To Live and Drive in L.A.

Source: The Guardian

At first I relished debating the merits and missteps of the indie film Drive far more than I enjoyed the film itself. But thanks to Sarah Deming, the Michigan woman who filed a lawsuit alleging that Drive’s trailer is misleading and the movie’s content anti-Semitic, I now welcome the flick to the crime/car chase genre. 

Mind you, I couldn’t care less about the merits of Deming’s assertions. On the surface they’re an excuse for attention getting; to drill down further we’ll need to ridicule consider Sarah’s more delicate motives. (For the record, though, the suit’s allegations of “extreme gratuitous defamatory dehumanizing racism directed against members of the Jewish faith” is not only a stretch, it’s an affront to anyone of the Jewish faith involved in the film who surely paid attention to the project when they signed on.) Unlike Deming, the more I’ve considered what I liked and didn’t like about Drive the more it’s grown on me. I’ve gone from feeling like I got ripped off to being reminded of how glad I was in 1985 when William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. antagonized the generation of car chase movie fans before me. In the same way, today’s younger audiences are connecting with Drive because it’s not made from “old timey” formulas. Sure, the film is dripping with the goo of 1985 – but as reimagined and repurposed by a Danish director Americanization-free enough to play with the genre and get away with it.

Back in the real ‘85, my orange hair and I waited in line to see To Live and Die in L.A.’s much talked-about downtown chase; to me it still stands as one the decade’s coolest. But I remember my uncle griping about every element of the film outside of that sequence. He didn’t like the “neo-noir,” angle, the quasi-poly-sexual undertones, he absolutely hated the Wang Chung title track, and he spat fire over what he decided was “artsy” in general. Even I remember thinking William Petersen’s whole “Conan the Carnal Cop” shtick was too posturing and virile, but I wasn’t worldly enough to be able to apply an allegation like “butch.” For my uncle, though, something smelled like “fag” throughout the movie, and the more he pointed it out the more I enjoyed the fact that he was being robbed of his expectations.

Now don’t get me wrong, To Live and Die in L.A. isn’t the best action movie ever made, and it certainly didn’t rescue us from bad car chase movies: when you take the good with the bad – pairing ‘70s lens flares with 70’s horsepower, for example – there were no bad car chase movies then. Hippies or no, I couldn’t have rebuffed Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, or Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry if I wanted to. And even if East Coast expressions had been overplayed by then, 1973’s The Seven-Ups could only have been filmed in Manhattan with New Yorkers diving for their lives: it would never have been as exhilarating otherwise. (When you see those cars flyin’ though those wide bends or zooming up those tight Manhattan corridors, you get a sense that real lives are in danger…because they are! Just watch the suspension sway as those stunt drivers corner those 4400 lb. beasts…) Going further back, Spielberg’s Duel was subtle, scary driving drama that blew my 10-year-old ass right through the roof of my imagination, and who didn’t love the balls-to-the-wall chase scenes in Bullitt, any given 007 movie, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?

But To Live and Die in L.A. gave us something different. It felt new and important and it introduced jacked up cops with weird, sinewy crooks like no other pursuit flick before. And even though some parts have aged better than others, it put a lot of butts in a lot of seats – a primary goal for filmmakers no matter what their generation. Gone in 60 Seconds, Eat my Dust, The Junkman, Death Race 2000, and other wholly irresponsible movies that parents hated came next, along with quasi-existential chase movies like The Driver and The Road Warrior.

As a genre film, Drive offers today’s younger audiences a chance to interpret pursuit exploits on their own terms and in what they perceive as an innovative departure from Detroit sheet metal formulas. The Fast and Furious franchise to which Sarah Deming so inaccurately compares to Drive did the same, and if Fast/Furious can have its import tuner world free of ethnic and economic prejudices, surely Drive can have its 80s influence and screwy love affair-to-fireball ratio. Besides, independent production or not, Ryan Gosling = gold.  For my money the actor has a ways to go, but for now it’s a lucky producer who can convince him his talents are best used with their script.

The theater I went to was so packed with Date Night Wreckage I checked to make sure I wasn’t accidentally seated for a Melissa McCarthy pic. Then I watched for others’ reactions. Admittedly, had there been more excitement in the film, I wouldn’t have been so inclined to try to distinguish the car chase people from the Gosling people. It’s true the film was promoted as a thrill-a-minute demolition derby with explosions, guns, gore, and Christina Hendricks, while in reality it seemed to offer much more to the female side of the couples in attendance. No one seemed to contemplate litigation afterwards, but there were some audible WTF’s. Still, to place all of a film’s value, as Sarah Deming has, on whether or not it delivers the pavement pounding, Nitro burning, rubber screeching drag race meth-hit its ad campaigns imply is to miss out on an awful lot.

Considering that Drive is an adaptation of a novel written by a 68-year-old crime author, there’s a lot of nuance and expression between the book, the movie, and the audience’s reaction. As Deming shakes a copy of her lawsuit in our faces, she succeeds only in reinforcing to young people that it’s safer to think in clichés. She’s suing to make her opinion important (or relevant): she obviously feels she’s not getting enough credit from life as it is. Maybe she wouldn’t be so upset if movie trailers didn’t reveal most of the films they market, but who made her the standard-bearer of what defines a car chase movie anyway? The times they are a-changin’ Sarah, and so are chase movies. Research the films you’re interested in seeing ahead of time, and stop using your need for attention as an excuse to play victim.