+ "Grindhouse": How to parse Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino‘s double-feature homage to le cinÃ©ma d’exploitation? Most critics are heaping superlatives on the film; a few detractors aim careful barbs intended to deflate the expected praise, and yet "Grindhouse" seems to evade solid insights. Is it possible to analyze a film that so valiantly
Samples from the big fans: Nathan Lee at the Village Voice gleefully observes that "Rodriguez, Tarantino, and Co. aim for nothing more noble than to freak the funk, and it’s about goddamn time. Go wasted, go stoned, go without your parents’ permission. In paying homage to an obsolete form of movie culture, Grindhouse delivers a dropkick to ours." "Growing up in the ’70s, I spent my share of time in grind-house theaters, and I can testify: This is exactly what it felt like," declares Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly. "Grindhouse wants to give you a ticky-tacky good time, and does, but it also taps the wild, jagged spasms of aggression that gave [grindhouse] films their primitive outlaw style." At the LA Weekly, Scott Foundas compares "Death Proof" to… "Inland Empire"? "Like Lynchâ€™s movie, I suspect that Death Proof will throw some of its directorâ€™s admirers for a loop, though it may be the most revealing thing Tarantino has yet done â€” a full-throttle expression of a singular artistic temperament disguised, like so many gems of grindhouses yore, as a glittering hunk of trash."
At Salon, Stephanie Zacharek wonders if the Kurt Russell character in "Death Proof" isn’t an echo of Tarantino himself, in that he’s a devotee of pop culture that’s passed from the memory of his target audience. She adds that the film is "also recklessly joyous and deeply affectionate, a celebration not just of an all-but-lost approach to moviemaking but of the nearly lost experience of communal moviegoing." David Edelstein at New York echoes these thoughts:
There’s another reason that Grindhouse is, for some of us misfits, such a happy trip. It affirms our sense of community. No one at the time wrote much about grindhouse fare. It was mostly too sexist and lowbrow for the Voice, and way too lowbrow for the Times. (In her review of Dawn of the Dead, the sequel to the sixties’ most seminal horror film, Janet Maslin boasted about walking out in the first fifteen minutes.) It’s true that most of these films were depressingly bad. But there was something vital, something electric about the liveness of that culture. I’m sad that most people will see Grindhouse on video. It should be consumed (or, depending on your perspective, endured) in a theater full of shrieking, gasping, cheering, borderline-ashamed exploitation junkies. Nowadays, people smoke dope and drink and jerk off in front of TV screens in the privacy of their homes. They really need to get out more.
Dana Stevens at Slate compares Rodriguez to "a fourth-grade boy trying to elicit the biggest ‘ew’ possible from his audience," and finds that "Death Proof" "is a reminder of what there was to like about Tarantino in the first place." Keith Phipps at the Onion AV Club thinks that "Planet Terror" "could more easily pass as the genuine article" than Tarantino’s film, which will have "no mistaking it for anyone else’s work." He points out problems in both films, but also writes that "the film has a Russian-nesting-doll quality: Unpacking it steadily reveals more, both in the ways the two halves tie together, and in the substance beyond the scratchy surfaces."
Dennis Lim, popping up over at the LA Times, points out that "Grindhouse" is "an exploitation bonanza in which the most effectively exploited element is the marketing concept," but goes on to write that "setting aside the dubious coherence and suspect nostalgia of the enterprise, ‘Grindhouse’ is a fascinating exercise in genre reinvention, a showcase for two radically different approaches to homage." Over at the New York Times, A.O. Scott (who likes "Death Proof" and isn’t a fan of "Planet Terror") is another who sees the film as a salute to moviegoing. He suggests "when viewing ‘Grindhouse’ at home skip the commentary track and bring in a few drunks off the street to mutter and snore."
Not as fond: Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader, who perhaps misses the point when observing that "these two full-length features are each 20 minutes longer than they need to be, and neither one makes much sense as narrative." Jeremiah Kipp at Slant writes that the film is "disaffected and campy, but unlike a lot of those sleazy exploitation movies that stood the test of time, it lacks any real anger, machismo, or even sleaziness. In other words, it’s difficult to invest in anything that’s happening beyond regarding it as one big gooey lark." And Armond White at the New York Press, is, naturally, pissed off:
The entire experience is a throwback to Neanderthal cinemaâ€”not Pauline Kael â€œtrashâ€ or Manny Farber â€œtermiteâ€ movies but worse: films without social responsibility, that are extravagantly disreputableâ€”a decadent, rich cultureâ€™s wallow. Thereâ€™s no way around this filmâ€™s junky, self-annihilating compulsiveness except to meet it head-on, call it crap and defy it."
His memorable conclusion: "Itâ€™s an Abu Ghraib action extravaganza." So, by our rough count: Rodriguez 2, Tarantino 8. We’d like to add that we think Rodriguez is joshing everyone who’d see something timely or meaningful in "Planet Terror"’s bin Laden reference, which is so ludicrous it is, if anything, is a jab at critical claiming of the zombie-as-metaphor movie. Sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.
+ "Black Book": But it is art? Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker who wallowed in Hollywood making shiny, ballsy trash for decades, has lately been taken up by certain members of the cinephile community and granted auteur status. "Black Book," his first Dutch film since 1983, is being presented as an art house effort â€” Sony Pictures Classics is handling this release.
Liking it: Noel Murray at the Onion AV Club writes that the film is "a rollicking wartime movie-movie, replacing awards-bait clichÃ©s with a strong dose of two-fisted action, frank sexuality, and coal-black cynicism… In the end, Black Book may be one of the most fun movies ever made about how people basically suck." David Edelstein at New York muses:
For all the moral upheavals of the first days of the post-war era, something is kerflooey when you’re rooting for the Jewish girl to end up with the nice Gestapo fella. In spite of my cavils, I urge you not to pass up Black Book, especially on a wide screen. It’s a marvelous movie-movie, with a new screen goddess. [Carice] van Houten has a soft, heart-shaped face on top of a body so naturally, ripely beautiful it has its own kind of truth.
J. Hoberman at the Village Voice similarly salutes the film’s heroine: "Cool,
courageous, free-spirited, totally affirmative, and loyal to a fault,
Rachel is compared at various points to Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo;
she’s pure life force as well as a starâ€”late in the movie she hurls
herself off a balcony as if into a mosh pit."Armond White‘s a fan of the film’s Nazi-movie reinventions, describing it thusly: "Imagine a Fassbinder movie, deliberately self-conscious for the new century. Rachel suggests Maria Braun or Lili Marleen only not simply transplanted to The Netherlands (lewd name for a Verhoeven location) but to the realm of comic booksâ€”oops! graphic novelsâ€”to use a term that implies Verhoevenâ€™s Pop Art boldness."
Manohla Dargis at the New York Times cautions against those who’d overintellectualize the film, which, she allows, is "pretty much a hoot": "Designed for distraction (the frequently timed gunfights suggest as much), ‘Black Book’ works only if you take it for the pulpiest of fiction, not a historical gloss, its stated claims to ‘true events’ notwithstanding." Andrew O’Hehir at Salon writes that "One of the knocks on Verhoeven has been that his disposition is so ironical and he’s so pathologically addicted to ambiguity that his films have no moral bottom line. It’s not an inherently stupid reading of his work, but it’s also not quite fair."
Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly suggests that "Black Book may be the looniest use of the Holocaust as a playground since Roberto Benigni served up his infernal clown act in Life Is Beautiful." She finds "there’s little collective value to the assembled transgressions." Nick Pinkerton at indieWIRE likes the film, though he writes that "this is far from the Verhoeven’s most dexterous filmmaking," Ed Gonzalez at Slant is also fond but disappointed:
Based on true events but not a true story (at least according to a sly Verhoeven), the film imagines Nomi Malone’s vagina dentata laying waste to the Nazis. This is an enticing proposition, except this voluptuously directed epic crumbles beneath the weight of its well-oiled but mechanical plot.
Ella Taylor at the LA Weekly writes that the film is "a viscerally effective thriller ends up a repugnant exercise in moral relativism, delivered with the grandstanding swagger of the self-styled provocateur." And at the New Yorker, Anthony Lane is also grossed out: "This is trash pretending to serve the cause of history: a ‘Dirty Dozen’ knockoff with one eye on ‘Schindlerâ€™s List’":
At one point, the sanitization is literal: Rachel, arrested as a traitor, is stripped to the waist and drenched in human excrement. There may be grounds for showing such maltreatment, but there are none for what happens nextâ€”a shot of our heroine, scrubbed and untraumatized, leaving the scene with her rescuer, a Resistance friend, and walking out into the sunshine. Is that how Verhoeven thinks that individuals, let alone countries, emerge from humiliation?