Friday, April 06, 2007

Camera Obscura: Grindhouse and Movie News

Is it just in the South that thoughts of an Easter Weekend automatically bring vivid memories of Ham?

Speaking of Ham, the biggest Hams offered for cinematic diners this weekend are plated in a 3-hour memory-filled jaunt for "Grindhouse," a bloody love letter to 70s B-movies from directors Tarantino and Rodriguez. Unlike the movies they pay homage to, these are big-budget and full of Hollywood movie stars, and the irony is thicker than the crust of a banana pudding plopped out as dessert for that Ham dinner. None of the dinner can be good for you, but it's the communal good times and the self-indulgence that is being celebrated here.

Let me be even more smug for a minute -- I hope all can enjoy the "Grindhouse" memory lane thrill ride, but I was there when it all happened to begin with. If you weren't there too, then you missed it. It's gone. The time may be remembered fondly in these movies, but it's nothing like being there for the real thing.

While Tennessee had few of the urban, skeezy theaters where the term "grindhouse" was made, referencing the number of bad movies gound out as well as the behavior of amorous adults scattered in the back rows and balconies, we had something else where these movies thrived, once upon a time - the Drive-In.

We went to double and triple features with our dates, knowing the movies were stupid and bad, but full of expectation that our dates, stuck in a confined space and disgusted or bored by the movies, would join in for some other entertainment created on our side of the fogged windows. Hours of quality alone time for just a few dollars serenaded by hollow, mono-sound screams and roars and cheesy music. If the dates got really heated, you shut down the drive-in speakers and listened to your own radio as flickering light from the screen was pushed into the background.

Dateless? Then you usually went with a carload of friends, coolers all fat with ice and beer, and you watched the movies for a while, but again eventually the entertainment soon became the conversations and the laughter of friends. A double bill like "Women In Cages" and "Death Race 2000" was full of stuff you'd never see on a television or in a comfy theatre. You might see the occasional movie of future big name stars or directors, but the big names never, ever went back to the low end to make movies for these venues.

Today, you can see any movie, uncut or unrated, at home. The tainted patina of ilicit movies, banned movies, gory horror and freakish weirdness cannot exist when any and every thing is available via NetFlix or cable to anyone with some cash. You can't ban it, the "too shocking for theater" ads are gone. The drive-ins and grindhouses are gone too, though you can go to sources like Starlite Drive-In DVDs for such movies as "Hustler Squad" and "Wild Riders".

It was strange too, the movies which were jammed together as the 70s wound down. Movies would get jumbled together so you might see the odd double bill of "Macon County Line" and "Logan's Run," or one of my most favorite such nights was when we went to see "Walking Tall Part 2" and "Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask."

And the best place to go here in East Tennessee was the old Woodzo Drive-In in Newport, where the manager would stop the movie just prior to the final reel for 15 or 20 minutes, his voice echoing through the tinny speakers that the movie would start up again soon, after you all came into the concession stand for to make those last orders of questionable foods. And there were countless times in a movie when the dialog would be interrupted by a drawling voice saying "Billy, yer peet-zer is ready .... Billy ... come to the snack bar ... yer peet-zer is ready ..."

A lasting image I have is of children idly playing on rusty swing-sets in the semi-darkness underneath a giant weather-beaten screen filled with grainy footage of a guy whirling a chainsaw over his head and chasing a half-naked chick.

Good times.

As for the new movie opening today from today's Hollywood bad-boy directors, "Planet Terror" from director Rodriguez is the first feature. It's the story of a tow-truck driving crook and his go-go dancer ex-girlfriend trying to escape from a town overrun with mindless zombies. It even includes a title card for "missing reel" so the whole movie isn't exactly whole.

A batch of wild and crazy Coming Attractions is offered too, with trailers made by Rob Zombie and others, telling of even more bizzare movies headed down the pike.

Tarantino's movie "Death Proof" is next, and it's different from the first feature, not nearly as wildly over-the-top and centered more on characters and dialog, but all building to a manical climax. Kurth Russell has loads of fun playing a sadistic killer named Stuntman Mike who ends up picking on the wrong batch of female victims. Car crashes and surprises, dead ahead. (By the way, up next for Tarantino is his turn as actor, playing the character of Ringo in Takashi Miike's upcoming release "Sukiyaki Western Django." Love that title.)

Reviews good and bad abound on the internet, but I enjoyed this one from Dork Nation and this one from Cinematical. But, really, you don't need or even care for reviews if you have the tiniest interest in seeing "Grindhouse" and no review will change your mind if the movie sounds to you like a horrifying example of America's Declining Culture.

Both the fans and the would-be B-movie makers got the chance to make their own trailers for cheesy movies this year, and the results can be seen here from the SXSW Festival.

And speaking of Cinematical, that site has become a constant read for me. This week included stories on the repeated and apparently failed remakes of "Invasion of The Body Snatchers." Also some very welcome news that the Coen Brothers latest movie, "No Country For Old Men" is set to premiere at the Cannes Festival in May, along with a new concert movie from U2 in 3D.

Cinematical is a new stop on my daily reads for entertainment and movie news.

Now ya'll just dig in this weekend and help yourself to the Ham and 'nanner puddin'.


  1. ah, you brought back so many memories of going to the drive-in when I was a kid! Back about 10 years ago, there was still a drive-in just north of Nashville, and we used to go there every so often. It's closed now, too.

    There are a few still around, just not close enough.

    Those were good times, indeed.

    Have a great weekend.

  2. Cinematical is in my Google Reader. I adore it.

  3. Growing up in the post-drive in era, I can't relate much to the whole double feature thing.
    That said, it sure seems nice.

  4. Squirrel Queen12:14 AM

    Oh man. I'm so jealous.
    I've been begging Newscoma all week to trek to the theater to see Grindhouse.
    Of course, the green stuff oozing out of her lungs is sort of slowing us down. I'm hoping she feels better tomorrow, but until then it reminds me of some of the zombie special effects from movies of that ilk.
    But your flashback to the movie past was surely enough to tide me over until we get to see it on the big screen.
    BTW and ironically, we had an outdoor viewing experience named Starlite Drive-in Theater in our neck of the woods back in the day.
    Ahh, good times.
    I know you can find just about anything and everything on Netflix, but it just doesn't have the same impact on a 32-inch screen in your living room with the phone ringing and the neighbor's dog barking in the background. That sort of gore and those car crash explosions needed to be seen on a giant screen with a giant bucket of greasy, buttered popcorn balanced on your knee and your soda stuck to the floor next to your foot because a genius hadn't yet invented cupholders.

  5. SQ, you are spot on about the difference watching at home vs in a theater.

    fortunately in Morristown there is an old theater (state of the art when built in 1980) where movies like Grindhouse play great. the seats are like battered folding chairs, no niceities like cupholders, the floor stickier than duct tape, and it was colder than hell in the auditorium.

    people kept yelling out "turn up the heat!!" i could see us all breaking the seats apart to start a fire to keep warm by as we watched the movies.

  6. ps
    dang that nasty infection afflicting Newscoma!!

  7. Anonymous9:28 PM

    Grindhouse was worth the admission just to hear Kurt Russell scream like a baby. And it surely would have been right at home at the Woodzo.