Monday, March 19, 2007

Over-thinking Diesel

I'm getting behind. Work is a little hectic at the moment (my day job, that is, not the writing) and I haven't had a day off for a while - I am living a strangely monkish existence of working, eating, sleeping and working again, punctuated only by occasional arguments with some of my more obtuse and self-centred colleagues (most are neither, it must be stressed, but it only takes one cretin to ruin one's day). On the one hand it is quite spartan and manly to live such a life but frankly I miss having time to read or write or have coffee with friends or play Oblivion until the early hours (level 14, since you ask, and dying to see The Shivering Isles). Ho hum, I'll probably work it into the novel somehow.

Speaking of things manly, this week has been a good one for blokey car movies - The Fast And The Furious was on not long ago and right now I'm watching Gone In Sixty Seconds. These two films were issued within a year of each other and represent two very different ends of the subgenre: GISS is slick, feelgood, humourous, a classic tale of good and evil - cars must be stolen as an act of altruism, and every man likes a film that finds a moral excuse for crime. It explores why men love cars, without being sarcastic about it - from the long pan of driving memorabilia under the opening credits it is one long poem to the automobile, to the dream of freedom. From the honour-among-thieves schtick to the classic one-last-heist plot it's a strangely old-fashioned movie, perhaps to be expected from a Jerry Bruckheimer production.

The Fast And The Furious is a very different exploration of the same broad themes of freedom and masculinity. The script is as dumb as a box of rocks but Vin Diesel breathes life and depth into it, infusing the character of Dominic with a humanity that hints at Diesel's theatrical experience. TFATF stands up poorly to GISS as a movie, but comes out on top as cinema: GISS is a stylishly-shot car porn movie whereas TFATF is a deeper meditation on what it is to be male.

It may seem like I'm over-thinking this but consider: each of the male characters in TFATF is not so much a person as an archetype, a representation of a part of the male psyche. Vince is the id, the violent and childish thug, the aggression and rage that surges beneath the surface of every man. It's the part of you that wants to smack the whiny cow in front of you in the queue at Starbucks holding everybody up because she doesn't think her latte is foamy enough when latte isn't meant to be foamy, that's fucking capuccino you gormless bitch. Jesse is the weakling, the coward, but also the genius: he isn't a hardass like the rest of the group and needs their protection but repays them with his intellect, at least as pertains to tuning cars. He suffers from ADHD and is physically weaker than the rest but they respect his ability in a way that he hasn't found anywhere else - something all men fear: none of us wants to be too clever lest our peers reject us, and a character such as Jesse offers us some comfort. Dominic himself represents the ego, the mediator, the balancing force that holds the group together.

The female characters are also archetypes: Dominic's sister Mia is the superego, the conscience, and represents the ideal of feminine womanhood - strong, attractive and tender. Letty on the other hand is the ideal of masculine womanhood, aggressive and sexually dominating. It perhaps bears mentioning that both these idealised fantasy women are strong, independent and, crucially, excellent drivers.

Brian is the outsider, the intruder into the group, and his friendship with Dominic is the true core of the film as they fight, learn to respect one another, gain each other's trust and eventually reveal their true selves (not in a Brokeback Mountain kind of way. Concentrate) before, importantly, forgiving each other's shortcomings. Brian overcomes his own superego (the law) for the sake of this friendship, and Dominic overcomes his facticity (the death of his father) - both triumph by winning their inner battles, not by smacking people.

Where the two films meet is in one scene: the barbecue. If ever there were a symbol of male camaraderie (and not just with other males) this is it - in Gone In Sixty Seconds the barbecue comes at the end when the cars are stolen, the bad guy brought to justice, the good guys have won their freedom and the Sphinx finally speaks. It's their reward for the trials they have endured. In The Fast And The Furious the barbecue comes much earlier, before the real battles have begun: Vince and Brian clash and Dominic has to assert control and enforce the traditional truce of mealtimes. Both barbecues represent something very important to a man: respite, sanctuary, a safe place where there is food, drink, peace and good friends to share it with. All of my favourite parties have been barbecues, and not without cause.

Among all this masculine psychology the cars are almost secondary, but it's no accident that the Need For Speed games have become so successful since they turned to the world of street racing for inspiration. It's also no accident that both films are (very loose) remakes - Gone In Sixty Seconds was originally made in 1974, and The Fast and The Furious twenty years before that. The films and games are redolent of something men all of all times and places crave: a culture, a group to belong to, good friends and freedom.

I cannot drive, by the way, but on the Xbox I favour sixties Chevys and the occasional Toyota Supra. Make of that what you will.

No comments: