Thursday, 16 May 2019

Talladega Nights: The Ballad That's Way Smarter Than You Remember

When was the last time you dusted off your DVD of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby? Hell, when was the last time you watched any DVD instead of doing your Netflix & chillax thing, or whatever it is you kids today do? Honestly, with all your sexting and your stepping-dubs, I can't begin to keep up. Anyway, Talladega Nights is worth another watch if you haven't in a while, or worth a first watch if you haven't yet, and hadn't planned to because you cannot bring yourself to think of Will Ferrell as anything remotely funny. I get that, I don't blame you, but even so I think this movie is worth a look, because it has some hidden – really hidden – depths. Here's some of the seriously clever stuff you might have missed in Will Ferrell's middle child of a movie.

No Shit Sherlock: It's about the Bush Years
This was obvious to the critics from day one: here's a link to Michael Signer's review on, written while it was still in theatres, in which he states early on:
This movie perfectly captures – and in a wonderfully transparent, entirely non-ironic sense – the ethos of the Bush Administration, and the internal, domestic struggles that inevitably color and even drive our actions toward the outer world.  In a hundred years, cultural anthropologists could watch this movie and learn something.
More transparently, he signs off with the rhetorical eye-roll: "It would all be funny, except – as noted – it's the number-one movie in America – two weeks in a row. Welcome to George Bush's America."

This was probably more obvious to U.S. viewers than it was to me circa 2006, partly because I wasn't what you'd call observant in those days, and partly because we don't get Saturday Night Live here in Australia. I didn't learn Will Ferrell had made a living lampooning Bush the Younger until the 2016 election cycle gave us the brilliant Alec Baldwin/Kate McKinnon 2nd Presidential Debate cold open. I certainly had no idea the guy from Wayne's World had so beautifully sent up Bush the Elder before that.

Ferrell's Bush impression was no more nuanced than the man himself: it wasn't one of those carefully put-together, deeply-insightful impressions that magically puts the targeted person in the room with you; that would've been wrong given the subject matter. No, Ferrell simply donned a certain haircut and started acting like an ignorant manchild, like a high school football jock who hasn't learned a thing since grade school but still thinks it's everyone else who's slow on the uptake. He didn't bother replicating the trademark Bush smirk, because he didn't have to: all he had to do was portray a person shockingly unprepared for the job of being president. With a different costume, the same character could've been a neglectful husband, or an inept plumber, or even – with a little imagination – a NASCAR driver.

Just take a moment to appreciate what a perfect "in" NASCAR was for critiquing Bush's America. It wasn't just that NASCAR was booming at the time (and conversely, CART was finally in its death throes), it's that everything you needed could be said just by giving the film a NASCAR setting. The overwhelming saturation of corporations and logos? The masturbatory displays of patriotism? The profligate waste of irreplaceable fossil fuels? The deliberate, self-imposed ignorance and insularity? The straight-up Southern takeover of American culture? It's all embedded right there in NASCAR. I mean, if you want to know how the Republicans went from the party that defeated the Confederacy to a party that basically is the Confederacy 2.0, you could either read Doug Muder's short essay detailing the whole process... or you could just watch Talladega Nights, and grasp it intuitively.

I mean, just check out Ricky Bobby's TV endorsements scene:

How efficient is that? Ridiculous over-commercialism, gun culture, sexism, unease over the rise of China and a little Mexican hate, all skewered in forty seconds flat. Less, if you focus on the ammosexual-targeted Jackhawk 9000 segment, which is set off by that awesomely cheerful punchline: "Available at WalMart!" That's a Bowling for Columbine reference if you needed telling. By 2006 WalMart was the cancer spreading across the U.S., so that was the corporation Ricky had to namedrop in place of Kmart, but still: show me another way to expose the sheer ridiculousness of American gun culture in the Noughties in eight seconds or less. Go on, I'll wait.

Even the deeply weird overlap between Evangelical Christianity and Big Business came in for some ribbing, in a scene that was either the only part of the whole movie that was funny, or the only part that wasn't, depending on who you asked:

In 2006 I was still part of the God Squad and most of my friends were deeply offended by this scene, but looking at it now, it was for the wrong reasons. The most biting part  wasn't the "dear baby Jesus..." stuff, which was just window dressing: the real salt came with my favourite line in the whole movie:
Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each Grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious... 
Yeah, he immediately distracts you with some of that off-the-cuff Ferrell nonsense that makes up so much of the movie (and which I still, admittedly, still enjoy – guilty pleasures are guilty), so the joke isn't given the chance to become ponderous by landing. But the point is still there, in the text: Ricky's faith is up for sale.

Just an observation: the same people who supported Bush's presidential bid were, but a few years later, behind the controversial Hobby Lobby decision, which in 2014 exempted the arts & crafts chain from providing its employees with birth control that was otherwise mandated by law, because it conflicted with its owners' Evangelical faith. Never mind that this sincerely-held religious view is younger than both the Hobby Lobby owner (born 1941) and Will Ferrell (born 1967); apparently corporations can hold religious views now. I daresay they will continue to do so any time something impinges on a billionaire's hip pocket. Real life has overtaken parody on this one.

But still, how else could you have worked in that brilliant piece of satire without the NASCAR premise? Genius. And yet this wasn't the movie's cleverest moment, or the one that made me sit up and realise it was worth a 47th or 48th viewing.

It's Basically Copperhead Road: the Movie
Have you ever actually listened Steve Earle's lyrics? If you've only heard this song with other drunk idiots (and I was at uni in 2006 *cough*), you'll know most of the words pass unremarked, with the volume picking up markedly when they get to the familiar line, "COPPERHEAD ROOOAAD!!!"

But seriously. Give it a listen. All of it.

Like Ferrell, Earle dangles shiny things in front of us to take our eye off the ball – some drooling over Daddy's Big Black Dodge (actually a 1950 Chrysler Windsor in the video), and how he volunteered for the Army on his birthday ('cos they draft the White Trash first around there anyway). But despite its reputation, Vietnam is decidedly not what this song is about: PTSD and the Dodge are inserted between the verses that really matter, the first and last, a deliberate generational parallel comparing the Revenuers who chased grandaddy over his White Lightning with the DEA who are pursuing the singer for growing sweet stinky weed. In other words, the song was criticising the War on Drugs as nothing more than Prohibition 2.0, American legislation's greatest failure. (On that note, Rob Goodman once made the case that Sweet Home Alabama is the greatest protest song of all time; I hereby nominate Copperhead Road for silver.)

Now, with all that in mind, watch this:

Mind blown? Mine was. Again they deliberately keep the point from coming home by immediately cutting to an action-chase scene, then a joke about not snorting breakfast cereal, but it's still there: Reese Bobby segues smoothly from NASCAR's origins in bootlegging to the legal status of a kilo of Colombian booger sugar taped under his '69 Chevelle. Like Steve Earle before them, the movie-makers are calling bullshit on the War on Drugs. The difference is, the first time around it took the lawmakers only 13 years to comprehend their mistake and reverse the decision; this time it's taken (...checks calendar...) 46 years and counting.

A bit serious for a Will Ferrell movie, you say? Well that's not the deepest dive this film takes. You might wanna get a big lungful before this one.

Surprise, surprise: the Harshest Critiques come from Jean Girard
In the long long ago time of 2002, Bush and his Republican cronies wanted to invade the sovereign Republic of Iraq. Because they were spoilt rich kids who thought they should be able to act out whenever they wanted and still get a pat on the head afterwards, they sought the approval of the U.N. and their NATO allies for their aggressive war. France's foreign minister sensibly replied with a GFY, making it clear France would neither condone nor participate in the invasion. In a spat of childishness that would've been hilarious if it hadn't come from a high government official, then-Chairman of the Committee on House Administration, Bob Ney, had Congressional cafeterias rename French fries, "Freedom Fries."

Yes, really.

This was the start of a backdraft of anti-French sentiment in the U.S., which was rather ironic in a country that wouldn't even exist if it hadn't been for the aid of the French king, but that's another story. What matters here is that this shift in public mood echoed and crystalised in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen's character, Jean Girard.

Talladega Nights came out the same year as Borat, so Cohen was deep into his Weird Foreigner groove at this time. True to any good antagonist, Jean Girard was carefully designed to peg every nerve in a NASCAR redneck's body: he's French (see above); he's gay (not just gay, but married – the Supreme Court finding that marriage equality was already constitutional was all in the future, in 2006 the hot-button issue was the justice of Don't Ask, Don't Tell); and as an ex-Formula 1 champion, he played on the inferiority complex that NASCAR was a simple sport for simpletons, witness his winning races while sipping macchiatos and reading Camus. (This is bullshit of course – NASCAR definitely falls into the category Harder Than It Looks, and a good Cup driver could adapt to F1 a hell of a lot faster than a good F1 driver could adapt to stock cars, which test a very different and somewhat obscure skill set by European standards – but we're dealing with cultural perceptions here, not reality.)

At the time Michael Schumacher's career was winding down, so an F1 driver the commentators called "dominant" brought some definite mental associations with it; his physical appearance however recalled Fernando Alonso, who was darkly intense but in those days wasn't wise enough to hide his outbursts of pissed-offedness. I remain fairly sure the line, "And now ze Matador will dance wis ze Blind Shoemaker!" is a reference to Schumacher and Alonso's tussle over the 2006 World Championship.

Beyond those traits, however, Girard makes no goddamn sense at all, and that serves a purpose above the sort of lolrandom comedy big at the time. I'd almost call him the first Dadaist character I'd encountered in mainstream cinema, except that he has a clear motivation and remains true to it, even if it makes no real sense in itself. But as I say, making no sense is the whole point of Jean Girard – his job is to parody the good, honest, hard-working heartlander's attitude to anything foreign. In pretentious terms, he embodies the Other: not just the Other, but the threat of the Other. He's not just faster than Ricky, he's more educated and cultured as well (a macchiato is a serious coffee drinker's coffee), and a better husband to boot (does Gregory come off as a trophy boy-toy to you? In retrospect the contrast between Gregory and Carly could've been played up more, but alas, no movie is without flaw, and Ferrell had already tackled gender issues and sexism with Anchorman). Girard plays on the darkest fears of heartland America, that their most cherished beliefs about themselves and American Exceptionalism are just autofellation that would be blown away by a moment's contact with the real world. Girard indicts Bush's America just by existing.

But the most stinging Girard moment comes during the montage scene, when he's shown driving while reading some Albert Camus. But not just any Camus.

See the title? It's L'√Čtranger, or in Anglais, The Stranger. It works well enough as a sight gag, as The Stranger is probably the only piece of existentialist literature anyone remembers from high school English classes, even though they haven't read it (and full disclosure, neither have I). It fits with Girard's literary tastes being exquisite, and French, and finding NASCAR rather easy (though it isn't), but I think it cuts even deeper than that. Do you know what The Stranger is actually about? A Frenchman who kills an Arab.
Looking back now, the real topic of The Stranger is painfully obvious. Camus and the French had a demographic problem. They were going to have to give up some prime Mediterranean beachfront. Which is why the idiot protagonist kills an Arab on the beach and gets himself executed. Spoiler alert: that's the plot of The Stranger. French mama's boy kills Arab on beach, whiles away the time in prison waiting to be guillotined thinking about… you know, I can't even remember what he was thinking about. That's probably because, like almost all the leftist European rhetoric of the postwar years, The Stranger is totally disingenuous. It can't just come out and say, "God damn it, we like this beach! We conquered this beach! Why we gotta give up all this nice beach just because you Arabs are out-breeding us?" You look back now and it's obvious that's what Camus, a French Algerian (a now extinct tribe), was writing about. Normal tribal behavior, resorting to violence when you're losing coveted territory. But God forbid Camus should talk that way out loud back in those post-Stalingrad days when everything was moral, except the nonstop lying.

...If you're one of these deeply, instinctively dishonest writers, you must always fog up the windshield as much as possible. So Camus' hero kills an Arab because… "existentialism, man." – Gary Brecher, NSFW Corp, The Stranger Stranger
You could spin out the parallels further if you wanted to – there's probably something to be made of the French presence in Algeria vs American military bases in Saudi Arabia – but I think the connection with Arab-Western violence is enough. Girard could've been reading anything, even other Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus would've been a profound statement about the racing driver's life, that no matter how hard you work, eventually you will lose and someone else will take the championship. But this movie isn't about racing drivers, it's about a man who started a war with the entire Arab world. So no, Girard is reading The Stranger, a book about a man who killed an Arab. That Meursault went to the guillotine but Bush went back to Texas to paint godawful kiddie paintings is a contrast I'll mention but gloss over here.

Anyway, there you have it: Talladega Nights is not classic cinema, but it's worth a closer look, and there's probably a lot more to dig through if you want to take the time. Like, how Ricky, Cal and Lucius accidentally form the French flag as they leave the hospital, which has to mean something...

...but I've leave the really deep analysis to someone who knows what they're doing. For now, it's enough if I've convinced you to dust off your old DVD and give it another watch. Movies should be watched just like a racecar should be driven: mercilessly, but with a big grin on your face.

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