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The Case for the Spectacle Cry

People usually assume I’m joking when I say that the end of Speed Racer makes me cry, but it’s the truth — I watched it again just now on YouTube to confirm. Sure enough, the climactic sequence of the Wachowski sisters’ live-action adaptation of the ’60s anime series still gets the waterworks going. The final act of the movie is a hallucinogenic showdown at the Grand Prix, the last race of the season, which takes place in a neon-lit city on a track that winds through space like a video game, sprouts spikes, and, at one point, takes a near-vertical drop. Speed Racer is about no less than a battle for the soul of automotive racing, with the corrupt Royalton Industries corporation on one side and the plucky Racer family on the other. The idealistic Speed Racer, played by Emile Hirsch, has secured himself a spot at the Grand Prix despite Royalton’s efforts to keep him away, and so the nefarious CEO Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) has put a million-dollar bounty on Speed’s head, turning the race into vehicular combat.

From the starting line, cars are rebounding off one another in physics-defying ways, spinning across the track and above it, and occasionally exploding in cornea-searing bursts that stretch across the screen. Despite the other racers’ blatant attempts to run him off the road, Speed steadily works his way up toward the lead until one competitor, the legendary Cannonball Taylor (Ralph Herforth), opts to cheat rather than get beaten by the young upstart, and uses a spear hook to clamp himself to Speed. The two cars ricochet off obstacles, pinned together until Speed figures out a way to expose Taylor’s (and Royalton’s) wrongdoing at the expense of his own ride, the Mach 6, which stalls out. All hope looks lost, and then — this is when I start welling up — Speed goes silent. It’s a callback to the lesson his older brother gives him at the start of the film, that a car is “a living, breathing thing,” and that “you can feel her talking to you, telling you what she wants, what she needs — all you gotta do is listen.” Closing your eyes in the middle of a race may be unhinged advice in the real world, but in the Day-Glo universe of Speed Racer, where driving has a spiritual component, it makes perfect sense.

You might expect ironic distance from a movie based on an awkwardly dubbed, decades-old cartoon, but the Wachowskis instead went for an earnestness that’s almost as spectacular as their increasingly dizzying visuals. The last leg of the race is a full-on fever dream of impossible race moves spliced together with flashbacks from encounters that have brought our doughty hero to this moment — of encouragement from his friends and family and cynicism from his foes. As my colleague Jackson McHenry pointed out, this sequence feels like the Wachowskis grappling with the contradictions of trying to make art in a studio system driven only by profits. But it also has a purity in itself, in its own ostentatious grandeur. The crowd shrieks, the track breaks into swirls of color, and the Mach 6 rotates through the air in front of a backdrop of a thousand flashbulbs going off as Speed comes to terms with the fact that he races for the joy of it. The Mach 6 trails streaks of light as Speed hurls his last two opponents into one another, creating a fireball that consumes the screen, then gives way to a kaleidoscopic checkered whirl as he wins the race. Who wouldn’t weep at that?

Okay, anecdotally, most people. Speed Racer is a big swing of a movie that bombed in theaters, accrued cult status, but still lingers in the memory of the general public as a disaster when it is, in fact, terrific. Still, I think the resistance I’ve encountered to this particular emotional reaction has less to do with Speed Racer’s perceived quality than with the fact that it’s considered the wrong kind of movie at which to cry. It’s perfectly normal to cry during a sad scene. A beloved character dies? You weep. A dog dies, God forbid? You bawl. Other commonly accepted reasons to sob at the screen include grand romantic gestures, noble acts of sacrifice, and graceful moments of forgiveness. But these guidelines are awfully narrow for a phenomenon that in practice tends to be much weirder and less predictable than they suggest. Dig just a little bit, and the idea of tearing up in appreciation of the scale of what you’re watching turns out to be pretty common. What I’m saying is: It’s time for greater recognition of the Spectacle Cry.

The Spectacle Cry isn’t about the tragedy of a scene, or its poignancy, or any specific emotional appeal at all. It’s about that sensation of being bowled over by the majesty, ambition, or craft of what you’re seeing. To tear up during Mufasa’s death at the claws of Scar in the original The Lion King is the understandable stuff of a straightforward sob. To tear up during the opening “Circle of Life” number, with the animals gathering in the dawn and the chorus kicking in as the sun breaks through the crowds to anoint baby Simba — now that’s a Spectacle Cry. It’s one of the earliest I remember doing personally, though I have plenty of other memories of being unexpectedly overcome by the sweep of what’s onscreen. The closing of Spellbound — not the Hitchcock movie, the 2002 spelling-bee documentary— wrecks me, thanks to the editing. Nupur Lala steps up to make her attempt at the winning word, but before she does, the film cuts away. It pulls back, showing us a montage of subjects in the aftermath, as well as snippets of their parents and footage of the different places they’re all from before Scripps pronouncer Alex Cameron pulls the thematic undercurrents to the surface by noting that spelling is a shorthand for education, which carries in it all the aspirations of the American dream. Only then does it return to Lala for her moment of triumph: “L-O-G-O-R-R-H-E-A.” Devastating!

I’ve cried at the way the camera moved over the rubble of demolished buildings during the opening of the West Side Story remake. I’ve cried at the sight of Ponyo running joyfully across the surface of the magical fish-shaped waves she’s summoned as part of the ruinish tsunami she isn’t aware she’s caused in Ponyo. And I don’t think I’ve ever blubbered harder during a movie than I did when Jodhi May follows Eric Schweig off the cliff toward the end of The Last of the Mohicans. It wasn’t the death itself that wrecked me, but the lush way it was staged, every beat of which remains seared into my brain. May steps out on the rocky point as though challenging Wes Studi, the “Promontory” theme (one of the greatest of all time!) settling into a low throb as the two circle one another. Time slows as she looks down and then back at him with those haunted eyes, and he swallows and drops his knife and tries to gesture her back. She doesn’t jump so much as drift off the edge, and the shot that follows, angled up from below as her white dress flutters in the wind, almost makes it look like she’s flying. The operatic grandeur of it all still leaves me undone.

In my experience, people who write about movies and television for a living are a self-selected crew of easy criers — why would you choose this job if you didn’t feel a little too connected to what you watch onscreen? A quick poll of my colleagues confirms that we are, as a group, very familiar with the Spectacle Cry. Fellow film critic Bilge Ebiri mentioned crying when the camera cranes up as Claudia Cardinale arrives in Once Upon a Time in the West, while Kathryn VanArendonk brought up the barn-raising scene in Witness: “It’s the way everyone pulls everything together — they all work toward this common goal, and it’s very simple and old and wordless.” Others cited the beacons being lit in The Return of the King and (over DM due to embarrassment) the Avengers assembling in Endgame, or, on the small screen, Kacy Catanzaro running the American Ninja Warrior finals course or the “Born to Run” opening number at the Jimmy Fallon–hosted Emmys in 2010. Genevieve Koski teared up when Vin Diesel and Paul Walker jumped the Lykan HyperSport across skyscrapers in Furious 7, but specified it was only on the second jump that this happened, brought about by awe at the sheer audacity of the moment and the cut to a wide shot at magic hour.

There were enough repeat elements in these examples to note certain trends — montages came up a lot, as well as acts of collective triumph, bold camera choices, use of grand scores but also stretches of well-timed silence. It made me think that the Spectacle Cry is really just an act of acknowledgement of some of the most tried-and-true tricks that filmmaking has to provoke an audience. Our instinct may be to focus on the content of what we’re watching when we talk about its ability to make us feel something, but of course the approach matters just as much, and it really isn’t a surprise that sound and visuals trigger strong reactions as well as plot developments or dialogue. Spectacle is just as emotional as story, and in that context, there isn’t anything unusual about weeping at Speed Racer at all. That ending has it all: quick flashbacks to heartfelt moments, a moment of silence in the midst of action, a communal desire to win, and outrageous imagery. And when you think of it like that, doesn’t it make you want to reach for the tissues? Come on, join me.

Alison Willmore , 2024-02-12 14:00:16

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