Saturday, March 29, 2008

Road Rage

While we eagerly wait for news via Owl Post from The House Next Door regarding my recent submission on the films of Peter Weir, I finally had the opportunity to view the only one of Weir's films (incidentally his first) that I hadn't seen prior to writing the aforementioned piece. The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), an oddball horror-comedy about a small-town in Australia (the Paris of the title) whose denizens purposely cause car accidents and use the parts as economic stimulus, fully embodies the timeless Lottery/Wicker Man/Hot Fuzz genre of friendly rustics performing hideous acts of violence. Following a brief prologue, where an affluent young couple depart a roadside shop (the music swells happily and a man waves and smiles as they drive away) only to have a wheel fall off with tragic consequences, Cars introduces its main character, a meek-mannered young man named Arthur (Terry Camilleri) who survives another accident that kills his brother and is grudgingly accepted into the community.

The Cars That Ate Paris is a supremely silly movie, with abrupt tonal shifts, amateur-hour acting (the veteran John Meillon, as the town mayor, gives the savviest performance), and apparent switches in film stock. (If it hasn't aired on Mystery Science Theater, it should.) The fascination of the film lies in hindsight. There are foreshadowings of George Miller's Mad Max movies in the depiction of the destructive punk youths of the town and their monstrous hot-rods, one of which has sharp porcupine-like steel quills along its sides. (Bruce Spence, who would go on to appear in The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome -- and whose teeth were cast as the Mouth of Sauron in Lord of the Rings -- has a memorable bit part here as the obligatory village idiot.) As has been pointed out elsewhere, the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to Weir's The Truman Show, as the townies resort to scare tactics to prevent Arthur from leaving.

In an interview on the DVD, Weir reveals his roots in sketch comedy, which explains a lot about the improvisational subtext within the formalism of many of his movies as well as the unexpected bursts of humor in this one. (A confrontation between Arthur and some hostiles is staged and scored --out of nowhere -- like a spaghetti Western.) Weir's direction in Cars is all over the place, with some scenes elegantly framed (namely an automobile graveyard) and others that appear haphazardly constructed. Yet there's something charming about a now-accomplished filmmaker's unaccomplished first feature. A year later, Weir would take a quantum leap forward with Picnic at Hanging Rock; and unlike so many young auteurs today, who set the bar for themselves unaccountably high, his later works reaped the benefit of past mistakes.

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