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The Cars that Ate Paris plays like a compromise, as if the maker of anti-commercial art films were consciously trying to be more commercial. As a result, it comes out a rather uneven mix. Weir's original story imagines a rural Australian hamlet where the citizens have turned to organized piracy. They prey on the infrequent motorists who wander their way in the same way that pirate 'wreckers' once lured ships to their doom. In his simple story a surviving victim, instead of being murdered or rendered a vegetable by the town's resident mad doctor, is nominated to become a new citizen of Paris. It seems the old establishment is looking for aid against their own adult children, vicious hot-rodders that cause nothing but trouble.
There's plenty of blood and even a glimpse of a headless corpse, but the film is short on thrills or suspense. It's really a rather lukewarm black comedy that wants to make art-film observations about society in general.
In his new interview, Weir discusses the making of the film but also hints that it was inspired by the Vietnam war era generation gap, loosely defined as a process of rebellion where youth reject the values of their elders. The masters of Paris behave like upstanding citizens, but behind their righteousness is a blind acceptance of corruption, crime and evil. In this case, the next generation has responded to the moral vacuum by becoming valueless hooligans. After one of their cars is torched as a lesson (conservatives always want to teach contrarians 'lessons') their only aim is to give their elders as much grief as possible.
The Cars that Ate Paris yields a constant flow of 'young filmmaker' inspiration. It begins like a television commercial replete with consumer product placements, to show an affluent but unlucky young couple's country drive. The township of Paris lives by 'recycling' automobiles and whatever of value can be found on the people who drive them. Their only industry is a zombie-like ritual of stripping cars and sorting out clothing and jewelry. It's a primitive state of affairs. The kids have turned the local God - cars - into their Gods as well, painting and decorating them with bizarre ornamentation. The oft-reprinted Volkswagen covered with spikes is an unlikely terror machine that comes into play at the end. 1
Ultimately, it's all an academic exercize. Paris is an interesting but not particularly amusing dystopia, where people play charades on party nights. We hear familiar music at one point for a Sergio Leone takeoff at one point. Newly appointed parking manager Arthur Waldo faces off with the thugs on main street, as if he's a sad-sack Clint Eastwood against the bad guys. Weir gets his black comedy tone right (a difficult and often unrewarding effort) but we're still hurting for more interesting characters. Waldo is a completely vacant hero; we don't care what happens to him. The Mayor therefore becomes more central, but he's an establishment goon from the start and also doesn't develop. He's played by John Meillon, an Australian actor who seems to be in practically every Australian movie from the 50s on that reached screens in America. Nobody else makes much of an impact except for Bruce Spence (the Airmaster from The Road Warrior), a loony who goes too far in the killing department.
In fact, The Cars that Ate Paris would seem to be the first step in the evolution toward the Mad Max movies. To survive, abandoned outback (?) communities are turning to covert savagery. The disenchanted are making totems of the cultural currency, automobiles, and starting to dress strangely. The ending shows Paris turning in on itself, with the irresponsible hooligans doing mankind a service by destroying their own homes. The guilty citizens of Paris scatter like refugees from Sodom and Gomorrah. The breakdown of society has begun.
HVe's DVD of The Cars that Ate Paris looks great, with a fine transfer of perfect elements. In the accompanying interview, Weir explains that the initial American release was a recut abomination, but that he was later able to purchase the film back and make his original cut the official one once more.
Added as an extra for Cars, this superb little 1979 tale from Australian television is of equal or greater value. With only a few claustrophobic settings, Peter Weir shows himself to be a master of subtle menace. The Plumber plays off the conventions of a horror film without having any horror content - the slightly unbalanced tradesman that invades the Cowper household and subtly terrorizes graduate student Jill never physically threatens her. Instead, he does what's come to be known as 'invading one's space'. Immediately assuming rights he shouldn't, he takes over Jill's apartment and begins to dominate her physically and mentally. Not knowing how to react, poor Jill is immediately swamped by Max's subtle and not-so-subtle impositions. His behavior is outrageous. He tears up the bathroom with no consideration and spends most of his time getting personal with his client/victim against her will. There's an undisguised assumption of sexual domination as he puts her off balance with talk of prison and rape. He feels free to go through her personal belongings and enter and leave when he wants.
Jill's problem is that Max comes off as an okay guy when he wants to; even her own husband refuses to take seriously her feelings of being threatened. The movie is a great example of how the meek are victimized by the aggressive. 2
Weir complicates the stew with predictable observations on anthropology and class. Jill studies other cultures and graduated from a 'posh' University. Max becomes borderline-hostile at the thought that he's an uneducated person considered of a lower class than teh Cowpers; he sings imitation Bob Dylan protest songs with lyrics that seem personally directed at Jill. The only forced irony is that Jill, a sensitive person struggling to understand a primitive New Guinea culture, can't communicate with another Australian on a one-to-one basis. Once again, modern society's sophistication is useless in a practical situation.
On the other hand, when Jill retaliates against Max with his own sensitivity to class distinctions, she's really using the only weapon she has. She corrects his bad grammar in front of another woman, striking a devastating blow to his ego. Later, when he's managed to wreck her plumbing so badly that they'll have to be 'together' for weeks and weeks, it's too much for Jill. (No spoilers here)
The Plumber makes us realize how other horror films miss the boat when it comes to menace. Max is unsettling and scary because he can't be controlled. He's the casual bully who infuriates by turning our own civility against us. The subtle terror goes beyond Val Lewton's uncertainties ... it's the kind of unease we get whenever we surrender our psychological independence, knowing the other person has gained the upper hand. The thriller Die! Die! My Darling! is fascinating in the early stretches, while its heroine is grudgingly allowing herself to be manipulated and dominated by a personality she doesn't realize is insane. When the story turns to overt physical violence, with the heroine imprisoned and guns being waved about, it reverts to an ordinary and mechanical thriller. The Plumber sticks to the real menace we can all relate to. Its ending and the chemistry of its characters make great conversation topics.
HVe gives The Plumber equal status on the The Cars that Ate Paris disc. The transfer is excellent (does Weir own this one now too?) and brings the 16mm source material to us in a handsome enhanced format. I saw this first on public television, and it looks much better now, cropped to 1:78.
Weir's informal and confessorial interview is just as revealing as the one for the main feature. I happened to like The Plumber much more than the other show. It's a top horror film in the 'psycho' subgenre, even though it technically has no horror content. It's one of Peter Weir's best.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Cars That Ate Paris rates:
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Plumber rates:
1. I've always thought
America's true religion was cars; people spend more money and attention on them than they do their own
children. The biggest realization I had when I walked my small kids around in strollers was that they
were totally defenseless on the sidewalk, while tons of steel were roaring by only a few feet away on
the road. Society cares about these metal monsters more than humans. There's a bit of this feeling
in The Cars that Ate Paris.
2. Is Max clinically passive-agressive? The 'little men' who strike out
at women in horror films are often presented a meek types (Norman Bates) until they reach for the
meat cleavers. In Psycho, it's really Marion Crane who dominates Norman. In reality, I think
the real threatening men are polite types who resort to petty domination to express hidden
aggression. I've seen fewer women like that, but they exist, even if their style uses formal manners
instead of physical intimidation.