JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Tarantino earlier suggests the violence that will befall Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) with of a shot of her feet and a poster of Soldier Blue. The controversial 1970 exploitation western gorily depicted a U.S. Cavalry massacre of a Native American village, and was released in the wake of the 1969 revelation of the My Lai massacre.

The second group of women in Death Proof resemble the first in their racial makeup. The film makes little of their racial diversity.

Multiracial girl power, as the trio chase down Stuntman Mike.

Many critics remarked on the “empowered” women of Death Proof, but few discussed their racial diversity and its implications.

In Werewolf Women of the SS, director Rob Zombie indulges in both Nazi exploitation camp, with Warhol favorite Udo Kier and friends …

… as well as a more “cheesy” sensibility, as in Nicolas Cage’s Fu Manchu cameo.

A “local” advertisement for Acuña Boys restaurant delivers more cheese between features.

Uninviting lighting and Muzak accompaniment raise questions of cultural authenticity central to the consumption of cheese.

Set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving promises cheesy horror on a most American holiday, one with the dispelling of racial and cultural tensions central to its mythos.

Rodriguez’s contributions to Grindhouse are especially cheesy. Machete idolizes Mexican-American actor Danny Trejo, whose memorably rugged face seems to damage the film itself.

Planet Terror concludes with Cherry and her tribe fleeing Texas (suggested by a shot of burned-out skyscrapers) …

… and set up their new lives in an ancient Mexican ruin, perhaps on the Gulf of Mexico.

Here the world can begin again, as a pre-colonial culture is given a second chance.

Sandwiched between the double bill, Grindhouse takes a moment to offer the closest thing to a lesson in the film. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bit did not survive the initial transition to DVD. Viewing it at home on the newer Blu-ray theatrical version, it remains somewhat out of place.

 

The power of cheese

As spectatorial heterogeneity and interaction common to the grindhouse has been suppressed in modern exhibition practices, Grindhouse has supplied its own sort of heterogeneity via its cheesy aesthetic and content, both in the text of its double feature and the paratext of its trailers and additional footage. The disappearance of the especially cheesy paratext from the DVD release, however, signals that the film is ultimately still beholden to a Hollywood political economy that undermines such commentary. The recuperation of grindhouse in the video market, which followed the disappearance of the grindhouse exhibition circuit, and which ultimately fed the cinematic imaginations of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Grindhouse, is indebted to the rise of cheese as a peculiarly late-20th-century phenomenon of taste.

Calling something “cheesy,” whether approvingly or disparagingly, has become something like recognizing pornography in that while its contours and boundaries may be poorly defined, we know it when we see it. At times it appears to overlap with “campy” or “corny” in its appreciation of excess and datedness (though “corny” is more strictly about being out of fashion). Steven Cohan calls camp “that little something extra,” while for Andrew Ross it is the “rediscovery of history’s waste.”[50] [open endnotes in new window]Additionally, both “campy” and “cheesy” are used to describe both production and reception practices. Esther Williams movies or The Brady Bunch (ABC, 1969-1974) can be watched as camp or cheese, and John Waters’ work or the films of Troma Entertainment are self-consciously made as camp or cheese.  But I think most would also agree that camp and cheese are not synonymous, that John Waters’ films are campy but not cheesy, or that The Brady Bunch and Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971) are cheesy but hardly campy. What is the difference, then, and why has “cheesy” overtaken “campy” as the favored descriptive term? Annalee Newitz’s article “What Makes Things Cheesy? Satire, Multinationalism, and B-Movies” is to my knowledge the only effort to construct a theory of cheese and to account for its ascendancy as a marker of taste. Newitz doesn’t explicitly address the question of precisely who uses the term and whether it is independent of race and class—she does suggest, for example, that blaxploitation is now consumed cheesily by black and non-black communities alike but offers no concrete evidence. (In my own experience, I have heard the term applied by students at both state and private universities, both prestigious and less so—though these classes have all been predominantly composed of white students.)

Building on the scholarship on camp, from Susan Sontag to Pamela Robertson Wojcik to Andrew Ross, Newitz makes a similar argument about cheese, namely that it critiques social conventions through mockery and derision, “relegat[ing] their power to the ash can of history.”[51] However, whereas Sontag describes camp as primarily a Euro-American phenomenon whose subject is gender norms, Newitz sees cheese’s critique of normativity turning instead to issues of race, ethnicity, and nationalism. As global trade patterns of the late-20th and 21st-century United States have shifted from Europe to the Pacific Rim, the cultural exports of Japan, China, and Mexico have enabled such “cheesy cultural hybrids” as the telenovela-tweaking Ugly Betty (ABC, 2006-2010), Hello Kitty, the Hollywood career of Jackie Chan, poorly-dubbed Hong Kong action films, and the tentpole remakes of Godzilla (Roland Emmerich, 1998) and Speed Racer (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 2008), to name just a few examples. Through their failed “attempt to unite, through satiric spectacle, all the cultures and nations on the planet,” these cheesy texts parody or deflect the troubling histories of imperialism and racism between the United States and these countries.[52] (In turn, the Pacific Rim’s cheesy consumption of Elvis, James Dean and Disney become a sardonic means of defusing its own legacies of imperialism and colonialism.[53])

Similarly, to revel in the cheesy pleasures of 1970s blaxploitation, the “wah-wah” bass line in the Axe body spray ads that trades on blaxploitation, the parodic whiteness of The Brady Bunch (original series or big-screen adaptation), the faux-jazz or “Latin” stylings of Henry Mancini or Lawrence Welk, etc., the spectator’s awareness of cheesiness defers historical, and ongoing, racial divisions and tensions. The ubiquity of cheese in our current culture, then, results from the constant, unresolved presence of cultural concerns over race, ethnicity, and national identity.

Given this, it should not be at all surprising that Tarantino and Rodriguez play significant roles in Newitz’s analysis of cheese. Newitz goes so far as to christen Tarantino “the auteur of cheese,” and draws several examples from both his and Rodriguez’s work. Tarantino’s stylistic intertextuality regularly intersects with racial and national discourses:

  • the nods toward blaxploitation in Pulp Fiction (epitomized by Tarantino’s own monologue about bringing “dead niggers” into friends’ homes);
  • the Sonny Chiba triple feature Christian Slater’s character watches in True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993, scripted by Tarantino);
  • the too-numerous-to-count kung-fu movie homages in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Rodriguez’s debut film El Mariachi (MX/US, 1992) was filmed in Mexico and in Spanish, and his subsequent films have often literally and figuratively straddled U.S./Mexico cultural borders. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), directed by Rodriguez and written by Tarantino, tells the story of two criminals escaping across the border, only to land in a Mexican saloon inhabited by vampires; Newitz points out the film’s indebtedness to Mexican horror cinema and its similarity to the work of “Brazilian gore auteur” José Majica Marins in particular.[54] The DVD extras for Once Upon a Time In Mexico (2003) even contain a short film of Rodriguez demonstrating to the viewer how to cook Puerco Pibil, a favorite dish of Johnny Depp’s character in the film. In short, the prospect of a Tarantino-Rodriguez double feature promises a veritable smorgasbord of cheese.

The racial discourse of Grindhouse does continue the cheesy tradition of both directors but with some important differences. Many observers have written about both features’ central female characters, the beautiful, “empowered” women who take revenge on their male oppressors. For example, Rose McGowan’s hysterically phallic machine-gun prosthetic leg in Planet Terror seems to parody this exploitation trope—in a campy rather than cheesy vein—while the representation of the three women taking down Kurt Russell in Death Proof (and led by real-life Kiwi stuntwoman Zoë Bell) suggests a more critical, even proto-feminist take.[55] Less discussed have been the films’ many re-articulations, and at times inversions, of racial conventions through the power of cheese. Death Proof is constructed in two parallel halves, each depicting the adventures of a trio of women composed of a Caucasian, an African-American, and a Latina (the first half ends tragically, the second in ass-kicking jubilation). Notably, though, little is made of these racial differences, either by the characters themselves or others. In one early scene, the first trio of women yell out each time they drive past a billboard advertising “Jungle Julia,” the radio show Julia (Sydney Poitier) hosts. Julia's moniker, accompanied by an image of her lithe, prone body sprawled out on a bear rug, evokes a history of racist, sexualized depictions of black women, and yet the women in the car regard it with winking pride. Tarantino playfully nudges the portrayal of black women, especially in the blaxploitation films he loves, through the cheesy image, and the cheesy pleasure the characters (and by extension the audience) take in the portrait that sublimates racial inequities.

Rodriguez's half of Grindhouse is even more pointed in its reworking of racial tropes. Besides Rose McGowan's Cherry, the other star of Planet Terror is Six Feet Under’s (HBO, 2001-2005) Freddy Rodriguez as ex-military Latino action hero El Wray, who is leading a band of chemical plague survivors from Texas to safety in Mexico, and sacrifices himself in the effort. In the film's final scene, with the United States assumed to be decimated by the plague, Cherry and the other survivors are living happily in an ancient Mexican seaside ruin that is clearly designed to evoke Olmec or Mayan architecture. The conclusion casually suggests the rebuilding of long-dead or -vanquished cultures, beyond colonizing influences. To cite another example, an early scene involves a generically Middle Eastern mercenary biochemical engineer (played by Lost's [ABC, 2004-2010] Naveen Andrew) collecting the testicles of an underling. But this stereotypical portrayal of villainous, emasculating Arabs is complicated when he joins up with El Wray and Cherry against the real villains of the piece, the U.S. military. We later learn in a convoluted tale that a rogue lieutenant (Bruce Willis) killed Osama bin Laden unexpectedly in Afghanistan, and it's implied that the upper echelons wanted him to die a less mundane death,or perhaps not die at all. For his sins, the lieutenant is exposed to the deadly toxin created by Andrew's scientist. Thus the cheesy Arab villain motif, with its imperial undercurrent, is turned into a swipe at the forces in charge of the current Middle East occupation.

But the cheesiness of Grindhouse is shot through more than just the two features on its double bill. Because of their compactness, the faux trailers and other footage that flank the features are even more pronounced in their cheesy sensibility. Nicolas Cage makes a cameo appearance as Fu Manchu, complete with Orientalized musical accompaniment; in the preview for Werewolf Women of the S.S. Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving uses the Capraesque atmosphere of small-town, white-bread, parades-on-Main-Street Americana as ironic counterpoint for a demented serial-killer tale. An advertisement crops up in between the double feature for the Acuña Boys restaurant (also the name of a Mexican gang in Kill Bill Vol. 2), promising “Authentic Tex-Mex Food” on its logo. Accompanied by easy-listening instrumental music and unappetizing photos of menu items, the ad subtly provokes anxieties over cultural hybridity and fidelity that are at the heart of cheesy consumption.

The most sustained expression of cheese in Grindhouse, though, is Rodriguez’s trailer for Machete. It concerns the eponymous adventures of a rogue Mexican federal agent (played by Mexican-American cult actor Danny Trejo) who is hired by a powerful man to kill a sitting U.S. Senator. “As you may know,” the man tells him, “illegal aliens such as yourself are being forced out of our country at an alarming rate.” The Senator (whose crimes against the undocumented are left to the imagination) must die, “for the good of both our people.” Naturally, Machete is double-crossed and nearly killed, after which he vows revenge and enlists the help of his brother, a shotgun-packing Catholic priest played by Cheech Marin. The trailer builds to its climactic line: “They just fucked with the wrong Mexican!” Making little clear narrative sense, but taking potshots at the undocumented immigrant debate, the hypocrisy of America’s wealthy and its politicians toward the foreign other, and even the Catholic Church, Machete becomes, to use Newitz’s words,

“simply a way of laughing at something that seems utterly horrifying in its complexity: the totality of social connections and disconnections we call multinationalism.”[56]

The high cheese of those trailers and other inserts suggests that Grindhouse was (the past tense is appropriate here) attempting to be cheesy not only on the textual level but also on an exhibition level—promoting an alternative model of cross-racial contact and contemplation through those elements usually only seen in the theater. Except for the Machete trailer, which introduces the Planet Terror DVD, this flotsam that surrounds and contextualizes the two features is not to be found on the individual DVD releases. The fact that the cheesiness of Grindhouse occurs not only in the texts of the features themselves but also in the paratext is an important distinction. In the decision to release Planet Terror and Death Proof separately, an industrial decision has clearly been made to regard the attendant trailers and add-ons as something less than text, less than central to the home viewing experience. And why not, since the promotion and criticism surrounding the film constructed Grindhouse as a theatrical experience? “I'm sad that most people will see Grindhouse on video,” critic David Edelstein laments, meaning of course that the home viewer will not truly see the film in the same way as the moviegoer, even once the paratext has been restored to the inevitable “directors’ cut” release. (The anticipation surrounding such a release, evident on DVD aficionado websites, restores the film to the temporal logic of DVD release patterns, where DVDs are reissued in “improved” form to maximize profits.) Arguments such as Edelstein’s are familiar, but they resonate even more with Grindhouse. The cheese melts once the disc hits your DVD player. Grindhouse’s desire to extend some fragment of “the totality of social connections and disconnections” into the theater is radically inconsistent with the highly disciplined, temporally managed, late capitalist exhibition system in which this Hollywood film was consumed.

In her examination of “the disappearing image,” Laura Marks argues that to engage with these images

“invites a kind of compassion and open-ended love that can also be a way to engage with people and with death.”[57]

The box-office failure of Grindhouse, and its subsequent years-long disappearance from the landscape in anything resembling its original form, invites a kind of compassion of its own, regardless of one’s feelings about the filmmakers involved.[58] Though undeniably a product of late capitalist Hollywood, Grindhouse was also an ambivalent experiment in cinema exhibition, an attempt to simulate a theatrical experience outside of the strict temporal regimes and behavioral guidelines of the modern multiplex. Its failure illuminates the chasm separating its simulated image dissolution with the grindhouse’s real thing, received (or ignored) by an audience whose makeup and interaction is both precipitated and sanctioned by that disappearance. Such a model of spectatorship, which at its best fostered a kind of contemplation, however troubled, beyond one’s social enclave, can also be seen reflected in Grindhouse’s cheesy text and paratext. But the kind of contact (to use Delany’s term) that is variously parodied, questioned and embraced in the film, has only a pale analogue in the theaters in which it played.

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