April 30, 2007

Grindhouse

In case you've been under a rock, and for, I suppose, posterity, this is the deal with Grindhouse: it's a "double feature" of two films, Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" and Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof," with fake trailers at the beginning and between the features. The films share cast members and play off each other, but are also separate entities. However, the whole package pays homage to/makes fun of the "grindhouse," which is a beaten-down movie theater that plays double-bills of B movies. This would make the Rodriguez and Tarantino films, a zombie movie and a slasher flick/car movie, the B movies. Got it?

Good. Now that we're clear that these are supposed to be B movies, that they are hearkening back to and a parody of a specific kind of film, then we can skip all of the ways in which they are typically sexist. Yes, there are copious bare breasts and ass shots, women are called bitch all over the place, sexual violence is threatened (though, and I thought this was telling, never actually enacted) and the first film's credits roll over a go-go dancing Rose McGowan. If there is any chance of you enjoying Grindhouse, or finding anything about it to be subversive or interesting, you are going to have to consider these things part of the kitsch that Rodriguez and Tarantino are playing with and move on. If you don't think you can do that, don't see the movie(s), because you'll soon go crazy.

However, if you can do that, then I think you're in for some fairly badass heroine content.

Case in point: Rose McGowan. Anybody who saw the preview or poster for this film certainly noticed Rose McGowan as a character who has one leg replaced with an automatic weapon. I thought she looked pretty cool in the previews, but she is so much cooler in the film itself. There's one part where she is propelled over a wall and is basically flying in the air shooting bad guys with her leg. That's some ass kicking. And that's not even the best of it--earlier, when she's just got a table leg attached to her stump and not a machine gun, she breaks it off in would-be rapist Quentin Tarantino's eye. (Sidenote: why is Tarantino always cast as a sexual predator in Rodriguez's films? It's a little bit creepy.) A second later, when it looks as if a rapidly mutating to zombified grossness Tarantino is going to rape her anyway, her fellow female captive (and would-be rape victim) stops him with a well-tossed hypodermic needle. Again, bad ass, not only for the originality of hypos in a thigh holster, thrown by a woman with deadened hands, but also for women protecting each other and beating down their wanna-be rapists before clothes are ever shed.

On a larger scale, "Planet Terror" is great because McGowan's character is the one who leads the survivors. The major male characters all end up dead, and the women prevail.

So it is also with "Death Proof," though it doesn't seem that way for the first 45 minutes or so. The first segment, which follows a posse of "girls" made up of Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Rose McGowan (terrible in a blond wig), and Sydney Tamiia Poitier through an evening out in Austin, is flat-out boring. I got a little geeky thrill out of all the local places they shot, but the plot is just dumb, and when all it led up to was all of the "girls" being violently killed with no recourse, I was just about totally pissed off.

But Tarantino pulled through with the second part of his film, in which another group of young women, this time played by Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and incrediblebadassIamsoinlovewithher stuntwoman Zoe Bell (as herself--she did Uma's stunts in Kill Bill, among other things) are taken on by psycho Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) and take him for a ride. The film's final scene, with the three of them circled around Mike kicking the shit out of him, was worth the previous three hours all by itself.

Grindhouse also does OK by race. In both films, the bad guys are white (Kurt Russell and Bruce Willis). In "Planet Terror," there is a fairly stereotypical Middle Eastern portrayal that I could have done without ("mad scientist" Abby, played by Naveen Andrews, who is actually British-Indian), but the major male protagonist is Hispanic (Freddy Rodriguez's Wray), and the focal female characters are two white women (Rose McGowan and Marley Shelton) and two Venezuelan women (twins Electra and Elise Avellan). Things are even better in "Death Proof", which starts two mixed-raced groups of women, the first featuring three white women (Rose McGowan and Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito) and a black woman (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), and the second featuring a black woman (Tracie Thoms) a Hispanic woman (Rosario Dawson) and a white New Zealander (Zoe Bell). I liked that both Rodriguez and Tarantino didn't feel held to whitewash their casts in order to make their films more closely resemble the B movies they were imitating, which were mostly white, or had very stereotypical minority characters. With the exception of scientist Abby, race had very little to do with the motivations or actions of any of the Grindhouse characters, and yet they were a multi-racial cast. I like that.

Ableism is also worth mentioning when discussing Grindhouse, specifically Rose McGowan's character, Cherry, in "Planet Terror." Before she loses her leg, there is nothing particularly special about Cherry--she's a miserable go-go dancer with what seems to be very little general hope. After losing her leg, though, circumstances conspire to force Cherry to become something amazing, both in terms of her physical prowess (shooting shit up with her leg) and in terms of her leadership (the end of the film shows her leading survivors of the zombie-plague to a new land). Losing a leg is never a disability for Cherry--it's quite the opposite. It may not be the most nuanced portrayal in the world (after all, we're still talking about a farcical B movie here), but I think that's cool.

So, aside from the obvious things I mentioned above that I consider part of the joke and am not going to talk about (unnecessary nudity and sexualization, constantly calling women bitches, etc.), what was wrong with Grindhouse? I honestly only had one real problem. In the second half of Tarantino's film, which I really liked otherwise, the three female leads are trying to get a fairly scary seeming dude to let them test drive his car, and in order to do it, they leave the fourth member of their group, a young woman in a cheerleader's outfit (she's supposed to be an actress) alone with the dude, as collateral of sorts. This bent me out of shape in all kinds of ways. Women just would not do that to each other, and I don't like it being portrayed. May be a small thing, but stuck with me enough that I'm knocking a star off for it.

Other commentary:

4 Comments

I am really surprised. Thanks for writing the review.

It looks like some other folks out there had responses similar to mine when they saw Grindhouse (which makes me glad, as I was afraid I was just a bit nuts). In particular, if you're interested, check out these posts: http://community.livejournal.com/deadbrowalking/143086.html
and http://lilycain.livejournal.com/3110.html. Thanks to the 13th Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction & Fantasy Fans for steering me towards these.

Wow. Before reading that, I wouldn't have considered seeing these films - now, I might - not definitely, but I might.

I just saw these this weekend (against my will) and really, really liked them. There were some stereotypical things, but for me it was nice to see the women prevail over the stereotypes--in a way, it justified the use of them. And you didn't mention the sex scene between Rose McGowan and Wray, which featured the table leg and was damn hot to boot.

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