Inner State 5: Motorama (1991)

04/14/2015  By  Jordan Saïd     Comments Off

Inner State 5 examines American road films. This series of articles will explore their place in the rise of New Hollywood, their common themes of freedom and individualism, and their place in history as perhaps the most fundamentally American film genre. For more in this series, click here.

It took me 30 years to learn one basic truth about humanity: no matter how prepared or organized people look or act, 95% of them just make everything up as they go. Even most of the people who seem to have a plan feel deep down like having-it-together impersonators.

That theme seems to serve as the central idea behind Motorama, probably the weirdest film I’ll cover in this column. Conceived by a duo of insane geniuses—director Barry Shils and writer Joseph Minion—this magical realist road movie exists in some strange nexus between comedy, drama, and absolute made-up lunacy. And in any given scene, I can scarcely tell which of the three they intended.

I spent most of this film looking at it the way Gus looks at Bondage Pig.

In Motorama, a resourceful 10-year-old by the name of Gus (Jordan Christopher Michael) flees an abusive home, steals a ‘66 Ford Mustang, and takes to the road—using stilts that he himself furtively constructed to operate the pedals. As he seeks a better life, this “better life” turns out to consist of having to face the difficulties of adulthood without the maturity to handle them. Through the unrelenting hail storm of adversity, he keeps himself motivated by hunting down Motorama cards, a series of collectible cards that could win him half a billion dollars.

This film stands out mostly for its many unusual cameos: Susan Tyrrell, Jack Nance, Flea, Robin Duke, Martha Quinn, and Garrett Morris all get bit parts. Meat Loaf stands out in particular; he plays a character vaguely reminiscent of his role in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Despite appearing on nearly every DVD cover, a pre-fame Drew Barrymore appears only briefly as Gus’s dream girl. “That guy” actors comprise most of the rest of the cast: Robert Picardo, John Diehl, Michael J. Pollard, Sandy Baron, Daniel Quinn, Vince Edwards…


When Jack Nance appears in a movie, you don’t forget that Jack Nance appears in a movie.

Motorama starts out by making the same mistake as the roughly contemporaneous Radio Flyer, showing a child using fantasy as an effective escape from abusive circumstances. But Motorama ends up turning into something more akin to The Purple Rose of Cairo; fantasy causes Gus more problems than it fixes (aside from the most glaringly unrealistic fantasy in this film: that anyone would ever find a barely-used, cherry red Mustang just lying unattended in a junkyard). Once he chooses to become an adult, the world chooses to engage him as an adult.

In so doing, the film becomes an allegory for early adulthood. As millions of college graduates with inutile degrees and unrelated McJobs would affirm, the real world has a way of assuming twentysomethings and even thirtysomethings can solve problems we scarcely understand. The Motorama cards he relentlessly pursues echo the fundamentally unimportant pursuit of material things that we adults obsessively amass to either impress others or make ourselves feel accomplished. The rebelliousness that originally propelled him onto the open road comes to feel a whole lot like just struggling to survive in an unforgiving world.

Even surrounding himself with the objects of his desire doesn’t make Gus happy unless he has the right objects of his desire.

We’ve all heard people tell stories about their adolescence that invariably begin with something about how it feels like it happened “just yesterday.” I’ve certainly felt that; I can’t remember any special moment when my childhood ended and my adult life spontaneously began. We all transition to maturity in a way that feels slow at the time, but feels in retrospect like what Bruce Springsteen once called “the wink of a young girl’s eye.” Shils and Minion choose to symbolize this by having Gus age as an adult would. By the third act, Gus sports a beard, gray temples, and an eyepatch. He looks like a kid wearing a Metal Gear Solid IV Snake costume. Although it contributes to the entire movie feeling really, really weird, this aesthetic choice makes sense for depicting adulthood as a thing that sneaks up on people fast, whether they wish for it or not.

I told you it looked weird.

This strangeness suffuses the aesthetic as well. The direction feels like an adult version of Pete & Pete. While the directorial style and even the cadence of the script feel like something Nickelodeon would make, the script contains swearing, a sex scene, and even a lynching. This comes off all the weirder since nearly everything about the setting feels specific to Motorama. It takes place in a succession of fictional American states with names like Mercer, South Lydon, Tristana, Bergen, and Essex. Characters use currency specific to the film that resembles Dutch guilders. This movie ends up feeling like a spiritual prequel to Interstate 60. The two have similar plots, similar uses of fictional locations and magical realism, a similar ending, and even a similar tendency to use celebrities for bit parts.

The film doesn’t end with Gus “putting aside childish ways,” as one would expect. Instead, he realizes that the true path to happiness lies in freedom from acquisitiveness. He opts instead for a humbler, happier lifestyle. This seems like an authentic sentiment coming from Shils and Minion. Neither ever went on to achieve anything earth-shattering in Hollywood, and I admit I’ve never met either one. But after watching this film, I can say with near-total certainty that, for better or worse, they made exactly the film they set out to make.

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About Jordan Saïd


Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.