Wednesday, June 4, 2008

On Speed Racer

The other day I saw Speed Racer with my sons, brother and nephew.

I have been a steadfast and vocal opponent (ask my friends) of the conversion of good to to somewhat lame 1960s and 70s television shows into feature films. Television shows do not transfer to screen well, in large part because good television characters have fixed attributes, while movie characters are often required to learn and change over the course of several hours. Otherwise, why watch them? The ongoing evisceration of the new Sex and the City film is a demonstration of these dangers and the resulting critical bonfire. To mix a metaphor. (Clean the carcass before you burn it?) Of course viewers often disregard critical response and go to see bad movies anyway.

I guess I did not really focus on the fact that a Speed Racer movie was in the works until I saw the trailer. Like many people, I thought that the Wachowski Brothers' Matrix films were increasingly indulgent and gradually unwatchable, though the germ of the idea and the visual realization of it in No. 1 were appealing, if the religious imagery combined with fetished violence annoyed--the Christ with an Uzi bit.

Anyway, the Speed Racer trailer promised a spectacle with an agenda of sorts. I went with extremely low expectations, appropriately. I watched the show as a kid, almost daily. I could never figure out why their mouths worked so badly, but I liked the cars and the song.

Surprisingly, I loved the movie. I am still trying to understand why I loved it, and I expect to return to pay more attention to details, but for starters, the film addresses and heightens the emotional vacuity that I associate with anime: the characters have a weird sort of kabuki attitude about everything. There is a moment when Speed and Trixie (Christina Ricci--holy moly--is anime made flesh) are sitting in the car at "inspiration point," the local park-and-make-out spot, and Trixie is tempting Speed with her babe powers. Speed responds almost rhetorically, sans animal drive, yet we are supposed to acknowledge her beauty, his dashing presence, and their common attraction. Rock and Doris, sort of, but that's not really it. A plinking arrangement of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" is playing under the scene, and an array of pink roses and cherry blossoms forms a background behind them. What a crazy thing--a gorgeous spectacle, references to Japanese art both modern and premodern, and a bizarre Brechtian distance built in. It's both campy and aesthetically rigorous. Also very self-aware and sexually displaced. It is, in other words, an art experience of a sort, insofar as it addresses exactly the sort of thing that inspires many column inches in the realm of contemporary art criticism. Pretty self-reflexive stuff.

There are other intriguing moments and quotations throughout the film. Some of them concern race and contemporary global culture, others engage more narrow visual and photographic language issues. The placement of black characters in major cultural roles in prior periods--in this case, a champion grand-prix driver in 1943--is frankly historicist. A theme park mentality brought to cultural history. More to reflect on there. (There are plenty of other examples of this--Morgan Freeman's role in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven makes no sense whatsoever. He would never have survived the first half hour of the film.)

I am curious to hear from others on this front. I will understand if others find it nauseating, but I'd like to know. All of us loved it, and we came to the experience with wildly different frames of reference. I am especially curious to hear female perspectives on the film. I'm going to try to get my wife to go, to get her take.


franzeska said...

Well, on the shallowest level, the average female response to this film has got to be: "Hubba hubba!" Beyond the mere hotness of the actors, I appreciated that none of them were big name A list movie stars. I wanted to see Speed Racer, not so-and-so's latest summer blockbuster. I've never seen Lost or Into the Wild and had never heard of Rain (though of course I was in love with Wednesday Adams when I was younger like every other little queer nerd girl), and it was nice to see some new faces. Even the actors I was more familiar with sort of disappeared into their roles.

As a long time manga nut (not so into anime anymore), I loved seeing that wacky aesthetic reproduced here. The Speed Racer reviews are frankly bewildering. I found the movie easy to follow and didn't notice the unusual editing (i.e. flashbacks) the first time I watched the film. It gives me the same feeling as really good manga: a feeling of having experienced the story without really being able to remember how or in what medium or with which senses. This didn't really strike me as odd until I realized just how few of the viewers (or at least critics) found the Speed Racer world as immersive and engrossing as I did.

Pity it was such a flop: I'm dying for a sequel with more Racer X.

Tivius said...

I loved it, as did my entire family & each of the friends I've shared it with!
Yes - multiple viewings here; 5 times to be exact.

Seems extreme for such a "horrid" movie - as the media would have you believe, ne?

They lied.

It's as if somehow Captain Hook were in charge of all these troops, each dedicated to suppressing the truth about Peter. Afraid that if this film succeeded, more might follow in such valid attempts to release our inner child. SPEED RACER does just that, tickling and impressing us with a wow factor second to none, and the first non-dark hero that we've been allowed to enjoy in ages.
Holy Bad Business for the status quo, Batman.

Having no Make Believe left, a heinous crew of sharp tongued wielders of words - carrion carriers with grim and lofty opinions went to work against it wholeheartedly.
It became a dastardly contest to see who could create the most vicious way to spew sadistic synonyms for "colorful" and "hyperkinetic".
If you've seen the reviews, you know how gleefully cruel they were.

Plenty of puerile and putrid pulitzers were hurled at this little film... all a little too ready to partake in the staged infanticide of a movie reportedly created for children.

It seemed like overkill.
But it wasn't... was an assassination.

SPEED RACER achieves what few films have done in the last century: it embraces it's viewers with a sense of wonder!
The cynic in me, adult senses stunned by raw beauty, clever expression and fantastic demonstration of style, yielded to the child.
I nearly forgot to eat my candy.. lol.
What can I say? --I was having fun!

I paid for tickets, sat down... a little flickering projector came alive, and just like that - I remembered.
I recalled what it was to be a little boy, scooting around on the kitchen floor with my Hot Wheels fully engaged...

No - actually.. "remembered" isn't quite the word

I returned.

This was no ordinary movie.
The revulsion expressed by the mainstream media - even as so many bloggers have expressed sentiments like Mr. Dowd's above, is testament to that.
This was no dark and sarcastic Iron Man, nor a tired and silly Indy remake... there's something more to Speed. Something a little magical -if you have a heart that remembers The Art and Value of Play.

It's only a little over 2 hours long...would that have been so much to ask, Hook?

It was never marketed as Shakespeare in the Park.
It was never so neatly pretentious as all the attacks leveled at it.

It was just a movie.
A really fun film. An escape.
For a few moments, we were reminded of who we were in the days of our innocence, who we wanted to be each time we climbed on our bikes or strapped on our skates on a Summer Day.
But most of all - we were gently shaken awake with a simple message;

You Imagination Should Have
No Limits.

Yes Peter.
You're right... I had forgotten.
But you're absolutely right.
~We can fly.
We can GO! GO! GO!

Speed Racer is a winner.

And all you spinsters, henchmen and craftless critics shall remain grounded by the gravity of your cold and colorless disbelief- old, unloved and forgotten...

franzeska said...

the first non-dark hero that we've been allowed to enjoy in ages.

So very true! I forgot to mention just how much I liked that. There's nothing inherently wrong with tortured antiheroes, but they've been in fashion for decades and I'm bored of them.

DB Dowd said...

Franzeska, I am so glad to hear your perspective, and your comparison of the experience to manga. I'm curious to hear more.

Tivius, my goodness, so pleased as well to provide you with an outlet for that bottled-up exasperation. At Graphic Tales we know the paucity of reflection upon popular graphic works as compared with other, typically "higher" forms, and have strived to provide more thoughtful commentary. But I must ask, given your finale:

"And all you spinsters, henchmen and craftless critics shall remain grounded by the gravity of your cold and colorless disbelief,"

can you imagine any valid reason for declaring the film to be of lesser critical value? The denunciation you offer mirrors the denunciations you decry. Critics do hard work, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. They defend consumers against crappy products, and point out valuable ones. It's a serious challenge, and one not taken lightly. So often "critic" is used as a synonym for "untalented, malevolent judge." But this is not terribly fair.

So, Tivius, as a secondary contribution to the discussion, can you identity a comparable lousy film? That is, are you promoting the exemplar, Speed Racer, or the category which it represents (animated adventure, racing movies, Japanese-inflected pop culture, etc.)? I can't necessarily tell from your objections which it might ultimately be.

Jeremy Mace said...

I thought it was a fantastic movie and loved the storytelling. It was remarkable. I believe that it is a forerunner of a new era of film-making. This is non-stop, jam packed, emotional, pixel-dripping fun! Matthew Fox was great and I loved the young Speed Racer as well. From this point on I think Speed will go to the pantheon of great heroes and in years to come will be realized as a pioneer film. All that being said, I have one complaint. I did not care for some of the language used in what otherwise is a great family show. My son, who is 4, loved it, but we had to leave after the 5th or 6th cuss word. I returned to finish the movie as I said, enjoyed it. It is not that I opposed to language in films, but in seemed so out of context. Opinions?

Devilvet said...

Recently found your blog. And First, let me say I like it alot.

Second, I never got the speed racer cartoon...but I loved the movie. Loved it. I think it is completely the story...these passionate people fighting against powerful corruption supported by Family (even if anon like racer x)

When speed restarts the car in the last was like skywalker turning off the computer to shoot the deathstar

And the irnoy that such a poorly animated serial gets such a visually dense exceptional retelling seems ironic to me...but in an awesome way.

It is a shame more people werent able to find and get and love this movie. I certainly do.