Friday, August 22, 2008

My Apprehensions Regarding DEATH RACE (2008)

In his 1973 book THE PRIMAL SCREEN, Andrew Sarris describes a "complication unique to cinema in the curiously uneasy relationship between critic and audience." A part of this uneasy relationship is that audiences want critics to like what they like, and critics want audiences to appreciate films that should be appreciated. This is why we see so many stories about the disconnect, particularly acute in the current era of film, that exists between audiences and critics. Many a successful film has been panned by the critics. But this relationship isn't the whole of what makes the interaction between the critic and the audience in film so complicated. There is an additional complication called the "Primal Screen." The Primal Screen is "that factor of childhood reverie which forms a barrier between what we think about movies and what we feel about them."

THE PRIMAL SCREEN's foreword is a discussion of how, and why, critics themselves are never fully able to extricate the Primal Screen from their viewing habits. Sure, they may adopt the language of criticism and art -- though that is certainly rarer today than it was for Sarris in the 70s -- but there is some part of their criticism that is either informed by, or in reaction to, their Primal Screen. One critic may get carried away with praise regarding a particular film and fawn unceasingly, my attempt to avoid such pandering is why my TROPIC THUNDER review has yet to be posted. Another critic may enjoy a film on a primal level, but "know" that the film isn't "good" and thus draft a diatribe against a film that is otherwise enjoyable. It is this tendency I believe leads to the current disconnect between critics and audiences. Critics too often seem to be saying, "I'm supposed to be above enjoying panem et circenses aren't I?" When, like the rest of us, they really do like spectacle.

I think that it is too rare that critics share their Primal Screen biases with audiences, and I want to do so before I review DEATH RACE which was released in theaters today. My review will be posted on Monday. Having shared my Primal Screen expectations with you now, I won't feel overly compelled to moderate them later. You will know them, and be able to read the DEATH RACE review with those perceptions in mind. So without further ado, here are my prejudices regarding the most recent DEATH RACE film -- a film I will see tomorrow evening.

"I wanted to tell you," he said, "to tell you -- I -- I am not a butcher!"

The girl looked at him for a long moment. Then she leaned down and whispered to him:

"Nor a Racer!"


Ib Melchior's story "The Racer," published in the October 1956 issue of Escapade, ends with those wonderfully ambiguous lines. At the beginning of the tale, Willie "The Bull" Connors is a confident driver who is willing to commit "Tragi-Accs" and who is ruthlessly in pursuit of the $100,000 prize for winning a cross country race where a combination of quick Time and accumulated Points (earned through causing casualties) is the way to win. Being an "anti-racer" is a crime, but when Willie is confronted by the young woman Muriel his world view begins to change. First Muriel calls Willie a butcher, and then she stands in the road holding a baby -- daring Willie to run her over for the valuable points. An act, that if performed, would have given Willie the world record for most points scored in a race.

Melchior's tale is sharp and straight to the point. In the end, the woman who gave our "hero" the heart to stop killing is the first to vilify him. It is an indictment of our love for violent spectator sports. There is not satire in Melchior's piece, only disdain for our bloodlust.

... and the most popular spectator sports of the latter half of the 20th Century were such mildly exciting pursuits as boxing and wrestling. Of course the spectators enjoyed seeing the combatants trying to maim each other, and there was always the chance of the hoped-for fatal accident.

Motor Racing, however, gave a much greater opportunity for the Tragic Accidents so exciting to the spectator. One of the most famed old speedways, Indianapolis, where many drivers and spectators alike ended in bloody Tragi-Accs, is today the nation's racing shrine.


With those words, Melchior makes it clear that our society has a propensity for bloodlust and that with motor racing we finally found our ultimate sport. Well, almost -- it only became perfect after making Tragi-Accs intentional. Melchior's critique of the bloodthirsty nature of motor sports fans was also displayed in the excellent John Frankenheimer film GRAND PRIX (1966) starring James Garner. One wonders what Melchior and Frankenheimer would think about today's safety obsessed racing -- especially Formula One, but it goes without saying that even with racing having been partially sanitized mixed martial arts fighting seems to hint that our lust for blood hasn't subsided in the past 50 years.

"The Racer" was the inspiration behind Roger Corman's New World Studios classic 1975 B-Movie DEATH RACE 2000, starring David Carradine (and Sylvester Stallone) and directed by Paul Bartel. The Robert Thom and Charles Griffith screenplay drips with satire regarding America's obsession with power. It is an indictment of political imperialism, of Bolshevik revolution, and of blood sport. America is a totalitarian state and the rebels who seek to return a more just America are torn between revolutionaries inspired by our Founding Fathers and those who look like they stepped of the set of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. Bartel's direction perfectly captures the tone intended and his representations of the way sports media panders to celebrity are some of the most enjoyable parts of the film. Add to this the addition of B-movie starlets, and you get a magical combination. As Joe Bob Briggs put it, "This is the best cross-country road- race movie--and the most violent, and the funniest--despite the efforts of many crash-and-burn specialists to come up with a better one. It is also one of the most successful pictures ever produced by New World Pictures, Roger Corman's studio."

I worry that the current release of DEATH RACE doesn't get it. It has taken a story about sport, and society, that transform together -- becoming increasingly bloodthirsty -- and turned it into an adaptation of THE RUNNING MAN, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE FUGITIVE. Instead of professional athletes who are participating in a legitimate and well accepted form of entertainment, remember being an "anti-racer" was a crime in Melchior's tale, we now have the framed man wrongfully imprisoned and forced to participate in a race to the death. While it may contain some underlying criticism of the penal system, and to some extent our bloodlust, it seems to lack the completely scathing rebuke against all of society. The style of the film is more reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic imagery of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK that the advertising riddled paddocks one can see at any Formula One race.

My fear is that the directors and screenwriters spent too much time trying to remake the wheel in order to "bring it up to date," when they should have been looking at how the sport being criticized has evolved and used that as a jumping point. I seem to remember another movie in the recent past that made a similar mistake. It was called ROLLERBALL, and it not only paled in comparison to the original -- it never should have been made.
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