Wednesday, January 24, 2007

VROOM! Forward... Into the Past!

What we have here, to the left, is a typically superior example of Italian poster art for a comparatively obscure Roger Corman film entitled THE YOUNG RACERS (1963). In Italy they called it "The Devils of the Grand Prix." It was filmed in Monte Carlo during Grand Prix season and starred Luana Anders, William Campbell, and Patrick Magee (all of whom would subsequently follow soundman Francis Coppola to Ireland to film DEMENTIA 13), as well as Mark Damon (who would pass up DEMENTIA 13 to make BLACK SABBATH with Mario Bava, and whose performance here was dubbed by William Shatner), Béatrice Altariba of EYES WITHOUT A FACE, and even the obscure actress who later played the mysterious Julia in Antonio Margheriti's CASTLE OF BLOOD, Margarete Robsahm. That's my idea of an outstanding cast.

No, THE YOUNG RACERS isn't due to arrive on DVD, more's the pity. I was motivated to write about it today because it happened to be on a VHS tape I pulled down from my attic to convert to DVD-R. I had assumed that the movie came from American Movie Classics' much-missed, pre-commercial "American Pop" days, but after popping it into my VCR, I discovered that it was actually something even more precious: a relic of Bruce Dern's days as the host of LOST DRIVE-IN, a weekly Saturday night procession of car-related movies that used to run on the Speedvision Channel. I immediately kicked myself for not realizing at the time what a precious gift to movie fans this program was; I should have taped it every week. I didn't, of course, not having a lot of interest in car movies, but I should have learned by then that the real reason to hit the "Record" button for LOST DRIVE-IN was Bruce Dern himself.

Taped in the waning daylight at some abandoned drive-in theater, Dern would sit in the front seat of an old-fashioned roadster or pad around the gravel while reminiscing about the old days of entertainment under the stars, and sometimes about the people in the films he was presenting, when he had memories of working with them. No attempt was made by the producers to glamorize him, and his comments didn't seem to be pre-scripted in any way -- all you got was the straight, undiluted juice from Bruce.

I can't swear to this, but I think all the LOST DRIVE-IN I managed to preserve on tape was THE YOUNG RACERS and a 1967 movie called HELL ON WHEELS, starring Marty Robbins and John Ashley. I had never heard of the latter movie before, but it captured that single summer of my youth when I was into car culture so well (and not in an entirely pleasant way) that I had to snag it when Speedvision re-ran the movie later that same evening. At least I had the good sense not to trim out the host footage. The IMDb tells me that LOST DRIVE-IN ran from 1996 to 2001, so I guess I missed out on some good times.

Speaking of "American Pop" (as I did a few paragraphs ago), I recently had occasion to dub another tape from the attic to DVD-R, which I had recorded from those short-lived golden days when AMC was regularly previewing that Sixties-themed channel that never happened. The movie, a hugely entertaining spy/beach spoof called OUT OF SIGHT, was incidentally produced by Bart Patton, who had previously acted in DEMENTIA 13, probably in the role Mark Damon would have been played, had he tagged along to Ireland with the rest of the YOUNG RACERS cast. (Small world.) Again, I was delighted to discover that my tape not only caught AMC's one-time-only letterboxed presentation of OUT OF SIGHT -- starring Jonathan Daly, Carole Shelyne as "Marvin," and Norman "Woo Woo" Grabowski as "Huh" (I ask you, what more could anyone possibly WANT?) -- but also 30 minutes or so of spy-themed filler, including Scopitones, toy commercials, a Johnny Rivers video of "Secret Agent Man", and other inspired silliness. Silliness, yes, but it takes smarts to compile such ephemera, and that kind of smarts is what's in embarrassingly short supply on television today. It would have made such a great channel, "American Pop." But who needs it when people will pay for 300 channels of after-midnight "Paid Programming" about Vitamin B-12, male enhancement, and how to strike it rich on eBay?

In closing, a little study in interpretation. As I was watching the beginning of THE YOUNG RACERS and making sure the tape was tracking properly, I was struck by the main titles. In addition to offering the usual animation graphics for which AIP films were famous in those days, the titles feature still photos of a boy playing with a toy race car; after a series of shots that show the boy's hand on the miniature racer, and another that finds him making roaring engine sounds with his mouth, he's suddenly joined in frame by a second boy with a toy racer of his own, and the two boys place them side by side to stage a competition in the dirt. Then Roger Corman's credit appears and we're off to the real Grand Prix races.

What immediately struck me about this mostly still photo sequence -- besides its seeming debt to Chris Marker (whose LA JETÉE Corman possibly saw in its first year of release), and allusions to the competitive relationship that Corman was raised to have with his brother Gene -- is that it prefigures the memorable way Corman introduces the motorcycles in THE WILD ANGELS, with a boy pedalling his tricycle down the street until Peter Fonda's thundering hog cuts into frame. In both cases, Corman seems to suggest that the roads of motor racing and cycling run both ways. Children fantasize about the power, velocity, and victory that comes with belonging to those worlds; and, at the same time, the adults who pursue those lifestyles are living out fantasies conceived in childhood and run the risk of never moving beyond them.

My trouble, on the other hand, is that I did move beyond certain interests of my younger days -- like paying more attention to things like LOST DRIVE-IN and "American Pop" -- and now I find myself regretting it. It was only yesterday, it seems, and yet so long ago.

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