Asleep at the Wheel

Assuming virtually everyone in Dade County runs red lights virtually all the time -- as a recent in-depth study indicates -- a good number of people are going to get caught, if only by happenstance. These offenders, as well as other traffic violators, face a grave choice: They can plead guilty, pay a fine, and watch their insurance premiums sail into the stratosphere; plead innocent, wait several years for a court date, be found guilty, and watch their insurance premiums sail into the stratosphere; or plead no contest, pay $89.14 for a session at traffic school, and drive on.

Why choose traffic school? Well, the insurance issue does spring to mind. But traffic-school grads -- especially repeat offenders -- know better. Ask any T-school vet and he or she will answer in a single word: Weaver. That's Jack A. Weaver, the man responsible for the instructional films that galvanize

the scintillating traffic-school
curriculum. What follows is a critical assessment of the latest auto opus by this cinematic genius.

Fresh from his commercially lucrative, if critically panned, Three Men and a Vega, producer Jack A. Weaver returns to the middle lane of traffic-school films

with the beguiling trilogy Advanced Driving Skills, a work sure to consolidate his position atop this deceivingly iconoclastic genre.

Part one, whimsically tagged "Perceptual Driving Skills," opens with a jolting traffic montage. Complementing his crisp images (cars on the street, a street with cars) with a laconic, synthesized march, Weaver appropriates the hedonistic sheen of Seventies small-screen work while retaining a distinctly moral order. Imagine CHiPs crossed with Bergman. Now imagine CHiPs all by itself. Now imagine Officer Frank Poncherello eating wild strawberries.

The ostensible focus of this opening segment is an exploration of the Driving Performance Matrix. Unwilling (or perhaps unable) to be confined by such perfunctory goals, Weaver seizes upon the piece as an opportunity to display his kaleidoscopic talents, proceeding from the brutally literal (a deferential, fourteen-second close-up of the "matrix" entry in a dictionary) to the ecstatically lyric (a blurry pan across the porcine faces of beer-swilling truck drivers).

"Perceptual Driving Skills" climaxes with a vehicle-mounted shot of drab, rust-belt countryside. One thinks of Toledo, or perhaps Akron. Immediately the viewer feels constrained, terrified by the dangers that lurk outside the camera's periphery. Raindrops slip across the windshield. Then a tragic ballet: a car approaches from the right, brakes sound shrilly, locked wheels skitter on asphalt. Our last vision: the roadway apocalypse, windows shattered into spider-web lattice, torn cloth flapping in the wind. America has eaten its young.

The second segment opens with a bracing slice of cinema verite, a hand-held camera approaching the overturned carcass of an eighteen wheeler to the tinkle of a programmed sonata. While Weaver pans mercilessly across the felled Mack, a velvet-voiced narrator insinuates his presence with a dry declaration: "Vehicles are an essential component of the roadway transportation system." Aside from Weaver himself, whose every directorial decision leaves us awestruck, this narrator -- who we shall call The narrator -- emerges as the work's conscience. Paternalistic, yet humane, he guides us through the nervous world of vehicular deceit and betrayal. His cautions are stern spankings whose secretly pleasurable sting lingers like the aroma of perfume on old clothing, and his counsel -- "When changing the size or loading capacity of a vehicle, you change its operational character," for instance -- is revelatory. To believe that his advice refers only to the operational character of a vehicle is to believe that Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief is searching only for his bicycle, or that Spanky was merely "a" Little

Rascal. The keys here are keys of life. He fills us up.
But not without Weaver's help. The visual wizardry, the breathless shift from rustic backroads to snow-dusted cityscape, augments a sense of imminent chaos. One thinks of the urban clamor of Scorsese's youth or the transcendent hues of Yasujiro Ozu. The final image of part two, a wall of headlights edging forward, staring in pregnant anger, might as well be a requiem.

Weaver's final chapter begins with another montage. Gleaming nighttime traffic gives way to the Keystone Kops, who yield to an eerie close-up of a Naugahyde boot pumping brakes. But quickly (and yet, not so quickly), the random images are swept off the screen. In their place, the maestro of Palm Harbor introduces a series of titillating traffic vignettes, each truncated before its

denouement. Viewers must watch each episode unfold, and then render their own judgment. In the hands of a lesser director, such interactive gimmickry might smack of remedial instruction (cf. Gillette's "You Make the Call"

series). For Weaver, however, the role of Socratic provocateur fits like a mink-oiled driving glove.

Conveniently, the narrator offers a summary of each ruling, at times assuming the insouciant tone of a pagan deity. "For the purposes of this test, we will define this as a stupid driver," he notes, as a maroon luxury car swerves erratically. Drivers race past in an unrelenting orgy of self-analysis. On the calm streets of Anytown, USA, risk and reward speed toward the same intersection, where Weaver stands, brandishing a crossing guard's stop sign.

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