In under 80 minutes, the documentary American Grindhouse is a rather impressive and very entertaining documentary on the history of exploitation films and the theaters that hosted them. The film's producer and director, Elijah Drenner, took some time out before its world premiere at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival to talk to Cinematical about the making of the film and how the grindhouse influence still exists in today's cinema.
Cinematical: When films are done as well as yours, you submit an abbreviated brand of film school to moviegoers everywhere. But what do you think that today's film students can learn for the better from grindhouse cinema?
DRENNER: I'll start by saying that I don't really agree to describing a movie as a grindhouse movie. It's not accurate. A grindhouse movie theater is a relic of the 20th Century. They do not exist anymore. Jonathan Kaplan explains, although we did not use this in the doc, that his NYU teacher would take them to 42nd Street to learn about Howard Hawks in the late 60s. So is Rio Lobo a grindhouse movie, obviously no. But it played on 42nd Street. If I have to teach younger filmgoers about movies that they might not watch on their own and disguise it in this doc as some kind of historical or evolutionary step in grindhouse/exploitation film history - then I guess that I have done my job. Film students should watch everything and know that it is all related.
During the end credits you put up a handy list of the films represented in the documentary. If audiences could go directly from American Grindhouse into their Netflix queues, where would you recommend they start if they wanted to learn about the more influential staples of the genre?
DRENNER: I don't think grindhouse is a genre. It's kinda vague - like film noir. It has many different elements to it. But I understand that it is a catchier way to describe exploitation films - also not a genre - but basically a way to describe a level of class structure in movies. If I had to make a list of essentials, it would probably be a mix of exploitation and studio films: "Freaks", "Maniac", "Wild Boys of The Road", "Mom and Dad", "Gun Crazy", "The Wild One", "Glen or Glenda?", "Caged", "Psycho", "Blood Feast", "Olga's House of Shame", "Bonnie and Clyde", "The Wild Angels", "Beyond The Valley of The Dolls", "Cotton Comes to Harlem", "Coffy", "Ilsa: She Wolf of The SS", "Last House On The Left", "Deep Throat" and "Jaws". I'm sure this list will be debated (laughs).
You boast an impressive list of talking heads for the film from John Landis and Joe Dante to several other filmmakers and historians. But the one notable absence – the guy who takes every opportunity to share his knowledge and appreciation of this time in cinema is Quentin Tarantino. Did you approach him on being a part of the project?
DRENNER: We did ask him and he agreed. His personal assistant was very nice and worked with us to make time. But ultimately, it did not work. He went off to make Inglourious Basterds and the rest is history.
David Hess makes quite an impression as one of the interviewees as he chillingly describes how he wanted to connect with audiences in his most infamous role. Is he as scary in person as he was in Last House On The Left?
DRENNER: He is very nice. He invited us into his home, made us feel very welcome and played around with us a lot. I actually thought the interview was going to be a bust, because his daughter came home during the middle and kept making noise while he was talking. He would interrupt on occasion, screaming so he could hear her upstairs, telling her to keep it down. At one point he brought her in, placed her on his knee and she talked on camera for a bit with us. It was unpredictable to say the least. But we got some good soundbites and yes - he makes a pretty chilling statement about Last House. But as the segment moves on, you can tell that he's pretty funny.
Variations on grindhouse cinema throughout history have popped up as a reaction to the mood of the country such as the aftermath of JFK's assassination and the Vietnam war. But did you find that the resistance by either the government or moral watchdogs of entertainment tend to happen during times of economic prosperity when there were not more pressing matters of the day?
DRENNER: No. Moral Watchgroups have always been against the content of movies - just look at pre-Code Hollywood films. America was still deep in The Great Depression when these films were popular - hugely popular. Movies were as salacious as they could be and audiences loved it. The Moral Majority did not. They wanted it cleaned up then and I'm sure that they still do. It's easy to look back and say this kind of movie was made because that was happening in the world; and this was a reaction to that. But I think that it's much deeper than that - it's not so easy to describe film history as a step by step process. I do not have the answer and I'm not really looking. It spoils the fun.
The "roughies" described in your film had a predilection for violence towards women. Torture porn has not been exclusively reviled for that issue, but have you found examples in the modern era where either physical or mental abuse of women have lived up (or down) to the level of this sub-genre?
DRENNER: Sure, you can say that. But again, it's much deeper. Yes, the "roughies" are pretty dirty. You feel kinda guilty watching them - or maybe you get aroused - I don't know. I think you can point out feminist theories in these movies too. Just look at the "Olga" films - a woman administers most, if not all, of the violence to these poor women. She is in control. I think that some of the most interesting "roughies" were actually made by a woman director - Doris Wishman.
One of the best elements I found in American Grindhouse was the sly way you folded in (as much as the bigger budget films would) the manner in which the violence, sex and marketing techniques would be utilized by Hollywood. Exploitation would bleed into the classier film noir and once again Jaws becomes the scapegoat bridge between the gritty and the slick blockbuster. Do you think though that today's art house cinema (foreign and domestic) have become the greatest arbiter of the grindhouse traditions. When you think of films like Anti-Christ and the works of filmmakers like Catherine Breillat, are we not just looking at grindhouse in the guise of sophistication?
DRENNER: Absolutely! There has always been a fine line between art house and grindhouse theaters - and they were usually in the same neighborhood. Passing smut off as art goes all the way back to the publishing days, it's nothing new. Ingmar Bergman movies would play in these theaters, just because they had nudity. Anti-Christ was the perfect of example of exploitation in the guise of art. The audience that I saw it with ranged from angry to exasperated. I loved it. That was such a kithardic experience.
John Landis did not appear to be too enthusiastic over the recent Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double-bill of Grindhouse. "I liked the trailers," he said. If you had the final word on the matter, do you think that film (or films) was the best representation of the elements presented in your documentary? Or was it also more of a bridge between the salacious and what mainstream audiences can stomach?
DRENNER: It was not my idea to put Grindhouse clips in the movie. I lost that fight. I preferred Landis' comments about Passion of The Christ and American Gangster as being the real exploitation movies of today - which do remain in the doc. I can see the Grindhouse clips as a bridge for viewers, but it's pretty obvious to anyone watching. Now I loved Grindhouse, but not many people understood the concept. The fact that it flopped and Passion and Gangster were huge hits proves our point. That's what our movie is about, the evolution of exploitation, audiences flocking to see it, and how it is a part of our cultural heritage. Like it or not.
Elijah Drenner's American Grindhouse will be showing in SXSW on Saturday, March 13 at 9:00 PM at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz and again on Tuesday, March 16 at 10:00 PM at the Alamo's Lamar location in Austin, TX. And be sure to visit the film's website.