Nick & Nora's

Saturday, April 14, 2007

GRINDHOUSE Ground underfoot at BO. The Not-So-Simple 'Why'.

Harvey Weinstein's head from space, hours after Grindhouse hits theaters.

The online world's community of film critics, net geeks, and cinephiles is burning with righteous anger over the failure of one of the year's most hyped and unusual films. Grindhouse is an ultraviolent, ultra-profane, pornographically nasty celebration of a bygone era of cinematic trash that came into its element in the mid 70's and early 80's.

And frankly, it looked pretty cool. Not that I'm an advocate of such cinematic vices for their own sake, but I've always been of the opinion that the writing in a single episode of 'Friends' does more to unravel the essential moral fabric of society than all the 'Sin City's' and 'Kill Bill's in the world ever could. Even deliberate violence and sleaze of this sort has at it's dark heart an unshakable moral assertion that confesses a profound wrongness of the world that needs correcting; even if it uses antiheroes and exploitive violence to go there.

While that's hardly enough reason to raise exploitation pictures and general trash on a pedestal, it's far less destructive than your average sitcom, in which every character without fail lives in a world miraculously insulated from moral dilemmas or consequences. Promiscuity, unfaithfulness, selfishness are glazed over with laugh tracks, creating a cozy, indistinct world where nothing matters, and all our worst impulses and behaviours are reduced to a "Waddyagonnado?!" shrug. Meanwhile, canned laughter whisks away any niggling moral dilemmas with the surgical efficiency of sunglasses-clad presidential bodyguards removing a heckler from a rally.

With this in mind, I was anticipating Grindhouse. As the late Pauline Kael said, "Film are so rarely great art, that if can't appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." I love good cinematic trash. My dvd collection sports such gems as Plan 9 From Outer Space, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Super-InfraMan; a chinese grindhouse/chop-socky bit of lunacy, the legendarily ghastly 'Robot Monster', and so on.

I even have an appreciation for Tarantino and Rodriguez. I enjoyed Sin City very much, and likewise Kill Bill 2. (Vol1 is a different story) And while for other reasons I ended up choosing not to see it, the online community in question is aghast at it's failure.

Some critics have devolved their discussion of it's BO into a venomous 'red-state blue-state' tirade; spewing the expected liberal contempt that suburban rubes just didn't know what was good for them, ala a commentary by critic Jeffry Wells:

"We're really and truly living in the United States of Hong Kong -- a sprinkling of sophisticated urban havens surrounded on all sides by a massive Gorilla Nation. Two different planets, two different worlds...the high and the low...hip urbanity vs. the mentality of the mall."

Some postulated that the length scared people away. Others, the violence. Yet there are definite boxoffice exceptions to all these assertions. Violent films, even ones freakishly so, are profitable all the time. So are long ones, and on and on. They're arguing over demographics. Length. Style. Marketing. Season. (Is easter a good time to release such a thing) Absolutely everything except the thing that matters.


While I'm not going to go on a typical liberal tirade about the awfulness of Joe Sixpack's taste in movies, (and everything else) let's get a few things clear. Not everyone is a cinephile. Not everyone is a film geek, and not everyone has a historical grounding in film sufficient to whet the appetite for good schlock.

They made a critical mistake in marketing it (and possibly making it) as a kitschy 'schlock' masterpiece.
I shall reiterate, this is not to say that people don't like trash, or even shocking, violent trash. Saw, Hills Have Eyes remakes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes, etc, all found an audience.

the people seeing these films simply believe they are seeing 'good cinema', and would bristle at the suggestion that they are enjoying sensational, manipulative garbage for its own sake. Non-cinephiles who enjoy really bad films are largely immune to the fact that what they're seeing is a bad film. How many teenage girls (and indeed, grown people) have you met who insist Armageddon is their favorite film because it's so emotional? Armageddon is indeed a dreadful film; but wait a minute; that teenage girl is still correct. It contains heroes. It contains sacrifice. It is 'emotional'.

In part, the success of Grindhouse would have required mainstream moviegoers to possess greater self-awareness about what they watch and why. Hollywood pictures actively work to smother that self awareness. This is done by infamous last-minute justifications of trash; like the tacking on of morals or sentiment, the halfhearted attempts at relevance or a message, usually in the closing minutes of the third act when in the midst of all the blood and carnage and fun stuff, the characters stop to think about the significance of it all. These are invariably the worst and most contrived-feeling scenes in any hollywood feature or tv show.

But for all our disdain, they're always included because they provide the undeniable critical element:
At the very least, the facade of a story and moral significance to justify the carnage. 300 has it. The Saw films have it. Virtually any successful film has had it. It's a storytelling 101 non-negotiable rule to success. That is the one thing I believe Grindhouse lacked utterly, and why it tanked. And why it still has a shot at BO redemption if the two films are released seperately, and the marketing shifts gears to make them look like more legitimate stories rather than a kitsch time-capsule existing for its own sake.

The absolute basics of storytelling (and yes, screenwriting) tell us unequivocally that human beings are profoundly moral creatures. We seek it, we respond to it, we fight against it, but we can't escape it. For all the alleged cultural success of our post-Christian, morally relativistic, politically-correct social neutering, our appetites for irony, nihilism, relativism and artistic self-mockery remain positively anemic. Our appetite for good stories with brightly burning moral centers that believe in themselves is limitless; even when those good stories are told badly.

If you're not gonna be about something, you at least have to fake it. Hollywood is good at faking it. (or not, depending on your point of view) Grindhouse didn't even try to fake it. For cynical cinephiles who believe Hollywood is at it's stupidest when it tries to act smart, this is a breath of fresh air. Everyone else will stay far, far away.

300 to use an example, is an extremely problematic, and certainly not-great film. It contains many of the factors being discussed in Grindhouse's failure. No stars, too stylized, too violent, wrong time of year. But it also has a clear moral center, (Fight! For Freedom!) and simple, larger-than-life heroes burning brightly. Historically accurate? Who cares? Bad guys get their comeuppance in monsoons of beautifully realized digital gore, a hero's a hero, a man's a man, and that's that. And a little 60 million dollar film will be one of 2007's top earners.
Now that the Weinsteins are in Grindhouse hock up to their eyeballs, it might be a good time to rediscover that.


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