Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or at least 16:9

Friday, January 27, 2017

Post-American Pride: DEATH RACE 2050 (Roger Corman Lives!)


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. 

I confess, reader, I been blocked. I been brought low by horrific panic in all my usual sources of solace (even Facebook) I couldn't read another step, either from work or the news, couldn't handle even a droplet from the terrifying cascade of perceived injustice. Then, the scariest thing of all is my my own aging face in the black mirror. Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, like the Weenie King says. It's all too awful. There's no respite for this alcoholic still stuck and sniffling in and out of these rooms. Relapse for Dollar$ then, with moderation as impossible a dream as a javelin landing on the head of a pin.

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 and shake, blood pressure spiking like I just funneled a carload of salted meat. 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 within its brief runnig time 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.

Now I can relax, because I know the truth: no matter if it's the uptight self-righteous 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.

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's New World Pictures. 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 Roman coliseum. 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. How could it fail? Directed by Paul Bartel from a Charles B. Griffith script, 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 "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 and it ain't got no 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 official 2050-set sequel.

Produced by Roger and Julie Corman and directed by G.J. Echternkamp, DEATH RACE 2050 brings in Oculus Rift-stlyle headset and projection technology to the TV-viewers at home and 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, seeing their ugly elderly roommates as gorgeous models, 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 Malcolm's 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 crazy monomaniacal 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! They're in all the way, all ten nails dug deep for the long haul.


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!"), a true force of crazy nature who'd be right at home in FASTER PUSSSYCAT, KILL KILL. 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 black history chair at Columbia at night. 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); and an all-in Yancy Butler as the leader of "the Resistance." 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.

Termite details matter
If you doubt this film has got everything this year will need, just note, closely, the fine print on the toothbrush-clamping 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 - genius). 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 deserves a spot in the pantheon of genius low-budget green-screen hipster sci-fi genre pastiches ala JOHN DIES AT THE END, BOUNTY KILLER, 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 dramas. 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 how deranged you look 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.


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