Tarantino and Rodriguez's trashy double bill is a lesson in hilarious self-indulgence
Cool, interesting people are saying cool, interesting things to each other. The first night of QFT Late, an attempt to brand the Queen's Film Theatre as a hip place to spend your Saturday night, is under way.
It’s a clever idea, a fully-fledged movie event to attract the Belfast cinema literate. The big pull tonight is Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s homage to the trashy B-movies of their youth, showing in its original double bill format for the first time in Northern Ireland.
Fond of aesthetics, QFT Late projects ironic B-movie trailers on the walls, while a DJ plays suitably light alternative music. Attendees (an apparent mix of humanities graduates, Guardian readers and Topman hipsters) stand around drinking beer and wine, while this humble reviewer sucks on hot tea.
Clean surfaces. Skinny jeans. Irony. It wasn’t always like this. The theatres that Tarantino and Rodriguez had in mind when they made Grindhouse were a little less hygienic.
‘Grindhouse’ cinemas, purveyors of exploitative, ultra-violent films about Nazis, zombies or, alternatively, Nazi zombies, were the run-down theatres that showed cheap double bills to entertain the rough side of town. Frequented by homeless people seeking shuteye and dubious types in raincoats, they were places worth avoiding.
Tarantino and Rodriguez have a certain fondness for pop-culture crap, though, and Grindhouse is their love letter to the obscure trash of early-morning television schedules. It’s a format that could only work as a late-night event: two features from the co-directors, Planet Terror and Death Proof, bookended by fake trailers from director friends like Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Eli Roth (Hostel), scrubbed down with scratchy film stock and missing reels for that extra authenticity.
Rodriguez’s flick, Planet Terror, is the straighter movie out of the two. It’s a mishmash of horror schlock staples: mutant flesh-eaters, ridiculously hot female leads, a military experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong, and a stripper with a machine gun for a leg. Only joking. She’s a go-go girl.
With a town under siege, Rose McGowan, the double-barrel amputee, and her over-acting crew must take the fight to the earnestly faux-serious military man Bruce Willis. Battling through gore, blood, puss and, most frighteningly of all, Quentin Tarantino’s sagging testicles, it’s all nonsense, but it knows it’s nonsense.
Trouble is, it’s not quite nonsense enough. The film hovers between faithful rehash and piss-taking knowingness, never quite delivering that final sucker punch. It’s deliciously exaggerated at times, with hammy, scene-chewing performances and clunky dialogue grabbing laughs, but it lacks the killer instinct. Nostalgia and satire are an uncomfortable mix. Planet Terror is covered in gore, but what the film lacks is real guts.
It’s the fake trailers that kill Planet Terror off. Wedged between hilarious previews that promise ‘You’ll be coming home for Thanksgiving...in a bodybag!’, Planet Terror comes off a bit lame.
Tarantino's Death Proof is quite different, a modern take on the misogynist car-maniac genre. Beginning with the familiar stalker-killer formula, Stuntman Mike (a superb turn by Kurt Russell) attacks attractive girls in his car-turned-weapon. He can fling it at anything, since it’s ‘death proof’.
Tarantino flips the movie on its head halfway through, reversing the power balance and giving the hip, pop culture-savvy girls a chance to get their own back. It’s a neat conceit, a little deconstructivist, suggesting the killer has psycho-sexual motivations. It should get Tarantino some credit from female viewers tired of the dumb blonde victim.
Death Proof is brash and noisy, but there’s something naggingly insubstantial about the film. It is a homage to, and comment on, a sub-genre that few remember, and even less care about, anymore. It's Tarantino hanging out in his boys’ club, having fun with the studio’s toys for ninety minutes.
Rodriguez’s film has the same problem. Without the grubbiness, or real edginess of the source material, neither film is as dangerous as the directors think they are.
It’s the ‘grindhouse’ event packaging that just about saves the night. Out of context, neither film achieves much. Planet Terror simply doesn’t work hard enough, whilst Death Proof’s ‘extended’ two hour version is over-long and over-dull.
The self-indulgence of the whole endeavour from the two directors is more than apparent, but the QFT Late audience really aren't too fussed. We laugh at the cheesy deaths, we roar at the trailers, we clap and shout and grimace in unison. We do all those things audiences are supposed to do when they’re having fun.
Grindhouse, then, is a curious mixture of success and failure. But Tarantino and Rodriguez, for all their missteps, give tonight's Queen's Film Theatre audience the cinema literate experience they were looking for. The very first QFT Late is, frankly, a bit of a ball.