The spectacle of adjacencies
Death Race and the perils of self-mythology (I think)
I’m speaking at FutureBook next month, as the keynote for INSIGHT day. INSIGHT and PUBLISHING are two of my favourite topics, and I’m pretty sure that we’re all doing them both wrong, so, you know, should be a good talk.
Anne and I had a conversation about The Office (American, not British, because the latter is awful). I mentioned wanting to rewatch it, and she responded something along the lines of, well, we just did.
I’m pretty sure ‘we’ hadn’t. But then she mentioned it was in the Dark Days, and suddenly that made sense.
The Dark Days were the first months of being a new parent. All my memories of that period have been totally lost into a vortex of anxiety and sleeplessness. I just sort of existed for a while. I drank coffee, fed a child, and sent email at strange hours. There’s a four? month period that’s, well, gone, except for the occasional hallucinogenic flashback, generally triggered by an AOC meme. (Amongst other things, I was convinced that she was my spirit animal. Again, Dark Days.)
The terrifying thing is that I was, by all accounts, doing a fairly reasonable impression of a functioning human being. Apparently I went to meetings? I think I won a pitch?! But, really, it was the endless night of the soul. On a related note, the UK needs better paternity leave.
Anyway - Anne, being Anne, kept herself awake and engaged by watching lots of prestige television. Me, being me, binged the entire Resident Evil series (twice). Explosions kept me awake.
One particularly addled ‘morning’, I had just finished re…re-watching the first three Death Race films, and was convinced that I understood them. Like, really understood them. No. Dude. I got them. It was my obligation - my sacred purpose to share my sleep-deprived, truly disturbing epiphany with the world.
Balancing the Iguanodon carefully in one arm, I fumblingly unlocked the ‘voice to text’ accessibility feature in Word. And, at some ungodly hour of the morning, after months of sleeplessness, I let the genius pour forth. I couldn’t (and still can’t) figure out punctuation or line breaks, but I wasn’t going to let the rules of human grammar prevent me from sharing my cosmic wisdom.
I’m not sure what happened next. I probably went to work.
Two years later. I found a file called ‘deathh race.docx’ [sic] in my Dropbox.
For sanity’s sake (yours - mine is clearly lost), I’ve gone back and added line breaks and, to the best of my ability, punctuation. I’ve left the rest of the transcription as it is, because a) I have no idea what I was trying to say, and b) it is quite funny.
Let’s talk about Death Race.
The first movie was a Roger Corman, and like most Roger, what a lot of fun - also being totally shit. It was ridiculous and it had a young Semester Stallone having a really - what - is hard to tell. He’s the worst.
Several years ago, that average franchise was rebooted in the capable bread hands of Paul WS Anderson. The first film definitely was decent - unintentionally. It is slightly over-sexualised, very fond of seconds, and sweaty good-byes, and features sticks. Paul WS Anderson is a director with a voice. It just so happens that the voice is generally shouted at the top of his lungs.
A dystopian society in which, despite being a very bad person, there’s a goodish death rate. The future prison system has been privatised and is now a profitable part of the entertainment industry, in the future. Unemployment is high, the state is brutal, and the services of prisoners racing fast cars and shooting one another with very large guns not only keeps the population alive, but also makes the corporations a great deal of money.
Jason Stevens is convicted, engineered by the prison warden/showrunner, who is an Astro, to take up the mantle of Frankenstein - Death Race’s most popular figure. Frankenstein has won four races. The rules of Death Race are that if you win five you go free. Stefan is given the choice: racing Frank’s last race and going free, or serving his time and die against his better judgement.
Jason Steven of course joins Frankenstein’s team as the driver and over the course of minutes, he really, really quickly shoots a lot of people. He engineers a lot of very impressive explosions. Despite the setting in a maximum security prison the film also manages to engineer a lot of scantily clad young - because of course - because the spectacle of adjacencies. He wears ridiculous mask racing a fast car, and explaining things isn’t quite enough. There’s a quasi heroic core in which he also finds bloody retribution for his wife’s murder and something something something something something corrupt system something something despite being absolutely terrible Death Race the room has somehow become one of my Bluetooth.
[Editor’s note: ‘something something something’ appears a few times in this ‘review’. Apparently I had high hopes of filling out the gaps later.]
When I’m bored, when I’m tired, when I’m indecisive, I - like everyone else - have a small shelf of a half dozen films that I revisit over and over again. Cinematic wallpaper, predictable, silly rabbit rumours. There’s nothing progressive or particularly quality about them, but these are the films that allow me to turn off my brain and escape. And isn’t that escapism of the type of the highest order?
There are also two sequels - Death Race Two – Death Face Three: Inferno. Although Anderson stayed on to rent, he does not direct Witches Death Two. The interesting thing about the world of death, is that is Anderson building, in accordance with the premise, something that can be run over and over and over again. As the film itself explains there is something incredibly compelling about fast cars, scantily clad women, and explosions. This is what Death Race is about, but also what Death Race Two somehow avoids.
The first - Two is a prequel. It features glass stepping over an adjacent state. Glass is also a criminal, but not a bad one and something something something framed something something something corrupt system. After things get gladiatorial he gets involved in the Death Race, which in this movie is being created for the first time, and dons the mantle of Frankenstein so that no one can see his face. This has nothing to do with his background, which has something to do with champagne, who - spoilers! - dies.
Death Race Two basically exists to explain Frankenstein the driving persona. It sets out the back story to Death Race perfectly. It builds the team, explains the car, explains the Frankenstein personality; even gives a brief working story for the villain of first film. It goes through the rules. He even goes through the thought process of creating the death race. The thing is, no one cares, no one will ever care.
Death Race as Death Race is not about complex storytelling. It is the ultimate bread, is the ultimate circus, is highly motivated individuals creating explosions generally surrounded by scantily clad young cynicism. This is Paul WS Anderson’s strength - is media about media, simultaneously condemning the viewer for enjoying the movie while also providing Death Race. Death Race is about death races is period is extreme is deliberately lowest common denominator. It’ll tell you how awful you are for enjoying it; that’s pretty fascinating.
So why Death Race Two taking the wrong road? And we haven’t even spoken about Death Race Three which suffered, by boxing itself in between the first brick wall and the start of Death Race. Continuing to answer, in fine detail, questions that no one wanted to ask.
Because that’s the thing: it is about the seedy underbelly of entertainment - whereabouts the NFL or Hollywood - it is about the things that happen in order for us to be entertained and about how we don’t really want to know how the sausages made because God forbid. That is a less grandstanding out for Death Race Two, by existing to only explain Death Race and Death Race Three existing only to explain Death Race Two. Ever diminishing returns - what percentage of people saw the phrase entire.
Boy I really like a few of these portals.
This sort of incremental self-mythology is being a series. On one hand there is the desire to please that football percent: the 10% who buy the T-shirts with black holes. who really, really, really care. On the other hand, by positioning itself for the 10% of it excludes the 90%.
There’s really no reason to start the series with Jefferies to work at Westbury - exclusive focus on trivia that’s ultimately written before about the parallels between fandom extreme. It is about what Russell Coles’ [Editor’s note: Russell Hardin. No idea who Russell Coles is?] crippled epistemology. The sense of knowledge becoming ever more confined and ever more isolated within a group of people. Applying man to the Death Race series is overkill; all sequels fail - even the self-contained. What is the balance between building and growing that mythology, and also welcoming new entrants? Ensure that knowledge remains for all. The Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t even - as the Marvel comic books somehow follow; unreasonable in their freezing insularity.
In advertising, when the trend is to make ‘behind-the-scenes films’, falls into the trap of becoming self-referential. We mistake a brand character for an actual character, or a resilient proposition for a series. Some of this also comes from the way we test - as familiarity and awareness build over time, but, ultimately, brands can forget themselves and focus more on the success of the creative property than the success of the product behind them.
So this isn’t perfect, but the other option is apologising. Of course, who cares with all this?
That reads like the Unabomber on Letterboxd. But somewhere in there, terrifyingly, I can recognise tiny bits of myself. Like a cheap AI of me, drawing connections between the narcissism of advertising to the decline of comics.
I also think - and this is some frantic rationalising - there’s something of a good point in here?
Death Race (the series) is at its prurient best when it is a conversation with the viewer about their own sick need for prurient entertainment. The sequels eschew that (tenuous) theme in favour of increasingly deep cuts into the Death Race ‘world’. A bit like Zeno’s paradox, the sequels slice thinner and thinner until they’re exploring single moments within the first movie. This approach not only inflates (wrongly) the importance of the first film, but also it prevents the story from ever moving forward. Distraction, but not progress. It is - ready? - a spectacle of adjacencies.
The lesson of the Death Race trilogy - is, therefore, maybe, not to caught up in self-mythologising. It is alienating, it is unwelcoming, and, perhaps most importantly, it distances us from what made the story great to begin with.
At least, that’s what I think I wanted to say?
To be totally transparent, I think it is a cool phrase, and I wanted to reclaim it. FutureBook is in good hands. Bread hands.