Theme : Romance – The King Is Dead. Long Live The King!

Ever iconoclastic, DTW fearlessly investigates Bromance …..or is it Necromance?

Enemo of the people 2

Life is full of those niggling prejudices. However open-minded and liberal one tries to be, there are always certain things that one can’t excuse. Here’s a very short personal list, by no means comprehensive : Comedians. Pernod. Farting on the Underground. The Bugatti Veyron. Of course only one of the above is noxiously anti-social – and you know which one that is don’t you Ferdi?

But, to that list, I must add the late actor Steve McQueen, and this month has already been particularly trying on this front. First, the usually highly readable MotorSport had both a bumper 30 page Precision Watch special (another thing I can’t get) and, even worse, a 10 page Steve McQueen Le Mans feature to mark the release of a documentary about the 1971 feature film. Of course, just as the dumb jingle has to follow any mention of Intel processors, so must the words ‘King Of Cool’ be appended to any mention of Mr McQueen.

Then, as I opened my copy of Classic and Sportscar, a 16 page booklet fell out advertising http://www.thekingofcool.com , a business offering a huge variety of merchandise vaguely connected to the human iceberg.

Let me make it clear that I have no real gripe against the late actor. I was a lot younger than him when he died, now I’m a lot older than he ever was. I’ll even admit that, as a teenager, I thrilled to the car chase and, even, wondered if I could get my hair cut like Frank Bullitt. He actually had a fair acting range, as shown in the adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People (see top picture), a film you’re unlikely to find in most fanboy’s DVD collections. But, in other films, he created character by deliberately projecting none – the Steve McQueen the studios wanted was, to me, cold and blank rather than cool.

What little I know of the actual man suggests that he had a troubled, possibly traumatic, childhood and grew up to be someone complex and contradictory, with a reputation for being both a difficult personality, yet generous and loyal to those he liked. In other words he was a bit like many of us, and a lot like many actors. But, unlike many other actors who either don’t manage to live up to their screen reputations, or don’t even want to, since Steve McQueen died, the blur between man and character has become complete.

McQueen XKSSSo what I really have is a gripe with the whole King Of Cool industry. Certain young men of all ages seem to have a fetish for the man. It’s not homoerotic, it is just absolute, puppy dog worship. You’ll find it everywhere, but it’s at its height in the world of motoring enthusiasts. Because he had a stable of good cars, because he starred in an archetype car chase movie and because he made a quasi documentary about Le Mans at a time when real documentary footage of good racing was sparse, we are supposed to be eternally in awe of him.

But of course it goes beyond this, he represents a masculine pinnacle to many, the man they’d like to be – irreverent, untroubled by responsibilities, self-indulgent and loved without having to make an effort. But for me the character he represents is not an ideal role model; it is withdrawn and taciturn. Young men are often reticent to show their feelings, and a frown and a look-straight-through-you stare are a good way to keep your true self private. But it’s a diminishing return – if you don’t give you don’t get.

He’s seen as brave. Bravery is finding the ability to do something that scares you. If it doesn’t scare you, you’re not brave, just fearless. Derek Bell tells the story of him leading McQueen and Jo Siffert through a bend, not exactly at the two professional’s ludicrously high personal limits, but at a very, very high speed. McQueen emerged ashen-faced, so knew that he was putting himself in danger, but was not going to back off. It’s clear that Bell liked and respected him, but was in no way in awe – if Bell has heroes, it’s in other spheres.

So he was brave and he was certainly a skilled driver. You’ll find many claims that he, Paul Newman and James Gardner could, had they chosen, have been top racers. And maybe Ayron Senna, Gilles Villeneuve and Jim Clark could have been top actors. From my vague knowledge of actors, Tom Cruise is brave. He does a lot of his own stunts and has acted characters who are ‘cool’. But in his rather public, private life, Mr Cruise is not seen as ‘cool’, by any means.

Two FingersBut the McQueen industry carries on inexorably. Guys sit in front of their screens, watching the Sand Pebbles or The Thomas Crown Affair on stop frame, trying the expression out until it’s near perfect. They buy replicas of his jacket from The War Lover and make up a 1:24 scale model of a green Mustang 390 GT to put on their bookshelves next to their 50 volume library of various McQueen themed books, and backed by a framed picture of The Man in his racing overalls sticking two fingers up at …. The Man. They’ve read that ‘women found him irresistible’ and, maybe, some of that will rub off. Well it won’t. The ‘icon’ that Steve McQueen has become is, to me a cypher for avoiding human engagement.

The whole concept of cool is deeply unromantic. I shouldn’t be writing about it this month

McQ DS
Le Mans; and the iconic Steve McQueen starring as the eponymous Agent François Bullé in the iconic French action movie, hustles the iconic green Citroen DS during the iconic car chase.

17 thoughts on “Theme : Romance – The King Is Dead. Long Live The King!”

  1. The romance of cool. This is worth a PhD, I would say. Before I come in with guns blazing, I have to say that it was just the €170 price tag that put me off a roll-neck sweater of an identical hue to the one McQueen wore in Bullitt. Then again, I also find Samuel Beckett´s similar choices in tailoring worth imitating. As I write, I realise that imitating “cool” is itself uncool.
    That allows me to short-circuit a long digression on the nature of cool.
    Then I need to turn to the romance of cool, that some people have romantic, fanciful ideas of cool. Again, that is a circle being squared. It´s an oxymoron.
    What we need to do accept that it is correct that McQueen´s character has some degree of fascination and then go on to realise it´s an artwork. It is not meant to be copied. It should inform us and interest us yes, but not inspire us. The best you can hope for is is to say the man had a knack for savvy aesthetic choices and you might want to consider your own, self-chosen ones. And then watch the movie again if you like.

    On a separate note, for the love of goodness, can car magazines stop writing about watches.

  2. Love that Agent François Bullé image.

    As for McQueen, he seems to be the antithesis of the great persona actors; the anti-persona actor, if you will. He says the words but doesn’t bring anything more to it than an edgy (some might say testy) presence. You could never describe him as a prolific worker, seemingly only taking just enough roles to keep his image up and to pay the bills. That said, he had a few outstanding roles, lived a full life and was beholden to few, which seemed to be just the way he liked it. In that regard he was a great success.

    Anyway, has anyone ever actually watched Le Mans? Christ, it’s boring.

    1. Oh yes, it is! Why oh why do people keep on preferring it to the in each and every way superior Grand Prix? That Saul Bass title sequence alone is about 178,67% more awe-inspiring and entertaining than the dreary whole of Le Mans.

    2. I’ve seen Grand Prix, I even trecked up to London as a teen to see it in full Cinerama (the titles were fantastic in wide screen). I admit I have never watched Le Mans – but I have read so much about it that I feel I have. My understanding is :

      Grand Prix is a well-crafted melodrama, a bit corny in places, but entertaining and with generally pretty convincing racing sequences for its time, though a few clumsy bits.

      Le Mans has more convincing ‘racing’ but the plotting is cursory, just there so that McQueen could sell it to the Studio. Yet, it’s not really a documentary either. It’s a vanity project really, one carried out with deference and respect for the race, but still a vanity project.

    3. I’m writing this with my cinéaste’s hat firmly on.

      Richard, Bullitt not only boasted the chase scene and Lalo Schifrin’s extremely nonchalant score, but also Pablo Ferro’s sublime title sequence (which also benefitted from Mr Schifrin’s talents, no doubt about that) and the production values of a young Jacqueline Bisset. And that final chase among all those Pan Am 707s was, well, alright. What an elegant plane that was!

      Sean, the soap opera elements of Grand Prix have rightfully not entered the annals of cinema, but they allowed for the minimum of emotional investment necessary to catch those members of the audience not exclusively besotted with the allure of extremely fast driving and the routine of racing (which would be the majority). The good casting certainly helped flashing those cardboard characters out just enough to care for them – Yves Montand’s laconic presence being a case-in-point.
      But the plaudits must, of course, be lavish on John Frankenheimer’s outstanding craftsmanship. To me, Grand Prix tops each and every other racing movie since in terms of involving the audience in the driving process and its sensations. That GT40 camera car and the refusal to employ blue screen techniques pays off to this day and lends the driving scenes an immediacy even technologically advanced (and, arguably, dramatically superior) newer films like Rush cannot match.

      To some, Le Mans’ bare-bones style will stand for an even higher level of accuracy and realism, but the non-existent dramatic drive (no pun intended) and uninspired filming techniques – courtesy of TV hack, Lee H Katzin – make for a very dull experience indeed. The only elements I personally found remotely interesting were the grey colour of McQueen’s Porsche 911 and Michel Legrand’s sparingly used music score. Come to think of it, there was actually a third interesting component, tool: one of McQueen’s fellow actor-drivers was played by Siegfried Rauch, better known in Germany as the captain of Das Traumschiff, the bastion of bourgeoise German television storytelling values: https://youtu.be/QyWZspjF0K0

    4. I think people say they like Le Mans more than Grand Prix because McQueen, as the internet-savvy kids like to phrase things these days. It’s easy to buy into Le Mans being ‘authentic’ and thus excused of its glaring flaws, and Grand Prix being ‘fake’ because it talks too much, has all that soppy relationship stuff and that bright, breezy mid-60s ambience. I like Grand Prix more, for all the reasons mentioned in previous comments as well as: the old Monza circuit banking, the (admittedly cheesy) cameos by various F1 drivers, Toshiro Mifune sparing us whatever Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffanys nightmare we may have had as a stand-in for Soichiro Honda, and Francoise Hardy’s pioneering work in F1 aerodynamics testing

  3. I don´t have a cineaste´s hat. The pressing mountain of literature I have to get through before running out of time has made me sacrifice celluloid for the printed word. My loss. I have an abiding memory of the microphone Johnny Cash used in the film Walk The Line which is an image not attainable in any other art form. It serves to remind me film has unique qualities.

  4. I saw Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans at the local film feetival earlier this year. I went into it with a fair dose of McQueen fatigue as Sean describes in this article, which didn’t help my objectivity at the time. Once I got over what seemed like recitation of all the usual McQueen tropes, I was left wondering what might have been if McQueen had been allowed to race at the 1970 24hr race. They could have made a Weekend of a Champion style documentary about it which would avoid the need to wrap a fictional screenplay around the racing footage. Instead, McQueen took his star power and the autonomy of his own production company and went off obsessively recreating the racing but neglected the need to make a coherent film.

    By all accounts McQueen hated Frankenheimer’s film Grand Prix for not conveying what motorsport was really about. But unfortunately by failing to go into his passion project with a finalised script and a willingness to tell a story to moviegoers beyond ‘men race at Le Mans, racing is life’ he ended up with a mess that he never fully recovered from.

    With respect to the surviving cast and crew, I think they should re-edit the film without dialogue – McQueen drives to the circuit in his 911, shares some thousand mile stares with his adversary and love interest, the race happens, it ends, roll credits. Let the music and the sounds of the racing do the narrative heavy lifting. The McQueen man-crush crowd and the ‘those were the days’ motorsport nostalgists would love it, and it removes any pretence of a story amongst the amazing racing car footage.

  5. Whilst making no great claims for the narrative depth of Grand Prix, at least it acknowledges that drivers have lives outside the racetrack, they get injured and scared, they die and they have people who care for them who are affected by all this. For sensible reasons, a lot of racers (and fans) didn’t dwell on this back then, or they might have given up entirely. But to think that what the world would be interested in would be a technical film, stripped of all that ‘fake’ stuff was naive – but very King Of Cool.

    Possibly Le Mans is the A Brief History Of Time of motor racing movies. “Have you seen Le Mans?” “Oh, Le Mans, that’s the real deal. A proper movie about motor racing” “Yes, but have you seen it?” “Well, not … um …. all the way through”

    Oh, and Grand Prix gave Honda (sorry Yamura) their only ever World Champion.

  6. Although the car chase is the most mentioned scene, Bullitt has several memorable sequences: the titles (not the first to use composite images in this way, but certainly amongst the best); babysitting the Mafioso; the hospital chase; (the car chase); facing down Chalmers. For me the stand out scene is the final airport chase sequence. Indeed, Michael Mann liked it so much he reprised it almost wholesale in Heat.

  7. I must admit that I am not a fan of either Grand Prix or Le Mans. Both are too light on story. Whilst I enjoyed Rush, the CGI racing sequences were too overfetishised as per the Fast and the Furious films. The only film with motorsport as the central theme I have ever unambiguously enjoyed was Senna, and that was a documentary.

    1. Here’s a question for the cineaste hat wearers. Le Mans with John Sturges directing a screenplay by Alan Trustman, starring McQueen. Putting aside what actually happened, do you think those ingredients coud have been combined to create a better hollywood movie than Grand Prix?

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