering antiheroes ended up dead. They paid for their vitality with their fatality. But Tarantino won't go that extra mile, at least in the second half of his escapade. He wants his crashes without the body count.


Maybe, as a city boy who never owned an auto, I just don't get car movies. I rent a vehicle a few weeks a year, on vacation, and then use it mainly to go shopping. And though I recall with pleasure the summer day I drove my wife and film critic David Thomson through Death Valley in a 1990 Coupe de Ville with a temperature indicator on the dashboard — we hit 108 mph when the air outside was 108 degrees — my usual feeling behind the wheel is the apprehension that I'll be sideswiped by demon-driving jerks like the ones in Death Proof. When Zoe's and Mike's cars go barreling onto a highway, forcing the other drivers to go swerving and smashing, I imagine myself as one of the innocent victims of this rampage, not the caraholics I'm supposed to be rooting for or against.

But then, for me the grindhouse was not a place to see high-speed mayhem. Exploitation cinema was essentially sexploitation: great-looking women being naughty. The auteurs of this genre (Radley Metzger, Jose Benazeraf, Russ Meyer) could seduce an audience already panting for a striptease; the movies were just that, promising more than they delivered but still delivering an eroticism that in the pre-porn days was both forbidden and liberating.

You won't find sex, or even the aura of sexuality, in films by the current generation of pop-referencing auteurs. They swarm all over the violence in '60s-'70s grindhouse movies but are squeamish in showing the eroticism that once was crucial to the genre. The generation of "kids with beards," as Billy Wilder called Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, took their cues from a wide range of movie sources — Saturday-matinee serials, John Cassavetes improv dramas, European angst-athons — and if they got excessive, it was in kitsch and violence, not sex. Rodriguez got some puffs of grindhouse steam going in Sin City; but here, he and Tarantino are as puritanical as their predecessors. All bang-bang, no French kiss-kiss.

In both "features" of Grindhouse, the MISSING REEL card flashes as a sex scene has just begun. That's a comment on the old days, but it also proves that when it comes to eroticism, of the true or even exploitation variety, these directors are such cowards. If they use sex at all, it is in the horror-film mode pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Show a woman in a shower, then kill her. The impulse is both prurient and puritanical; they provide a brief voyeuristic pleasure, then feel obliged to punish the women, and the audience, and themselves.

In another article this week, I wrote about the dearth of strong roles for women in today's movies. Well, the women in Grindhouse are strong, indeed macho, and I'd love to see that as a good thing. But except for McGowan, whose grownup sultriness gives her character some emotional heft, the women here are voluptuous stick figures, living out a guy's idea of excitement. I think that many American filmmakers of the past 30 years have this view of women: comic-book superheroes; Ultra-man with breasts.

Grindhouse movies may always have played on both an obsession with and a fear of women. But if the men who loved sexploitation films were arrested adolescents, the ones who cheer for Zoe Bell are arrested infantiles. The theaters may smell cleaner, but their view of women still stinks.

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