When it was released in 2008, Speed Racer bombed pretty hard. A 135 minute hyperactive blur based on the 1960s Japanese anime series, directed by the Wachowskis (of Matrix fame and, now, Cloud Atlas infamy) the film never recouped its $120 million budget. It was no critical darling either. Anthony Lane at The New Yorker clucked that Speed Racer "was of no conceivable interest to anyone over the age of ten," while NOW's Norman Wilner was more generous, comparing the film to "having someone vomit a bellyful of Skittles at you for two and a quarter hours." So getting people to watch it again might be tricky.
But Peter Kuplowsky relishes the hard sell. An assistant at TIFF Nexus, Kuplowsky will be introducing Speed Racer tomorrow at TIFF Bell Lightbox tomorrow, where the secretly subversive flop has been snuck into the afternoon Comic Book Heroes program, Trojan-horse style. Because we here at NOW-or at least me, here at NOW-also regard Speed Racer as widely misunderstood (or at least enormously enjoyable, precisely for all its go-go-go aesthetic restlessness), we asked Kuplowsky to give us a quick defence of the Wachowskis' movie. Whether or not you skip work to see it is your call.
Were you directly responsible for getting Speed Racer placed in the Comic Book Heroes program?
Not at all. It was actually just fortuitous that it was selected, because it was based on a manga. But the moment it was, I sent [TIFF Head of Film Programmes] Jesse Wente an e-mail about whether I could introduce the film, because I've slowly been becoming Toronto's resident Speed Racer fanatic. I always relish an opportunity to talk about the film. And to see the film on the big screen, because it kind of came and went when it was in theatres. Nobody really saw it.
Well, exactly. It's known as being this big commercial flop, and critical flop. What do you attribute that to?
I think it's telling that the movie came out the same year as The Dark Knight. Audiences were more interested in grittier fare. It's like a cacophony of pop art and colour, super-saturated. I think movies that are shot on green screen are notoriously expected to be vacuous and emotionless. People kind of just tuned it out. It really is an aggressive movie, visually. It's doing so much at once. But I think it's actually made with the headspace of a video game, or a comic book, in mind...One of the reasons I like introducing the movie is so I can level the playing ground and say, "This is a movie that's coming from a particular space, with a particular agenda, and it's not how normal movie works."
Even its origin in manga seems to be reflected in the film, where talking heads will often move across the screen, replicating the sense of your eye moving across a comic panel.
Not only are they recreating the compositions and the costumes and props of the comic and animated show, but they're reducing all the elements to graphic assets that can be reused and recycled. I think it yields some really interesting metaphors that dovetail nicely with the themes of the movie.
Speaking of, when Speed Racer came out some people bristled at a $120 million defense of mom-and-pop, DIY aesthetics distributed by a major motion picture studio. Is this a fair criticism?
It makes the film all the more subversive, especially because in the end it didn't make Warner Brothers any money. So it basically says that companies as large as Warner Brothers might need to reevaluate their relationship with the independents. There are a couple of lines in the film, where Speed says something to the effect of, "Winning's not important. But I need to do it if I want to keep racing." I think the Wachowskis understand this. What's important to them is to work on large canvases. They're torn between having to concede and spend all that money they need to make the ideas they want to make. But at the same time, they're not going to ignore the themes that interest them.
And I also think that all movies are guilty of this. Movies are inherently a capitalist industry. And so its automobile racing in the film. The film never ignores that. What it does is recognize that one has to take responsibility, and still be an ethical person. The company in the family isn't ethical, and the Speed Racer family is. Ultimately I do think this is a noble idea. Yeah, the movie could have opened like [Jean-Luc Godard's] Tout Va Bien and have the Wachowskis signing cheques, but it is a family film at the end of the day.