Speed Indeed

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The trailer for Speed Racer has been available for a little under a week, and word of it is spreading through social channels almost as quickly as through the manifold viral vectors of information space. (The world of organic embodied communications can only stand back and shake its head in wonder at its fleet digital progeny. YouTube’s version is here; I recommend viewing it in higher quality through the official website.) I’ve watched the trailer several times myself, in increasing fascination; students and colleagues have emailed me links to it; I even overheard two students discussing it excitedly, as though it were the movie itself: It’s already out? Cool! Whatever the merits of the work-in-progress the trailer is advertising, it has certainly achieved its intended purpose, acting not so much as a preview, but rather a demo of the full-length version that will hit theaters in May 2008. It captures the movie in miniature, scales it down to an iPod-sized burst of visual attractions and narrative beats.

I admit to being suckered (or sucker-punched) by the look of Speed Racer, a hypperreal funhouse crafted from neon candy and shot in an infinitely deep focus that would make Gregg Toland or James Wong Howe weep for joy. I guess it’s not surprising that Larry and Andy Wachowski, following up the silvery-green slickness of their Matrix trilogy, have prepared another film whose brand identity depends largely upon its visual texture: an internally consistent cinematic VR — a graphic engine in the truest sense — in which cinematography, visual effects, and mise-en-sc??ne have flowed into each other like gooey fudge.

Actually, add editing to that mix, for the Speed Racer trailer is the first I can think of to offer a scene transition as a visual hook. The image at the top of this article shows the endpoint of a camera move: tracking around protagonist Speed (Emile Hirsch), the background blurs into a rainbow ribbon, and Hirsch’s shoulder “wipes” the next shot into existence. The moment features prominently in the trailer and in stills grabbed from it (like the one I found by Googling), yet it seems to be neither a turning point in the narrative, a revelation of character, nor a generic marker. Instead, it showcases a new “verb” in film grammar, signaling that Speed Racer will not simply tell a great story, but will tell it using an entirely new set of rules.

Yeah, right. We’ve all heard this before; cinema probably started making promises it couldn’t keep on December 29, 1895, the day after the first public screening of a motion picture. But unlike the Lumi??re Brothers — who called cinema “an invention without a future” — the Wachowskis have set themselves the task of forging cinema’s next epoch. Whether they can do it with Speed Racer remains to be seen. On the surface, it’s a giddy experiment in mapping anime style into live action, though I suspect the production has stretched the concept of digital animation so far that any ontological divide between it and live action has long since ceased to matter. It may end up no more successful than Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), which also toyed with a new kind of transition, in that case a pattern of orthogonal wipes based on comic-book panels. Lee’s experiment didn’t do much to pep up that dismal movie, but something tells me that Speed Racer will fare better. Here’s hoping.

5 thoughts on “Speed Indeed

  1. I saw this last night at a $2.50 bargain show. I liked it a lot better than I thought I would, but I’m not sure why. I guess all the bad reviews it got gave me low expectations.

  2. You know, now that the first wave of (generally contemptuous) critical response has passed, I’m noticing an interesting, growing wave of support for Speed Racer among fans and even some academics (like this praise from Tim Burke). It may be that SR is on the way to becoming a cult film of sorts. Personally, I found it both incoherent and boring, but that was only on first view; words like yours make me want to give it a second look.

  3. I hesitate to say anything that would encourage anyone to sit through it twice. I didn’t like it *that* much. But it was kind of fun to see it on a big screen with a good sound system and just sit back and enjoy the sound-and-light show.

    One local critic who gave it a mediocre review noted that the nostalgia factor helped make it bearable, and that may have been at work with me, too. I really liked the original when I was 5. That and Kimba.

    I wonder what the NASCAR crowd made of it.

  4. That was probably it. Channel 50 (“the Kaiser” — WKBD) had most of the cartoons and shows that I watched after school (Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Yogi Bear, 3 Stooges, Little Rascals), with channel 20 coming in second (Spiderman, those crudely animated Marvel superhero shorts, Ultraman).

    There’s a topic for you: I got to come home to some of the best short-subject humor of the ’30s through the ’60s, much of which was originally written for a multigenerational audience. My little brother came home to crap from the ’80s that was not only aimed solely at kids, but was mainly intended to sell toys rather than entertain: Transformers, He-Man, and GI Joe.

    Back to Speed Racer: I seem to recall that I found the whole Rex Racer plotline strangely compelling when I was little. I can’t remember if it went off the air before or after my younger brother was born.

    Another funny thing is that I’ve developed a strong dislike for anime/manga since then. I get disgusted when I see that manga titles take up twice as much shelf space at the local B & N books than do titles by artists who don’t all draw more or less the same way. I amused myself by hassling some nerdy teens about their reading choices one day: “What do you see in that stuff? Check this out — _The Best Anerican Cartoons of 2006_. Every artist has a different style!” To no avail, of course.

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