The Petrol Can Rider: Essay by Martyn Pedler: Hanging Improbably in the Air Halfway To New York
22 June 2009
The Petrol Can Rider

Essay by Martyn Pedler for launch of The Petrol Can Rider

As I write this, I’m hanging improbably in the air. The map that appears when I press a button on the armrest says I’m almost exactly halfway between Australia and my destination on the other side of the world. Looking closer – the map is unreassuringly staticky – I see that the familiar outline of home has disappeared altogether from the margins of the map.

Australia has always been defined in part by its unlikely geography. It’s not nicknamed “Down Under” for nothing. The isolation of living at the ends of the earth has also given us a strange, ongoing relationship with the end of the world.

George Miller’s Mad Max, for example, knew it would barely have to disguise the countryside to imply some kind of apocalypse. Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s cult heroine from the late-80s, Tank Girl, married a British punk sensibility with an Australian setting, mutated kangaroos and all. The Matrix starred a human population fooled into thinking the world hadn’t ended, but like Keanu Reeves’ Neo, we knew better – and locals knew the simulations was disguised Sydney streets, too. Worst of all, DC Comics basically blew Australia off the map in its series Invasion!, presumably thinking the rest of the world wouldn’t notice.

Which brings me, finally, to Simon O’Carrigan’s The Petrol Can Rider. This animation continues the tradition of imagining our staggering steps towards the end. His trenchcoated hero needs fuel for his car; that’s the only thing we know about him, or that we need to know. Without fuel, the story will be over. His desperation creates its own physics. Eventually, the empty petrol can he clutches itself begins to float, becoming a hopeful vehicle to carry him away.

O’Carrigan’s piece borrows its story from Franz Kafka’s short story The Coal Scuttle Rider. For many, Kafka has become shorthand for grinding, surreal bureaucracy. Does it seem strange, then, for this animation to use the kind of cartoonish logic in which the shockwaves from a dog’s bark can knock a man to the ground? People forget that Kafka is funny. It’s not so much black comedy as it is a slapstick of the soul. He’d be tickled, I think, with the O’Carrigan’s Looney Toons touches.

The script for The Petrol Can Rider includes the following line: “To remain still in this world is to be condemned to death”. This is true of any animation, of course. Some technologies of animation boast about the massive processing power and rendering times required to make their subjects move. Those giant transforming robots you last saw on the big screen? Press releases excitedly revealed that each frame required over thirty hours to process.

O’Carrigan’s apocalypse, however, is painstakingly hand-painted and cranked into motion at only 12 frames a second. Any faster than this and we’d risk missing the point. When fuel is so scarce and energy so precious, movement must be precisely calculated. Why would the back half of a dog move just because the front half does in a world collapsing into entropy? Equally, why would we see more of this world than we need to? Whatever’s outside this vignette doesn’t matter; it certainly doesn’t matter to the driver, the merchant, and the dog that populate it.

Now, I’m watching the screen in the back of the seat in front of me and its cartoon plane stutter across the simulated map of the Pacific. I imagine that if we ran out of fuel, right now, up at 33,000 feet, we wouldn’t fall. We’d hang here, landlocked in the sky like in Looney Toons, until physics finally noticed and animated our descent.

Martyn Pedler
22nd June, 2009
Halfway to New York