The new cinematic primitive: The Wachowski brothers and Speed Racer

Anthony Lane, of The New Yorker, dismisses Speed Racer as of "no conceivable interest to anyone over the age of ten,” but I found the film more enjoyable and thought-provoking in some ways than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Speed Racer uses an astonishing amount of technique to dress up its deliberately crude inspiration, but let us not forget that Eric Stoltz wears a Speed Racer t-shirt as he deals heroin to John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction. In its ferociously shallow way, Speed Racer strives for a trippy apotheosis of neon colors even as it reflects Wachowski brothers’ dread of Hollywood corruption.

The film invites the question--what was so great about The Matrix? Aside from granting Keanu Reeves the Godlike status of “the One,” The Matrix took pleasure in imagining the world as a computer program that hides a monstrous machine that uses immobilized deluded humans for energy. It could be a metaphor for fascistic takeover of modern day entertainment, what Jonathan Franzen might be describing when he writes “Technological consumerism is an infernal machine” in his novel The Corrections. Jean-Luc Godard often spoke of how Hollywood has reduced cinema to a “commodity,” its oppressive influence on European cinema likened to totalitarian regime’s control over our consciousness, and Speed Racer shows some Godardian influences. For instance, Godard liked to emphasize the artificiality of the image by placing his characters in front of posters. Speed Racer likes to do the same, notably when Edward G. Robinson appears on the wall of the inside of a villain’s truck, I guess to remind us of Little Caesar and the dawn of gangster films in 1931. Speed also tears off the poster of one of his racing heroes from his bedroom wall, after he learns from the corporate CEO E. P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) that all of the Grand Prix races have been fixed.

The one recognizable theme of Speed Racer, aside from the importance of family, is its dislike of corporate cooptation. Once Speed (Emile Hirsch) establishes his talent on the race course, Royalton attempts to lure Speedy into joining Royalton Industries by showing him around the factory, giving him a suit, and generally treating his family, who otherwise run an independent business making race cars, to all kinds of corporate perks. When the conscience-torn Speedy eventually refuses to sign, Royalton cannot restrain himself from giving Speedy a snarling history lesson in the corporate control of racing since it began. He also threatens to ruin Speedy with lawsuits and highly publicized slanderous accusations that Speedy cheats on the course just as his lost brother Rex, another excellent racer, was accused. While The Matrix kept its villainy subtle in the cold formal clothes of Agent Smith, every bad guy here telegraphs his nastiness either by snarling or by sporting a poor complexion.

In this manner, the Wachowski brothers find a way to make car racing a way to battle corporate corruption. Speed doesn’t just want to win, he must race to maintain his economic and spiritual independence, which is a bit ironic in such an expensive commercial film. In the way, the film embodies a kind of paradox. It actively defies what it is. Aside from these high goals, the movie often evokes the kinetic rush of arcade racing games such as Out Run (also seen in Donnie Darko) where young women shoot starter pistols or wave flags or cheer maniacally as the brightly colored race cars slide around the track, hop over one another, and dangle by one tire from falling into the abyss. The race scenes are fun in their way. It’s just too bad that the brothers felt obliged to include so many heartfelt scenes where Mom (Susan Sarandon) or Pops (cuddly John Goodman) give pep talks to Speedy about how they love him. Mom says she’s proud of him “Not because you won, but because you stood up, you weren't afraid, and you did what you thought was right.” Since all of the actors have proven themselves capable of much more in other films, they appear like so many sell-outs, prostituting their gifts in day-glo bright polo shirts. No matter how many excellent Coen brothers films he’s starred in (why can’t the Wachowskis be more like the Coens?), John Goodman looks like an emasculated teddy bear here, making me realize that perhaps the film version of The Flintstones may be the founding film of the new primitive aesthetics on display in Speed Racer. As the love interest, Trixie, Christina Ricci is mostly reduced to cheering on the sidelines or wondering, bemusedly, as to whether Speed has any interest in girls at all. He may appear to be a young man, but his mind is locked within a 12 year old infatuation with racing.

Technically, the Wachowski brothers include all kinds of surrealistic distortions. The computer graphic backgrounds seem to keep everything in sharp focus, thereby eliminating any sense of depth perception, especially outdoors. The ravings of the radio announcers, endlessly hyping Speed's driving skills, oblige the filmmakers to insert talking heads into the race scenes that wipe cut rapidly, blending one scene into the next. The editing is so rapid, much of the film swirls into a kind of candy-dazzled blur of bright blues offset with yellows and reds. I had a hard time telling if the film was beautiful or just demented.

Overall, though, I very much enjoyed the eye-candy graphics of the film. It reminded me of 1960s light shows, and it all has a trippy Japanese iconic weightlessness that would suit a rave well. With its shiny surfaces and fast food interior design, Speed Racer is the ultimate glossy media product, visually but not verbally a worthy successor to Toy Story. It’s just a shame humans had to be involved.


bd said…
I dunno, Doc... seeing the old Speed Racer cartoons as an adult sweeps me back to the 1960's and the smell of starch and steam as Mom ironed Dad's shirts on the nearby squeaky ironing board. So nostalgic, especially the parade of interesting vehicles during the ending credits.

And... I only saw the show in black and white until I was older.

So... do I want to spoil my nostalgia with the glitzy new Wachowski vision? I have an 8 year-old son, so I guess the answer is, "It doesn't matter; I'm going to see it anyway."

Mourn deeply the withering memory.
Castle of Stink said…
You're working way too hard on your blog... So... many... reviews... Must... read... them... all...
And weren't you on vacation?

I will not be spending money to see Speed Racer. I saw Lars and the Real Girl last night. I highly, highly recommend it.