Sunday, April 08, 2007

"Grindhouse"

You would have to be pretty foolish not to expect that "Grindhouse", the latest offering from Quentin Tarantino, is going to be completely over the top, because pretty much everything he does tends towards excess.

The movie is actually two not-quite-feature length movies in one, plus a bunch of smaller segments that are mainly fake movie trailers. The first not-quite-feature is written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, and is called "Planet Terror". It is a spoof on zombie movies. I enjoyed seeing Freddy Rodriguez ("Rico" from Six Feet Under) in a starring role and Naveen Andrews ("Said" from Lost) on the big screen. It is, however, unrelentingly over the top, as are the fake trailers. Surprisingly, though it also has its moments, it is Tarantino's piece, "Death Proof", that is the least ridiculously excessive. Even so, the whole thing is kind of like what you might get if you gave a couple of teenage boys millions of dollars and told them to go nuts with all the violence and grossness they could think of.

I don't intend to write some long, detailed review as I occasionally do of the movies I see; I just want to ask a question or two. See, the absolute best part of this movie was what Tarantino has always excelled at, and that is creating characters through dialogue. In "Death Proof" there are two long, wonderful segments where you get to know two different sets of characters just by observing them talking to one another. And then there are car chases and violence and death. But it is those two segments that were the most interesting to me.

So my question is, why is someone who can create people and dialogue as skillfully as Tarantino does -- something one would assume would require a real understanding of people as people -- so obsessed with treating those people like objects through excessive violence and often blatant misogyny? Is he devoting his career to showing the guys who beat him up in high school that he really does deserve to be a full member of the cult of hegemonic masculinity? Does he just like to see things go boom? Is it a "bums in seats" thing, and splatter and explosions sell tickets? Why? Why????

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UPDATE:

[I wrote the following in a comment in response to another commenter's observations and thought it would be a useful clarification to include in the post itself.]

Hmmmm...yes, actually I agree with a lot of that. I think I missed the mark in characterizing Tarantino's dialogue as being something evocative of real people...it has always been highly stylized, in every film he has ever done. I think perhaps that aspect of it was less visible to me in "Grindhouse" because it happened after already having watched two hours of deliberately, ridiculously not-real characters, so its stylized nature didn't stand out as much for me.

That said, I still enjoy the dialogue and not so much the action. And I still maintain, from my own experiences of other sorts of writing, that you could not produce that without having spent a lot of very careful attention to people, both people as active agents that talk and people as entities that actively take up and respond to films and other texts. Even if the dialogue is really about Tarantino himself, with no interest in exploring humanity more generally, which I'm perfectly willing to admit is the case. And I have trouble understanding how that sort of attention to people can happen in the absence of an interest in them as people, an empathy for them, a desire to know and show them primarily as subjects, not objects. That puzzlement, I think, was the basis of my questions, and still is.

But perhaps you are right as well that his approach to dialogue is not separate from his utilization of human bodies as objects to harm for the sake of entertainment, but rather completely contiguous with it...he is no more interested in people as people when he has them talk than when he has them decapitated by automobile, for example. They are bodies that are useful both to create context for action, and also purely as a mechanism to show himself off.

5 comments:

Lept said...

Good questions.

Benjamin said...

Hello,

I'm co-host of a Denver media watchblog called the Try-Works, which, I'm proud to say has drawn a little blood here and there amongst our locals. One of our primary foci has been the Denver media's neo-Stalinist smear of CU Professor Ward Churchill. I'm leaving this comment because you've shown some interest in either the Try-Works or Ward Churchill. If I've misjudged and you're interested in neither — my apologies.

As you know, though Ward Churchill drew the right-wing's ire for questioning American exceptionalism, it was understood that attacking him for exercising his right to free speech might raise some uncomfortable questions. As such, the local media's coverage immediately took on a viciously personal bent, the main charge being that Professor Churchill wasn't a "real Indian."

Only two pieces of evidence have ever been offered that Churchill is an "ethnic fraud" — whatever that means.

1. A genealogical study in a June 8 Rocky Mountain News article, performed by an incredibly unqualified team made up of two anti-Churchill bloggers and a New Jersey cop. ( http://tinyurl.com/byp32)

2. The word of several people affiliated with a splinter offshoot of the American Indian Movement — primarily Suzan Shown Harjo, Vernon Bellecourt and Carole Standing Elk — who have a longstanding feud with Professor Churchill. Professor Churchill (along with Russell Means, John Trudell, Robert Robideau, Glenn Morris, George Tinker and others) have earned their lifelong enmity by contending that members of this group brutally raped and murdered a young American Indian activist. ( http://tinyurl.com/3av3sp)

Professor Churchill, on the other hand, has videotape of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee council discussing his membership application and affirming his every word. Videotape tape the UKB mailed Professor Churchill along with his enrollment card. Videotape which the Denver media knows of, and has chosen to ignore as inconvenient.

But we have made a copy. And we have posted relevant clips to the Internet, accompanied by a breakdown penned by Try-Works member Charley Arthur.

Just click here: http://tinyurl.com/36uat6

For those of you who support Professor Churchill (or who just have a passing interest in journalistic integrity), enjoy.

For the inveterate liars among you — especially among the Denver local media — we're going to be having a lot of fun at your expense. Do drop by.

Sincerely,
Benjamin Whitmer
www.tryworks.org

Scott said...

Hi lept...thanks.

Hi benjamin...normally I'm not too favourably disposed to comments that are completely unrelated to the post in question, but you are right that I have posted about Churchill before and maintain an active interest in his situation. Thanks for posting this information.

I might also suggest that beyond the factual inaccuracy of those who are so concerned that Churchill isn't a "real Indian", there is also the fact that counting blood quanta and having the U.S. equivalent of the Canadian status card as indicators of authenticity are racist and colonial ways of slotting other people into identities.

Anonymous said...

Tarantino creates paint-by-numbers dialogue that simply duplicates his smarmy machismo. I found 'Death Proof's two 'conversations' comical; it was almost as if each character simply mouthed caricatured dialogue through Tarantino’s prism. The only difference is the characters are all female (one of them doing a great Samuel L. Jackson).

Rodriquez did a far better job paying tribute to the helter-skelter mayhem of 60s-70s exploitation films in 'Planet Terror' than Tarantino. As to your question of why Tarantino treats his ‘authentic’ characters as dispensable, well, we are talking about one of the most self-conscious film stylists of our time. Characters in ‘Death Proof’ simply serve as props to introduce his high-octane, kinetic direction. That last 20 minutes smoked!

Scott said...

Hmmmm...yes, actually I agree with a lot of that. I think I missed the mark in characterizing Tarantino's dialogue as being something evocative of real people...it has always been highly stylized, in every film he has ever done. I think perhaps that aspect of it was less visible to me in "Grindhouse" because it happened after already having watched two hours of deliberately, ridiculously not-real characters, so its stylized nature didn't stand out as much for me.

That said, I still enjoy the dialogue and not so much the action. And I still maintain, from my own experiences of other sorts of writing, that you could not produce that without having spent a lot of very careful attention to people, both people as active agents that talk and people as entities that actively take up and respond to films and other texts. Even if the dialogue is really about Tarantino himself, with no interest in exploring humanity more generally, which I'm perfectly willing to admit is the case. And I have trouble understanding how that sort of attention to people can happen in the absence of an interest in them as people, an empathy for them, a desire to know and show them primarily as subjects, not objects. That puzzlement, I think, was the basis of my questions, and still is.

But perhaps you are right as well that his approach to dialogue is not separate from his utilization of human bodies as objects to harm for the sake of entertainment, but rather completely contiguous with it...he is no more interested in people as people when he has them talk than when he has them decapitated by automobile, for example. They are bodies that are useful both to create context for action, and also purely as a mechanism to show himself off.