Blue Underground // 1979 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // January 4th, 2005
"These machines were so extreme, so wild, and so outrageous, especially these funny cars -- you can see the way they bounce around -- that I couldn't resist them...It was very attractive and very seductive." -- David Cronenberg
Lonnie "Lucky Man" Johnson (William Smith) is the last of the great knights of the top-fuel drag circuit. Some think Lonnie is a has-been, reduced to touring cowtown racetracks, slaving away for his FastCo corporate masters and their smarmy agent, Phil Adamson (John Saxon). Suffering humiliation and defeat, Lonnie is stripped of his dragster and forced to drive a funny car. Then, he can only watch helplessly as Phil sells out his team and his protégé (Nicholas Campbell) for the next big thing, rival driver Gary Black (Cedric Smith). Can Lonnie make a comeback without a corporate sponsor -- or even a car?
It is rare for a DVD review to begin with the extras, when by their very nature they are meant to supplement the main feature. But I suppose a non-linear approach would be standard stuff for fans of director David Cronenberg. Cronenberg films, at their most inventive, undermine their surface linearity and play instead with the feedback among signifiers within the film itself -- and across boundaries to other Cronenberg films. For example, to describe the plot of Naked Lunch says little about the interplay of images like the typewriter that transforms into an insect (or is it vice versa?) with the exploitation of the mugwumps with Bill Lee's own position as a low-wage worker (a social insect, if you will) who poisons himself by ingesting bug toxins. Then connect this human/insect network with Seth Brundle's "insect politics" and Spider Cleg's web making -- and beyond even to Kafka's portrait of the artist as a young cockroach in "The Metamorphosis." David Cronenberg's films appear to be well formed, like the hand-waxed surface of your favorite old car. But under the hood...
In any case, all this is just an excuse to begin with the second disc of Blue Underground's necessary edition of Cronenberg's forgotten feature, Fast Company. In part, I want to begin here for historical reasons. Fast Company not only fills in a crucial gap in Cronenberg's body of work, but this two-disc set also includes Cronenberg's rarely seen experimental art films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, his first features made a decade earlier. Yes, you heard it right. You get three features for the price of one.
Stereo (1969) takes the form of a documentary (shot silent with a voiceover narrator), an educational film about surgically engineered telepaths wandering around an imposing modernist building. The title suggests both modern technology, but also the feedback networks created in binary -- and even more complex -- encounters among the disintegrated personalities. In characteristic fashion, Cronenberg structures the film (and I use the word structure loosely) as a feedback system subject to chaos. Scenes collect at random, building through chance and often cryptic encounters into a complex picture of events -- much like the separate tracks of a stereo recording create the impression of three-dimensional space.
The film is self-consciously artsy and becomes a little trying at 63 minutes. Some of Cronenberg's early cinematic motifs are already in place here: the fragmented body (note the pictures of eyes and ears), the collapse of language (lack of dialogue, pseudoscientific gibberish), the camera as voyeur (documentary style, the use of video monitors to distance us from the action), science merging with the erotic, the unconscious as virtual space, drug use...
Crimes of the Future (1970) is a riskier, more disturbing film. Ronald Mlodzik (one of the psychics in Stereo) stars as Adrian Tripod, scientific director of the House of Skin. Tripod investigates a "neo-venereal disease" that causes victims to secrete a weirdly sensual liquid, joins up with some radical podiatrists, then begins a series of experiments to impregnate a kidnapped child for a finale with some disturbing undertones of pedophilia. Throw in some conspiracies, corporate and government control of science, and bodily transformations, and it all adds up to -- what? It is deliberately unclear what the "crimes" of the title refer to here. The quasi-plot of the film traces Tripod's medical career in order to satirize the fragmentation of modern medicine into increasingly obscure, perhaps paranoid, disciplines to the point where pathology and perversity become the norm. Are these rogue sciences crimes against nature? Or are the deviant bodies they quantify the transgressions that science seeks to contain? How can the body, the flesh, be unnatural?
The deconstructions of Stereo and Crimes of the Future are fascinating, in an unpolished way, and they are critical viewing for Cronenberg fans who want to understand at least part of the Canadian auteur's obsessions. But they are only half the story.
When you hear the name David Cronenberg, you think body horror. Films about disease, cyborgs, minds and bodies reshaping themselves. When I wrote the chapter on Cronenberg's films in my book Future Present, I referred at one point or another to all his commercially released feature films, beginning with Shivers -- except one. Even scholars of Cronenberg's work (like yours truly) find Fast Company a puzzle. Never mind that it has been nearly impossible to find since its original 1979 release, but even those who have managed to see it are not quite sure it, well, counts as a "Cronenberg movie." No horror. No mutations. No weird science. It is about drag racing. And not the kind of drag in M. Butterfly, either. Manly, beer-drinking, gristle-chewing, oil-changing drag racing.
In the late 1970s, a bizarre loophole in the Canadian tax system created a huge market for investment in low-budget movies. Send a little money; write off the expected (larger) returns. After establishing a reputation as a profitable horror director with Shivers and Rabid, David Cronenberg was offered a fairly mainstream script about drag racing. Standard exploitation stuff.
Cronenberg took the project, and the result is a pretty straightforward little film to all appearances. Noble men and their smoky steeds battle backstabbing corporate villains. This is a western with wheels, peppered with exploitation touches that Cronenberg seems a little uncomfortable with: lowbrow sexual titillation, hick comedy, rock and roll music (listen for the omnipresent theme song by Bob Seger wannabe Michael Stanley). In anybody else's hands, this would be a trifle. From its cliché "cowboy makes one last stand" plot to its Speed Racer ending (traps on the racetrack! funny car versus airplane!), Fast Company looks like forgettable stuff.
Look again. Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin (who would stick together through The Fly) give the racing scenes a dusty documentary feel. Engine noises overwhelm the dialogue. The camera lingers over the cars as if Vaughan from Crash is directing the action. There is more sexual charge to the images of gnarled hands assembling auto parts, the long shots of vibrating, belching engines, and the borderline fetish gear stylings of the drivers' costumes than from all the bare breasts and skimpy female costuming that the audience in 1979 would have come to their local drive-in to see.
In this light, the Cronenberg touch begins to loom over the film, and we can see Fast Company as another collection of characteristic metaphors. Lonnie has become engulfed by technology in the hands of authoritarian control (namely, the imperious FastCo oil company). He watches ordinary people try to free themselves by entering their self-modified cars in races at the tracks he visits, but he owns nothing himself. Nearly every dramatic situation in the film takes place in or around some type of vehicle, as if human interaction -- the human body itself (ironically de-eroticized by the spectacle of objectified women used to advertise FastCo's power) -- has been technologized. Phil and Lonnie have conversations in a sedan that Phil calls his "office." Lonnie makes his home in a semi-trailer covered in corporate logos. His body is covered in them too.
In the end, Lonnie steals "his" car from the company and enters it in a race without corporate sponsorship. He has not rejected control by technology. Instead, he has appropriated the technology and transformed himself, consistent with so many other Cronenberg protagonists. And like so many other Cronenberg protagonists, the triumph is problematic. After all, where do you go on the racing circuit without a corporate sponsor to pay your way?
Thus, Fast Company, trifling little exploitation movie that it is, fits in quite comfortably with David Cronenberg's body of work. Cronenberg himself does not consider the film an anomaly, but is in fact quite fond of it. He reveals on a surprisingly personal commentary track on this Blue Underground edition that the film reflects his own interests (he describes himself as a "car freak") more than many of his more recognizably "Cronenberg-esque" films. He discusses his enthusiastic approach to what was meant as a throwaway project, as he tried to be faithful to the culture and technology of the drag racing scene. And he still seems a little disappointed that nobody outside Canada got to see the film during its original release, due to the bankruptcy of its American distributor.
Given its rarity, Blue Underground has done a marvelous job presenting this film. Fast Company is in shockingly fine shape considering its obscurity, with solid color balance and minimal wear. And four audio mixes are included, including DTS and 5.1 EX.
Blue Underground also includes meaty interviews with Mark Irwin, who covers all his collaborations with Cronenberg but dismisses Fast Company as a "market movie," and veteran tough-guy actors William Smith and John Saxon, who are friendly and gregarious but have little to say about the film itself (although Saxon expresses admiration for Cronenberg's subsequent work). The fact that none of the interview subjects rank Fast Company very highly in Cronenberg's oeuvre is quite telling. This is a film that is not likely to interest anybody other than David Cronenberg fans, as it amounts to little more than a race-car western with some idiosyncratic touches. And the two early experiments, Stereo and Crimes of the Future are esoteric even by Cronenberg standards.
But there is something about Fast Company that lingers. Maybe it is the sense of familiarity, as if this is something we have seen before, only slightly distorted through an odd lens. Maybe it is the sense that its fetishistic approach to auto racing is uncomfortably like the current NASCAR craze. Maybe it is the knowledge that Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings, who costars here as love interest Sammy, died the year after the film in a car crash. Welcome to David Cronenberg's world...
Fast Company can be seen as a bridge from the disparate strains of Cronenberg's early experimental filmmaking (the second disc in this set) and his rough attempts at B-movie shocks (Shivers, Rabid) to the fusion of his personal obsessions and visceral horror that would mark his most critically productive work. The Brood, which would immediately follow Fast Company, was his artistic breakthrough.
By itself, the film does not amount to much more than an entertaining diversion, outside of its position in the big Cronenberg picture. But Blue Underground's presentation packs more power than Lonnie's quadra-vane blower: four audio mixes, commentary track, two additional feature films on a second disc. Yes, Fast Company is available in a single disc edition, but you are better off getting the two-disc limited edition set for maximum burn. Blue Underground has made a Criterion-caliber package out of Fast Company, and even casual Cronenberg fans will want to pick this one up.
Blue Underground crosses the finish line with time to spare, leaving the competition eating dust. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2005 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Additional Feature: Stereo (1969)
* Additional Feature: Crimes of the Future (1970)
* Audio Commentary by Director David Cronenberg
* Interview with Actors William Smith and John Saxon
* Interview with Cinematographer Mark Irwin
* David Cronenberg Biography
* Claudia Jennings Biography
* Photo Galleries
* Theatrical Trailer
* IMDb: Fast Company
* IMDb: Stereo
* IMDb: Crimes of the Future