William "Memo" Nericcio
“It’s Kung Fu,” we say, with excitement, yearning, and glee. We don’t understand synecdoche, or cultural studies, or any of that crap yet—grad school looms on the horizon like Covid-19 did a year ago for us.
That is, not at all.
We are at the Pla-Mor Entertainment Center in Laredo, Texas, 2 miles or so from the legendary Rio Grande River, north of Mexico.
|As with all pictures in this blog |
posting, click to enlarge
And there playing at the cinema—for Laredo, the movie house at Pla-Mor is a cine-sanctuary, one part Shakey’s Pizza décor, one part cineaste’s memorabilia collection other—is Death Race 2000, featuring the previously mentioned Kung Fu—not Kung Fu, the megahit TV show, where David Carradine became a 70s TV star, but “Kung Fu,” the star, who comes to be called Kung Fu in Laredo owing to his tele-spectacular ubiquity. In the same way, 8 years later, in 1983, Richard Chamberlain will come to be known as El “Thorn Birds” in Laredo.
El Kung Fu, in Death Race 2000, is a bit of a disappointment. As if the big screen allowed us to garner what was hidden on television, that David Carradine is not so much an actor as an a one-dimensional, mumbling doofus—a dime store Brando, a street-grade James Dean, with the facial expression range of a department store mannequin.
Half the time in Death Race 2000 he’s masked, or then fake-masked in a gorey disguise of facial disfigurement.
But we don’t worry about that too much for long—the riotous violence of the movie (race car drivers running down the elderly and kids; blood spatterings decapitations etc), the R-rated female nudity, are almost just enough to paper over Carradine’s horrible thespian shortcomings.
We are a year removed from 1976’s Rocky phenomena so Sylvester Stallone’s appearance in the schlock sci-fi film does not tickle our notice.
What we did not register and only came to light as I rescreened the movie for this piece was the brilliant satire that is Death Race 2000—if there is a piece of 70s American cinema that better presages the rise of the religious right, neo-liberal infected news media, and schloch-ster politics (think Trump, but with Hannity-the-enabler there too), I don’t know it.
Infused with the cinematic equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut’s vision (Slaughterhouse-Five appears in 1969, Breakfast of Champions in 1973), director Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 is a lurid and lucid vivisection of America then and America now. Addicted to mindless television, prone to empty distractions on the boob tube, and equally empty violence and titillation, the television audiences parodied in Death Race 2000 hold up a mirror and the monster we see reflected is not the hideous prosthetics Carradine, our “Kung Fu,” uses on the screen, but ourselves, now, pandemic paralyzed, watching in horror as a demented old madman drives our school bus over the edge.