By: Darren Ranck, Brennan Carley, Charlotte Parish
Fun ‘Til Our Daddy Takes the T-bird Away
It isn’t just what you drive, but how you drive it. In film, cars used to be a symbol of not only what the character could afford to purchase (it still seems impossible that the Dukes of Hazzard boys could pay for their beloved “The General Lee” out in the boonies) but who they are.
After all, James Bond without an Aston Martin really isn’t Bond. And all iterations of the Bond Martin are slightly different, reflecting the time period of the movie, special affects abilities, and the creative flair of each director. But something each car has in common is that each is a demonstration of status.
“Is that you in that car? What a waste of beautiful machinery.” This famous line from American Graffiti, though rude, sums up the era of cars ranging from about 1950 to 1970. Cars were not vehicles meant to get from one place to another. They were machinery, which meant that one had to be man enough to run them. It was not a right to drive the ’57 Thunderbird of Graffiti, it was a privilege, one that you had to earn.
It wasn’t just in the movies that cars had a deeper meaning. The older generations of vehicles had a more supreme and unique beauty in real life as well, which translated to the silver screen. They were a marker of prestige, of money, and of class. Danny Zuko (John Travolta) of Grease might have been a greaser and a troublemaker, but once he gets behind the wheel of Greased Lightning, he becomes a fighter for his rights – the pinks. Because it isn’t enough to simply drive a car, you have to possess it in character. Ferris may have stolen the GT for the day, but the car looked as oversized on him as the trench coat he wore to pick up Sloane. Greased Lightning, though, fit Danny like a glove. Who, now, can mistake the wings and nose of a Ford De Lux? Lightning is nothing without the T-Birds, but they are also nothing without their baby.
When did it start to change though? When did it become not about the make and model of the car, but rather how tricked out and speedy it could be? Whenever that defining moment was, it was an incredibly sad day for film. CGI is all well and good, and stunt men are very talented, but there is nothing like the classic chase scenes where you could be sure that if Bullitt was pursuing the bad guys, it was actually Steve McQueen speeding through the hills and curves of San Francisco. The ’67 Mustang that he drove spoke volumes about his character: smooth, badass, and unstoppable.
Cars were entirely other characters in classics, regardless of genre. Whether it was an action, drama, or comedy film, the car oriented viewers and let them know something about the driver from the opening scene, before anything had been said or done. Along with long gloves and cigarette holders, the class and grace of this bygone era of cars has been tragically lost among the need for speed. – CP
Get Out of My Dreams and Into My Car
Following the early automobiles as status symbol came the period of cars as escapism and fantasy. One of the most popular and socially conscious songs of 1988, Tracy Chapman’s acoustic dirge “Fast Car,” came to embody this very principle. The song tells the narrative of a young girl burdened with obligations and responsibilities to keep her broken home afloat. She dreams of leaving town with her boyfriend in his car, an escape planned in secret. “You got a fast car / Is it fast enough so we could fly away? / We’ve got to make a decision, / leave tonight or live and die this way.” Through every struggle her life throws at her, she still clings to this car that can change her life and make everything better. Cars became the vehicle to a dream, the realization of fantasy.
For high school kids in the ’80s, the car opened the door to freedom. With a car at their disposal, kids didn’t go to school to learn. They went to ditch class with their friends and rabble rouse. Ferris Bueller and co. did it best in the seminal classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Cameron’s dad’s BMW is the stuff of legends. It is the car that simultaneously saved the day and ruined it completely for Cam. Initially, he felt so much hesitation about taking the pristine piece of auto memorabilia out of the garage, but he finally bucked up his courage and drove the car into Chicago. That baby drove them to Wrigley Field, to the Chicago Art Institute, and to the favorite restaurant of Abe Froman (the Sausage King of Chicago). That car was a dream on wheels. Only when Cameron accidentally backed it out into the creek behind his house did reality come crashing right back down. At least two lucky mechanics got to enjoy a drive to the Star Wars soundtrack.
From K. I. T., the talking savvy car in David Hasselhoff’s Night Rider, to Doc Brown’s time traveling Delorean in The Back to the Future series, this era also introduced the car as fantastic vessel. While cars brought daydreams to life for some, these cars made fantasies come alive. One of film’s most iconic cars achieved such a feat. The jeeps in Jurassic Park can be looked at with wonder and fear. On the one hand, the red, yellow, and green color scheme of the jeep along with its screened T-rex logo can be seen as pure fun. These trucks conveyed the classic feel of a safari with a prehistoric edge, but they also ended up being the one piece of protection from a raptor scratching your face off.
As stated earlier, though, this era primed the car as a realistic escape from troubled reality. One of the most iconic cinematic images of the early ’90s, Thelma and Louise, put female empowerment flicks on the map. These two chicks, played with aplomb and gusto by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, drove miles to escape from the clutches of two gunmen. They’re at the end of their rope. The road ends ahead at a cliff. They look at one another, clasp hands, and the car flies in mid air over the canyon. The girls are not the focus of the shot – the car is. It’s the vehicle to the next step. As pop culture moved into the mid ’90s, cars would never be so fantastic or poignant again. – DR
Shut Up and Drive
Things started to get thematically ugly for cars in the ’90s, when they quickly lost any of the symbolism they once held. No longer were movie characters associating their trusty automobiles with escapism and status. Films and television shows even went so far as to tarnish the reputations of classic pop culture cars. The Wachowski’s all flash and no heart reboot of Speed Racer made a mockery of the classic cartoon car. In the increasingly popular Fast and the Furious series, cars are seen as sleek and sexy, but their only purpose is for racing. These films are desecrating an institution that countless directors, actors, and stuntmen have built up for decades.
When rap became a dominant musical form, it seemed to be a commonly accepted fact that cars were an accessory, a means for Nelly to go “down, down baby / your street in a Range Rover.” In Lil’ Wayne’s hit song “John,” Rick Ross barks about having a “chopper in the car.” Coming from a tubby rapper who wore an open kimono to this summer’s BET Awards, the threat doesn’t land, but it still chips away at the integral role cars play in our society.
In recent years, some directors subverted the norm that had overtaken the car world in the ’90s. For Quentin Tarantino, a definite car enthusiast, the Pussy Wagon from Kill Bill was the ultimate form of rebellion. It signified rebirth for Uma Thurman’s Bride, rather than serving as a means to an end.
Likewise, shows like The Wire and Justified have adopted cars as characters in their own ways. For instance, Wire creator David Simon utilized cars in his social commentary about the reality of the Baltimore slums and, conversely, as surveillance, a theme explored in great depth over the show’s five seasons. He doesn’t cast the vehicles to the side as tools for the dealers and junkies. Rather, they seamlessly become part of the deals. Likewise, in Justified, Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens is reassigned to Kentucky from Miami, a world where he had come to treat Ferraris and Bugattis as commonplace. His homeland of Kentucky, in comparison, comes as a culture shock to the Deputy U.S. Marshal. Instead of prolonging the joke, the writers transform Givens into a 19th century-style officer who embraces the honky-tonk cars he’s assigned. They become part of his life and aid in his transformation.
Even the world’s queen of weird, Lady Gaga herself, has released an ode to the cars of years past. In her “Glitter and Grease,” the singer keeps her disco-stick references to a bare minimum, while purring about a love who’s “always with his cars, cars, cars.” The rest of the song, in typical Gaga fashion of course, reminisces about the care with which people used to treat their rides. While lamenting over these olden days, Lady Gaga assists in the attempt to cement the role of the automobile in popular culture for a new generation. – BC ♦