Useless Talent No. 7: Building Film Prints

I was coming up on the three-year point of my employment status as a projectionist for an AMC theater in New York. Back then it wasn’t just pressing a button on a digital projector, it meant working with actual film. Threading film through rollers & platters, checking on sound quality and making sure the screen didn’t look like crap. I loved it. My total run as a projectionist for six years (three in New York & three here in Texas) still holds the title as the best job I’ve had yet. One of the highlights of my employment came on April 5th, 2007.

Thursday nights as a projectionist meant one thing: build nights. We’d get the prints for the movies opening the following Friday, and they always came broken down into small reels, each one with around 20 minutes worth of the movie. We’d worked until the late am building and screening new prints to make sure they were solid. Thursday nights were my favorite nights. On that particular date, I couldn’t do anything but rock back and forth in the booth, waiting for Grindhouse to come in. We were getting two prints, and I told my supervisor if I didn’t get to build one of them that I wouldn’t be responsible for my actions. He put it in the schedule for me to be free to build, because it was going to take all night.  A 3-plus event, not counting non-fake trailers? That’s a tall order. But I didn’t care. I was building Grindhouse. And when it was done, and when the reserved theater was empty, I put that sucker on the platters, threaded it, and told the remaining staff I was not to be disturbed. They knew I was dead fucking serious.

So yeah, I saw Grindhouse a little before midnight that night. And yeah, I was emotional. And yeah, I just watched it a few hours before I started this piece. And yeah, I was emotional all over again.

When this experience (I’m not calling this a movie) was first announced, it was at a career high for both Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Rodriguez brought Sin City to life and Tarantino gifted us with the Kill Bill saga, and they were both hits. So what did they do with their popularity? They got the Weinsteins to hand them a metaphorical blank check to do something fucking insane. The idea of doing something like Grindhouse today isn’t far-fetched, but not with the kind of budget the duo had. Not with that kind of freedom. When they were given this chance over a decade ago, it was more than a big deal. It was an astronomical event for film lovers that were fans of the filmmakers and demented cinema. But trust me, I’m not here to talk about how it bombed at the box office (you bastards). Instead I’m mentioning this aspect, and writing this piece overall, to celebrate that we even have this. And the effect it had on me.

In the months leading up to the release, I went batshit crazy with anticipation. Before Grindhouse came out, I rushed out to buy the soundtracks, a couple of t-shirts…and I admit I used my booth powers to secure a poster. And the banner. And the standee. I still have all of that stuff (just waiting for the right home to unleash the power of the standee). All of this for an event I hadn’t even seen yet. It was easy to get lost on the notions of the talent in front/behind the cameras, trailers, concepts, and a woman with a fucking machine gun for a leg. But if I’m being brutally honest, it was because it was Rodriguez and Tarantino. To this day, it’s still sorta all about them for me. Alas, this wasn’t the biggest effect the project had on me.

As I popped in the blu for Grindhouse (is it weird that the only way you can watch the full presentation is either through this blu-ray and import DVDs and I love that?), old feelings and memories came rushing back. I remembered so much, and forgot a few things that just made me happy all over again. Oh Machete, remember when you were just a trailer? Actually I can’t complain about the full movie; anything that has Jeff Fahey can’t be all bad. Speaking of Fahey, the first outing of Grindhouse is Planet Terror and it honestly makes me sad that the current mentality of this is less than decent. Or that Rodriguez didn’t make a true grindhouse movie. People, let’s acknowledge this together: neither of them did. The grindhouse movies you and I and they grew up with could barely afford the film for their cameras, let alone whole set pieces a-blazing. I honestly feel that Planet Terror and Death Proof are the results of what both filmmakers saw AND felt when they were first introduced to this genre. I know when I saw my first few grindhouse movies I thought of the craziest shit that could be featured as a double bill, and I was a kid then. These two movies sewn together aren’t just love letters from Rodriguez and Tarantino; they are the products of cinematic love that overflows the cup. They had to have known this while filming, and neither of them held back. Thank fuck they didn’t.

Planet Terror is Rodriguez’s affection for effects of all kinds, simultaneously looking gorgeous and making us want a tetanus shot. It’s slimy, grimy, and downright disgusting. I still eat all of it up. From Rose McGowan’s sudden and badass knowledge of leg machinery to Bruce Willis’ puss-loving face, Planet Terror features amazing visuals, sprightly computer effects and inspired make-up effects. He basically let Greg Nicotero and his crew go crazy, as if they were trying to one-up whatever ideas Rodriguez threw at them (gotta love those gunshot wounds that look like recalled blood-filled condoms). Everything else is there to support the effects, but that doesn’t mean Planet Terror doesn’t showcase some career highlights. Rodriguez and Graeme Revell teamed up for a brilliant score worthy of John Carpenter’s nods (my personal favorite is the track Hospital Epidemic). The entire cast, from McGowan to the brotherly team-up of Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey, is just excellent. And a special nod has to be given to the cinematography Rodriguez provided. Yes, he also did his own stuff in Sin City but Planet Terror features his best work as director of photography. Some of those shot compositions are exhilarating.

Death Proof is Tarantino’s affection for stunts, and I’m not just talking about the shout-outs to the gearhead movies he grew up with and the loving references to Vanishing Point. He made Kurt Russell the killer, and his weapon of choice a sexy-as-fuck stunt vehicle capable of two tons of death and 200 miles an hour. He also properly introduced to Zoe Bell (playing herself) as one of the best stunt people to ever cheat the reaper. Death Proof is Tarantino in fine form, but the last two reels is him stepping out of his own persona and directing one of the most spectacular scenes in car movie history. Ten years later and it still takes my breath away. And what did he do to support the stunts? Just his usual brand of exquisite dialogue, getting the best performances from each of his players, and a mixtape that’s become essential in my car for long drives. Oh and also the unique way he shaped character development in the limited-for-Tarantino run time. It follows a unique beat, from exchanged looks between predator and prey to rants about not wanting to do something dangerous. Death Proof is one of the more particular Tarantino films that’s presented, and eliminated, characters.

I think I remember one time hearing someone say that all you have to do is slap the full-length versions of both movies together and you have Grindhouse, and it made me want to go crazy with rage. I think I did, actually. But no, that’s not what Grindhouse is. It wasn’t just Rodriguez and Tarantino that made this possible. With the help of Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth, Grindhouse encompasses a viewer with a genuine night at the cinema for a trashy double bill. By the way, I’m still waiting for Don’t and Thanksgiving as full movies.

I’ve gone on and on about the movies, the experience, and yet I haven’t talked about the core of why I love Grindhouse and why it means so much to me. Don’t get me wrong; two of my favorite filmmakers of all time got together and made something truly badass and influential to a young 20-something me (fuck, I’m old), but it also kick-started my quest back home. Like I mentioned at the beginning, I was in New York when this came out, but a few weeks before that I was in Austin, for my first (and so far only) visit to SXSW. I was there for the experience of my first film festival, and my wife-then-girlfriend came with me for emotional support…in other words to not let me cry at the sight of filmmakers. That year Grindhouse was a featured topic due to Rodriguez’ involvement and of course, it’s in Austin. I was there when he debuted the contest-winning grindhouse trailer for Hobo With a Shotgun. I got close to meeting him, but the people surrounding him at the end of the event basically prompted his exit. But I got close, damn it!

Grindhouse had me excited to go to SXSW; it was the main reason I went. By the end I fell in love with the whole scene, that when we flew back to New York, I told my girlfriend I had to move back to Texas, because not only did I think I could make it as an editor/filmmaker there, but Texas was where I was born and raised. I was staying with her & her family in New York, and it wasn’t an easy decision, but I left a few weeks later and I’ve been in Texas since. I haven’t made it yet, but I haven’t stopped either. And watching Grindhouse again, remembering the feels and the life events surrounding it, makes me feel young again. Worthy again. I have personal connections to a lot of movies, but my connection to this double feature is something that I cannot and will not deny.

So thank you, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Here’s to another retrospect in another decade, and to me finally getting closer to my aspirations. I dedicate my trek to your passions.

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