The annual Trans-America road race is so secret it doesn’t even have an official name. Announced via a single, unadorned want ad, it’s open to anyone with a valid license and four wheels. The goal is simple, start in California, finish in New York. The person who punches in with the quickest time wins the prize--$100,000. This year’s contestants are a motley group including: an arrogant German champion, two lovesick teens in a “borrowed” Corvette, three carhops in a rented van, a psychotic hothead sponsored by his traveling companions, a country-western singer and his manager mother, a family man with a cunning plan and a jiggly blonde waiting for him on the east coast, a jive hipster in a swank suit driving another “borrowed” car, and—most significantly—Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, who’s on probation after taking the fall for his best friend for the death of a passenger during a past race. Luckily for Coy, his probation officer is also his girlfriend and she’s joining him for the ride; unluckily for him, his brother has bet more than he can afford on Coy’s winning and his interference will end up having tragic consequences for almost all involved.
There are many frustrating aspects of working in creative industries. None are actually worse than those that come from having real jobs, but they are still incredibly irksome nonetheless. By far the worst has to be the shocking disparity between the works you take great pride in and that which is actually successfully received. The sad truth is that no one ever has any real idea which ideas will connect and which ones won’t. Very often the passion projects inspired by the blood, sweat and tears of your own personal experience will end up ignored in favour of (what you think are) uninspired brain farts that you offered up only out of desperation, rather than any faith in the quality of the material.
The thing is, though, the reason this happens is because artists are seldom worthy arbiters of their own material. The very closeness that connects them to one work over another is often the very thing that alienates the rest of us. The cinematic landscape is littered with terrible films made by talented artists whose previous “sell out” successes gave them the carte blanche they needed to make the film they’ve had playing in their head since they were 10 years-old. Distance, interference and a lack of faith in the material can sometimes be a good thing—forcing a filmmaker to try harder and reach further than they would on something that was completely their own. Reluctant works of art—those born of frustration, self-doubt and misery—are often the most satisfying, regardless of how the artist may feel about them once they are completed.
I write this, because even though I appreciate why Paul Bartel was dissatisfied with Cannonball! and regarded his work on it as a professional setback and personal failure, it and it’s immediate predecessor, Death Race 2000, remain—by far—my two favourite films he ever made.
Bartel may have regarded Cannonball! as nothing more than a paycheck, but I personally find it much more entertaining and enjoyable than more personal films like Private Parts, Eating Raoul and Not For Publication. Those films, though much reflective of his true voice, have always struck me as being essentially John Waters-lite (a comparison his Lust in the Dust makes unavoidable through the casting of Waters’ late muse, Divine), while his two Corman films remain utterly unique precisely because of the creative concessions forced upon him. Left alone and his whimsical gay satire proved ultimately as bland as the couple he and Mary Woronov played in Eating Raoul; forced to sell out and the result was corrosively biting satire no one else could have ever made but him.
Given its murdering-pedestrians-for-sport premise, Death Race 2000 should feel much darker than Cannonball!—and it does—but not as much as you’d think. Set in the present day, Cannonball! doesn’t have the previous film’s funny, futuristic art direction and special effects to lighten its load. Therefore, when it gets dark, we feel it that much more. The consequences in Cannonball! have more bite than in Death Race 2000. We feel them more. Bartel appears to have noticed this and sadistically goes for the jugular with a spectacular highway pile-up sequence that is virtually apocalyptic in its destruction. “You assholes want to see car crashes?” he asks us. “Then I’ll fucking give you car crashes!”
The sequence is so unrelenting and out of place in what is otherwise a somewhat light-hearted picture, it stands out as the most extreme moment in Bartel’s directing career. As a filmmaker who aimed to be a comic provocateur, it’s easily his most provocative moment. It’s thrilling, devastating and unlike anything you’ll ever see in any of the films his two drive-in hits inspired.
In a decade where “car crash pictures” (as Joe Dante, who has an acting cameo in Cannonball! and edited Grand Theft Auto, Ron Howard’s classic example of the oeuvre, calls them in his recent commentary for that film) supplanted westerns and musicals in terms of popularity, Cannonball! was the first in the sub-genre of films depicting the real world tradition of secret, illegal road races across the United States (unlike Death Race 2000, which depicted a fictitious government-sanctioned race that involved running over people for points).
It was followed by the much more light-hearted The Gumball Rally (which took its inspiration more from the “wacky” ensemble farce of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World than anything else), as well as the truly terrible Hal Needham duology The Cannonball Run 1&2. Though the title of Needham’s two films owe an obvious debt to Bartel's, their actual content is much closer to The Gumball Rally’s. The main difference being that in Rally the characters are played by talented, but non-famous character actors, while in the Run films they’re played by either slumming has-beens or well-known television personalities.
Though it would be a mistake to refer to Cannonball! as being a more realistic variation of the material, it is easily the least broad and cartoonish example of this strange sub-genre. Of them all, it’s the only one to depict the dangerous realities of participating in races such as this. In the other films, none of the characters so much as yawn as they go two days without sleeping to reach their destinations, while in Cannonball! the film’s hero wrecks his car when he briefly dozes off behind the wheel.
In the other films the sabotage the drivers inflict on each other is played off as comic—the real world equivalent of what you’d see in Hanna-Barbara’s Wacky Races cartoon—while in Cannonball! the majority of the attempts to stop other drivers are deadly in their intent and are often fatally successful.
Though this willingness to kill off characters likely had more to do with producer Roger Corman’s mandate that the film contain a certain amount of trailer-friendly explosions, it ultimately is what allows Cannonball! to work better than Rally or the Runs. Unlike those films, Cannonball! is a much more moral film where actions have consequences. In it, cheaters do not win, corruption isn’t rewarded and the prize goes to the young couple who go out of their way to take Coy’s injured girlfriend to the hospital and who decide to continue racing only out of a sense of completion, rather than monetary desire.
But that’s not to say Bartel’s film is anything close to being a drama. His particular comic sensibility dominates much of Cannonball! especially in the portrayal of country-western singer Perman Waters by Gerrit Graham, who appears to be playing the straight southern cousin of Phantom of the Paradise’s Beef. Bartel also gives himself a nice comic role as an effete gangster more interested in composing show tunes than breaking legs. And as the German driver who dies when his sabotaged car explodes as planned, James Keach is allowed a few inspired comic soliloquys before his demise.
That the film earns genuine laughs, while Needham’s Run films don’t is a perfect example of how a director’s seeming suitability for a project can actually be a negative rather than a positive for a production. Needham was a southern redneck car-nut who had actually participated in the real world version of the race, while Bartel was a sophisticated gay New Yorker who had no interest in cars at all. Yet Bartel’s film works and Needham’s two films don’t. Bartel’s initial lack of investment in the project forced him to find ways to keep himself interested, which elevated the material. Needham made the films that were in his heart and they really, really sucked.
Beyond the reasons noted above, another reason genre fans should go out of their way to check out Cannonball! is its excellent cast, filled with Corman and Bartel regulars. As Coy, David Carradine is essentially playing a less damaged version of Death Race’s Frankenstein and as his probation officer girlfriend, Veronica Hamel is given at least one great moment of kick ass awesomeness with which to shine. As the winning couple, Robert Carradine and Belinda Belaski are charmingly naïve, while Archie Hahn does an excellent job as Zippo, Coy’s best friend, whose cheerfulness barely masks the guilt he feels for his role in Coy’s imprisonment. Cormon fixture, Dick Miller gets one of the meatiest roles of his career as Coy’s desperate brother and Deliverence’s Bill McKinney is alternately comic and frightening as Cade, whose psychotic need to win proves to be his undoing.
Co-financed by Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, the film also boasts a larger than normal budget for a Corman feature, which is evident on screen. The film especially benefits from the work of frequent Jonathan Demme collaborator Tak Fujimoto, who brings a colourful, yet realistic look to the film’s cinematography.
That said, b-movie fans are likely to get their biggest kicks out of the innumerable cameos of soon-to-be famous filmmakers found throughout the movie. I won’t spoil all of them for you, but I will say that there is a special delight to be had in seeing the future directors of New York, New York and Staying Alive pretending to be dangerous wiseguys with Bartel, while enjoying a meal of KFC.