Friday, August 17, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.5: David Cronenberg's Fast Company

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

Grade: 54 (C+)

Fast Company stands out as an anomaly in David Cronenberg’s filmography. It’s an early film of his that doesn’t feature his trademark body horror themes. It’s unusually warm for the usually chilly Canadian director. There’s some action and sex, but it’s not disturbing in the usual Cronenberg sense. It doesn’t feature the usual literary influences that most Cronenberg films do. It doesn’t feature the complex themes or characters of Cronenberg’s best work. Yes, Fast Company seems like a Cronenberg movie in name only upon first glance, one he took to support his family rather than a film he had to make. But while it doesn’t feature many of Cronenberg’s obsessions, it’s nonetheless an important, if unlikely, entry in Cronenberg’s filmography.

Lonnie “Lucky Man” Johnson (William Smith) is a famous drag racer with a loyal crew, but he isn’t without difficulties in his life. His girlfriend Sammy (Claudia Jennings in her final role before her death in an auto accident) barely sees him because he’s always on the road. He drinks constantly. He and his crew have a contentious relationship with another group of racers. And his penny-pinching manager Phil Adamson (B-movie legend John Saxon) sells his talents short as merely a vehicle (pardon the pun) to promote FastCo products.

That’s basically what stands for a story in this thing, but the story really isn’t important. It’s a movie about cool guys racing fast cars and scoring with good looking girls. It’s a fairly well-acted B-movie (Saxon is strong, as always), but that’s hardly the selling point. It’s overall probably Cronenberg’s least personal film, one that was brought to him rather than a film that came from his mind. But Cronenberg is hardly on autopilot here- the director is a big fan of racing and cars in general (something he put to more idiosyncratic use in Crash), and he shoots the ins-and-outs of the scene with great detail. This might not be Cronenberg’s baby, but he clearly had a lot to do with the re-writes of the script and the actual crafting of the film. The film shows Cronenberg growing as a craftsman- gone is the director whose awkward staging in Shivers occasionally hampered an otherwise fantastic movie. Cronenberg really goes all-out in the racing set-pieces, which would prove an important learning experience considering how central set-pieces would be to some of his later horror films. It doesn’t hurt that the film shows Cronenberg working with a number of his future regulars- cinematographer Mark Irwin, art director Carol Spier, sound editor Bryan Day, and editor Ronald Sanders. Clearly something clicked in the making of this film.

Why, then, is my grade so low? Part of it has to do with thematic material: one could see the hostile relationship between the racer and the manager as Cronenberg’s view of how certain directors in Hollywood have to work with producers, but it’s a fairly weak allegory if so. More to the point, though: I don’t like racing (car chases are a different matter). Quite frankly, I don’t like sports much at all, and find most sports movies focused on the actual sport rather dull. Yes, I know this is strictly personal, and it has very little to do with the actual quality of the film. But the enjoyment of this movie is based solely on whether or not you find cars going down a line or around a circle interesting, which I do not. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

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