Sunday 29 June 2008

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Times are hard in rural Australia, it would seem. There's not much money around and not much work, and while the government is obviously trying, it appears that they're not trying hard enough. The small rural town of Paris does its very best to buck the trend, or so it would appear from the many signs pointing to it down a dead end road. They have petrol, they have work available, they have everything. What they also have, but don't advertise, is a quick route to death: the people of Paris make their living off orchestrating car accidents on their dangerous country roads, stripping them of parts and their former owners of possessions to sell second hand.

Writers Peter Weir and Keith Gow had fun with their story and didn't flinch from taking it to logical extremes. We follow the adventures of Arthur Waldo, who has taken the road to Paris with his brother. However instead of dying as he's supposed to, he survives the accident and the mayor takes a shine to him. There are survivors, it seems, but they are generally lobotomised and live in the town's hospital as 'veggies'. Arthur though is salvaged, just like anything else that was in the vehicle at the time. The mayor wants to adopt him, even though he's at least 25. But hey, both the mayor's kids are salvage too: orphaned by what must have been another orchestrated accident.

There are other stories here too, intertwined, most obviously the question of what to do with the youth element. Even in a town where violence is a way of making a living, the youth are disaffected and cause trouble. The youth of Paris are akin to Hell's Angels in cars, given that they have a large and free junkyard to play with. These vehicles are customised junk, like stock cars, and look very cool. On occasion they're highly customised, such as the porcupine car. The use of vehicles and separation from mainstream life seems to be a common theme in Aussie movies, most obviously but not restricted to the Mad Max films.

The stars are John Meillon and Terry Camilleri, and like many actors in Aussie movies, I recognise them but don't recognise their names. Meillon is Walt from the Crocodile Dundee films and I've also seen him in The Blue Lightning with Sam Elliott. Camilleri was Napoleon in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but this was his debut. It was also the debut of director Peter Weir, a native born Australian who became one of a small group of Aussies to grow beyond just a national cinema and become a global name. They were called The Australian New Wave and included Mel Gibson and George Miller, Judy Davis and Gillian Armstrong.

Weir would go on to make a number of very Australian films before heading on out to the rest of the world. This was his feature debut, and he followed it up with Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Gallipoli, all of which have very Aussie stories to tell. He'd go onto great success in the States, and is currently tied with Sidney Lumet for the most Best Director Oscar nominations without a win. He directed Linda Hunt to an Oscar though, in The Year of Living Dangerously and others to nominations in Witness, Fearless, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show. What impresses me most though is the consistency and versatility of his films: they're all over the map as to subject matter but the quality is consistently there.

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