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Notes from the Grindhouse Festival
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

Quentin Tarantino has successfully introduced the tawdry romance of the “grindhouses”—‘70s inner-city theaters catering to the sex-violence crowd—into the public consciousness. Anyone following the pre-release hype for his latest opus, aptly named GRINDHOUSE, has heard QT’s lurid (and suspiciously too-bad-to-be-true) stories surrounding these ramshackle theaters: the winos, the hookers, the drive-by shootings in the street just outside, the black people in the audience continually yelling at the screen, the perverts jacking off in their raincoats. So when QT announced the L.A.-area New Beverly Cinema as the location for his two-month retrospective of ‘70s films (March 4-May 1, 2007), you probably assumed it was the sort of joint you couldn’t get to without taking a walk on the wild side. In truth, it’s located smack dab in the Fairfax District, a fairly upscale, predominantly Jewish neighborhood. There’s a synagogue across the street, for Christ’s sake. The world-famous Beverly Hills 90210 is only a couple miles down the road. The proper ambience just isn’t there. You have to get inside the theater to bask in the scuzziness.

Well, okay, it’s not even all that scuzzy in the interior, really, but the theater’s odd, cramped design strangely complements the cheap-ass films on display. Everything about this place is too small. The lobby is so tiny that lines at the refreshment stand rapidly turn into logistical nightmares. The men’s bathroom quite literally looks like it used to be a broom closet, with a doorway you have almost have to walk through sideways. The seats have uncomfortably thin armrests. Just before the screen there is an old, disused stage area jutting out (they used to host vaudeville shows, many years ago), which has the fortunate effect that the front row is set far enough back that you can sit there and still get a decent view without breaking your neck. Luckily, the prices are small too, relatively speaking: seven bucks gets you a double feature; three bucks gets you a large bag of popcorn.

The Festival runs nightly double- and triple-features grouped by theme. They’ve already had Low-Budget Horror night and Euro Sex Comedy night, and on this particular evening the theater is hosting a “regional triple-feature.” “Regional” is, of course, the traditional euphemism for films of a white-trash bent, in the same way that “urban” movies are those with mostly black folks. ‘70s “regional” films were made in the South and in many cases they stayed in the South, never to be shown outside the local drive-in circuit.

And it all went down like so:

Hot Summer in Barefoot County (1974)
I tend to be suspicious of any film bearing the Troma imprint. True, they’re not all soul-destroying, unendurable piles of cow dung, but so many of them are that you have to approach any given Troma offering with extreme caution. The best I can say for Hot Summer is that I managed to sit through all of it. This piece of homespun Southern goofiness deals with a big-city cop who tries to infiltrate a family of moonshiners, only to fall in love with one of matriarch’s daughters, a busty, Daisy Duke-ish lass. The chicks are cute, but the film is overloaded with the sort of lame, laborious whimsy one has come to expect from all things Troma. It’s only occasionally funny—and never when it’s supposed to be. However, the film print was agreeably ratty, with an obnoxious buzzing noise that kept cropping up on the soundtrack; so from a grindhouse perspective it wasn’t a total loss. GRADE: D.

Redneck Miller (1977)
Now here’s a find. As I write this, there is virtually no information about this thing anywhere on the Internet, so this calls for details. Our Redneck Miller is a cool white motherfucker who works as a DJ for a country music station in North Carolina. During his off-hours he tools around with a snazzy-looking motorbike (he keeps it parked on the back of his truck), and fucks every woman he can get his mitts on. Unbeknownst to him, somebody temporarily “borrows” his bike to steal a coke shipment from a local black drug kingpin. Said kingpin traces the bike back to its owner, our man Redneck Miller, and kidnaps him in an effort to retrieve the dope. As Mr. Miller doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t particularly care, he casually announces, “Damn it, I’m sick of this shit,” beats the hell out of everyone in the room, and without giving the matter another thought returns to his simple life as a womanizing country-music DJ.

But things get further complicated when, shortly afterward, Mr. Miller stops to help a black woman with a flat tire; this encounter ends with both parties doing the horizontal bop in the front seat. Said black woman then spills the beans about the whole incident to her boyfriend…who just happens to be a certain local drug kingpin. And let’s just say his little feud with Redneck Miller keeps escalating from there.

This is a pretty strange little film, one that doesn’t follow your typical action-movie template; and it’s not without its moments of unintended silliness. But it’s not hard to see why QT likes it: you’ve got an interracial cast, a somewhat amoral anti-hero at its center, and a breezy attitude towards sex and violence. When one of our hero’s many girlfriends bitches him out for failing to intervene as she was on the verge of being gang raped, Redneck Miller straight-facedly responds, “You can take a lot of loving, but I can only get killed once.” GRADE: B+.

In Hot Pursuit (A.K.A. Polk County Pot Plane) (1977)
This was a late addition to the program, as the above two films were originally the only features scheduled. Another little-known movie, shot in Georgia, it seems to have been made largely by non-professionals (though an IMDB search reveals that editor Angelo Ross was nominated for an Oscar around the same time, for Smokey and the Bandit). And in a lot of ways, it shows: the acting quite frankly sucks, even more so than in the other two features; that guy who gets shot in the head looks like he was mauled by a bottle of ketchup; and the storyline—pot-smuggling good-ol’-boys try to evade the cops—is thin in the extreme. Somehow, though, the film manages to bring the goods. A big chunk of the running time is composed of chase scenes, and they’re surprisingly well done. They also seem to have bent over backward to bring veracity to the action bits; a scene involving a helicopter-aided prison escape is shot in an unbroken take, in a way that it becomes obvious that those guys dangling from the landing skids in midair aren’t supported by wires or any safety aids whatsoever. The end credits boast, “No Stunt Men[sic] Were Used in This Film,” and I believe it. GRADE: B-.

Each film was preceded by roughly ten minutes of old trailers for similar features, so you saw a lot of cars smashing into shit while cops shot at them. Some of these could be called “grindhouse” films only by stretching the term. John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line was a major studio release, QT. Others were notable mostly for their wonky titles (Ride in a Pink Car?? Love and the Midnight Auto Supply????). But they did serve as a good, ahem, crash course for anyone unversed in the strange universe of ’70s film trailers, in which the general strategy was to have the voiceover guy yell the title over and over like a drunk with OCD. Made at a time when trailers weren’t nearly so tediously formulaic as today, they’re often a lot more fun than the films they’re advertising. Which is why everyone needs to stop exhorting Eli Roth to expand Thanksgiving into a feature.

QT himself was not in attendance, although he’s reportedly been popping in to introduce various films. No doubt he was back at home, contemplating the dismal box-office take for Grindhouse and shouting “WHY?! WHY?!” into his pillow. Still, you have to applaud him for his efforts in film preservation; there’s no question that he’s dedicated to movies—not just fame and fortune, but movies—in a way that few people are in Hollywoodland. Those were his film posters decorating the lobby, for flicks like The Swinging Barmaids (“They love big tips!”). Make no mistake: This man is a nerd. And like all nerds, he is absolutely, embarrassingly sincere about what he believes in—that’s the one thing that whole legion of QT wannabes back in the ‘90s, with all their manufactured attitude, just didn’t get. And even despite his recent setbacks, who can say that his nerdy passion hasn’t served him well?

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originally posted: 04/16/07 20:00:50
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