The Japanophile U.S. director talks about his love of trashy ’70s cinema and why his latest film looks like it was put through a blender
Quentin Tarantino is back, and if you thought he had exorcised the spirit of exploitation cinema from his soul with the “Kill Bill” films, well, think again. His latest project is “Grindhouse,” a double-feature homage to sleazy 1970s B-movies, which has him working with friend and fellow director Robert Rodriguez, each offering up a film.
“Grindhouse cinema” is a term that’s been bandied about more frequently since the release of “Kill Bill.” It refers to the run-down, seedy cinemas of the ’70s, often located in dodgier parts of town, that showed nothing but exploitation flicks, from soft-core sleaze (“Valley of the Ultravixens”) to sick-inducing splatter (“The Corpse Grinders”), blaxploitation (“Coffy”) and sexploitation (“Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS”). The “grindhouse” nickname derived from the fact that many of these cinemas were striptease clubs in an earlier incarnation.
Tarantino’s take on this period comes in the form of “Death Proof,” a bad- girls-vs.-evil-stuntman car-chase flick that plays like some sort of mutant hybrid of ’70s existential road-movie classic “Vanishing Point” and sleaze classic “Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!” Rodriguez, for his part, came up with “Planet Terror,” a trashy zombie-splatter flick featuring a go-go dancer with a machinegun leg.
Both men are no strangers to exploitation cinema — see “From Dusk Till Dawn,” for one — but what’s different here is the obsessive, maniacal extent to which they attempt to duplicate the grindhouse cinema experience. Aside from the texture of the film itself — which literally screams ’70s — the reels are deliberately scratched, stained, wobbly and otherwise messed up. There’s even a “missing reel” in Rodriguez’ film. And between the two films are some delightfully trashy (and fake) trailers by Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie and Rodriguez that perfectly duplicate the cheap and over-the-top pleasures of the period.
Tarantino, in an interview with The Japan Times this month, discussed how the project came to be. “I have a really big print collection at home, and I have a really nice theater,” says the director. “It’s one of the things I did when I ‘got rich.’ That year I didn’t make a movie, I made a movie theater. And so I have movie nights at my house where I show these really cool grindhouse movies and stuff. And Robert would come over, and he’d always have a really great time. And he said: ‘Y’know, these movies are so much fun! We should do our own version of this. Let’s give the world what it’s like at movie night at Quentin’s house.’ So that’s what we tried to do.”
Tarantino, as legend had it, spent a lot of time slumming in East L.A. cinemas soaking up grindhouse. (Though he may have been one of the few people watching the movies — grindhouses were notorious for attracting dopers, dealers, whores, tricks, cruisers and the mentally infirm.) He recalls how, in those days, “We saw a lot of bad movies. I’ve never been of the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ school. Very rarely was it so bad it was good. You hoped for the best, and you bought your ticket, and then in 5 minutes you’re like, ‘Oh, yuck, Jesus f**king Christ!’ . . . But then you go see Joe Dante’s ‘Piranha,’ written by John Sayles, and all of a sudden, ‘Hey! This is a good “Jaws” ripoff!’ Back then it seemed really good because you weren’t expecting it. Stephen King had a line about this, right on the money. He said, ‘You gotta drink a lot of milk before you can appreciate cream.’ And in the genre we’re talking about, you gotta drink a lot of bad milk before you can appreciate milk.”
“Death Proof” is actually a strange contribution to the grindhouse tradition. The film certainly captures the vibe, with tinny, warbly sound, scratchy film and title credits that look like they came out of Tarantino-favorite “Switchblade Sisters.” It starts off appropriately prurient, too, with yet another example of Tarantino’s foot-fetishism, as the camera prowls up the long, bare legs and midriff of Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) in an incredibly hot shot. “Actually, one of the things I’ve always been rather proud of about me as a director and my handling of women, is that I’ve always been a gentleman,” says Tarantino, “My girls are cool, and they look sexy, but I’ve always been a gentleman (pause.) I sent the gentleman home on this film (laughs.) You don’t want to see a grindhouse movie made by a gentleman! You want to see it through the eyes of someone who’s turned on by his women and who is presenting them in the sexiest way he considers possible.”
As the film progresses, though, you feel like you’ve been dropped into a Richard Linklater (“Before Sunrise,” “Slacker”) movie, where the main attraction is lots and lots of cool talk. Radio DJ Jungle Julia and her homegirls — Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) — hang out trying to score weed and pounding the tequila at Austin’s Texas Chili Parlour while engaging in all sorts of foul-mouthed girl talk. (“She doesn’t actually have a black girl’s ass; she has a BIG ass!”) One critic has suggested this is boy-talk put into the mouths of girls, and when this point is raised, Tarantino nearly leaps out of his chair: “I think he’s full of s**t! He’s got his head up his ass — that’s totally not the case. That sounds more like a guy who doesn’t know how young girls talk now! And is out-of-touch. I get the same s**t all the time from white critics complaining about my black dialogue, when they haven’t had a black friend in f**king 10 years!”
After a good half hour of talk in “Death Proof,” many grindhouse fans will be wondering when the mayhem is going to kick in (although B movies have a long history of padding out low-budgets with extended setups before the action). Finally, it does, with stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a scary stalker in a black Dodge Charger, setting a trap for the girls. After 5 minutes of the old ultraviolence, the whole thing starts over again, with four different “bad girls” — including Uma Thurman’s stunt double, Zoe Bell — who also run into madman Mike, this time culminating in an impressive CG-free car chase, with Bell holding onto the hood of a Dodge Challenger for dear life.
It’s a strange blend of stasis and stunts, languor and lickety-spit auto-racing. Tarantino notes, however, that all his films play with expectations. “I definitely have a fondness for genre (films),” says the director. “But I’m doing my own wacky version of them. I play by the rules when I want to, but I break them when I need to.”
Perhaps the most mystifying quality of “Grindhouse,” especially for viewers under 30, is the ragged quality of the print. Tarantino explains: “The distributors (back then) had very little money; maybe they’d make three prints, maybe five. And they would go into each individual market, one by one, over the course of a year, and these same three prints were playing at the worst theaters, in the worst projectors in America. So by the time the film stumbled into your town, you had no idea what you were gonna see. The print could be spaghetti by that time. It’s beatup, there are jump cuts in it, reels could be missing or faded or out of order, maybe a projectionist sees a nude scene he likes and snips it out for his own collection.”
These effects are duly imitated in “Death Proof.” As to how Tarantino achieved them, he says very little, except that they are not CG and the film was physically scratched up and beaten against bushes. “We even did a thing that was kind of cool,” explains Tarantino. “We’d go to a metal rail that was outside and just wrap (the film) around it and — ftchooosh!”
Japan is fortunate in that viewers here will get to see the full double-feature — with the awesome trailers — for a week, before the films go on to play separately. In other markets, not-so-confident distributors opened “Death Proof” and “Planet Terror” separately. Tarantino is happy with both versions but notes that for “Grindhouse,” “me and Robert had to cut our films to the bone, past the bone, to make it work for the whole double-feature experience. It’s interesting to be in that situation and see if your movie can still survive, and it did.” But the full-length version of “Death Proof” is 30 minutes longer, while “Planet Terror” gains another 15.
Quentin’s clearly a Japanophile; he has been coming here for 16 years, since the release of “Reservoir Dogs,” and if “Kill Bill” wasn’t evidence enough of his J-cinema obsession, he’s got a cameo in shock-cinema director Takashi Miike’s “Sukiyaki Western (Django).”
But aside from cinema, the director clearly has an attraction to all things Japanese. “I love the city of Tokyo, I like the Japanese nightlife scene, I have a lot of friends here, and I feel very comfortable with the Japanese. I feel like I was Japanese in another life, if not a few other lives.”
On cinema, he adds: “It’s not just samurai films that I like — Ishiro Honda (‘Gojira’) is my favorite science-fiction director.” Tarantino name-drops yakuza films and J-horror before turning to what really turns him on. “I even like — in fact, I’m quite enamored with — the whole Nikkatsu (studio) roman poruno thing (’70s, big-budget adult movies). I almost can’t believe that that existed in cinema! The way they did it in the ’70s, where they’re real movies with real actors. The woman who played the proprietor in “Kill Bill” (Yuki Kazamatsuri), she was a roman poruno actress. I saw a couple of her films and I thought they were fantastic! Even the fact that the genitals were blurred out actually made it work even more!”
So, is a homage to roman poruno in the cards? Tarantino’s not saying, but if he does try it, it’s a safe bet the gentleman will stay at home for that one too.
“Grindhouse” runs from Aug. 24 to Aug. 31 in Tokyo and Osaka. “Death Proof” opens nationwide on Sept. 1, and “Planet Terror” opens on Sept. 22. The full review of both films will run on the Film page Aug. 31.