So it's four years into our Iraq Adventure, nearly six years since somebody blew up a couple skyscrapers downtown, and artists are reflecting the violence everywhere by remaining mute or being otherwise engaged, in true no-poetry-after-Auschwitz style. But for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the termites of the War On Terror can be heard chewing up some of our more hardy artistic edifices all over the U.S. of A. Hollywood's gone all neo-HUAC. Cineplex and arthouse alike are haunted by a spook under every Stone (as in conspiracy-minded Oliver, of course). Blackmail and wiretapping and convenient "accidents" are featured as the blue plate special everywhere from the Paramount commissary to the Pakistani craft services truck on the Jolie-Pitt Daniel Pearl prestige picture. We are on our second helpless helping of Iraq War, a decades-long double feature on which the lights refuse to go up, where the floor is sticky from substances far grosser even than ABC jujubes intermingled with emissions from within the dank folds of a raincoat.
And then suddenly in the dark, Grindhouse, the new Tarantino/Rodriguez flick, unspools, packing a humongous pistol in order to blast a hole through the Potemkin Village so recently constructed over reality, wearing nought but sparkly pasties and a bit of golden fringe in order to better lay it all bare. These two big time Hollywood directors come on with a contrarian, eponymistic adherence to the style of those cheap, violent, rapidly produced genre films of the nineteen seventies. The tits, the guns, and the gore are all here, but so is an underground American alchemy where only sheer artifice can uncover everything. To wit, both Tarantino and Rodriguez's films counterfeit the sleazy experience of the "missing reel"--the sex-filled sections that were scissored out by the projectionist for private perusal at home. What the directors point out by putting an absence where the center of the action is supposed to be is that worldwide what we're really witnessing is the Missing Real. It's as if the Oval Office projectionists and Intelligence Agency psyopticians have made off with the reality principle itself.
Beginning at The End in true Tarantino fashion, Rodriquez's half of the 3 hour 20 minute film, entitled Planet Terror, comes first. Planet Terror features a slapstick Apocalypse caused by the U.S. government's deliberate gassing of its own troops with zombie juice as punishment for killing their secret co-conspirator Osama bin Laden. Only an antidote inhaled from a scuba-style apparatus prevents the infected from becoming undead cannibals who must feast on human flesh. (This "cure" is manufactured by a greedy Mexican businessman who collects the amputated testicles of all who cross him, giving painful new meaning to the revolutionary necessity of "seizing the means of production.") The world, or in this case, Austin, Texas, has lapsed into chaos, with only a few real humans left to fight off the swarming hordes once the zombie gas escapes the confines of the military base.
While here in America the state of Texas resonates with American political folly from the assassination of JFK to the election of the Worst President Ever, this state's capital city has also been a second home to Tarantino, Rodriguez and their Gen X coeval Richard Linklater for some time. The name Planet Terror also closely echoes the titles of the films produced by Austin's most recently minted auteur, Alex Jones. Jones, 35, got his start on Austin cable access television, graduated to bullhorning meetings of the power elite with cries of "9/11 was an inside job!" and has now created a kitchen sink empire based on scathing political documentaries like Terror Storm and his must-read website Prison Planet. Jones' online home boasts serious articles on the erosion of civil liberties and the violence being done to the U.S. Constitution, but it also sometimes links to tidbits like an article insinuating George W. insecurely stuffed the crotch of his flightsuit for the infamous "Mission Accomplished" photo op.
In this light, when Quentin Tarantino steps from behind the camera to perform in Rodriguez's Planet Terror as a rapist zombie soldier whose dick dissolves into leperous gunk, it seems like not just a Jackass-inflected bit of juvenalia, but also an oddly confident masculine move. After an unprecedented level of cinematic mayhem involving amputees, philandering lesbian nurses, and a desperately sought recipe for Texas barbeque, Planet Terror ends optimistically with a stripper character played by Rose McGowan escaping to create a nomadic, female-led paradise on Mexico's Pacific Coast. Her softly lit character finally rides fetchingly off on white horse, her new baby on board as a pretty papoose.
The title of the Tarantino-directed segment that follows this one underlines the sort of generational vanity that would lead a sixty year old draft dodger to stuff his pants in order to cut a more Ramboesque figure in order to sell his fake war: Death Proof. If Planet Terror's armies of undead are the symbolic symptom of a refusal to accept the absolute certainties of dissolution and decline, then Death Proof illustrates the sort of hubris that would cause such a cultural outbreak. Until the massive demographic downslide of the Baby Boomers, never before in the history of the world has aging been met with more weird mental and physical prostheses, psychological projection and angry denial. The more America's biggest and soon to be oldest generation is compelled by time toward oblivion, the more the dead young bodies seem to pile up overseas, onscreen, and along the PCH.
Here Death Proof arrives to present us with a grizzled old Hollywood stuntman named Mike. Mike is played with irresistible sleaze and a wounded lion's allure by Kurt Russell, who's never been sexier or more relevant. But when sexy Stuntman Mike arrives to tempt the younger ladies at an Austin bar, none of them has ever heard of any of the films or television shows he's spent his life working on. Turns out they're all cult classics, and that the cult has come to a generational dead end. This unbridgeable divide and the disinterest it engenders serve the young lasses well, as Stuntman Mike is also a serial killer who murders his souped-up car's female passengers. The driver's seat of this spooky, skull bedecked hot rod is naturally the only place that's certified Death Proof. Cue young actress Rose McGowan again, though this time in a nostalgic pair of bell bottoms and a long blonde hippie wig. She tells her teasing friends that they needn't worry about what she'll get up to with Mike when she accepts a ride home from the bar--after all, he's old enough to be her father. Mike then takes her for a deadly ride, curiously telling the pretty blonde that she's in the seat reserved for a movie director before speeding up to 100 mph, then furiously braking, sending her platinum head smashing into the dashboard. With Death Proof, Tarantino invents a new genre that's part Freudian fairy tale and part Old Babysitter's yarn: a generational warning of the danger that awaits little girls who eschew the driver's seat and accept an unseemly Oedipal bargain from an unhappy, angry old man.
After Mike's Texas death dealing, Tarantino's film flashes forward to California, where the stuntman unwisely decides to try and terrify an interracial trio of ladies who boldly broadcast their generational unity and separation from him with a vanity plate on their equally badass hot rod. Their tag reads "Brand X", as in Generation X, the flag under which Rodriguez and Tarantino fly. Madman Mike chases down and tries to kill the young women as one of them is joyriding on the hood of their hot rod. Mike is bested by the younger women and he reacts with a hilarious, craven cowardice in the face of the women's youth, superior guile, and brutal physical retribution. The old dog can't keep up with the trio's new tricks, and his automotive end comes when he is chased down by them and asked the ultimate age of Aquarius question: "What's your sign?"
The French Freudian Jacques Lacan invented the concept of The Real to signify that which cannot be represented by a linguistic sign, like death, or the act of sex. Frederic Jameson, the Marxist lit-crit magus, further equated Lacan's concept of The Real with the Marxist notion of History. History, and therefore The Real, he explained, "is what hurts." The question "What's your sign?" is the linguistic trap which ruptures the infantile Baby Boomer generational fantasy of being Death Proof. As Mike blithely turns to answer this hoary old seventies come on ironically posed by the trio of young women, he plows head-on into the giant billboard marquee advertising a Miramax horror double feature at a Drive-In. Death Proof Mike belatedly runs into the certainty of death, and we in the audience finally arrive at the missing reel.
As opposed to the pneumatic-crank machismo of the former "Young Turk" Baby Boomer filmmakers, Tarantino and Rodriguez remain powerful as they move into their forties not by denial and ignorant orangutan chest beating, but by a confident and natural generational generosity toward women, a similar ease with minorities, and by their ripening into patrons for even younger generations of aspiring filmmakers. Even this film's double feature structure shows an unprecedented interest in power sharing. In these directors' revolutionary cinema-as-Kammerspiel, film, rather than lying 24 times a second, comes into its own as a technology of Truth.
Rodriguez and Tarantino lay it all on the line in order to leave us with a creation that is insightful and angry, funny and fast paced, puerile and profound. Grindhouse is not a perfect ride by any means, but like the infinitely honest cinematic crap it's based on, the film is most utterly brilliant when its impulses are most base. Whether or not each member of this duo is firing on all cinematic cylinders during Grindhouse isn't the issue. This critic is still happy to bestow the best compliment on their film that she can think of at this historical juncture: Gentlemen, it's been Real.
Wilbur King writes in to correct an error in this review. The second half of Death Proof takes place in Tennessee, not California.