Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Grindhouse and the Proliferation of Ironic Culture

Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's joint undertaking Grindhouse, while occasionally entertaining, is symptomatic of an irony saturated American film culture in which popular genres are turned upside down and models of low culture are at the same time celebrated and looked down upon, an artistic stance that is increasingly distant from the central achivements of contemporary world cinema. In American cultural history, the 1990s are generally seen as the decade of irony and are, not coincidentally, the decade that Rodriguez and Tarantino (as well as the Coen Brothers) had their greatest successes, but the massive hype surrounding a film like Grindhouse illustrates the continued demand (or at least perceived demand) among audiences for ironic glimpses at low culture.

Rodriguez' segment "Planet Terror," which begins the film, is less successful than Tartanino's because it exists only insofar as it is ironic. For the first twenty minutes, the director's re-creation of low-budget zombie pictures is amusing, as the audience laughs at the "ineptitude" that Rodriguez gleefully recreates, as well as the increasing levels of gore. When the audience realizes that there is nothing more to the picture than an ironic celebration of B-movie culture, the laughs quickly fade, especially during the segment's endless denouement. Rodriguez' ironic stance, too, is somewhat disingenuous, since it represents an attempt to position himself above the material, while at the same time indulging in the filming of a genre he clearly enjoys. Successful neither as ironic send-up nor loving recreation of '70s zombie pictures, Rodriguez' segment is more or less a total failure.

Tarantino's segment "Death Proof", which will play in competition at this year's Cannes festival, is slightly more successful. Whereas Rodriguez pays tribute to zombie pictures, Tarantino uses as his model classic '70s car movies, such as Vanishing Point. Unlike Rodriguez' segment, however, Tarantino's offers audiences somewhat more than an ironic treatment of the source material. Tarantino waits a good 20 minutes before even introducing the car theme; instead, he allows his characters to engage in a quintessentially Tarantinian dialogue. The segment also contains some welcome surprises. Just as Tarantino establishes a group of characters, he kills them off and moves on to a second set of characters who dominate the rest of the episode. Still, despite the segment's occasional successes, Tarantino's characterstic weaknesses are on display. An annoying concern with hipness, which reached its nadir in Uma Thurman's characterization in Pulp Fiction, is present throughout. The director also indulges in his trademark misogyny (despite his "girls kick ass" plot), racism, and general sleaziness, indulgences which have grown quite tiresome.

Taken as a whole, Grindhouse is just one more example of a culture that would rather celebrate garbage than worthwhile achivement. Whereas Jean-Luc Godard took American genre films (specifically crime pictures) and raised them to the level of art while simultaneously critiquing the genre, here Rodriguez and to a lesser degree Tarantino are content to sit back and celebrate B-movies as they are without offering much more than an ironic appreciation. American film culture has become such that it can only embrace seriousness when it is insisted upon, as in self-righteous indulgences such as Babel. Otherwise it is a culture devoted either to mindless entertainments or irony-drenched films like Grindhouse which dress up mindless entertainment by pretending to distance themselves from the sources they celebrate. Either way, it is up to truly challenging filmmakers like David Lynch and Gus Van Sant to sustain an American cinema that is increasingly falling behind its European and Asian counterparts, rival cinemas that rely not on irony, but on genuinely imaginative filmmaking. Only then can American cinema once again hold its own on the world stage as it has throughout most of cinematic history.

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