Monday, October 01, 2007

Something New

Something New stillNell Shipman's Something New opens with a woman writer searching for a topic. For some unknown reason (presumably she doesn't have "a room of her own and five hundred a year") she has set up her typewriter outside, under a tree. There, however, she sees "the old--and the new," a man on a horse and a man in one of those new-fangled motor cars, disputing which is better. And so a story comes to her...

But to dramatize the clash between tradition and modernity, where better to set the plot than "beyond the border in that land of Rogues and Romance, Mystery and Murder. . . Mexico!" And so the scene shifts to the US/Mexican border, where a "lady writer" arrives to visit a gnarled old friend of the family Sid, who happens to be disputing the merits of horse and motor car with a dashing young gallant named Bill.

We are told that the lady writer is down south looking for "ATMOSPHERE, real, red, and RAW." And as she comments not longer after, "I wanted 'atmospher' and I'll say I'm getting it." For Sid has aken her to the Blue Lotus Mine, where he works, only for it to be set upon by Mexican bandits who tie the old man up, leaving him to perish in the heat, and snatch the young woman off to their lair, aptly named "Hell's Kitchen."

Naturally enough, on hearing the news Bill rides to the rescue. But the real "heroine" of the piece is the car in which he rides. For the movie turns into one long demonstration of the ancient banger's off-road capabilities as Bill drives first though the "rock-ribbed sea of sand and sage" to reach the mine and then further into the "trackless waste" to Hell's Kitchen so as to rescue the damsel in distress. Then the two of them return home across "the country God forgot" to return to civilization and so safety, signified by a distant glimpse of the US flag.

Something New stillAnd indeed to see this old sedan made by the Maxwell Motor Company (a forerunner of Chrysler) bounce over rocks and through streams and ditches, covering terrain that would give a modern 4X4 driver pause for thought, is surely "something new."

For the ride home, moreover, the lady writer and her rescuer (and his dog) are chased by the gang of mounted bandits, and the lady herself has to do much of the driving as Bill collapses with exhuastion just as the car is hurtling towards a precipitous cliff face. All this in the dark, apparently without lights. In the words of the lady writer's always dramatic prose, the young couple go "on and on through the hellish night, plunging and pounding, slipping and sliding" (yes, this is vehicular transport rather than sexual congress she's describing), "all nature arrayed against them."

Suffice it to say, however, that modernity and the internal combustion engine triumph over both horse-powered Mexican banditry and stubborn nature. And in the climactic sequence, the little car shows it has another trick up its sleeve, too: our heroine repeatedly backs the automobile up against a precariously poised boulder until it tumbles down a canyon and gives the bad guys "a Tomb of the Ages."

In the end, our writer heroine and indeed the film itself cross the border seeking "atmopshere," but they also bring plenty along thesmeselves from the industrial north. The Mexican scrub turns out to be a test track on which to demonstrate the power and excitement of motor transport, as well as the ways in which an otherwise rather mundane narrative can be spiced up when adorned with the trappings of Latin barbarism.

Labels: ,