Theme: Film – Undriven

People who love both cars and films love car movies, right? It’s not quite as simple as that, though.

Photo (c)

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.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

13 thoughts on “Theme: Film – Undriven”

  1. About fifteen years ago I renounced the kinematograph so I might not be the very best person to comment. Film is for better and for worse a visual and superficial medium. It can’t convey the haptic aspects of driving or the smell or dynamic sensations. What’s left is the car as seen from outside and the face of the driver. A good car film would make use of the lush material quality of the cars and have a lot of chases. It must be believable too: CGI asks us to suspend our disbelief and fails. The scene where Cage’s car flies about 3000 metres across a gap and carries on driving is absurd. The rule is: nothing impossible, which is why Bullit’s car scenes are so enthralling.
    A film about golf would be only slightly harder.

  2. Fitz and Van’s paintings get at the visual appeal of cars and atmosphere;
    There’s a scene in Walk the Line that shows a microphone close up, all reflections and scratched chrome. Now that eye for detail is what a car film requires.

  3. The reality thing is very crucial, hence why Bullitt and Yates’s earlier Robbery were so startling when I first saw them. Until then it had been sped up pictures of Wolseley police cars going round corners like the Keystone Kops. Though the stunts on Thunder Road were good.

    I haven’t been to the cinema for ages, but I do watch films on TV. The advantage of that is you’re not seduced by the sheer scale and Dolbyness of it all. Generally, car stunts are so exaggerated that they are completely devoid of any excitement or tension. CGI is a big villain obviously, but it’s been going on for ages. I blame Bond. Even discounting Roger Moore’s Krazy Komedy Kar Kapers, from Sean Connery sitting in a Sunbeam Alpine looking self-conscious in front of a back-projection screen in Doctor No to Daniel Craig driving the bloody doors off another of the long-suffering Q’s Aston Martins in Quantum Of Solace, they have been pretty silly. Even the holy of holies, the DB5, has only had a few convincing seconds (pulling out to chase the Mustang in Goldfinger and racing a Ferrari in Goldeneye – though the ‘race’ would never have been that close).

    Actually, there was a very convincing sequence in the TV series The Tunnel recently (for our Danish speakers see a remake of Broen) apparently filmed from inside the car which captured the extreme surprise and violence of a car crash. Another gripe in films is that ‘ordinary’ people (eg mild mannered parent on the school run confronted by kidnappers) suddenly manage to execute perfect J-turns. And did I remember to complain about The Longest Yard, AKA The Mean Machine?

    1. I’m a big admirer of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, by the way. They may not be 100% realistic, but are doing a bloody good job at appearing realistic. And as the dreadful Quantum of Solace proved (whose action sequences were, with great fanfare, directed by the same chap who was in charge of most Bournes), doing the ‘shaky cam/fast edits’ thing isn’t as simply as good end results make it appear.

      Editing is also one of the most important factors when it comes to good automotive action. Steven Soderbergh (aka Marie Ann Bernard) tried something fairly radical in this regard in Haywire.

  4. Actually, for no particular reason, can I give an honourable mention to the car chase sequence between a Lancia Lambda and Bentley 3 Litre in The Devil Rides Out?

    1. Richard! It’s a 50 year old Hammer Film! you can’t expect perfection. I was really just referring to the behaviour of the two cars as filmed on the back roads of Berkshire. And also you’ll notice that someone went to the trouble of ensuring that the two actor’s steering wheel movements actually synced, more or less, with the back projected action.

  5. I wanted to like “Driven” more than I actually did. Especially with such a great opening sequence with the Chevy Impala’s lovely lazy grumbly V8 providing the soundtrack. The scene that annoyed most me was the liquer store robbery. We are led to believe that the Gosling character plans every last detail yet he provides a getaway car for the two thieves that only has two doors. He has to hold the passenger seat forwards to let one of them enter the Mustang.

    1. It’s all existantialist, Mick! A saloon, and its choice of four doors, wouldn’t have been as good a symbol as the dialectic two-door, in whose case there’s only ONE right choice to be made, when it comes to ingress and egress.

      Either that, or someone believed that it wouldn’t be a proper American car flick without a ‘stang in it.

  6. I enjoyed Drive, even though the film is very much the sum of nothing. There is one little scene in which Gosling’s character spots something at the roadside whilst driving, simultaneously craning his head to keep his eyes on the target whilst parking the car in one smooth movement. That one little vignette said more about his character credentials than the dialogue, of which there was very little.

  7. Sean: I am sure they could have mounted a camera to a car on a trailer! I did notice that there were some efforts at believable steering motions. Didn´t the film Dead Men Don´t Wear Plaid make a humourous reference to this problem of syncing the studio shots to the background?

    1. Though there’s no chance of mistaking it for the real thing, for the time the back projection shown there wasn’t that bad, bearing in mind the small (by Hollywood standards) budgets. Unless you use a custom low trailer, that gives rise to another problem, one you see in TV shows especially, which is seeing the roofs of all the passing cars which, unless the character is driving a monster truck, is unlikely.

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