UPDATE 8/29: My wife jumped on me after reading this for the suggestion that the act of taking scalps from victims was somehow endemic to the Native American people. While she agreed that’s how it’s presented in this film, she told me that the Europeans introduced the practice to indigenous Americans, and not the other way around. I was not too surprised at this, though it’s certainly contrary to the popular narrative, and promised to find a source online and add a footnote. Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the film’s most notable detractor, beat me to it. It doesn’t change my opinion of the film — Tarantino’s riffing on film history rather than real history, and Aldo Raine probably wouldn’t know the difference, Apache blood or no — but I agree that it’s well worth noting.
Among the most satisfying of exploitation subgenres, for those who swing that way, is the rape-revenge picture. The basic structure is well suited to the grindhouse feature — it offers an excuse to stage scenes of sexual violence (the “rape” portion of the formula) alongside images of even more graphic, brutal violence (the “revenge”) while packaging the exercise as both moral lesson and wish-fulfillment fantasy. The appeal of the story is fairly primal — an early prototype for this sort of thing, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, was based on The Virgin Spring, a 1960 Ingmar Bergman film that had its own roots in a centuries-old Swedish folk song. As folk tale, the rape-revenge yarn functions as a stern warning, perhaps first appealing to an imagined audience’s prurience and sadism with the story of a violation, then warning them about the civilized world’s uniform, punitive, and perhaps grisly response to such an assault. As film, the subject matter is even more charged. Given feminist ideas about the male gaze and the embedded sexism of 100 years of film history, the idea of staging a rape for movie cameras, in a film destined to reach a (presumably base and horny) grindhouse audience, has the stench of amorality (if not outright immorality) about it.
It’s not exactly the hip neighborhood, but working out of Deep Focus World Headquarters in Sleepy Hollow, NY, has its advantages. One of them is the proximity of the Jacob Burns Film Center, an arthouse triplex in nearby Pleasantville that’s several times more comfy than any similar venue in Manhattan. (Well, with the possible exception of the fairly posh Sunshine Cinemas downtown. And the similarly appointed IFC Center, also downtown. But you get my meaning.) Tonight, the Burns center hosted Werner Herzog for a screening of his documentary about Antarctic research stations and the scientists who inhabit them, Encounters at the End of the World. In the course of a highly entertaining Q&A, he held forth on his Bad Lieutenantremake, described his rescue of Joaquin Phoenix in early 2006, and told the audience what he really thinks about film theory.
One of my favorite things about the Manhattan screening rooms where press screenings typically take place is the pitch darkness you fall into before every show. The room dips to an even black — and the best ones are designed thoughtfully enough that you won’t even be distracted by a red “Exit” sign during the show. Also the sound is excellent. Reference-level dynamics might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there’s a tightness and immediacy to the mix that you just don’t get in a larger room, even when that room is properly tuned up for audio.
Sadly, your average multiplex does not boast particularly good sound — nor even a particularly dark room. I grew up in Colorado, and when I moved to New York in 1994 I noticed a definite uptick in presentation quality in Manhattan theaters, where theater management is likely to be hassled by filmmakers themselves if the specs are out of whack. Of course, New York theaters have their peculiarities, too — unidentifiable odors, radically uncomfortable seats and/or angles of sight, sudden explosions of indecipherable verbalese from the octogenarian gentleman in the back row, and the intermittent but unmistakable rumble of subway cars running underneath the floor.