Esoteric 3 1/2-hour Art Film Disappoints at Box Office: Experts Baffled

All Hollywood is a-twitter about Grindhouse failing to meet expectations.

Why did it fail? Critics loved it.  Audiences, such as they are, loved it.  I loved it (I want to see it again before I write anything about it — it’s quite an experience, but I can almost guarantee you it is not what you expect it will be).

(I got a phone call from a female friend, no fan of violence against women or cinematic esoterica, on opening night, imploring me to run, don’t walk, to see it immediately.)

Rodriguez, Tarantino and the Weinsteins offered audiences a feast: two full-length features, plus fake previews, for the price of a single ticket (I saw it at a matinee for six dollars.  Six dollars!)  The package is a cinematic marvel, the movies are great, there are all kinds of extra gewgaws that come with it (fake trailers, fake scratches on the prints, all manner of filmic in-jokes).  Why did people stay away?

I blame the marketing.  My wife and I saw a trailer for Grindhouse in front of a sold-out house for the opening night of 300.  In theory, it should have been the perfect house for the trailer: young, film-savvy couples hopped up on bloodlust.  But the trailer, in its rush to tell us all the things Grindhouse is, got very confusing.  It’s a movie called Grindhouse!  And it’s got a movie called Planet Terror in it!  And it’s got another movie called Death Proof in it!  And it’s some kind of homage to 70s explotation cinema!  And it’s directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino!  And it’s got all your favorite movie stars in it!  And there’s a woman with a machine-gun for a leg!  And there’s Kurt Russell driving a car!  And, and, and —

And I, there in the audience, who love both Rodriguez and Tarantino, should be the ideal audience for this movie, and indeed I have been waiting anxiously to see it, and yet by the time the trailer is done, I’m completely confused.  Is it a movie?  Is it two movies?  Is it three movies?  Is it some kind of anthology film, made up of several short movies?  Did Rodriguez and Tarantino collaborate on the movie, or did they each direct separate movies?  What the hell is it?  And you could feel it all around in the audience too, five hundred young filmgoers wanting to see this movie, but being utterly confused as to what the hell was just advertised.  And any time an audience sees an advertisement and responds by saying “What was that?” the movie is doomed.

Look at the poster above.  As far as being a spot-on parody of a sleazy drive-in double-feature poster from 1972, it’s perfect, beyond perfect.  As an advertisement for a $100 million product of mainstream American entertainment, it’s confusing as hell.  Two movies?  A double feature?  Is it a joke?  Is it for real?  Is it parody?  Of what?  What kind of movie is it?  They’re asking me for ten dollars (say Mr. and Ms. Moviegoer) — I want to know what it is.

This movie (these movies — wait, what is this?) was heavily marketed — here in LA, there were enormous cardboard displays, taking up whole sections of theater lobbies, in addition to the regular posters and displays, but the displays, like the trailer and the poster here, either tried to sell the entire package, confusingly, or else, even more bafflingly, tried to sell each movie as its own entity (there are bus-bench ads for Death Proof all over LA, making it look like Quentin Tarantino has a new movie out, but with no mention of the Grindhouse title).

On top of that, lest we forget, this is an art movie.  It’s part send-up, part critique, part sendup, part genre-mashup, all brilliant, but it is not straightforward commercial filmmaking.  Wild Hogs is straightforward commericial filmmaking (and, not coincidentally, easily marketable).  A 3 1/2-hour meditation on 30-year-old exploitation movies is not straightforward commercial filmmaking.  (It is also something of a workout, two vastly different features, with a lot of meta commentary laid on top of it — it’s both one movie and two movies at the same time, with a bunch of other stuff in there at once; not so easily taken in.) (I should also add — per the title of this blog — that neither of the features offered has a single, easily-identifiable protagonist.)

I commend Rodriguez for producing the project, I commend Tarantino for his contribution to it, I commend the Weinsteins for giving their artists full power in achieving their goals, I commend the whole project — it’s American filmmaking at it’s most daring and exciting.  But I am not surprised that audiences didn’t know what to think of it.

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