Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Cars that Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974)

Peter Weir's first feature, following several short films for Australian public television, is a fine example of three of my favorite kinds of movies: a simmering, slow burn of dread and unease in the 1970s leavened by moments of dark humor and silliness; a general category I like to call "Australian weirdness" (hard to define, but you know it when you see it); and those movies where an entire small town is up to something sinister and odd. Weir made several good movies in Hollywood, but if you're a depraved weirdo like me (if you're reading this, you probably are), you prefer his Australian films. They're stranger, scarier, and have a lot more indefinable atmosphere.
The Cars that Ate Paris opens with a red herring pre-credit sequence that has little to do with the rest of the film but everything to do with its tone. It captures the film's darkness, humor, wild twists and turns, and fascination with/fear of the automobile. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it. The credits roll with brothers Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and George Waldo (Rick Scully) driving their caravan (camper to us Americans) through small towns in the outback looking for work. Turning toward the little town of Paris after seeing a sign promising work, the brothers get in a nasty car accident seemingly orchestrated by Paris residents. George dies in the wreck, but Arthur survives with minor injuries.
After recovering, Arthur undergoes some brainwashing and intimidation tactics meant to keep him in Paris permanently. This is a relatively simple task, because Arthur is a very gentle, passive, easily led guy, the total opposite of actor Camilleri's most famous role, Napoleon in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Paris is sort of like the Hotel California (Arthur makes repeated attempts to head out of town after being told he could leave, only to be thwarted each time). How it's different from the Hotel California is that almost no one checks in.
The people in the town of Paris, an isolated, economically battered little burg, have a scam to make ends meet. The roads leading into town have been armed with traps, causing cars to plunge into the hillside. These accidents are almost always fatal, though the town hospital is full of survivors who fall into three categories: "full, half, and quarter veggie." Arthur is one of the only outsiders to join the town as a functioning citizen. The deliberate wrecks are then picked clean for whatever the townspeople can salvage, including scrap metal, money, and possessions.
Though the town survives through murder, mayhem, and theft, the majority of the residents present a polite, civilized veneer of normally functioning society, with the benevolent dictatorship of The Mayor (John Meillon) a darkly funny parody of civic engagement, faux-democracy, and political blowhardism, his speeches a semi-coherent mishmash of half-remembered quotes from famous world leaders, small-town folksiness, and nationalistic rabble-rousing. With The Cars that Ate Paris, Meillon was in three of the best Australian films of the '70s, the other two being Wake in Fright and Walkabout. He was also in the first two Crocodile Dundee movies. (I have to briefly digress and include one of the most unintentionally funny bits of IMDB trivia, from Meillon's page: "He pronounced his surname as Mee-Lon, although the misguided public pronounced it Mell-Yun." Damn you, misguided public!)
A dangerous young subculture is thriving in Paris, making The Mayor nervous and challenging his power. A group of young men who dress like they're in a western movie salvage some of the wrecked cars and turn them into souped-up demolition-derby art-car killing machines, leaving them parked wherever they want, raising hell, and intimidating anyone who gets in their way. The Mayor, who has taken Arthur under his wing (there are some great scenes between Arthur and The Mayor's wife Beth (Melissa Jaffer)), establishes Arthur as a parking inspector in a feeble attempt to get the fearsome cars out of the way. When this plan fails, The Mayor and the town policeman make an example of one of the car gang, setting up a showdown between the competing Paris factions that comes to a head on the night of the town's totally bonkers costume ball.
Because of the insanely dark times we're currently living in, I couldn't help but see certain parallels to the United States of today in The Cars that Ate Paris. The U.S. as a sick, isolated country whose citizens can't leave its borders, afraid and resentful of outsiders yet willing to sacrifice and exploit them. The Mayor and the town's old guard as Reagan Republicans, killing and stealing from the vulnerable while covering it all in politeness, folksiness, and the appearance of a functioning society. The young car gang as Trump Republicans, smashing up and destroying everything as a show of power for its own sake, owning the town taking the place of owning the libs, just as bloodthirsty as the old order but turning that bloodthirstiness into an open, brazen virtue. Just as Reaganism led to Trumpism, The Mayor and his cronies paved the way for the gang of car nuts destroying the town, whether they like it or not.
OK, back to the movie. Weir's film is full of memorable images, great scenes, and a skillful amplification of tension, with lots of darkly funny gags and unpredictable moments. George Miller paid tribute to Weir's film in his Mad Max movies by borrowing the spiked design of the most memorable car and casting Bruce Spence, who plays the mentally disturbed young man Charlie in this film. There's something about the landscapes of rural Australia in the '70s and '80s that make them a perfect location for tales of dread, isolation, horror, mysticism, and madness.
Weir followed up The Cars that Ate Paris with his masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock, a memorably eerie story of schoolgirls who mysteriously disappeared on a school trip to the rock formation. That film builds on The Cars that Ate Paris's affinity for landscape and atmosphere, and though it's not as wonderfully berserk, its chilling unease stayed with me longer. His Australian period continued with supernatural Aboriginal murder mystery The Last Wave, horror film for Australian television The Plumber, and war movie Gallipoli. He transitioned to his Hollywood career with an Australian/American coproduction, The Year of Living Dangerously, an offbeat political thriller/romance/action hybrid starring Sigourney Weaver, Mel Gibson, and Linda Hunt playing a man. He was less prolific in Hollywood, but his films here include Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Green Card, Fearless, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and the immensely popular but cloyingly sentimental Dead Poets Society. If you have a teacher who loves that movie, run away. Weir hasn't directed a film since 2010's The Way Back. I hope he's happily enjoying retirement and not frustratedly attempting to get another film made in a Hollywood culture uninterested in anything that's not a superhero or Star Wars movie, because, Dead Poets Society aside, Weir makes good stuff.

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