Planet Terror opens on go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), accompanied by wailing saxophone.

Cherry’s dancing and the saxophone scream appear to dissolve the film in front of our eyes…

… and Cherry becomes an increasingly abstract representation of female sexuality.

As if itself unnerved by Cherry’s raw eroticism, the film stutters in the frame …

… before steadying itself for the title introduction.

The combination of Rodriguez’s directorial credit, Cherry’s trembling, open mouth, and a final swell of visual and audio degradation form a fitting conclusion to the opening scene.

Later in the film, when Cherry makes love to El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), we see the frame wobble in the gate, exposing sprocket holes.

Soon after, the frame seems to catch in the gate and in flagrante, and the image of Cherry’s naked body …

… burns away under the glare of the “lens” and the spectator …

… and is then abruptly replaced with a “Missing Reel” notice, after which we have jumped drastically ahead in the story. Missing frames and reels were a grindhouse commonplace, another sign of film disintegration (and, at times, projectionists who may have wanted sexy moments in the film for themselves).

At the end of Planet Terror, the screen goes briefly dark and then white, for nearly fifteen awkward seconds until the trailers before Death Proof commence—as if the projectionist were switching lackadaisically between reels.

Interestingly, though both films contain “missing reels,” only Death Proof warns of this in advance. This “lost footage” was restored in the stand-alone DVD version, as well as at Cannes where the film screened on its own in competition. Rodriguez’s “missing reel” was never filmed.

At the start of Death Proof we get a momentary glimpse of the “original” title of the film …

… before it is replaced with cut-in footage of the new title. This sort of retitling was common with exploitation films, often to extend a film’s box-office life or evade bad press. See Schaefer’s Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!, 59-61.

A drive-by shot early in the film of the original Alamo Drafthouse theater in Austin, a storied repertory house and home for many years to QT Fest, a grindhouse film festival programmed by Tarantino from his own collection.

The anachronistic quality of Death Proof’s car chase centerpiece is heightened when the back roads give way to the highway, contrasting the muscle cars with sedate late-model sedans and minivans.

During the car chase, a drive-in sign, a relic of U.S. film exhibition akin to the grindhouse…

… meets with a violently symbolic end.

In the scene where the first trio of women encounter Julia’s ironically racist “Jungle Julia” poster, Tarantino cleverly foretells their fate. The three drive down the road …

… but then a splice seems to make them vanish. Their space on the road is then replaced…

… by the car driven by vehicular homicidal maniac Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). Film disintegration is here used as a storytelling device.


Nostalgia for disrepair

The nostalgic embrace of a dissolving image is what Grindhouse works to achieve through its loving simulation of disrepair, both in its structure and most evocatively in its digital distressing of the image. Tarantino and Rodriguez each approached the concept differently. Tarantino opted for actual manual scratching and burning of the work print (reminiscent of Woody Allen’s film-aging approach in his film Zelig [1983]). In contrast, Rodriguez worked with a digital effects team to lift various kinds of damage residue from existing prints and then painstakingly manage the wear and tear of the film, moment by moment.[19] [open endnotes in new window] The film begins with a blank white screen accompanied by the hiss and crackle of a worn soundtrack, suggesting the hand of an inattentive or unconcerned projectionist. Soon after, an abrupt splice introduces a vintage “Prevues of Coming Attractions” leader, scratched and discolored with age. Yet another harsh splice and more blank screen brings us into a badly damaged trailer for Machete, directed by Rodriguez. Like the other previews in the film—Edgar Wright’s haunted-house film Don’t, Eli Roth’s slasher film Thanksgiving, Rob Zombie’s take on the short-lived Nazi exploitation genre Werewolf Women of the S.S., and in selected Canadian releases of the film, the Nova Scotian Jason Eisener’s vigilante-justice movie Hobo with a Shotgun—it announces a film that doesn’t and may in fact never exist.[20]

When the go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) takes the stage at the beginning of Planet Terror, the eroticism of her routine sends the celluloid into paroxysms, quivering in the gate and then bursting into flame. The moment may remind us of the famous final shot of Monte Hellman’s car-chase film Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971). For Caetlin Benson-Allott, it expresses Planet Terror’s “celluloid affect”—as in Hellman’s final shot, the film itself appears to respond materially to the images within and “cannot but get carried away by the narrative it contains.”[21] While Benson-Allott specifically emphasizes the “digital scar” in Planet Terror, both for its narrative qualities and its echoes of the film’s splatter-genre-inspired bodily damage and decay, I want to consider the disrepair of Grindhouse as a whole as an expression of theatrical nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a complex subject, no less so when discussing a film such as Grindhouse, which like many nostalgic texts seems to encompass both ends of what Paul Grainge has described as a spectrum ranging from nostalgia as mood to nostalgia as mode. The nostalgic mood is more common in popular discourse and traceable to the term’s late-17th-century origins as a medical description of the homesickness soldiers experience fighting in foreign lands—the Greek nostos (return home) plus algos (pain). Feelings of loss and longing for “the way things used to be,” of course, are also accompanied by selective remembrance of that idyllic past and imagined as stable in comparison to our destabilized present.[22]

The nostalgic assemblage of images invoking multiple eras, genres and cycles that defines the past work of both Tarantino and Rodriguez (e.g. Desperado [1995] or Sin City [2005]) appears to suffer from historical amnesia, stylishly serving up a bouillabaisse of history for the eager viewer. Grainge describes this nostalgia as mode, writing of its relation to mood:

“Nostalgic loss has been transformed into a marketable style, a kind of entertainment.”[23]

The most well-known proponent of this way of thinking about nostalgia is of course Fredric Jameson, who argued against a “crisis of historicity” in a pastiche culture awash in plundered historical images without historical context.[24] Particularly worth mentioning is Jameson’s account of “nostalgia films” such as American Graffiti (1973), with its evocation of the 1950s, and Body Heat (1981), a simulacrum of 1940s film noir. In neither of these films, Jameson argues, does the past represented critically engage with the present in which it is consumed. All is superficial aestheticization of the past.

It would be easy to paint Grindhouse with this same brush, seeing it as a tag-teaming continuation of the same principles from these two filmmakers’ earlier works (and with the assistance of Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie). And there is undoubtedly a strong element of pastiche at work here—with the film’s riffing on 1970s zombie movies, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, Brigitte Bardot, Vanishing Point, deep-cut 1950s pop music references, and so on and on. At times one could be forgiven for thinking that what we have here is simply more of the same energetic pop-culture petty larceny. I would argue, however, that Jameson’s analysis of nostalgia is insufficient for understanding Grindhouse, which is hardly a mere “nostalgia film.” Jameson has frequently been critiqued for the nostalgic tone of his own work, pining for the lost days of “genuine historicity”[25]. Furthermore, he allows no possibility that an aesthetic of nostalgia might do anything but regressively appropriate historical narrative. What of using nostalgia to produce critical historical narrative?

To show this critical nostalgia at work in Grindhouse, we must consider more closely the digital and manual effects the film uses to create the sensory impression of a badly degenerating 35mm print. The effect, for a contemporary viewer rarely exposed to prints older than a couple of months, is a startling reminder. Reels appear badly scratched, frame drops create jumpy transitions, patches of the film are bleached and tinted, and the sound (particularly unsettling for a viewer accustomed to multiplex Dolby crispness) is often muddy and distorted. Completing the picture, as it were, of a print that has been through the wringer, both films in the double feature are “missing reels” halfway through the film, replaced by title cards from the management apologizing for the inconvenience.[26] In their painstaking simulation of celluloid degradation and irresponsible exhibition, the filmmakers display their affinity for what Laura Marks calls “loving a disappearing image.”

The decay of the film or video image is inherent to the viewing experience, Marks reminds us, though the modern multiplex works hard to mask or minimize it. Film history results from the excavation of that decay, for without film disintegration there would be no film history. Over time, in fact, film transforms from depths to surfaces, “from what the image represents to the complex of histories of its destruction.”[27] Lucas Hilderbrand further illuminates the impact of image decay on the meaning of Todd Haynes’Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987). Arguing for the film’s “bootleg aesthetic,” as successively degenerating video dupes are passed from viewer to viewer, Hilderbrand notes that the video de-resolution becomes metaphoric of the film’s chronicle of Karen Carpenter’s anorexia:

“The film’s theme becomes expressed on the tape’s surfaces, even as deterioration obscures the visual and audio information, thus frustrating standard spectatorial engagement with the narrative.”[28]

Hildebrand describes his own experience watching an actual 16mm print of Superstar for the first time, and he confesses that for him the experience felt less complete, not more, without the image and sound decay of his precious dub. “Analog reproduction of the text,” he concludes, “rather than destroying the original’s aura, actually reconstructs it.”[29] Damage becomes the signature of authenticity.

Of course, the “damage” inflicted on the surfaces of Grindhouse is at the textual level only a cleverly wrought simulacrum. The pre-distressed product created may remind us of other fashionable goods pre-worn for our convenience, from “vintage” jeans to “shabby chic” or “antiqued” furniture. Designed to create the impression of being either discovered at a flea market or having been in one’s family for generations, the faux patina of these products strives to hijack an ideological system of status and consumption. Patina has long been “a sign and guarantee of standing,” whereas brand new goods carry “the mark of commonness.”[30] The superficial marks of quality of the pre-distressed object resemble the trend towards black-and-white images in popular media during the 1990s, from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) to Apple’s “Think different” campaign to the widespread backlash over film colorization. Paul Grainge describes this emphasis on monochrome, at a time when the United States was in the midst of the so-called “culture wars,” in terms of its nostalgic appeal to more “authentic” times, before the perceived social upheaval of the present. By creating an impression that the black-and-white image has been spirited from the archives, Grainge writes that the use of black and white

“seem[s] to efface its own relation to the sphere of capitalist simulations, sustaining the illusion that it was somehow removed from the market culture in which it was necessarily produced.”[31]

Certainly, Grindhouse’s own visual effects also seek to instill a sense that the film arrived, as if from a miscalibrated time machine, at the multiplex, where its distressed patina is not only unwelcome but is actively suppressed by the modern theater’s business practices.[32] The feeling of remove we get from Grindhouse is not the aura of the archive, as with Grainge’s monochromatic images, but of the dustbin. Grindhouse replicates the fate of images that have not been reserved for time everlasting but have been cast aside and are out of time.

Time is a central measurement in the modern theatrical marketplace. Charles Acland, in his essential book on contemporary cinemagoing, proposes several “vectors of temporality”—the length of the film itself, the length of the theatrical run, and the motion picture release calendar—to help us grasp how movie theaters organize and standardize their film product for maximum return on investment.[33] The length of a film’s run is of particular concern here. Increasingly shortened by the growth of DVD and cable distribution, direct home streaming, and iTunes and pay-per-view options—together more vital to the bottom line than the theatrical run itself—a movie’s brief shelf life reminds us that, more than ever, “film texts grow old elsewhere” (italics in original).[34] This is the existence of a product that the industry perceives but rarely admits is highly perishable, as in the story Acland relates where former Disney and DreamWorks exec Jeffrey Katzenberg compares a film’s life to a supermarket tomato’s. (The tomato wins.) A few university film societies and a few dozen repertory theaters nationwide—and even those regularly tout the “newly struck prints” on show—make older prints available to a specialized, typically well-educated audience. Aside from those, the educational film market (where distributing on film is less and less common) and drive-in exhibition, which in some places still serves as a second- or third-run venue, are the only vehicles where the average filmgoer today is exposed anymore to film prints that have noticeably degenerated.

The apparent damage done to the Grindhouse print is, in one sense, a nostalgic reminder of a previous industrial model, a less perfectly late capitalist Hollywood, when the theatrical release was not primarily the opening act for the home viewing market. It replaces what Acland calls the “ephemerality” of films under saturation-release global Hollywood with an alternate vision, one where films are removed from the wringer of late capital and put through a wringer of a different kind. Grindhouse’s digital decay hints at a theatre experience, largely forgotten, where films not only fall apart before one’s eyes but where many films come to die—“the last stop before oblivion.” Thus, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s film offers an alternative, even critical, historical narrative—one that, on the film’s very surface, does not aestheticize past films as much as it argues the significance of the materiality of past films. It is a fact Hollywood wishes we forget.

Perverse spectators at the grindhouse

Working in tandem with the nostalgic look and structure of the film is a second level of nostalgia for grindhouse spectatorship, displaced onto its cheesy, outmoded depictions of race and ethnicity. To understand this level of nostalgic discourse, we must first take a closer look at how the multiplex viewing experience differs from that of the grindhouse. I borrow the term “perverse spectators” from Janet Staiger’s essay collection of the same name. For her the term admits greater complexity and deviation of response than typical cultural-studies terms like “negotiated” or “oppositional.”[35] The deviation from the norm in perverse spectatorship may be politically progressive, but it also may not be. Writing about talking in the movie theater, Staiger notes that even when talk is not progressive, even when it is “quite incendiary,” it can nevertheless be “binding and supportive.”[36] This is an important point to emphasize about the grindhouse, which was both a site for interaction and (possible) education across lines of race and class, and a venue hostile to women both on and off the screen (even as it creates a safe space for gay male desire). Yet while Staiger and Acland both point out the potential for perverse spectatorship in the mainstream movie theater, this potential pales in comparison to the range of perverse practices and experiences (in all connotations of the word) that make up the grindhouse.

The theatrical experience Acland portrays contrasts starkly with the grindhouse milieu Rodriguez and Tarantino wish to evoke. Acland’s temporal vectors help to standardize and organize film spectators in the same way they do so for the film product—on the one hand eliminating contact with aging celluloid, on the other eliminating (or at least greatly reducing) the possibility of meaningful social contact of viewers with one another. In the multiplex, standardization of start times encourages regular viewer turnover throughout the day and night, while fleeting theatrical runs provide only a brief window to see a film publicly, before it becomes a domestic activity. These temporal vectors provide an organizational and disciplinary framework for filmgoers themselves, “establishing the parameters within which audiences act, make decisions, and respond.”[37] But Acland argues that, within this regimentation of the theatergoer by release dates and starting times, a great deal of possibility for individuation exists. Despite the wide range of methods designed to promote bourgeois civility and discipline in the theater—the presence of ushers and security cameras, entreaties to keep feet off the seats, to not talk, to turn off cell phones[38]—the faceless mass of servile consumers quickly breaks down through the varied and seldom-discussed practices of everyday moviegoing.

Here I want to quote at length from Acland’s striking inventory of such activities:

“Public movie performances are occasions for eating, for disregarding one’s usual dietary strictures, for knowingly overpaying for too much food, for sneaking snacks and drinks, for both planned and impromptu socializing, for working, for flirting, for sexual play, for gossip, for staking out territory in theater seats, for threatening noisy spectators, for being threatened, for arguments, for reading, for talking about future moviegoing, for relaxing, for sharing in the experience of the screening with other audience members, for fleeting glimpses at possible alliances and allegiances of taste, politics, and identity, for being too close to strangers, for being crowded in your winter clothes, for being frozen by overactive air-conditioning, for being bored, for sleeping, for disappointment, for joy, for arousal, for disgust, for slouching, for hand holding, for drug taking, for standing in lines, for making phone calls, for playing video games, for the evaluation of trailers, for discussions of what preceded the film and what will follow, and for both remembering and forgetting oneself…. Here, cinemagoing is banal, it is erotic, it is civil, it is unruly; it is an everyday site of regulated and unregulated possibility.”[39]

From this list it would seem that the cinema is brimming with life, rife with the prospect of chance encounters and interactions, in a way that one rarely sees anymore in your average town square. Indeed, Acland suggests that contemporary multiplexes “linger as talismans of an alternative public sphere that might have been but has not developed as yet,” constrained as they are by the incentives of late capital.[40]

What kind of theatrical space results when these temporal vectors are not there to delimit the practices of theatergoers? If Acland regards life in the multiplex as “unruly” and “unregulated,” perhaps he should consider the following description (again quoted at length to parallel the above):

“The Anco was the raunchiest, most dilapidated Deuce grindhouse of them all…. At the Anco you’d base your seating choice on avoidance—a hellhole for decades, its filthy, broken chairs were a haven for a host of area criminals. Keep your eye out and you’d see needy closet cases searching for desperate rough trade. Predominately white and frequently upscale professionals like lawyers, these tricks earned a reputation for being obnoxious and unpleasant. The hustlers who hung around at the Anco—trade that existed to finance their next blackout—were often killing time before starting their midnight-to-eight shifts at nearby all-male theaters. Latino junkies on the lam after a quick strongarm robbery slumped in the aisles, enjoying their nods relatively undisturbed. Professional black Deuce criminals—men who stole credit cards, pickpocketed wallets, and burned suburbanites with phony drug deals—also hid out, knowing no tourist would ever lead the cops in here.”[41]

The Anco, formerly across the street from New York’s Port Authority bus terminal, is the sleaziest establishment recounted by the authors of Sleazoid Express, an early-Tom-Waits-like ethnography of the culture of the grindhouses of Times Square (a.k.a. the Deuce), and one of the few works on grindhouse to concentrate as much on the theatrical experience itself as on the films. It should be noted that the line separating empirical, historical reality from mythology is unclear here. Sleazoid Express, like the Muller and Faris book Grindhouse mentioned earlier, is likely a somewhat exaggerated and romanticized account of the grindhouse experience, even a kind of tourism of the underclass.

That said, the book’s depiction of the Anco and other Deuce theaters is a far cry from the limited set of activities chronicled by Acland, bringing to mind Michael Bérubé’s neat definition, via Raymond Williams, of hegemony as “merely seek[ing] to set the bounds of the thinkable.”[42] Such a scenario, embellished or not, is literally unthinkable in the current exhibition environment, for the reasons Acland notes—there is simply too much institutional emphasis on the theater as a space for watching films, whatever one’s subsidiary conduct. Now, I’m not proposing the Anco as the best model for Acland’s alternative public sphere—if in fact such a public sphere ever existed—and a more detailed history of grindhouse spectatorship would have to contend with the dearth of empirical evidence about these spectators and with the possible embellishment of the few anecdotal histories. My concern, which will soon bring us back to Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, is with examining the grindhouse—or at the very least the mythology of it—as a space of class and racial heterogeneity.

Consider that the grindhouse audience is typically discussed in terms of gender. Eric Schaefer notes that with the introduction of sexploitation in the 1960s, followed by hardcore pornography, grindhouse audiences became almost exclusively male, a shift from the classical exploitation film’s cross-gender appeal. The location of grindhouse theaters in skid-row neighborhoods further discouraged female attendance.[43]Sleazoid Express describes most of the Times Square theaters as unfit for unaccompanied females, especially the bathrooms and back hallways. (Concerns for women’s safety were cited as one reason for the Times Square corporate redevelopment project in the 1990s.) The grindhouse as venue for unpoliced sexual activity is well-known, and the subset of hard-core grindhouse theaters has elicited scholarship on both straight and gay porn spectatorship.[44]

However, what has not been as often discussed is the racial and cross-class diversity and interaction in the grindhouse, and the possible social benefits of such interaction. Samuel R. Delany’s thoughtful book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is instructive here. The book comprises two long essays. First is an anecdotal recollection of Delany’s decades as an habitué of Times Square theaters, especially its all-male venues, and his sexual and non-sexual encounters therein. The second part offers an extended analysis of valuable modes of personal interaction as expressed in Times Square and derailed by the destruction of the grindhouses and other businesses and the Disneyfication of the area.[45] While many of the theatrical encounters Delany describes are predicated on sex or the possibility of it, for him the sex is a pleasurable vehicle for something even more important, namely, the ability to interact with a wide range of individuals across races and classes:

“The population was incredibly heterogeneous—white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Native American, and a variety of Pacific Islanders…. I’ve met playwrights, carpenters, opera singers, telephone repair men, stockbrockers, guys on welfare, guys with trust funds, guys on crutches, on walkers, in wheelchairs….”[46]

Tarantino grew up in Carson, California, a small suburb adjacent to Long Beach and Compton, where whites comprised only 24% of the population, according to the 2010 census. He tells a similar tale of audience diversity:

“I lived in the urban area of the South Bay. In the city of Carson, a big black, Hispanic, and Samoan area, there was a theater called the Carson Twin Cinema…. There was this one double feature that they whipped out at least twice a year, and that was Five Fingers of Death [Chang-hwa Jeong, HK, 1972] and Enter the Dragon [Robert Clouse, HK/US, 1973]. And they knew, when they showed Five Fingers of Death and Enter the Dragon, that it was just going to be fuckin’ pandemonium. People would always go see it. Black guys, the Crips, yelling at the screen, all the Samoans there, people getting into kung-fu fights and shit…it was a blast. It was so much fun. Video has taken that away, a little bit… the communal aspect of it, the ritualistic aspect of it.”[47]

Judging by these two examples, it seems hardly the case, as Douglas Gomery once argued, that the grindhouses “were servicing only African-Americans.”[48] One suspects they may have been more racially and class-diverse than those in suburban neighborhoods. For Delany, this interaction across class—and, given society’s makeup, across race—that he calls simply “contact,” is the essence of city life, and it is the only opportunity for its widespread sustainability and improvement. Delaney writes,

“If our ideal is to promote movement among the classes and the opportunity for such movement, we can do it only if we create greater propinquity among the different elements that make up the different classes.”[49]

The grindhouse, while hardly a utopian venue for such cross-class, cross-racial contact, offers a wider array of possibilities than a multiplex audience, however diverse, because of the lack of overwhelming institutional focus on the film playing at the front of the room. Tarantino is wrong when he singles out video for taking that sense of community away; the film theater itself in its contemporary form is just as much to blame. Contrary to Acland’s portrayal of the theater as a space of diverse activity and interaction, any possibility for a truly alternative public sphere is upset by its emphasis on turnover and discipline. Grindhouse must therefore find an alternate means, as it does through its digital image degradation, to convey filmgoing practices lost to a transformed theatrical economy.

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