Bright Wall/Dark Room May 2020: Life is Short – Stunt It: The Refined Nothing of Hot Rod | Features
The secret at the heart of Hot Rod upends Rod’s sense of self. Already dealing with the audience’s rejection of his stunts, Rod is dealt a further blow upon returning home. His mother confesses that his father (who “died instantly…the next day”) in reality did not die in a motorcycle stunt gone wrong, never knew Evel Knievel, and actually choked to death in a pie-eating contest. Rather than tell young Rod the truth, his mother encouraged the reality that Rod was imagining, one where his father (and so he) could be something else. “I did it out of love,” Marie tells her son of her lie. To which he responds, “I guess if he wasn’t a stuntman, then neither am I!”
There is a grieving felt in abandoning nothing. Growing up, sometimes, feels like losing limbs, or letting them slowly atrophy until imagination or joy or carelessness become hard to recall, supplemental only with things. When we realize that the status quo’s only place for us is our current reality (Rod’s father was not a stuntman, Rod cannot be a stuntman), we forfeit the plasticity of weirdness and become what capitalism wants us to become: consumers and producers. The bulk of us become, as Rod does, the former. Rod grieves. He abandons his bike and his quest, his garb and his identity, and coats himself in a collared shirt and tie. He shellacs his curls with hair gel. His crew finds him in a grocery store with a shopping cart piled high with booze and they try to hold him accountable for abandoning his weirdness. “Whatever happened to ‘live as a team, die as a team?’” Dave asks. “It’s a sham, okay?” Rod responds, leaning into being realistic about his place in the world. It’s a stark rebuttal to what weirdness promises, which is nothing less than new things.
Denise, the smartest and most capable character in the film, indicts his behavior for what it is. We should all be so lucky as to listen to Denise: “Ever since we were kids, you’ve always done exactly what you wanted to do. And everybody else just grew up and got boring and sold out. But you stayed exactly the same. Who cares what anyone thinks?”
I’m reminded of Kermit’s flight into the desert in The Muppet Movie. The group is lost, stranded. Kermit walks off, only to meet his reflection. He claims he never promised Fozzie and Gonzo and Rowlf and Piggy anything. His reflection reminds him that promises or not, they came because they wanted to. “But that’s because they believed in me,” says Kermit. His reflection shakes his head, reminding him: they believed in the dream. “Well, so do I,” Kermit says. “Well then?” his reflection prompts.