Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Death Drivin' America - Part 3: DEATHSPORT, CANNONBALL!

Corman fans like myself are finding--via golden hindsight and reverence for all things 35mm--that many of Roger Corman's New World produced ALIEN / STAR WARS / JAWS-imitations have held up and improved with age, and even the films of New World's mid-70s 'period-period' (the post-BONNIE AND CLYDE wave - BLOODY MAMA, BIG BAD MAMA, LADY IN RED, BOXCAR BERTHA, etc) still pack a wry punch. But New World was so much more than riffs on those hit. Corman also had an eye for giddy high-octane satire and we do ourselves a disservice by forgetting Corman also launched the whole (now largely forgotten) biker subgenre with THE WILD ANGELS and helped craft the parameters of the wacky outlaw race movie with DEATH RACE 2000 and EAT MY DUST. And so New World proved it could imitate itself as deftly as it imitated the big boys. Once SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT showered box office gold all over the two-lane blacktops of backwoods America, there was no stopping him.

In the best of these 'backwoods blast-offs', like TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, there are sultry glimmers of greatness, and the worst, like SMOKEY BITES THE DUST (1981), there are at least some good crashes. But... remember a few miles back we talked about DEATH RACE 2050 ("the only movie that matters in 2017" - April Wolfe), and talked about how no film could match the original? Well, the original was such a surprise hit Corman ordered a whole slew of variants, futuristic car chase movies that, in their way, paved the lanes for the MAD MAX to come.

There are two late-70s movies that explore different facets of DEATH RACE, and I've seen them, and wish to discuss them. Thanks to Shout Factory, whose New World DVD output is one of the great boons to any serious trash collector, we can shuffle back and find out which one has the real juice, if either.

The Paul Bartel-directed 1973 original DEATH RACE hypothesized that in 2000 we'd be living under the thumb of a crazy trash-talking president (hey!) with a fun old-school (like Roman gladiator) sense of entertainment and population control. In the process all the tenets of 70s life were commented upon: road rage, gas crises, OPEC; America's big cathartic fuck-you to the next four days of work that was Monday Night Football; Detroit demonology (the grease pit grimoire with groovy names like Gran Turino, Corvette, Trans-Am, Mitzy Bishu Gallant, Suzy Bannon the Buick); CB radios (as discussed in the earlier piece on CONVOY) and revolution!

It's perhaps understandable why I-- who was a child in that time--would return now to the auto wreck bloodsport satire genre as if some rumbling unleaded Rosebud. For our crazy prez, for our crazy country, for the year of 2017, when America's Civil War turned so cold we grew more Russian the more we ever dared imagine, start your engines!

Hear the mighty engines roaring for America? Komrade, we need to rev it. Only by blazing fast and furious do we finally not stand stagnant swampish.

(1976) Dir. Paul Bartel

With the popularity of the car crash movie (perfect for drive-ins) well established, 2000 director Paul Bartel jumped lanes and drafted over behind the now-forgotten real-life Cannonball Dash, a cross-country race that was set up to protest the 55 mph highway law (set up in 1974). That race had caught the popular cinematic imagination to the point that in 1976 it congealed into films like GUMBALL RALLY (1976), SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and--far less remembered--Bartel's CANNONBALL. In the original Dash and other race films, the issue of prize money, a bet, the importance of an honor system and all in the game camaraderie is easier to understand (a gum ball machine, for example, is a relatively worthless prize). For the inexplicable $100,000. prize in CANNONBALL, well, that's real money, and it's just too damn easy to cheat if all you need is an LA parking lot stamp at the NYC finish line.  One canny little guy flies his car in a big jumbo jet across country; other drivers sabotage rival cars (with racers too dumb to watch their vehicle or check under the hood); and so forth.

These things bother me; and the film is choked up with actors too much alike to tell apart with your glasses off, all made even similar-er-er for no real reason. Rather than tweak cliches to archetypal amok wresling-style comic book lunacy, here Bartel just delivers them flat, like dropping off laundry.  A smiling polite black dude (Stanley Bennett Clay) racing some nice Goy couple's car to NY for them (we know they're deserving of a smashed caddy because they tell him not to drive at night or faster than 55 mph - how dare they!); the amazing Gerrit Graham ambles along as a cowboy singer riding with his mobbed-up manager Mr. Redmond, who's hoping this event will boost his profile (how, exactly?) David Carradine is a 'legend' named Cannonball (so original!) who is breaking parole the moment his car leaves California. One speeding ticket and he's back in jail with the key thrown away! This is just one of Cannonball's terrible choices, the sort of self-sabotage that dirtbags often confuse with bad luck. Luckily for him, his parole officer (Veronica Hamel) is also his navigator/lover. But if you remember her from HILL STREET BLUES than it may not be so lucky for you: her character there was far too professional and competent in that beloved show to throw away her career following such a three-strikes idiot over the edge. Though it's nice to see her wipe the floor with a cadre of good old boys trying to hobble Cannonball (who watches from the sidelines), it's sad that she also seems dubbed... from far away.

Faring better in our esteem is the great Mary Woronov, who pilots a van carrying two horny blondes in the back (Diane Lee Hart, Glynn Rubin); David's little brother Robert and Brenda Belaski are also quite good as a pair of young newlyweds trying their luck for the prize. They seem genuinely in love, young and sweet (they even brought an acoustic guitar) plus the race makes sense in the terms of their character arc (elopement, money, youth, horniness) far more than in the others.

In short, ladies, the 'Trans-America Grand Prix Auto Race" is on! Just ignore the obvious nagging questions about logic and practicality (like how gas guzzling town cars are bad at cross country races, running out of gas way more often out in the cornfields at night), the contradictory rules (does Bartel [and his co-writer Don TOP GUN Simpson] even know how races or gambling odds actually work?), and the sheer idiocy of "Cannonball", his sycophantic copycat (so annoying), and Dick Miller as his bookmaking older brother, who sabotages other fast cars in the race but then, confusingly, seems to be out to sabotage his brother too (did he become someone else's brother in one of Simpson's rewrites?) He needn't bother in any case, for Cannonball is an easy mark. Never thinking to follow his enemies when they walk or crawl past the rear of his car on their way out of the parking lot, he's stunned when his jack later turns up missing or his lights don't work or his gas tanks been ice-picked. When he finally falls asleep at the wheel, you're like fuck, I'm rooting for the other guy.

I've barely scratched the surface with how purely stupid and incompetent Carradine's Cannonball (the driver) is, I can only presume crafty Bartel was going somewhere with the idea, some black comic joke between the 'lines' done with Simpson... now lost in the nasal cavity of time.

If you can ignore all that, well, go for it, as the car stunts are amazing. Highlights include: an awesome jump across an unfinished stretch of highway overpass and and plenty of wild spin-outs and crashes (all from back in the day they did that shit for real). A plethora of insider cameos helps as well: Corman himself plays the Los Angeles DA; Don Simpson is his assistant; Bartel a shady fey mobster (the type who play piano while their thugs kick the shit out of someone for not holding up their end of whatever). Martin Scorsese and Sly Stallone are the thugs! Yo Adrian! Joe Dante and Allan Arkush are mid-states tow-truck drivers who help out Cannonball with a new car (though I wouldn't trust that dork with my Big Wheel).

So forget all my annoyed kvetches with the pure idiot illogic of the script. What matters is that the good guys win, even if the good guys aren't always who you think. And a special shout-out to a grim gruesome freeway pile-up so out of step with what came before it chokes off even the most jadedly sardonic of laughter. Bloody, savage, out of place, it's like if Burt Reynolds wound up decapitating some old lady in his effort to Yee-Haw over the sheriff's patrol car and the bouncy harmonica just kept a-boinging (had Bartel just seen Godard's WEEKEND?) . Despite the whole Woronov sexy van thing there's no puerile snickering or silicone (Fred Olen Ray was still too young, thank god), The ever reliable Tak Fujimoto does a good job capturing the stonewashed pink of Cannonball's open shirt and the haze of the open road.

In short, America.

Even so, Don Simpson stopped writing and turned to producing after this, smart move, Don! Your idiocy and coked-up gumption will poison the 80s with a wealth of attention span-destroying military recruitment videos. He died in 1996, Bartel in 200, so there you go. Hell, there we all go...

(1978) Dir. Allan Arkush, Nicholas Niciphor

A film for the dirt bike-riding 16 year-old arsonist in all of us, DEATHSPORT was meant to be a DEATH RACE 2000 sequel but instead gives us moody crypto-poetry, blazing fireballs, matte paintings of futuristic dystopian cities, and that old LA desert scrub being ground underfoot by tricked-out dirt bikes and hosses. So many dirt bikes blow up in this film it's almost a pyrotechnic's demo reel. The titular game, like the Statham DEATH RACE remake or THE RUNNING MAN, helps political prisoners (mainly "guides" who help refugees cross a wasteland fraught wiht ping-pong ball-eyed camouflage net-wearing mutants) win freedom via  motor cross / Rollerball / gladiator mash-up. With no sense of humor about its own absurdity, the mix of Arkush-shot action and Niciphor shot pretentious dialogiw wizzes along but there are a lot of shots wherein a row of three to five tricked-out 'death bikes' whizz past the camera in single file to a 'zzzzzzZap!' sound effect (that's just the same effect loop over and over). That said, I like the guns, which are like big Pringles can-shaped mini bazookas that fire huge laser bolts that vaporize opponents, and I love the thrift-shop dumpster dive approach to the costumes, and I'm glad the film never bothers to explain rules. If we're part of its intended demographic, well, we're probably too high from huffing rush and snorting evaporated Nyquil to not think it's our own fault we can't follow what's going on. Just blow shit up! Hell yeah, and let the teachers and short goomba burnouts who wronged you in middle school get theirs by flaming proxy.

Claudia Jennings endures the torture of the light strips

Then there are other weird bits: girls who disobey the sleazy leader get thrown naked into the room of dangling light strips, or zapped on the color filter-lit table of abstract woe. It would be misogynist if it wasn't hilarious. I never understood this habit some movies have of making the pain and fear of a woman so vivid and realistic it leaves you shaken; it's why I can't stand Noomi Rapace! She makes her pain too real, so vivid it ceases to entertainment.  Corman and company get that it's supposed to be entertaining, not traumatizing. It is known: unconvincing pain lightens the heart. The New World violence is always a bit goofy and therefor cathartic. The electro-lightshow shock treatments given to Claudia Jennings don't leave a scar on our psyche but harken the whole mess back a few years to AIP's DUNWICH HORROR (1971) and Hazel Court's initiation scene in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1968). The weird lighting and enigmatic presence of David McLean's 'Lord Zirpola' as the sick spectator / torturer gives these scenes a weird vibe reminiscent of the conditioning scenes in CLOCKWORK ORANGE or the performances in CAFE FLESH. In this future it's hard to tell where the reality and the diegetic performances separate. Even in their weird cells, still wet with white paint, Carradine and Jennings are on display before the all-seeing eye of Zirpola--this combination of paranoid despot and louche peeping tom.

David Carradine plays an amalgam of Kane from ABC's 1972-5 KUNG FU series and of course Frankenstein in DEATH RACE 2000; lupine playmate Claudia Jennings is a fellow guide and warrior (as in the best Corman stealth-feminism, she's as tough and wise and as combat-proficient as any of the men - and prettier too). Great as they both are at keeping straight faces amidst the madness, Lynch, as the bad guy / master henchman gets all the best lines, purred in a mellow emotionless forceful calm: "You call me animal? After all I tried to do to make you feel at peace?" Whatever his fall from grace, he's openly admirable towards the memory of Carradine's warrior mother (whom he killed in battle after she kicked him out of the league), giving him the ultimate warrior greeting: "Salute your mother for me." And it's always amazing the way Lynch seems to wind up in films full of fire effects, considering his history (3). In fact, I'm literally in awe of his fearlessness (2). Burn scars cover almost entire body, yet there he is, striding amidst the fireballs like it's just another day at the fair. I guess, in the words of the Hephaestus-like blacksmith in MOBY DICK, "thou canst not scorch a scar." (1)

Andrew Stein's synthesizer score provides a great minimalist mess of wind sounds, zaps, and sustained notes somewhere between the Bebe's FORBIDDEN PLANET and faux John Carpenter. His attempts at actual melody are terrible (they remind me of stuff I've made for my own films), but then---who should appear?-- Jerry Garcia noodles in and around in the mix, coming and going at the darndest times. And as anyone who ever sat through a Dead show can tell you, if you depend on Jerry to lead you out of the caves of aimless noodling, well, you're going to be in there a long while and things might get weird before they start to see the light of melody.

Weirder still is the way faux-samurai ethos are folded into the stilted dialogue, creating an effect like stealing someone else's clean underwear at the laundromat: the narrator stresses the sacredness of combat, noting the range guides "ow(e) allegiance only to their foes." The greeting between range guides is "Our union is limited." Another keeper, delivered with the solemnity through which Carradine won the heart chakras of a generation of strip mall karate kids: "No one can touch myself," oh man, how true! I wanted to write every line down, but they got away from me. And without that deep-set eye roll couched in Carradine's intonation, I can no more capture their wry beauty than a moon capture the dragon fly's wallet.

In case you can't tell, I got mad love for this terrible movie and all the deadpan jokes Carradine, editor Larry Bock, and replacement director Arkush, sneak little into the termite crevasses. Every so often Carradine casts a wry glance at the camera that Bock and Arkush leave in, and it counteracts the more pretentious serious art elements that no doubt the original director shoehorned in. I love the way the mutants hide their faces so we don't linger on the awful yellow ping boll eyes (their shame over being mutated covers the shame of the make-up department), and I love how Jenning's unusual fox-like features are complimented by her white fur collar. I'm not a fan of the grating replaying of the same sound effect over and over the endless shots of pursuing bikers but, after all, our union is limited. Noodle on, Big Jerry. Noodle on.

The Shout DVD includes a fun Bock and Arkush commentary wherein we learn that whatever Niciphor was intending with his initial version, it didn't work; Arkush was called in to direct new footage of fireballs, nudity and enough action to make Niciphor's high concept artsy parts less obtuse and stilted, which Arkush did in spades. He pours anarchic pyromaniac anarchy onto the staid sci-fi conceptualism with some of the same giddy anarchic spirit he brought to ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL and GET CRAZY. (that the latter isn't on DVD is one of the great crimes of the 21st century) and so DEATHSPORT becomes like the cool dude who hands you a one-hit of kind bud right right before you go into juvenile court. Maybe you would have been better off without it (your bloodshot eyes won't impress the judge) but  joke 'em if they can't take a fuck!

To sum: with the scorched features and measured tone of the fearless fire elemental Richard Lynch, the always lovely and literally and figuratively foxy Jennings, the cracking wry fourth wall eye rolling of Carradine, the copious fireballs, the tricked-out bikes flying into the air, the sly way the actors cover up the budget limitations, and the Arkush commentary explaining it all when you need a break from the Zzzzap sound effects, well you're guaranteed a good time. Just don't watch the second feature on the Shout DVD, BATTLETRUCK. It might have Michael Beck but he's a long way from XANADU...  Aren't we all?  


1. Lynch also played a cult leader who encourages his flock to burn themselves up in BAD DREAMS, and an alien hybrid cult leader who burns himself up in a tenement basement in GOD TOLD ME TO. 
2-3. The scarred skin of Lynch's face is real --he poured gas on himself and lit a match while under the influence of too much LSD in the 1960s. I think youtube has some clips of him talking about it.


  1. I saw Cannonball! at a QT Fest about 20 years ago. Tarantino used to bring his personal collections of 35 mm movie prints to the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin and introduce the movies with personal connections and cinema history. He was really excited to show this movie, giddy about it, and he got everyone else excited to see it. Then, good lord. What a dud! It has every problem you list and more! There is something weird about the idea of a lot of directors getting cameos, but the whole movie just felt like cameos, because no one made an impression as a character. The energy of the crowd was drained out by the end of it, but then he showed the George Hamilton, Sue Lyon Even Knievel movie! That was great! I have yet to see Death Sport all the way through, but I will now!

    1. Thanks Johnny. That Eivel movie was just on 'Movies!' a local non-HD cable channel, but I let it go not realizing Sue Lyon was in it. I now await its return eagerly.

      QT has some weird tastes at times, but god bless 'im for helping move all this old weird stuff out of the basement, so to speak, like one of my late inning favorites: SWITCHBLADE SISTERS.

    2. I love that Evel Knievel movie! Sue Lyon is kind of at the end of her career, but she is completely gorgeous and captivating. (It's no Murder in a Blue World - I will always be in debt to you over that discovery). It's crazy how many real people George Hamilton has played, from Hank Williams to Evel Knievel to Colonel Sanders. AND he dated LBJ's daughter! What a fine young cannibal he has been.


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