Directed by The Wachowskis
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Pops Racer: You think you can drive a car and change the world? It doesn’t work like that!
Speed: Maybe not, but it’s the only thing I know how to do and I gotta do something.
God help me but I love this movie.
Yeah yeah – I know. It’s silly and dumb and terrible and looks cheap and the thing feels like it was made for particularly hyperactive children who’ve just drunk 2 liters of the fizziest and most sugar-heavy coke in the fridge and now they won’t stop jumping up and down on the sofa or flicking your ear and I’m sorry – what was I saying again? Oh yeah – and the kid in the kid’s movie has a pet monkey which seems like the best idea ever but also totally stupid: and how could they mess that up? And the whole film is a total waste of time – and if we’re talking about the Wachowski sisters then shouldn’t we really be doing a film club about how awesome the first Matrix movie was and how awful the sequels were? Speed Racer is just… beneath us serious film fans no? It’s a Big Mac of movies: there’s nothing there to appreciate. No depth. No flavour. Just bright colours and additives all swirled together and served up in a big fat sticky mess….
I mean yeah ok – maybe you’re right? But also – you’re wrong (sorry).
When it first hit the cinemas (ten years ago in 2008) I was conflicted about whether or not to go and see it. I mean: the trailers made it look like a candy-coloured wonderland but then well the Wachowskis were no longer the sure things they used to be… Bound and The Matrix are both pretty much adored by anyone that has eyes and a brain… But then well: The Matrix sequels (which is worst? Reloaded or Revolutions? I don’t know if I could say – but both made me wish for someone to take my eyes and brain away and squash them with a mallet….) and then V for Vendetta which yeah ok gave us Anon and everything but also gave the world the single worst speech in the history of forever which felt like it was created by a malfunctioning algorithm. (What speech? YOU KNOW THE ONE: the one so bad that my toes curled all the way up and over and back into my feet again – the embarrassment I felt for poor Hugo Weaving only slightly lessened by the fact that at least he got to wear a mask because otherwise I don’t know what and so yeah in conclusion = not a good speech). So I kinda thought Speed Racer had equal chances of being either totally amazing (and don’t you kinda want all films to be totally amazing) or just totally a waste of time. And yeah I’m pretty sure that it was showing at the Waterloo IMAX and I’m like: “you know what? naaaah.” and I think maybe that was one of the biggest mistakes of my life (I’m mostly pretty good at avoiding mistakes!).
Because fuck it – in terms of movies that leave me purring like a cat that’s just had it’s belly rubbed by a dildo: Speed Racer is way way waaaaay up there for me because goddamnit: the whole thing is a non-stop feast for the eyes: a constant stream of colours and gorgeousness that’s like a 3D Sistine Chapel that’s been graffitied in day-glo colours and then spiked with somekind of psychotropic chemical… There are very few films that I’ve watched that make me want to stand up and lick and bite the screen but omg Speed Racer comes super close.
And in terms of getting my retaliation in first: yeah yeah yeah – I know that it’s all barely lucid in terms of the plot and the dialogue is perfunctory at best and braindead at worst and yes John Goodman looks like he’s doing the world’s worst Super Mario cosplay and everyone is so wooden that if a tree stumbled on to set it would probably out act them all and it’s predictable and hokey to such an extreme that 5 years would claim that their intelligence is being insulted and yeah there’s a pet monkey and it’s not even fun or funny (and how do you pull that one off – because gosh damn: a pet monkey! Every movie should have a pet monkey!) but hey – if you think that’s the only way to understand and evaluate a film then erm well: I think you’re mistaken: because there is a poetry and a music and something almost ineffable that cinema can do in terms of how images can move and bounce around the screen… like I get the feeling in trying to explain the power that this film has over me over the next three weeks I’m going to have to rely a lot on gifs and stuff because static pictures themselves just won’t do the trick: and omg SHOULDN’T ALL FILMS BE LIKE THAT?! Where the joy is in the movement and the way it looks?
Case in point:
I mean: yeah ok – maybe it’s not to your taste – but watching just that little gif does something to me… the way that the camera glides past the car, the way the car bounces across the frame, the way the lights trail past and into the distance and the loop of the track behind it… It’s half real / half cartoon in a way that I just don’t think I’ve ever seen in a movie before and I don’t know how I can even really begin to capture how it looks and how it feels in words: and it’s only like an 8 second clip and the rest of the movie is even more insane. And (and this for me is the important bit): every scene and every part does something different and tries a new effect and does something more messed up and crazy with the lights so it feels just like walking through a haunted house where every room is a new sensation (which actually now I think about it: is kinda something that Fight Club and Annie Hall do too – and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well… although we haven’t done a talk on that: but obviously it’s a thing that I dig a lot…).
So erm yeah: Speed Racer. A hell of a movie. And that’s without even getting into Peter Mannion – sorry I mean Arnold Royalton’s big speech about you know: the unassailable might of money and all that…. But I’m sure we’ll reach that in time…
Go Speed go!
What do you think?
Ha. OMG. I was looking to see if there were any books about the Speed Racer movie and found something on Amazon with the following synopsis:
Lana and Lilly Wachowski have redefined the technically and topically possible while joyfully defying audience expectations. Visionary films like The Matrix trilogy and Cloud Atlas have made them the world’s most influential transgender media producers, and their coming out retroactively put trans* aesthetics at the very center of popular American culture.
I’m not sure that I’ll get the book – but it did get me thinking… what exactly is “trans* aesthetics”? And you know – what is there in Space Racer that really points to that kind of thing? Like I think it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that The Matrix works pretty well as a Transgender Metaphor (“His birth name, Thomas Anderson, is used exclusively throughout the film by identically dressed representatives of authority in the forms of his boss and Agent Smith, always addressing him as Mr. Anderson with emphasis on the male pronoun. In contrast, Neo’s friends and allies exclusively refer to him by his chosen name Neo.”) but I wasn’t really aware of Speed Racer containing anything similar (and anyway it’s just pretty lights and colours – right? With nothing under the surface) when oh wow it hit me: Rex Racer / Racer X of course.
First time I watched the movie it kinda seemed like a little throwaway kinda thing. I mean: obviously he’s Rex Racer but why does the movie play so coy with the whole thing and make it into such a big deal? But wow if you approach it as an extended metaphor for the trans experience then it certainly hits a lot harder – someone who literally detonates their old life, watches his family bury their body and then goes through surgery to emerge different and unrecognizable on the other side but still has to wear a mask.
And holy shit – this exchange:
SPEED RACER: Why don’t you just tell me the truth? You’re Rex, aren’t you?
RACER X: You mean your brother?
SPEED RACER: You first appeared two years after Rex died. You drive just like him. You knew I’d be here, because this is where he always used to take me. Just tell me the truth.
(RACER X takes off his mask)
SPEED RACER: You’re not Rex.
RACER X: No, Speed. I’m sorry, but your brother is dead.
SPEED RACER: I’m sorry.
RACER X: Don’t be. I’m sure if he was here, he’d be immensely proud of you.
Wow wow and wow. Especially especially as when this was written and shot before (as far as I know) either of the Wachowski sisters transitioned: like – did they confide in each other? Did they both realise the import of the whole Racer X stuff? Or maybe it was just one of them? I mean mostly I don’t really care about this kinda trivia stuff (knowing about people’s personal lives are boring and overrated imo and you know – leave people alone and just let them do their stuff) but it’s kinda the rare example of knowing a little about the creator’s lives just gives this thing such a weight that it didn’t have before that well yeah – my reaction is just – wow.
And yeah in terms of film-making and stuff when Racer X has their final revelationary moment and the camera is spinning in all of these directions at once and it gets to the very final point when it’s back to the present day and Matthew Fox does this little tiny look down / flinch thing (from like 1:09) I swear to god it gives me goosebumps. 🙂
Barbican Comic Forum
So here we are back in 1999 again and my friend Matthew is asking me if I’ve seen a film called the Matrix. Now Matthew was for a while ‘the guy who knows about movies’ I saw Se7en at his house, also Leon and the Usual Suspects and he would often instigate cinema trips to Streatham Odeon (which is now my cinema of choice because of the rolling Picturehouse cinemas picket line) to see Heat and Desperado and erm Blade II. So when I replied that I had not even heard of the Matrix he grinned and said it was probably the best film he had ever seen. I guess he must have downloaded it because shortly after that the hype started officially as people realised that this movie was gonna be special. And so between that time and falling asleep during the car chase scene in Matrix Reloaded (because remember the Animatrix was pretty great) the Wachowskis were, in my mind, the people who were gonna set the standard for what a good blockbuster movie looked like.
And it wasn’t just the bullet time or the kung fu or Carrie Ann Moss saying “Dodge this” while looking like the coolest person who ever lived; it was that we now had directors who had played games and appreciated Jackie Chan and Akira and Terminator 2 and like the rest of us were pounding on the table saying “we want more.”
But I guess they left it all out there on the field because they never really came close to that magic again in the sequels and certainly for me when Speed Racer came out my internal movie review couldn’t get past “meh.” I did try Sense 8 and while I am aware some people love it I thought it was absolutely dreadful. Apparently there is a movie they produced called V for Vendetta but no one has ever seen it, and it’s possible that it never really existed.
So I feel like I can only locate Speed Racer with reference to the Matrix, because there is a conversation between these films. Speed racer is a significant visual upgrade from the Matrix in many respects, but much like the recent Transformers movies left me thinking *initially* that sometimes less is more. This rule is also true of the plot, and the plot is the most interesting aspect of Speed Racer, in that the more you ignore it, the more enjoyable the film is. That is not to say the plot is bad, you NEED Roger Allam to chew up the scenery literally spitting words with glorious guile. You NEED a reason to want Speed Racer to win, but all the bits where the film is not racing is just building hype for the next race.
Once you let yourself forget the plot – something to do with monopoly capitalism iirc- and lose yourself in the races the film finds you. Like a sort of swirling orchestra, or a My Bloody Valentine song it’s more rewarding when you don’t concentrate and just enjoy its self assured showboating. And so back to the Matrix, it’s the same feeling to when Neo finally ascends and the glory is not “how will he defeat the agents?” but how all encompassing will his victory be. He waves away bullets, he fights them one handed, he tears them inside out. Speed Racer only actually races once, in the last race it’s like he’s just biding continually accelerating to inevitable victory. Rather than delaying a the singular gratification of winning, it piles the gratification into a huge stack of pancakes and then pours syrup over the top, then adds sprinkles, then chocolate, then blueberries and then pulls away the table cloth to reveal entire cake underneath the pancakes all along.
To continue the metaphor it does mean the movie is a little sickly sweet. Everything goes Speed Racer’s way, even his brother is secretly alive, he already had a great family, a great car, a great girlfriend who was also a great driver, and presumably enough money now to have the annoying kid and his monkey adopted. Ah man, that kid, just failing to land a single joke. And he feels like an unnecessary appendage to the stripped down story telling this film excels at. All the plot, all the side characters and backdrops and villains are just filler for the main action, anything which tries to stand out just gets in the way. As stories in movies become so complex that recent films start to feel like abridged TV shows, it’s nice to see the pursuit of this kind of elemental purity.
I wish I had more to say on the transgender issue in this context, but basically the millions of words and thoughts about gender don’t fit in an essay on Speed Racer. Suffice to say Lilly Wachowski – a powerful respected (and wealthy) individual with nothing to apologise for to anyone – said she had been hiding the issue of her identity her whole life. More than 40 years of not being her true self because of the hostile space that even allegedly liberal societies have created for trans people.
Speed Racer is a good bookend for stories of The One: the flawless, self sacrificing saviour who remains uncorrupted. The film was beaten at the box office that year by an alcoholic, womanising, billionaire arms-dealer at the start of a franchise which claims to have diverse heroes with internal conflict yet after 20 films and 10 years has not featured a single LGBT character.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
“You like films that obliterate your sense of self”
Had just seen Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity at the IMAX for the second time and was walking out with a massive massive smile on my face saying things like: “Oh my god I think that was the perfect movie” and “why can’t all of life be just like that?” and my friend Paul said to me: “You like films that obliterate your sense of self” and all I could do was go: “oh wow. Yes. I think you just summed up everything about me in one simple little sentence. Thank you.”
In the past 3 weeks I’ve watched Speed Racer twice. And even tho my head with filled with all of these ideas and thoughts and sensations that I really wanna try and get down in words I’m not quite sure what is it about this film that I love so goddamn much.
Part of it is that inability to be able to capture all of the pleasures of the film in words. Like even if I was sitting in person across from you and was using my hands and making strange noises with my mouth I still won’t be able to do justice to it (“It’s like how the heads go whoosh across the screen? And it’s gets more complicated as it goes on? So they’re like criss-crossing in separate directions and stuff? And the cars kinda bounce around the tracks as they spin upside down and around? And it’s like the light from the bikes in Akira only more so? And it’s like part-cartoon but part real and it’s like reality if everything was soft melted plastic / cotton-candy: you know?”)
I watched an interview with the Wachowskis in a documentary called Side by Side from 2012 (presented by Keanu Reeves!) and even tho they’re supposed to be talking about celluloid compared to film there’s a 25min interview on Disc 2 that you can watch that’s very interesting: especially how it relates to Speed Racer especially with little insights like “We always start with story and aesthetic” and (oh my god I wish I realised this myself) how they talk about Speed Racer not really using traditional editing but instead using the face moving across the screen as fancy dissolves which means that – in a sense – it’s gets closer to how thoughts move in your head – not one after another – but all at once – with things sliding over other things. In fact I think they even make a reference to Picasso and the idea of doing the same thing as his seeing someone from two different directions at the exact same time… Which sounds crazy until well… you watch the movie and then it just seems… simple.
I have this really weird kinda memory thing about this film that wasn’t really there when I watched it these past few times. I could have sworn that the first time I watched it the opening 15 minutes it was doing this kinda impossible Möbius loop thing with it’s opening flashbacks as Speed Racer raced his first race – but it wasn’t nearly as pronounced this time and there’s a part of me that feels like maybe I imagined it? It’s just the film starts off with Speed Racer in the locker room before the race – then it flashes back to him in his classroom – then it flashes to his mum talking in the principal’s office with the principal – and then back to Speed Racer – and then there’s the dream sequence where his desk turns into a racing car (in a kinda cheap looking way I must admit). And yeah – I don’t know reading it back like that it doesn’t seem like much: but those first few times it made it feel like something was broken: that this film could have a flashback that then cut to someone else that then into a dream sequence… And that first time I watched it I didn’t know if I was watching something written by someone who didn’t really know how to structure something properly (always a possibility with the Wachowskis: we’ve all seen The Matrix sequels after all) and the tantalising possibility that actually maybe just maybe that this was a film that was just going to break lots of traditional ideas about how to do things just for the hell of it.
(OH MY GOD ALL THE COLOURS)
And yeah yeah I’ll admit that it’s not perfect and maybe there are some bits where I worry about the Wachowskis’ grip on reality / making sense… Am thinking particularly here of Racer X’s little speech in the middle of the film – which feels like it’s supposed to be a mission statement but instead just gives my face that “huh?” kinda look…
Racer X: It doesn’t matter if racing never changes. What matters is if we let racing change us. Every one of us has to find a reason to do this. You don’t climb into a T-180 to be a driver. You do it because you’re driven.
I mean – it kinda makes sense if you squint your brain a bit? But mostly it just feels like a bit of wordplay that got away from them… (sorry Wachowskis: but then yeah – I guess dialogue was never really their strong point unless you count Keanu Reeves saying “whoa”).
But yeah – none of that is the main thing I really wanted to talk about: the thing I want to talk about is the ending where everything kinda comes together and the whole film goes transcendental and does the whole 2001-thing with racing cars in a way that yeah: keeps me coming back to it again and again and again and constantly leaves me with a tingling feeling of elation and pure blissed-out bliss. I mean: it’s funny right? In terms of film structure that really does it for me – my soft spot is always for films and stories which go full out orchestral craziness in the climax – that build and build and build until they reach the point where they explode with somesort of revelation or grand finale. I mean – gosh – there’s even a part of me that’s like: isn’t that how all stories are supposed to go? Isn’t the ending the most important part? And isn’t that the place where all the stops get pulled out and things get all crazy and shit?
(Thinking back – the person I blame most for this is Alan Moore: Watchmen and From Hell in particular are both very good at building towards epic conclusions and well yeah of course: there’s the very obvious sexual analogy too – but ssssh – don’t cheapen this).
The end of Matrix the First is a pretty good example of the thing I mean: when Neo does his whole Jesus thing and stops the bullets and sees all the green line of code: it’s what the whole film has been leading towards and after watching him being beaten and messed up by the dastardly agent Smith – I mean: my fists were pumped and I may have even uttered the phrase “hell yeah” and if you didn’t even have the same type of reaction then: oh my god what’s wrong with you? Are you dead inside or something?
And yeah: the thing that I found interesting / cool or whatever is how Speed Racer manages to do this with what is still (despite all of its oh-so-colourful bells and whistles) a fairly typical racing car movie: because think about it – how does this stuff normally work? There’s the good guy and the bad guy right? And it all leads up to the final race and a nail-biting suspense-filled back-and-forth until – right at the very last second (due to something or another) the good guy crosses the line first. How boring and predictable right? And yeah – ok – Speed Racer still does the same kinda thing (“Ok, Mr. two-time-Grand-Prix five-time-WRL future-Hall-of-Fame – teach me something!”) but actually short-circuits it before well before it gets to the finish line and does – well – that thing it does instead. Speed Racer in the car that won’t start needing to put it in fifth but not actually knowing why and then doing his Luke Skywalker thing and feeling the force of the um… car? I mean yes of course – it’s as hokey as hell: but what’s brilliant about it is how all of the things you’d typically expect at this point (notably the suspense of whether or not he’s going to win) is thrown away and instead is replaced with this magical moment where you know he’s going to win and any real pretense to a typical “story moment” just kinda falls away and instead the film turns into this kinda subjective thing: where it puts you into the head of Speed Racer and you can feel the exhilaration and heightened senses of just going really really fucking fast. The nearest thing I can think to describe it too is when you get a star in Super Mario and suddenly you’re invincible and can jump through anything: and well yeah – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in a movie like it before and yeah everytime I watch it (everytime I experience it) it just – obliterates my sense of self and just for a few seconds or so I feel completely and utterly transported… which is what cinema is all about – no?
And yeah – it looks cool.
Rough last minute splurge –
I love this movie. To the point that I get all the emotions from 5 seconds of the score.
Why though? The movie is pure green screen, it has nothing to say (okay there is “fuck corporate socialism” and it is a great speech) and the characters are archetypes who express themselves in bland ass exposition. It should be a catastrophe and in many ways – box office, initial critical reception. It was.
To me though – this is up there. Not the top 5, but not far off. There are few films that give me such a bum rush of emotion. Anything the W sisters (it’s easier) want me to feel – I feel. Why is that?
As I said on movie night – it’s “earnestly expressionistic”.
Speed Racer is a movie that always wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. It never holds back. It’s always honest. The W Sisters take the story, the characters and the world as seriously as a 4 year old would have when they watched the original cartoon. They take it all so seriously – so you take the quest seriously – you take the world, it’s candy colours and the stakes as seriously as Speed does. Individually, the dialogue, the music, the imagery is all ludicrously over the top. Synthesised into a cinematic language – it’s pure operatic power.
I think, there’s more to it than that. I think there is one weakness in the film (though I have grown to love it over a decade of numerous viewings) – the humour. The humour is the one part of the film that isn’t earnest, where you can feel the sisters or some studio exec (lets call em Cokey McStereotype) used the kid brother and his monkey as an avenue for clever cynical jokes. The bit at the end where they cut in and say “cootie warning”? UGH. I mean, it’s like watching David Chapelle in an intimate setting only for that friend to drag you out and drunkenly slur crap “I’m not racist but” political humour in your ear.
But as time has gone on alot of it has gotten better – particularly John Goodman and his “non-ja” line. Maybe it’s just because it’s John Goodman.
That final montage though. Jesus Christ on a Kaleidoscope. Ever hear of the Kuleshov effect? Basically the founding argument on what editing together sound and imagery in a specific way can create specific emotions. If I could resserect Lev Kuleshov for one cinematic moment it may well be this one – this is the ultimate proof of the Kuleshov effect. The last moments, when you know (not by genre demand, but by pure emotion) that Speed is going to win and smash corporate socialism in it’s face, when every memory flashes through him, every bit of pain and hope and the music swell and the imagery turns to pure damned light. I feel everything. Joy, sadness, triumph. God damn.
I feel all of this for a candy film with the most basic of basic ideas because every iota of it treats it as the most important exciting thing in the world. It believes in the story, in Speed and for 2 glorious hours so do we.
That first race? That medley of a standard action opening sequence (i.e. race one) – is Speed and his family remembering everything. We feel the loss of his brother, his desperate obsession to race, everything they’ve gone through – because it’s the W sisters setting up an earnestly expressive language, taking their world as seriously as they would The Bicycle Thieves and sticking to it.
And the race scenes – fuck me. Yeah they obliterate my sense of self. In basic terms – the action is so good that you buy into the world of Speed Racer with everything you’ve got.
GO SPEED RACER GO.
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