Last weekend I saw Grindhouse. The retro double-feature is great fun. Pure, unadulterated, gory exploitation in both films.
Watching ostensibly escapist films actually makes me think quite a bit about the intersection of fantasy and reality. How can someone like myself, who abhors violence, enjoy scenes of death and revenge? How can someone like myself, who considers himself a feminist, enjoy films that by definition exploit women?
The answer to the second question is actually rather easy in this case, as both Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino slickly turned their exploitation pictures into empowerment pictures where women are concerned. One of Rodriguez's protagonists in Planet Terror, a stripper who abandoned her dreams, becomes the ass-kicking leader of the straggling survivors of the human race. Tarantino's presumed slasher-film victims in Death Proof don't take their stalking laying down; they track down the killer and beat the shit out of him. And as for sex, well, there isn't a lick of it in the movie thanks to intentionally humorous missing reels. While the women in the films, particularly Death Proof, are properly glammed and sexed up according to patriarchal norms, even with the intentionally cheesy plotting and dialogue they never lack agency. In fact, one can note that the group of women who died in Death Proof were the more stereotypically feminized set — vapid, interested in dancing and drinking and hooking up with boys. Meanwhile, the group that survives and ultimately kills the killer include two stuntwomen and their girly-girl companion who wants in on the action. Some are even calling Grindhouse a feminist movie; I'm not sure I'd go that far, but the movie is certainly about women taking command of shit brought upon them by men — and brutal, bloody action, of course.
That brings me to my first question. Violence. I am, more or less, a pacifist. More to the point, I unequivocally don't believe in revenge, and I don't believe in punishment. But at the end of Death Proof, when Stuntman Mike's targeted victims track him down, reduce him to a sniveling heap, and beat him quite probably to death, I cheered. And it wasn't simply my amusement at the unexpected reversal of genre conventions; I was happy. I think the reason is that I do believe in justice. In revenge films, the violence is symbolic of justice, of people getting what they deserve. It's karma. And while in reality I would want to see someone like Stuntman Mike arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison where he couldn't harm anyone, in the world of fantasy I am perfectly content to let his demise at the hands of his intended victims stand in for that rather unexciting scenario.
I notice that most of my commentary seems to focus on Death Proof, which is interesting because I probably enjoyed Rodriguez's contribution more. While Planet Terror does share the strong woman theme, it is not a Tarantino film and is simply not intended to have much in the way of shades of meaning. Rodriguez chose to go for pure spectacle, and Planet Terror is nothing if not that. The violence in Planet Terror is mostly, well, zombie violence, and a lot of it. Considerations of morality and ethics are rather irrelevant when dealing with the undead.