The air crackles with potential. A change is coming. I see it on the horizon. Hope is home to roost at last. The tide is about to turn. I know the signs. People in Film Twitter ask some question – What film would you make everyone else in the world watch? What film would you take into the bunker with you if the bombs fall? – and ever more people give the same answer as me.
But it’s not just Speed Racer – it’s everything that writer-director team Lilly and Lana Wachowski do. People who never mentioned Sense8 in their life outed themselves as viewers in their hundreds when it was cancelled. The Matrix was never out, but it’s back in, and even the sequels are getting more appreciative second looks. I see gifs of Jupiter Ascending used in non-ironic contexts, and all of a sudden people remember that Bound exists. When my favourite film magazine took suggestions for future issues, I scream-tweeted “WACHOWSKIS ISSUE PLEASE” and six people liked it, only one of whom co-runs this blog. I knew it would happen, but I didn’t realise it would happen this soon.
The Wachowskis are on the verge of a critical rehabilitation.
Please don’t fuck it up by calling Speed Racer an art film.
Obviously, I’m overstating how close we are to the Great Awakening, but it’s hard not to get excited about even small signs of change when it comes to artists this important and this misunderstood. I love the Wachowskis, and I love Speed Racer the most of all their films, the most of almost any film ever made. I’m not much given to ranking films these days unless a hashtag on Twitter tells me to, but if I’m put on the spot, Speed Racer makes my top five films every time. I think it’s a masterpiece, one of the most transcendentally beautiful works of art I’ve had the great luck to experience in my life so far. I first heard of Speed Racer in an essay about the video game Vanquish by video game designer Adam Saltsman that opens with a celebration of Speed Racer as a premise for celebrating Vanquish as the Speed Racer of games. I didn’t care all that much about Vanquish by the end of the essay, but Speed Racer sounded like one of the most amazing films I’d ever heard of, and when I watched it, it was even better than I expected.
Speed Racer is hard to talk about without descending into abstraction because it doesn’t just break the rules of conventional filmmaking, it breaks the rules of physics: a single shot can have the background and foreground moving at different speeds in the simple human sense of “time”, but in perfect unison on an emotional level. The precision of Stanley Kubrick’s visual composition is often attributed to his background as a painter, but the Wachowskis might be the first directors to truly realise that if every frame is a painting, it’s bizarre that we still approach them like photographs. Speed Racer is the film that takes that realisation and runs with it in ways I may never be smart enough to properly articulate. Once you realise frames are paintings, not photos, you can make more beautiful and creative transitions with no actual break in the image, instead of the simple hard cut of normal editing. Once you realise frames are paintings, not photos, you can make grander breaks with reality, and when the CGI is no longer trying to blend into something like reality, it’s finally allowed to be big and bright and bold. Once you realise frames are paintings, not photos, you finally realise that a live-action film based on a cartoon shouldn’t try to bring the logic of cartoons into the cinematic form, it should bend the entire cinematic form around the logic of cartoons, and it can do that because cartoons already figured out that frames are paintings, not photos. Speed Racer is the one of the most visually groundbreaking films ever made, and its mere existence is a giant leap forward in the possibilities of cinema eclipsed only by the development of sound.
But more importantly, Speed Racer is fun and sweet and silly and funny and exciting and heartfelt and joyful and sincere. The simple story of a kid called Speed who loves to race cars and his struggle, and his family’s struggle, against the business interests who take all the heart out of their sport, and also there’s a monkey sidekick, because of course there’s a monkey sidekick, what kind of kids’ film doesn’t have a monkey sidekick. Speed Racer would be a great film if it was just empty style, but it’s one of the greatest films ever made because it has a warm and loving soul, because it’s about family and sticking together and decency and love and enthusiasm, and because it has a whole subplot about Speed’s younger brother and his monkey eating too much candy and trashing a factory while on a sugar rush. Speed Racer is a movie where John Goodman spins a ninja over his head like a wrestler in a silent film or a Tex Avery cartoon and says “More like a NON-ja. Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.” Speed Racer is also a movie where John Goodman falls into a deep dark pit of depression when his eldest child dies and only escapes it when a young Speed sits down to watch an old tape of a classic race with him and they stand up and cheer and shake their fists and jump around even though they knew how it would end before they watched it. Speed Racer is a movie where they never explain where the monkey came from because why would you even ask such a stupid question when you could just be enjoying the monkey.
Fortunately, all signs suggest that Speed Racer will be the first of the Wachowskis’ critical flops to be reconsidered. But I’m gripped by a terrible and probably irrational fear that when at last the Wachowskis are recognised as two of the greatest directors alive – two of the greatest directors who have ever lived – it will come at the expense of true understanding of their work. I’ve been afraid ever since I saw a review of Speed Racer that speculated it was “a misunderstood art film”. My jaw clenched and my eyes went wide. I couldn’t believe someone had so fundamentally misunderstood Speed Racer. Ever since I’ve been terrified – sincerely and deeply terrified – that the long-overdue recognition of the Wachowskis would be a Trojan horse, a vicious sabotage of everything the Wachowskis do and everything they stand for. Maybe that’s just a nightmare that will never come to pass. Maybe I’ve written this article as a bonfire of straw men. But just in case it’s not, just in case there are snakes in the grass who need to be smoked out, I’m gonna say what I need to say.
The Wachowskis don’t make art films.
The Wachowskis make schlock.
“Schlock” is a simultaneously vague and loaded term, one of those words that either means nothing or means so many things that if we don’t take the time to define them we may as well be talking about nothing. Schlock is cheap, silly, over-the-top and plays on simple emotions. Schlock is often very bad, but at its best, there’s a sincerity and creativity to it that makes it great art, or at least great craft. When you see an aging former star like Cameron Mitchell or Bela Lugosi throw his heart and soul and vocal cords into a crappy role that barely pays, that’s great schlock. When you can see the seams in a monster suit and the wires in a special effect, but you don’t care because you’re having a whale of a time, that’s great schlock. When you clap and laugh at an exploding head or an action one-liner so shitty that it circles all the way around to brilliant, that’s great schlock, and great schlock is like nothing else in the world.
To understand “schlock” and the central role it plays in the history of film, you need to understand B-movies. Most of the time, in 2017 at least, when we talk about B-movies we’re talking about something niche. We think of films that were maybe once B-movies but have endured the test of time as cult films. Late night audiences at urban grindhouses and drive-in theatres, obsessive fans at regional film festivals, viewing parties at your friend’s house – these niche groups are largely responsible for carrying B-movies forward to the present day. But true B-movies weren’t niche. They were the most widespread and popular form of cinema in the age of the double feature, when a night out at the cinema was really a night out with a full programme of newsreels, shorts, serials, cartoons and finally, the double feature. The B-movie came first, like the undercard fight to whet your appetite before the main event. The B-movie was shorter (many would barely qualify as feature films today), cheaper and uglier, with actors who could barely scrape a supporting role in an A-movie, directors who usually had no passion for the material, and often traded in sensational or salacious subject matter like crime, horror and adultery, though most B-movies were just crappy westerns and comedies.
Not only were they the core of the double feature format that dominated cinema for thirty-odd years, but because they were cheap and quick they were also the majority of films released in the double feature era. There was such a glut of B-movies that cinemas could open a B-movie on a Friday and drop it before Monday not because of poor performance but because they just had so many B-movies to show, especially in the block booking era when the major film studios used their effective monopoly on film production to force cinemas to carry their entire catalogue for each film season sight unseen – take everything or you don’t get the good stuff. Meanwhile, in many poor and rural areas of the United States, small local theatres couldn’t afford the seasonal catalogues of the majors. Instead, they mostly purchased packages of B-movies from state or regional distributors, often stuffed with micro-budget trash from Poverty Row studios who churned out 60-minute “quickie” films at budgets as low as $3000 a pop to profit from these distribution deserts where theatre owners were desperate for any kind of product. There were periods in such towns where residents could go a year or more without an A-movie screening in their town – all they had were B-movies. For these people, and for most Americans, B-movies weren’t niche. They were film itself. They might not have been “cinema”, but they were “the movies”.
The true B-movie was gradually destroyed by the cumulative effect of the collapse of the studio system, the rise of television in the 1950s and the boom in production costs for films during the 1940s, all of which served to whittle down cinema programming until a night out at the cinema just meant a single feature. Only certain kinds of films from the age of the double feature survive in the modern conception of B-movies, like the RKO horror movies produced by Val Lewton, or paranoia films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The appetites once sated by B-movies fractured across a variety of successor genres like exploitation films, TV movies, low-budget action and horror films, including cheap foreign imports like kung-fu movies or giallo films with poor dubbing, and eventually the great flood of cash-in films unleashed by the VHS boom, like Cannon Films’ series of Death Wish sequels. When people talk about B-movies nowadays, they’re mostly talking about these successor genres – Roger Corman, the king of exploitation movies, has always refused the B-movie label because true B-movies were dead by the time he became a producer – and this collection of genres is what we mean when we say “schlock”: cheap thrills on a shoestring budget where any artistry is a production of the passion of the cast and crew, not production value.
Schlock films – especially those produced by Roger Corman – are well-recognised in popular histories of film as a launching pad for the New Hollywood era when a generation of young and edgy so-called “auteur” directors were left to run the asylum for a decade before the studios took back control. Corman gave Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Jonathan Demme their first directing credits, and Roman Polanski’s first American film, Rosemary’s Baby, was produced by the king of gimmicky B-horror, William Castle. But schlock was also the artistic basis for what we now call the blockbuster. The first blockbusters were essentially B-movies on a grand scale: Jaws was a creature feature; Star Wars was inspired by Buck Rogers film serials and WWII propaganda films; Alien was Jaws in space; Halloween was a horror film in the tradition of William Castle and low budget features like Trog; Raiders of the Lost Ark was inspired by adventure serials. With the exception of George Lucas and Ridley Scott, the major directors of the blockbuster boom were incubated in the B-movie’s successor genres. Steven Spielberg’s first film, Duel, was a TV movie about a truck-driving serial killer, John Carpenter was a director of low-budget sci-fi and exploitation films, Joe Dante started out cutting trailers for Roger Corman before getting his first solo directing gig on Jaws parody Piranha, and James Cameron was a visual effects designer for Corman before getting his first directing credit on the sequel to Piranha, where the mutant piranhas can fly.
The origin of the blockbuster lies in these directors making over the commercially successful but critically ill-regarded genres of science fiction, action and horror as populist art. They combined their schlocky heart with Hollywood production values and the technical artistry of the directors who inspired them to become filmmakers, like Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Akira Kurosawa and Billy Wilder, to create a whole new genre. Even the studio’s release strategy on blockbusters was borrowed from B-movies – in place of the traditional series of premieres in a handful of major cities to build word-of-mouth before going wide, Jaws premiered simultaneously nationwide, the way B-movies did. While not the first non-B-movie to do it, Jaws’ unprecedented success is why simultaneous wide releases are now the standard model for distribution in theatres.
But fast forward to the present day, the corporate age of Hollywood, and the cinematic calendar is dominated by the artless, focus-tested, assembly-line crap descended from the original and passionately artful blockbuster. What was once the rehabilitation of the B-movie as beautiful art for the masses has become the masturbatory and incestuous repetition into nothingness of blunt formula, ever more boring special effects and product placement that we now call popular cinema. Blockbusters are so bad now that the term is almost a dirty word, and there’s a lot of reasons why that happened, but one of the biggest is that blockbusters have had the schlock beaten out of them. The original blockbusters drew from the heritage of B-movies and turned them into great art, but modern blockbusters just try to repeat the success of the most recent big successful blockbuster as if it appeared out of nowhere. Blockbusters have become shallow and hollow because they have no reference point but blockbusters themselves, when the whole point of the first blockbusters was to be transformative. Each generation of blockbuster has lost a little more of that first spark until we arrive at the here and now, where most blockbusters are just products without imagination, without feeling, without soul. Blockbusters are nothing without a deep essential core of schlock.
With the exception of Bound (a neo-noir thriller) and Cloud Atlas (a film I’d never embarrass myself by trying to label with anything as neat as a genre), the Wachowski Sisters have dedicated their career to schlock. The Matrix may have some higher themes (though not as much as people seem to think), but, at its core, it’s a kung-fu movie in the vein of John Woo, who started out in low-budget kung-fu films before combining all their schlocky elements – the camp, the silliness, the excess – with innovative directing and high production values, creating the first martial arts blockbusters and taking the genre worldwide. Speed Racer is a children’s movie based on the kind of manga and anime that inspired the Wachowskis in the formative years where they moved from comics (the schlockiest of mediums) to movies, with a tone that also samples kung-fu movies, muscle car films and the goofy no-budget kids’ movies churned out on VHS in the 80s. Jupiter Ascending is a space opera with a sexy flying wolf-man love interest, a descendant of the campy sci-fi serials and B-movies that inspired early blockbusters like Star Wars and The Last Starfighter, and is inspired by them in turn. The Wachowskis love modern pop schlock the way Quentin Tarantino loves exploitation movies, and they make films so they can invite the whole world to love schlock with them.
The Wachowskis put the art, the heart and the fun back into blockbusters – the core of their life’s work has been to do what the first blockbuster directors did and make big damn movies out of the schlock they loved growing up. They make cheesy movies with corny dialogue and hammy performances that drip with sentiment and sincerity. But they also push the envelope of cinematic language, especially through their work with visual effects designer John Gaeta, who developed The Matrix’s famous “bullet time” effects, Speed Racer’s “photo anime” visuals and the extraordinary aerial fight sequences in Jupiter Ascending. While they’re often criticised by film critics for their “reliance” on computer-generated effects, their use of CGI is a core part of their populist mission – the Wachowskis don’t want to make blockbusters not themselves, they want to bring them back to life. They don’t just accept that CGI is part of the modern language of blockbusters, they’re excited by its possibilities in a way that most directors aren’t.
Most blockbusters basically use CGI to avoid hard work like stunts or location shooting – I wouldn’t be shocked to learn it’s part of corporate strategies to keep insurance rates down – but CGI in the Wachowskis’ films is hard work. Their crews are constantly inventing and advancing new technologies to accomplish their directors’ vision – the virtual cinematography of simulated cameras in fully computer-generated environments and the universal capture technology that uses footage of an actor’s head from multiple angles to create computer-generated models of them were both developed primarily for The Matrix. For Jupiter Ascending’s aerial fight sequences, the crew built a rotating rig of six cameras suspended from a helicopter called the Panocam that simultaneously captured background plates (the footage that fills the green when you use a greenscreen) from multiple angles, creating unprecedented versatility in the editing process. The end result is films with some of the most truly stunning and beautiful use of CGI ever. Much like their contemporary David Fincher, the Wachowskis wield CGI like true artists, but where Fincher is a minimalist who uses it to unobtrusively enhance his shots or “cheat” his way to shots that are physically impossible, but don’t seem so to the untrained eye, the Wachowskis are maximalists. They use CGI to build entire worlds, not as a substitute for the matte-painted backgrounds and hand-crafted models and miniatures that were the bread and butter of physical effects before the dawn of computer imaging, but as an equally vibrant and effective alternative craft. And when they use it to create impossible shots, there’s nothing hidden or subtle about it – Speed Racer in particular is full of shots that don’t even pretend to obey the Euclidean geometry of physical space.
As put by Film Critic Hulk, a film critic who writes in the voice of the Incredible Hulk, because that’s just where we are in civilisation now, the Wachowskis “MAKE CINEMA THAT IS SO GENUINE AND JAW-DROPPINGLY SINCERE THAT IT CAN’T HELP BUT SKEW RIGHT INTO MOST PEOPLE’S “THIS IS CORNY” TERRITORY”, and if there’s one way the Wachowskis have maybe stumbled in their populist mission, it’s in making movies that are so unlike the rest of the milieu in which they work that they haven’t always immediately connected with the mass audiences they’re targeted at. They never do anything by half, and their films are defined by both an overwhelming earnestness and challenging filmmaking that are easy to read as mistakes if all you’ve known is the lukewarm dross of tentpole films. Blockbusters as a field are so dominated by cynical money-making ventures helmed either by rent-a-directors without passion for the work or sincere artists bent and broken into docility by corporate power (or fired for non-compliance) that the Wachowskis’ films are a shock to the system, and they deliver these shocks so consistently that even a more willing world could struggle to keep up. They grate against the dour sensibilities that Hollywood have crammed into our collective consciousness as “the way things are done”. In an age of infinite Marvel movies that provide a kind of pleasant experience in the moment and then fade from our memories almost immediately, the Wachowskis make films that are so deeply heartfelt and so wildly out of step with convention that they may well prove self-defeating if they don’t connect with enough people to overthrow the dominance of recent blockbusters.
But whatever happens, they’ll never stop trying to bring beauty and joy and fun to the world. In a moment that’s the pure and beating heart of Speed Racer, the title character and his father, Pops, are fighting over his decision to enter a dangerous cross-country race behind his back as part of a plan to take down the film’s industrialist villain:
POPS: You think you can drive a car and change the world!? It doesn’t work like that!
SPEED: Maybe not. But it’s the only thing I know how to do and I gotta do something.
Maybe a kids’ movie about race cars won’t change the world, but it’s what the Wachowskis know how to do. I believe, and very much hope, that their work will find its way back to the people in time, and it will make the kind of small but important difference that art at its best can make in our lives and in our culture.
But that’s only worth hoping for if their movies make it back to the people uncorrupted by the awful pretension of a certain kind of critic, who finds themselves liking something ill-regarded, who finds themselves loving schlock, and therefore declares this cannot be true schlock. Who loves a horror film, but “it’s not really a horror film, it’s a thriller, it’s a drama, it can’t be horror because it’s actually good!” If you watch a Wachowskis film and you love it, love it with pride and with all your heart, especially if it’s Jupiter Ascending, the most tragically misunderstood of all their films. Anything else is a betrayal of what these films mean – the Wachowskis haven’t even done a director’s commentary since the LaserDisc version of Bound (remember LaserDisc? I don’t) because they don’t want to discourage viewers from their own interpretations, because their films are for everyone to enjoy in their own way, without shame or embarrassment.
I don’t take on heroes lightly, but the Wachowskis are mine. I can’t wait for the day when they are recognised at long last as the greatest popular film directors since Spielberg.
Please don’t fuck it up by calling Speed Racer an art film.
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