Sunday, 27 February 2011

Carmen, Crabs, and the dead end drive-in

After many years of wondering and waiting I finally got to see this 80s "Ozploitation" film I'd been wishing to see for ages.  Dead End Drive-In, directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, was released originally in 1986.   (I bought the DVD for work - such is the advantage of running a library.  And besides, the new Head of Film and TV requested that I source as many Australian films as I can, so...) My interest in this film is not necessarily because it's Aussie, or because it drips and and reeks with every 80s cliche, but because it's based on a short story that I love, that being Peter Carey's "Crabs".

I'd never read a Peter Carey novel.  I've only read most of the short stories that make up the volume called "The Fat Man in History" of which the first story, 'Crabs', is the best.  With some writers you find yourself wanting more after reading one novel or story that you love; you're hungry to read the rest of their oeuvre.  This is usually the case with me.  But with Peter Carey I find I have no desire to read his later great works such as 'Oscar and Lucinda', or 'Bliss', or 'The History of the Kelly Gang'.  And although I may get around to reading these someday, the 15-page short story titled 'Crabs' is seemingly enough for me.  It's a story I love and have obsessed over, a story that throttled my imagination and threw me down into the deep throes of my inner subconscious.

This subconscious pull must have something to do with the persistent symbol of the car that runs through this story.  In my conscious, waking life I find myself indifferent to cars.  I own one indeed, but I seldom use it.  And I don't wash it or look after it cosmetically, only mechanically.  It's ten-years old and very much a nondescript piece of machinery, hardly flash I could suggest with wry, extreme understatement.  But I like it that way.  And I find now that I could easily live without it, just walk away from it.

It's in my dreams that the image or symbol of the car has been a constant throughout my entire life.  Not so much these days, but definitely in my childhood up to early adulthood I would find myself dreaming of car travel, mostly as a passenger, and would riding over bridges, in tunnels, crossroads, straight country roads, urban streets that I'd never visited consciously.  I'd be with others or on my own, as a passenger it seems but somehow alone.  The constant feeling I encountered with these dreams was the subtle sense of anxiety and perhaps loneliness, trepidation, fear.  I'm reminded, too, that a couple of very pertinent dreams I've had of my late father involved cars.  I've been confronted too, with images of my former white car in relation to episodes in my life that confronted me in strangely palpable way, recalling one particular tense argument in my former band about driving responsibilities and being suddenly hit with an image of my little white car and its open boot.  I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of fragility and loneliness and I almost broke down.  So I know that cars or the symbol of the car is something that stakes a significant hold in my subconscious.

'Crabs' is all about cars.  'Dead End Drive-in' takes the original Peter Carey story - first published in 1972 - and seemingly recreates it word-for-word or image-for-image but for the derivation of post-punk to mid-80s kitsch you find portrayed throughout the film in its many characters' costumes and hairstyles.  But the film diverges at the point where Carey's short story becomes that bit too surreal.  In fact the original story became fantastically, scarily surreal and it's the story's final few paragraphs that blew my mind when I first read it and continues to excite me and leaves me pondering its significance.  This is because all of my car-related dreams seem to echo, either faintly or intensely, that which is relayed in Carey's short story, in terms of the story's feeling aspects and its magnificent, overwhelming ending.

The gist of the story is this: we're in the future, a bit like Mad-Max where there is economic decay and people are scrambling and fighting for resources.  Now, the film makes this implicit where the short story only alludes to this.  Crabs (his nickname) is a teenage lad of about 16 or so who is aspiring to be a tow-truck business owner, wishing to be like his mentor, Frank.  Frank has lent Crabs his 1956 Dodge for the evening.  Crabs takes his girlfriend Carmen to a drive-in.  Crabs knows to be careful because 'Karboys' are rife; ie, gangs who wantonly steal parts from cars to sell on the black market.  This is why, in the backdrop of the story, tow-truck drivers are highly esteemed.

Crabs and Carmen are having sex when the Dodge tips over with a thud - two of the car's wheels were stolen.  Crabs and Carmen can't drive home that evening.  Instead they visit the manager's office and are issued with meal tickets for the drive-in's cafeteria and the option of blankets.  They are advised to make themselves at home as, along with 73 other cars in the same predicament, there is no way out.

They eat the hamburgers and drink the sundaes with their meal tickets.  Carmen seems to enjoy herself and falls into the swing of things at the drive-in compound: sunbathing on the roof of the Dodge, eating hamburgers and sundaes, watching the movies at night, hanging out and gossiping with other girls in the ladies' toilets.  I suppose that's part of the allegory; Carmen's name is so close to that of "Karboys".  Indeed, Carmen seems to be a passive, open vessel for whatever is going on in this compound, contenting herself with this new, unlikely situation with little question.  Unlike Crabs, who obsesses over Frank's likely volatile reaction to his car's disappearance, and is always looking for or brooding about a way out of the compound.  In our world, "crabs" move sideways whereas cars only move backward and forward.  But crabs also move together and Crabs is stuck in a drive-in where seemingly each days brings in more cars, more families, more varieties of people, more smells of different cooking, and more tenements and more ball-game, time-passing activity.  Carmen is also Carey's vessel in his story of the depiction of racial ignorance and racial fear.   There are more detailed depictions in the film of Crabs' fractured relations with the other guys in the compound where the original story had only inferred these.

It is at the crucial point in the short-story where the film-adaptation takes a totally different slant, veering for the more conventional cops-and-robbers shoot out and escape scene.  The film ends after Crabs has shot the manager after a vicious argument - the manager being cited to co-conspire with the government to keep the drive-in as a lock-in compound - to shoot another load of coppers before driving out and escaping onto the free streets in the break of dawn.

The story has Crabs noticing that, amongst the uncountable amount of cars being towed in, there is another 1956 Dodge.  Crabs industriously steals the wheels and sets these up on this own car.  He checks the dip to find all the inside parts to his car have vanished.  He walks back to the newly arrived Dodge, opens the door and avoids and ignores the people inside trying to latch onto him.  He opens the bonnet.  All he sees is a group of small chickens drinking from a bowl of water placed upon a makeshift floor of old planks - there are no car parts. 

Here's where it gets all sci-fi and, for me in relation to all those car dreams I've been having all my life, quite amazing.  Crabs decides that the only way to escape, or to be free, is to be a "motor car or vehicle in good health".  He repeats this to himself.  He tells Carmen.  Carmen cries and says you're going mad.  Crabs is insistent.  He "becomes" a car in good health, metamorphosing himself into a tow-truck of which he escapes, driving out of the drive-in.  It takes Crabs a long time to drive through and around all the cars and people since the number of inhabitants in the drive-in had risen exponentially since he was first incarcerated.

Crabs drives down the highway at high speed, free.  It is cold and Crabs realises there are no lights anywhere.  The towns he passes are completely in the dark.  (I've had "dark" car dreams myself, too).  There are no other cars, no people, just emptiness.  He drives for three hours, slowing down and feeling the pain sharply when jolting and turning corners.  Finally he finds another highway and sees lights.  He is heartened.  He drives towards these lights, the only lights in the world.  He comes to a compound and looks in through the gate to see people laughing, talking and dancing.  He drives around the perimeter of the fence over rough unmade roads and paddocks until he comes to the main gate.

The gate belongs the drive-in, and it is chained-up and locked with reinforced steel.

There are a few points of allegory that can be taken from the story and its chilling ending.  For one thing, the concept of finding freedom by becoming a "motor car or vehicle in good health" is an absurd one on the surface, but when one examines this closely it can be seen that this votive parallels the meditative, spiritual idea of "lift-off"; that when you purify your body and mind and focus your pure energy, or pure intellect, on the purity or power that is contained within the body rather than on the surface mind and emotions, you transform yourself into a vessel of 'higher power'.  Crabs, in effect, is purifying himself to rise beyond worldly circumstance.  He is the being of concentrated consciousness.  It is this "consciousness" that permits him to be the "vehicle in good health" and to escape the compound and its moribund, worldly ways; his body being his "vehicle" to do so, just as our own bodies are vehicles of the consciousness or life contained within.

Ultimately, however, Crabs doesn't or can't really escape.  His attempt at escape is cold and utterly isolating, devoid of life and light, and is something of a dream anyway.  Is it because of some worldly paradox that one can't find freedom until all find freedom?  Because interestingly, Crabs notices from the outside that the people within the locked compounded are singing and talking, and even dancing; they are having a good time.  Did Carmen take the right idea to relax into her new circumstance without giving it extra thought?  Or is it all it a bit like Ken Kesey's Combine, where those who try to forcibly escape the system get done in (McMurphy)?   That ultimately, there's no escape unless you're deaf and dumb, so you might as well get played and be content with your own lot?  That the authorities, or "illuminati", or, in this instance, the Karboys, will rule and lord over the minions, and there is nothing that anyone can effectively do about it?  (Notice that the 'Karboys' are invisible, just like the world's privileged rulers are..?)

I notice the film was filmed around Foreshore Road near Botany Bay, (just down the road from where I'm living now).  It seems ironic to me that a film about a degenerate shitty compound that grows and grows was filmed on location around Botany Bay (at least the street scenes were) as this is where discoverer Captain Cook first made the decision to colonise the now newly-named 'Botany Bay', in 1770.  241 year on and Sydney is now a grand, oversized and perhaps over-populated melting pot that precisely matches the character of Peter Carey's drive-in cinema during the course of the short story.  The drive-in is simply a microcosm of modern Western society.

The ultimate accolade has to go to Peter Carey.  It's not often, to my knowledge, that a film gets made based on a short story; a novel, yes, but adapting a short-story for a film is far less common.  (Two of Peter Carey's best known novels have also since been adapted into feature films: 'Bliss' and 'Oscar and Lucinda').  And yet it's not surprising in the least that 'Crabs' was made into a feature film, for like myself, there are others out there whose imaginations have been fired by this fifteen-page short story.  'Crabs' is quite simply a genius piece of short-story fiction, one that maintains and captures a universal appeal.


I was two years old when 'Crabs' was first published, in 1972.  I was an imaginative child who used to make up words.  I had a word for petrol station, "bugudubba".  To this day I can look back and see where my head was at with making up a word for a place that excited this here infant.  I loved the open, expansive feelings of (some) petrol stations, you drive in, you drive out, and they can take you places inside and out.  I may be indifferent to vehicles in my conscious waking life, but the car and its symbols have always been an integral part of my subconscious, dreaming life.

Paul Hewson shooting star

i'm in the sunshine A mate of mine produces a monthly songwriter newsletter which goes out to a hundred or so mainly Sydney-based...