Tuesday 17 December 2013

Highway Duel (2013)

Director: Auburn Hodgson Setlogelo
This film was an official selection at the Filmstock Arizona 2013 round of the revolving Filmstock film festival. Here's an index to my reviews of all selections.
This is an odd one. It's an animated short that may just be all about the feel, attempting to recapture the excitement of car chases in the desert. If so, it does a pretty good job, avoiding such distractions as characters and plot for the familiar abstractions of fast cars and motion blur. This is a fetishistic piece through and through, more akin to a Fast and Furious movie than the inspirations cited in the synopsis, like Duel and Knight Rider. The style may be older school, but this is never about the drivers, it's always about the cars. There's no Jason Statham here, let alone a Steve McQueen. We do see people, briefly and rarely, but they don't matter in the slightest and have no meaning. They're not who we're supposed to watch. We're supposed to watch the blur of a red muscle car and a police vehicle chasing each other in a timeless battle. Drivers are replaced as the decades pass. Cars may be replaced, part by part or all at once. Only the chase remains consistent, along with the mountains and cacti who get to watch it live.

If the film succeeds with its mythic placement, it fails with its story. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what's going on here, because the obvious interpretation breaks halfway through. Initially, it's straight forward enough: that red muscle car fills up with gas in the Mohave Desert in the morning as the sun is coming up, then pulls out, apparently to chase a truck but perhaps just to chase its own demons. When a cop car follows it out onto the highway, we know that a chase is about to begin and, sure enough, it does. It's halfway through that I lost track. Both cars skid off into the desert, avoiding a truck, but when they get moving again, it's the red car chasing the cop. In 'cat and mouse' chases, it's the cat always chasing the mouse, never the other way around. I'm sure there are ways in which that could be played with, but not in an animated short that's deliberately bereft of background detail. Maybe it's meant to be so archetypal that only the chase matters and none of the details are anything except cool.
In between that success and failure is the animation style, which is a little mixed. Initially it feels rather like machinima, created with a video game engine. It looks good, if compressed so that colour gradients aren't as high resolution as they could be. As the chase begins, the backgrounds are more like a comic book for the cars to be animated through. The motion blur behind the title card is magnificent, while it looks it was done with coloured pencils for most of the rest of the film. There's an agreeable pastel feel to the colour palette that's appropriate, given how remorselessly the sun is drenching the desert. My biggest concern with the animation came with the big crash at the end. That's some sort of magic paint job that escapes that animated stunt without an apparent scratch. Auburn Hodgson Setlogelo wrote and directed and I'd be interested in seeing what she comes up with next, whatever software she uses. It's always great to watch animators develop their style and this appears to be her first credit.

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