People who love both cars and films love car movies, right? It’s not quite as simple as that, though.
A life without films and cars would be a terrifying prospect to me. I’d have to spend whatever spare time I’ve got cooking and eating, both of which are pastimes with inherent limits in terms of the worthiness of their pursuit.So one could say I’m rather passionate about both four-wheeled propulsion and the moving image. Yet two good things don’t necessarily add up to one convincing package.
I’ll literally start with two literal examples, the first being Renny Harlin’s utterly daft 2001 wannabe-epic, Driven. All I can remember that about it – having seen the trailer and a few chunks on television at some point – is that its CGI-oversaturated action scenes were about as convincing as the kraken attacking Béla Lugosi in Ed Wood’s Bride Of The Monster, ‘Beau Brandenburg’ is a hilarious faux-German name and Til Schweiger’s even more wooden when forced to act in English.
Somewhat more complex though is the case of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. It’s an homage to both Walter Hill’s 1978 semi-classic The Driver (which itself featured taciturn turns by Ryan O’Neal and Isabelle Adjani and rather lovely night time impressions of late 1970’s LA, courtesy of Director of Photography, Philip Lathrop) and the tough-as-nails-yet-bathed-in-chic-neon-lighting urban American crime stories of the 1980s, such as William Friedkin’s peculiar To Live And Die in LA.
Seeing some merit in both those role models, I was really looking forward to watching Drive at the cinema. Having Newton Thomas Sigel in charge of the movie’s photography and Steven Soderbergh’s regular composer, Cliff Martinez, coming up with an appropriately synthesizer-infused score only served to seal the deal.
And yet Drive remains a movie I’m finding hard to warm up to. Stylistically and in terms of craft, it’s impeccable. It’s actually one of those films that’s making a solid case on behalf of digital photography, as Newton Thomas Sigel wouldn’t have been able to create a similar kind of ambience on good old celluloid. Cliff Martinez also delivers.
The problem lies with the basic concept of the film, which one could sum up as ‘one man’s stereotype being another man’s archetype’. It’s all just so overly simple and silly. Yes, Ryan Gosling possesses a particular kind of charisma, but that’s not enough to distract from the movie’s gratuitous violence, which is probably serving as some statement I’m failing to grasp (in my humble opinion, it’s merely Winding Refn’s way of distracting from the fact that he’s actually telling cheekily shallow story).
When discussing Drive, I feel obliged to point the way towards its considerably smarter, but less shouty brother, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Now here were talking about a bitingly smart movie that’s actually got something to say – and happens to feature outstanding night time photography of LA (in this case due to the talents of Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular DoP, Robert Elswit), as well as a very decent chase sequence, that even doesn’t appear to be stretching the bounds of credibility.
Nightcrawler is an excellent movie that en passant happens to cater to my automotive interest. I much prefer that to something car-themed that’s offering little other than kinetic thrills.
There is, of course, a space in between the Drivens and the Nightcrawlers of the cinematic universe. Nobody would claim, for example, that John Frankenheimer’s Ronin or that same director’s Grand Prix are bonafide masterpieces. And yet these are flawed films that excel at conveying the carnal thrill of motoring, while having the good grace of flashing out their actual story and characters just enough for audiences to care even when the tyres aren’t screaming for a moment.
Making full-length movies about driving is a tough challenge, and I’m wondering whether it can actually be mastered in such a way that it could lead to an actual cinematic masterpiece. In the meantime, I’ll just go and watch Bullit, and try not to fall asleep when there’s neither a chase, nor Lalo Schifrin’s sublime score or the young Jacqueline Bisset to catch my attention.