Sunday, November 15, 2009
Cordell Barker's Runaway
The saying goes that comedy is a man in trouble. There is no shortage of trouble in Cordell Barker's films. In The Cat Came Back and Strange Invaders, a character arrives who is first welcome and then is revealed to be a source of chaos, destroying the lives of those around it. Both films end with the trouble-making character multiplying. In the first film, the main character accidentally kills himself while trying to get rid of the cat, and is then haunted by 9 feline ghosts. In Strange Invaders, the alien child calls down more of his brethren after destroying the home and marriage of the main characters. While it turns out to be a dream, the woman is pregnant with multiple children who resemble the alien child.
These films are structurally very similar and both keep the chaos localized. The main characters are unfortunate victims, but their problems are not typical. While we can identify with their frustrations, the films say little about our own lives.
With Runaway, Barker has expanded his view to encompass the whole of human civilization. The runaway train is carrying all of us and we're doomed. This is the blackest of comedies and far more biting than his previous films. While the forces of nature initiate the chaos, it becomes fatal due to the human follies of vanity, sex, greed and technology.
The train consists of four cars. The engine is manned by the Captain, a pompous, vain individual who is more interested in women than in his responsibilities. He is a stand-in for those who lead us. His fireman is the bureaucracy that allows leaders to function. The next car is the capitalist class, all wearing stovepipe hats, sipping drinks and playing billiards. This car contains a woman and her small dog. The next car consists of the lumpen proletariat, guzzling beer, dancing and wearing paper party hats. The caboose contains more bureaucrats, all asleep.
The dog runs into the engine. The woman follows it to reclaim it and the Captain leaves his post in order to flirt with her. The dog bites him and the woman, though meaning well, drags him off to take care of the bite. The driverless train then hits a cow walking on the tracks, hurling the fireman into the absurdly complex machinery, itself a comment on the technology our survival depends on. As he rights himself, he accidentally pulls a lever which causes the train to increase it's speed. The train is now out of control.
The first casualties are those in the caboose. As the train makes a turn, the caboose is flung into space with the inhabitants oblivious to what has happened. As the train attempts to climb a hill, the fireman runs out of coal and tells the passengers that they aren't going to make it.
Here's where the film gets interesting. The capitalists offer money to the proletariat in exchange for things to fuel the engine. Though the proles were completely happy before this, money warps their values and they are quick to give up everything they've got, even selling the clothes off their backs. The capitalists, having nothing left to buy from them, cut the proles' car loose from the rest of the train and steal back the money before the proles hurtle to their doom. Capitalist exploitation doesn't get much more explicit than this.
The engine still needs more fuel and the fireman informs the capitalists that he doesn't think they're going to make it. Only when their own survival is at stake do they finally panic (and never consider using their own possessions for fuel!). At this point, the train is precariously balanced at the top of a steep hill, threatening to fall backwards. The Captain and the woman emerge from a bathroom where she has tended to his wounds, and as the Captain walks back towards the engine, the balance is tipped and the train once more goes forward.
But when the captain returns to the engine, he turns his attention to the woman once more, ignoring his responsibilities. The train hurtles into the air and crash lands, killing all the people. The only survivors in the film are the cow and the small dog. Nature, it seems, will survive human folly. That is the only hope that the film allows.
Having concluded that human endeavors are doomed to self-destruct, is there anything left for Barker to say? Will he be limited to variations on this theme? At the rate he makes films, it will be another decade before we find out. In the meantime, though, we have a film whose laughs are marinated in pessimism. Runaway would fit nicely on a double bill with Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.