Saturday, May 17, 2014

Still Recommending SPEED RACER (2008)

Humans beings have been given a wonderful gift. I believe that this gift comes from a Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ; others disagree--that's their choice. But I think that regardless of our opinions of the source, we can all agree that the gift has been given to us. The gift is this: we humans get to do something that no other species gets to experience. We connect to art.

We experience catharsis, emotionally connecting with another person's creative work. They produce, but we feel. We react. We experience. It's a breathtaking privilege we have to do this.

Like most of our blessings, we take it for granted. We digest media like snacks; we think little of any particular bite and forget the event before we're done digesting what we ate. People spend two years of their lives creating a novel, five years of their lives creating a film, or ten years creating an album--they strive to put their vision to canvas or medium, and we give it a viewing and move forward. 

Sometimes we are charitable in our response; other times not so much.

And sometimes--not often but sometimes--the work speaks to us. Sometimes a piece of work strikes directly at our core and in ways that transcend our understanding. The work pierces us, deeply and profoundly. It affects us beyond our initial interaction with it; perhaps it haunts us or captures a moment in time.

And frankly the merits of the thing objectively do not matter in these circumstances. If you hear that right song, at the right moment, it can be ingrained into your emotional experience as being "right" regardless of its otherwise arguable artistic value. The melody is connected to you in a way that may defy—or in some cases subconsciously 'define'—your taste.
I know this to be true from my own experience. Examples of this in song include "By Heart" by Jim Brickman & Anne Cochran, "The First Time" by Surface, "Sitting up in my Room" by Brandy, and "Worlds Apart" by Jars of Clay. In literature, they include Chasing Shadows, The Hunger Games (Book 1, not the trilogy), JLA: A League of One, and moments from The Silver Chair. In film, my short list would include Confessions of a Superhero, Once, The Avengers, and Speed Racer, but in all categories I am sure there are many more.

And bringing up these items is good for us. Speaking about them is valuable. We need not “defend” them in the traditional sense arguing point-counterpoint with those who disagree with our assessment; we simply need to express why that piece affects us in the way it does--why that one pop song takes us back to the moment we saw our very first crush, why that film brings tears to our eyes because we saw it on the perfect summer evening when we needed escape, why that book transported us in a way we always heard books could do but had never experienced previously.

I write this having just watched Speed Racer again, likely for the seventh or so time since July of 2008 when I first caught the film at a dollar cinema after its lackluster theatrical run. The film was commended to me by podcasters whose opinions I trusted and who had steered me toward great films throughout their show's run. I had an experience unlike any other when seeing Speed Racer in the theatre. I connected deeply not so much with the character as his journey, his familial ties, his struggle against disillusionment. I relished the films vibrant wipe dissolves, bold coloring, and layered screenplay. As the film’s climax came to its harrowing crescendo—and in a very unconventional way—I cheered as much as the story's fictional crowd (well, perhaps not that much).

The point is that the film hit me specifically at the right moment, and it continues to do so. I have recently had the hardest week of work I’ve experienced in months. I rallied to manage and coordinate a project, only for it to result in others taking advantage. I poured myself into it, much to my exhaustion, yet in the end felt used. Fortunately, my management was encouraging despite this.

When I arrived home to our new rental condo on Friday, I just wanted to watch a film--a summer film--to get lost in story. We had our new couches delivered around 7PM, and following our late dinner, I determined to get our TV and blu-ray player out of the respective moving boxes in which they sat for 20 months and watch a film. As soon as I got it all prepared, I knew exactly what film I wanted to see in 46 inches of hi-definition.

Speed Racer.

My wife went to bed shortly after a failed attempt to get our cable working, but she encouraged me to stay awake and enjoy the flic, which I had not seen since early summer 2012 (she is a good wife). The opening logos, with their kaleidoscope effects, pulled me like a portal to a different, fantastical world. The film’s unapologetic surreal aesthetics captured my attention, and its unique editing rhythms kept my mind at work rebuilding the facts I had forgotten.  Of course all of this was secondary to the exemplary screenplay’s internal logic and heart-tugging beats, which enthralled me scene after scene. The first 12 minutes of this film had more story than most of the movies I’ve seen since Speed Racer’s theatrical release. Yet for all the pizzazz, color, and structure, the film’s strongest aspect to me on this viewing was its earnest characters and the sincere performances of the actors to make them so resonant. Though the time may have been 11:30 PM on a Friday after an exhausting week, I was enthralled in the plight of a young idealist all over again.

To my delight, the film lost none of its potency. I still shed a few tears at key scenes (several of them). I still got goosebumps time and time again. I still followed the kinetic races with fixed attention, and I still breathed sighs of relief at the lead character’s surviving close call after close call. I even smirked at the moment’s meant clearly for those under age 10.

I wonder if, in fact, that is the reason the film never caught audiences right. The film caters to the 10 and under audience members with its younger brother character, childhood flashbacks, bright palette, and fun names; but the script demands so much of the viewer to track and to piece together. Inasmuch as the characters (and some performances) are relatively functional for plot points and broad strokes for the benefit of younger viewers, they still carry with them a certain nuanced integrity—as though the actors are as wholly vested in the enterprise as the characters they play are invested in the fictional narrative. It’s perhaps too esoteric.

But again, no less resonant. As a thirty-something still trying to find my way onto a career path, Speed’s determination and integrity are as valuable to me as they ever have been. As the young Speed Racer laments his inability to change the corrupt world around him, his would-be mentor and ally, Racer X, reminds him, “It doesn’t matter if we can’t change racing. What matters is if we let racing change us.” What number of paradigms we face could also fit into that adage? Again, Speed speaks of his confusion, this time to his father, calling heroism “meaningless”, to which his dad responds, “I watched my son act with courage and do what he thought was best; I witnessed my son become a man. This is not meaningless”. 

And these are not small ideas. 

Not everyone will agree with me on Speed Racer, which is fine. My love of the film does not require them to do so. Yet I can’t help but feel that my experience with it is—in every sense—a gift. I feel deeply grateful that it caught me at the right time, that it struck the right chord, and that it still resonates with me today, albeit in some different ways. The very fact that I have the capacity to engage art this way fills with me gratitude, and art that reminds me how deeply that engagement runs stirs thanks anew.

That being said, I encourage you to jump into the comments section and tell me about a piece of art that’s hit you. A song. A book. A painting. A film. A drawing your child made you. A poem you read alone as a teen. Tell me why they matter. Commend me to seek them. I likely won’t have the same experience you do, but some level of carthartic release is worth pursuing. And who knows, maybe it will strike me as it did you, and our connection as people will increase as a result. That's an experiment worthy of our time.

As it’s well past 1:00 AM, and my love for Speed Racer has not changed, I thought I would republish my original thoughts on the film, also composed at a late hour, nearly six years ago.

The below article was originally published on Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008 at 1:09 am on

Movie Meview: Speed Racer: 
7 [out of 7]
(What in the World! How did this happen!)

By Christopher Stunkard

Yeah, Guys, I don’t know what to say. I loved Speed Racer. I really, really loved it. From the opening production logos through the end credits, Speed Racer is the very definition of on-screen kinetic energy. It’s a nice, family-friendly, for-the-kiddies, stylistic ride with all the heartfelt emotion of the beloved Berenstein Bears and the momentum of Nintnendo’s Mario Kart, all told through a wild lens akin to the worlds of Dr. Seuss himself. I know, it sounds like a nightmare. It sounds like a mess. For many, many viewers, I am sure that’s exactly what it is. For me, however, Speed Racer is a wonderful entertainment as well as a dynamic and fascinating exercise in filmmaking.

I will say this right now. I was completely on the fence about this flic; and I went in with incredibly low expectations. Once the credits began, however, I simply surrendered to it–I surrendered to its CGI world, its campy acting, its video-game-esque style, and I was rewarded heavily for taking the trip. You see, Speed Racer is just that type of film, a film that requires the audience to just accept the universe of the film on all foundations or completely dismiss it. For me, the acceptance took some getting used to; but once I was able to just say, “Okay, we have left planet earth, we are in some alternate reality”, I was able to enjoy the new world not unlike I did when watching Star Wars, Stardust, The Princess Bride, or other fantasy films which ask us to believe the unbelievable–and enjoy it.

And frankly, within this construct of believing the world, there is nothing wrong in the movie. As I accepted the terms and conditions the filmmakers set forth through the film’s set-up, wherein they essentially pull-out all the stops and just lay down the rules–I saw nothing wrong, misguided, or ineffective in the entire film. Within the world of Speed Racer campy dialogue works, gravity CAN be defied, and old ideals-–like family-first, fortunes-second–--just plain work. It all just coalesces here, in a way that exemplifies the synergy of film’s various parts. Acting, editing, directing, storytelling, structure–all of these elements come together in this film so perfectly that, while any single element may be off-putting or too “out there”, the total package created is magnificent and breathtaking. Of course, this is all again based on buying into it–those who choose to, are rewarded with one of the most visually stunning and vibrantly directed family films of all time; those who do not have to sit through a car wreck of a motion picture that will induce headaches, groans, and utter disdain. Neither choice is right or wrong, it’s all preferential; but I cannot deny that I found Speed Racer, in all its bombast and exuberant over-execution, to be a flawless cinematic experience–at least for me.

I am not getting into the story or anything else because I want people who read this to still go into the movie with a fresh and unspoiled view of what is set before them. My wish is that those who see the movie just allow themselves to get lost–much as a child does when he watches a cartoon–and just believe. The plot and story will fall into place (though both are complicated); but first one must accept the universe in which those events and thematic elements occur. For me, this all started with the opening logos for the companies involved. They are revealed through brightly-colored kaleidoscopes that move in hypnotic fashion, as if serving as portal to bring the audience into the new world. I went through the gate and allowed myself to be hypnotized, and I was rewarded for having done so. All that being said, I am giving Speed Racer a resounding 7 [my top rating at the time], and I cannot wait for the Special edition DVD to come out so I can escape to this film again and again! Go Speed Go!

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