Fast cars, fancy drivers

What is it about speed and driving on celluloid that makes it addictive? Car chases in movies have even changed the perception of certain cars in popular culture, and the trend has only got bigger.

Published - October 15, 2011 04:48 pm IST

All-time classic: The car chases of the 1969 movie “The Italian Job” soared to iconic status.

All-time classic: The car chases of the 1969 movie “The Italian Job” soared to iconic status.

Ryan Gosling can hold a silence — and hold it with just the kind of intensity that makes the screen fizz. His audience couldn't, though, at the local theatre where I went to see “Drive”. Having to deal with the celluloid silences created way too much discomfort, and so they chattered, and tittered, and hid behind loud, fatuous remarks. They seemed to have altered sound expectations, perhaps conditioned by ear-splitting trailers for masala movies, blaring horns on the roads, or the deafening music piped out via loudspeakers into public spaces and private homes. Noise pollution has defined our soundscape to the point where we just don't know what to do when information is exchanged through silence and minimal words.

Which is the preferred mode of communication for Gosling's character — known merely as Driver — in Nicolas Winding Refn's new film. “Drive” is set in Los Angeles, where the Driver lives a triple life as car mechanic, stunt driver for movies and getaway driver for heists. Reticent, delivering a handful of lines through the film, Gosling makes each one count like Clint Eastwood at his taciturn best, or like George Clooney in “The American” — another film, incidentally, that was full of long silences, filled up by noisy audiences.

Iconic character

The laconic wheelman is an iconic character in the movies, one that's been made famous by very famous actors including Robert De Niro and Steve McQueen, who was a very accomplished driver in his own right. Or there was Ryan O'Neal, who also played a character known merely as the Driver in Walter Hill's classic, “The Driver” (1978).

But let's cut to the chase: Talk about fancy cars and the fancier footwork of those at the wheel inevitably leads us to “The Car Chase”. As far back as 1974, close to 100 cars were wrecked in the lengthy chase sequence of the film, “Gone in 60 Seconds” — and the trend has only gotten showier and bigger over the years.

While we do rather enjoy the high-octane rush of snazzy, speedy cars in, say, the Bond movies, largely, the car chase has become an obligatory set piece in action movies. It's an Item Number, a box that must be ticked that involves screeching tyres and an ever-increasing body count of smashed up cars. The classic chases, on the other hand, were about so much more than cars speeding pedal to the metal; in these films, the nature of the chase contributes substantially to setting the tone, or developing the plot and characters.

Incidentally, that's why Drive 's car sequences work well; a lot of what Gosling's character won't — or can't — put into words, is revealed by the way he drives. We are introduced, for instance, to the Driver via a car chase that's defined by tightly reined in control and confidence. It involves noiseless manoeuvres into dark streets rather than speedy wheels scorching up the roads, though there's some of that stuff too, later in the film.

The best car chases in movies such as “The French Connection” or “Ronin” have stayed with us. It's even changed the way certain cars have been perceived in popular culture. For instance “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) then made Pontiac's Firebird Trans Am one of the hottest things on wheels. “The Italian Job” (1969) and its long, long car chase that famously involved three Mini Coopers, soared to iconic status. While Bullitt's climactic car chase — considered an all-time classic — really made the Mustang one of the coolest rides of the 1960s/ 70s.

Drivers did it

Incidentally, contrary to the popular myth, McQueen only did the close-up driving shots — or about a tenth of the driving — of the ten-minute-plus car chase in Bullitt; well-known stunt drivers Bud Ekins and Loren James did the rest.

Steven Spielberg's “Duel” (1971) takes the psychology of vehicles on the roads and drivers a notch higher — the movie is about an increasingly menacing, wordless road duel between a truck and an ordinary salesman driving a car.

In the new Millennium our fascination with the getaway wheelman and fast cars continues, fuelled by the trend that's become the bane of fresh ideas: The franchise sequel. Uber-cool Jason Statham as the introverted professional driver for criminal goings-on, caught our imagination in “The Transporter” (2002), though it was followed by some uninspired retreads in parts 2 and 3. The Fast and the Furious debuted with high-spirited trashy flash then lost the plot through its sequels; surprisingly however, the fifth in the series, “Fast Five”, regained a lot of its former punch.

But what is it about speed and driving on celluloid that makes it addictive? For some answers, turn to the documentary “Senna” (2010) — about three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna — made by Asif Kapadia, a British filmmaker of Indian descent. Kapadia captures the high-adrenaline rush of driving as a sport, culled from thousands of hours of footage. Whether you follow Formula One racing or not, the documentary hooks you, from the opening image of a boyish Senna driving what looks like a go-kart around a European track, to the nail-biting races later — where, for example, Senna wins a race despite a jammed gearbox that leaves him trapped in sixth gear. “I saw God,” says the increasingly spiritual-minded Senna, after winning a championship, “I just feel peace.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that cars and films would become so intertwined with each other, considering how the two industries — automobiles and movies — came into being side-by-side in the 1890s along with other key advances such as electricity and the airplane. There's something really satisfying about stylish movies with loud cars and quiet drivers; the sound and the silence make for a memorable drive.

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