Sunday, May 27, 2007

Grindhouse thrills

I spent a lot of time at the movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, at indoor theaters and drive-ins alike. It was a very impressionable period for me (though I had to rely on others to take me, or at least drop me off, not being old enough to drive) and a lot of those movies likely warped me for life. After all, it wasn't exactly THE BAD NEWS BEARS or THE BLACK STALLION I was seeing. It was more likely ROLLING THUNDER or THE KILLER ELITE (and god bless those underpaid ticket sellers who never bothered to check IDs.)

With that background, I was keen on the concept of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's GRINDHOUSE and its attempt to pay homage to the low-budget exploitation films of that time. Double feature - cool! Trailers in between - cooler! Unfortunately, I wasn't that taken by the movie itself. I felt both of the films - PLANET TERROR and DEATH PROOF - were too long by about 20 mins. each. And though I liked quite a bit about DEATH PROOF, I found it relentlessly padded in classic Tarantino style, with endless circular discussions of pop culture and close-ups of women's feet. As great as the last 20 mins. of DP were, I found the first two-thirds somewhat numbing. I can't imagine how it plays now that Tarantino has extended it to feature length for European release (it debuted at the Cannes festival earlier this month). In all, I think the double-feature gimmick would have worked better if the films had been shorter, and the joke not played out so long. And, as writer Jim Harrison has said, after awhile the whole post-ironic irony thing becomes nothing more than "scratching your own tired old ass."

However, this weekend I got to revisit a genuine grindhouse film from that period, 1975's RACE WITH THE DEVIL, starring Peter Fonda and the great Warren Oates. I saw the film on its original release at a Pennsylvania drive-in, paired with BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (the same drive-in where I saw VANISHING POINT and FRENZY, among other films). I hadn't seen it in the intervening 32 years though, and I wasn't sure how it would stand up.

I shouldn't have worried. When it comes to genuine bang-for-your-buck grindhouse value, RACE WITH THE DEVIL delivers.

The plot's as simple as they come, but RACE hits a trifecta of '70s genres. It's a road movie, supernatural thriller and rural action flick all in one. Oates and Fonda are motorcycle designers who head off on vacation in a Vogue motor home (on loving display, inside and out, for most of the film. Its furnishings include an early '70s microwave oven) with their wives, played by Loretta "Hot Lips" Swit and Lara "Dark Shadows" Parker. They're traveling from Texas to Colorado, but on their first night out in the Great Nowhere, they stumble upon a group of Satanists making a human sacrifice. Vacationers flee, Satanists follow. And follow and follow. That's the story. (If it sounds familiar, 1993's JUDGMENT NIGHT, starring Emilio Estevez, is essentially the same movie set in urban Chicago rather than the Southwest.)

Once that chase begins, RACE almost never lets up. Every small town they come to is creepier than the next. Everyone stares at them knowingly and the phones never seem to work. The film hits high gear with a long stretch of pre-MAD MAX highway mayhem, with Satanists in a variety of vehicles trying to run them off the road or clamber aboard the RV to get at the driver, with the vacationers occasionally popping off at them with a shotgun.

If *that* sounds familiar, it should. Watching RACE WITH THE DEVIL, it occurred to me how closely the chase choreography mirrors what George Miller did in the climactic chase of THE ROAD WARRIOR six years later. Of course, the whole concept dates back to John Ford's STAGECOACH in 1939, but the two chases echo each other so closely that someone involved in ROAD WARRIOR had to have seen RACE WITH THE DEVIL at some point. Instead of WARRIOR's tanker truck, the target is an RV, but once the final chase - down a long straight stretch of desert highway - gets under way, the similarities abound. The Satanists drive a bizarre assortment of vehicles - including, in both films, a tow truck - and scramble onto the roof of the RV to attack it from above. Plowing along at high speed, the RV swerves from side to side, pushing smaller pursuing vehicles off the road. Cars careen, crash, tip over and roll a dozen times. Stuntmen fly through the air, earning what hopefully was a generous paycheck. The only thing missing is a gyro-copter dropping rattlesnakes on the bad guys from above. And it all happens in what Roger Corman would have called "a cracking 88 minutes"

Make no mistake, THE ROAD WARRIOR is a far superior piece of cinema in every respect. Its climactic chase is brilliantly conceived and executed, and can take your breath away no matter how many times you've seen it. But its roots are in RACE WITH THE DEVIL, a film which effortlessly encapsulates what Rodriguez and Tarantino were striving so hard to emulate. For an authentic grindhouse experience, look no further.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Warren Zevon and the Secret of Life

A few months before he died of lung cancer in 2003 at age 56, Warren Zevon appeared on his old friend David Letterman's show, for an hour devoted totally to Zevon and his music. When Letterman asked if he'd had any revelations since learning of his terminal diagnosis, Zevon thought for a moment, gave that trademark enigmatic smile and said "Not unless I know (now) how much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich."

The recent months have seen a flood of reissues of Zevon CDs, as well as a book written by his ex-wife, titled I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD, after one of his songs. Just this month, on the New West label, came a new two-CD set called "Preludes," consisting of outtakes, demos and alternate versions of some of his early songs. The second disc is a 1999 radio interview with Zevon conducted by Austin, Texas, DJ Jody Denberg, shortly after the release of Zevon's great acoustic album "Life'll Kill Ya." The record had several reflections on mortality, including the title song and the prayer-like "Don't Let Us Get Sick." It was three years before Zevon would learn about his cancer (asbestos-related mesothelioma), though he was already no stranger to songs about death and dying. During the interview, Denberg asks about his fascination with the topic.

"The fact that life'll kill ya is just that," Zevon says. "It's a fact ... I think you have to spend a fair amount of time realizing that you will be (dead), so that you remember to enjoy everything that you possibly can every minute you're not. You always want to try and tell younger people that, which is very difficult, 'cause they don't really hear it because they feel that life has been imposed on them. And, of course, they're absolutely correct. But still, you want to tell them 'Hey, you could be having a lot of fun.' ... As Snoop Doggy Dogg and my father used to say, 'It's all good'."

Monday, May 07, 2007

At the gates of Eden

Back in town and - thankfully, after two awful weeks on Flintstones-era dial-up - back up on a working DSL connection ...

There's much about the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in the news these days, including Queen Elizabeth's recent visit. And by coincidence this weekend I finally saw Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD, a slightly fact/slightly fiction retelling of the first days at Jamestown and the love affair between Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher).

Malick is a filmmaker who divides audiences into two camps. You're either mesmerized by his films or bored to tears. I fall solidly into the former. I've seen THE THIN RED LINE half a dozen times, and could watch it a half dozen more. If I decide to watch five minutes and no more, I end up surfacing an hour later, only vaguely aware of how much time has passed. You don't watch Malick's films, you climb inside them - or not, depending on your tolerance for multiple voiceovers and endless shots of waving grass and monkeys chattering in trees.

For some reason, however, I'd never seen THE NEW WORLD until now, put off perhaps by the mixed reviews and the fluctuating running times (the DVD contains Malick's shorter, tighter 135-minute cut, as opposed to the 150-minute premiere cut). I should have known better. It's a masterpiece.

All of Malick's films are, in one way or another, about the expulsion from Eden, and THE NEW WORLD is perhaps the ultimate realization of that theme. It's also the most moving of Malick's films. While its historical canvas is an epic one, its central tale is simple, compact and universal. Where does love live? How does it grow - or die? Released from chains when his ship reaches the strip of land that will become Jamestown, Smith learns to connect with both the natural world around him, and the true, pure heart of an Indian princess, whom he eventually abandons. It would be merely storybook cliche, if Malick and his actors didn't make it all feel so achingly real.

Smith's story is played against - and echoes - the larger historical context. The settlers dig for gold rather than plant corn, and ultimately starve as the result. Smith finds the love that makes him whole and then leaves her to pursue rumored passages to other seas. But when does the quest end? At what point does one recognize the riches around them? Or find that what they've been seeking has in fact been there for the nurturing all along? To quote Emerson, whose work resounds in Malick's films, "To different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven."

In a heartbreaking scene late in the film, Smith and Pocahontas - now known by her English name of Rebecca - are reunited a final time in England. In the interim, she has married a farmer, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and given birth to a son. "Did you find your Indies, John?" she asks. The look in Farrell's eyes - longing, regret, pain - says it all, but the next line drives it home. "I may have sailed past them" he admits.

I could go on, but much more cogent and in-depth discussions can be found in the vicinity of here.