"Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them."
So said Pauline Kael, when there still was a perceived divide between art and trash. That seems a very long time ago. Trash has triumphed, pushed art's face in the dirt and sat on its head. And art apparently liked it.
If you don't believe me, then simply stand in line to see Grindhouse. All that time and money, (even, in the case of Quentin Tarantino, some talent,) spent in the pursuit of big smelly heaps of trash. My esteemed colleague Steve Burgess reviewed the film last week. But since Grindhouse is a double feature, replete with a range of references, quotations, and the occasional outright rip-off, we figured it might be worth talking about the films that inspired (directly or obliquely) the entire trash ethos that has arguably taken over the world.
The one thing that became evident to me, while watching Tarantino's homage to sewer cinema, is that even while the flesh is melting and being blown apart with bullets, if the spirit is missing, there simply isn't much point. The celebration of trash for trash's sake is the cinematic equivalent of parking yourself underneath the soft-serve ice-cream machine and letting the sinuous white ropes unwind into your mouth. It might seem fun at first, but after a while, it hurts your head. Worse, it leaves you feeling unfulfilled, hungry for something with a little more protein.
Kael was right in one important aspect, trash sometimes gives you an appetite for art, or, at least for better trash. But what separates great trash from the merely amusing or disposable variety? Is it in the eye of the beholder, taste being an entirely subjective notion? If so, then what gives great trash its funky soul flavor? A type of innocence? Or honesty, maybe? At least some kind of delinquent capering glee.
Films can take on a life of their own, become something more than what their makers intended, and live on. The process by which this happens, however, is mysterious and ineffable. Whether you're using film to self-medicate, or lift your spirits, (I once knew someone who, whenever he had a bad day, ran home and watched Nine to Five to make himself feel better) everyone has a list of films they know probably aren't very good, but nonetheless, they still love them. It's always a question of context: the time and place you saw them, whether you went with your teenage mother (as did little Quentin) to see the latest '70s opus in an actual grindhouse theatre, or, as I did, visited the drive-in with my brown paper grocery bag of homemade popcorn, darkly blossomed with grease spots, love is the thing that prevails.
With that spirit in mind, if you'd like to go back and revisit some original material, here are a few films to remind you of that loving feeling.
'Vanishing Point' (1971)
The extent to which Tarantino "borrows" material is evident when you watch Vanishing Point. But the degree to which he is unable to recreate, or capture the original spirit of the stuff he rips off is also equally apparent.
In Vanishing Point, a guy named Kowalski drives a white Ford Charger through the American landscape of highways and byways, powered by speed, and some inexplicable urge to get from point A to B -- without ever slowing, or stopping. If you thought the car parts in Tarantino's Death Proof provided the only worthwhile section of Grindhouse, Vanishing Point is the real deal.
From the death knell sounded by the buckets of two giant excavators in the opening scene, to the tiny little smile that plays around Kowalski's mouth in the movie's dying moments -- there is bitter hard joy in fatalism. The character of DJ Super Soul says it better: "And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demigod, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin' closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape... the last beautiful free soul on this planet."
Top that, Tarantino.
'Dawn of the Dead' (1978)
Watching the recent zomedy, Fido, made me long to see a real zombie movie, one with actual bite, as it were. With that motivating hunger, I recently watched Dawn of the Dead, and I'm happy to tell you, George Romero's film has still got it. Despite being made cheaply, (Tom Savini's blood and guts were often made of real guts) the film retains its juicy jolt.
It is everyone's favorite zombie fantasy -- four people locked inside a mall while outside the hordes of the undead hammer at the door. The film's sense of play alternates with genuine sadness and bitter loss, which gives the story its lasting power. It's also simply a great deal of fun, which is a quality that many current horror movies fail to take into account.
There must be lightness in amongst the dark, to provide contrast, some form of cinematic chiaroscuro. Romero's latest zombie film, Diary of the Dead brings the entire series back home, starting all over again on the same evening as the original Night of the Living Dead. It will be interesting to see what Romero has to say with his new film, but early interviews indicate that the media is going to get it in the kisser. Can't say they don't deserve it.
'The Night of the Hunter' (1955)
A film might start out its life as trash, and somewhere over the course of time, become art, in the same fashion that a lump of coal subjected to time and pressure becomes a diamond.
Time tells. Night of the Hunter failed miserably when it was first released, and director Charles Laughton never made another film. It has since gone onto be lauded as one of the greatest American films ever made. There is something about the storybook feel of a soundstage picture, the thick silky shadows, the sense of enclosure that recalls the feeling of childhood. The film retains its power to terrify, despite the absence of blood and gore, because the threat of violence is far worse than any real act could ever be. It even got to Margaret Atwood, as she wrote in the Guardian, "First, it's among those films that made an indelible impression on me when it came out... So gripping was it that it warped my young brain, and several of its images have haunted me ever since."
For me, it isn't the drowned figure of a dead mother under the water, or the demonic preacher (played to perfection by Robert Mitchum) calling "Chiiildren," it's the hushed quiet scene where the two children are sleeping in the barn, while outside the predatory preacher rides by in the moonlight.
'Faster, Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill!' (1965)
"Women! They let 'em vote, smoke and drive -- even put 'em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!" So many exclamation marks, so little time. This film earned its cult status a long time ago, with the character of Varla (Tura Satana) becoming the ultimate tough mama, against which all other ball-breakin' babes seem merely pale shadows. Uma Thurman? Please, I could split her in half over one knee, if I felt the need, but if I ever met Tura Satana in a dark alley, I'd run like hell.
'Gumball Rally' (1976)
I don't know why I like this film. If I thought about it too much, I probably wouldn't. A cast of cars and various types take part in a ridiculous cross country race, that ends with the single line "This is America, babe." A sentiment that I've stolen for everyday use.
The search for great trash is never easy or simple. Something like my mother's favorite The Lion in Winter (1968) is not King Lear. Lear is art, and The Lion in Winter is simply good trash. The distinction might be a fine line, but it's a critical one. Everyone has a list of great trashy films, usually more than one, and they can serve as many functions as the viewer wants to put them to -- succor, excitement, although usually one thing that doesn't spring immediately to mind is commerce.
Love and ego
On that note, one final poke at Grindhouse and then we shall speak of it no more. Now that the film has itself been literally vivisected, ground up and spat out by the Weinsteins (the film's executive producers), everyone is reading the blood on the wall. Critic Ray Pride dissected its failure best, stating public disinterest came from the perception that it was, "Two overlong shitty movies aping shitty movies...." Which isn't far wrong. The double feature might well be pulled and re-released as two separate films, but it's doubtful its makers would be chastised for long.
Rodriguez and Tarantino made their movie ostensibly out of love, but ego also played a large role. In seeking to make trash bigger and better, with more beautiful stars, and way fatter budgets, in essence, they killed to dissect. Cheap cinema is only good if it's actually cheap, not an expensive reproduction. And by real, I mean, even if a movie is made to earn a quick buck, some element of genuine feeling has to be there, for the thing to take flight, for some inner life to reveal itself.
Occasionally, trash and art intersect in a strange form of alchemy. But it doesn't happen very often, and it most certainly did not happen in the case of Grindhouse, which strains hard at the leash, rather like a junkyard dog. The film's problems are indicative of the issues that plague a great deal of current trash. Namely that you can't become Lee Marvin by simply acting like him; you must be born to it, have lived a life of hard knocks and fixing toilets before you can bring that type of authority or authenticity to the screen. Otherwise it's simply fake, a hipster sham that anyone can see through.
The one thing that unites both current art and trash is, perhaps, the dearth of new ideas. Current art with its fin de siècle quotation and pastiche is pretty tiresome. Even worse, however, is mainstream soft-sell pap. I'd take Grindhouse over current romantic comedy any day.
A recent story in Harper's Magazine from Francine Prose reviews a new book on the work of Weimar artists such as George Grosz and Christian Schad entitled Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s. The current cultural era (at least in the U.S.) seems to bear a strange resemblance to the Weimar aesthetic: decadent, glittery trash, feverishly produced and consumed, utterly disposable. Writes Prose, "Spend some time with Glitter and Doom, then spend a day in any American city or town, and you see those Weimar faces everywhere." The strange dichotomy of consumer driven junk and greed meeting a time of genuine suffering is, as Prose says, "the wounded passing right alongside the gluttonous patrons of the pork store."
Pauline Kael, a short time before her death, apparently said, "When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture."
So, be careful what you love.