Back in the summer of 1990, 18 years ago, I had nothing better to do, so I went to see Days of Thunder, a Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer vanity production in service to the vanity of its producers, its director (Tony Scott) and its star, Tom Cruise. It was the reunion of Scott and Cruise with Simpson and Bruckheimer, all still basking in the afterglow of Top Gun, which was a huge box-office hit five years previous—an eternity when speaking of Hollywood short-term memory. The movie was loud, motored by cliché, and relentless in its campaign to make a case for the uber-masculinity of Cruise, whose character was named Cole Trickle (I’m not making this up; blame this seminal joke on Robert Towne, the movie’s screenwriter, who wrote the movie with Cruise), and at the time it seemed there wasn’t so much as an insignificant piece of glimmering chrome that director Scott (also responsible for the soft-focus goth fantasy The Hunger) wouldn’t fetishize and aestheticize to within an inch of its wide-screen life. I endured the movie for about a half an hour in before the whole fast-cutting-revving-engines-long-lens-shimmering-heat-of-the-track aesthetic drove me to the exit. (I think I must have also had an irrational fear that Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” was going to suddenly pop up on the soundtrack of this loud machine too, in the same way it propelled those screaming jet engines in Top Gun.)
Audiences didn’t turn out for Days of Thunder in the way they did for Top Gun, however. And a lot of water has passed over the dam in the ensuing 18 years, in terms of the evolution of action cinema and the desensitized visual paranoia that has come to characterize Tony Scott’s career as a director. Michael Bay took the Bruckheimer sensibility (now sans the deceased Simpson) to the logical apex of its manic, visually splintered origins, with epics like Con Air, Armageddon and the Bad Boys movies, none of which ever settled for four angles on a single piece of action when 10 could be crammed into the same short burst of time. Coming out of a Bay movie, especially Armageddon, one felt like one had been staring two inches away and directly into a strobe light for 150 minutes while sitting on a crowded airport tarmac. The success of those movies must have driven Scott nuts. In the years since Crimson Tide (1995), his movies have become increasingly jarring and incoherent, applying the multiple film stocks and shattered glass editing of Oliver Stone to an action film sensibility than hasn’t the patience for anything resembling storytelling coherence—Scott is too busy trying to prove his filmmaking chops to recognize that, in movies like Domino, Deja Vu and Man On Fire, they’ve virtually disappeared in visual chaos. (The prospect of his upcoming remake of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 does not warm my cockles.)
What’s surprising is how kind time has been to Days of Thunder. In the shadow of a movie like Domino, hyperstylized to near oblivion, Thunder, with its relative long takes (some last over 15 seconds, and there are recognizable master shots in the movie’s visual plan) and its willingness to make room for some very good actors (Robert Duvall and Michael Rooker chief among them) to marinate and percolate among the fuel-injected silliness of the plot, comes off looking like a piece of classical Hollywood moviemaking by comparison. When I saw Days of Thunder again recently, I had a hard time remembering, beyond that looming specter of Kenny Loggins, why I originally felt the need to flee. Maybe it was because the movie was expected to be another formula (Formula) summer smash, and I didn’t relish taking part in making that Paramount dream come true. Maybe it was because I was on vacation in the mountains and decided I’d rather take a walk in the evening air. But as I watched it in my living room a few weeks ago, it went down easy enough, the glimmers of intelligence in the performances, and even in Scott’s eye for making those stock cars shimmer and take on a bit of their own life, were enough for an amusing evening at the races.
I wonder how Speed Racer will look to audiences 18 years from now. So far the reviews have been near universally dismissive, inspiring some of our best (as well as some of our not-so-best) film writers to come up with new and clever ways to evoke the flashy spatial disorientation that the movie serves up as its high-tech bread-and-butter, which is a far cry from the smash-and-grab antics of Scott and Bay. But you'd never know it from those reviews. A glance through the excerpts of pieces corralled at Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie is holding on to its none-too-impressive 35% overall rating, will inform you that the movie is “headache inducing,” “incoherent,” “ugly, “brutal,” “pathetic” and, in my favorite bit of overreaching cleverness, “(an) orgy of pixels writhing around like the special effects equivalent of a bukkake film.” Okay…
There are some enthusiastic notices to mention: Richard Corliss wrote a glowing piece about Speed Racer in Time magazine, and bloggers Rob Humanick and Matthew Kiernan exercise evenhanded intelligence in their reviews. Why, even Moriarty has some cogent things to say about the movie. But there’s no denying that the mixed-to-negative reviews are the mainstream when it comes to the Wachowski brothers’ movie.
David Edelstein acknowledges that “Speed Racer has moments of bliss,” but contends that they are cancelled out by the feeling that the film is “a nightmare in which you’re trapped in an arcade with screens on all sides and no eyelids.”
Stephanie Zacharek is far less kind in her elaborate metaphor conjuring: “Speed Racer is so arrogant about its so-called stylishness and energy that it feels like punishment, the equivalent of being trapped at a dinner party between two guys who feel compelled to inform you, in long-winded detail, how great they are.” Zacharek fails to meet the critical standard for tying her metaphor into a technological phenomenon, like Edelstein’s arcade reference, but she’s not finished: “This isn’t a picture filled with wonder and a sense of fun; it’s so jaded and crass that I almost wonder if it’s a highly scientific experiment to gauge how little audiences will settle for these days.” After finishing this review, any reader who may have appreciated Speed Racer can at least rest easy in the knowledge of his or her irredeemably low standards.
Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times wrote the review that perplexes me most. Chocano comes at the movie from the perspective I think many reviewers did, one not lacking in preconceived notions but instead waiting to confirm the received wisdom about the movie built on poor reactions to the trailer and other specious, Internet-generated buzz. And like several reviews I read, she can’t seem to decide what the movie could possibly do right, so she docks it for both the “vast swaths of dialogue” that “take the place of blocks of dramatic action in which things happen, once called scenes,” and for being “a movie about speed and forward momentum (which) provides very little of either, though it does explode into spurts of frenetic, confusing and hard-to-follow action.” Chocano is a critic who has consistently surprised me with her wit and intelligence, but her point of view here seems contradictory and confused.
Armond White’s lavish diatribe, however, is about par for the course for a critic fast approaching terminal self-parody: “Speed Racer kills cinema with its over-reliance on the latest special effects, flattening drama and comedy into stiff dialogue and blurry action sequences.” (Stay tuned for Armond’s rave for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull coming up right on schedule in two weeks.) Disappointingly, it takes the pugnacious New York Press critic five whole paragraphs before he makes a direct comparison of Speed Racer to Torque, a far superior absurdity directed by Joseph Kahn that is so good only Armond can appreciate it. He does, however, remind us in paragraph three that Speed Racer should not be confused with 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Conformist or McCabe and Mrs. Miller (“If today’s filmgoers even know those landmarks…”)
And God bless Walter Chaw for making sure we feel his pain: “After enduring the Cool World live-action version of Speed Racer, I confess I’ve sort of lost the will to live.” Those heartless Wachowskis! Chaw’s dizzying grumpfest of a review is summarized by this excerpt:
“I guess it looks cool, like Dr. Seuss sicking up all over a Twister board--cool in an eye-stabbing, brain-deadening way that lowers the collective IQ whilst inspiring some to believe that this razzle-dazzle will be cutting-edge for longer than the duration it takes for the film to tick through the projector. Good actors are asked to say things dubbed onto the round-mouth movements of Japanese avatars, and what's left is probably wondrous for the hardcore, diehard, pathetic-loser contingent. Free of that, the picture is incoherent at the very instant it's simplistic. The action is hard yet easy to follow, the simplistic drama is easy to understand and impossible to feel, and while the strain of not saying the obvious (that it's not about anything) must be showing, the point is that it's not even about imitation.”
Whew. Forget for a moment whether Speed Racer is any good or not. Is this good writing? I wun’t know, cuz my kollektive IQ has done been lowered so much, end I’m stll believin’ wut I saw wuz cuttingedge in that pitchershowe there…
Leave it to Jim Emerson, along with Edelstein and Zacharek one of my favorite film critics, to turn in probably the most evenhanded pan of the film I’ve read so far. Here’s a taste:
“Speed Racer is not a feature film in any conventional sense-- although there is nothing so conventional in today's marketplace as a corporate product based on a campy vintage TV show that is developed for extremely brief exhibition in multiplexes on its way to more appropriate platforms such as DVD and video games, which provide the principal justification for its manufacture in the first place.
Neither is Speed Racer a commercial avant-garde film (though fans of the Wachowski brothers may wish to make such claims), unless you still consider Laserium shows of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon to be cutting edge. (Lights! Shapes! Colors! Motion! Money!) And there's nothing terribly adventurous these days about Eisensteinian montage treated as if it were William S. Burroughs' "cut up" technique -- with digital clips randomly scrambled like pixilated confetti.
Nor is it some kind of subversive commodity, unless the outré strategy of pandering to a low-brow, retro-nostalgic crowd can be considered anything but business as usual in 2008. The faux naiveté on display here -- right down to the imitation-fruit-flavored FDA-food-dye coloring -- is both shamelessly quaint and shamelessly cynical.
What Speed Racer is, according to Jim, is “a manufactured widget, a packaged commodity that capitalizes on an anthropomorphized cartoon of Capitalist Evil in order to sell itself and its ancillary products.” And what’s more, “Whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain during Speed Racer is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization. Like the animated TV series that inspired this movie, you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn't matter.”
Yet despite the copious evidence of the arguments presented here, some more cogently than others, I’d like to testify that in the matter of Speed Racer I’m siding with the desensitized philistines, cynically manipulated and fleeced each and every one by this apparently soulless, and perhaps evil corporate ejaculation masquerading as entertainment. The movie I saw, in the company of my two daughters (ages 8 and 5), was a viscerally and aesthetically thrilling piece of action entertainment, a kaleidoscopic digital explosion of light and design in which primary tones of color, and of emotion, are rendered in complex patterns to simple and intense effect. The Wachowskis have not settled for rote duplication of the rudimentary pleasures of the Speed Racer TV series, about which there is some debate over their general merit, depending on how nostalgically inclined you are going in. (I wasn’t.) What’s amusing is, if they had gone the way of simply recreating the show, or camping up the proceedings with a wink and a nudge to the “low-brow, retro–nostalgic crowd” who know how stupid it all is, the Wachowskis would probably be getting even worse reviews than they are right now for creating this technically radical, emotionally direct, giddy, dizzying and heartfelt movie that eschews easy irony and uses all the high-tech paints and brushes at their disposal to create something unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen.
Three minutes from the beginning of Speed Racer
I think Jim mischaracterizes the aesthetic design and achievement of Speed Racer when he knocks it, by extension, for having avant-garde pretensions—the description is offered as one “fans of the Wachowski brothers” may want to take to heart, as though no one else would possibly entertain the notion, but also one that has no credibility. In fact, Glenn Kenny finds reason to mention the A-G word in his review, and even used Godard as a reference point for Speed Racer’s anime-inspired approach to action and visual language, even if he backs away far enough to conclude that the movie’s attempt to radicalize technique “yields heretofore un-dreamed of levels of narrative incoherence.” Avant-garde for the Pink Floyd-Laserium crowd or not, it’s this charge of incoherence, one that almost every negative review has claimed, that looks to be Speed Racer’s primary albatross, its aesthetic cross to bear. I know that Jim knows from incoherence (he’s seen as many Alan Parker movies as I have), but I wonder if these charges of incoherence hounding the film aren’t grounded as much in impatience for the relentless style of the movie, a virtual throwing up of one’s hands, as much as any evidence of an enfeebled awareness of conventional narrative. (And here I must say that, that Laserium crack notwithstanding, Jim’s review is a model of expressing his personal view of the movie while avoiding making those of us who disagree out to be misguided chumps for doing so.)
I ask about these charges simply because, far from finding Speed Racer incoherent, I instead discovered it to be a whooshing marvel which challenged me to see a simple story with fresh, often incredulous eyes, one that doesn’t exploit easy nostalgia but instead takes an elastic approach to the familiar tropes of the cartoon, creating an experience of film merged with digital effects that folds back on itself in exhilarating new ways. I’m not saying that the Wachowskis’ movie isn’t occasionally disorienting. It’s intended to be; what use for the wild, hyperkinetic, vertiginous designs of those race tracks, or the race cars that quite literally spin (and elevate and rotate) down them, if not to take away the stomachs of sensitive moviegoers? But the filmmakers never leave us adrift; the pace of the movie ensures that some new delight will come along quickly enough to ground or otherwise tickle even the most confused viewer.
In this same light, I have to take issue with Jim’s assertion that the movie is assembled with a Burroughsian attitude toward narrative structure, “with digital clips scrambled like pixilated confetti.” This comment implies that the movie has been slapped together with no attention to details like pace, connective tissue or graphic continuity, when in fact the Wachowskis, particularly in the movie’s lightning-fast first 20 minutes, use a instinctual approach to refashioning the language of visual storytelling to deftly scramble the movie’s different levels of back story with a present-day race that shows us everything we need to know about Speed’s relationship to the brother he lost, and the seriousness with which he approaches racing. The movie weaves between the race and the two flashback threads—an attention-deficit Speed in third-grade math class losing himself in a fantasia of forward motion (animated both as a flip-book drawing and a child’s crayon rendering of stock-car cinema with a flesh-and-blood Speed seated behind the 2-D wheel), and the story of how Speed’s older brother Rex lost his life in a racing accident—with an ease that belies the actual complexity of how the story is being told and the way the filmmakers make it seem like an organic exercise. If there is anything organic in Speed Racer it’s this sequence, from which the movie’s entire visual plan springs whole—we glide and hurtle from narrative strand to narrative strand along the movie’s liquid lines, which at times seem to connect the pieces of the puzzle by melting at the edges like a multicolored Popsicle. Other than some funny shock cuts from Speed at his desk to a conference between a teacher and Speed’s mom that, yes, did put me in mind of Godard, there is hardly anything about the first 20 minutes that couldn’t be described as fluid. And the rest of the movie, though it barely stops for breath, is exhilarating, not exhausting, and filled with the kind of hilarious invention that moviegoers hope for but with which they are rarely rewarded-- a structurally simple sequence of two drivers communicating by two-way radio, realized not with cutaways, but by a whooshing series of alternating close-ups that build on the escalating tension of the race, had me gasping with delight.
Jim knocks Speed Racer for conveying narrative information through “optical design, and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization.” Though I think this is an oversimplification designed to make a point, I don’t necessarily disagree with it. Speed Racer does convey a lot of information about character and narrative through its sleek futuristic design and restructuring of the way scenes click and snap together. But it’s disingenuous to imply that the performances and the dialogue are perfunctory or otherwise bereft of thought, in service to ciphers that might as well be animated themselves. Emile Hirsch has a slightly recessive quality as an actor, and he doesn’t pop off the screen like most of the rest of his cast mates do. But he has just the right touch of a brooding, interior quality that suggests the pain as well as the passion that compels Speed toward racing greatness. This is not, by the way, the same as saying that his performance has an interior landscape of exceptional interest; but the glint in his eyes provides enough of a hint, and he rolls with the movie’s general tone of avoiding irony, providing a solid center around which the rest of the movie can gyrate.
John Goodman embodies Pops Racer with physical acuity and, yes, grace, and an integrity that most actors couldn’t resist italicizing with a smirk. Roger Allam conjures delicious venality to the task of accessing the dark heart of corporate villain Arnold Royalton, who attempts to seduce Speed into abandoning his homespun loyalty to Pops Racer Racing. Twisting his chops like a purple-clad Tim Curry, Allam doesn’t reinvent scenery chewing, he just reminds you of its pleasures. Even young Paulie Litt surprises as Speed’s pudgy, pugnacious little brother Spritle, in the constant company of his manic chimp buddy Chim-Chim. Together, these two comprise an interspecies comedy team that punctuates the movie with genuine laughs and demonstrates that not all of Speed Racer’s charms are of the digital variety. So too does Christina Ricci as Speed’s chaste, incredibly cute girlfriend Trixie, who knows her way around a purple-and-pink helicopter and is no slouch behind the wheel either. Ricci now seems born, with those saucer-sized eyes, angular Louise Brooks haircut and feline eye liner, to be inserted into a live-action anime, and she has the most striking graphic presence of anyone in the cast. In a perfect world, the Wachowskis would build the sequel around her. Ricci’s gorgeous peepers outdo even those of Susan Sarandon as Speed’s ever-patient Mom who has less to do than anyone else, but still manages to create an appropriately warm place for the movie to occasionally retreat. (And she grills an awesome pancake).
Finally, Matthew Fox, as the mysterious Racer X, Speed’s sometime adversary, sometime partner in pedal-to-the-metal fun and games, displays a sly sense of humor about essentially being cast as a walking phallus. He brings just the right glancing touch to the homoerotic undercurrent in his scenes, which Zacharek found so annoying, and he handles the mystery of Racer X with aplomb too. Like Hirsch and Speed, he’s no cipher; he’s just based on one.
It’s hard for me to imagine getting up enough steam to be too bothered by the apparent contradiction of making an anti-corporate movie that’s funded by a major conglomerate like Time Warner. It’s like saying there’s hypocrisy inherent in any work of art that doesn’t ascribe credence or endorsement to the views of the big boys who laid out the money to make it. Of course the Wachowskis wouldn’t be able to create this universe without the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars obtained from snakes only slightly less oily (and far more conniving) than Arnold Royalton. But I’m not sure that’s in and of itself incontrovertible evidence that they’re hypocrites for building their movie around a critique of capitalist extremity, especially if there’s evidence, however debatable, that they’re in the pursuit or art and not just blind commerce. (Let me count the ways in which the Wachowskis, through the realization of the vision behind this movie, have sabotaged their commercial prospects with a mass audience that is primed to expect exactly the kind of toothless corporate product exemplified by movies like the Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.) Nor do I imagine that Speed Racer is the first movie, big budget or not, to bite the hand that feeds it. The Player comes to mind, and though it got by on the imprimatur of Robert Altman, the ultimate outsider, the movie itself was funded in part by Aaron Spelling and distributed by Fine Line Features, a tributary of Time Warner, which also released Speed Racer. One look at the promiscuous degree of cameo appearances in Altman’s film reveals its satire as the unmistakable product of an inside job. And there’s the movie Kenny brings up-- Bertolucci’s not-so-friendly-to-capitalism 1900, distributed on these shores by Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount at the time.
Another of the movie’s apparent crimes is its sincerity. Swirling around among the breathless inventiveness of the races, the narrative fluidity and ingenuity, the comic hi-jinks of Spritle and Chim-Chim, and the cacophonous beauty of the movie’s design, is the glue that holds the whole enterprise together-- the honest emotional trajectory of the story of a boy obsessed with racing (who stands in ably for an artist who choreographs the movement of his car like a internally combustive dance) and grounded by familial love. A friend of mine and I spent the day Monday exchanging breathless e-mails about how much we loved Speed Racer and making our plans to see it again as soon as possible (preferably in IMAX, he said, fully aware of the instant spike in his Geek-O-Meter rating). I love what he said about the movie:
“The movie struck me as something rather akin to De Palma: stylistics (camera movement, color, design, music) all choreographed in an expressionistic synthesis which, at its best, dovetails with the emotions in the story -- however simplistic or generic -- and fuses into something I find incredibly moving, and uniquely cinematic.”
There’s an attitude here in my friend’s comments that cuts through the condescending attitude of many of the reviews that characterize the movie’s technology as being in service to narrative banality. But it’s that punching through to the genuine emotion despite the story’s apparent lack of complexity that is significant here. And I think he’s right to invoke De Palma as well, a groundbreaking storyteller who fuses technique and social terror to create often grandiose, bitterly funny and enthralling visions typically pockmarked with the kind of narrative flaws that are diminished, and sometimes redeemed, by the sheer audacity of his style. What’s authentically awesome about Speed Racer is the way it nimbly accesses the emotions buried within a blockbuster package and uses the digital medium not only to excite the senses but to come to an understanding, in the rush of excitement in our brain waves and in our follicles as the goose bumps rise, of why we should be reacting at all. This is, to me the mark of a work of pop art. The CGI technology which by now has become so mundane and deadly in other filmmaking contexts is invigorated, made as masterful as Speed Racer himself hurling down the track, spinning and doing gravity-defying loops. Speed’s mom waxes rhapsodic about her son’s ability as a driver and tells him, “It’s inspiring and beautiful, everything art should be.” Dare I say the same about Speed Racer? I dare. It's the movie of the year for me so far.