Monday, April 9, 2007

The Worst of All Possible Outcomes

Well, it happened... Grindhouse flopped.

The film's poor showing really wouldn't be all that disconcerting if it wasn't for the fact that the two films directly above it, Are We Done Yet? and Meet the Robinsons, are such utterly brainless confections as to not even warrant discussion. So with that, I'll leave them aside to address the real point at hand here: this was, for all intents and purposes, the worst of all possible outcomes for Grindhouse the film, for the Weinsteins, for Quentin Tarantino and, indeed, for all those who love movies.

Make no mistake here, what Tarantino and company tried to do, and what the Weinsteins surprisingly signed off on, was a long shot. It wasn't like there were audiences out there clamoring for a grindhouse theater revival. Certainly, there were folks, niche markets and fanbases who were excited by the idea. The sheer amount of attention that the media and blogosphere showed the film indicates that, at least at some level, Grindhouse sparked immaginations and curiosities.

But (and this is a pretty big but), it looks as though folks just weren't ready for this type of experiment, weren't interested in making Tarantino part of their Easter weekend, and perhaps worst of all, weren't really interested in engaging what amounted to a challenging film in a lot of regards.
A lot of outlets have spent a lot of time discussing how surprising this latest Weinstein failure has been. In all honesty though, the deck was stacked against success in this case. Grindhouse was long. And, despite the surreal amount of media attention over the final week or so, I still have the sense that not many regular people knew what this movie was actually about. (I use regular folks here to refer to those that don't have film releases written on their calendar six months in advance.) I had a number of friends and relations say things like, "Isn't that the movie that's like, two movies?" or just simply "I don't get it." Either way, too much of the publicity probably assumed too much knowledge about what constituted grindhouse cinema to actually be effective and not confusing.

So now the talk turns to releasing Planet Terror and Death Proof into two films, something that I think will probably increase the box office potential of the whole project even while it demeans its cultural significance. At its core, Grindhouse was about recreating a film going experience that really doesn't exist outside niche offerings at art house theaters. Every part of the 3+ hour experience played to that end, from the schlock-y editing and digitally manipulated film stock to the over-the-top trailers and goofy age guidelines. All that will be lost when the films are split.

Instead, we'll be left with two very interesting genre offerings. Rodriguez's film, a real zombie gore-fest, plays pastiche for generic criticism. This has become a staple of modern horror cinema, with virtually every competent director nodding at favorite films or scenes from the past. But few do it as ham-fistedly or for as many laughs as Rodriguez does in Planet Terror. Tarantino on the other hand has offered up what, if Kill Bill hadn't been released so recently, I might call the ultimate Tarantino film. Unlike in Kill Bill however, Tarantino showed almost no restraint for flexing his cinephile muscles. Drawing heavily on little known genre films (embarrassingly, even to me), he subjected viewers to a film that dragged at times when Tarantino's script clearly got bogged down in his own twisted intellect. That being said, Grindhouse's final half hour was among the most intense and exciting I've seen in quite a long time.

Which brings us back to the real losers in this whole mess: movie goers. As I said, Grindhouse was a bet, a pretty big one it turns out. And Hollywood hates losing bets. What Hollywood loves are Will Ferrell comedies, animated family movies and Ice-Cube shit shows that loosely resemble films. (Disclaimer: I haven't seen any of these movies, and therefore can only operate under the assumption that they are pretty worthless. Let's just say I feel safe with this assumption.) If not for rolling the dice with the combined release, the Weinsteins might have had two decently successful genre films. Instead, they are stradled with a ton of bad press and a poorly performing film at roughly 3000 theaters across the country. Unfortunately, this failure will only deter further risk and will lead to more "safe bets" and rehashes of already known entities. Is that the end of the world? Of course not. But it will make for some pretty boring weekend afternoons.

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