The pre-fame image of Quentin Tarantino paints him in a very similar light to the iconic Simpsons ‘Comic Book Guy’. As a native of East Los Angeles, he worked in a video rental store and in his leisure time, he reclined in movie theatres for hours on end. The pictures that offered him the best bang for his buck were the various Grindhouse double-bill features espousing epic amounts of gore, gaudy thrills and gags. For a small sum of loose change, you could set yourself up for a full day and forget the world at large.
In the dictionary sense of the word, Grindhouse is defined as “an often shabby movie theatre having continuous showings especially of pornographic or violent films.” Before Tarantino began making his own films, the grungy picture houses were his natural abode. Not only did he fall in love with the genre and lifestyle that they offered, but the movies themselves proved hugely influential on his style.
Speaking to the Japan Times, Tarantino recalled the days where he and his buddies would venture to these popcorn studded seats and lock themselves in for the day: “We saw a lot of bad movies. I’ve never been of the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ school,” he recollects. “Very rarely was it so bad it was good.”
But this was all part of the fun, as he adds: “You hoped for the best, and you bought your ticket, and then in five minutes you’re like, ‘Oh, yuck, Jesus fucking Christ!’…but then you go see Joe Dante’s Piranha, written by John Sayles, and all of a sudden, ‘Hey! This is a good Jaws rip-off!’ Back then it seemed really good because you weren’t expecting it. Stephen King had a line about this, right on the money. He said, ‘You gotta drink a lot of milk before you can appreciate cream.’ And in the genre we’re talking about, you gotta drink a lot of bad milk before you can appreciate milk.”
The tattered aesthetic that housed this cinematic bad milk wasn’t limited to the theatres themselves, but it also bled onto the screen. Often the movies would be shot with distorted quality to the print, creating a rustic aesthetic. As Tarantino explains: “The distributors (back then) had very little money; maybe they’d make three prints, maybe five. And they would go into each individual market, one by one, over the course of a year, and these same three prints were playing at the worst theatres, in the worst projectors in America.”
Adding: “So by the time the film stumbled into your town, you had no idea what you were going to see. The print could be spaghetti by that time. It’s beat-up, there are jump cuts in it, reels could be missing or faded or out of order, maybe a projectionist sees a nude scene he likes and snips it out for his own collection.”
This obsession with Grindhouse abided with Tarantino throughout the career that followed and in 2007, he set about making a double feature of Planet Terror and Death Proof with his director pal Robert Rodriguez. The first film, Planet Terror, was directed, written, scored and co-edited by Rodriguez. The second, Death Proof, was written and directed by Tarantino himself and follows a deranged stuntman who stalks young women and murders them with his ‘death proof’ stunt car.
As it happens, the movie represents the trough of Tarantino’s career, and in an interview with Empire Magazine, he reflected on why this was the case. “Well, in America they got Grindhouse,” Tarantino began. “In the UK you got Death Proof. With Grindhouse, I think me and Robert just felt that people had a little more of a concept of the history of double features and exploitation movies.”
Concluding: “No, they didn’t. At all. They had no idea what the fuck they were watching. It meant nothing to them, alright, what we were doing. So that was a case of being a little too cool for school. But as far as the movie playing in England as the movie, I think people took it okay. Although there is a story.”