"Man, I wish you could've seen it," the cabbie beamed as we barreled down out of Pacific Heights. "These two chicks hijacked a friend of mine's taxi. I was listening to the police radio and ran them down. It was like right outta Bullitt (1968). Shit, I love that film."
No doubt. Because there's no better place in the world than San Francisco for car chases. From What's Up, Doc? (1972) to 48 Hrs. (1982) , the city by the bay has set the standard for mad dashes. And mad dash clichés. Invariably, one if not more vehicles either will end up tangled up in a Chinese dragon or go into the drink off Fisherman's Wharf.
What San Francisco has in hills, European cities make up for with narrow, cobblestone streets. Hollywood now burns rubber to the other side of the pond in order to give its pictures a bit of Continental élan. In Ronin (1998), John Frankenheimer puts the finest automobiles of Bavaria through their paces in the back streets of Nice, outchicaning his previous work on French Connection 2 (1975) and Grand Prix (1966). Not only are these sequences masterfully crafted, they have a kinetic energy missing from even the most expensive Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. Audiences are quickly tiring of digital special effects. More and more, action filmmakers will have to return to old-school conventions such as editing and composition to get the spines atingling. Reality-based cop shows already exploit this predicament, giving us grainy, wide-angle footage, allegedly right from the cockpit of police cruisers in hot pursuit of suspects.
In American cinema, there are two primary modalities of the car -- at rest or in motion. The car at rest more often than not has teenagers either quaffing booze or in the back seat moaning and groaning through a drive-in movie. Countless exploitation films have used this motif to pop in a bit of skin for the benefit of pimple-faced wankers, just before the slasher appears or the cops rap on the steamed-up window. It's all good clean fun, with the help of a Kleenex or two.
Now, after the serial killer hysteria of the early '90s, we are less lighthearted about getting it on in the back seat. In our paranoia, American Graffiti (1973) has been re-written as Kalifornia (1993). To be stationary in a car, even with your clothes on, is to be vulnerable to attack. You've got to keep moving. If the cretins are on the prowl for victims, you too must be on the prowl to escape victimhood.
But sometimes circumstance has a way of pinning you down and rolling you over. Errol Morris, in his penetrating docu-essay, The Thin Blue Line (1988), uses slow, repetitive images of cars to articulate the slow, relentless drive by prosecutors to railroad Randall Adams into a bogus murder conviction.
The road movie, once the happy domain of Bing and Bob, has taken on such a monochromatic minor key as to be a cliché unto itself. Existential angst travels prolifically, if not well, in America -- preferably behind the wheel of a vintage convertible. Characters zip away from something bad and toward something that can come to no good, usually in the desert, usually in pairs. Thelma & Louise (1991) chose to keep driving into oblivion rather than go back to dead lives. Melvin picked up Howard (1980), who appeared out of nowhere on an empty desert highway. The list goes on and on.
Unlike an airplane, a car dislocates one slowly, close to the terrain. You can see time and space receding in the rearview mirror, converging into a vanishing point at the horizon. The challenge is to be able to keep your eyes on the road ahead. Is there a more beautiful expression of this than in the early part of Leaving Las Vegas (1995) when Nick Cage decamps LA and speeds off into the desert, serenaded by Michael McDonald's version of "Lonely Teardrops?" Director Mike Figgis speeds up the film, yet we feel ourselves drifting on Cage's lolling vibrations as he chills out with the wind in his hair and the road wide open. A fast drive can be liberating indeed, if you know where you're going.
Sometimes, a car is more than a means to an end. It literally is the end. In Christine (1984), a young gent grows so enamored of his ride and she of him that they become inseparable to the death. There's something irresistibly sexy about death in a speeding car, even if you don't leave a beautiful corpse, as James Dean is alleged to have done. Just ask David Cronenberg, who took it upon himself to adapt J.G. Ballard's Crash to the big screen (1995). A cabal of joyless, yuppie automatons forms a macabre sort of swingers' club involving car smashups. The more wounds the better. The ringleader, Vaughan, is a psycho albeit charismatic mechanic who dreams of checking out in the style of Jayne Mansfield. Vaughan gets his wish, but we don't get ours -- that the film will end sooner rather than later.
Talk about spinning your wheels!