Monthly Archives: November 2011

Made-On-Demand Round-Up! #1

First off, let me say this: I love DVDs. For a variety of reasons, they remain my home entertainment medium of choice. For starters, I don’t have a very fast computer, so even if, when I’m in home in NZ, I had a sufficiently fast connection to overcome the lag that is inevitable when accessing sites from across the Pacific Ocean, the processor is so slow that even video files I download freeze up every few seconds. Second, I don’t have a laptop, yet, and my desktop doesn’t have a very big screen; and even if it did, I don’t have my La-Z-Boy in my office. Third, every attempt I’ve ever made to use bit torrent has been an unmitigated disaster. I’m sure it’s my fault, but that sort of thing has a steep learning curve, it seems to me. DVDs do not. For all these reasons, for now at least, DVD and blu-ray are going to remain my chief medium for watching movies at home.

Being a film scholar and living in NZ tends to entail spending a lot of money buying DVDs, especially Criterion titles, which are not, and never will be, available in that market to buy or to rent. The same goes for made-to-order titles in such series as Warner Bros. Archives, MGM Limited Edition, Universal Studios Vault, and Columbia Classics (why doesn’t Fox do this? I need things!). Except there’s a lot more justification for writing about those on a blog, it seems to me: very, very few video stores anywhere carry them, and Netflix doesn’t offer them either, so for most people, renting is out. They aren’t that cheap at Amazon, so it can be hard for most people to justify buying them (not so much me, but a) I’m an addict… um, a collector, I’m a collector!, and b) they have lots of stuff that’s important for my research, which is why ‘70s titles are disproportionately represented in my made-on-demand DVD purchases). Because they are made-on-demand, there are few if any people selling these titles on Amazon Marketplace; even if they are, the prices are no improvement. Screen Archives Entertainment, which carries the MGM titles, has the occasional sale, though. Warner Bros. Archives has sales once every few months, in fact, but won’t ship overseas, which means I buy most of my titles from them when I’m in the States once a year (and means my library can’t take up any slack). This year, I’ve been here a while already, much longer than usual, so I’ve had a chance to get in on a couple sales to date, and counting. Adding to my current enthusiasm for made-on-demand DVDs is just how much is available now, far more than a couple years back. These DVDs are a huge boon to historians, and offer a panoply of treats for the film buff; some of these things I’ve been wanting to see for years. Plus, where most manufacturers began producing made-on-demand titles with generic covers, now they tend to put a bit more effort into packaging. Following WB’s lead, MGM, Universal and Columbia still have generic packaging on the spines and back covers, but now reproduce the original theatrical posters on the front covers.

Since part of the point of this blog is to have a mental relief valve, a place to burble on, unrestrained, about my enthusiasms, I thought I would write a few short things about the made-on-demand DVDs I’ve been picking up and watching of late. Since most people can’t see them very easily, I would hope mini-reviews, or at least summary judgments, would be more useful than for most DVDs; at least, that’s what I’m going to tell myself to justify blathering on about them. Here’s the first batch:

1. Harry In Your Pocket (MGM Limited Edition; Bruce Geller, 1973)

This has so much promise: an early ‘70s film about a wire mob, a crew of professional pickpockets, centering on a novice, Ray (Michael Sarrazin; what happened to that guy?) being tutored in the art by veterans Harry (James Coburn) and Casey (Walter Pidgeon). Ray is accompanied by Sandy (Trish Van Devere), who is not only a lot smarter than he is, but because Harry is attracted to her, is actually the real reason Harry takes Ray on in the first place. Harry is The Best at what he does. For his part, Casey is now “The Hold” because he’s too old and his hands are too unsteady to pick pockets himself, but Harry is absolute in his loyalty to him, and that loyalty is key to a late-film plot twist.

Certainly, Harry is a bit of a disappointment to a crime film geek like myself. Geller is best known for his TV work, creating both Mission: Impossible (which ended in 1973, the same year the film came out) and Mannix (which ran for two more years). Most prolific as a writer (in addition to the above-named series, he wrote extensively for Western series like Have Gun, Will Travel, The Westerner, Zane Grey Theater, and The Rifleman, among other programs), Geller only had three directing credits: one for an episode of The Westerner, and one after Harry, a TV movie whose title says it all: The Savage Bees. It’s odd, then, that he never directed anything he wrote, and perhaps unfortunate in that one wishes for more attention to the actual mechanics of pickpocketing and the operations of a wire mob, more attention to process, as one might have expected from the Mission: Impossible guy, rather than the triangle between Ray, Sandy and Harry; but alas not. That’s a question of emphasis, though, and partly my reaction comes from my total disinterest in Trish Van Devere.  There are a lot of nice montages of the mob in action, and some great scenes, probably the best I’ve ever seen on the subject, where Casey teaches Ray to pick an inside jacket pocket without ringing the bells they’ve hung on the outside. Geller uses extreme close-ups to intensify the suspense and, crucially, a much closer identification with the pickpocket’s physical processes as well as thoughts and emotions. If the relationship plot begins to dominate in the third act, the rather dark denouement is thankfully tough and genre-oriented, shorn of the kind of emotional hand-wringing that threatened to dominate.

Harry In Your Pocket is rather an oddity, in the end (like a lot of these sorts of MOD titles), and very much a product of its era, particularly in its biggest flaw, the music over the pickpocketing montages, which has that false, out of place, upbeat jauntiness that is like an eczema on the skin of 1970s genre cinema. That said, while the music is both annoying in itself and capable of causing severe cognitive dissonance in this narrative context, it does have the rather appealing affect of lending an amoral romanticism to the crew and what they’re up to (the film has exactly zero sympathy for their victims). As uninteresting as Van Devere and Sarrazin are, Coburn remains charismatic even though his charm seems unusually tamped-down here. As nicely as the film handles the criminal stuff, though, it’s undeniably stolen by Walter Pidgeon’s Casey, an old hand who has seen better days, a philosophical but clear-eyed  criminal who holds fast to professional codes and a sense of honor, even as he cheerfully indulges his avowed drug addiction. In fact, seeing Walter Pidgeon casually snorting coke is reason enough to watch the film, even if it doesn’t quite justify the price of the DVD.

2. Marlowe (WB Archive; Paul Bogart, 1969)

It goes without saying that Marlowe is a long way from being the best of the Raymond Chandler adaptations (this one is based on The Little Sister– which is itself a long way from being the best of the Philip Marlowe books). It doesn’t have the iconic status of The Big Sleep; there’s no substituting for the Humphrey Bogart cool, the Hawksian badinage, or that master’s precision and economy of effect. It doesn’t boast the vivid rumpled-ness of Dick Powell’s Marlowe in Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet, still probably the characterization that comes closest to the books. Paul Bogart certainly doesn’t give it the radical rethinking and auteurist stylization of Altman’s The Long Goodbye; nor does it have the period atmospherics or the Mitchum cool of Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely. On the other hand, of course, it also doesn’t have the Mitchum-bored-out-of-his-stoned-skull or flaccid direction of Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep, so pointlessly and detrimentally moved from L.A. to England. So this is a middle-of-the-road hardboiled movie, probably most comparable to Jack Smight’s Harper (the first of two adaptations of Ross Macdonald’s Archer series, starring Paul Newman); that film has the edge, true (thanks to Newman and a few smart adaptation choices by William Goldman, including a truly brilliant opening scene), but only just. Marlowe is slick, clearly a film with a pretty fair budget. It’s crisply directed, it doesn’t overplay the hippie stereotyping, and manages for the most part to avoid the homophobia seemingly rampant in detective films of the late ‘60s (though at the cost of taking pains to tell us that Marlowe’s office neighbor, a flamboyant hairdresser, loves to ball chicks). Garner is a solid Marlowe, a bit sullen but not inappropriately so, and tough enough while still taking a beating the way a Marlowe should. Performance highlights are provided by the great, great William Daniels as a network suit who hires Marlowe to protect their investment in the star of a primetime soap (a la Peyton Place), played frostily by Gayle Hunnicut; Rita Moreno, as the TV star’s stripper best friend, who does a shockingly sexy striptease at the climax; and of course, Bruce Lee as a dapper thug who makes a first impression by destroying Marlowe’s office with a series of kicks and chops.

Scenes featuring those three are the highlights. The cinematography and art direction are good, and overall Bogart puts together a vivid, slick, fast and engaging package. Might he be rather underrated, or at least a subject for further research? I read good things about Skin Game, though I haven’t seen it. Certainly for any P.I. fan, though, Marlowe is a film you’re going to want to check out at some point.

  

3. The Satan Bug (MGM; John Sturges, 1965)

I just watched The Satan Bug the other night, and if there’s one reason I’m writing this blog it’s to try to get more people to see this. The Time Out Film Guide has nothing much to say for it. Maltin gives it 3 ½ stars, but calls it overlooked, which it surely is. I’ve always been a big fan of certain films directed by John Sturges: The Magnificent Seven is no Seven Samurai, but very fine for a bloated Western; Bad Day at Black Rock is a film I’ve always been very fond of, an underdog/fish out of water thriller which appeals to the same part of me that likes Roadhouse, only instead of Swayze we get one of Spencer Tracy’s best performance; and The Great Escape is simply one of my all-time favorites. I might enjoy the occasional bloated Western, but I LOVE a bloated, epic war film; plus there’s Steve McQueen and the rest of that cast; plus there’s that music! What’s not to love? But I’ve never particularly taken Sturges seriously as a director, even though I know Bordwell is fond of his widescreen staging. After watching The Satan Bug, though, now I do. It’s not that The Satan Bug is better than the Sturges films listed above; it’s that if a relatively obscure film of his is this good, he was a far more formidable craftsman than I’d reckoned. For starters, Bordwell isn’t wrong about those compositions. Working here with Robert Surtees, Sturges does some remarkably supple, nuanced staging in depth in these Panavision frames. In interiors, the depth staging is impressive enough, and allows for some gracefully composed and dramatically rich long takes; in exteriors, especially in action scenes (check out the search of the stadium in particular), the depth staging is dynamic and layered even when the editing is fast and tight. The film is most lacking on the level of performance: Richard Basehart is capable, Dana Andrews (sober!) is actually a rather nice surprise, Anne Francis is always dreamy, but all of them are fairly low-key (as is Ed Asner as a villain); not many sparks from them, then. The problem is really with George Maharis, who is reasonably persuasive in action and detection scenes, but simultaneously loud and bland, scene-chewing and totally wooden and lacking in charisma.

He’s not enough to offset the writing and direction, though. From the 1960s through the ‘70s there were dozens of films based on Alistair MacLean books: The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra (also by Sturges, and which I regret I haven’t seen yet), Where Eagles Dare, When Eight Bells Toll, and many more. A lot of them are quite good, but this one, despite its lack of reputation, is one of the very best. The scripters are James Clavell and the talented and prolific Edward Anhalt, so that helps, but without the control, assurance, and energy of Sturges’ direction, it wouldn’t count for much.

The Satan Bug is a shockingly modern film: extraordinarily fast-paced (for mid-‘60s Hollywood), utterly unsentimental, and quite unpredictable. It’s far more gripping than I ever expected it to be. It’s also a film that’s dated well because of its subject, a theft of a chemical weapon that can destroy all life on Earth within days. Sure, the premise is a little OTT, and it’s plugging into Cold War paranoia, but that hysteria, with a little modulation, could still be sold in a contemporary action film; how far is it from Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Contagion, really? I wouldn’t want to say too much more about the plot; I knew very little going into it, which is part of why I found it so engaging, and even the theatrical trailer was unusually careful not to give much away. And yeah, there are a few things that aren’t wholly credible, but the film doesn’t give you any time to reflect on them. It is a consistently entertaining film, and I am putting more Sturges films on the to-watch list right away. Bonus points, too, for the credit sequence: I can’t seem to find out who did it, but they are the best Saul Bass credits Bass never did.

And now… Classical Cinema Corner!

 

4. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (WB; Stephen Roberts, 1936)

5. The Mad Miss Manton (WB; Leigh Jason, 1938)

I’ve always had an inordinate fondness for 1930s comedy-mysteries. I grew up reading detective fiction (at the time, mostly of the “classic” variety), which is still a mainstay of my literary diet today, and a well-done mystery or crime story in any medium will always please me. I love screwball comedies, the pinnacle of the romantic comedy, the genre that to my mind has fallen the farthest from its classical Hollywood pinnacle (it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when I actually liked Katherine Heigl…). So how could I not love a synthesis of the two?

I love The Thin Man, of course, and at least the first few of its sequels (and William Powell and Myrna Loy in general), but I also love nothing more than a good Thin Man knockoff, and there were loads of them, and generally of quite a high quality, in the ‘30s. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, with Powell and Jean Arthur, is a good example, and if it isn’t quite up to the level of Star of Midnight, with Powell and Ginger Rogers, it’s pretty close. Apart from a bizarre scene where Arthur (the title character) seems to believe there’s a chance she and Dr. Bradford could experience a case of poisoning from ingesting too much gelatin (either this is the height of ditziness, or there were still a lot of people who weren’t familiar with gelatin at the time- I would love to ask a food historian about this), Mrs. B. is smart and canny in the investigation of the mysterious deaths of a jockey and a trainer at a horse race track, often anticipating Dr. B.’s moves and making a number of clever ones of her own. This, in fact, is a chief criterion of mine for the ‘30s comedy-mystery: how active is the heroine, how much is she allowed to participate in the main plot, patriarchy notwithstanding? One of the major disappointments of the Thin Man films is that one wants more Loy, not just as The Wife, but as A Partner, and especially as the series goes on, one seems to get less and less of it to the point where Nora becomes at time an annoyance and a hindrance. Mrs. Bradford is right there with her ex-husband, though. The performances are well-directed (not that Powell ever turned in sub-par work), the direction and editing are pacy, and the mystery is well-wrought, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford boasting a script by novelist Anthony Veiller (author of the novel The List of Adrian Messenger and many more), among others.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford generally gets decent notices in film guides, but not so The Mad Miss Manton. And that’s just wrong. Even without Powell, this may actually me my all-time favorite Thin Man knockoff. In it, a gaggle (there’s just no better word for them) of young female socialites, led by Barbara Stanwyck’s Melsa Manton, discover a body in the midst of a treasure hunt for charity. When the police are summoned, the body has vanished, and, fed up with her various stunts and misadventures over the years, the police refuse to take her seriously. A liberal young newspaper editor, Henry Fonda’s Peter Ames, rails against her in print (decadence, the uselessness of the upper class layabout, etc.). It’s precisely because the menfolk refuse to take the young women seriously that Manton refuses to let it go, mobilizing the rest of the women in pursuit of the murderer. It would be asking too much to expect that with a whole group of young women playing amateur sleuths we wouldn’t have to put up with a bit of silly, sexist stereotyping, but actually there’s relatively little of it. Most of the women are quite level-headed, if none of the others have Manton’s shrewdness. But the women are ahead of Ames and the police at every turn; every single attempt they make to dismiss Manton or sideline her (For Her Own Good) fails.

Naturally, Melsa and Peter fall in love, but even the denouement is refreshing. Consider the situation: a classical film in which a newspaper editor and an heiress get married. What next? Orthodoxy then (and maybe even now) is that the woman must learn to live on her man’s income, for Man Is The Provider. It’s precisely the necessity of the bride giving up economic autonomy that hobbles the ending of so many films of the period, even films like Female (Curtiz, 1933) that are otherwise quite radical in their gender politics. And so, at the end of The Mad Miss Manton, Melsa says they will be living on Peter’s income from now on. Peter’s response: “That’s foolish, who’s going to live on yours?” Perfect, and in it’s happy-to-be-a-kept-man way, maybe the single most progressive feminist sentiment uttered by a male character in the whole of the 1930s comedy-mystery. Besides, who wouldn’t want to be Barbara Stanwyck’s kept man?

  (Want!)

6. Madam Satan (WB; Cecil B. DeMille, 1930)

I took this DVD with me when I visited my friend Rodney Hill recently. Most of what follows comes out of our conversations after watching it.

A woman (Kay Johnson) is home alone, wondering where he husband is. When he (Reginald Denny) finally returns, he is tuxedo-ed and drunk, and accompanied by his best friend (Roland Young, pretty much doing Roland Young). They stumble up the stairs, trying and miserably failing not to make any noise. Once there, they change, and get into double beds where they spend the night together. The wife, of course, fumes with jealousy and suspicion.

But why? One assumption that comes to mind, whether dominant or oppositional, is that she resents the men excluding her. The film never really specifies the nature of the husband’s relationship with his friend. This is remarkable; in the pre-Code period, intentional ambiguity on certain plot points, a kind of narrative “plausible deniability,” is precisely what allowed filmmakers to get away with material that is shockingly risqué even now to audiences that aren’t expecting it. The fact that the movie doesn’t ever go to any effort whatsoever to deny the sexual subcurrents between the husband and the friend is jaw-dropping in that context.

When the wife confronts the two of them, another possible, variant interpretation arises: that the wife accepts the husband’s “friendship” but wants to be included in a ménage-a-trois. In fact, the film never denies that possibility: when it is revealed that the husband is fooling around with a woman on the side, it’s perfectly plausible, given what we are and are not told, to surmise that the wife resents that the mistress, and not her, is the third point on the triangle. She talks in lightly veiled language about wanting to enjoy a healthily carnal relationship with her husband, not to be put on a pedestal, and there’s no evidence you can point to that the friend would not be a part of that. Of course, we can, if we so choose, assume that the friend is just a friend (one who seems to be around all the time!), but we can just as easily see the film as an only-slightly-covert celebration of a bisexual three-way relationship in the manner of Design for Living.

No questions are ever raised about the husband and his friend, who continue to seem awfully close- constant companions, one might even say. But the wife does have questions about this other woman who is usurping her place in their frolics. After a long dialogue scene full of deeply ideologically suspect preaching where the husband blames the wife for his infidelities (exactly the kind of sexist crap that increasingly strikes me as objectionable in The Philadelphia Story), he leaves her. The wife wants to know whom she seems to be losing out to, and follows the friend to the mistress’ flat, whereupon we are again subjected to a lot of speechifying where the mistress (Lillian Roth) justifies herself and puts the blame on the wife for being abandoned. The film drags interminably from one such scene to another, the theatre-melodrama dialogue relieved only by a thuddingly dull “comedy” scene when the husband arrives and seems jealous that the friend is spending time with the mistress without him (while the wife hides). By this point, one begins to wonder how very much better this film would have been if directed by a Roy Del Ruth or W.S. Van Dyke (one also starts to wonder if DeMille ever did anything interesting after The Cheat), and had starred Jean Harlow as the mistress or, I don’t know, either of the women really, both are so annoying by this point. The mistress is too pouty and grating for the husband’s attraction to be relatable. Yet the wife is just so bland, so stiff, so charmless and plain that at this point one struggles to blame the husband (his pathetic, hypocritical justification of his infidelity actually seems more contemptible than the fooling around itself). That the wife and the mistress are so unappealing dissipates any dramatic tension around the husband’s choices. But after the men leave the mistress’ flat, and the wife and the mistress have a proper confrontation, the wife says she isn’t going to let her husband go so easily. She says she will beat the mistress at the latter’s own game.

And here’s the thing: she totally does. I have seen a lot of ugly-duckling-to-beautiful-swan transformations in popular films, and they never really wash; the actresses are so obviously beautiful in the first instance that one sees the transformation as little more than a more exacting adaptation to the demands of hegemonic femininity. Here, though, the wife’s transition from neglected Angela Brooks to vivacious, seductive, slinky-sexy Madam Satan at a costume ball hosted by the friend provokes audible gasps and collar-loosening (boy, is it hot in here all of a sudden?).

The plot in the film is ultimately incidental to its pleasures, which is why I have no compunction about saying that the ball turns into a disaster, and surviving it brings the husband and the wife- and, yes, the friend- back together. A disaster, though? What kind of a disaster is going to happen at a costume ball? Well, here’s the other thing: the costume ball is held ON A DIRIGIBLE! ANCHORED TO A SKYSCRAPER! The guests, all lavishly costumed in best Hollywood style- and really, there’s a lot to be said for Hollywood studio-system production value in these kinds of things- climb up a metal staircase up a tower to get onto the airship. The ballroom is as gorgeous as the costumes; this is very much a film from MGM, the so-called Rolls Royce of the studios. When the party commences, out of nowhere, A MUSICAL PERFORMANCE starts up! A dance number CELEBRATING THE SPIRIT OF ELECTRICITY! This frenzied ode to technological modernity appears to have been staged by a fan equally of Busby Berkeley, Fritz Lang, and Fernand Leger (and in its hymn to progress almost seems like it would be more at home in a Soviet musical). Both the performance and the party itself are loosely justified by the friend’s stake in an oil company, but what that has to do with a blimp, let alone The Spirit of Electricity? Your guess is as good as mine. Who cares, really, when at the center of the dancers, the Spirit of Electricity himself MATERIALIZES OUT OF THIN AIR IN A SHOWER OF LIGHTNING BOLTS! (Wouldn’t that be dangerous in a Zeppelin?) By this point, this viewer was too busy trying to maintain his own sanity to maintain any objections. Even when the plot starts back up again, the film as a whole has undergone a remarkable transformation along with the wife: it’s zippy, sexy, suspenseful, witty, even a little bit moving. I still can’t say it’s a good film, exactly. But it’s stunning, an absolute must-watch, and if the Warner Bros. Archives Made-On-Demand program only offered this one DVD, it would be reason enough.

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“Drive”: Memory Lane

It’s fitting that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive has come out in the last quarter of 2011. For the last few months, there has been another of those periodic bursts of writing about nostalgia and retrospection in arts and entertainment reporting. A lot of this has been about this season’s major network attempts to copy Mad Men, but without all that angst and arthouse pacing: The Playboy Club (unwatchable, and thankfully canceled after four episodes) and Pan Am (appealing mostly for Kelli Garner and her spy plots, and its distinctly Schlamme look and feel, for some of us sparking nostalgia for The West Wing). If either show is of any actual interest in this regard, it’s that both shows played less on shared cultural memory than on viewers’ “nostalgia” for things they did not and mostly could not experience. Elsewhere, nostalgia is again a current topic in pop music criticism thanks to Simon Reynolds’ Retromania(which will deserve its own blog entry once I’ve read it, I’m sure), an inquiry into why pop music, still so intuitively associated with Now-ness (at least by critics), has come to be so wrapped up in its own history. Though Reynolds’ book centers on pop culture, and pop music specifically, the term “retromania” is a handy one for describing the proliferation of contemporary cultural artifacts, at all levels and in all media, that fetishize and seek in part to recreate the cultural objects and forms of the past, not only referencing specific predecessors but often entire, otherwise moribund aesthetics and traditions.

In writing of contemporary Hollywood, David Bordwell refers to a pervasive sense of “belatedness,” an awareness of film history that is an ever-present burden young filmmakers respond to in a variety of ways. In film criticism, though, nostalgia and “retromania” do not seem to occasion much consternation at the moment. Critics spend more time on other ways Hollywood relies on the past: recycling, remakes, sequels, etc. That’s because some forms of cinephilic nostalgia have simply been accepted by now, present not just in popular, mass entertainment but in The Canon. Allusion and referentiality were pressing issues from the rise of the international art cinema, and by now are accepted elements of the art film arsenal. European films (in particular) referencing older films, whole genres, and specific obsolete aesthetics (film noir, the MGM musical, etc.) have always been widely respected, and French film in particular has returned to this again and again since the 1960s, from the nouvelle vague to Resnais’ and Ozon’s attempts to call forth dim cultural reflections of French theatrical traditions, and most recently to things like The Artist.

It’s true, though, that in popular cinema this sort of thing has been more suspect, largely depending on whether it’s a Hollywood film doing the alluding, or a film from anywhere else. No-one ever objected to John Woo shamelessly ripping off Sam Peckinpah and classical Hollywood melodramas, largely because at the time HK seemed such a revitalizing alternative to current Hollywood fare. As ever, whatever Hollywood is up to at a given moment is the Bad Object, and in the ‘90s HK cinema was taken up as gloriously Other, representing kinds of cinematic pleasures Hollywood was taken to have abandoned. The mere fact of being Asian has benefitted HK’s status as a Good Popular Cinema, just as Cantopop and j-pop have been embraced by Western fans who would stay well away from music anything like that insipid if sung in English.

Retro-Hollywood fare made in the U.S.A. has always been much more contentious, especially if it comes out of a major studio. Initially, the film-consciousness of the ‘Movie Brat’ generation was taken as signifying the intelligence and playfulness of their films by contrast with the squareness of Love Story, Airport, and the like. But in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, self-conscious referentiality was only one strategy among many American directors took from Europe. By the beginning of the 1980s, the ascent of Lucas and Spielberg were making blockbusters awash in such referentiality just as more formally challenging kinds of Hollywood art filmmaking were beginning to founder. As a consequence, this kind of nostalgia began to garner critical responses from writers who accused such directors of knowing plenty about movies but nothing about life (see, for example, James Monaco’s American Film Now, 1984).

It was around this time, 1982, that Noël Carroll published “The Future of Allusion,” still one of the best essays on the aesthetics of the New Hollywood, even if his conclusions were arguable. Carroll’s essay does a convincing job of outlining the factors encouraging a mainstream Hollywood cinema rife with allusions, and his idea that such films communicate on two levels at the same time has always informed the way I think about such films: that they engage a general audience with straightforward genre narratives, and hail a cinephile audience with references to films from across the history of the medium. By contrast, one may argue, as Jim Collins does in “Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity,” that genre films built around allusions and pastiche are responding to the state of contemporary culture and society just as surely as genre films have done from any other era; in this case, to the media array that saturates our daily lives. I think that’s valid, but actually the strongest objection I have to Carroll’s essay is to the idea that films incorporating allusion have an “inorganic” meaning appropriated from their sources (and critical interpretations of those sources) rather than an “organic” one developing through the internal workings of the films themselves. It’s hard to see how Blow Out and The Conversation could be said to lack a thematic development discernable to those who may not have seen Blow Up, and in fact I’d tend to argue that the DePalma and Coppola are far stronger films than the Antonioni (in fact, I think that’s Antonioni’s worst, most smug and out of touch film).

In one sense, it is of course the case that allusions can and do function as vehicles imparting meanings to the film that makes them (among all a given film’s other strategies). Moreover, the charge that a film reliant on them may only achieve a depth of meaning through them clearly does apply in some cases. Super 8, for example, has been both celebrated and condemned principally on two counts: how one feels about an homage to mid-70s/early 80s Spielberg; and how successful J.J. Abrams is at recalling the pleasures of Close Encounter of the Third Kind and E.T. No comparable degree of attention has been paid to the ways in which Captain America: The First Avenger is indebted to Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially in it’s action scenes, not only because they obscured by its being “Yet Another Superhero Movie” but also because its allusions to Spielberg are largely stylistic rather than narrative. In other, rarer and more extreme cases, though, a film utilizing allusion as a central strategy may not make much sense without correctly perceiving that the allusions and their sources. I would disagree with Carroll that The Conversation and Blow Out qualify here, but surely few would dispute that a degree of genre knowledge is a requisite for comprehending the hyper-stylization of Kill Bill.

I would argue that Drive is exactly one of those films, a film that must seem empty if not unintelligible to those who don’t have the cinephilic knowledge to perceive it as in large part an homage to Jean-Pierre Melville, Walter Hill, and Michael Mann. It is a film built around the nostalgia of a certain kind of film geek for those films, to the point of fairly being labeled retromaniacal. Yet if Reynolds’ book is the logical conclusion of grumblings about ‘record collector rock’ in the UK music press for years now (ramped up by Britpop in the ‘90s), film critics have no such complaints about Drive. This may in part be because the film has a genuine European pedigree thanks to its director, Nicolas Winding Refn. This is not Refn’s first English language film, but it does seem to be the first American film anyone can remember (no one ever mentions Fear X), and he has become something of a critic’s darling thanks for the most part to the Pusher trilogy (both Danish-language films), Bronson (British), and Valhalla Rising (a classic ‘europudding’: a Danish director, a Danish lead actor who never speaks, a cast otherwise made up of English actors, in a film set in England and… somewhere else). Part of this is because of the particular kind of film for which Drive embodies an ardent nostalgia: the low(ish)-budget, violent, exaggeratedly-silent tough guy crime film with a cool, hard surface sheen. So much film geekery is informed, more or less directly, by the Manny Farber discourse on such action-oriented fare that its cred as ‘termite art’ comes already embossed on its metallic exterior by virtue of its generic/critical positioning even before consideration of the specifics of the individual case. I would argue that this is one reason why Drive rates a 79 on metacritic by contrast with Contagion, which rates a respectable 70. Though Contagion is a more ambitious, innovative, arguably far more accomplished film, it seems too overtly respectable for some, too much a social problem film to get the same sort of cinephilic blood pumping, as if it’s a Stanley Kramer, and no-one now wants to look like a Bosley Crowther in sticking up for it.

Critics have certainly spotted Drive’s fetishization of its sources, whether they like what Refn’s done with them or not , but they never question its legitimacy, perhaps because by virtue of being Danish, Refn is allowed to carry on the history of European directors cutting quasi-art films from the cloth of Hollywood genre film . Some of this comes out in their genealogies of the film’s hero, known only as the Driver. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post lists Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Ryan O’Neal (she doesn’t say so specifically, but she means Walter Hill’s The Driver), and Robert DeNiro; Peter Travers in Rolling Stone mentions Alain Delon in Le Samouraï and Alan Ladd in Shane; Roger Ebert, Delon and Clint Eastwood (“the Man with No Name”); Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Time, Delon again; Rene Rodriguez in the Miami Herald and Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, Eastwood again. Some of those reviewers and others, though, see that Refn’s pastiche here extends much further. Lane is quick to pick up on Refn’s debts to The Driver, as does J. Hoberman in The Village Voice and Jaime N. Christley in Slant. Rodriguez writes that “the movie balances the pulpy action of pictures such as Point Blank with the sleek style of vintage Michael Mann. The soundtrack is made up of Europop songs and synthesizer music: Even the opening credits, done in a hot-pink scrawl, invoke the 1980s.” (In interview, Refn has admitted stealing it from Risky Business; The A.V. Club ) Travers directs viewers to “watch for comparisons, especially to films of the Seventies and Eighties that pulsate with a synth score. Think early Michael Mann (Thief) and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. Driver is a loner, suggesting Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï,” though he also says that to play “name that influence” would be “a disservice to Drive, since Refn, like Quentin Tarantino, has the gift of assimilating film history into a fresh take carrying his DNA.” For him, Drive is “pure cinema.” Shawn Levy in The Oregonian notes the Thief debt as well, while characterizing Refn’s movies rather nicely as balancing“ arthouse beauty with grindhouse violence and a macho sensibility in a way that recalls a mix of, oh, Terrence Malick, Brian DePalma and Michael Mann.” Jessica Winter in Time writes that Refn “is a child of the 1980s. For him, To Live and Die in L.A. and the collected works of Michael Mann are sacred texts to be restaged.”

And so the net of references grows wider. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott notes a debt in story but not style to Sergio Leone (I think he’s exactly wrong here, in at least one important respect: Refn’s and Leone’s films are marked by the use of deep focus), but mostly he too sees the film’s roots in the early 1980s. In a rather nice turn of phrase, he writes that Refn’s film recalls “the atmospheric masculine melancholy associated with Michael Mann,” as well as another auteur/genre film drawing deep from the Euro-well, Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. Hoberman, who headlines his review calling Drive a “Retro Thrill Ride” (which fits in all sorts of ways), explores the 80s-isms, and the Eastwood-isms, in some detail:

Drive is nominally set in the present day, but the 40-year-old director elects to emphasize the retro—or rather, to evoke the period of his adolescence, synthesizing Miami Vice’s languid dissolves and neon-limned dive bars, Blade Runner’s nocturnal skylines and floating overhead angles, Top Gun‘s slow dollies, and MTV-friendly lyrical montage interludes. Time stands still! The action is set to a near-subliminal LinnDrum, and the soundtrack is awash in mournful, exalted, romantic techno-pop. Doling out his lines in an adenoidal whisper, Gosling is an understated hero in the Eastwood-McQueen tradition—almost ridiculously so: His trademark toothpick is a diminished equivalent of the raunchy cheroot Eastwood gnaws in his spaghetti westerns.

In interview, Refn himself points to Pretty in Pink, but this seems mostly to the kind of gnomic, fundamentally obsfucating self-marketing that a certain kind of director thrives on (like the Coens claiming not to have read The Odyssey, or David Lynch claiming not to have been influenced by other films, only by living in Philadelphia).

What critical debate Drive has engendered rests around whether all its alluding is in the service of anything worthwhile. Stephanie Zacharek compares it to Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point, (presumably based on the car fetishization here since it has little in common with either film) before rhapsodizing, in the most overtly Paulette-ish terms I’ve seen lately, that her “youngish” colleagues (which I find discursively revealing as well as Kael-y; if you don’t get it you’re too old, presumably) were as “over the moon” about it as her (the kids today, they’re always talking about being “over the moon” about things). Zacharek is prepared to admit that “No one is claiming Refn has invented a new language; it’s just that he uses the vocabulary so well — he’s got the right tools and the right touch. This is a mechanic who can make an engine sing.” Those who demur, of course, do so just on this point. David Edelstein writes in New York that “Without the extreme violence, Drive would be a lifeless rehash of such self-consciously existential thrillers as Walter Hill’s The Driver and Michael Mann’s Thief ….” Scott, whose take more closely echoes my own on the film’s overall affect, calls Drive “a prisoner of its own emptiness, substituting moods for emotions and borrowed style for real audacity.” Hoberman puts a somewhat more positive spin on much the same point, concluding: “It’s a machine, but it works.”

And it does. If Drive targets a specific type of film geek who grew up on laconic, quasi-existentialist, moody, hyper-stylized crime films, it hits its spot with accuracy, precision, and power. Much of its pleasure is based in the way the narrative, characters, and iconography call up the whole tradition in which it’s rooted. As in The Driver, 1978, the main character in Drive (Ryan Gosling) is a professional getaway driver for low-end heists, a professional who is the best at what he does and who operates by a strict code; in this case, though, his work as a movie stuntman adds another layer of self-consciousness. In The Driver, O’Neal’s character never seems to feel much of anything or anybody, with one exception, and it is that exception that nearly destroys him: The Driver attracts the attention of The Detective (Bruce Dern) who finally goads him into taking terrible risks. The only emotions here, then, are the ones that grow out of this masculine rivalry: overtly, pride bordering on hubris; latently, envy. In terms of its emotional wellsprings, then, Drive is more consonant with The Driver’s source material, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, 1967. There, an assassin hesitates to shoot a beautiful female singer who can identify him as a killer, and breaking that rule leads to his death.

Michael Mann, and Refn following him, takes this twist on the noir– a bad man brought down by a good woman- into more openly emotional terrain. In Thief, 1983, Frank (James Caan) is a criminal who abides by a specific code, but he also dreams of another life, and falls in love and starts to form a household with Jessie (Tuesday Weld). This makes him vulnerable, and that vulnerability leads to his doom. His dreams of suburban contentment with Jessie end up in direct conflict with his ability to maintain his freedom; he cares about Jessie and his straight life too much, which he realizes to his dismay, until he is forced to torch it all so that he can get out from under the thumb of mob-boss Leo (Robert Prosky). In Drive, the Driver is doomed from the moment he falls in love with Irene (Carey Mulligan), and tries to help her, her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), and her ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs) out of a jam. In both, then, the criminal is made vulnerable by his feelings for an innocent woman (not a noir-ish femme fatale) who represents a kind of life the protagonist can never have. This leads him to violate his code, and from that point on the end is unavoidable.

Like Ryan O’Neal’s Driver, but quite unlike Caan’s Frank, Gosling’s Driver is distinguished from those around him by his avoidance of speech. Michael Mann’s characters have been less prone to verbalize their thinking in recent years (Miami Vice, Public Enemies), but from Thief through to Heat, 1995, they were actually quite talkative when it came to their dreams, their flaws, and their personal codes. This is not to say that they were always honest with themselves and others, strictly speaking, but they tended to have a well-rehearsed-sounding set of goals and dicta. By contrast, Gosling’s Driver has only the tale of the scorpion and the toad, which he has made into an emblem through the golden scorpion stitched onto the back of his jacket. With their Driver, Gosling and Refn hew more closely to Hill and O’Neal just as Hill and O’Neal stayed true to Melville and Delon in Le Samouraï, except for the degree to which Irene raises emotions that the Driver can’t control. Gosling’s performance is far more nakedly emotional and conflicted than either Delon or O’Neal, yet apart from a kiss in an elevator, the Driver never consummates his feelings for Irene, and seems genuinely to want to help Standard (whereas a noir protagonist surely would contrive to betray Standard so as to have Irene to himself). It is both his altruism here and his laconic affect that so call to mind Eastwood’s Man with No Name (Leone’s innovation with anti-heroes might be thought of as putting a Melville character against a Western backdrop).

The hero’s near-silence in Drive is also becoming a Refn characteristic; One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising never speaks a word, having a scruffy child interlocutor who may or may not represent him truthfully. Refn has spoken in interviews of eliminating as much backstory and dialogue for the Driver as possible: “I love the language of silence. Like the character in “Vanishing Point” who is essentially also very existentialist in his silence. The great heroes are always more silent, from that to the Man With No Name to The Samurai and Shane. There’s a mythology. The man who’s always more silent is always the one who’s unpredictable.” (Gossip Central) The same kind of self-consciousness that informed the choice of stunt-driver as sideline (note that this can be found in James Sallis’ source novel) informs the psychological make-up of the character, according to Refn and Gosling, so that their Driver is not only a silent-type in the tradition of le Samouraï and the Man with No Name, but appears deliberately to be modeling himself on them. Gosling: “I think he’s somebody who’s seen too many movies. He’s confusing his life for a film, and he’s made himself the hero of his own action film. He’s just kind of lost in the mythology of Hollywood.” (The A.V. Club) One rather suspects that for Refn, at least, the notion that the Driver actually thinks of himself as a movie character is essentially an alibi for his indulgence as a filmmaker in a favorite character type. After all, as he says about the adaptation process, “I just picked and dissected everything and put the elements back into my fetish. I’m a fetish filmmaker.” (Gossip Central)

If the narrative and the central character manifest a fetishization of Melville, Hill, Mann, and others, so do aspects of the film’s style. In one of the best pieces I’ve read on the film, Jim Emerson spots the allusions to The Driver, Thief, To Live and Die in L.A., and American Gigolo, and the “ersatz-Tangerine Dream synth score of the kind so popular in the early 1980s” before arguing that “Emotion, character, story—they’re not so much what ‘Drive’ is interested in. The movie makes fetishistic use of signifiers for those things, but its most tangible concerns have (paradoxically?) to do with dreamy abstractions of color and shape and movement.” That is indeed the movie’s great strength: the sheer sensual power with which Refn deploys his fetishized signifiers. The film is rife with all the iconography of its sub-genre: shots of neon and fluorescent-lit spaces at night, the L.A. River (I lived in L.A. for years, and never once saw the river; pick a half-dozen crime films set in L.A., and you won’t be able to avoid it), down-at-heel diners, garages, slightly shabby apartments, very shabby motels, cheap restaurants, beachside cliffs, and most of all the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

As Emerson points out, the music too is retro-styled. Cliff Martinez’ score in its most propulsive moments recalls Tangerine Dream’s late-70s/early-‘80s soundtrack work, notably for Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and Thief (1981), while in its quieter, dreamier moments recalls Brian Eno’s ambient albums from around the same time (Discreet Music, 1975, Music for Airports, 1978, Music for Films, 1978, On Land, 1983). A lush romantic piece by Riz Ortolani from 1971 is used which, with its weirdly stilted enunciation by a singer for whom English is clearly not a first language, seems particularly suited to the reading of the film as about a man obsessed with Hollywood mythology, rather than merely embodying it. Most of the pop/vocal pieces compiled on the soundtrack are even clearer examples of nostalgia and retro fetishism than Martinez’ score. Mostly they are pastiches of ‘70s/’80s Eurodisco, here performed by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx and Johnny Jewel (under the names Chromatics- a band once but he took them over- and Desire and on his label, itself entirely devoted to saluting Italian disco: Italians Do It Better). These tracks sit alongside a synth-pop tune by “College featuring Electric Youth,” “A Real Hero,” a song with a chorus that includes the line “A real human being and a real hero,” one so deliberately inane it can only be a salute to terrible ‘80s soundtrack pop. That song is also incredibly catchy, of course, and the cold textures of both the score and the Eurodisco go some ways to giving the film its insistent throb.

For all the allusions dotting Drive like the neon lights reflected on Don Johnson’s Ferrari in Miami Vice, beyond the iconography, it is in visual style that Refn is most original, makes his deepest mark on the tradition. For his part, Melville mostly sticks to 50mm lenses as far as I can tell; there’s some depth of field in Le Samouraï, but not much, the focal lengths are never extreme.

Melville’s editing is crisp, as ever, and his camera movements are lithe but used sparingly. Hill follows Melville’s example, but if anything The Driver’s visual style is even more plain and stripped back. He eschews deep focus except for a few shots (e.g., of the Detective and his crew in and around their van), and camera movements are minimized and strictly motivated. In Thief, Mann mostly tends to quite markedly shallow depth of field, often accentuated by very low-key lighting (there are a lot of night-time exteriors here), and occasionally by the use of diffusion.

The one shot in the opening sequence with any real focal depth is also one of the most self-consciously painterly shots:

As the film goes on, Mann uses long stretches of shallow focus done with long lenses, but alternating with short bursts of wide angle shots. At L&A Plating, for example, a notably planimetric shot of Frank arriving at the offices is followed by a wide angle shot of him entering the interior, followed by a shallow shot/reverse shot alternation as he talks to the receptionist, followed by a wide angle shot of Frank going into the boss’ office, etc. In the scene where Frank destroys his own car lot, relatively deep shots show him walking through the lot, but markedly shallow shots show him in his own car as the lot goes up in flames in the background.

Indeed, by contrast with the above shot of the lake at the opening, some of the most memorable images are ones with very little depth, images where Mann uses shallowness to memorable pictorial effect, as in the second heist where a magnesium rod is used to burn through the door of a safe, and to provide smoke and sparks that eventually overwhelm all else in the image

…Or here, shallow depth of field in a planimetric composition during a key scene in the burgeoning of Frank and Jessie’s relationship:

Refn and his d.p., Newton Thomas Sigel, though, use wide angles lenses throughout Drive to get a considerable and consistent depth of focus; in American Cinematographer, Sigel speaks of Refn’s fondness for 18 and 21 mm lenses. Moreover, Refn and Sigel exaggerate depth still further with some high but many more low angle shots.

In other shots, Refn and Sigel import some sense of deep focus through the use of mise-en-abîme compositions, framing Gosling within frames, especially in his car.

Not only does Drive differ from its narrative ancestors in its cinematographic choices, those choices also point to Refn’s authorial signature. On Bleeder and the Pusher trilogy, Refn’s style was directed toward a naturalist grittiness, and hand-held camerawork predominated. With Bronson and Valhalla Rising, though, he really gave in to his attraction to deep focus cinematography. Bronson, shot mostly in interiors, uses wide angle lenses that veer almost to fisheye-like extremes, along with low-angle, largely static shots punctuated with a few notable lateral tracking shots.

If Drive is Refn’s Mann film, Bronson is his homage to Kubrick; Tom Hardy’s performance is in the same tradition of theatricalized grotesquerie as Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee in A Clockwork Orange (Bronson’s particular touchstone), Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket. The portrayal of British prisons and urban squalor in Bronson recalls Clockwork Orange, too, as does the inclusion of classical music for a bit of cognitive dissonance; even the scenes of Bronson onstage performing his life for an audience recall the onstage demonstration of the success of the Ludovico Technique.

In turn, Valhalla Rising is Refn’s pulpy version of a Herzog film. Perhaps because he is shooting almost entirely in exteriors, Refn returns here to hand-held cinematography, but retains the consistent, wall-to-wall in fact use of wide angle lenses for deep focus.

In Valhalla, those depth effects have the advantage of enhancing some of the physical action- and this is a film that puts Drive’s vaunted head-smashing right into the shade. But it is also used to create the effect of an ultraviolent cinema of contemplation, and if the film as a whole recalls Aguirre: Wrath of God, in one case Refn pauses on a static shot that strikingly resembles The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Valhalla Rising

As in Valhalla, there’s a lot of camera movement in Drive, but as in Bronson, those movements are tracking shots. If the tracking shots in Bronson have a Kubrickian bombast, though, in Drive, the Steadicam renders movements that are smooth and sinuous, key to the seductiveness of the film’s images.

How can we think about what Refn is doing with film style in Drive? If the narrative, soundtrack, and iconography of the film fetishize Melville, Mann, and Hill (and Leone, and Schrader, and Friedkin, and…), then the visual qualities achieved through the Steadicam shots, the deep focus, the low angles and the mise-en-abîme shots are themselves deeply sensuous, giving the sense of caressing the spaces and objects in front of the lens, charging and fetishizing the surface of the film itself. And so here is another sense in which Refn accurately can call himself a fetish filmmaker: he fetishizes not only his sources but the very material of the film itself, to the point of abstracting the physicality of this genre narrative until Drive becomes not a crime film, but a dream of a crime film (more even than a fairytale, which it has also been called), whether it’s the Driver’s dream or Refn’s.

There’s a fine line in fetishes, of course, between the sensual and the sexual, as Refn himself highlights. In American Cinematographer, Refn recalls using Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic experimental classic “Scorpio Rising” (1964) as a visual reference, even screening it for Gosling. “Ryan asked, ‘Why are you showng me a movie with a lot of guys working on motorcycles?’ And I said, ‘It’s how it’s shot- the sensual, sexual nature of it, the fetish, the objectification. That’s what we should try to go for.’” Fittingly, the visual elements that Emerson seems most drawn to in Drive brings together aspects of style and sexuality, namely the use of red- “I like the red a lot”- which pops up in scenes between the Driver and Irene, and which the scene in the strip club is awash with. Emerson: “What I remember is the red. The film becomes pregnant with red.”

The way in which the aesthetic of the film gets from and gives to the material a distinctly sexual charge points to another of its innovations to the tradition of crime film it glorifies. Elements of sexuality may be there in Le Samouraï, may be clearer still in Thief (and To Live and Die in L.A. and of course in American Gigolo), but are never so visible as Refn has made them here. In this way especially, Drive can be seen as a work of film criticism (as The Man Who Wasn’t There is to the film noir, say, making explicit themes found by critics in the noir at least since Paul Schrader’s wrote about it), detecting sexual themes latent or repressed or simply soft-pedaled in the earlier films, and thematizing them. It is clear here that the Driver’s violence is an expression of repressed sexuality. The red highlights this, from the diner encounter with Irene to the violence in the strip club, the Driver and his victim surrounded by the red walls and naked women.

The film’s key emotional moment makes the nexus of sexuality and violence as clear as Refn can make it: the Driver kisses Irene in an elevator, then a moment later, in the same space and the next breath, smashes in the head of a villain. It’s not that a sexual subtext would be new to this kind of crime film, but Refn problematizes and hyperbolizes it, like a DePalma to Mann’s Hitchcock.

Drive is, then, a contribution to its particular kind of silent-tough-guy, hyperstylized, cool crime film. But what it adds is filigree. It’s a baroque, decadent, intensification of and comment on those aspects of Melville, Hill and Mann that Refn fetishizes, film geek that he is, and it appeals to other film geeks, like me, who share his tastes. But is that enough? For a good genre film, sure; but for a great one? In his review, A.O. Scott concludes by suggesting “that it is, for all its bravado, timid and conventional.” In doing so, Scott faults Refn for not using “genre” as “a bridge between familiar narrative structures and new insights about how people interact and behave.” I can never go quite so far as to criticize a film for not trying to do something it is manifestly not attempting, but I am sympathetic to his concerns. Drive is in no way about any kind of actual, recognizable real life; perhaps it doesn’t need to be, but then, most great films are, at least on some level, however much they rely on artifice to get their ideas across. Certainly this is not a realist film, but on the level of dreams or fairytales it doesn’t say very much either, not about actual people rather than characters. It may give us real emotions, but never anything like a recognizable individual; it is a movie about this tough guy, the Driver, but mainly it is a movie about The Tough Guy, the whole character type the Driver represents.

The silent Driver, so cool and professional and so underestimated, embodies a kind of criminal who appeals to us in books and films (Richard Stark’s Parker character is that type elevated nearly to superhero status), but why is that type so widely fetishized? There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to these kinds of characters, but I think it is worth acknowledging what that appeal is for us, what work it does for our psyches. For myself, I can trace the attraction of this type back to Batman’s appeal to me as a child (and, okay, since, too). I see something fundamentally childish in the appeal of this kind of guy (“bad” or “good” or neither), a guy who lives outside all rules but his own, and who has so much more to him than anyone guesses; who is simply so able, so good at it, but also so deep. It’s a fantasy of being in control, as in Batman, a fantasy that we use to explain and justify to ourselves the feeling that we are outsiders (including, sometimes, the feeling that we are better for being outsiders). It’s romantic, but in Drive, unlike the best iterations of the Batman myth, it doesn’t say anything about us, only about things we fetishize and consume. So Drive can be said to be a postmodernist study of this type of film and this type of anti-hero. But is it simply a deeply self-indulgent film for Refn and Gosling, or an indulgence that can be shared by those of us who share their particular taste-culture? To call Drive a dream may be accurate, but maybe that’s also a justification, an excuse for its own self-consciousness, genre-obsessiveness, and retromania. Taken on its own terms, though, Drive‘s accomplishments are real enough, however modest: it is a sharp dissection of the psyche of this character type, and a powerful piece of genre filmmaking, as well as a powerful piece of filmmaking about genre. To make a film about genre with the feel for it that Refn brings to this, a sense of nostalgia is perhaps not only inevitable but crucial.