Speed Devil

Sympathy for the Devil

Upon return from Cannes, I saw two movies in rapid succession. The films probably should not be combined into any sort of synthetic criticism, but it is too tempting to at least collide their names in the same piece: Jean-Luc Godard's 1968 film with the Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil (1968), and Andy and Larry Wachowski's Speed Racer (2008) adaptation. The arena we are dealing with is dimensionality.

Sympathy for the Devil

In one corner: Godard. Recording rehearsal sessions of the Stones in London, Godard and DP Anthony B. Richmond carve semi-circular, if not parabolic, space around the band, as their syncopation starts and stops. The rhythm of a songs come together momentarily, aligning with the elegance of a camera track or crane, but otherwise stumbling and fumbling in synchronization to find a sound as Godard/Richmond likewise shuffle the camera and blocking to find a different, but related, kind of organization in space.

Speed Racer

In the other corner: the Wachowskis. Using digital cameras and hyper-extensive use of green-screen matting, the brothers flatten the image to the extreme of two-dimensionality, eliminating space and thereby eliminating a sense of time in their film. With both eliminated, all rules can be broken: flashbacks can take place on one part of the screen as scenes in the present exist simultaneously; we can see the same event from multiple angles in the same unsplit image; the idea of the edit evaporates as computer generated camera transitions semi-fluidly "move" the camera's perspective from one shot in flat space to a completely different angle somewhere else in space. The candy-colored, near hallucinogenic production design is custom created to allow a smearing of coordinated colors between matte layers, leaving only hyperactive graphic activity suggesting actors and speed, neither of which actually exist.

Sympathy for the Devil

Who was it who said that all films were allegories of their own production? Through the Stones' recording sessions, Godard attempts a more obviously defined cinematic syncopation that is also attempted in other segments of the film, where long-take tracking shots try to encompass some of the Black Power movement, from the enunciation of revolutionary rhetoric, to arming and violent action taken, all within the same shot, time and space. Make a song, make a revolution, cinematically represented almost identically. Of course, the content can be empty as well, witness the (also long-take, long tracking shot) scene of Anne Wiazemsky interviewed in the woods, being asked yes or no questions of social/political gibberish. Syncopation failing, cinematic algebra unable to add up; until the final shot, that is, where cinema, revolution, and the Stones are combined in one.

Speed Racer

What, then, do we do with Speed Racer, which contends to admit that stock prices and capital profit drive all spectacle, that artistry and talent are the guise in which profits are made and the individual crushed? This in a film whose values are as muddled as its blurred, undulating mise-en-scene. Is Speed Racer that sham which covers corporate takeovers? In the movie, a racer takes a dive, losing the grand prix but making a company's fortune. Was Speed Racer's flop at the box office intentional? Are the Wachowskis Speed Racer himself, defying corporate authority to express the death defying insanity of their craft (impossibly, the races in the film have nothing to do with speed but rather avoiding death or bringing it to others)?

Speed Racer

What is the political purpose of Speed Racer's two-dimensionality? That a film which forgoes time and space can address nothing but the abstract? (Are the profit-motives and spectacle only abstractions anyway?) That a move towards digital cinema of this kind threatens to disconnect cinema from the real world and move to a realm solely of ideas? Not to be nostalgic, or even idealistic, but Godard's movies of this late 1960s era seem the best answer. The process of making a movie like Sympathy for the Devil embraces a cinema of (certainly abstract) ideas and ideology, yet one fundamentally produced by a direct—and obvious—engagement of the world around it, right then and right there.

Sympathy for the Devil

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