The Cars that Ate Paris (1974)

Director: Peter Weir

cars%20spike%202.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s been kind of a down-in-the-dumps week. The time was right for some unadulterated silliness. The hubby, who is an inveterate beach party movie buff, offered The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, but the thought of seeing such greats as Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and even Francis X. Bushman sharing a screen with Nancy Sinatra was even more depressing than the week. Spying among the hub’s collection of weirdiana a tape marked The Cars that Ate Paris, I said let’s see what’s up with that. Oh boy, there was a whole LOT up with that one!

Peter Weir has had a hit-and-miss kind of career for me, but when he made this, his second feature film, he was firing on more than four cylinders. You’re not likely to find a movie quite as quirky as this one that delivers such a potent message at the same time. An article in Pop Matters by Philip Booth says that the continued acceptance in Australia and the United States of the carnage that was the Vietnam War figured prominently in the plot of The Cars that Ate Paris.

Somewhere in backwater Australia, the city fathers of the delusionally named town of Paris have devised a scheme to fuel the town’s stagnate economy. Setting up high-beam lights on the roads through Paris, the locals blind passing drivers into wrecking their cars. The salvage operations make Paris the spare-parts capital of the area (and in a sense, Australia’s City of Lights). Any drivers and passengers who survive are subjected to medical experimentation.

cars%20arthur.jpgBoth a victim and benefactor of this town’s cottage industry is Arthur (Terry Camilleri), whose brother George is killed when their car and caravan are harvested by the, um, traffic lights. For reasons not entirely clear to me, The Mayor (John Meillon) declares that “we’re keeping him” and moves Arthur into his home to recover. Arthur is heartsick at the loss of his brother, who he believes would not have died if Arthur were driving. You see, Arthur ran over an old man only a couple of years before, and though he was acquitted of reckless homicide charges, he hasn’t been able to drive since.

Once Arthur is back on his feet, The Mayor sees to it that he receives a tour of the town and becomes integrated into the community. He is taken to the local hospital, where one of the town elders cheerfully shows off the patients in the veggie ward: “He’s a quarter-veggie. That one’s a half-veggie. I reckon your brother is more than a full veggie, since he’s dead.” Experimenter Dr. Midland (Kevin Miles) offers, “There’s a tremendous challenge out here in the country, just waiting to be picked up. This is where the really exciting work is being done.”

cars%20mayor%20and%20arthur.jpgFollowing this exposure to the town “mascots,” Arthur, though exceedingly meek, makes several attempts to leave Paris. Each time, The Mayor cajoles him to stay, finally asking Arthur if he would like to be adopted as the son The Mayor never had. Although The Mayor and his wife Beth (Melissa Jafer) have two children, “They aren’t ours. They’re orphans.” Wonder how that happened. So, Arthur settles, if somewhat uneasily, into Paris. To cement Arthur’s place of honor and carry on in the grand tradition of politicians everywhere, The Mayor appoints Arthur the parking supervisor of Paris, and gives him a fancy armband to wear. While it doesn’t appear that Paris has a parking problem, Arthur, nonetheless, patrols the streets. He comes across some young blokes whose cars look like fugitives from a Mad Max movie. When he asks one of them to move his car, it appears a confrontation might occur. Instead, the lad says, “Sure. Anything to oblige.” In Paris, as in other cities, you don’t argue with City Hall or its son.

But the truce doesn’t hold. One of the owners of a tricked-up car runs through The Mayor’s yard, breaking his Aboriginal lawn jockey in two. To avenge this outrage, the offender’s car is torched right in front of him. Trouble is definitely brewing.

The night of a fancy-dress ball, The Mayor has to order Arthur to get into his costume and attend. The whole affair is pretty dismal, particularly when the entire assembly applauds the veggies, who are brought in wearing decorated bags over their heads to serve as their costumes. cars%20paris%201.jpgOutside the hall, a growling animal is heard, then another. The town’s youth have surrounded the hall with their cars and begin smashing through the walls and chasing the fleeing guests. In a scene inspired by a hundred epic movies, one brave elder lashes out at the cars, running toward them swinging a mechanic’s tool. Unlike these epic films, in which the hero invariably rises above the fray, the elder is impaled on a porcupine car.

Meanwhile, Arthur has climbed into The Mayor’s cherry ’57 Chevy and backs up several times into one of the attacking cars. The Mayor urges Arthur to finish the lad off. After he has done so, his entire face brightens. “I can drive,” he says in awe. With that, Arthur drives away from Paris. In Weir’s words, “He’s the little man, the little worm that turns.”

The Cars that Ate Paris borrows from a number of movie conventions and turns them on their side. On the horror movie side, we have zombies, but they are created through deliberate experimentation and become the equivalent of cuddly Down’s Syndrome children for the townspeople. The evil scientist is a well-respected, well-integrated member of the community. One of the quarter-veggies, let loose in town to work the high-beam lights, gets a tongue-lashing but nothing more when he shoots the town’s minister. He’s left to collect Jaguar hood ornaments, like trophy teeth from any number of war movies.

Cars%20that%20ate%20fur%20jacket.JPGConsumerism is roundly assaulted. The film itself opens with what we learn is a cigarette ad, showing an attractive young couple driving out in their sportster, buying a painting at a charming country boutique, and then smashing their car down a ravine. The Mayor’s wife tries to comfort Arthur by showing him her mink coat—second-hand, of course, and she’s not allowed to wear it outside because The Mayor doesn’t want her to look too posh; there might be a revolt over the scoliotic backbone that supports Paris’ economy. The car culture itself is shown to be perverted and as all-consuming as the movie’s title suggests. Youth rebellion, however, doesn’t seem to be the hope for the future. If Arthur’s trading killing for driving is any indication, the next generation won’t look much better than the last, though the indefinite ending leaves room for speculation.

Nonetheless, perhaps Paris could have done worse. Instead of killing the outsiders who pass them by and take no notice, they could have turned their town into a theme park for tourists. Living in a city of 3 million people that seems to be doing just that to solve its economic woes, I can testify that it is a shameful comedown indeed. l

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