Largely unwatched in traditional theaters, Grindhouse had some limited success at the few drive-ins remaining (as here in Austin, home of Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios).

After initial logos from Dimension Pictures and Troublemaker Studios, the image jumps abruptly to white as if to suggest an inept projectionist passing light through an empty gate.

Cut abruptly to the vintage “coming attractions” leader, familiar to fans that have seen Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Here, however, it serves a purpose closer to its original intent—introducing “trailers” before the “feature.”

“They called him Machete.” Alone among the four trailers originally in Grindhouse to be eventually released as a feature film, Machete precedes Rodriguez’s half of the double feature, Planet Terror. It would also be the sole trailer in the film to survive the initial transition to separate DVDs for each film.

The three trailers to play between the two features would not fare as well as Machete. Rob Zombie’s homage to the 1975 Nazi exploitation classic Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS would disappear in the DVD releases …

… along with Edgar Wright’s trailer Don’t, an ode to the Hammer House of Horror films …

… and Thanksgiving, from Tarantino acolyte and Hostel director Eli Roth, a slasher film set in Plymouth, Massachusetts. All of these trailers would eventually be restored in the 2010 Blu-ray release of the theatrical version.

Concluding the trailer of Machete is a persuasively vintage logo for The Weinstein Company, formed by Harvey and Bob Weinstein in 2005 following Miramax’s sale to Disney. The Weinstein Company owns Dimension Pictures, producers of Grindhouse.

Both features are prefaced by “X” rating notices, a contrast to Grindhouse’s actual “R” rating and another reminder of the vastly different theatrical context in which you are watching the film.

Before the first feature, Planet Terror, begins, we see the words “A RODRIGUEZ/ TARANTINO DOUBLE FEATURE” shimmy in the frame …

… and then resolve, as leader countdown images, dissolving celluloid (accompanied by a projector-winding-down noise) and other effects occupy the background. The total effect is an impressionistic digital simulation of film degeneration, almost an idea of what film at the end of its life might look like to a viewer for whom “old celluloid” is an iMovie menu item more than a witnessed process.

Accompanied by the sounds of twisting, tortured metal, audio fuzz, and a propulsive saxophone solo, the aggressively “damaged” title of the double feature scrolls across the screen.

“The lesser of the attractions”:
and theatrical nostalgia

by Kevin Esch

“There's another reason that Grindhouse is, for some of us misfits, such a happy trip. It affirms our sense of community…. I'm sad that most people will see Grindhouse on video. It should be consumed (or, depending on your perspective, endured) in a theater full of shrieking, gasping, cheering, borderline-ashamed exploitation junkies. Nowadays, people smoke dope and drink and jerk off in front of TV screens in the privacy of their homes. They really need to get out more.”
—David Edelstein, “Blood and Guts. No Urine”[1]
[open endnotes in new window]

“…[O]nce upon a time there were theatres where the movies were the lesser of the attractions.”
Land of a Thousand Balconies: Discoveries and Confessions of a B-Movie Archaeologist[2]

Exhibition posters for Grindhouse nostalgically evoked an outmoded era of film exhibition …

… while also attempting to educate (and perhaps reassure) an unfamiliar audience about the moviegoing experience.

The Weinstein Company’s high-profile marketing campaign for Grindhouse (2007), Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s $67 million nostalgic ode to exploitation double features, was notable for two not unrelated things: its frequent need to explain the term “grindhouse” to potential viewers, and its inability to prevent an equally high-profile collapse at the box office (a lowly $11.6 million on opening weekend, $25.4 million worldwide overall). The film’s poor showing resulted in many critics wondering whether the studio had overestimated filmgoers’ interest in grindhouse cinema.[3] In the subsequent DVD release, the studio backed away from the double feature exhibition experiment: Planet Terror and Death Proof have appeared on separate “extended edition” DVDs, but without most of the accompanying faux trailers, advertisements, and “X-rated” warnings that surrounded the features and announced the project as something more than just another big-budget neo-exploitation film. Only after years of fans’ complaints about the unavailability of the theatrical version (except as an expensive 6-disc Japanese import containing both the theatrical and the individual extended versions) was it at last released in the U.S. on Blu-ray in 2010. Surveying this state of affairs in 2008, Caetlin Benson-Allott boldly but justifiably lamented in her review essay on the film, “Grindhouse, grindhouses, and indeed theatrical exhibition itself are now dead.”[4]

Occupying a period between the end of the studio-owned theater and the rise of the corporate multiplex, the grindhouse era of U.S. film exhibition has all but disappeared from the cinematic landscape—and, judging from Grindhouse’s dismal box-office failure, from moviegoers’ minds as well. My own experience going to see Grindhouse echoes this sea change. I had planned to see the film at the Prytania Theater, the only neighborhood theater left in New Orleans. It felt fitting to see Grindhouse amidst the Prytania’s walls of old New Orleans theater photos, the aging balcony, and the dusty organ pushed to one side of the screen. When I arrived one weekend afternoon to catch a matinee, however, I was disappointed to discover that the theater had been rented out for the evening; but by then I was determined to still see the film, so I drove out to a suburban megaplex. I walked through the lobby, dominated by several enormous black-and-white photos evoking a “golden age” of movie palaces in sad contrast to my current surroundings. Then, joining in the routine shared by most U.S. moviegoers today, I sat in my comfortable stadium seat and watched the movie in a nearly empty theater, a bit guilty that I had abandoned the charismatic dilapidation of New Orleans for this sterile setting. I felt like I had traded history and community for banal commerce.

In this article I wish to examine how, despite the filmmakers’ painstaking strategies for recreating the grindhouse experience in a multiplex environment, the film’s box-office failure stemmed in part from its nostalgic tone—a nostalgia less for exploitation films themselves (which has served Tarantino and Rodriguez well in past films) than for the theatrical and social experience of grindhouse. The nostalgia of Grindhouse attempts to offer a progressive critique of the business practices of late capitalist cinema-going and exhibition, one that ultimately fails because of the film’s inescapable place within Hollywood’s political economy—an economy exemplified by that compromised DVD release of the film.

I argue that Grindhouse’s nostalgia operates on two levels, both in its desire to look like an old, damaged film print and in its “cheesy” nostalgia for dated racial representations. First, a nostalgia for disrepair (as Benson-Allott has also noted) is evident in the film’s aesthetic of decay, simulating celluloid damage and reels “missing” from the projection, as if one were viewing it at an actual grindhouse. This “decay” diverges from the modern multiplex’s attempts to mask film’s instability and fragility and thus create an economy of continual newness. Second, the film’s nostalgia for grindhouse theaters as a truly alternative (if troubled) form of spectatorship—where social interaction frequently supplants the film as the featured attraction— shows up indirectly in its self-consciously “cheesy” aesthetic. Annalee Newitz has compellingly argued that at the heart of what most of us consider cheesy—an aesthetic related to but distinct from “campy” or “corny”—is an ironic sublimation of racial and ethnic tensions (just as gender difference is the root of camp).[5] Through these representations, Grindhouse addresses the lack of meaningful social interaction and contemplation, particularly across race and class, in the modern cinema itself.

Despite the increased attention film studies has paid to theaters and audiences in recent years, the grindhouse has received scant attention. Eric Schaefer’s invaluable study of exploitation cinema, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!, devotes one chapter to exhibition issues but deals only with what Schaefer calls the classical period, ending in 1959. In fact, his book is clearly meant as a corrective to the popular notion that exploitation filmmaking began in the 1950s and 1960s with American International Pictures and other groups.[6] Douglas Gomery’s major exhibition history, Shared Pleasures, spends a chapter on segregated black theaters through the late 1960s, concluding with two pages on the de facto African-American theaters in urban centers in the 1970s.[7] Other recent anthologies on exhibition and moviegoing contain no entries on grindhouse at all.[8] The subject has largely been left to aficionados and amateur anthropologists, each of whom exhibits clear nostalgia for a lost mode of moviegoing.[9] Freed from the constraints of academic prose, these authors often color their nostalgia in purple, as in the introduction to Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of “Adults Only” Cinema:

“Grindhouses have always churned away in a seamy corner of the American psyche…. From First Avenue in Seattle to Canal Street in New Orleans, if you wanted to see all the sexy stuff that the Purity Patrol kept from the mainstream, a grindhouse always beckoned.”[10]

Referring to a theatrical environment but also to the kind of films playing in it, “grindhouse” as a film term appears to date back to the 1920s, though the word also has been used to describe burlesque houses (perhaps from “grinding-house,” English slang for a brothel). They were distinguished by their continuous double- or triple-feature programs of pornographic or exploitation fare, and by their disreputability, subsisting on the theatrical (and often geographic) margins, as the center was dominated by the deluxe downtown movie palaces and the second-run neighborhood theaters. In the contemporary imaginary, “grindhouse” is most frequently associated with the late 1960s and 1970s and the theaters of Times Square, as former first-run Hollywood theaters in major urban centers began to target an audience much changed in the wake of white flight to the suburbs and the first suburban mall multiplexes. Before the advent of home video, these theaters were one of the few venues for films that exploited or subverted social taboos surrounding sex, violence, and race. Tarantino enthuses about this era,

“All the exploitation movies, women-in-prison movies, the horror films, the black-exploitation movies, all the wild stuff… the last stop before oblivion would be the grindhouse.”[11]

Ironically, this enthusiasm for the unruliness of the grindhouse as a production and reception space lives on in non-theatrical markets and cult fandom groups devoted to what Jeffrey Sconce has called “paracinema”—a “most elastic textual category” encompassing not only grindhouse films but virtually all manner of exploitation or “bad” or “trash” cinema, from “mondo” and “nude cuties” to driver’s-ed and sexual hygiene films to compilations of trailers, intermission announcements, and snack bar inducements.[12] Paracinematic figures like online entrepreneurs 42nd Street Pete and Something Weird Video review these films for discerning audiences and make them available on DVD, often in double- or triple-bill formats which evoke the memory of the grindhouse double feature from a more domesticated setting.[13]

Tarantino and Rodriguez clearly traffic in this kind of nostalgic feeling for the bygone experience of grindhouse cinema. (Rodriguez famously intended his debut film El Mariachi for the Spanish-language straight-to-video market, before it won the Audience Award at Sundance and was purchased by Columbia.) While Grindhouse is a joint directorial venture, I will focus here primarily on Tarantino’s influence, as he is often described as an older mentor to Rodriguez and other young exploitation-savvy filmmakers such as Eli Roth. Rodriguez also confesses that Tarantino has “been educating me in grindhouse cinema for the past twelve years.[14] Up to a point, Tarantino’s excitement about the margins of socially respectable cinema fits with the standard interpretation of his films.

As a director, Quentin Tarantino is depicted as the prototypical video-store brat, the first of a generation of U.S. filmmakers who learned about film not through film school—as had the previous generation whose members included Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma—but from clerking at video rental stores, in Tarantino’s case Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California. This kind of clerk Gerald Peary describes as

“someone embarrassingly overqualified to be there, yet whose $6 an hour salary cannot dim the energy and spirit for non-stop discourse about film, film, all types of film, whether European auteurist masterpieces, Hollywood genre works, or Hong Kong kung-fu.”[15]

At the well-stocked video store, one’s education could easily include Italian giallo as well as Hawks and Welles, the Shaw Brothers alongside Bergman and Godard. For Tarantino, the result has been films whose pleasure often stems from the constant referencing of other films, from the residue of the French New Wave in Pulp Fiction (1994) to the casting of blaxploitation icon Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997) to Uma Thurman’s yellow-and-black jumpsuit in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), a replica of the one Bruce Lee wears in Game of Death (Robert Clouse, HK/US, 1978). Writing about the rife intertextuality of Kill Bill, Chuck Stephens argues,

“Now more than ever, the moral of the cineQT [sic] is that it takes a video store to raise a child.”[16]

What is often neglected in analyses of Tarantino’s work but vital to understanding it is the conflicted importance he ascribes to the theatrical experience, particularly the grindhouse, in forming his outlook on film. Tarantino is well known in Hollywood for his weekly double-feature home screenings of exploitation fare, complete with vintage trailers between the films. The day his grandmother took him to the grindhouse was, he says, “one of the best days of my entire childhood,” and he laments the introduction of home video and its effect on the “communal,” “ritualistic” aspects of moviegoing.[17] In a 1995 conversation with director Robert Zemeckis, Tarantino expresses admiration for laser discs as an improvement over home movie watching on videotape. Even here, though, he makes an exception that suggests the continuing pull of the grindhouse on him:

“Robert Zemeckis: I’m in a constant conflict about having to make a movie for the big and the small screen at the same time, stylistically. So I just basically make it for the large screen. And I actually have a hard time watching videotapes at all. I can only watch laser discs now. Because it’s getting that I can’t stand…
Quentin Tarantino: The pan-and-scan?
RZ: And just the degradation of the image.
QT: I feel the exact same way. Except if I’m looking at an old exploitation film that I have on videotape, that doesn’t bother me, because more than likely, when you were having the theatrical experience on that [sic], it was with a one-light projector anyway, and a big hole in the screen. [laughter]
RZ: But you don’t get the experience of the wine bottle rolling down underneath the seats.
QT: No, you don’t have that. And you don’t have the audience going ‘Yes! Punch him again! Blow his head off!’”[18]

For Tarantino, the degraded video image evokes the gross imperfections of the projected image at the grindhouse, even if it ultimately fails to communicate the full theatrical experience.

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