Blaze of gory

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Back to beating the same almost-dead horse ... 

"It's what From Dusk Till Dawn would've been if it were any good," my companion in cinematic crime insisted last week in dishing out praise for Robert Rodriguez's half of Grindhouse, and embarrassingly, with a smidgen of post-Virginia Tech fear and loathing, I pretty much agree: Dusk Till Dawn isn't remotely watchable, but "Planet Terror" is--and more than just remotely. So why is that?

Maybe it's the nonliteral simulations. Dusk is essentially the sum of its own bad jokes and nihilistic urges, but "Planet"'s energies lie elsewhere, in the referential pileup and re-created textures: all those 70s B-movie phantoms--Carpenter, Bava, Romero (though maybe Shaun of the Dead's more relevant here)--trundling through the muck, like grainy, blood-spattered hommages on the walls of Plato's cave. Basically it's a commentator's art, more deliberate pastiche than straight-ahead story, though if narrative literalism's your action cuppa--plots that connect, characters you can identify with or "feel" for--then obviously the Tarantino half does it better ... which is also why it's ultimately so despicable, every humanizing element reduced to petty vindication, all that gorgeously breathing "realistic" spread come to an utterly nauseating end. But for Rodriguez, the inspiration seems more stylized, and at times a bit arcane--like Guy Maddin (as Nathan Lee's suggested in an insightful Voice review), yet another pasticheur, though emphatically not one of the guys. Or, to push the speculative envelope, Pere Portabella, whose Cuadecuc-Vampir explores similarly disowned terrain--minus the explicit carnage but with dreamlike suggestions intact, a palimpsest of resonating images and hand-me-down pulp themes.

But however lazily impoverished those 70s antecedents might be--haphazardly improvised, indifferently spliced together--"Planet" itself has intentionality to burn, "ineptitude" by design rather than default, down to the last reverential hop, skip, and camera stutter. It's a bit like forging somebody else's signature, or random graffiti scrawls on a wall: what begins as spontaneity, or even outright carelessness, transforms to an act of pure deliberation, the self-consciousness of "art" (or at least the bricoleur's craft) in an age of mechanical/digital reproduction. Which is how you read the invented scrapes and scratches, the effects of celluloid combusting in the gate--not as irritants, which their 70s counterparts undoubtedly were, but as occasions for reverie, contemplation, even astonishment at times ... Likewise the conceit of the "missing reel": the cleverest thing about it--forgotten characters resurrected, incidents revealed only in their residues--is the way it's turned into a deductive riddle. (Not so the Tarantino: it's coitus interruptus again, yet the consequences aren't as vital. At least "Planet" acknowledges its narrative incoherence: whatever can we know about these "disappeared" cartoon shards?)

Also: not to forget the Busby Berkeley-style flourishes--conflagrational set pieces, mounting like pyramids, with cascading zombie choruses--or the girl with the machine-gun leg, which only my impeccable good manners prevent me from expanding on more fully. Or those homicidal babysitting twins, which might actually be the scuzziest family-values coup of all. O ye disreputable ingenues ...

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