Sunday, May 11, 2008

Musing Pictures: Speed Racer

I do not regret seeing "Speed Racer," even though it is indeed just as bad as the worst reviews claim it is. Yet again, the Wachowski brothers (of "The Matrix" fame) have presented us with a striking vision of cinema's potential without spending more than a moment's thought on narrative. Structurally, the story of Speed, second son of Ma and Pops Racer, is quite classical. Boy wants to be a racecar hero, boy finds out that the world 'aint what he thinks it is, boy defies conventions and changes the world. And that third act, in which Speed Racer competes in a Grand Prix with no motive other than to simply win the race, is straightforward and recognizable enough to be enjoyed... if you haven't walked out of the theater by that point. Unfortunately, all structural methodology seems to fall apart at that macro level. The Wachowski Brothers introduce several technical elements, including multi-image wipes (in which the face of a character wipes across the screen the way a straight line might have done in "Star Wars"), multi-layered images (with characters speaking in close-up in the foreground, and wheeling, rolling shots of the action whirl behind them), fancy computer-generated 'camera moves' around and over and under the racing and exploding cars, and a color palette that is much louder and more vibrant than any digital/live-action film in recent memory. Unfortunately, few of these effects serve any narrative end, and as such, they become obviously and painfully, as Macbeth puts it, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Macbeth, Scene V)
Early in the film, the Wachowskis use an effect that, interestingly, does carry with it some narrative significance. In a race early in Speed's career, he approaches a record set eight years prior by his lost brother, Rex. To illustrate how close Speed is to breaking his brother's record, the Wachowskis don't rely on timers, counters, clocks, watches, or even on the ramblings of various race announcers. Instead, they show Rex's car, a ghostly shimmer on the race track, at times behind and at times ahead of Speed's white "Mach 5". This blending of time, an elision of eight years between the two races, a simultaneous depiction of both races on the same screen, within the same image, powerfully illustrates an important dramatic element of Speed's personality and motivation, and underscores one of the film's underlying tensions -- the threat and promise that Speed is almost exactly like his brother. I wish the Wachowskis would blend their technique and narrative like that more often. Alas, much of the flash in this film is wasted -- cars zoom around so fast, and with so little attention paid to character (even to the character of the cars themselves!) that there's very little left for a viewer to grab a hold of. The pace is so fast and so disorienting that its effect is to numb rather than engross. By contrast, the narrative scenes, in which characters talk, chatter, discuss, mourn, and celebrate, seem excruciatingly slow. The result is far from a smooth cruise through Speed Racer's world, but rather a lurching, binary slog, like a first-time driver behind the wheel of a stick-shift.

There is a beautiful metaphorical moment late in the film that illustrates both the Wachowski's ambition and their failure. In the third act, in Speed Racer's final race, the cars follow a path that takes them through a tunnel. As Speed enters the tunnel, the camera swings around to catch him in profile. Behind him, on the wall of the tunnel, is a long strip of images -- rectangles with the picture of a galloping zebra within them. As the camera pulls beside Speed, we can see those rectangles only one at a time, through the windshield of Speed's car. As those images flicker by, we see that, in fact, each zebra is slightly different, each one fraction of a moment ahead of the last in a suspended sort of gallop. The pictures flash by, and of course, we see them as a galloping zebra.

This is a visual quote of one of the origins of motion pictures, when Edweard Muybridge, to settle a bet, set up cameras along a racetrack and snapped a series of photographs of a galloping horse. Though Muybridge did not make a movie, the technology and concept of stringing a series of photographs together to illustrate movement began with him. In this image, the Wachowski's are acknowledging and perhaps boasting about their place in this technological history. They have taken Muybridge's horse and, effectively, they've put racing stripes on it. They've turned it in to a zebra. The missing element here, though, is the element of reality. Whereas Muybridge sought to find ways to see reality in a different way, the effects and techniques that the Wachowskis employ in "Speed Racer" merely offer a new depiction of fantasy -- they're little more than animation. Their "bullet-time" effect, invented for "The Matrix", is more comparable to Muybridge's galloping horse. Both techniques employ a string of still cameras to capture details of motion and perspective that the human eye is incapable of. The animation in "Speed Racer" is presented with a certain lack of conviction, as if the animators were insecure about whether any of their work would come across well. Animation does not need to represent the real world as we see it, but it is always presented with the challenge of depicting the real world as we feel it -- even if it is a world of the future, of the past, of animals, or even of fantasy. With a few individual scenes as exceptions, the Wachowskis have always struggled with this element of their special brand of creativity. There is technical wizardry at work, but behind it, there isn't even a clever illusionist.

"Speed Racer", like many of the big special effects films of the past few years, is a great example of why special effects must remain subsumed to narrative. It is an even more powerful example because of the creativity the Wachowskis bring to their special effects vision, which is not enough to replace good narrative, characters and good integration of the elements of cinema.


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