' ' Cinema Romantico: Talladega Nights Explains America

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Talladega Nights Explains America

The Talladega Superspeedway is uniquely American. Dreamt up by Bill France Sr., founder of NASCAR, for no other reason, really, than wanting to erect a motorsports track bigger and better than his own Daytona International Speedway, it illustrates our nation’s obsession with size just as the legend that Talladega was built on an Indian burial ground underlines the draconian steps our nation took to exploit our nation’s literal size. It only makes sense, then, that Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s 2006 comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” exists as one of the most enlightening movies ever made about modern America.

It begins with a bout of myth-making, its future NASCAR star, Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby, born in the backseat of his good-for-nothing father’s (Gary Cole) car and eventually graduating to star race car driver, learning all the wrong lessons along the way, tuning out his mother and taking the words of his good-for-nothing father to heart, coming to believe heartily in his own myth. “I wake up in the morning and piss excellence!” he hollers at his Father-in-law (Ted Manson), presumably of the greatest generation but told his only societal contribution was making a hot daughter, before leading his family in a grace that contractually mandates his mentioning PowerAde, a comical collision of Christianity and Consumerism.

Ricky Bobby, of course, must go on his own version of the hero’s journey, receiving the call after winning another race, in a scene at a bar called the Pit Stop. The scene begins with Ricky and his buddies, including Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly), Ricky’s put upon best friend, just sort of joshing, a scene that feels improvised which makes it ironic when it was interrupted by the sounds of Charlie Parker, the improvisation master himself, coming from the jukebox.

Jazz has been called the Devil’s Music, typically by whites communicating in code, and that’s how Ricky Bobby and friends react, like they’re trying to shake the devil out. The song has been played by Ricky’s emergent nemesis, the French Formula One driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), who asks why the jazz music has been stopped when someone pulls the jukebox plug. Demonstrating the thinly veiled meaning of Devil’s Music, the gruff bartender declares: “We keep it on there for profiling purposes. We’ve also got The Pet Shop Boys and Seal.”

Striding across the room, cigarette in hand, Jean Girard is like a French New Wave character striding straight into a broad American sports comedy, his stylish black suit juxtaposed against the extras behind whose shirts and hats are specifically color-coordinated to evince, of course, red, white and blue. Girard is here not just to challenge Ricky on the track but to question America itself, which Ricky unintentionally instigates when he misunderstands oui as we.

Ricky: “We? No, we are not French. We’re American, because you’re in America, okay? Greatest country on the planet.”
Girard: “Well, what have you given the world apart from George Bush, Cheerios, and the ThighMaster.”
Ricky: “Chinese food.”
Girard: “That’s from China.”
Ricky: “Pizza.”
Girard: “ltaly.”
Cal: “Chimichanga.”
Girard: “Mexico.”

In this moment, Jean Girard is quite literally the Other, everything the kind of American Ricky Bobby represents has been made (told) to fear, a foreigner whose accent sounds like “peanut butter on the roof of (his) mouth” and an intellectual unmasking, point by point, their sense of American Exceptionalism as being the work of someone from somewhere else. So naturally, with his insecurity already activated, when Girard expresses his sole reason for coming to America as defeating Ricky Bobby on the track, Ricky lashes out, attacking this Frenchman, the soundtrack evoking a showdown in a Western, as if John Wayne is going after Alain Delon. Girard, however, proving he is faster, pins Ricky to a table, threatening to break his arm...unless the NASCAR driver issues one simple declaration: I like crepes.

This was 2006, remember. Only three years after France declined America’s invitation to the so-called Coalition of the Willing to invade Iraq, prompting geniuses of the American Government to declare French Fries as Freedom Fries and French Toast as Freedom Toast, that Patriotically Correct form of American Patriotism cheapening our nation’s ideals rather than honoring them. “Don’t you say it, ”Cal councils. “These colors don’t run.” “I’m not gonna say it,” Ricky confirms. As Ricky half-lies there, held down, however, a funny thing happens: he learns the true nature of the crepe.

Cal: “You know, just to put this in there, I had a whole mess of crepes this morning. They’re just like pancakes, maybe even better.”
Ricky: “Wait, are they the really thin pancakes?”
Girard: “Yes they are. They are the really thin pancakes. It’s just a French word for them.”
Ricky: “Oh, my god, I love those.”

That leads to an extended conversation on kinds of crepes — fromage-crepe, crepe suzette — and the tone of not just these three men but everyone in the room palpably changes. They are getting along! No one insists they get along, mind you, it just happens of its own accord, as if suggesting this how it could always be if we just let our preconceived notions fall away. But, of course, Ricky can’t do that. And when Girard offers a compromise, to say I love really thin pancakes instead of I love crepes, Ricky refuses to say it. Why? “Because you don’t understand freedom,” Ricky explains. “Because you don’t understand liberty.”

It’s strange days in America...but then again, maybe they are not so strange at all. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, even after four months of evidence and research strongly suggesting that wearing a mask in public can greatly help tamp down the spread of this strain of Coronavirus, a certain sect of Americans refuse to cover their face. Why? Individual liberty, or something like it, is typically the reason given, a la Ricky Bobby, because this is America and we have the freedom to do anything we want. Of course, as smarter minds than me have eternally argued, liberty without responsibility is meaningless, and responsibility is tied to rationality. Each of us has the responsibility to be rational in the face of a health crisis like this to help preserve the health of the country that provides space for our liberty in the first place.

The scene in “Talladega Nights” ends with Ricky refusing to say I love really thin pancakes and Jean Girard breaking his arm. “He actually did it!” Ricky screams as he winces in pain. Rationality calls his bluff.

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