Sunday, February 8, 2015
Basically, Speed Racer is everything David Cronenberg didn't get to in Crash.
Written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (based on the cartoon by Tatuso Yoshida)
With Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer), Matthew Fox (Racer X), Christina Ricci (Trixie Shimura), Rain (Teijo Togakhan), John Goodman (Pops Racer), Susan Sarandon (Mom Racer), Paulie Litt (Spritle Racer), Scott Porter (Rex Racer), Willy and Kenzie (Chim Chim), Kick Gurry (Sparky), Benno Furmann (Inspector Detector), and Roger Allam (E.P. Arnold Royalton)
Spoiler alert: moderate
It's too easy to begin and end a discourse on the Wachowski siblings' Speed Racer by simply saying it's thrillingly beautiful. So, I'll start instead by making the counterintuitive claim that Racer—which runs 135 minutes, featuring numerous unnecessary characters and scenes—is not just beautiful and thrilling, but an elegant cinematic machine, albeit so complex that it all but demands multiple viewings to be appreciated and understood.
You probably don't realize this, because the downfall of the film is that there's hardly a soul who could be convinced to ever watch Speed Racer again, who did not already fall in love with it the first time.
But I'm not trying to convince you; you're probably beyond its reach. Racer is one of those movies that appeals to me on every level a movie possibly could, yet I understand why cognitively normal humans recoil instead at the Wachowskis' commitment to the brightest colors, the most hyperkinetic movements, the most impressionistic editing structures, and one of the very goofiest stories ever told. Not everyone was made to like Speed Racer; Speed Racer was not evidently made to be liked by anyone except the Wachowskis.
The off-puttingly idiosyncratic nature of their output has been a constant motif throughout their post-Matrix career, including that film's sequels. After the debacle of Reloaded/Revolutions, I have no idea by what miracle such copious, no-strings-attached financing keeps coming through for all these movies that hardly anyone likes. Jesus must love them, and want them to keep making their big, stupid tracts of adolescent philosophy and class warfare forever, I guess. (Sadly, what must stop, will.)
Racer is an excuse for the sometimes-figurative but mostly-literal combat undertaken between futuristic supercars, manifesting as clashes between obvious CGI toys. The cars and the fantastic tracks upon which they race are rendered in searing bright colors that encode black-and-white characterizations, when the frenetic pace lets you tell them apart. In the midst of explosions, we can glimpse the bubblewrap spheres that save their drivers from twisted metal death, for Racer is a nearly-bloodless film. (Personally, I'm convinced its subdued profanity exists purely in service of avoiding a G-rating. I would bet ten dollars that the single best line of the film, also its single best read—Speed's oft-quoted "Get that weak shit off my track!"—was nevertheless written and shot after principal photography, and pasted in after the first cut had already been assembled. You see, it's sadly asterisked by the very next line, the wimpier "That move was weak," delivered with a mewling sneer. I can't imagine why else both of these lines would be in the picture, other than a deadline-driven editing snafu. Remove the second, leaving only the snarling, righteous anger of the first, and we'd have a truly immaculate object.)
Anyway, as that description suggests, Racer is most readily received as a kids' movie. So that must be why it has a complex, barely-comprehensible plot that turns upon arcane corporate self-dealing. You'll understand when I say it's easier to allude to than to summarize.
In the briefest strokes: Speed Racer is an up-and-coming driver in a science fantasy universe where racing is, essentially, God (this is made explicit in dialogue). Speed's ambition is to become the best racer in the world and, by so doing, rehabilitate the reputation of his brother, who died on the track after implication in a corruption scheme. Speed makes his name, but he soon makes an enemy in the form of scummy magnate E.P. Arnold Royalton, when Speed refuses to fix races for the greater glory of predatory capitalism. Yet there are good men, too: thus does Speed team up with the mysterious Harbinger of Boom himself, Racer X, and the World Racing League's dogged inspector, surname Detector, to expose Royalton's capital (!) corporate crimes.
This simplifies it so much it's scarcely accurate: it omits the gangsters, the ninjas, the Togokhan corporation, the other Japanese corporation whose name I don't recall, Speed's girlfriend Trixie, and the rest of the Racer family—all major players in the story. It makes no reference at all to the chimpanzee and the fat kid, nor to the intellectual property lawsuit—surely that'll get the blood up for the under-eights. I've never watched the original cartoon, but I cannot imagine it's a terribly faithful adaptation.
This complexity hints at Racer's other purpose: to provide the Wachowskis an opportunity to ride their favorite hobbyhorse, their sincere belief that all humanity is in the thrall of monsters. (The siblings have spent spent sixteen years, six of their seven films, and approximately $720 million pursuing the notion. Perhaps their next six will be about how the sky is blue.)
If Racer only barely stops short of Speed whispering "I know car-fu"—probably because, unlike Neo, Speed's put in the fucking work—the reveal that the entire sport of racing is beholden to Mammon provides the film the same brand of pleasingly childish ideology espoused by The Matrix. As a bonus, it need not grapple with The Matrix' Blue Pill proposition that those behind the conspiracy are clearly doing their "victims" a favor (even more obviously, now that we live in the 21st century, which the Machines kindly stopped short of replicating in their virtual world).
The specific allegory presented by Royalton and Speed is thus easier to square with concrete concerns, albeit pretty narrow ones. Once again, this is explicit. Susan Sarandon weepily explains Speed's metaphorical significance: Racer is about the single-minded pursuit of a dream in a corrupt, commercial arena. True, Racer's candy-colored world of delights hides a rancid interior (could they mean... Hollywood?). But those whose hearts are pure, like Speed (or—gosh!—like the Wachowskis themselves?), need not be concerned with money, but solely with their art, whether their art be speed-racing or terrifyingly-indulgent blockbuster filmmaking. But, in the Wachowskis' defense, terrifying indulgence has rarely proven so successful.
Now I circle back to my thesis: Racer is one Goddamned well-made movie, but also so densely and challengingly made that it was predestined to be unappreciated, especially given that its technique is in service to utter puerility, however joyous. Seven years on, Racer is in the process of being rehabilitated, partly from folks who loved it already, but mostly because, with Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis' artistic bona fides had to be reevaluated. I'm hoping its color-theoretical bedfellow, TRON: Legacy, will ride its coattails: but although Legacy is the (barely) superior picture, there's actually rather more to be impressed and/or bewildered by in Racer.
The first is how it dances on the always-uncertain line between "live-action CGI spectacle" and "cartoon with live-action elements." Racer is more akin to Roger Rabbit (or, perversely, Sin City) than the ordinary "heightened realist" register most blockbusters operate within. Here, realism is actively denied. Its universe is unmistakably surreal, hyperreal, or just plum unreal. The lovely solid-color design by ace-PD Owen Paterson is a giveaway, but it's most obvious in the greenscreened backgrounds, which rarely even bother suggesting they're anything but cheaply rendered. More subtle is the way the cars themselves are "lit," with hard, bright lighting that calls attention to their glimmering digital falsity, even though the modeling itself is sterling CGI. This is not even to talk about the moments when the lighting, the backgrounds, and the characters themselves are subjected to the subjective, symbolic, and hallucinatory physics of a cartoon. This is a "live-action" movie where dollar signs can literally appear in someone's eyes, and young Speed can suddenly be surrounded by crazy fully-mobile versions of his crude race car drawings.
I recognized the greatness in Racer the first time I saw it, but not until its amazing final race. The whole sequence is burned into my mind forever, but one vision above all shall never be forgot. Perhaps nothing in motion pictures has ever more succinctly and gorgeously evoked velocity than does the mystical transfiguration of the still images lining the track's walls into a flickering, stroboscopic zebra who sprints alongside the cars at 200 miles per hour. As a celebration of animation history, it could not be more beautiful.
Not every moment in Racer is so sublime. But one way multiple viewings are rewarded is that the distracting seams—and, yes, the sometimes ugly seams—recede. Likewise, the elastic physics of what you now perceive and judge as an actual cartoon turn from vice to virtue. On a second pass, the races become thrilling not only as vivid imagery, but events of actual significance.
Narrative logic is never so thoroughly abused as Racer's visuals, but it doesn't escape unscathed. Once the dramatic arc has achieved its conclusion, the Wachowskis seize the opportunity presented by the falling action to go ahead and break the fourth wall during the denouement with a well-timed (if impossibly juvenile) joke. (It's about cooties.)
Equal in success to the animation/live-action hybridization, but even more bracing, is Racer's coke-and-pixie-stix montage. Dizzying compound wipes, hidden behind characters and objects, and digitally stitched long takes are set against chaos cinema (briefly) and transcendent color dissolves. There's hardly an editing trick in the book that doesn't make at least a sideways appearance in Racer, and probably a few that have only heretofore (or since) been seen in actual cartoons. There may not be any jump cuts—only because Le Mans did that already, I suppose.
However, the film's best-cut sequence rudely comes at the beginning. It's impossibly baroque, cross-cutting Speed's first big race with heaps of backstory, including his brother's final race. It finally abandons cut-based montage for full-on CGI-assisted superimposition, dramatizing in the most palpable way Speed's race against his dead brother's ghost. Now, I confess: the first time, I did not know what the fuck was happening on my TV. It's outright bludgeoning. But watch it again, and it's one of the most pristine examples of high-density storytelling you'll ever see, each character relationship made clear and every emotional beat of a decade in Speed's life made perfectly congruent with the next. This sequence is filmmaking for intuitive geniuses, by intuitive geniuses, as elegant on rewatch as it is repulsive at first blush. Just because I didn't get it, that doesn't make it the Wachowskis' fault. But, to paraphrase somebody, lots of people have gone broke by overestimating their public.
A few more words on the plot—and the actors who give it its oddball distortion of life. Emile Hirsch has probably never been better, flawlessly moving from aw-shucks sweetness to the intensity of a frustrated, idealistic savant. The final race would remain abstractly, terrifically beautiful without reference to human beings at all. Hirsch makes it mean something, too.
Meanwhile, Roger Allam is delicious sleazy cheese as his capitalistic nemesis. Everybody in between is doing God's work, not least Sarandon, Goodman, and Ricci. Ah, but then there's Matthew Fox—there's a moment, at the very end of the film, where the sugar high of Racer subsides. It was probably a sequel hook that was never going to catch; that only makes it more bittersweet. What Fox leaves Racer with is a discordant note of human messiness, a sense that even in a happy ending, there are some things that can never be fixed. Fox seems aware that there never was going to be a Speed Racer 2; he brings a finality to his performance as Racer X, that I am only slightly embarrassed to say genuinely gets to me.
Ultimately, Racer is an unapproachable chimera that might well be too stylistically-jagged for grown-ups to like, even though only grown-ups could understand it—and not just because it climaxes with a metaphorical orgasm. Yet I categorically refuse to accept the notion that only a child could enjoy it. Children are stupid—and Racer, taken as a whole, is a damnably canny motion picture. Made for no one, appreciated by a few, Speed Racer might remain ahead of its time forever. But for those of us who love it, we can live in hope. Hell, maybe with good reason: six years later, folks enjoyed The LEGO Movie.