Over the course of the last several years, the grindhouse theater has gained a somewhat mythical stature in the minds of the younger cinema-obsessed, primarily thanks to Quentin Tarantino. The filmmaker has essentially elected himself as the unofficial curator of all that American exploitation cinema has lost, serving as “presenter” of films like Switchblade Sisters, while also directing movies himself that tend to send moviegoers on searches throughout the ranks of forgotten, often lurid, cinema so as to “get” the wide-ranging encyclopedia of references (people sometimes forget that Tarantino is a formidable authority on more conventionally accepted classic cinema as well). Then there’s Grindhouse itself, the surprisingly huge, ambiguous, and very enjoyable double feature directed by Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino, a film that bombed at the box office but, at the very least, reintroduced the titular term into the consciousness of the next generation of cult-minded filmgoers. “Grindhouse” has since been co-opted as a marketing term for rereleasing double features of the real McCoys, as well as encouraging further imitations such as Hell Ride, Machete, and the forthcoming Hobo with a Shotgun.
Exploitation cinema is a rebellion, a reaction to conventional, usually more prudish, films that are produced to lull the masses into accepting the status quo. The intention is the same, of course: to make money. But the pursuits of directors on the fringes, like Jack Hill or Herschell Gordon Lewis or Roger Corman, strike us as more admirable because their pursuit of a quick buck has nothing to do with chasing after awards or a pretense of social consciousness. The irony is that the thrifty methods of making low-budget horror films—or biker films or nudie films or blaxsploitation films—encouraged these directors to work quickly and by the skin of their teeth, which sometimes actually allowed for spontaneous, free-associative topicality, both intentionally, so as to court controversy, and unintentionally, because the budgets were too low to afford studio fakery. These films were documents of an era whether they wanted to be or not.
The climate of actually viewing these movies—which Grindhouse affectionately parodied and attempted to reproduce in roughly equal measure—must have intensified the experience, which is something that has almost been entirely denied my generation, which is accustomed to watching obscure films on laptops and chatting them up later to strangers online. The grindhouse theater was supposedly a seamy netherworld where the homeless slept and where the smells of beer and weed and probably cum were readily detectable as you watched films portraying varying levels of debauchery and depravity.
American Grindhouse captures the intoxication of being an exploitation-movie junkie sitting in a theater for several consecutive hours as an onslaught of disreputable films plays before you. The documentary is conventionally made, so much so, in fact, that you wonder at times if it’s been produced as a companion piece to one of those “100 Scariest Movies” specials that play on various cable channels in the fall. Director Elijah Drenner and co-writer/producer Calum Waddell have structured the film as a tour of the history of American exploitation cinema that opens with the origin of filmmaking at the hands of Thomas Edison in the late 1800s and closes with the release of current faux-exploitation movies such as Grindhouse. In between, virtually every kind of low-budget fringe film gets a shout-out: the pre-Code films of the 1920s-1930s, the birthing docs of the 1940s, the drive-in biker movies and teenage monster movies of the 1950s, the nudist colony films, the crueler bondage films, Nazi fetish films, blaxsploitation, etc. In between refreshingly nasty, telling clips are testaments from a veritable who’s who of veterans and admirers, including Hill, Lewis, Joe Dante, John Landis, Allison Anders, Fred Williamson, Don Edmonds, and Larry Cohen, with Robert Forster presiding over the entire affair with his distinctively dry, sadly affectionate narration.
The doc is very engaging and has clearly been made with quite a bit of love, and, for that alone, you want to cut it some slack. But the film, as the above might imply, is over-stuffed, particularly at a needlessly slim 80 minutes. It’s a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with the genre mutations covered, but you begin to notice compelling thematic threads that are mostly ignored for the sake of either maintaining a cheery tone, a sleek narrative, or both. Landis casually mentions that contemporary American society is every bit as prudish now as it was during the 25- year period—from the birth of the Hayes Code to its gradual disintegration in the late 1950s—that gave rise to many of these films. Landis has a great point, but the film doesn’t follow his lead.
American Grindhouse also seems to miss the irony of what the recent proliferation of faux-exploitation films actually partially represents. Something once subversive has once again been adopted by mass media in the efforts to maintain an illusion of danger in order to appeal to primarily the youth market, delivering product that is mostly content to merely ape formal idiosyncrasies such as missing reels or mismatching film stocks, while largely neglecting to engage audiences on an angry, political level during a time that’s still conflicted and damaged. Tarantino’s films are interesting and personal, but many of the new grindhouse films, at their worst, are the fashionably torn jeans of cinema.
The film is mostly in the nostalgia business, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, you can’t help wondering about the next cinematic rebellion, particularly in an age where a movie made for pennies can be distributed for even less. The irritation doesn’t lie in the shortage of good or interesting films (there’s always something for those who look), but in the nature of the new distribution culture. The worst irony is that the rise of a new cinema will probably be contingent on the destruction of what has always been an essentially therapeutic component of the medium: the communal experience. It’s no coincidence that many of the most interesting films I’ve seen over the last few years have been ordered through VOD, and it’s this yearning for community that haunts the entire mini-grindhouse revival. American Grindhouse would’ve been a fuller experience if it had more explicitly explored the sorts of uncertainty and yearning that undoubtedly inspired its very existence.