Friday, January 27, 2017
Brought Gulliver-low through Lilliputian micro-managerial fascism on the one side and kamikaze cabinet-casting by a rabid right on the other, America--by which I mean me, the ghost of Woody Guthrie, and maybe you--are in serious trouble, maybe. To the left I say don't take it out on me if I seem too slack for your snooty food co-op; to the right I say at least do dystopia right, as in public executions, and televised death games for condemned prisoners, and cross-country road rage races with points awarded for pedestrians killed. Roger Corman can help you with that. And DEATH RACE 2050 is here - on Netflix, and perfect for an angry beer-and-rage-soaked wochenende.
But then DEATH RACE 2050 came and saved me, Woody Guthrie, and maybe you. Not only does it satirize the Idiocracy of the Post-Trump America so trenchantly it feels pulled from tomorrow's headlines, it does so without making me get so angry I start to tremble, feeling my bud pleasure rise. In 2050's overall blackly comic post-meta deadpan tone lurks a whole box of coping mechanisms as yet unopened. I came to it in despair, and in my despair it found fuel for a catharsis, and lo, I was reborn in the bloody joy that's always there at the core of our fucked-up nation. No matter if it's the co-op crowd or the NASCAR beer-necks running up the sails, our great American craft of madness will find some fertile breeze to blow it. And then we'll blow it up.
After all, when the world drowns in its own tears, we'd be fools not to jump into the ocean after it, like a consolatory Ahab with a Harpoon (Ale) in hand. No worries if we too vanish below the roiled surf. We'll Rise Again within the Hour! 'hic'!
In case you don't know, the original DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) was a huge hit for Roger Corman and director Paul Bartel. It boasted a terrific 'it's what everyone's thinking but no one has the guts to say' hook right up there with ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's: a national cross-country race where you earn points by running over pedestrians, a mix of NASCAR and the Romans. The cast of star drivers included a young Sylvester Stallone as Joe Peturbo, David Carradine as Frankenstein, Mary Woronov as a cowgirl bull rider, and Roberta Collins as the Nazi-ed up Matilda the Hun. Directed by Paul Bartel, (who left this world too soon or could have been the darker John Waters we need now more than ever,), it's a gem that's held up over the years remarkably well. Not only was I inspired to re-watch my Blu-ray of it it immediately after 2050, but I even unearthed my unopened copy of its hilarious sequel DEATHSPORT, the Shout DVD of which includes--I learned-- a great Allan Arkush commentary track.
None of these have much in common with the Jason Statham remake and its sequels, on which Corman had no part, and which I tried to watch but are too dark, literally and figuratively. (In the words of Tony Camonte's secretary, I like a show with jokes). Either way, the Bartel 1975 version is so good it shouldn't be sullied with comparison to anything except... maybe we're finally ready.
This version/update, produced by Roger and Julie Corman and directed by G.J. Echternkamp, brings in Oculus Rift-stlyle headset and projection technology added to a grim and very plausible future in which 95% of the population are unemployed but don't care because their headset goggle things make their surroundings BLACK MIRROR bright (an artificiality that perfectly fits the film's copious use of green screen) Everyone lives in a state of besotted numbness, waking up only to clamor for blood at the big race. Malcolm McDowell is the fey president, a cross between Donald Trump (hair jokes), and a straight Elton John (he's dressed all super-glam but sits at his office flanked by broads feeding him grapes ala his two biggest hits: CALIGULA and CLOCKWORK ORANGE ).
He's the big name star here, of course, but his performance is kind of broad and too familiar to past dictators he's played, and brother he's played his share. Not that he's bad, at all. He's Malcolm. But the rest of the cast, holy shit!
Acidemic Top Honors in the great over-acting school of classic drive-in fare first must go to foam-at-the-mouth Burt Grinstead, channeling the spirit of Dick Rude in REPO MAN as a closeted 'perfect male' and Anessa Ramsey as the fundamentalist Christian maniac Tammy ("All hail Saint Elvis Presley!") Ramsey plays her deranged cult leader like a true force of crazy nature who'd be right at home in FASTER PUSSSYCAT, KILL KILL, as would Yancy Butler as the leader of "the Resistance." Next car over is Folake Olowofoyeku as an African American woman driver who pedals her vaporwave single (Drive! Drive! Kill! Kill!") while racing across redneck stretches of this post-Trump wasteland of a nation by day, and by night quietly confessing her dad is a history chair at Columbia. Another car is driven by an AI computer (who promptly has an identity crisis) with the navigator a Ballard-CRASH style hedonist (Shanna Olsen); there's also sweet Marci Miller as Frankenstein's right hand woman (and requisite rebel assassin); Frankenstein himself is played by New Zealand Male Manu Bennett. Shizz yeah, as April Wolfe points out "Roger Corman's 'Death Race 2050' is the only movie that matters in 2017" - girls is always right.
If you doubt it's got everything this year will need, just note, closely, the fine print on yonder device (above right) while bearing in mind the director's previously best-known feature was HARD CANDY over a decade ago--where he copped-out at the big ball-break. Here he's makin' up for it, even if the device is never successfully triggered or explained or even given its own ominous suspense cue. Marci Miller just whips it out and puts it in after the projection of rebel leader Yancy Butler berates her in the shower for not killing Frankenstein yet "as a symbol" (and Miller answers in shower-song-speak so Frankenstein in the next room doesn't hear her talking). It's just there for those of us who still can't forgive or forget the big castrati cop-out of HC. It don't matter, for here it fits like a glove in a layered free-for-all of metatextual green screen savagery so rife with piled-up details it never needs to explain its few confusing glitches.
Evoking great Corman slap-dash jobs of the past, like his underrated CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, DEATH RACE 2050 puts the man back into in the big leagues of the emerging realms of low-budget green-screen hipster sci-fi genre pastiche, ala JOHN DIES AT THE END, BOUNTY KILLER, KUNG FURY and IRON SKY. Don't even try to question why this kind of crunch car smash surreal green screen zip feels more real than most of Hollywood's gritty drama. That's just 'the future' talking and you're already in it. I bet even now, there's a difference between how you see yourself in your mind's eye (and the mirror with good lighting), and in a selfie. Don't listen to that selfie, son or daughter. Know that you look like everyone else in the rooms of your nearest beginner AA group, not some spectacular bleary-eyed butterfly. Just floor it on through the illusions, jump that uncanny valley and fear no hard landing future, left or right of the dial. Even if the next crunch you hear is your own hard candy cracking, thou wert only ever pixels.