Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, May 27, 2010



I considered myself a sleaze merchant know-it-all prior to entering AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE, but still had to see it if only for my idol, Kim Morgan's presence (below) as a talking head. Turns out it's pretty cool and I learned new stuff. In addition to the "sinsational" Ms. Morgan there's: "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller, John "In-Joke" Landis, drive-in guru Jack Hill, and Joe PIRHANA-Dante, not to mention people I was sure I'd be annoyed by but turned out to love, like Herschell Gordon Lewis, of whom Landis says, "I don't particularly like his films, but I love his posters!" Hey, that's a compliment in exploitation land, and you can tell Landis means every word of it. Despite the crushing despair I experienced covering the SW double feature of Lewis' JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT/BLAST-OFF GIRLS (for the now defunct DVD Angle), I must admit Lewis seems like a helluva nice, smart, relaxed guy - and even a squeamish feminist like myself has to doff his hat to the man who made 2,000 MANIACS - in the words of Michael Weldon: "YEE-HAW!".

Producer/director/editor Elijah Drenner keeps it all humming along at a nice clip through the decades, starting around the dawn of cinema and ending with recent tributes like Tarantino and Rodriguez's GRINDHOUSE. There's elements I would have put in (the rise of the VCR and subsequent Disneyfication of Times Square) and others I would have left out (THE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT, though it does make a great metaphor for America's geopolitic) but you'll never squeeze the whole history into a single film, and Drenner keeps it all from being too flashy or too slow, too normal or too head-spinningly weird --and does not spare the adult content: bare breasts, sexual assault and horrific gore are all here, with many of the most disturbing clips from the most disturbing films: ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS and the works of HG Lewis (pictured below), such as BLOOD FEAST, for example. And the clips all look really, really good. It's very strange that this stuff was once so shocking you could only see it as a legal adult in a sleazy theater at the stroke of midnight, and now it's nostalgia, and yet - the times are if anything more conservative and morally regressive than ever. I've even argued the two are linked - we're conservative because we're jaded.

HGL and some of his 2,000 Maniacs
The best praise I could give for something like this is that it reminded me of when I was a kid in the 70s and actually scared of the TV commercials and newspaper ads for a lot of these movies. I could also see a portion of a drive-in screen, far in the distance, from my bedroom window, if I used my kid telescope - I watched pieces of THE MANITOU that way! At least I think it was. I still haven't seen LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (from fear of post-trauma more than anything else) but if I could be assured the actual DVD transfers of these films looked as good as they cleaned-up clips here, I'd be all over it. Plus, Drenner leavens unease by showing lots of outtakes: LAST HOUSE seems less foreboding now that I've seen David Hess shooting the breeze with his onscreen victims between shots.

It must have been a difficult choice to leave out the European imports that had a huge effect on grindhouse distribution patterns (I asked Drenner about that: "We had to make a clear line down the middle and decide what to cover and what to leave out.") On the other hand, who needs a complete picture? That's what Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Cinema Guide The Psychotronic Video Guide To Film is for! What we have here in AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is a nice little summary of 100% American output, a carny's insider view of Yankee hooplah and pitchman ballyhoo, with art and culture pushed way to the side until it's off the table -- and lands with a lowbrow splat.

There's stuff here I didn't know about, which shocked me. I had no idea the film THE CORPSE GRINDERS was a huge hit for Ted V. Mikels. The grinding of corpses carries no appeal for me, personally, but I always kind of subconsciously associated it with the term grindhouse (or the shredding of old film in a cheap projector, grinding the sprockets). When I learned the name's taken from "Bump and grind" as a mark of when the country's once plentiful burlesque houses were turned into theaters to show films of girls stripping (cheaper that way), you coulda knocked me over with a feather from a rhinestone pastie. Imagine if it was called 'bumphouse' instead? Why just grind, man? 

The whole stripper genre was a bit of a blind spot in my sleaze-education prior to this film but apparently there were an awful (in both senses) lot of them. Ed Wood fans still recovering from trying to stay awake through ORGY OF THE DEAD might be glad to know it's not anyone's fault that they failed. LSD fans who tried and failed to watch more than ten minutes of MANTIS IN LACE can also relax for the same reason. Apparently there was a time when looooong dull stationary camera striptease scenes (as with burlesque queen, Blaze Starr, atop with drum) were considered the height of decadence. Fascinating, yet tame and tedious in our age of readily ubiquitous nudity and XXX-rated websites.
I've got minor quibbles with AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE as a whole, of course: we'd be so much better off with more of the witty Kim Morgan, though when she's put on the spot for saying women like to see other women naked ("They do!" she exclaims in reaction to Drenner's apparent offscreen incredulity) it seems a bit of a weird inclusion; if you're going to leave it in the film, don't doubt the woman! She's trying to help Travis Bickle get Cybil Shepherd to go with him to see SOMETIMES SWEET SUSAN (see way below).  I always thought Travis was being rather passive aggressive, the pressure to be charming and get Cybil into bed leading him to this massive act of self-sabotage. But Kim says different. I believe her.

On that note, no review of a movie on a topic like this would be complete without the word misogyny, so there it is. Surprisingly, the most feminist-friendly guy on the show seems to be HG Lewis! There's ample time devoted to his feminist-fave, SHE-DEVILS ON WHEELS, but where's Russ Meyer's FASTER PUSSYCAT, Abel Ferrara's MS. 45, that Hemingway sister joint, LIPSTICK, and the whole rape-revenge cycle? For that matter, where's the Satanic possession and the EXORCIST / ROSEMARY'S BABY knockoffs? Where's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE? ERASERHEAD? Bette Davis' BABY JANE microgenre, and 70s telekinesis? BLACULA? And ballyhoo meister David Friedman's classic quote about how his movies were "all sizzle and no steak," and pornography gave people the steak, so the sizzle was out, and that's how grindhouse essentially died and became pornography?

Not to kvetch of course, just to flaunt my own expansive knowledge and hide my terror. Because not only am I afraid to see LAST HOUSE, I'm afraid to see PASSION OF THE CHRIST (above), which Landis astutely points out is "the last real grindhouse film!"

Speaking of passion, I've got a soft spot for New York accents, so I got a real kick out of sleaze director Don Edmonds alternately justifying, apologizing for, and boasting of, the excesses of his ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS, a film I rented back in 1990 in Seattle (from Scarecrow Video!) and which made me see red, literally, when I closed my eyes during sex for the next three years!  But one must admire the relative care that went into ILSA, vs., say, most other Nazisploitation (called "Nazi Exploitation" here, for some reason) with their use of Lewis' patented nail-the-camera-to-the floor, yell-action-and-sneak-off-for-a-nap style framing. But what about the other period sleaze auteurs that aren't mentioned (unless they were mentioned whilst I was in the bathroom, or mixing drinks, or smoking crack, or rolling johns in the men's room), shouldn't there be a sequel? Eurosleazeonomicon, or something cool like that?

AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE never reaches much of a conclusion beyond confirming that Americans will always make films with both eyes on the ticket window and just a toe brushing up against the edge of art, and thus our baser instincts will always be catered to. It's a comforting but disturbing thought about the value of prurience and the way always getting exactly what you want to see can make you a perverse mess just like the anti-porn crusaders have always harangued it would. But at a brisk under-90 minute running time (it would be a perfect part of any exploitation double feature), AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE moves fast enough there's nary a dull moment. For casual fans you can really get an idea of what avenues you may want to explore. Just be prepared to be shocked, amazed, and... most of all, flabbergasted! Grind yourself deep into your seat as you enjoy a splice-ridden slice of film history, one bedecked with sound, fury, and sizzle. In the words of Pam Grier in COFFY (below) when her cop boyfriend tells her she can't just go around just killing everyone: "Why not?"

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