J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Delivering the Goods: American Grindhouse

It seems like every hipster filmmaker wants to make a retro-grindhouse movie these days, but the results are usually pretty lame. The truth is real deal grindhouse auteurs did not have time for posing. They had to get their shots before the cops shut them down. The subversive attitude of their oeuvre flowed organically from their dodgy working environment, thoroughly infusing the zero-budget cult films Elijah Drenner lovingly surveys in American Grindhouse (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

“Exploitation” films were independently produced movies with some grabby element to “exploit” that audiences could not otherwise find from mainstream studio fare. Though not necessarily limited to sex and violence, those were certainly the biggies. Drugs and circus freaks were also reliable hooks. Such films were typically booked into seedy pre-Giuliani-era Times Square-style theaters, often playing continuously without formal start times (hence the grind in grindhouse).

Drenner and his battery of film scholars start with the silent era, when Universal hit pay dirt with Traffic in Souls, a rather sensationalistic story of white slavery, carrying the fig leaf of a progressive reform message. It established the template many exploitation filmmakers would profitably follow for decades, including the so-called “Forty Thieves” emerging in 1930’s.

Grindhouse surveys a number of rather self-explanatory sub-genres, like the “birth of a baby” movies, the beach party movies, faux nudist documentaries, the “nudie cuties,” the “roughies,” women-in-prison films, Nazi-exploitation (exemplified with class and distinction by Ilsa the She-Wolf of the SS), and the ageless blaxploitation picture. Amongst his many talking heads, Drenner notably scored sit-down interview time with Fred Williamson, of Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem fame, who looks and sounds as cool as ever.

While Grindhouse focuses squarely on the filmmakers, it is not a cheap tease. Indeed, many of the voluminous clips from the seminal classics under discussion are real eye-poppers. Still, Drenner maintains the right balance of (half)-serious cultural history and the crowd pleasing naughty bits.

Well-stocked with wild stories and vintage scenes of pure lunacy, Grindhouse is a whole lot of fun, sort of like an old school Hollywood Boulevard version of That’s Entertainment. Like the “birth of a baby” films it documents, Grindhouse is in fact educational, but its subject matter is definitely mature. Yet ultimately, it is a winning tribute to genuinely independent filmmakers, marginalized and even demonized though they might have been. Heartily recommended to those who already have a good idea what they will be getting into, Grindhouse opens this Friday (2/4) in New York at the Cinema Village.

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