Movies I’ve Seen: Speed Racer (2008)

Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Starring Emile Hirsch, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, and Roger Allam.

I would warn that spoilers follow but, if you’ve over ten years old, you know exactly how this movie turns out.

Speed Racer may end up as little more than NASCAR for nerds, but it’s not fascism. When reviewing Speed Racer, both Anthony Lane and Dana Stevens try for the condescending mock-horror pose of dealing with sensory overload (“The colors scare me, Daddy!” “Get her some vapors, and hurry!”) and, even worse, trot out the old canard used to swat aside any piece that a critics either misunderstands or dislikes intensely: fascism. Stevens makes a sidelong glance at it when recalling the movie’s racetrack audience— “so vast they recall footage of Nazi rallies, but no time to think about that now”—but Lane at least has the bravery (and idiotic gall) to issue a direct call to arms:

Though [Speed Racer] is not as criminally poor as V for Vendetta, which the Wachowskis wrote in 2005, it struck me as more insidious. There’s something about the ululating crowds who line the action in color-coördinated rows; the desperate skirting of ordinary feelings in favor of the trumped-up variety; the confidence in technology as a spectacle in itself; and, above all, the sense of master manipulators posing as champions of the little people. What does that remind you of ? You could call it entertainment, and use it to wow your children for a couple of hours. To me, it felt like Pop fascism, and I would keep them well away.

It’s funny how often fascism is applied to mass audiences that effete liberals can’t understand—football games, rodeos, Promise Keeper events—but not to such cultural touchstones as, say, the Beatles’ appearance at Shea Stadium or Woodstock (in which great masses of people also had similar dress, tastes, and hairstyles). Triumph of Will is referred to when discussing a NASCAR race but not a Springsteen concert. I say this, by the way, as an effete leftie myself. I merely wish to point out how the “fascism” label cuts off serious conversation and is lazy to boot.

So, I sincerely hope Lane’s rebel yell is taken as seriously as David Denby’s similar alarmist concern that Do the Right Thing would incite riots among the black folks: i.e., not at all. Tar-and-feathering a work of art with “fascism” forces anyone who admits to liking said work start out from a necessarily defensive and apologetic crouch. So, let me say this head-on: Speed Racer is not fascist, though it might be conservative, and Lane and Stevens are proving themselves increasingly to be twits. (Stevens’s case is one of sad decline; as her alter ego Liz Penn for the late thehighsign.net, she was an engaging and provocative critic. Lane’s always been a prick.)

This isn’t to say that Speed Racer is a particularly good film/video/CGI event—it’s got its problems—but that the Wachowskis have some interesting ideas on their minds, and fascism isn’t one of them. First, let’s outline the problems. As linear narrative, it’s derivative horseshit; every plot twist of this very basic story can be seen twenty minutes before, and almost every narrative thrust is clumsily constructed. As racing spectacle, it’s spatially incoherent and impossible to tell where the racecars were in relation to each other, and the physics don’t apply to any recognizable world. As agitprop against the Man and His corporations, it’s muddleheaded and ultimately defeatist. As acting showcase, the cast is game but hindered by too much greenscreen and turgid dialogue. (Only Roger Allam, as a corporate villain who looks and talks almost exactly like Christopher Hitchens, manages to invest his line readings with any zest.) As a diversion for kids, it’s nowhere near as smart as even the toss-offs by Pixar, and the bratty kid and overbearing chimpanzee should have been nixed from the movie entirely. This irritating duo even interrupts what should have been a glorious kiss between Speed (Emile Hirsch) and Trixie (Christina Ricci) on at least two occasions.

As visual experiment, however, Speed Racer might be the most expensive avant-garde movie ever produced by a major American studio. The Wachowskis have created their own pop fantasia—it is their own, because it only superficially looks like the cartoon from which it’s derived—that dazzles and adheres solely to its own mechanics. It broadcasts its emotion in bold, outsized ways, through a Day-Glo color scheme and LSD-inspired design sense. Instead of cuts, the movie relies on fluid, near-constant wipes, zooms that meld into brand-new visuals, and overlapping, multi-layered shots that superimpose the faces and actions onto other, seemingly unrelated shots. The frame is always full, crammed with in-jokes, sly asides, random bursts of color and light, and talking heads commenting on the action.

Those talking heads are significant, as Speed Racer comments on itself constantly. We’re always hearing voices—sports commentators riffing on the road action, mechanics offering advice to drivers through headsets, dashboard dials giving up-to-the-second info on road and weather conditions, blinking advertisements, and news analysts recapping the story and providing context. Even in the quiet moments, the movie is a meta-narrative, and never an unmediated experience. What made Dana Stevens swoon in terror is this sensory overload and I think most critics are finding it false.

I think, however, that the Wachowskis are trying to show the world as it is now—Speed Racer’s mise-en-scene is futuristic-looking, but it’s not clear that this isn’t just some imagined, alternate present that we’re witnessing—and the world they see is one in which we’re bombarded with information and razzle-dazzle that seems tactile, but somehow isn’t quite tangible. Anything’s available at the press of a touch screen but none of it’s quite, you know, touchable. There’s some overkill there—after four movies about virtual reality trumping the real thing, I sorta wish the brothers would just go outside for a nature walk every now and then—but the vision isn’t exactly off, either. TV and the internet, this century’s prime mediums of art and culture dissemination, both provide infinite avenues for short-term sensation and instant connection to the rest of the world. Speed Racer’s use of wipes and zooms as transitions emphasizes this interconnectedness created by technology. Nearly every shot flows into another. This is best shown by the movie’s opening ten minutes, in which the history of the Racer family is given to us concisely as Speed (Emile Hirsch) races, remembers himself thinking about racing as a child, recalls the circumstances of his older brother’s death, and reminiscences about his idyllic childhood. That’s a lot of flashback and exposition to stuff into the beginning but, by overlapping the images, Speed Racer makes us aware that two (or three) narratives run through and around each other—Speed can’t entirely extract the past from the present. One constantly reminds us of the other.

To “wash that man right out of my hair,” the Wachowskis turn to building cars instead of going on nature walks. Turbines, carburetors, and ball bearings are as lively as flora and fauna to the Racer family. The older brother Rex Racer tells young Speed that the car is “a living, breathing thing,” and Moms (Susan Sarandon) and Pops Racer (John Goodman, providing perhaps the only soulful performance) live by this credo. Moms even compares Speed’s driving to painting brushstrokes—it’s that tactile to her. Speed Racer tries to make technology organic, hence the luscious colors and supple contrails of light that curve and linger like kisses and perfumes. The family, and the movie, comes together best when it works as a team, when all the moving parts are working towards a single goal—a fantastic, gleaming car; a hairpin turn negotiated at high speed by all the players; an impromptu kung-fu fight in the icy mountains.

About that last item… yeah, Speed Racer is beyond silly. The movie throws in references to every Japanese anime show the Wachowskis have ever seen and, though it never tries to emulate a comic with split screens and panels (as in Ang Lee’s Hulk), manga’s visual tropes are always present. This attempt to placate the fanboys means that neither the narrative nor the visual scheme are as streamlined as the Mach 5 car that Speed drives.

For all the justifiable complaints about incoherence during the races themselves, and the juvenile simplicity of the plot, the interwoven and overlapping visual textures display how deft the Wachowskis can be at connecting narrative threads, and at merging the exhilarating with the melancholy. Speed can’t escape the multiple versions of racing history that he’s been given. As the movie begins, Speed sits pensive in an empty locker room, his back facing us. He’s unreadable and maybe forlorn, but always in thought. His childhood, his family, and the race ahead run through his brain. Even during his triumphs, he’s got too much shit in his head.

That, of course, is the downside of this sensory overload. I can’t decide whether the Wachowskis are reveling in this overstimulation or satirizing it, which is why I ultimately think Speed Racer is a noble failure rather than a success. Speed never learns how to achieve a balance between his individual consciousness and his community, though the Wachowskis may think he’s done so. Our hero learns that what matters most is not “how you change racing, but that racing doesn’t change you,” but this “individualism over community” thread is upset by the Wachowskis’s insistence on family values and working best as a team. Speed Racer’s stabs against consumerist conformity and groupthink—two lashes that ensure that the movie’s not fascist—are undercut by the blandness of the video-gamey races and the über-whiteness of the Racer family. It’s weird that a quintessentially Japanese movie, in terms of visual reference and cultural tropes, chooses to cast the heroes as whites, and to persist in thinking of ethnics as “others.” (The Japanese characters become villains and side acts; the international sports announcers are little more than stereotypes.) It would also help if the photography hadn’t included close-ups of modern-day brands at all times, seeing as Speed Racer poises itself as anti-corporate art.

This rocky seesaw of capitalism vs. socialism, of cosmopolitan striving vs. white hegemony, of the handmade and local vs. the mass-produced and globalized dooms Speed Racer, simply because the film can’t quite decide which side it’s on. But that confusion and struggle is, I think, at the heart of contemporary American life. That’s why, for all its flaws, Speed Racer is the most interesting and truly pop of all movies made by the Wachowskis. They might not be geniuses but I no longer think they’re mere poseurs.

—————————————

UPDATE: The mighty Dennis Cozzalio has written an epic, combative defense of the movie. Go read it.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to Movies I’ve Seen: Speed Racer (2008)

  1. kaoticchick says:

    its so depressing to see speed racer crash and burn like that..i really expected it to kick iron man off the charts..check out this crazy stand up comedy clip i found about crappy cars..wonder if speed would look just as hot riding one of these..funniest thing ive seen in months
    http://effinfunny.com/jackie-kashian/piece-o-sh%2At-car
    enjoy:)

  2. Jeremy B says:

    A great write-up, coherently and level-headedly discussing this film’s strengths as well as it’s weaknesses. This is the best thing I’ve read on the film thus far. (I should acknowledge here that I haven’t seen it.)

  3. Thank you both for your comments. I too am disappointed by Speed Racer‘s box-office take. Given that the initial critical panning is being quickly replaced by a more enthusiastic (or at least nuanced) resopnse from the filmbloggers, I think it may find a cult following on DVD. The sensory overload and color blast is best seen on the big screen, but its constant meta-commentary might have new resonance when seen on a copmuter or tv screen. We’ll see.

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