Saturday, August 2, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Demolition Derby at the Drive-In

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) vs Death Race 2000 (1975)

[Images: Start your engines: (Top) The Cars That Ate Paris and (Bottom) Death Race 2000.]

The Film Walrus does not like cars. American society has explained to me in detail how patently uncool that is, but I remain uninterested. While I do consider transportation a necessary and important aspect of life, I find driving tedious, fuel expensive and the pollution excessive. For me, a vehicle is just a means to an ends; an expensive convenience bankrupt of the technical fascination, status symbolism and sex appeal attributed to it by car enthusiasts the world over.

So it should come as no surprise that I have zero use for NASCAR racing on TV and very little special love for the long tradition of gearhead road movies. I’m frequently left unimpressed by such “classic” car films as “American Graffiti,” “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Gumball Rally,” “The Cannonball Run” and “Christine.” With the brilliant “WALL-E” still fresh on my mind, I’ve even had several discussions about “Cars” being the weakest link in Pixar’s collection.

There are occasional exceptions. I think “Bullitt” and “The Driver” are fine films. Many road movies with more on their mind than the vehicle worship have earned my appreciation: “Thelma and Louise,” “Until the End of the World,” “Wild Strawberries,” etc. I love the way Godard exploits the auto as symbol of civilization in “Weekend” and, of course, there’s Alex Cox’s unusual auto mythology in “Repo Man.” I even like Spielberg’s “Duel,” a surprisingly lean and effective mini-epic on the frustration and danger I associate with driving.

Today’s Iceberg Arena is about two car movies from the subgenre’s heyday: the 1970’s. My choice of combatants reflects my rather unromantic view of cars. Driving hostility may also contribute to my enjoyment of “The Cars That Ate Paris” (1974) and “Death Race 2000” (1975), both films that satirize and revel in the violence and selfishness characteristic of the age of speed.

Incidently, Roger Corman distributed both pictures, though he directed neither. “The Cars That Ate People” was the theatrical debut for director Peter Weir (whose “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was in a previous Iceberg Arena). It met a weak reception in its native Australia, and Corman’s New World Pictures recut the film (and retitled it to the even more misleading “The Cars That Ate People”) for its minimal American release, ensuring a poor box office here as well. Corman did extract out some of the best themes and farmed them out to Paul Bartel (“Eating Raoul”), who upscaled the scope to a transnational road race for “Death Race 2000” and helped pave the way for consumer-friendly vehicles like the “Cannonball” and “Gumball Rally” films.

The Cars That Ate Paris

[Image: Our first contender gears up for the showdown.]

Arthur and his brothers are unemployed drifters, towing their modest possessions from place to place and trying to find a community to settle in. Arthur is planted forever in the passenger seat due to a vehicular manslaughter charge years back, so it’s his brother George at the wheel during a nighttime car crash in the Australian countryside. He wakes up in the tiny town of Paris (see “Paris, Texas” for another films involving non-France Parises) where he learns that his brother is dead and all his belonging have been consumed in fire. Timid and passive, Arthur is harassed by the local psychiatrist and talked into staying on with the suspicious mayor. Even as he begins to regard the town as his home, he senses its dark secrets and generation-gap friction.

“The Cars That Ate Paris” opens with a glamorous young couple speeding over winding country roads in their sparkling corvette. The scene is set to a spritely synth tune and runs like a bad commercial (intentionally) only to terminate in a fatal car crash. The tone is set, and will be maintained at a level of casual weirdness for the duration, but the plot is much harder to get a handle on.

[Image: A shot from Weir’s hilariously prescient product-placement plastered intro.]

At first, one assumes that the town Arthur is stranded in must be a typical locus of homicidal evil as films like “Two Thousand Maniacs” and “The Wicker Man” have taught us to expect the moment a secluded village offers conspicuous hospitality and rapacious smiles. But it’s not so easy. Paris seems almost pathetic; an economically depressed and obsessively isolated community with a guilty conscience, a “youth problem” and a very thin veneer of quaint civility over its powder keg of contradictions. The mayor and his family seem genuinely grateful for Arthur’s arrival, and welcome him into their family with a desperation that is almost disarming.

Lacking the pure horror that the title implies (this is more dark comedy than supernatural monster movie), it must have been difficult to market “The Cars That Ate Paris.” The poster features a string of questions “Where exactly is Paris? What kind of people live there? What are they trying to hide? Why do cars mean so much to them?” in lieu of a tagline. Even Weir seems frequently undecided about where he is going with the plot and tries to get curiosity to cover poor pacing during the uneventful first half.

Still, there’s something gutsy about eschewing big scares and sudden revelations. The unusual atmosphere and generous sympathy on display creates a movie relatively free of genre deadweight, but still capable of unsettling and amusing the audience. Though the rewards may be too slight for typical horror fans, the idiosyncratic characters help bring out the acquired charms of such a strange brew.

Weir’s quiet, slouching, unmotivated hero is a surprisingly realistic portrayal of a shy drifter almost embarrassed to be witnessing a local conspiracy. He gets to play the mildly likable straight man to the town’s eccentric personalities. The mayor is a beautifully accurate father figure, whose brand of benevolent fascism makes a great allegory for the way conservative leaders trying to “focus on family” and “overcome adversity” can remain blind to the way their compromises and corruptions poison the next generation. The local youth, a gang of inarticulate anarchists who crash luridly-painted spike-festooned cars for fun, makes a humorously polar-opposite contrast to the repressed villagers.

[Image: The mayor.]

My favorite character has to be the underused psychiatrist, who introductory speech includes the ominous, “You know, it’s really outside the cities where psychiatry has the freedom to experiment.” He forces Arthur to undergo a series of tests immediately after his car accident. The doctor presents photos and Arthur just says the name of the object he is looking at. The pictures are mostly neutral images like Cat and House interspersed abruptly with forensic snapshots of the crash site where George’s bloody corpse lies amongst the twisted metal. It’s sick, but so inappropriate that it’s funny. The same goes double for the film’s climactic Pioneer Day costume ball, where the doctor shepherds in his lobotomized patients dressed tastelessly as vegetables and robots.

[Image: Mental patients at the Pioneer Day costume ball.]

[Spoilers]
The truth about Paris is almost anti-climactic after all the insinuations and tension, but it has an uncharacteristic ring of melancholy realism to it. The town, having fallen on hard times, uses their intentionally ill-maintained roads (and other methods) to induce crashes. They then loot the bodies, the cargo and the cars, burning the remains and telling investigators that everything perished in the fire. The isolationist attitude of the town discourages nosy outsiders.

[Images: Never trust anyone who has enough Janguar hood ornaments that they can assemble a wind chime.]

The sense of economic necessity and emotional vulnerability that Weir gives the townspeople keeps them from being faceless evils. The mayor may be monstrously unethical, but there is something deeply human about his desire to induct crash survivors into his family. We eventually learn that his wife can’t have children and that their two daughters are adopted. A covered scar on one of the girls cues us to what happened to the original parents. Likewise, Arthur finds himself slipping into the role of the son the mayor never had.

“The Cars That Ate Paris” is most effective in the way it warps traditionally sanctioned institutions like family (similar to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Hills Have Eyes”) and community (again, like “Two Thousand Maniacs” and “The Wicker Man”). While this is nothing new to the horror genre, the sensitivity for folks “just trying to make a living” is unusual.

Since the livelihood of the locals is so enmeshed with autos, it is fitting that their demise should also be predicated on them. There is also a sense of justice that their comeuppance should be administered by their own offspring (members of family and community) rather than the stranger from the outside world as in most stories. One can thus read the finale – where the cars finally “eat” Paris – as either a critique of technological dependence (here in the form of automotive carrion-feeding) or as a fable about the dangers of repression and hypocrisy.
[/Spoilers]

Death Race 2000

[Image: Our second candidate makes his pitch.]

Paul Bartel’s 1975 cult hit revs a much louder engine, with the comedy and action more sustained and expressive. It takes place in a future America run by the fascist Mr. President where blood-drenched TV spectacles are used as an opiate for the oppressed masses. The most popular event is the Transcontinental Road Race, where contestants drive from New York to L.A., scoring points by running people over with bonuses for women, children and the elderly.

The line-up includes battle-weary cyborg and popular favorite Frankenstein (David Carradine), “Machine-Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), Matilda the Hun and Nero the Hero. Each rides a themed vehicle with a navigator/mechanic in the passenger seat. The story is told from the perspective of Frankenstein and his new navigator Annie Smith both of whom are falling in love even as they struggle to mask their real identities: Annie is the daughter of violent anti-race revolutionary Thomasina Paine and Frankenstein is a discontent pawn who plans to assassinate the President with a literal “hand” grenade.

[Images: (Top) Frankenstein’s reptilian ride and (Bottom) Joe Viterbo firing into the stands at anyone cheering for his rivals.]

A narrator is provided in the form of Junior Bruce (real-life DJ Don Steele), a flamboyant announcer who gushes and thrills over every development, whether it’s a contestant taking an unexpected route or the murder of an unwary pedestrian. His manic commentary is itself an exaggerated commentary on the media in general, perhaps the primary target of “Death Race’s” satire. Sports, America, France, Germany, religion and celebrity worship are also fair game as far as the movie is concerned, but the glorification of violence in the media and the sensationalism of the news take the hardest beating, albeit by a film that both glorifies and sensationalizes violence.

“Death Race” may be too determined to entertain to sincerely back its indictments, but its no-holds impertinence makes it a wilder and more engaging film than “The Cars That Ate Paris.” The comedy is just as dark, with humor that encompasses Matilda the Hun spouting Nazi rhetoric catchphrases, Nero the Hero lamenting that Boy Scouts run too fast, Joe Viterbo scoring points by running over his own pit crew and Frankenstein slaughtering the staff of a geriatrics hospital rather than their sacrificial offer of elderly patients. It might not sound funny, but Bartel’s uninhibited direction makes it perfect cult material.

[Image: Director Paul Bartel’s uncredited cameo.]

The film’s low budget is often masked by the exotically decorated cars and the effective driving photography, which had a major influence on later films. The interiors are less convincing, with the sparsely furnished “hotel rooms” clearly set in a warehouse.

[Image: Note the double doors (complete with “EXIT” sign) and conspicuously high ceiling in this rather unlikely “hotel room.”]

A low-budget may even aid the atmosphere. The themed costumes and bad hair, for instance are kitschy fun in themselves. Then set the whole thing in a dystopic future full of quotable near-non-sequiturs like, “You know Myra, some people might think you're cute. But me, I think you're one very large baked potato.” and you’ve got yourself a vintage throwback to the 1970’s. Ultimately it is the imaginative wackiness of the plot and the universal cast commitment to their distinctive characters that provide the finishing touch.

[Images: Simone Griffith plays love interest and rebel agent Annie Smith. News personality Grace Pander, who refers to every celebrity as “a great, dear friend of mine,” introduces her to Frankenstein as a “red-hot sexpot.” “She better be a red-hot navigator,” he replies. In this case, everybody wins.]

Both films have very different goals in how they handle their characters and tone. “The Cars That Ate Paris” gives us unconventionally sympathetic villains with arguably understated performances while “Death Race 2000” stocks its roster with conspicuously ruthless heroes famous for their insanely over-the-top conduct. There’s something richer and more meaningful in Weir’s measured deconstruction of a rural community, but I’d rather watch Bartel’s wanton destruction of urban society.

Winner: Death Race 2000

[Image: Anyone who says this movie has too much shirtless David Carradine is no friend of mine.]

5 comments:

Robin said...

You have probably seen the movie Daisies by Věra Chytilová, I just sa it, what a wonderful thing that was! Have you ever seen anything like it? Could you recommend something else where people just do strange things whiteout a reason...

Walrus said...

Ah, yes, I do love "Daisies" quite a bit. Such a beautiful and free-spirited film. I'd like to do a review of it eventually. I love watching and writing about Czech films (as you may have noticed) so you might look into other titles around here. The next post will be on a little Czech gem called "The Ear."

I'm not sure there is another film quite like "Daisies," but I can probably think of some where people behave strangely:

There's Svankmejer's "Lunacy" if you want something equally Czech and irreverent. Godard's gorgeous "Pierrot Le Fou" is a safe bet. Lovers on the Run in a flurry of French New Wave chaos. Canada's "Saddest Music in the World" is visually amazing and pretty inexplicable. Another favorite about two idiosyncratic young ladies blazing their own trail is the Japanese film "Kamikaze Girls." A lot of Japanese stuff from the last decade may meet your criteria: two lesser ones are "Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl" (a more violent crime-themed film) and "The Happiness of the Katakuris" (or anything else by Takashi Miike). Russia's "Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors" and Italy's "Fellini Satyricon" also have plenty of bizarre characters and situations with a trippy tone, although those are a bit more of a stretch. Anything by Mexican madman Alejandro Jodorwsky would fit the bill ("Fando and Lis," for instance). In English, you might try Andy Warhol's "Chelsea Girls" or the SF musical "American Astronaut."

Hope some of those interest you!

Walrus said...

robin,

You might also enjoy the films of Richard Lester, like his Beatles stuff ("A Hard Day's Night," "Help!") and "The Knack... and How to Get It."

Robin said...

Thanks a lot! You mentioned many of my all time favorites, but also many new things I didn't know of! I already love Lunacy, Pierrot Le Fou, Satyricon, Jodorowsky and The Beatles movies, most through my gorgeous girlfriend(barbaina) who also brought me here! But the rest of your recommendations of which where new to me sound very interesting! I just hope I will be able to find them!

Walrus said...

I'm always glad to trade recommendations and I'm happy to see we (including barbaina) have simular taste. I'll let you know if I think of any other films that fit the bill, but in the meantime feel free to send me a list of your favorites.

Have fun!