There are two ways a joke can go too far. The first is when a good joke runs deliriously passed its own expiration, like a David S. Pumpkins animated special. The second is when a joke doesn’t even know it’s a joke, and takes its own naturally twisted premise to its logical end. Peter Weir’s directorial debut, The Cars That Ate Paris, falls comfortably into the latter category. There are moments of humor and moments of horror, but you never know precisely how to respond, or how to feel, throughout the running time. It’s a mystery of tone and function, but you are never quite upset, because it always stays true to its own twisted (metal) wavelength.
The film begins with a dapper, bourgeoisie couple on a holiday in the country, buying antiques and sipping Coke on their Australian provincial jaunt – complete with distractingly happy music. As they approach the backwater town of Paris, Australia, the wheel falls off their convertible and they go careening off the side of the mountain. A sound of an attacking cat is heard in the background. Cut to Arthur and Charlie Waldo, a couple of blokes looking for jobs traveling from job agency to job agency in the same back country. After seeing mysterious lights in the distance, they meet the same fate as the unnamed couple.
But not before they see, oddly enough, a cow being stuffed into the trunk of a small jalopy by four grown men. This is the thread of the film’s bizarre logic: the film is built on various polite perversions of consumerism/ing. It’s found in the Coke of the couple before they careen to their death; the steer being effectively “eaten” by one of the first cars we see; the way the townsfolk dismantle wrecked cars like ants on a carcass. The first shot of Arthur and his brother are of them eating by the side of the road. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, only one dog is people and the other are the cars.
After the wreck that kills his brother, Arthur wakes up in a hospital with a mysterious despot of a headmaster, who wastes no time playing psychological experiments on him – asking him to name objects from a series of photos, but interspersing pictures of car wrecks and his brother’s freshly mutilated carcass among the pictures. This scene ends with the doctor receiving some canned fruits from a nurse: “Oh, you’ll spoil me,” he says whimsically. Arthur is horrified. The Doctor is a schizoid.
The rest of the town shows some cursory sympathy to poor Arthur, but there is an ulterior motive behind their actions. At a town meeting, the Mayor (played by seasoned character actor John Meillon) tells the men ominously, Arthur will stay. “He’s a Parisian, now.” Every member of the community greets Arthur outside the courthouse like the villagers from The Wicker Man, and participate in his brother’s funeral. The Hearse leads the villagers like a shepherd to slaughter. During the eulogy, the Priest decries the fate that brings men to their untimely demise with these damned automobiles.
Only it’s not fate. It turns out each of the villagers has some kind of agenda or hatred of cars, and have built various psychological traps along the roads leading into the village, like a bug zapper. The people salvage all the goods in the vehicles; while the mad doctor performs experiments on the survivors (if there are any). It’s a curious arrangement of casual societal madness. Only every once in a while, the town youth cause a ruckus in their demolition derbies, various freaks of technology culled from the murdered cars. They are like the car undead – reminding the peaceful villagers of their bouts of nighttime sadism – and they must be disposed of. When they finally step out of their cars late in the movie, they look like Western villains – we’ve entered into a technological Wild West in the Outback.
Arthur is made the town Parking Officer (he has a deathly fear of cars, thanks to an earlier vehicular manslaughter charge), which angers these young ruffians and their zombiemobiles. Each side escalates their violence against the other – the cars destroy the Mayor’s lawn; he burns one of the cars in murderous immolation; one of the drivers kills the village priest. It’s this moment that is particularly difficult to find an emotion as a viewer. The kid (Bruce Spence, in one of his first roles) strolls proudly into town wearing a bloody clerical collar, and the priest’s corpse is revealed in particularly gruesome fashion. Is this a joke anymore?
Cars are not just a family-friendly animated series, but a longstanding societal fetish. Ford’s Model-T drove American industry to world leadership; cars become the status symbol of the post-War American middle class. During the war, its vehicles were already talking, a cocombatant in the fight against Evil. Cars then became synonymous with rebellion, notably, a coconspirator in death in Rebel Without a Cause and Pit Stop. But something happened in the 1970’s – cars turned against their makers. Duel, The Car, Vanishing Point, Mad Max. Soon they were personifying our worst fears, whether it was puberty in Christine or sexual perversion in Cronenberg’s Crash. The Cars That Ate Paris came just at the tipping point from good to ill, possibly when the idealism of society itself fell apart – cars were the mirror. As the film begins, Weir carefully chooses his “Directed By” card superimposed on an image of a gas attendant sipping a Coke, flanked by signs like, “Arrests!”, “Big Oil Price Rise Coming”, “Love Baby Mother to Wed”, “Financial Crisis: Pope Prays.” This world is steeped in pessimism, wars and rumors of wars, real and imagined.
The film’s climax – where the town goes to hell during the most depressing town ball you’ll ever see – apparently inspired Roger Corman to make Death Race 2000, which is not a surprise given Corman’s wiles. But The Cars That Ate Paris may have more in common with Paris, Texas than Corman’s film or their inbred offspring (like the Twisted Metal video game series). Weir’s film is actually a careful examination of smalltown Australian life – the mild insanities communities sometimes participate in to survive, especially in a place just on the edge of disaster. The Mayor often invokes the Pioneer Spirit to justify his crazed actions (at a town meeting he quotes from an American President, but forgets just which one; the Sheriff holds up one of the Mayor’s racist lawn ornaments to the young hooligans after their rampage, “Look! You busted the Mayor’s Aboriginal!”) – which underscores the idea that they are on a mental threshold, not a physical one. When the cars come crashing into Paris, Australia, the “sane” members of the community are dancing at their ball with inmates of the psych ward – one of them in blackface, but all of them victims of their vehicular destruction. Weir’s direction is on point yet measured – just shy of anarchy. It seems to mirror the very subjects of these early films, which also includes The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock. The unifying theme is madness, kept at a distance by decorum.
The righteous retribution that ensues is, like the rest of the film, odd. It is rather tepid. The most famous car – the silver, spiked one, like a Knight decked out for a Crusade – gets one good moment to impale a good member of the community on its hood. But mostly, the cars destroy the town’s things, its outward trappings, and not its people. Like the now toppled Town Hall, the house of cards has fallen. The people scramble to gather their things and escape the town, on foot. Only Arthur, the victim once scared of vehicles, drives his car out of town. He murdered a car in the battle, and lost his fear. Arthurs mastery of himself mirrors his mastery of the car he drives – his animalistic instinct subdued, as he drives himself out of town. At least, for now.