(Some spoilers included:)
Although, many commentators have called this film surreal, the term fits poorly here. To quote from Encyclopedia Britannica's, surreal means:
"Fantastic or incongruous imagery": One needn't explain to the unimaginative how many ways a plucky ten-year-old boy at large and seeking his fortune in the driver's seat of a red Mustang could be fantastic: those curious might read James Kincaid; but if you asked said lad how he were incongruous behind the wheel of a sports car, he'd surely protest, "NO way!" What fantasies and incongruities the film offers mostly appear within the first fifteen minutes. Thereafter we get more iterations of the same, in an ever-cruder and more squalid progression that, far from incongruous, soon proves predictable. Not that it were, on the other hand, literally believable-- but it were unfair to tax Motorama in particular with this flaw, any plausible suspension of disbelief having fallen precipitously on the typical film-maker's and viewer's scale of values ever since "Raiders of the Lost Ark" became a blockbuster.
"Hallucinatory": How do we know what a hallucination is if part of having one is not knowing that we are having one? At any rate, some people know that they enjoy "hallucinogenic drugs"-- but if Motorama typifies the result of doing so, then I'm at a loss as to why anyone would take them more than once. There is, of course, the occasional bad trip. The movie must be one of those, pun and all.
"Juxtaposition of words that was startling": How many times can a ten-year-old startle you by uttering "Oh, my God!" when he likes something, or "Damn!" when he doesn't? These two interjections are about par for the course with this script. Sadly, any sense of the surreal in what passes for dialogue could only reveal, in direct proportion, one's naivete regarding the speech patterns of the rising American generation.
"A world completely defined and minutely depicted but that makes no rational sense:" Motorama's world indeed makes no sense, but it is about as completely defined as a cartoon in an elementary school newspaper. The numerous guest stars in the cast all have cameo roles even less intelligent than our little hero who exclaims "Damn!" in the blink of an eyelash but needs several seconds to concoct the lamest lie. And even *his* character, despite appearing in nearly every scene, gets no significant development. Here's scant reward for any viewer who sympathizes, as I must, enough to wish to know him better and understand 'where he's coming from.' One vaguely senses a far better story and protagonist struggling to get out.
"Fully recognizable, realistically painted images are removed from their normal contexts and reassembled within an ambiguous, paradoxical, or shocking framework." No, we see a succession of stereotypical and ever more dilapidated billboards, filling stations, greasy-spoon eateries, cheap hotels, and their lowlife habitues along country highways, exactly where they stereotypically belong.
"Largely responsible for perpetuating... the traditional emphasis on content." There is little content, moment-to-moment, in Motorama.
To sum up: Picture British millionaires dressed as clowns or pirates on the way to a posh costume party, sitting serene and mute as cautious chauffeurs inch their Rolls-Royces like fragile skiffs through a roiling sea of desperate humanity, Chinese who implore them through the windows and smear the glass with blood. Or imagine a stadium full of abandoned antiques, limousines like those above now rusting, and white pianos tinkled by ghosts. Into this detritus wander an exhausted boy and an ailing woman to whom he clings as mother-figure becoming girl-friend, who fall asleep side by side on the grass. He is awakened-- on the Feast of the Transfiguration, "white and glistering" day 1945-- by a brilliant flash on the horizon that is not the rising sun. Finding that his consort has become a corpse, he first believes that he has witnessed her soul going up to heaven. Later he explains only a little less innocently, 'I learned a new word today: atom-bomb. It's like God taking a photograph.' Now, *there* are just two samples of cinematic surrealism, surrealism whose ironies ripple out far enough to invade its film's very title: Empire of the Sun. If you seek surreal, *please* don't miss it. Alas, however hard he treads on the accelerator to race his chariot through and beyond the desert, no scenes so exquisitely strange, rich, subtle, or gorgeous await Motorama's poor little Gus in his quest.
None of the above necessarily constitutes a thumbs-down on this film. Though somewhat disappointed, I can't dismiss it, in view of the respectability of another genre that it does exemplify-- one influenced, to be sure, by surrealism, but also by expressionism, existentialism, and Franz Kafka's pessimism amidst omnipotent power structures. Let's try on for size: Theater of the Absurd.
Turning to E.B.'s article on this style, I am amazed by how, to the extent that Theater of the Absurd is a valid artistic style, the above objections to Motorama vanish like a puff of smoke. I'm tempted to quote the entire text as support of the identification.
Theater of the Absurd attempts to show "that the human situation is essentially absurd, devoid of purpose... humankind is left feeling hopeless, bewildered, and anxious.": Having instantaneously achieved his purpose of getting away from a depressing home life among bickering parents, Gus finds himself purposeless until he drives past a glittering billboard reading "Motorama" and decides to win the lottery that it promises. As others have already revealed, this ambition proves illusory: although the game "never expires", the sponsoring corporation has no intention that anyone should ever win, and has ways to trick, confuse, and leave crestfallen any aspirant to the reward. He, like others, is ultimately disappointed in his dream.
"Absurdist playwrights, therefore, did away with most of the logical structure of traditional theatre. There is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence... a timeless, circular quality emerges." "Language in an absurdist play is full of... repetitions... repeating the obvious until it sounds like nonsense." Underneath a sometimes "dazzling comic surface," we find "an underlying message of metaphysical distress." Gus's obsession with a silly game, his inane language, the plot device wherein he divines a bleak future and/or returns to an earlier moment and takes a different but still bleak turn-- so much fits now. While an admirer of the surreal would do better with some films, anyway, of Spielberg, admirers of Motorama as it really is should find fellow-travelers-- not instead but addition-- in the works of Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet.
But one can't quite stop here. After his disillusionment with the game, Gus returns to "Phil" (i.e., Love), the first attendant he had met and the one person who had treated him decently, although he had also scolded him-- at a service station advertising "Be full-filled!". Under Phil's tutelage he learns a life of waiting for cars. We might note here that the absurdist playwright Beckett had entitled his most famous play "Waiting for Godot," and that for Godot we should read "God." God is one of Phil's preoccupations, too. Furthermore, as the indirect result of his previous encounter with Gus, Phil is badly maimed and goes about in a cast with his arms straight out horizontally. In the last scene, Gus, now Phil's protege, says that he wants to hear music. We hear none, but we see Phil wiggling his fingers at the end of his outstretched arm, beckoning Gus closer, and Gus responds. The End.
Finally, on to an author whom I happen to be reading currently, the Anglican theologian William Stringfellow. If this rebel-lawyer is not acknowledged as an architect or undergirder of Liberation Theology, which is more a Roman Catholic than an Anglican movement, perhaps he should be. Police brutality and corporate greed are a cliche in cinema and literature, including Motorama, but Stringfellow supports and illuminates such sentiments with impressive warrants from scripture, tradition, and reason.
His most significant work is an expose of the earthly activities of those fallen angels whom the Bible refers to as principalities and powers. Principalities, wrote Stringfellow, are behind all of our popular three I's: Images, Institutions, and Ideologies. All of these commend themselves to our worship by making false promises. The more deeply involved with an image, an institution, or an ideology any person becomes, the more his own personhood becomes "depleted" and be becomes a slave to them. Promising power, control, and immortality, they inexorably deliver helplessness, chaos, and death. As essentially fallen, defeated powers, they can do no more than that. Yet they beguile humans with that "dominion over the earth" promised by God in the book of Genesis, while in fact no one of us controls an image, an institution, or an ideology bent inevitably on its own hegemony and self-preservation. They take on lives of their own. "Dominion" happens to be a mistranslation: a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew would be "stewardship." But this is a quibble beside a more fundamental problem: Most of us neglect to notice that God had delegated this power to Adam *before* the fall. We have no reason to assume that we, his descendents, still exercise it now: on the contrary, it should be obvious that demonic forces have stolen it from us.
One might add two observations of C.S. Lewis: First, that "man's conquest of nature" is a mere illusion, and a ruse to cover the fact that one is really talking about the conquest of some men by other men with nature as the instrument; and secondly, contrary to popular belief, Satan is no kind of good-time Charlie. He may dangle out pleasures at first, but he is very niggardly with them and will withdraw them from any human firmly in his thrall, perhaps leaving his prey sitting in front of the fire feeling miserably sorry for himself and seething with resentment.
Now, applying these insights to Motorama, we seem them mirrored remarkably in Gus's experience. He is, if not nice, at least a pretty little boy prior to falling victim to the Motorama game. The first signs advertising it glisten glamorously. The longer he continues, however, and the deeper he journeys towards the sponsoring corporation's headquarters, the more shabby they become. He's lonely, meeting no one else who plays the game. The stations giving out the cards have either fallen into ruins or are staffed by zombies. The people he does meet along the way are more and more ugly, deceitful, and hostile. (The fact that the principalities answer to a common dictator does not mean that they can abide one another). Gus's humanity is leached out of him as he becomes not only totally self-centered and oblivious to the needs of others but partially blinded... disfigured... prematurely aged while infantile in the literal sense of linguistically challenged. Eventually even his precious Mustang is taken from him in a crash, and he must continue in a dead man's wreck. Yet at long last, having done everything he thought was expected, he presents himself to the principality in its proud tower to receive his prize. Using the biblical power to confuse wielded by those who have built such monuments to their own vanity, its agents evade him, disappoint, insult, and finally throw him from the top floor. He FALLS long and hard, landing, finally in a body of water. In other words, in classic symbolism, he DIES. He has met the inevitable bad end of anyone who has put his faith in such a deceiver.
But this fate proves to be only a warning look into a mutable future. He repents and returns to Phil, and upon seeing him performs the very first generous, selfless act we have seen from him for almost an hour and a half: noting that Phil is now handicapped and hardly able to insert a hose into a gas tank, he asks, "Can I help you with that?" Then, seeing the "help wanted" sign, he decides to apply for the job, explaining to the motorist with whom he was hitch-hiking that he reckons he'll get out here, because it doesn't look like too bad a place to work.
This interpretation is conjectural, of course, and it may surprise or even outrage the film's "cult classic" aficionados who see quite different points in it.
If Motorama isn't quite my cup of tea, I'm at least convinced now that it's hardly the worst film ever made.