Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Get That Weak Shit Off My Track!": SPEED RACER (2008)

I vowed to myself I wasn't going to post any writing until I'd finished the comic (see posts below). I didn't post a 2007 Favorites list, didn't post a memorial for John Polonia, didn't post for a new Winona Ryder movie (and that's dedication, friends! I mean, it even had a nude scene!). But I want you to do something. I want you to go save Speed Racer.

Rescuing a film from disappointing box office drop returns is probably not possible, particularly in this case, and not something I normally care about one whit. But you can save Speed Racer from the foolish, needless critical nose-thwacking it received this month. The world's going to eventually be embarrassed about how it treated The Matrix trilogy. There's still time to see Speed Racer as the pagan gods of color and sound and communal ritual intended. Still time to post overstated raves on your blogs.

This is casual and chatty and still high on celluloid fumes, and mostly just rehashed from a post I made to Mobius Home Video Forum. I'll write more on the film at a later date, but something needs to be said about this remarkable film in the here-and-now.

Dear God, they're never going to let these weirdoes make a movie again, are they? Speed Racer is just about the craziest goddamn thing I've ever seen, title previously held by The Matrix Revolutions. Studios keep giving Larry and Andy Wachowski bottomless buffets of money, no supervision, telling them to go nuts, and then when the result is certifiably nuts... well. Why is anyone surprised? Will they behave themselves if attempt is made to rein in the Wachowskis' wildest impulses? Can it be done, or is that how you get Dune?

The Matrix's runaway-train success was a fluke. That movie is plenty too fetishistic, brainy, brain-fried and stylized that the people-we-pretend-are-other-people should've stayed away in droves. It's as if Neon Genesis Evangelion were rewritten by Philip K. Dick and filmed by the Coen brothers, and that is not a cocktail that makes for a format catapulting DVD unit-shifter. So: fluke. The completed trilogy is downright dangerously beautiful and freakish, had only The Matrix given them eyes to see. Alas, you can't make the people see the golden code through Neo, if they don't want to see. As result, Speed Racer is received as the expectedly idiotic and outlandish end-product of the Wachowskis' diminishing returns, rather than a fresh triumph from filmmakers who have grown more fascinating with each project.

Admittedly I'm prime target audience for this Speed Racer movie: Wachowski diehard, most delighted when they're at their nerdiest, most obsessive, wacked out. I like children's entertainment that pushes the boundaries of what's acceptable to adults. I like vintage anime -- "Speed Racer" in particular -- abstract animation, CGI which strives for psychedelia over photorealism, and artists without the phrase "over the top" in their lexicon. And I still don't know what I saw. I felt like I ate a color wheel. That's a good thing. Not "over"stimulated, Speed Racer just hit a lot of pleasure buttons simultaneously, forcefully, repeatedly. I also like to get drunk and watch the Main Street Electrical Parade. In a lineage of sense-saturating, giddy, brazenly joyous and deeply perverse entertainments, Speed Racer is brother to The Mask of Fu Manchu, Tokyo Drifter, Diabolik, and Kill Bill.

It's not "Mach GoGoGo", all clean lines, strong but sensible colors and uncluttered composition. But the film builds from the anime a whirring, jittery, buzzing next-gen machine ; new frame, same reliable engine. The TV show's a good starting point for plugging into Speed Racer, as the movie geometrically expands the Wachowski's visual vocabulary of techniques learned, adopted, mutated from anime and manga: metaphorical backdrops, characters frozen like animation reduced to key poses, streaking POV motion lines, symbolic frame adornment, busy backgrounds drawing the eye to boldly outlined figures, halting the movement on striking, eccentric or important action beats to give rhythm, clarity, elegance to complicated set-pieces that might otherwise be too fast to mentally process. We can go on and on. To get a bead on the sensibility, and presuming one respects animation, consider that Speed Racer is not a "live action" adaptation of a cartoon. It is an extremely detailed computer animated feature which integrates flesh and blood performances. Not cartoony. It is a cartoon.

Not all of that Japanese cartooning technique is "Speed Racer" specific, or grows from the TV series or Yoshida Tatsuo's manga. Not all of it's new, but it's a reference point to get you through the door. Were the film striking a sweeter chord with critics, it could assist in a reevaluation of the Matrix trilogy. Because where mecha gets philosophical, where superhero meets cyberpunk, where spiritual angst butts against impossible sf action overdrive, that's where The Matrix Revolutions lives, and the skeleton key was always in anime.

Anyway, Speed Racer, real fast: Christina Ricci looks like a possessed sex toy. John Goodman is a national treasure, and paints Pops Racer with dignity and good humor -- he brings it like he wants a do-over for The Flintstones (1994). Goodman and Ricci are Lazarus taxon actors who have popped out of some '40s screwball thing with Franklin Pangborn and Joan Davis. Besides just their beautiful, interesting faces, they use their bodies like trained cartoonists, twisting into broad, indicative postures here, finding funny, observed human behavior there, and caricaturing it in clever ways.

The Mach 5 and Racer X's Shooting Star look cool in three dimensions. Would've been fun to see Speed hit buttons E and F. Jokes uniformly goony, all hilarious, reminding the world why we need trained chimps and fat kid comedy teams. I want the baby blue, white-striped zippered jacket that Speed wears a couple times. The look, sound, editing, writing and acting are meticulously, carefully stylized; every element of the film is a strong, exaggerated choice, and nobody can make you like it. Feel free to find it all ugly, assaultive, stupid, and bludgeoning. For those sitting on the flip side, Speed Racer is pretty gorgeous, rapturous, smart and freeing. Your milage will depend on your transponder.

Perhaps line-walking between utter, shameless sincerity and defensive irony is a generational quirk one must either share and therefore empathize with, or find endearing and intriguing. Which is, one supposes, why some ears only hear Mr. Cobain's anger and cynicism and not his sorrow and romance, see Mr. Tarantino's pastiche and dirty mouth and not his soul. Few middle-aged critics want to admit it, and fewer want to believe it's heartfelt, and just maybe Speed Racer's notes are pitched so only the 13th Generation can hear the healing message.

Because Speed Racer is about something; about something moving and important. It's a pep talk for artists. Not for race car drivers, athletes, or Everybody, but specifically addressed to artists. Speed Racer is about art and commerce, though the stand-ins are racing-constantly-compared-to-art and patronage in the form of corporate driver sponsorship, with Speed Racer as a virtuoso whose work in content and form reduces crowds to tears of ecstacy. It's about accepting that your art exists in a commercial sphere, that money and power are in the balance, from sponsor on down to spectator... but the artist needs to do what the artist does, and ignore all that. Listen to what the car needs. When you turn in something bizarre and startling, garish and strange -- even when it gets upsetting and your mom has to look away -- as long as you drove as hard as you could, you did your goddamn job. Speed Racer is expensive commercial pop art and intended blockbuster. But that's Joel Silver's job to worry about. The Wachowskis are encouraging artists who can't help but make the weird new things they make, to be bold, proud. When it's in your blood, you have no choice anyhow. Speed Racer himself finally throws down the gauntlet to anyone in it for the money: get that weak shit off my track.

Also: The, er, climax of the Grand Prix race is the greatest subjective depiction of the human orgasm ever captured on film. Title previously held by The Matrix Reloaded and that digital slice of chocolate cake.

Movie of the year. Contenders all sucking exhaust.


Marc Majcher said...

I totally believe you.

Sean said...

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Dennis Cozzalio said...

"The Wachowskis are encouraging artists who can't help but make the weird new things they make, to be bold, proud. When it's in your blood, you have no choice anyhow. Speed Racer himself finally throws down the gauntlet to anyone in it for the money: get that weak shit off my track."

Well, Chris, all I can say is thanks for articulating this in the way that you did. I've been flying the Speed Racer flag since opening night, and I'm really glad that you're a kindred spirit. The argument is still going on over at Scanners, but the prevailing attitude I'm getting from that discussion and the one on the Criterion forum is that the film's supporters have obvioiusly swallowed the Kool-Aid and nobody else is buying the movie's stylistic innovations because they haven't been adequately articulated. (Not that this would necessarily make any difference to someone who found the movie fundamentally annoying, but I guess an emotional reaction is automatically more valid when it's a negative one...) Anyway, reding your post has bolstered my resolve to give it one more try and hopefully express what it is that I find so mesmerizing and effective about Speed Racer, insofar as I can.

Thanks also for your little note to Armond White and the rest over on my site. I'm just sorry it's taken me this long to get over here and read your thoughts. And you are right-- well into June it is still hands down the movie of the year. How many times did you see it in IMAX? (Twice for me!)

Chris Stangl said...

After I posted this, I spent some time reading non-film-nut reactions to SPEED RACER via Google blog searches. The results seem to be pretty simple: people who haven't been deterred by reviewers and see the movie end up loving it. Regular people and kids and, generally, audiences who don't operate film blogs. Anime-trained viewers are particularly responsive. Unless I miss my guess, in five years everyone's going to be climbing all over themselves to make up for dismissing the film.

I tried to pipe in at Scanners, but the discussion may has probably died by now. Obviously Jim Emerson is an astute viewer and articulate writer, but I'm puzzled by the general thrust of his argument that the Wachowski brothers are sloppy new school directors who don't shoot and edit action in a coherent way. Because it seems to me that all their films demonstrate a remarkable gift and deep love of constructing screen space.

I have to admit, I'm not a big IMAX fan, mostly because the theaters are so ugly, seating is cramped and I feel like I'm being strapped into a carnival ride. The total visual immersion is exciting though, and sort of reminds me of plugging your face into a kinetoscope viewer: with nowhere else to look and the optical field filled, the spectatorial space collapses into the film. I did attend one show of SPEED RACER in the Mann which was completely empty save for me. That was very strange, I missed the sense of being in one of the movie's stadium audiences, but at least no one was text messaging.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks for your comment over at Scanners. You made the point I'd made earlier, only in a more convincing way-- the movie is about motion, and to try to understand it or debunk it by isolating visual images as a way to prove its incoherent is to miss the point. I just saw it again, for probably the last time theatrically, in a glorified closet on the top floor of the Beverly Center, and the auditorium was filled with people cheering and laughing in all the right places. I even struck up a conversation with five people on the way out, all of them expressing disbelief that the movie could have been dismissed in the way it was. I think you're right, Chris-- this is going to be a movie that five or ten years from now either everybody will be claiming to have loved from the beginning or will have people falling all over themselves to reassess. I really appreciate your writing on it, here and elsewhere.

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