With a documentary on Grindhouse cinema, you really have to ask yourself one question before you sit down and watch it. How much do I already know about Grindhouse Cinema? Where the problem comes is that most of the people that would be drawn to a documentary on Grindhouse movies in 2010 are people that were already obsessed with them long before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made it fashionable to dig on these marginal classics again.
I’ll get right to the point. If you’ve got Bill Landis’ book Sleezoid Express, or The Psychotronic Video Guide, or most anything Something Weird Video puts out, or a stockpile of 42nd Street Forever DVDs in the corner, or if you know who Andy Milligan, Doris Wishman and “Kroger” Babb are, then you have no business here. Congratulations my friend you are one of us. Get your trenchcoat on and we’ll go catch a nudie-cutie together someday. Of course the truth of the matter is, if you qualify as a crazed lover of the weird and wild world of American Grindhouse cinema, wild horses probably couldn’t drag you away from seeing this documentary. So I want you to go in prepared as much as I want the neophyte film lover to understand what they are about to see.
American Grindhouse is less exploration and more academic introduction to the history of this subsection of cinematic culture. Think of it as Exploitation 101. We begin with Edison and the birth of film. The documentary lines up a who’s who of genre experts including Directors John Landis and Joe Dante (Both huge proponents of keeping Grindhouse cinema alive), classic exploitationeers like Fred Olen Ray, Jack Hill and the Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis as well as critical analysts Kim Morgan and author of Grindhouse: The Forbidden World of ‘Adults Only’ Cinema, Eddie Muller. These authorities as well as a laundry list of others take us from Sexploitation to Blacksploitation to Nudist Camp movies and back again. Each segment providing nuggets of information on an assortment of films as well as the cultural significance and impact the release of those films had at the time.
Indeed, it seems that American Grindhouse is more interested in discussing why these films came about and what their legacy is than it is in (for lack of a better word) exploiting their existence. In that respect, those of you with no solid base knowledge of these films will find much to be learned here, and assistance,–if you will–in determining films of value to seek out on your own. For those of you that have already seen these movies, this documentary is going to play more like a highlight reel for most of best known works. To say that I was hoping this production would play a bit more like the great all-encompassing Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood is an understatement. For me, American Grindhouse is more of the same and not enough of it. Which brings me to my biggest complaint.
Running a scant 82-minutes and attempting to cover every subset of Grindhouse films, leaves the discerning audience wanting. In truth, you could take any title card in the movie and make another 80 minute documentary about just that subject and still not really get a grip on everything there is to know. Perhaps that’s the problem in a nutshell. The term “Grindhouse” encompasses a staggering range of film types. From comedy and drama, horror and sci-fi, to porno, stag films, teenage hellcat movies, and ephemeral videos about dope smoking, childbirth and everything in between. It’d be almost impossible to catalogue all of this in anything short of a 12-hour Ken Burns extravaganza.
Still, perhaps the fact that the film touches on all of these subjects, even if it doesn’t offer a truly satisfying look into each one, is enough to pique the interest of a virgin audience into seeking out more of these movies. I’m going to assume that this was the intention of Director Elijah Drenner and co-writer Calum Waddell. To simply scratch the surface of the cross-genre landscape that is Grindhouse cinema. To put that itch in the back of your brain. To make you think. To make you want to see more. To fire up your imagination.
You know, in many ways that’s exactly what the great exploitationeers of the past did. They showed you just enough. Just enough to make you want to plop down your hard earned money to buy a ticket, cross the threshold, take a seat and go along for the ride. Maybe you were disappointed when the credits rolled or maybe your life was changed. My hope is that some of you out there that only just caught wind of the magic of those forgotten films thanks to the failed experiment that was the feature film Grindhouse might look a little further and find out that there is a twisted history of anit-Hollywood films all waiting to be discovered. You don’t have to head down to the seedy sections of town and slip past the drunks, the hustlers and the sex fiends to cop a sticky seat and check out one of these classic pieces of celluloid trash–you can watch them all in the relative safety of your living room. But, it be a lot cooler if Giuliani hadn’t cleaned up 42nd Street.