Cool and The Crazy

(Catch my previous Bakshi film review here: Cool World)

After the catastrophe of Cool World’s release in 1992, Ralph Bakshi again had trouble developing any high-profile work and either could not secure another guarantee for the production of a theatrical feature or had no interest in directing one. Instead, sometime in 1993, Bakshi was given approval from Showtime to direct a feature-length feature for their Rebel Highway B-Picture film series. The bait must have reeled in Bakshi immediately as it would give him an opportunity to direct his first completely live-action film, finally develop a thrice-aborted attempt at making his long-adored screenplay about marital infidelity entitled If I Catch Her, I’ll Kill Her, and put himself amongst the names of other revered directors in the series including Joe Dante, William Friedkin, John Milius, and Robert Rodriguez.

Rebel Highway was a program meant to be in the spirit of Rebel Without A Cause with all of its attendant 50s atmosphere, music, cars, and culture. Each film in the series was released as a B-Movie remake of a 1950s B-Movie, but with better actors and good directors attached to each project. And the goal was to present a series of high quality in an effort to simultaneously produce an artful film series for Showtime and to cash in on the popularity of Rockabilly and 50s Retro cults that were thriving (as evidenced and enhanced culturally by the popularity of Twin Peaks just a few years prior).

Interestingly, Ralph Bakshi decided not to adapt a previously existing B-Movie, but instead took the name of one (1958’s reefer madness propaganda film The Cool and The Crazy) and affixed it to his own script without making any changes to it whatsoever. Although the final product is alright on its own merits, it seems threadbare and not excessively stylish or exceedingly well-made. By referencing and perhaps making light of the earlier film’s stance against marijuana use, Bakshi could have added an element to Cool and The Crazy that might made the film more referential to cinema history, and thereby ‘cooler’ to film buffs, or at least more in line with the postmodern approach to filmmaking, which was in vogue at the time due to directors like Tarantino and Rebel Highway’s own Robert Rodriguez. Unfortunately, the narrative of Bakshi’s film has no relation to that earlier film whatsoever and thereby breaks away at the structural integrity of the series of which it is a part.

The result was to undermine Rebel Highway’s operating principles, but to simultaneously be one with the spirit of rebellion against conventions and codes of operating that are its ethos, and the ethos of the American spirit from the 1950 through the late 1970s (when American culture began its downward phase). Cool and the Crazy, though not a great film as a film (though it does have a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is thereby ten times better than Bakshi’s previous film Cool World at 4%?), is an interesting work because of its aforementioned formal qualities. Through them it stands as one amongst a member of a set (Rebel Highway), which it achieves by being literally one amongst its production number. But the ethos of this set is anti-set at the core, and as such, a film must subvert the set’s normative rules to be one amongst it.

The resulting confusion is in the designation of a member of such a set, which seems impossible. The other members of this set are members because they follow the few rules of the set, but in doing so are not rebellious and anti-set at all (at the formal level. They might contain cultural critique or obscenity or taboo that make them culturally rebellious whilst being conformist in the context of the set). This makes them fundamentally not a member of the set in regards to their ethos and only through their nominal containment in the set. As for Bakshi’s film, it finds itself also nominally within the set, but by breaking the set’s normative schemata, finds itself closer to the ethos of the set. In this way, Cool and the Crazy seems to fit the set better than any other members.

However, this is only so if we give ethos primacy within the set. Then, and only then, does Bakshi’s film check off nominal inclusion and ethos inclusion whereas the others do not. There is the also the schemata of rules, and if the set rules are given primacy over ethos, then Bakshi’s film only fulfills the first function of nominality within the set. The key, and also the problem with all critical approaches to grouping (hold on, we’re almost there), is in bifurcating schemata and the urge to pick the one over the other. In this case, the only film that really and truly fits the Rebel Highway series is the one with nominality (literally being one amongst the films produced for this program), ethos (being rebellious to formal rules of the set), AND rule-boundedness (actually being a remake of a 1950s B-Movie).

Given all three criterion, no films are completely at home in the Rebel Highway series, which might be why the series only existed for one season and did not manage to catch the attention of the public at large. But for those who do like some of these films and want something of a Dogme 95 challenge for the modern age, there is one within the criterion listed above: If a filmmaker were to create another remake of a classic 1950s B-Movie and update its sensuality and violence to fit in with the modern epoch, it would be able to checkmark the rule-boundedness box. By claiming itself to be one amongst the Rebel Highway series it would be truly rebellious (and fit the show’s ethos) as well, as no more films beyond the original 10 can retroactively check the nominality box. This means that a film created today in this manner by someone with the guts to claim its inclusion into the set (despite the obviousness of its non-inclusion and the threat of legal action) would, like all of the films in the series, check two of the three inclusion boxes and would therefore be no less legitimate than any of those films originally made for Rebel Highway. Such a paradox is truly something to marvel.

The final question: ‘But man, did you LIKE the movie or not?!?!’

My answer: ‘Not really.’

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Spicy City]

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