Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Grindhouse, one of the most entertaining and essential documentaries in recent memory, finally hit DVD this past month courtesy of a splendid special edition from Lorber and I highly recommend it to everyone reading. Jam-packed with insightful, and often humorous, interviews with filmmakers like John Landis, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Fred Williamson and Larry Cohen, as well as film historians like Kim Morgan, American Grindhouse traces the history of Exploitation films in the United States from the silent years up through today. Narrated wonderfully by legendary Robert Forster and running a concise, if frustratingly short, 82 minutes, American Grindhouse is a fast, but surprisingly exhaustive, run through more than eight decades of fringe cinema.
One of the most valuable aspects of American Grindhouse is director Elijah Drenner's wise move to not take the easy route and start in the late-fifties. Some of the most powerful, and eye-opening, footage present in the film comes in the early clips that remind viewers that exploitation is as old as cinema itself, and that most of the seventies more infamous sub-genres can in some way be traced back to the pre-code Hollywood that was as wild as it was uncompromising. Not including these early sections on the Silents and Pre-Code Films would have been the equivalent of a punk documentary leaving out Sun Records and The Velvet Underground.
I also really appreciated that American Grindhouse takes its lead from the films it is paying tribute to as it is refreshingly R-Rated and loaded with all the nudity, sex and violence that these films were known for. Drenner's film is also completely smug-free, which is tremendous as I can't think of anything worse than watching on a film on exploitation cinema that is over intellectualized or at all snobby.
A valuable making of segment on American Grindhouse's special features makes clear that this film was a real labor of love for Drenner and one that took nearly a decade to get completed. Starting out life as a documentary on the films of Jack Hill, American Grindhouse took Drenner all over the United States on a quest to track down some of the most maverick and uncompromising filmmakers in cinema history. Drenner's love and passion for exploitation film comes through in every frame of American Grindhouse and the interviews he got definitely don't disappoint as figures such as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Ted V. Mikels, James Gordon White and the late Don Edmonds (to whom the film is dedicated) come across as adventurous as the films they directed. While I felt that certain favorites of mine including Radley Metzger, Joe Sarno, Bob Chinn, Roberta Findlay and even Russ Meyer got short-changed it is hard to complain about a film that has Don Edmonds recounting his experiences prepping Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S.!
My only real complaint about American Grindhouse is its extremely short length. Thankfully the DVD is loaded with extra-features including many extended and deleted interviews that make the package feel all the more comprehensive. With the added on extras, American Grindhouse takes its place, along with the Ozploitation exploitation work Not Quite Hollywood, as probably the best documentary about film released in the past five years. Check it out immediately if you haven't already.