Dirt: A Season Inside the Devil’s Bowl
2005Director: Jeff Bowden
Cast: Travis Pace, Thomas Weeks, Gayla Jones
ans and detractors of Days of Thunder will both be deeply enamored by the premise of journalist Jeff Bowden’s first documentary, for it is essentially the rough around the edges real-life prequel to that Cruise-meets-Kidman legend. Think: Cole Trickle: The Early Years with bad teeth, mullets and a bizarre array of working class Texans whose main passion in life is the need for speed, baby.
Bowden has stumbled into a goldmine of characterization and he wisely sets up the camera, sits back and watches the entertainment unfold. We find ourselves in the midst of the most competitive season ever at the World Class Street Stocks, Devil’s Bowl, Mesquite Texas, and very quickly, we realize, there’s nowhere else we would rather be. If big screen racing pictures have always maintained a distance from the viewer, a glimpse into an expensive world of pit crews and glamour that never really engages, Bowden’s documentary reminds us that with a little technical know-how and a couple of hundred bucks we could soup up that old bomb in your Uncle Pete’s back yard and spend the weekends careening around a dirt track crashing into and bad-mouthing anyone who gets in the way. This is primeval driving fantasy made real and although we often feel sorry for the struggling, financially deprived men and women who scratch a living to fuel their passion, our feelings are tinged with envy. This looks like the most fun a person could ever have behind the wheel of a car.
In a deadpan, knowing fashion, Dirt introduces us to characters richer than any screenwriter could conjure: perfectly monikered Travis Pace, former champion who misses a season because he blows his house up whilst welding; Gayla Jones, first-time female competitor, much berated by her macho fellow drivers, caught in a curious love triangle between her injured husband and his hilariously lyrical mechanic, Jimmy Quick Jr., whose own father was killed at the track; Bubba Meeks, redneck extraordinaire, mistaken for a burglar and shot by his girlfriend’s brother; Trandel White, who names his company White Star after the Titanic’s parent company and whose race car cost $458. With people like these in the mix, Bowden must have known he was guaranteed some priceless footage, and the good people of Texas do not disappoint.
Without the carrot of big name sponsorship or large cash prizes, the competitors display a dedication to stock car driving that borders on insanity and Bowden wisely lets them speak for themselves. Featuring more laugh-out-loud moments than all Ryan Reynolds movies put together, and genuinely thrilling racing footage that is right there in the car, in the dirt, in your face, this is a documentary of pure joy that will not only captivate even the most uninitiated or uninterested racing cynic, but make you press that accelerator a little more urgently when sitting at a red light on the way home.
Winner of the Best Documentary Feature and Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival in 2005 and a favorite on the festival circuit worldwide, Dirt is one of those priceless gems that guarantees a rollicking eighty minutes without any fuss or pretension. At a Q&A; last year, I had the chance to quiz the director on how he kept his professional distance from this irresistible world, his witty confession summing up the tone of one of 2005’s best documentaries, and indeed best films.
“Well, I did buy someone some tires, but I can’t say who.”