Monday, April 16, 2007

Severed Limbs

This post is going to be all over the place, but I promise you that it makes sense in my head, if nowhere else. Do you ever have one of those stretches when everything you come into contact with—movies, TV, books read for pleasure, books read for class, class discussion, casual conversation with friends—seems to have some underlying connection? Over the past few days, the same ideas have kept popping up and I am going to try to draw them together here.

Let’s start with Titus Andronicus, the subject of my last post and of an ever-growing obsession with me. I first became aware of the play when the film came out but have only recently become intrigued with it. I don’t think people truly appreciate the magnitude of its importance. Shakespeare, the revered bard, the secular saint, really wrote something this messed up. It’s truly mind-boggling.

I had Titus on my mind when I went to see Grindhouse this weekend and I couldn’t have found a better movie to feed my obsession with. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double-feature inhabits the same grey category between art and trash, exploitation and satire, that Titus does, and features even more severed limbs. Severed limbs are a recurring motif in Grindhouse, much as they are in Titus. In Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s film, we have, most famously, lead actress Rose McGowan’s severed leg, which is outfitted with a machine gun in the film’s climax and plays a decisive role and saving the heroes. But there is also Marley Shelton as another heroine, a doctor whose hands are anesthetized by her deranged husband and spends a good portion of the film groping, Lavinia-like, without them.

Both McGowan and Shelton are postmodern, postfeminist takes on the Lavinia motif of the mutilated woman. Both overcome their mutilation to kick zombie ass and, in McGowan’s case, turn it into an asset. Shelton’s character, pointedly, regains use of her hands just in time to help save McGowan from a rapist.

But we can’t read too much into Planet Terror. Not surprisingly, Rodriguez’s film never rises above the B-movie gimmickry of the Grindhouse idea. His much more intelligent and talented friend, however, uses the guise of this gimmick to make what is perhaps his most personal film yet. Death Proof, Tarantino’s half of the double-feature is, on its surface, a B-movie homage just like Planet Terror. While Rodriguez covered the sci-fi/zombie movie, Tarantino took two other grindhouse staples: the slasher film and the car chase film. But Death Proof, the story of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a deranged former stuntman who kills women with his reinforced, “death proof” stunt car is both much more and much less.

While Rodriguez fulfills your expectations with his film (that is meant both positively and negatively), Tarantino confounds them. He uses the Grindhouse label to make an art film disguised as a genre film, in the mode of past B-movie auteurs such as Sam Fuller. The film is, with one notable exception, surprisingly gore-free and spends most of its time focusing on the nine women Stuntman Mike is stalking. Tarantino says his favorite slasher films were the ones that let you get to know and care about the victims before the violence began, and we get that here, with long scenes of typically Tarantino-esque dialogue as the characters shoot the shit in cars and diners. The difference is that this time the characters spitting the dialogue are women, and Tarantino obviously exhibits a fascination with how women talk when men aren’t around. He is also mesmerized by their bodies and uses the guise of the exploitation film to let his camera linger longer than it should on their curves, but they are shot in such in loving way, just as women in his films always are, that it never even reaches exploitation. All of the women in the film, especially Sydney Tamilia Poitier, Vanessa Furlito and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell, join Uma Thurman, Pam Grier and Lucy Liu in the Tarantino Goddess pantheon.

Which brings us to Stuntman Mike, who shares with Tarantino a voyeuristic fascination with these women and a nostalgia for old-fashioned, non-CGI stuntwork. The difference is that, while Quentin channels these notions into a film, Mike releases them by crashing his car into the women and killing them. It’s an almost perfect illustration of Camille Paglia’s famous and controversial formulation that there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.

I have much more to say on this, including a discussion of last week’s episode of The Sopranos which ties into all of this, but I have to wake up in five hours so that will have to be put on hold.

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