Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Death Race 2000

This is one of those movies that people refer to without ever having seen it. I know I have! It's such a famous cult film that I'm sure I must have seen parts of it in some dorm room or at some party somewhere in the last 20 years. At least it looked familiar. But when you think about it, cult films, with their low budget looks, have a way of appearing all the same--particularly the gory ones.

Well, anyway, this one has made such an impact on the popular culture that even my GRANDFATHER made jokes that could be traced back to it. See, the very basic idea behind the movie is that the main characters are in a national race and they score points by hitting people on purpose; the crueler the hit, the higher the points. So my grandpa would be stopped, say at a stop sign, where crossing in front of us would be a rather large woman in a pair of tight pants, whose ass cheeks looked (as my great aunt would quip) like two pigs fightin' in a bag. Then he would say "Two extra points for her!" Even worse would be a guy in a wheelchair or a kid with braces on her legs. You get the idea. Talk about dark comedy!

Really, Death Race 2000 isn't quite as twisted as my family evidently is. The characters in this film hit just the average person on purpose, but that is gruesome enough. It's certainly an example of dark comedy, a completely over the top example, but perfect for someone who wasn't quite clear on the difference between your average funny movie and a dark comedy. It does serve to draw the line: It crosses over the line and stomps on it. Directed by Paul Bartel (who also did Eating Raoul), Death Race 2000 is another example of formalism: it has poor production values on purpose, at least in part.

Just look at the title for the first bit of evidence: This is one in a long line of movies, books, films, and television programs that addressed the fear of the turn of the century. Growing up in the 1970s, I saw these become clich├ęs, because so many had considered the question of what life would be like in the rapidly advancing future. On television alone I can think of a jillion examples: The Jetsons, Lost in Space, Star Trek, Speed Racer....all those were set in the 21st century, which at the same time always seemed impossibly remote and impossibly close. My favorite part of Death Race 2000 is the sets; whenever we see the starting place of the race, from where the announcers are speaking, we see the cityscape behind us, in which there are some fairly realistic skyscrapers and then the rest is very obviously cartoon-ish
"city-of-the-future" color line-drawings of minaret-like structures (like in the Jetsons) suspended in space and connected by a monorail of some kind that speeds by, all in a crayon-ish animated way, and in the same shot as the announcers and the more realistic skyscrapers, so the juxtaposition really highlights the contrast.

Another example of the formalistic treatment of the subject matter has to do with the gory scenes. When the racers purposely hit pedestrians, it is at great speed, and the result is flying bodies and body parts, which the camera zeroes right in on. These are gory and graphic scenes, but not especially realistic. So we see the accident coming, the car hits the man, the man flies in the air and then it falls to the ground covered in a red paint-like substance that we're supposed to believe is blood. If Bartel had tried a little harder and made it more realistic, I don't think those scenes would be funny.

Most importantly, though, to fit in with Wes Gehring's definition of dark comedy, this movie quite absolutely demonstrates a disregard for death. Because I have some other films that do a better job of communicating that (as well as other dark comedy characteristics), I don't think I'll show this in class. However, I do want to say that this is the kind of film that is easy to write off as a big mistake for Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine (who play the lead roles)--but it's a lot more sophisticated than meets the eye. The premise of the race is that it is government-sponsored, at a time when the government is fairly totalitarian; we begin to realize during the race that its purpose seems to be to act as a kind of soporific spectacle to detract the public from the totalitarian government goings-on. We also learn that David Carradine's character has been raised and "programmed" by the government to be a heroic racer, and that the folklore of his having many facial scars and reattached limbs is just that--folklore, invented to fuel the fanaticism of the public. The side plot is that the underground protest group is trying to kill this racer in order to foil the government's propaganda materials. Whenever the protest group is in danger of getting publicity, the government denies it exists and blames its actions on the French, who are vilified throughout the film. It's rather chillingly prescient, to my mind, and very clever. My guess is that much of this complexity was lost on the audience that watched it for the blood and guts. Anyway, I go into this detail to make the point that this kind of movie often DOESN'T work because there isn't a complex substructure underlying the plot. When there is one, it makes the film worth watching, even 18 years later.

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