American Grindhouse 2010 US
Directed by Elijah Drenner
Screening at Raindance Film Festival 3rd October 2010
It was with a sense of hope that I went to see the new documentary American Grindhouse at the Raindance Festival last week. I basically wanted to get two things out of it... 1) I wanted to learn a lot more about this particular subject than I already did because most of the exploitation films I enjoy are not made in America (they just seem to have just a little less sparkle and value in them than their European counterparts to my eyes) and it’s one of those “film education gaps” that I really need filling and 2) I wanted to get a whole list of exploitation titles I’d never even heard of to track down on some obscure bootleg DVDs from dodgy dealers on the Film Fair circuit.
Well I’m afraid objective number one remains completely unfulfilled and as for the list of titles to track down... well I’ve got one to look for I guess.
The documentary is split into chapters with various people interviewed as the film starts with American movies shot before the Hayes code and then goes through the years charting what the writer and director consider to be “Grindhouse Movies” and possibly attempting to give the growth of various kinds of movies some kind of linear progression although, if that is what they were aiming for, then that’s probably a hard thing to do since I guess exploitation just trends with whatever is going to make money at a particular time (for whatever reason) and then dies a quick death as the next bandwagon is jumped on.
I was surprised at some of the choices to be honest... Shaft is a blaxploitation movie sure (and a pretty good one, though if you're only going to watch one of these cool babies then Coffy is the one to watch)... but it’s also a big budget MGM affair and not necessarily what I would personally class as a “Grindhouse movie”... and I think that’s where one of the problems of this documentary stands. If it is trying to segregate the various types of exploitation pictures over the years into a “them versus U.S.” kind of pattern, then you really need to know what the definition of what you’re talking about is rather than leave it with the possibility that it's... as John Landis commented about one film... “not something I would consider Grindhouse.”
Still, it’s not a bad introduction, I guess, for people who have absolutely no background in these kinds of quick and dirty, trashy moneymakers. There’s a nice range of interviewees, the most dominant being John Landis, Joe Dante and William Lustig... but there’s also some brief footage of other very interesting people like Alison Anders, Jack Hill and Fred Williamson who have a few things to say and sometimes that can be refreshing. Also, someone who I don’t consciously remember seeing before in some new interview footage is Don Edmonds, director of the infamous Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS with the revelation (to me) that he really didn’t want to make the movie but there was lots of cash involved and he needed the money so he decided to really go for it. My personal take on Ilsa from both his original and Jess Franco’s unofficial entry into the series is that they are actually pretty grubby films, devoid of the entertainment value which I usually look for in a good exploitation picture but that the buxom and intelligent enthusiasm of Dyanne Thorne (you may know her from the old Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action”) made these tired movies at least partially watchable.
One thing that bothered me about the documentary was that there didn’t seem to be much in the way of range of different exploitation works on show here, or even referenced. Sure it mentioned blaxploitation, sexploitation and nazisploitation but... well, for example, there were no nunsploitation films mentioned that I can remember... perhaps the Americans never made any?
Another thing that I found a bit distracting (other than the fact that at Raindance they were playing it ever so slightly out of synch) was the use of classical music throughout... sure these guys have a budget to stick to (probably a very small one, to be fair) and a lot of this stuff is probably public domain anyway (at least the music, possibly not the recordings) but there were quite a few instances where they were playing this stuff actually over the film clips or trailers and this gave the experience of watching these little snippets of Z grade exploitation an element that they didn’t have when they were first shown... so that was quite annoying, actually.
The one thing I do now have to look forward to, as a result of this film, is trying to track down a terrible looking exploitation movie called The Tormentors. I’ve never seen a Nazis Vs Jesus movie before but I’m betting that there haven’t been too many of those made in the history of the cinema! I’ll be asking certain traders about that next time I find myself in any little celluloid back alleys of London.
All in all, American Grindhouse is really not a bad documentary movie... a bit lifeless in places perhaps but I’m afraid I’m reviewing this film with the background of having seen some of this stuff already. So my advice to the potential audience would be... go see this movie. If you know nothing about the subject matter then you will find yourself informed about this stuff at a basic entry level. If, however, you come to this knowing a little about this “genre” of moviemaking already then you may well find yourself less entertained than you might have hoped for... either stay at home or grind and bare it. :-D