Are cars in movies these days? Yes. Are they fun to watch? Not so much. Cars and movies are roughly the same age, but they've never really gotten along. What's wrong with this (motion) picture?
It is 1991, and I am in my parents' basement, lying on the floor with a can of Dr. Pepper and a bag of Sour Patch Kids. I am ten years old, and a copy of Le Mans is in the VCR. The volume is cranked as high as it will go, but that doesn't stop me from constantly grabbing the remote and trying to crank it higher.
When the 917s slither out of Tertre Rouge and fling themselves down the Mulsanne, the gut-bending howl is loud enough to make our dog bark. And I am in love.
This was a great moment, so much so that I reenact it in my living room on a regular basis. But make no mistake: By any normal standard, Le Mans is a horrible film. It offers a paper-thin plot, wooden acting, and nonstop racing footage, most of which bores ordinary people to tears.
McQueen's passionate ode to speed is a unique movie, but this is not a unique situation. The car is an easy source of drama, and Hollywood capitalizes on that, painting the automotive world as a land of lame engine noises and random fiery rollovers. Rarely is a car movie something that appeals to normal folk, and if it does, it's filled with blatant pandering. What's the deal?
Why is it that pairing car culture and movies always results in day-glo personalities and laughable dialogue? Why are car flicks always full of idiots, unlovable goofheads, and people who don't have the sense God gave a piece of toast? Why is it that I, a red-blooded American male, can suffer through an episode of Dr. Phil without projectile vomiting but cannot watch Sylvester Stallone's Driven without wanting to pop my eyes out with a rusty spoon?
Think about it: You can list the well-rounded, accurate, and crowd-pleasing car movies on one hand, and few of them stand out as anything more than a period piece. Even the best examples are lessons in how not to make a movie. By and large, they fall into two groups — those that focus on car culture and car people, and those that use the car as a backdrop or setpiece. The former gives you space-cadet crap like The Fast and the Furious, and the latter often leaves you with little more than a great car chase and an empty feeling. Most of them are movies about Something Else, ordinary films that happen to have been made by gearheads and thus depict the car world in a sympathetic manner.
The icons are obvious, as are their flaws. Consider John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix, which is full of excellent race footage but clunky direction and indifferent acting. Bullitt is a thoroughly meh crime drama surrounding a killer chase, as are both versions of The Italian Job and Ronin.
Smokey and the Bandit is one of the few to find widespread acceptance, though that arguably had more to do with Burt Reynolds's grin and Sally Field's ass than anything else. Cannonball Run, written by Brock "The Assassin" Yates, did little but assassinate Yates's Hollywood credibility. And the rest of the "golden age" crowd — Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, Thunder Road, The Gumball Rally, Dirty Mary/Crazy Larry, The Great Race, The Last American Hero, et al. — were busty B-fare but flat-chested at the box office. If car culture hadn't been sexy when they were produced, they probably wouldn't exist at all.
It's not like we don't want good stuff, and it's not like the money isn't there. A movie-nerd racing friend of mine goes out and buys crappy car DVDs every week in the hopes of sending a message that someone cares. Stuff like American Graffiti is proof that a movie can be for and about car people without falling on its ass as a film. (Just as The Band's The Last Waltz was the first rock film to make feature-length music work as a plot device, and a pattern for films that followed,
Graffiti was arguably the first film to deconstruct car culture without putting people to sleep.) Pixar's Cars, while not perfect, reminded us that four-wheeled life is part of our country's collective memory, and that you don't have to dumb down the fringes to have the nation get it. There's hope.
In essence, this isn't so much a rant as a desperate plea. I love the passion of a good movie, and while I almost threw my Coke at the screen during James Cameron's Avatar, I'm not some Nazi critic prick who thinks everything has to be Citizen Kane. I like candy, I like B-movies, and I like — hell, judging by the number of times I've watched Billy Madison, I want to have babies with — the art of filmed stupid. I just want my Real and People and Drama and Funny mixed with a bit of Car.
Frankly, I don't think I'm asking too much. America loves cars. America loves movies.
If Hollywood can make pre-war archaeology or shooting the shit in a record store appealing to normal folks, why not cars? Why can't our world be depicted in a way that doesn't make us seem like lobotomized adrenaline monkeys? And for that matter, where is my damn Ayrton Senna biopic already?
P.S. For the record, Hot Rod magazine has assembled what appears to be the definitive list of car movies. If it's worth a damn, it's probably on there (including the Clark Gable film To Please A Lady and the Shirley Muldowney biopic Heart Like a Wheel, both of which I assumed history had long forgotten). Warm up the Netflix account.
P.P.S. Honorable mention: The NFL Films-made Le Mans docu-drama Truth in 24, even though it paints Audi (Audi!) as the underdog. The World's Fastest Indian, even though it's not about cars. And Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, because it contains a NASCAR driver hawking tampons and the line, "I like to think of Jesus as a mischievous badger."