Good Art, Bad Movie

The Cars That Ate Paris

A friend once said to me that the film version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved was good art and a bad movie, and that quip has stuck with me ever since. Some works fail fundamentally — in performance, production design, direction, pacing, tone, story — but have enough interesting things going on that they’re compelling in spite of themselves.

Peter Weir’s debut, The Cars That Ate Paris, is a wonderful example. The 1974 movie is aggressively odd — think an amalgam of the backward backwater of Deliverance, the post-industrial survivalist setting of The Road Warrior, and the insular, creepy community full of surface cheer that Weir employed wonderfully a quarter-century later in The Truman Show.

The town of Paris is essentially a contemporary Siren. The little city lures travelers with signs suggesting hospitality and then traps them by causing car wrecks and, it seems, subsisting primarily by salvaging parts, clothes, and money from the “accidents.” Survivors are lobotomized and used for medical experiments whose nature is never revealed.

Crash survivor Arthur, for reasons that are never explained, is allowed to remain whole and join the community; he’s basically adopted by the town’s mayor. The Paris doctor performs a series of mental tests on Arthur, and when he’s shown a picture of the aftermath of a car crash, he labels it a “wreck.” The doctor gently corrects him: “accident,” because for the people of Paris, the mangled automobiles provide many treasures.

Weir, who directed and wrote the screenplay of Cars (two other people collaborated on the story), arrived on the scene with his themes already well-developed, and you can view Cars as a crude draft of The Last Wave: An outsider enters a community whose customs are utterly foreign and seemingly dangerous.

As a director, though, Weir is still rough. The tone of Cars is all over the place, starting with a satiric prologue heavy with cheesy music and product placement before getting anywhere close to his story. The opening is a Metaphor Alert — Paris’ dependence on and love of automobiles represents our materialistic, status-conscious society — but it’s badly done and incongruous with the rest of the movie. (The film’s title is another fairly obvious hint that the movie is meant as an anti-materialistic tract; the automobile has figuratively consumed the town.)

Weir also seems unsteady with his storytelling. The proportion of the movie’s setup to its plot is grossly skewed toward the former — generously, the last half-hour of the film is its story — and the characters barely register. The pacing is erratic, and although the movie is never dull, the interest it generates is more of the “What the fuck?” variety than from any investment in how the narrative resolves itself.

But as with the cars the townspeople salvage, there’s some gold to be found in the wreckage — if you have the constitution to make through the rest.

While many uninteresting things are happening in the foreground of The Cars That Ate Paris, the town’s young people lurk in the margins, barely seen. They’re armed and speed by in souped-up roadsters &mdash cars decorated with lethal-looking spikes. The youth don’t seem to participate in the main business of the town. The elders appear to fear them, but nobody acknowledges that the kids of Paris have been poisoned by the town’s aggressive survival tactics, and they’ve turned into ruthless monsters. The adults might do revolting, evil things in the name of staying alive, but there’s a code of conduct; the kids don’t play by any rules, and that sets the stage for the movie’s climax.

Cars is a product of the late stages of the Vietnam conflict, and a reading of the film in that context seems reasonable and right. In retrospect, one could claim that Weir is something of a visionary, seeing the effects of a culture of pointless bloodshed before they manifested themselves in school shootings, children desensitized to violence, and the like. (Paris’ insularity and isolation speed the moral degeneration along.)

It’s a chilling message, delivered with a subtlety that’s uncharacteristic of the movie. The Cars That Ate Paris might not be any good, but it has something worthwhile to say, and it does so in a spectacularly idiosyncratic way.

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