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Zemeckis: Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars was Robert Zemeckis’ second film, after I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and while it may be edging further towards the kind of big-budget spectacle that made his name in the 80s, this is still very much the work of a special effects director working without special effects. As in the earlier film, though, that turns cinema itself into something of a special effect, not just through Zemeckis’ flamboyant camera work, but through a hyperreal sensibility that makes the film feel as if it is in the process of being remediated and incorporated into some more emergent media complex. As in I Wanna Hold Your Hand, that remediation produces a retro-futurist aesthetic, in this case by way of the two used car lots in downtown Phoenix where most of the action takes place. In essence, the film is a standoff between these two lots, and their respective owners – Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden), who runs the Fuchs lot, and Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell), who runs the New Deal lot – as they each struggle to prevent their lot being appropriated and demolished to make way for an up-and-coming freeway ramp. Set on an old-fashioned Main Street that is on the verge of being colonised by the utterly new kind of space dictated by freeway infrastructure, the two lots feel curiously jettisoned from the surrounding neighborhood, floating in the middle of a notional, conceptual space that also makes them feel curiously continguous with more remote locations, or, rather, the kinds of representations of remote locations that abound on the screens and interfaces that seem to flood the film, which often seems to be taking place in one giant disembodied dashboard. Among other things, that prevents the action ever feeling circumscribed, despite only really taking place in one location, with the lots quickly expanding beyond their physical parameters to feel like a perceptual horizon, a panoramic fusion of cinema screen and windscreen whose clean, sharp, wide spaces often feel as if they’re tailor-made for drive-in consumption. If the film doesn’t really go anywhere, physically – with a few key exceptions – then that’s because there’s nowhere else to go, at least not yet, or on roads - you can see the genesis of Back to the Future quite clearly – as the imminent offramp looms over everything with the promise to port us to some quite different spatiotemporal configuration altogether. It makes sense, then, that the standoff between the two lots involves two quite different strategies, with Fuchs aiming for old-fashioned action sequences, and Rudy opting instead for what feels like an early form of culture jamming, rogue advertisements intercepted into live television events – a football game, a presidential address – to bring the New Deal lot into the very epicentre of the nation’s consciousness. As in so many films of this era – especially those with even a vaguely exploitative bent - there’s a continual feedback loop between images and recordings of images that finally makes it feel as if Zemeckis is trying to capture something of the erotics of live broadcast in a cinema format, or to formulate something like live cinema, not unlike the way he tried to recreate that first momentous appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in  I Wanna Hold Your Hand. As a film that aspires to arrive by satellite, then, it’s very much of a piece with his subsequent efforts to stretch and surprise cinema’s capacities as a medium, which is perhaps why  it feels fresher and more immediate than some of his subsequent films some thirty years down the road.

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