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For a film that was derided upon its release ten years ago for being childishly hyperactive and frantic, the Wachowski Sisters’ Speed Racer mostly lacks the element those words tend to describe. Whereas you’d normally expect a film like that to be edited to death—choppy and sloppy and too quick to see anything—the film rarely cuts at all. In place of the traditional cut, the Wachowskis use a technique I’ve never seen outside of Speed Racer.
In a manner suggesting a montage, foreground elements in a shot will slide across the frame, changing the background and slipping out of sight, leaving behind a new image. This is mostly used in dialogue scenes; one person will wipe across the screen and leave as they finish their line, in time for their scene partner to take command of the frame and begin to talk. It gives these scenes a sense of constant momentum. No one stands still in Speed Racer, they’re always flying across the screen. This, it goes without saying, is appropriate given the film’s subject matter. Speed Racer is always on the move.
But there’s something else I find interesting about Speed Racer’s editing. The visual symbiosis achieved by merging shots rather than sequencing them is (in Hollywood, at least) unique. Jean-Luc Godard would experiment with a similar style in Goodbye to Language, but this came years after the Wachowskis’ did it.
We’re all familiar with the language of editing, how meaning is communicated through the sequencing of disparate images. It’s easy to comprehend, because although our visual experience of the world is mostly unbroken, we can close our eyes and open them again to see something that wasn’t there before, and we understand that it’s impossible to both be looking at someone and see whatever they’re looking at simultaneously. The art of editing is an attempt to translate the act of seeing into something that can comprehensibly communicate a narrative. Editing works because it’s based on how we actually experience the world.
But not in Speed Racer. This film takes the craft and advances it beyond human capability. We see everything, all at once. The past, present, and future all fold on top of one another, different spaces collapse and merge. It’s like filmmaking from another dimension, or Cubism on screen. One single image, numerous perspectives, all commingling to give us a far fuller picture than traditional sequence editing ever could.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the entire critical establishment of 2008, but it’s clear to me that the majority of writers who dismissed the film out of hand back then only saw what they wanted to see. They refused to see the art in a film made for children, blinded themselves to the revolutionary experimentation in something so bright and candy-colored. Ten years on, I think that people are more willing (perhaps too willing, sometimes) to look for value in commercial art. Speed Racer was ahead of its time in more ways than one. Then again, I can’t help but wonder if this film was always destined to be resurrected and not received with open arms. Maybe it’s the kind of film that can only be looked back on, never appreciated in its time. Speed Racer is always looking to the future. Maybe one day we’ll catch up with it.