Sunday, April 29, 2007

THE AUDIENCE IS LISTENING


I finally got to "Grindhouse" this week. Apparently just in time to be one of the last to view the original incarnation. It's been yanked from distribution to be retooled for its now delayed foreign release, while the two features it comprised, "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" are themselves reconfigured and re-released separately, in the hope that such desperate measures will finally find the Audience everyone assumed was impatiently waiting for it.

I got news for you guys at Weinstein. It won't make any difference.

The Audience is a funny beast. They're often described as two-faced and fickle, not even knowing a good thing when the critics point it out to them. They're lame, ill-informed, slow to embrace the new, the different and the cutting edge.

Movie marketers in particular find them maddening; because every once in a while, the polling and the testing and the ad campaigns that guarantee success turn out to be completely and utterly wrong. For some unpredictable reason the Audience just stays away. Word of mouth doesn't even have a chance to kick in because -- nobody even sees the film in the first place.

But this really isn't a mystery. People who work in live theatre know that the most important skill they develop is "reading" the Audience. An actor on stage always senses when their attention is traveling elsewhere. You can actually feel it happen and know you're losing them, or realize that the adjustments you've made are working and they're coming back.

And if you're honest with yourself you know that despite what the critics and the pundits had to say; despite how much you like the show, even though nobody's coming and refer to it with pride as a "Flop D'Esteem" -- the Audience isn't there because it just isn't good enough.

But how do THEY know, when they haven't even seen it? Well, it's because the Audience is just as connected to the "Collective Unconscious" as those of us on the creative side who tune into that cosmic vibration to come up with the movies in the first place.

The Audience knows when somebody's trying to communicate something they themselves have been contemplating. They'll even cut some slack for those trying to figure out what they have to say on a shared topic of interest. What they have no time for is art that's phony and "Grindhouse" is as flat out phony as they come.

I'll never forget the first time I saw "Vanishing Point", "Rolling Thunder", "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry", "Last House on the Left" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" -- the films to which "Grindhouse" pays homage. Despite what the cadre of fawning critics who paved the way for the film's release this month would have you believe, I didn't see any of those movies in an actual grindhouse, nor were most of them created specifically for those locales.

"Vanishing Point" was a hit on the college circuit and had cult status from the get-go. I caught it at The Revue Cinema, a trendy arthouse in the West end of Toronto. Yes, it's remembered for its spectacular car chases and soundtrack, but that wasn't why people went to see it. "Vanishing Point" connected with an audience of Vietnam era alienated youth through a nihilistic philosophy and a unique anti-hero who collided head on with the middle class values we were rejecting.

I caught the first screening of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", not in some cheap dive, but what is now the Elgin, perhaps Toronto's most opulent legit theatre. I was the only person there, drawn by the sheer audacity of the title. And fifteen minutes in, I would have gladly paid double the ticket price to be anywhere else. The movie literally tore at my emotions with the same blunt force being enacted onscreen.

THAT is what grindhouse films were about. NOT the campy copycat versions that comprise the current offering.

To be sure there were grindhouses in Toronto. The RIO and BILTMORE sat about a block apart north of Yonge and Dundas. Their frontage had long ago lost any association with movie theatres. Instead, they sported sidewalk to roof eave billboards plastered, perhaps "collaged" is a better word, with posters, signage and hand-painted ads for their wares. They ran between three and five features for a single ticket price. And yes, they occasionally showed something that hadn't appeared elsewhere, but that was rare. The usual combo plate included, a recent release, a kung fu feature and something ultra-violent.

As a broke actor, I ended up at the Rio a few times. It was smelly and shabby, but on humid Summer days before air conditioning was commonplace, it offered a six hour respite from the debilitating heat. I got the feeling most of the clientèle were there to sleep. And despite what you'll see in both segments of "Grindhouse" I don't ever recall a single "Missing Reel".

I really wanted to like "Grindhouse". The movies and the movie experience it promised to recreate are very much a part of both my personal history and my cinematic touchstones. I'm one of Robert Rodriguez biggest fans. Quentin Tarantino impresses the shit out of me sometimes and greatly troubles me at others, but in the way your perceptions should be troubled. I couldn't imagine any two writer-directors who would have a better understanding of the subject matter combined with the talent to take it to the next level.

And I couldn't have been more disappointed with the end result.

The hallmark of what we now call grindhouse was manyfold. First, you were watching films that happened outside the mainstream of society, stories from the point of view of people you seldom if ever saw in a Hollywood film. These were movies that weren't trying to be calling cards at the studios but were the original independent features, the first pieces of true auteur filmmaking and a gigantic "Fuck You" to everything the Hollywood establishment stood for back then.

Usually, the things you saw in a grindhouse film had never even been "suggested" in a mainstream feature, let alone actually shown onscreen. There are moments in "Last House on the Left" and "Rolling Thunder" that still haven't been replicated 30 years after they were made.

These films were raw, stark and eagerly original. The people who made them didn't have Hollywood careers to think about. By the time their films were released, most of them were probably back at work in the meat packing plant. But their honesty and their unwavering dedication to their own creative visions were stunning.

A guy like Robert Rodriguez, who has more imagination and visual skill than practically the remaining membership of the DGA, should not be passing off a tongue in cheek Zombie retread as his homage to grindhouse films. When I first heard of the project, I was elated, I thought that finally somebody would take the overdone Zombie theme somewhere new and exciting. Didn't happen.

Likewise, Tarantino, with his loopy view of the world seemed the perfect guy to make you forget every repetitious car chase you've ever seen by concocting something new and audacious. I have to say that for about 5 minutes, in what's known as the "Ship's Mast" sequence, he achieves it -- and then goes right back to what everybody's been doing since Hal Needham got his driver's license.

Maybe I was hoping for too much. But so was the rest of the Audience. About a week before "Grindhouse" opened, I sensed trouble. Maybe it was all those squeaky clean critics in family newspapers touting grindhouses as the great sociological experience we've lost. I knew they were lying and I think the Audience did too. Or maybe it was the constant reminder of how hip and cool you'd be if you saw this movie, in an age where we all know it's just a movie.

But maybe -- just maybe -- it was the "Collective Unconscious" as hundreds attended sneak previews, left disappointed and mentally telepathed their displeasure to the rest of us, psychically revealing what everyone at the Weinstein company should have known going in. "Grindhouse" wasn't new or different. It wasn't audacious, shocking or titillating. It was just a couple of 2nd rate movies identical to the ones that already fill the shelves at Blockbuster, populate most of the hours on our movie channels and sit in video boxes in our basements.

If you haven't seen "Grindhouse", don't bother. You've seen it all before. And no separate releases, recuts or altered marketing campaigns will change that. There's a great "Grindhouse" homage to be made. But it will come from artists trying to break new ground, not those who have sold their soul to the machine.

2 comments:

Jutratest said...

I thought it was strange all these people claiming their love for Grindhouse cinemas.

Kind of like the article I read in Now Magazine a while ago bemoaning the loss of Toronto's last porn theatre. (I thought only people like Travis Bickle went to those)

Same with the marketing for Snakes on a plane.. (It's just like those bad movies you loved!)

I might say that Hollywwood has stopped trying to make good movies and now just markets bad movies as "intentionaly bad - That's what's cool about them", but there are still a few good movies to be watched out there.

Also, I wish Tarantino would stop being so referential and cute. It takes me out of the story. Jackie Brown is still my fave of his.

wcdixon said...

Another great example of the unconscious collective principle....it's ouuut there!