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Dirt
(1979)

Director: Eric Karson


Almost certainly I am like you in one regard - you and I both have dreams that we wish to fulfill or have happen to us. And it is almost certain that a look at all of my dreams that I wish to fulfill or have happen to me all together look significantly different that all of your dreams placed and presented together. That's because we are all unique, something that I hope I can be in my own way until the day that I drop dead. But we are not just unique in the way each of us have our own dreams that we hope will come true. We are also unique in the way that we don't want to do certain things or have happen in our lives. For example, there is the fact that I live directly on the Pacific Ring of Fire - a hot spot for earthquakes. I certainly don't want a major earthquake to happen in my city... though at the same time I don't want the hassle of moving to a community away from the earthquake zone. But I want to talk about one thing I hope never happens to me that you probably don't share. And that is having to drive. I have a license, but I haven't driven for over twenty years, and I have forgotten everything about driving a car. I would hate having to be forced to take lessons again. Not only that, I would subsequently have to invest much time and expense in getting a vehicle and getting insurance. What would be even worse would be taking a car out on the open road. In real life I have no patience. When I take the bus, for example, I often picture myself being the driver and driving much faster and using my horn frequently towards slowpokes and other irritating drivers. Because of my impatience and hostility, I feel that inevitably I would get into some sort of accident - a possibility that quite frankly chills me, and furthers my resolve to never get behind the steering wheel of a car for the rest of my life.

As a result of my not wanting to drive any kind of vehicle, I often find myself amazed and jealous that there are millions of drivers out there who have no problem driving and quite frankly enjoy the task of piloting a vehicle. I often try imagining how they are able to do it, but I haven't had much success in doing so. There is one kind of driver, however, that I would like to talk about now. A kind of driver that is a non-conformist among the millions of ordinary drivers. That kind of driver is the off-road driver, one who on his motorbike, souped up car, or other special vehicle who gets right down into the muck to race, race, race. I've had something of a fascination with such people for years, though not being a driver myself, it's been harder to understand why these people find the sport appealing. But I've come up with a few theories over the decades. One possible attraction to the sport is that in a way, the drivers connect with nature more. They spin in the dirt, they get filthy, and in the process temporarily remove themselves from clean civilization. Another attraction is that while they are racing, they also feel the power of their machine more than driving a car on city streets. The drivers feel powerful as a result. A third reason has to be the competing factor. It's a chance to put your skills right against other people, and to see if you can stand up to other skilled professionals. A fourth reason is related to the previous reason - showing off. If you can win a race, you can have bragging rights, and feel superior to the people you compete against. Also, you sure can look good to the audience watching the race.

Those are my theories, anyway. I suspect that if I were to talk to actual off road racers, their answers may be different than mine. Anyway, while I am definitely not any kind of driver, I do have enough interest in off road racing that often I find myself fascinated by watching it whenever it comes across television. When I came across the DVD of Dirt in a video store - which promised a hard look at the sport - you might understand why it caught my eye. But the story of its initial release also interested me. While it was a documentary, it managed all the way back in 1979 to get a substantial theatrical release by its distributor - something that would be all but impossible today. Not only that, it actually managed to gross a substantial amount of money at the box office. Despite its initial success, however, it was all downhill from there - I believe it never got released on videocassette, and it was quickly forgotten. A few years ago, it got a DVD release, but it was not well publicized, and it doesn't appear that the DVD distributor made that many copies. Of course, this factor of it now being "unknown" sweetened the deal for me, and I bought it and brought it home to review.

Dirt start off with a stunning shot, one of the most spectacular shots I have seen in any kind of movie for a long time. Filmed from a helicopter, the shot looks down on a desert with nothing but Dirtsand dunes in every direction, except for a small smudge near the top of the screen. Swiftly the helicopter descends and gets closer to the smudge, circling around it at the same time. The smudge is actually a dune buggy, and once the camera gets close to it, the dune buggy takes off, and we are treated to equally impressive shots of the dune buggy racing across the dunes, ranging from P.O.V. shots to shots taken all around the dune buggy. This is followed by the opening credits, and while the opening credits are being displayed, we are treated to slow motion footage of various off road vehicles racing through desert terrain, kicking up so much dust that at times they are completely engulfed in the stuff. It's quite a sight. After all of the credits have been displayed, the movie moves to footage of various three-wheeled and four-wheeled off-road vehicles racing around in various locations. The movie's narrator (one Clarke Gordon) starts to speak: "Sometimes you'd just be surprised by how close it is to you. I found out, but that was only later. Every day for twenty two years I drove past this dry wash on the way to my shop, and in all those years I didn't once take the time to look or even listen to the sound that roared at me from behind that stand of scrub. It was here that a lot of kids from the neighborhood got to racing on their go-karts and making a lot of dust and noise. But when I retired, I started looking around and learning about this world that they call 'off-road'."

A little later, the movie moves to a steep hillside, where various people on dirt bikes make an attempt to ride their dirt bikes all the way to the top of the hill. While C.G. states, "Wide open is the only way to the top!", the motorcyclists we see don't manage to reach the top. Then the movie abruptly changes gears, and shows us C.G. stepping out of his house carrying a couple of suitcases. He explains to the audience that he is curious about the people who engage in these off-road sports. ("I want to get to know them better, how they think and how they feel. Well you know, the highs, the lows, those kind of things.") He packs his things into his motorhome, and hits the road. The first destination he reaches is a dirt bike race. At least, I assume he's there, because we hear his narration but don't actually see him. Anyway, at the tournament, C.G. explains that it's a sport for all ages. In fact, the participants in this particular race are children, and we get to see these kids race around for a bit. Though since they are children, the lone wipeout we see doesn't look too serious, and the kids only get about six inches off the ground at most when they get to a jump. C.G. tells us that a few more pounds and inches, these kids are ready for motocross, and we cut to an adult motocross tournament. Though like the kiddie tournament, we only get about thirty seconds or so of footage of this tournament.

The next thing we know, we are watching C.G. driving his motorhome down the desert highway. He wonders out loud, "Where did it all begin? Well, in this country we haven't exactly been strangers to the automobile..." ...and the movie cuts to black and white footage that was shot in the silent era. We get to see a lengthy segment of an early automobile driver out of control in his car, wrecking everything in his path while C.G. tells us about Hollywood's early and immediate interest in vehicles. Next, we get some black and white footage of early vehicle race tournaments, while C.G. tells us facts such as the feeling back then that no vehicle would be ever able to go over fifty miles an hour. None of these facts is particularly illuminating, and like the previous black and white segment, just seems to be blatant padding using cheap and easy to get stock footage. Eventually we move back to the present day, where C.G. tells us he's in Bakersfield, California to see some drag racers. The surprise is that here we don't just hear him; we get to see him at this race. C.G. is seen talking to a fellow named Tommy Robertson, a top national drag race competitor. Curiously, Tommy calls our narrator "Fred" instead of "Clarke". And the most insight we get with this fellow is the statement, "Bakersfield has got it all!" Indeed, C.G. apparently is not that interested in the guy, since he's seen lustfully staring at some pretty women who pass by while he and Tommy are talking. We then get some footage of the drag race tournament, "some" being the correct word since we don't get much more than a minute's worth of footage.

Our narrator, whatever his real name might be, hops back into his motorhome, telling us that Tommy has directed him to Pismo Beach for another sand drag competition. Here, the narrator meets a fellow named Randy Gardner. Who is this guy? We don't know - the most insight we get from this guy is the statement, "Pismo Beach is where it's at!" And we get footage of this tournament, the drivers driving vehicles that are a cross between drag racers and dune buggies. Apparently the filmmakers got bored really quick with this tournament, because they soon cut to footage of various vehicles attempting to climb the sand dunes all the way to the top. Then we get ample footage of a guy being dragged by a rope behind a drag buggy. Though this sounds violent enough to be interesting, unfortunately the guy is seated on a piece of metal that's tied to the back of the vehicle in front of him. After that, the narrator resumes on his journey, making the long trek to Pikes Peak in Colorado, to take a look at the legendary and dangerous fourteen mile race course. At the race, the narrator makes mention of several people such as Rick Mears and Parnelli Jones. Not being a race enthusiast or race historian, I was wondering who these guys were, but the narrator not only doesn't tell us, the individuals themselves don't get a chance to utter any words of real insight. (I had to look up both gentlemen on Wikipedia after the movie to get more information on them.) However, the actual racing does give us a clue to how tough the race to the top of the peak is. As we see the participants race up the peak, from footage taken from helicopters to camera strapped onto the vehicles themselves, the narrator tells us of things like a "blue sky turn" or an "opposite lock" steering wheel technique. As he tells us, we get to actually see these things happening simultaneously. This whole race sequence manages to be illuminating as well as visually impressive at the same time.

Soon it's time for the narrator to continue on his journey, and his next destination is the Indian Dunes Cycle Park, which we are told is forty miles north of Los Angeles. Huh? Why didn't the narrator head to this place first after hitting the nearby Pismo Beach, and leave Pikes Peak for later? Anyway, we are told that Indian Dunes is having a women's motocross tournament. Sound interesting? I thought so. But when the narrator talks to a female participant named Dee Williams, we don't get much insight. She tells the narrator that a lot of women get into this sport. How and why? We are not really told. Dee tells us of the expense needed to participate in the sport, but apart from the promise of a thousand dollar prize for first place at this tournament, we don't learn how women such as her manage to get the money to support their interest in the sport. Some of the subsequent race is shown, but apart from one cool slow motion shot, the footage isn't terribly eye-catching. There is one bit of interest when Dee tells us that some petite women such as herself need help lifting up their motorcycles after they have a wipeout. I was sure the women had additional challenges during a race that men don't have, but the movie doesn't tell us. Instead, the movie suddenly jumps to Florida, where we are at a swamp buggy tournament. The filmmakers seem to have some contempt for the local population, showing a display of close-up shots of dumb-looking spectators before showing us footage of the swamp buggies in action. The filmmakers also seem to have contempt for the audience as well, because they bring in an "expert" on the sport that the narrator (very) briefly interviews, an "expert" that is clearly an actor and not a real authority on the sport. But we do get to hear on the soundtrack during this segment the funk song "Swamp Buggy Boogie".

That's the first thirty or so minutes of Dirt. In the remaining sixty minutes, we get to see such things as pick-up truck motocross, more driving up steep inclines (though this time in the Utah winter), the Baja 1000 race in Mexico that attracts hundreds of participants, a tractor pull, and a jeep rodeo. If you are wondering if any of this hour is any more interesting than what was displayed during the movie's first thirty minutes, it isn't. The same problems persist throughout the movie. The biggest problem is that the movie doesn't give its audience much insight to what makes off-road racing activities so appealing to the people who participate in them. The few participants that get to speak hardly manage to get a word in, and the narration is lame, too jokey, and lacking detailed explanation. Instead, the movie focuses on showing one race or vehicular sequence after another. Now, sometimes this race and vehicular footage is spectacular; the filmmakers made a real effort to put some "oomph" to what they shot, from using slow motion to shooting from helicopters far above the action. But after a while, it starts to all feel the same. It almost at times feels like the movie is showing us the same footage of racers zooming through dirt and sand over and over. What Dirt really needed to succeed, besides a serious human touch, was more variety. Perhaps if the movie had gone around the world, there would have been a regular change in the backdrop that might have helped differentiate one tournament after another. But as it is, Dirt can only be recommended for die hard fans of off-road racing, those who have an interest in what various aspects of the sport were like over thirty years ago. And even they might find the movie sorely lacking with answers to their questions.

(Posted May 30, 2019)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Biker Dreams, Jabberwalk, On Any Sunday

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