Grinding It Out with Quentin Tarantino

THREE HOURS I will never get back. That’s the verdict after seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse, a tribute to the horror and exploitation movies of the 1970s.

Tarantino’s contribution to this long, double feature is Death Proof, the story of a sadistic former stuntman who seeks out women to stalk, mutilate and kill. But before we get to this, Robert Rodriguez, director of Sin City, offers up the flesh-eating zombie thriller Planet Terror.

I won’t dwell on Rodriguez’s film, whose credits begin with an extended dance by go-go dancer Cherry Darling, who uncontrollably weeps while she performs. Soon, her leg will be eaten by zombies and replaced first by a table leg and later a machine gun–but only after she is almost raped by one of her captors, a sadistic zombie aptly played by Tarantino.

Rodriguez stays truer to the grindhouse aesthetic, replicating the grainy film quality and shaky projection of the old movie houses and drive-ins. This must have been really hard when the director had a multimillion-dollar budget and stars like Bruce Willis on set. After all, Rodriguez and Tarantino have come a long way–$67.5 million long, as a matter of fact–since they made El Mariachi or Reservoir Dogs on shoestring budgets.

Planet Terror can be funny in parts. It imitates the ridiculous plot turns and wooden dialogue of the original “grindhouse” movies, not to mention some of the most disgusting bodily emissions on screen ever. However, there’s no getting around the fact that these movies are called “exploitation” for a reason, and it’s only worse when they’re made by skilled and well-financed directors.

The scene where zombie Tarantino forces Cherry Darling to dance on her one leg before he tries to rape her is excruciating, and no amount of retribution she metes out can make up for it. Also chilling was the laughter in parts of the theater every time a female character got a bone broken or was threatened with a hypodermic.

I guess what it comes down to is that you have to be “really hip” to understand. You have to appreciate the obscure cultural references. And you have to be “smart” enough to understand that it’s not sexist, it’s irony.

This is one of Tarantino’s problems. He’s snuggled up so warmly in the clever world of pop-culture references that he doesn’t think he has to face the real world or real people. There’s no debating that Tarantino can make an entertaining film. He can mimic and even improve on many genres–for instance, his tribute to Hong Kong films Kill Bill.

It’s undeniable that Tarantino is a powerful voice in movies today. The problem is that he has nothing to say. (Even Roger Corman, who made low-budget cult classics like A Bucket of Blood, took a stab at social commentary when he made The Intruder in 1962 about a racist instigator, played by none other than William Shatner.)

Tarantino’s lack of a “message” and focus on form over function wouldn’t make a difference if he weren’t so deliberately oblivious to the real world–so oblivious that he can “pay tribute” to some of the most sexist stereotypes and recreate terrible scenes of mutilation and violence, and not think it matters in the least. So in the name of pure entertainment in Death Proof, the killer can yell “Get ready to fly, bitch!” or the camera can pan over each woman in a car as they lose their limbs or faces in a crash.

Film critics Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times and A.O. Scott of the New York Times gushed over Tarantino’s supposed prowess at writing dialogue for women, arguing that some of the best scenes included the women of Death Proof talking among themselves. I guess if you think that all women want is a mix tape and we love to flip our hair around and dance in the backseat of cars, then it’s realistic dialogue (actually, it’s about as realistic the “mother protecting her cub” bilge that Tarantino put in Kill Bill: Vol. 2).

No, Tarantino’s women are only as real as the women in the exploitation films he’s emulating. There are weak ones and strong ones, ones who get murdered or decapitated and ones who fight back. While Tarantino might think he’s created some “strong female characters,” they might as well be the busty, dominating women of Russ Meyers’ Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

To be fair, Tarantino doesn’t empathize with women any less than men, because his films are completely removed from human interaction, period. The violence in all of his films is so stylized and removed from its impact on real human beings that it becomes pointless. Even the much-awaited revenge sequence in Death Proof is ruined by its over-stylized homage to other movies and other fight scenes.

It’s the ultimate in alienation. A Tarantino movie is the product of years of Tarantino sitting in a room, watching movies and never going out for air. When you watch a Tarantino movie, you’re watching that guy. Make sure you go out for air yourself.

ELIZABETH SCHULTE is a reporter for the Socialist Worker.