The following is the first of five highlights from my nine years writing for the Muriel Awards, my essay on Andy and Lana (nee Larry) Wachowski's magnificent Speed Racer, which placed 25th in the 2008 Muriels running for Best Feature Film.
What do movies as disparate as It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra; 1947), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder; 1970), The Thing (John Carpenter; 1982) and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott; also 1982) have in common? On the surface, not much. However, each of these visually resplendent pictures was a flop at the box-office and years later came to be regarded as either among their celebrated directors’ best, most personal films or, in the case of Blade Runner, so stylistically influential that it can be said to have changed the way futurism in cinematic science fiction has been realized ever since.
Oddly enough, it was seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s similarly irreverent pop culture mash-up Pierrot le fou on the big screen a month or so before Speed Racer bowed that best prepared me for what the Wachowskis had in store for those few of low expectations who passed through the opening-day turnstiles. Like Godard, the Wachowskis integrate their pop-culture-soaked point of view on the material into the very skeleton of the filmmaking itself; each cut, either jarring or graphically continuous, adds a degree of emotion that can blindside a viewer with its candy-coated beauty (I’m thinking of a single cut from the blue flames of a crash that has taken his brother’s life to a mournful shot of Speed sobbing silently in his mother’s arms, his bedroom cloaked in shadow) or with a flurry of gasp-inducing disorientation. Any of the movie’s spectacular, gravity-defying race scenes qualify for such a description, but the movie’s triumph is that it has infused its entire visual approach with the same intensity, and the result is not nausea, as has been widely reported, but instead a kind of transporting, transcendent euphoria.
The eccentric visual unity coursing through the movie’s fuel-injected veins is kept humming and vibrating by the Wachowskis’ go-for-broke bravery, and each new sequence seems to up the ante on the directors’ breathtaking comic audacity. The movie to come is hinted at during a beautiful sequence early on in which a young Speed spies Trixie for the first time. Lost in puppy-love reverie, the backgrounds of both their medium close-ups bleed together in a swirling loss of focus that at first looks like Popsicles melting in Panavision, then effortlessly morphs into flowers and pixels of light that take the shape of free-floating hearts. Speed up-ends his go-cart in a row of bushes and, dazed, looks up at the supernaturally blue sky, his field of vision invaded by an cockeyed angel of elementary-school loveliness—Trixie invades the frame upside-down, as seen from Speed’s point of view, and as my friend Matthew Kiernan said, the movie announces its intention to show you the world from a fresh perspective with the promise of revealing new things within your field of vision you may not have been able to see before. And there is so much to see and hear and thrill to in Speed Racer that six viewings (and counting) have not been nearly enough. (Barely a blip in theaters, the film has found its destiny as a spectacular treat on Blu-ray and HDTV, where it looks better than it ever did theatrically, with the possible exception of its IMAX incarnation.)
I remember coming home from the opening night screening of Speed Racer and excitedly e-mailing a friend—“I don’t know what you thought of this movie, but I loved it, and I can’t stop thinking about it.” He wrote me back the next day, thrilled that I too saw the same movie he did, and we spent the summer re-experiencing it as often as we could, together and with others we hoped would soon become converts. A few days later, in a long piece in which I attempted to put my own reaction into words (and answer the movie’s many critical naysayers), I wrote:
"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.”
Nine months have passed, and no new release I saw since then swept me away like this unlikely explosion of pop cinema did. Twenty years from now I suspect I will no longer be one of the only ones who look at the Wachowski Brothers’ singular achievement as a new classic, but if that scenario somehow fails to materialize, well, there is some comfort in knowing that the landscape of movie history is and always has been littered with films that have escaped the mixed blessings of mass acceptance. And I’ll always have Speed Racer.