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Days of future past

By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  June 26, 2010

Here, the pulpier launches dominate, beginning with Roger Corman's inimitable DEATH RACE 2000 (1975; June 25 at 7 pm), which may not be the first dystopia-via-bloodsport scenario (The Tenth Victim and Peter Watkins's The Gladiators preceded it, and the original Rollerball was the same year) but is the first to make real use of the American passion for cars and car racing and road mortality. It's a crude, cartoonish, garish splooge of a satire (directed with characteristic tastelessness by Paul Bartel) that seems significantly ahead of its time, prophesying the temperament and style of punk several years too early, and reality-show dominance a quarter-century before the fact. But the game of lowball that Bartel plays with rundown geriatrics and such doesn't detract from the visceral eloquence of the movie's metaphoric punch. After all, we as a society seem happy enough with our automobile lifestyle to think that the 30,000 car-crash deaths we rack up every year are a price worth paying. Every hair-raising mowdown in Bartel's movie seems, with a smirk, to ask why.

Robert Altman's QUINTET (1979; June 28 at 7 pm) is focused on a post-apocalyptic ice world structured around a predatory game, but it's not televised, and the film's glacial personality does not compel one to wonder about its significance. Better is Michael Crichton's WESTWORLD (1973; June 18 at 9 pm), which posits an adult theme park populated by robots, there to serve, screw, or be killed by role-playing guests. Crichton's thumbprint can be read on I, Robot and Surrogates and numerous other post-virtual scenarios, but Westworld knows it's satire — the resorts are simulacra not of reality but of old movie genres (Westerns, mediæval times, Roman Empire), and the indulgences of guests (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) are patterned on moviegoing empathy. Of course, as viewers, we're immune to backdraft, but here the "players" are cows for the slaughter when the robots — thanks to the evolved independence Crichton always supposed would entropically accompany our excessive technological feats — decide to fight back. Cheaply made, Westworld is nothing but ideas, and the casting of cool-nebbish Everyman Benjamin, a grown-up Portnoy let loose in a supposedly consequence-free world of android whores, was Crichton's pastry-topping cherry.

The rarest film in the stable, and certainly the least discussed, is Jim McBride's GLEN AND RANDA (1971; June 26 at 9:15 pm), a crispy indie about nude, dumb teenagers slackly roaming an atomic-blasted America looking for a mythical Metropolis but never actually getting out of Idaho. As bleak and deadened as they come, treading first where Cormac McCarthy would decades later, the movie echoes the existential mysteries of co-writer Rudy Wurlitzer's script for Two-Lane Blacktop — except that here, the world is already over.

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