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The Man from London
Béla Tarr's Speed Racer from London

I skipped last week's "Now Showing" because of the San Francisco International Film Festival, although I filed reviews of David Mamet's jiu-jitsu movie, Redbelt, and the British comedy Son of Rambow over at Paste. Opening in theaters this week is the garish, retro, futuristic, earnest, campy, swift, turgid, and exceedingly contradictory Speed Racer. I'm delighted that Paste no longer requires reviewers to assign a star rating to a movie or album; this one might have been tricky.

By delivering important information in aggressively brief bursts, Speed Racer seems to test the limits of human perception, and it's doing this to tell a dumb, insincere story and tickle the neurons of 8-year-olds. How best to boil that disjunction into a number? Don't know, not my problem. The negative reviews are the most fun to read (Hoberman, Edelstein, Lane), but Scott Tobias's torn reaction is closer to my own feeling. He gives Speed Racer a C.

My own review is one of four or five that could have been whittled from my post-screening notes. Here's an also-ran: I happened to see the film within a couple of days of watching Béla Tarr's The Man from London at the SFIFF.

• • • •

Tarr's film is as aggressively slow as the Wachowski's is speedy. Both films are testing certain viewer limits, both are using unconventional, almost hidden methods of exposition, and both have a strangely malleable nationality. Speed Racer's nuclear family is as American as Ozzie and Harriet, but it's based on a Japanese anime cartoon full of Western-looking faces that — in the version intended for American audiences — were synced with fast-talking English voices. The Wachowskis nod to this serpentine border crossing with a crazy quilt of secondary and tertiary characters. Is that French actor Melvil Poupaud providing color commentary? Is that Korean pop singer Rain driving a race car? Weird.

The first time I saw The Man From London last October, the dialogue was in Hungarian. Hey, is that British actress Tilda Swinton? Weird. In that print, much of the dialogue, including hers, was dubbed, but it turns out that there's another print in circulation, and it's quite revealing, especially for someone like me who never mastered multi-lingual lip-reading. In the print that screened in San Francisco last week, all the dialogue is in French and English, and some of the lips even line up with the soundtrack. The actress playing Henriette, for example, is clearly speaking French, like her character. (By the way, she harms no cats, no chats.) The eponymous man from London and his few compatriots, plus the actors playing them, speak English to each other. Most everyone else in the film speaks French, even if their lips are often speaking, presumably, Hungarian. But not Tilda's. Her character spoke Hungarian in the first version I saw and French in this version, but I suspect her lips were speaking English each time. Go, Béla Tarr, go Béla Tarr, go!

Does seeing the film dubbed into French and English as opposed to Hungarian change anything substantive? Actually, I think it does a bit. In one scene, a bi-lingual detective from London is speaking to a dock watchman who retrieved a case of money from the drink. They speak in French about a sensitive matter concerning a man whose wife is seated nearby. What's all this about, she asks the detective in English. It's of no concern, he lies in English. The first time I saw the film, all of this was flattened into Hungarian, so it seemed as if the woman simply didn't hear the men, or maybe she was being coy. But in the French-English print, the logic snaps into place: the English woman doesn't fully understand French, but she rightly guesses that the men are talking about her husband.

Say, this reminds me of Terrence Stamp in Toby Dammit.

Speed Racer

Now, to the lists!

In Theaters

In preferential order:

Minor Films and Amusements

No, Thanks

Where I'll Be This Week (Bay Area)

I'm looking forward to revisiting a couple of movies that are playing all week, if I get the chance, plus seeing a rare screening of Warren Sonbert's Carriage Trade, a film I've never seen.

Posted by davis | Link | Other Weekends
Reader Comments
May 11, 2008, 11:25 PM

The Speed Racer still above offers a glimpse of one of the many delightful but fleeting details in Speed Racer. During the manic final race, the interior of one of the tunnels is covered with pictures of zebras that seem inspired by Edward Muybridge's zoopraxoscopic pictures of animals and people in motion. As the cars race through the tunnel, the zebras as seen by the drivers seem to run. (Never mind that this effect requires a shutter; Speed Racer, like many cartoons, relies on approximate physics.)

I love the possibility of the Wachowskis alluding to Muybridge. A couple of years ago I wrote in the pages of Paste about an ah-ha moment in a documentary about Muybridge that brings to mind another of the Wachowskis' films, The Matrix.

May 15, 2008, 03:36 PM

The Wachowski bros certainly put a lot of effort into making Speed Racer... the movie overall looked and felt like a cross between anime, a kaleidoscope, that Flintstones movie, a video game and the Dukes of Hazard

May 15, 2008, 08:30 PM

Heh, Dukes of Hazard, you're right. I might throw a pinball machine in there, too. Plus, I love the idea of someone animating a lens flare.

May 16, 2008, 02:33 PM

I have to say, all the negativity about Speed Racer kinda makes me want to see it. Is this going to become some kind of film maudit with a cult following?

Thanks for heightening my awareness of the Carriage Trade screening with this post, Rob. It was really something. It overall looked and felt like a cross between a James Benning film, Looking For Mushrooms, a collection of National Geographic magazines, a Vertov film, the home movies of some great Beat poet with a cinematic eye, and Fata Morgana.

May 16, 2008, 05:09 PM

Holy cow. Can we throw "pinball machine" into that mix, too? Now I'm sad that I missed it. I knew I'd miss something in this week's list, but so far I'm 0 for 3, but I feel worst about missing Carriage Trade because at least I have seen Contempt and Still Life before. I'll watch for it to surface in the windy city.

Speed Racer, by the way, is one of those movies that I didn't much enjoy while I was watching it -- although I didn't hate it and can think of a few would-be blockbusters from this year alone that are far worse -- but I'm surprised by how much it has given me to write and think about afterward.

May 19, 2008, 08:47 PM

I really hate the fact that I missed _Contempt_. And I may miss _Still Life_. But, lo and behold, I'm making time for _Speed Racer_ with my sister tomorrow. I may have to write something about it, too.

May 19, 2008, 09:54 PM

Same here. I just sort of assumed I'd see it, and then the week got away from me. Same with Still Life. I did manage to catch Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha at the Roxie, a bit of Philippe Garrel's Le Lit de la vierge at the Yerba Buena, and a preview of that movie with Harrison Ford that opens on Thursday. More about that in a couple of days.

May 20, 2008, 10:33 PM

Check this: I think it's a fat kid and a monkey away from amazing. More later, I imagine.

May 21, 2008, 10:09 PM

Interesting. I'll look forward to further comments.

May 22, 2008, 12:59 PM

I'm going through severe Errata withdrawal. I can be found huddled up in the corner of the room, listlessly staring into space, mumbling, "Come back, Shane...."

May 22, 2008, 01:09 PM

That's nice to hear. If ever I can make people mutter listlessly, I feel I've accomplished something. Back shortly, very shortly!