Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Short Eyes: Subverting the Jukebox Musical

The Jukebox Musical has taken over theatreland.  It would seem almost every major popular music artist from the last 50 years, from Elvis and Abba to Madonna and Queen, feature in thinly veiled tribute shows stitched together by increasingly flimsy narratives.  

Whilst it might be easy to dismiss the Jukebox Musical as theatre for people who don’t like theatre, featuring music for people who don’t like music, it’s hard to deny the popularity of a genre that consistently draws coachloads of eager audiences night after night.  Whilst in Melbourne earlier this year, I admit I was lured to Rock of Ages by the promise of a night of absurd 80’s hair metal and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Deep down I knew it was wrong and I knew it was the equivalent of a fast food burger or a pornographic movie – a pre-packaged, safe, sterile and weak imitation of a real thing – but it was disposable fun that delivered cheap thrills exactly as promised.

Whilst it is easy to snobbishly criticise any popular art form, perhaps, at a time when even critically acclaimed new theatre is failing to find an audience and attendances are dwindling, it is better to look at how this odd mutant genre is succeeding.  Maybe it even has the potential to be subverted and grow into something altogether more positive and healthy.

If new audiences are flocking to the Jukebox Musical, why not use the form to revive a genuinely challenging piece of theatre?  Why can’t serious and provocative themes coexist within the crowd pleasing greatest hits of an artist or era?

It’s easier done that you might imagine.  Consider, for instance, the sleeping giant of potential Jukebox Theatre: The Soul Hits of the 70’s.  If a genre can pack a dancefloor at the most hipster nightclub and the squarest wedding party alike, then surely it will draw the crowds onstage.  Furthermore, beneath the familiar breaks, beats, funky bass and sweet honey vocals, there lurks a breadth of social commentary and personal confessional, just ripe for narrative exploitation.

A perfect vehicle for this musical back catalogue already exists in Short Eyes, a 1974 drama written by playwright Miguel Piñero.  Short Eyes, prison slang for a paedophile, was written for a prisoners' writing workshop during Pinero's incarceration for armed robbery.  The play was nominated for six Tony Awards. It won the New York Critics Circle Award and an Obie Award for the "best play of the year". 

The play was also a success in Europe and catapulted Piñero to literary fame.  In 1977, it was adapted for a film and soul legend Curtis Mayfield composed and performed the acclaimed soundtrack, the lyrics of which already provide an inescapably funky narrative.  Insert the soundtrack into the performance, integrate a wider spectrum of popular hits from the era and suddenly you have an explosive combination. 

Short Eyes begins with Clark Davis, a middle-class white man, accused of raping a young girl.  An ensemble performance of Short Eyes/Freak, Freak, Free, Free, Free (Curtis Mayfield), led by the father of the victim, narrates Davis’ journey from courtroom to custody at unnamed House of Detention in New York City. We are then introduced to this new harsh reality with an inmate led performance of Do Do Wap is Strong in Here (Curtis Mayfield).

The prisoners are predominately black or Puerto Rican and Davis is notably conspicuous. Furthermore, Paedophiles are considered the lowest form of prison life and fellow inmates immediately turn against him.  Davis is kept separate from the other prisoners, who become increasingly threatening toward him at every opportunity.  This imbues their frustrated performance of I Can’t Get Next to You (The Temptations) with a sinister undercurrent.

At this point, Davis still maintains he is innocent of the crime and invites the audience to empathise with his situation in a poignant Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out (Bobby Womack).

His only friend is Juan, one of the institution's older prisoners, who treats him with kindness and dignity.  Juan is a quiet and thoughtful man, a devout Catholic resigned to atoning for his past sins. He performs Mercy Mercy Me (Marvin Gaye) alone in a moment of world-weary reflection.

Eventually, Davis takes Juan into his confidence.  Although he insists he doesn't remember raping the girl, he admits that he has molested several other children.  Nevertheless, the case against him is weak and, unless Juan tells prison authorities about Davis' confessions to him, it is only a matter of time before he is set free.  As Juan struggles with the right thing to do, the other prisoners plan to rid themselves of Davis permanently, with the Gospel tinged Are You Ready? (Pacific Gas and Electric) building toward the climax.

Further musical possibilities are endless – I would certainly find a way to include Curtis Mayfield’s apocalyptic If There’s a Hell Below… - but I think you get the idea.  By the time the curtain falls, the audience has had their butts and their emotions shaken in equal measure, perhaps the latter even moreso through being presented by stealth.  Far from being an object of derision, this genre has the potential to reach out, challenge and enrich audiences far more diverse than the usual informed clutch of regular theatregoers – and isn’t that what theatre should aspire to if its to thrive?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Hanging with the Ripperologists

"If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill came always together, who would escape hanging?" -Mark Twain

Even 200 years and countless homicidal atrocities later, the murder of five Whitechapel prostitutes by the tantalisingly anonymous 19th century serial killer known as Jack the Ripper continues to fascinate. 

Initially confined to the seedy streets of Nineteenth century Whitechapel, the ubiquitous Ripper now haunts endless academic papers, books of fact and fiction, popular movies and internet discussion forums.
The psychotic artist formerly known as ”Springheel Jack” quite literally carved his way into history with the murder and mutilation of five prostitutes in the East End of London over a period of just three months in late 1888.

Insatiable public interest in the macabre ensured that these grim little acts have become the substance of folklore.  The Ripper is often cited at the first modern serial killer, a phrase which implies that the Whitechapel murders marked some kind of Renaissance within the psychotic community.  This idea is absurd in the extreme, as the human race has exhibited a timeless brutality - the Ripper is rather one of the first celebrity psychopaths, whose exploits were covered in excitable and frenzied detail by fledgling tabloids.
I guess "Jack the Stabber" didn't have
the same ring to it
The sheer scale of the notoriety of the Ripper was primarily due to the fact that he was the prototype psychopathic media darling.  Long before grotesque Gein,  Manson, Micky and Mallory, hapless Harold Shipman or Fred and Rose West, the popular press transformed the Ripper crimes into salacious theatre.  The detailed news reports became episodic in nature, with each killing forming a new chapter, eagerly awaited by the public audience.  This wealth of spurious conjecture and information ensures that, even 200 years later, academic preoccupation concerning the identity of Jack the Ripper persists.

Amongst the conspiracy theorists and there are a number of particular obsessions involving the mystery still periodically ignite debate.  In ignoring the myriad of social and political problems that the twenty-first century has inherited, it would seem there are still far too many people with too much time on their hands.

A popular spin on the fable asserts that the Ripper was in some way connected to a much broader conspiracy involving the Church, the Masons or the Royal Family.  This is often associated with belief that the Ripper was actually some notable Victorian whose identity was kept concealed in order to preserve the reputation of that figure.  

The most highly pubicised Ripper Expose of recent times came with crime writer Patricia Cornwells book Portrait of a Killer – which was marketed with the tagline Jack the Ripper – Case Closed.  You may insert exclamation marks as you wish.

In applying a scientific criminological approach to history, we are remained of Karl Poppers assertion that scientific theory, and human knowledge generally, is irreducibly conjectural or hypothetical, and is generated by the creative imagination in order to solve problems that have arisen in specific historical or cultural settings.  Ripper suspects may only be analysed according to relative possibility - could they have been physically capable - and relative plausibility - is there any reason for their actions.  Ultimately, this analytical structure only allows potential suspects to be compared as being more or less probable.

HG Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to the 20th Century 
in his time machine in 'Time After Time' (1979)
Cornwell's book accuses painter Walter Sickert of the Ripper crimes and admittedly makes a rather compelling case, at least within the parameters of possibility and plausibility.

To claim that this is a case closed, however, is a fiction; as is the case with all Ripperology.  The only way that modern science can resolve a cold case lacking in all hard evidence and whose protagonists are long since dead is with a time machine and we all know how that turned out.

The moment we observe history, we project our own narrative and inadvertently fill in the voluminous blanks with our own stories.  To demonstrate, using only the historical information available to me in the public domain and armed only with a Fine Art degree, an overactive imagination and the fact I am an East London resident, please allow me to present my own solution to the the Jack the Ripper mystery.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, later to become rather more well-known under the pen-name of "Mark Twain," was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30th, 1835. He was considered as being the both one of the foremost American philosophers and humorists of his time. Later he was acknowledged as America's chief man of letters and during the late 19th century he was deemed as her best known and best loved citizen.  He also had the means, motive and opportunity to be responsible for the crimes of Jack the Ripper.

First and most clearly verifiable, Twain certainly had the opportunity.  He made regular documented trips to Europe during the latter part of the century and, astonishingly, these neatly and rather chillingly coincide with the Whitechapel murders.

Next, it is also surprisingly easy to establish means, as Twain's profile neatly fits in with more modern revisions of the Ripper Myth.  Initially, much was made of the anatomical precision with which the Victims were dissected, leading to  the general belief that the Ripper was medically trained.  However, contemporary analysis of both the evidence and photographic records has led pathologists to suggest that rather than a suffering a clinical dissection, the victims were quite literally butchered.

Where organs had been removed, the victim had first had their throat slit and allowed to bleed, before any further wounds were inflicted.  This has much in common with general slaughterhouse practices before mass mechanisation of the process, where an animal would be bled first so that the butchering could take place unhindered by a messy excess of blood.  This would of course make the removal of organs and butchery of the carcass much neater and more effective.  In the rural communities of Tennessee, Twain would be no stranger to these practices and as a farmhand would undoubtedly have assisted in them.  It must also be emphasised that the so-called “surgical removal” of organs in the Ripper case was only judged against the fairly brutal surgical practices of the time.  With a basic knowledge of livestock butchery and a working knowledge of anatomy – which most learned individuals would have had -  the crude dissections of the victims would have been relatively easy.

Jack the Ripper, MD
A persistent, but fanciful, myth
Also weakening the “Psycho Surgeon” theory are the police records which suggest that the Ripper probably used only one large knife – possibly a broad bladed hunting knife – in all the known killings except the final murder of Mary Jane Kelly, where a second weapon was used.  This is often believed a hatchet or small axe – hardly a precision instrument.  These are not the specialist tools of the doctor or surgeon and do not fit with the image of the sinister gentlemen, in cloak and top hat, stalking Whitechapel with a Gladstone bag containing a selection of scapels and other diabolical surgical tools.  In fact this image of the Ripper is pure fiction – an early myth that was actually invented by a London journalist to support his own fanciful theory - with no credible police or medical statement ever supporting the particulars of this fanciful but enduring modus operandi.

Twain and the Ripper were left-handed and Twain was certainly no stranger to brutality.  In his youth, Twain was well known as a brawler and favoured a hunting knife as his weapon of choice.    Even as late as 1864, he had to flee Nevada after challenging a rival newspaper editor to a duel.  Whilst not acknowledged as a murderer, he had fought, albeit very briefly, for the South in the early stages of the American Civil War and undoubtedly killed.
Finally, the biggest challenge is to establish the motive.  It is generally agreed that the killings were sexual motivated, in that the victims were all female, involved in prostitution and the mutilations focused on the sexual organs; he cut out the uterus's of many of his victims, after opening the body cavity at the genitals with a knife or blade.  However, whilst these actions displayed hate towards women in general, there was never any direct evidence of rape or other sexual interaction.  The motivation seemed to stem not from an impotent frustration towards sex itself, but to an uncontrollable frustration directed towards the female.

Twains views on women are well known and his misogynism has been thoroughly discussed by other theorists.   In her book Mothers and Others: Myths of the Female in the Works of Melville, Twain & Hemingway, Wilma Garcia sees "recurrent elements in Twain's treatment of women", including their "overdependence on language. Women and girls talk too much".  These are simplistic accusations, but provides ample evidence that Twain found constant irritation in feminine traits.  Essentially, she finds this is manifested in Twain's literary presentation of the female as consistantly "stereotypical".  She writes that Twains women consist of “silly schoolgirls, fussbudget widows, narrow-minded old maids and victimized or harried housewives, with an occasional bright tomboy or perceptive older woman as exceptions to the rule that women are at best inane and incompetent, at worst mean-spirited and oppressive, but almost always incomprehensible by any rational standard.”

A misogynist attitude was hardly unique in the late 19th century and misogyny alone does not implicate Twain, but it does provide a compelling backdrop to the dreadful events of 1888.  On February 2nd 1870 Twain married Olivia Langdon and – bolstered by the crital and financial success of Innocents Abroad – decided it was time to settle down and start a family.

Mark Twain 
The face of a killer?
Twain hoped for a son and in November that year it seemed his wishes had been granted with the birth of his first child, a baby boy they named Langdon Clemens.  Sadly, little Langdon was never a strong child. By the end of the following year the Clemenses had arranged for a residence in Hartford, temporary at first, later made permanent. It was in Hartford that  Langdon died of diphtheria, in 1872.

Twain had always wanted a son, yet that Olivia would subsequently give birth to three daughters. The death of Langdon was said to cause a very noticable shift in Twains mood and behaviour and it also coincided with the intense period of travel during which Twain eventually ensure he was in London during the Ripper crimes.

The murder of Mary Kelly in November 1888 marked the final slaying attributed to the Ripper.  Whilst there has been an attempt to connect the Ripper to subsequent killings of prostitutes, there is no evidence to support that the same individual continued his murderous spree either in Whitechapel or elsewhere.  The Ripper simply vanished.

This leads to several assumptions.  Most obviously, one could assume that the Ripper simply stopped killing.  Study of psychopathic behaviour is inclined to disagree with this, in that Serial Killers are generally a victim to their own incontrollable urges and are unable to control their own behaviour until caught.  It is deemed more likely that the Ripper was himself killed – either through suicide, natural causes or in an accident – or apprehended and incarcerated for another unrelated crime.  Finally, the Ripper could simply have moved elsewhere, a sensible move considering the attention he was causing in the Metropolis.  The latter suggestion, combined with short period with which the killings began and ended, supports the theory that the killer was a visitor rather than a resident.  It is this time period which again appears to implicate Twain.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

Of course, this is nonsense. Mark Twain makes a entertaining addition to the crowded field of Ripper suspects, but there is little truth to be gained from such conjecture, we are only left with another contribution to an elaborate and ever expanding mythology.

These myths are important, as it is through mythologies that we can gain some access to history.  What makes the Ripper case such an important myth is the fact it was never solved.  As it is now unlikely that we will ever be able to solve this mystery with any certainty, there is enough subjective space for conspiracy theorists, historians, criminologists and all manner of academics to be able to probe the past and claim some part of that history for themselves.  In doing so, we are able to uncover facets of our past that would otherwise have remained forgotten.

One enduring element in urban or popular mythology is the obsession with well known figures being not what they seem.  This is due, in part, to the dramatic literary tradition of “unmasking”.  This a case of projecting our ideas of fiction on to our history.

The Ripper mystery is no exception to this theory and Twain is in auspicious company.  In addition to Walter Sickert, the Ripper has been identified as a member of the Royal Family, as writer Lewis Carroll and perhaps most intriguingly as Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In fact, just about every notable Victorian appears to have been, at one time or another, a valid Ripper Suspect, each with their own supporting micro-mythology.

Mary Kelly before dying
by Eline
Courtesy of the artist

The attraction with this cross-pollenation of mythologies is that it expands our sense of historical place and opens up new and fresh sources of possible evidence.  By expanding our fields of study we begin to understand the further complexities of our own past.

In some ways, the celebrity of the Ripper lineup is explained by the fact that notions of history are informed by the grand and prominent, as it is the rich, influential and powerful figures of the past who are preserved for us.  They are the only clear footprints we have left to track.  Whilst probably less than thankful, the Ripper victims and supporting cast would have been unknown save for their dramatic demise.

Without the Ripper, Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly would have joined the faceless ranks of the Victorian underclass, the anonymous mass of common people, their lives left unrecorded, while their possessions and all other traces of their existence turn to dust.

This article was originally intended to be a book review of Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed.  After failing to read the book in its entirety, I wrote this instead.  It remained unpublished until now.  To date there has been no legal action from the estate of Mark Twain. I take this as either a recognition of nonsense or admission of guilt.  You decide. 

Burning Rubber: Reflections on the Car Chase movie

"What's behind me is not important." - Franco (Raul Julia) explains the first rule of Italian driving, whilst tearing off his rear view mirror in The Gumball Rally (1978)

Gene Hackman behind the scenes shooting the
groundbreaking car chase in William Friedkin's
The French Connection (1971)
Hollywood has been burning rubber almost as long as it has been burning celluloid.  Cars and car chases not only provide a fundamental cinematic ingredient for thrillseeking moviegoers, but also represent one of the most culturally significant tropes of the medium.

To understand this significance, we must first recognise the specific cultural shift that is marked by the appearance of this supercharged, automotive brand of cinematic carnage.
Retrospectively, all creative art forms undergo a similar series of cultural transitions and the movies are no exception.  Broadly, we can group broad social and ideological transitions through our history, each of these reflected by a dominant Cultural phase.  These phases are identified as Primitivism, Classicism, Modernism and Post-Modernism. Whilst historians often apply these as a clear linear progression, all four phases are occurring simultaneously on a smaller scale all the time, both socially in different geographical regions and formally through different media.  It is by applying this model to cinema that we uncover the startling and pivotal cultural role taken by the Car Chase within this bubbling cultural soup.

The Lumiere Brothers thrill audiences 
with their amazing train
The infancy of any new medium first begins with a Primitive period.  Primitivism is generally identified with the discovery of a particular medium.  This is a phase of formal development, when work is generally sensualist or decorative, designed to demonstrate the potential of that medium.  In the fine arts, this is often related to cave-painting and other ancient decorative crafts.  The pioneering moving pictures of the Lumière Brothers mark the Primitive period of cinema, when the simple thrill of seeing short moving images was enough to pack theatres night after night. 

As technical skills improve in a medium, we enter a Classical period.  This is where a craft is developed and refined.  In many ways the utilisation of the medium stays similar to the Primitive period, but the Classical period marks a peak of technical excellence. 

To again use the fine arts as an analogue, the most obvious and recognisable example of this would be the 16th century Renaissance.  This period marked the beginning of the modern age.  In painting and sculpture of this time, artists began using perspective and proportion to achieve increasingly lifelike effects.  The achievements of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giorgione and Titian mark a peak of painterly craftsmanship still unparalleled in our time. 

In long established formal media, it would appear each cultural shift occurred simultaneously in reaction to a contemporary social shift.  However, every formal medium still passes through all prior phases of development until it reaches the dominant social phase of its time.  Thus, in a much more recent medium - developed at a more culturally sophisticated time  - the speed of these transitions is accelerated accordingly, as the form needs to catch up with its audience.  This is the case with cinema.

The established Classical period of Cultural development extends roughly from the 16th century until the late 19th century.  It was during the latter point that the exploration of Modernism was just beginning across the fields of the established arts and literature.  It is also around this time that cinema was first developed: a newborn Primitive artform in a Modernist world.  One may surmise that the development of photography, then cinematography, at this point also played a role in rendering the major Classical purposes of art obsolete.

Nevertheless, as Modernism began in earnest, Cinema was just starting out on its Cultural journey and, through necessity, quickly evolved into its Classical phase.  No matter how ground breaking the experience might initially be, audiences soon tired of seeing the same silent scene of a steam train leaving its station.  Within just a few years, Méliès set up the first film studio and began to further exploit this fledgling medium, drawing from the language of the existing structures of its nearest formal relatives – those of photography, literature and theatre.

The Keystone Kops (circa 1915)
Forerunners of the action sequence can be found in many genres of the 1920's, 30's and 40's, from film-noir to westerns and early serial pictures.  These sequences, however, were rooted in drama rather than spectacle and still took their dramatic conventions from other media - in particular, drawing their inspiration from pulp literature and comic books.   Interestingly, the clearest silent movie antecedents can be found in slapstick shorts, like the anarchic shenanigans of the Keystone Kops.   These prototype action set pieces were an extension of Vaudville performance acts and restrained in length, scope and quality by technical limitations, but this very physical comedy provided inspiration for what could be accomplished with the medium. 

As the Classical period marks the greatest period of refinement in craft and technique, it is not surprising that all media are dominated by a cadre of revered individuals from their Classical periods.  From Shakespeare, to Mozart, to Carravaggio – the Classical exponents of a media set the standard by which all those who follow will be judged.   In cinema, the Classical period of technical development stretches from Méliès through to such diverse figures as Hitchcock, Welles, Eisenstein, Kurosawa, even extending into the 70s with the work of directors such as Altman and Scorcese.

As with any Classical period of formal development, these achievements establish the critical and formal language for a medium, yet once a peak of excellence has been achieved, it cannot by definition be excelled.  Thus a medium needs to expand into new territory to continue to survive.  We identify this next shift as Modernism.  The Modernist period occurs where a medium appears to have been formally fully formed.  The shift to Modernism is often - but not always - marked by an initial fear of redundancy, since the medium appears to have exhausted its potential. It is following this transition that the formal medium now advances contextually as new and unique applications are discovered and the medium can be finally established as an independent art form.

In conventional Art History, this phase is more commonly associated with the post-war shift from figurative painting and sculpture to abstraction and conceptual art, although this transition really begun in early 19th Century Europe as Classical Art and Culture searched for a new purpose as the Classical social structure collapsed.

The Modernist shift in cinema actually overlaps the critically acclaimed work of these Classicists and spans from the late 50s, peaking in the mid-70s, continuing on into the present day.  This is a shift that properly consolidates with the groundbreaking formal development of the Car Chase.

Cinema had been embraced as a new art of a new world and 
the automobile was naturally the most appropriate of subjects. 
Representing freedom and modernity, the car chase (in fiction 
and reality) is at it's heart a most American art form
From this point, North American cinema dominates and it should be noted that this gearshift into Modernism was first initiated by a number of domestic social factors.

It is during the 1950's, that we find a new breed of affluent, post-war youth, eager to assert a distinct and individual cultural identity.  It is in this era that the Rock and Roll counterculture would be born and many of the foundations were being laid for the later social and political upheavals of the 1960s.  The effect on cinema was to be equally dramatic.

This audience was eager for excitement and thrills and demanded a constant stream of new movies to satisfy them.  Chase scenes were already a staple of the Classical period of cinema, but in order to fill out the running time of these B-grade productions they were drawn out to become the focus of the movie.

With improved equipment, but working with relatively small budgets, B-movie filmmakers recognised the potential for placing the actual focus of a movie on its spectacle.  This would mean that the plot became subordinate to providing a constant stream of action and thrills.  This astute decision would later lead to exploitation filmmaking – a cinema of excess – which relied on the unholy trinity of sex, violence and action, designed to stir up thrills, teenage libidos and wallets in equal measure.  However, at this point in history, strict codes of guidance still restricted what could be shown onscreen in mainstream features.  This effectively meant that the filmmaker could only tease with hints of violence and allusions to sex.

With their options limited, filmmakers had to concentrate on action sequences to provide mass entertainment.  This new youthful audience demanded contemporary movies that they could identify with and so the earliest manifestations of the classic action sequence centred around the popular sport of illegal hot rodding with crazy young hipsters racing '32 Ford Highboys and '29 Track Ts with flat head V8s.

Hot Rod Girl (1956) offered "speed crazy thrills
as wild youths tear up the streets!"

As a result, 50s films such as Teenage Thunder, Hot Rod Gang, Thunder Road and Devil on Wheels were amongst the slew of low-budget movies churned out by studios to satisfy the demands of the youthful drive-in movies audiences.

These particular movies still only featured Car-Chase scenes as a modest part of a loose narrative still rooted in a Classical cinematic structure, but the emphasis on the extended chase scenes was beginning to explore a new language unique to cinema.  The visceral thrills of these action sequences could not have existed in any previous storytelling medium.

In a sense, the compostion of these films is comparable to the early Modernist compositions of Futurism.  As with Futurism, there is a similar immediacy and an obsession with modern images and narrative.  These movies retain the framing of classical composition, yet techniques unique to the medium were being emphasised within this structure. This leads to a subtle, but noticeable, abstraction of form. More importantly, with this change in attitude towards filmmaking, cinema was evolving again and - despite the existing formal arts having more than a 500 year head start – making its first tentative steps towards Modernism a mere 60 years after its invention.

By the time the chequered flag of 1960s was waved, an increasing liberalisation of the industry allowed more exploitative B-movies, opening the floodgates for studios to attract their audiences with the much cheaper thrills of sex and violence.

Thus, the cycle of 50s Car-Chase movies were no longer necessary in their original context – slowly being replaced by a greater variety of extreme content.  Nevertheless, this was not enough to stop the rise of the seemingly unstoppable Car-Chase phenomenon.  As Modernism is generally marked by a change in the context of a media and a deconstruction of its fundamental qualities, a key component is a medium drawing its formal and contextual language from its own history rather than from other media.  This leads to an increasing process of self-referentiality.   As the popularity of the Car-Chase made it a common and recognisable cinematic archetype, it was now increasingly visible in more mainstream films.

Steve McQueen catches some 'lift' on the mean
streets of San Fransisco in Bullitt (1968)
During that decade, increasingly elaborate Car Chases began appearing in every possible genre; from popular horror flicks, such as The Spider and The Giant Gila Monster, to the centrepiece of big budget thrillers. The most notable of these later entries including Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971).

Despite being of only moderate significance to the narrative of these movies, it is worth recognising that the Car Chase sequences form perhaps the most iconic and enduring images of these productions.  The climactic chase scene of Bullitt is a deft mix of some exquisite on-location stunt driving, dramatic cinematography and subtle effects work that result in what is often considered to be the first true car chase sequence in modern cinema.   A few years later, William Friedkin's The French Connection would raise the stakes again with a wild supersonic, pedestrian worrying, gravity defying car chase.
As the 60s progressed, there was a renewed period of experimentation, as both technical and social advances allowed cinema a much broader scope.  Whilst there were many Modernist experiments within cinema during this period, the increased technical potential of the medium prolonged – to some extent – Classical dominance.

By the time we reach the 70s, cinema has properly entered its Modernist period, evidenced by the distillation and exploitation of the peculiar qualities of its own formal legacy.  This deconstruction initially occurs using the formal elements of the Car-Chase, which becomes the first singularly cinematic archetype to become a new separate and very distinct genre in its own right.

Dennis Weaver gets "trucked off" in Spielberg's Duel (1971)
The decade was dominated by mainstream movies taking the Car-Chase as their subject.  In 1971, an unknown director named Steven Spielberg crafted his entire debut feature around a single predatory car chase in the TV movie Duel.  From the The California Kid (1973), which revolved around a psychotic sheriff who ran speeders off the road, to Greased Lightning (1977), featuring Richard Prior as a real life rum-runner turned racer, these films centred their narratives around Car-Chase action and maintained the genre throughout the decade, straying very little from the established format. 

The genre was driven by several recognisable elements.  During the sixties and seventies, youth culture was largely centred around an anti-authoritarianism and a distrust of establishment figures.

Reflecting this, the central characters of many movies during this period were often sympathetic individuals outside the law.  The trend towards the anti-hero easily filtered through into the Car-Chase genre, providing filmmakers with the opportunity to throw the combined might of the police department motorpool against our hapless heroes. 

To further polarise our sympathies, there was often an individual authority figure with a grudge, representing as many bigoted prejudices associated with the establishment as possible and whose primary purpose was to be humiliated a variety of wacky slapstick ways during the course of the feature.  The archetypal “Fat Redneck Sheriff”, epitomised by Jackie Gleason in the three Bandit movies, even managed to make an unexpected cameo appearance in the 1974 James Bond flick Live And Let Die (1973)

"...and there goes the Challenger, 
being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels"
 Vanishing Point (1971)
With such two dimensional characterisation and exaggerated action sequences, few of these films were intended to be taken seriously, the possible exception being Vanishing Point (1971) - which would be a controversial inclusion in that this meditative, existential Road movie includes few actual chases – and the strange and beautiful Two Lane Blacktop (1971).

Quite simply, narrative is stripped to all but that which is necessary to identify the media and legitimise the movie.  A classic example of this type of abstraction can be found in the original obscure cult movie Gone in 60 Seconds – written, starring, directed and produced by stunt driver H.B. Halicki.  That movie famously began as a 40-minute demolition derby car chase, allegedly taking seven months to film in five cities and leaving a grand total of 99 vehicles destroyed in its wake.  The plot is typically minimal - 46 cars must be stolen, including a 1973 Mustang Mach 1.  Only after shooting these sequences did Halicki - who died attempting more extreme stunt driving for the sequel - hastily film the narrative bookends to provide a contextual framing to justify the excessive auto-action.

Burt Reynolds at Bo "Bandit" Darble
Whilst certainly not the first movie of the Car-Chase genre to use the classic template, Smokey and the Bandit (1977) is probably one of the most familiar.  Directed and written by Hal Needham, the films premise is another simple derivation on the classic theme. Bandit and the  Snowman, played by Burt Reynolds and country singer Jerry Reid, must drive a Kenworth semi from Atlanta to Texarkana and back in 28 hours - loaded with 400 cases of bootlegged beer for rich-boys Big and 'Lil Enos Burdett, who make this bet with every aspiring road-racer they can.

Win and our good 'ole boy heroes can buy a new rig with an $80,000 prize. If they Lose, it's off to jail. To make the trip efficiently, Bandit surmises they need a car to divert the attention of the local law enforcement away from the truck and its illegal cargo. This neatly leads to the introduction of the Bandits Pontiac Trans Am. In between the comic-slapstick Car action, Sally Field provided the most irrelevant and implausible love interest in movie history, whilst Jackie Gleason made his movie comeback after 7 years offscreen, as the iconic Buford T Justice, a obese hick Sheriff with a grudge.

Whilst Gone in 60 Seconds is an obscure cult gem, Smokey and the Bandit was a huge hit.  Surprisingly, it grossed over $126 million in the U.S. alone. It ended up second only to Star Wars on 1977s biggest hits list and spawned two sequels, a wave of imitators and a television series.

There were other derivations on the Car-Chase formula, such as the “Great Race” format – taking its name from Blake Edwards’ 1965 caper movie which was based on a turn of the century round-the-world race between a starched, heroic Tony Curtis and a dastardly Jack Lemmon.  This particular format was an extension of movies such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) – itself a re-working of Around the World in 80 Days.

These early “race” movies were really an excuse to present a series of comic, slapstick set-pieces between a large ensemble cast, using the Race format as a type of Vaudeville or Variety show framework to present a series of sketches.

In the 70s, The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run similarly revolved around a madcap coast-to-coast race.  Like the prototype 50's B-pictures, both The Cannonball Run and The Gumball Rally were based on the same real life event, an illegal road race known as "The Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Dash."

 The last truly great Great Race movie
The Cannonball Run (1981)
In these movies, the Great Race format is used to cram in a bewildering crowd of cameo racers.  The Cannonball Run in particular takes a long time to get underway, purely because of the amount of characters it has to introduce.  Among the competitors in eponymous no-holds-barred race to California, Smokey director Hal Needham once again draws on the talents of Burt Reynolds for his lead, this time along with unstable sidekick Dom DeLuise, who periodically switches into his inexplicable alter-ego “Captain Chaos”.  Jamie Farr hams it up as an equally unstable Arab millionaire determined to win no matter what the cost and ratpack crooners Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. play two gambling drunks dressed as priests so “God can be their co-pilot."

Doing their respective bit for international stereotypes, Roger Moore plays a James Bond style racer complete with gadget packet Aston Martin, while Jackie Chan pilots a rocket propelled Subaru.  Also on the starting lineup are seventies sex bombs Farrah Fawcett, Adrienne Barbeau, Tara Buckman and a whole host of supporting characters, each playing various comic archetypes.  Sticking to a winning formula, they are pursued by government agent AF Foyt, a fascistic bureaucrat obsessed with stopping the racers.

The main difference between Cannonball and the earlier ensemble features, was that this was no longer a character driven movie.  Instead the emphasis was clearly on setting up a series of high octane race and comedic chase scenes.  The advantage in using so many well-known actors was so that they could play what was essentially a pastiche of their popular persona. 

This made any cumbersome character development unesscessary and draws on from the formal rules of early Modernist Abstraction by using certain Classical conventions - already familiar to a predominantly Classical audience - in order to make abstract work accessible.  As with the majority of the 70's Car-Chase cycle, the characters are little more than caricatures, generally with a strict moral distinction.  They are either the bad-guys or the good-guys, with the audience made certain they know exactly who they should be rooting for.

Cartoonish villany actually draws its archetypes from early silent shorts - where visual exaggeration was necessary in order to compensate for a lack of sound and the poor quality and relatively short length of the reel.  Here we seen these techniques used merely to ensure there are no lengthy distractions from the action - a wise move considering shocking speed with which the action grinds to a screeching halt during Burt Reynolds obligatory romantic interludes in both The Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit.

Dick Dastardly & sidekick Mutley,
in Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races
(doomed to failure, 1968-71)

Considering this willing two dimensionality, it is appropriate that the Great Race format would find itself preserved in the Wacky Races cartoon, its hapless villain Dick Dastardly practically a clone of the Jack Lemmons moustache-twirling Professor in the original Great Race, both of them doomed to perpetual humiliating failure.

Naturally, once a solid and identifiable formula has been established and proved a success, so that formula is reproduced by others until its popularity is exhausted.  In this respect, there are further parallels to be drawn with other fields of formal Modernism. 

The very experimental and personal form of Cubism developed by Picasso and Braque suddenly found itself a formal genre in its own right.  In a short space of time it was beyond their control and in the hands of a expanding mass of minor Cubists that continues to grow, even today.   Similarly, the Car Chase genre mutated and spawned with ferocity.

As well as follow-ups to Smokey and Cannonball, Needham made the a further string of Car orientated movies - including Hooper and Stroker Ace, both starring Reynolds at the wheel.  Even an autumnal Sam Peckinpah contributed Convoy, which - in a radical move - substituted cars for trucks, but left much of the remaining formula intact.  Across the ocean, the Brits managed to cause just as much destruction, albeit with the rather reduced horsepower of the humble mini, in The Italian Job (1969)

Ledgendary stunt driver Grant Page at the wheel 
in a scene from Mad Max (1979)
Back in the B-movie soup from which the Car Chase had first emerged, the genre continued to fascinate.  Roger Corman took a particular interest in the Car-Chase phenomenon he had indirectly helped to pioneer.  Among his hastily produced cut-price productions were Gumball, Grand Theft Auto and demented cult favorite Death Race 2000 (1975), which optimistically suggested our obsession with the Car Chase had at least another half century staying power.

In this case, post-apocalyptic drivers took part in a pan-American massacre whereby points were scored for slaughtering innocent bystanders en-route.  Distilling the medium even further, George Miller's Ozploitation classic Mad Max (1979) presented us with a dystopian near future where the car chase was pretty much all we had left.

If we were required to continue the Cubist analogy and identify a Picasso figure amongst the pantheon of gearjammers in this Modernist branch of cinema - being a single and widely recognisable iconic character whose work embodies the movement in its entirety - it would undoubtedly be Bo “Bandit” Darble himself, Burt Reynolds.

The quarter-Cherokee son of a former cowboy provided the lead in two of the most important movies in the genre, Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run. As a both stuntman and the charismatic and recognisable lead from a number of popular television series, Reynolds was perfect for these roles.   He was required only to be an amiable “everyman” character.  As a glib and humourous antihero-lite, he played a consistent archetype, seemingly a parody of real-life persona.  This allowed the movies he starred in to dispense with any cumbersome character development or complicated plot framing.  All the filmmakers needed was an excuse to get Reynolds into a Trans-am and on the lam.

These movies were a product of their time, but mark an important turning point and, like all Modernist constructions, allowed a revitalisation of the medium.  In retrospect they were crude and irreverent, but once a Classical benchmark has been achieved, the only way to develop is by the stripping of a medium back down to its basics. 

Interestingly, Braque neatly stated his intentions for Cubism in a manner that is neatly applicable to the Car-Chase deconstruction.  Frustrated by the Classicist and Neo-Classicist genre, he stated that it was his intention to “create a new sort of beauty, the beauty that appears in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight."

"A new sort of beauty, the beauty that appears
in terms of volume, of line, of mass, of weight"
Georges Braque
Like the early Modernism of other media, these genre movies mark a complete abstraction of form.   In painting, Braque and Picasso had developed the Cubism form by taking the Classical format of painting and discarding all but the specific qualities unique to that medium.  They were making paintings about paintings.  In these movies, from Gone in 60 Seconds to the Gumball Rally, filmmakers took the format of Classical movie structure, but reduced all but certain unique cinematic qualities of that media.  These qualities are perfectly embodied by the Car Chase, an element in that simply cannot be reproduced in any existing media; not literature, painting, sculpture or even theatre.

Naturally, as with Cubism, critics found this Modernist abstraction difficult to grasp and many were immediately hostile.  For instance, Tim Pulleine wrote that the classic Cannonball Run was “lacking any recognisable plot or characterisation, or indeed incidental invention, it merely offers a parade of inept whimsy and lame intra-mutual reference.”

This kind of critical attack is striking in its similarity to the derogatory comments made by the critics of Modernism in other media.  Any initial break with Classism in a medium is often considered vulgar and shocking - before being eventually embraced.  This was the case with Cubism, Futurism, Impressionism and Car-Chase movies.  

Of course, once any form has been fully popularised and become over familiar, it will quickly lose relevance.  The very success of the Car-chase movie started an unprecedented cycle of hastily produced sequels and inferior imitations, which swiftly stifled the originality and sheer excitement of the pioneering early works.  In tandem with this decline, George Lucas’ 1977 space opera Star Wars had redefined the concept of the thrill movie – with previously unimaginable special effects sequences raising audience expectations far above the simple pleasures of the dirt-track and tarmac demolition derby.  

By 1983, even Reynolds declined to return as the lead for Smokey and the Bandit III, offering only a split-second cameo at the films conclusion.  From the mid-eighties onwards, the phenomenon of the big budget, high-concept “Summer Blockbuster” had superceded the Car-Chase genre almost entirely.  Nevertheless, no popcorn movie of the 80’s was complete without at least one obligatory burst of car chase action. 

Since then, the Car-Chase has remained a staple set-piece of the generic Action movie, making countless cameo appearances in all manner of productions.  During the 80's and 90's, many movies included memorable Car Chase scenes, including The Blues Brothers (1980), Beverly Hills Cops (1984), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), Days of Thunder (1990), The Chase (1994), Goldeneye (1995) and The Rock (1996).  At the close of the decade, John Frankenheimers Ronin (1998) recalled the gritty style of the 1970s thriller and revisited the mean streets of The French Connection. An honorable mention should also go to the audacious tongue-in-cheek sequence in Way of the Gun (1999), where a two car chase is staged almost entirely at walking pace, but with no less automotive destruction.

This is how Michael Bay arrives at work every morning
Bad Boys II (2003)

First across the line of new millennium was Jerry Bruckheimers surprise hi-octane remake of Gone in 60 Seconds (2000).  In view of his unerring dedication to the Car-Chase sequence throughout his entire career, this movie is a characteristically broad tribute not just to the original movie but to the genre as a whole.  Close behind, The Fast and the Furious (2001) franchise starring the appropriately monikered Vin Diesel, returned the genre to its drag racing roots.

We must also not forget that formal progression continues apace in established media.  As we develop the cultural sensibilities of the Post-Modern – a methodology with growing importance in the fields of art, music and literature - there is an increased self-referentiality within all media coupled with an increased use of the techniques of contextual irony and pastiche.

Zoe Bell clings for life to the hood of a 70 Challenger
as Stuntman Mike tries to run the girls off the road
Death Proof (2007)
There is perhaps evidence of this in Jan De Bonts Taxi (2000), which provided a compact and knowing Gallic wheelspin on the genre.  We've also had Pixar's animated Cars (2006) and Michael Bay's Transformers (2007), in which the titular vehicles actually are the main characters.  In Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007), two separate sets of voluptuous women are stalked at different times by scarred Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who uses his "death proof" cars to execute his murderous plans.

There are sly and overt references to almost every movie mentioned in this article and even though perhaps only a third of the action actually takes place on the asphalt, there is more talking about movie cars and stunt work than any other movie I can think of.  Nevertheless, the climactic high speed chase is one of the most exciting twenty minutes of automotive action to grace the screen in many years. The action and the danger here is real; the centrepiece being real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell as herself playing “ships mast” on the front of a speeding Challenger as they are rammed repeatedly by the chasing psychopath.

When the girls eventually turn the tables to exact a fitting revenge on Stuntman Mike, it’s an appropriate coda to a movie that is a love letter to a genre so often male-dominated and a timely reminder that women should never again be considered mere ornament amongst the freeway frenzy. 

Death Proof is as close to a pure Post-Modern tilt on the car chase movie as we are going to find for the time being, but glance in the rear view mirror reveals there is a new challenger, close behind and gaining fast.  Whilst the art of cinema evolved very quickly over barely a century, it seems that it is on the verge of being overtaken by a bratty digital cousin with barely 40 years on the clock.

The car is the star
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Home computer and gaming technology has raced through it’s Primitive and into its Classical stage very quickly, becoming increasingly interactive and close to offering sensory experiences the cinema is unable to match.  With new generations of games consoles appearing at an ever-increasing rate, it is of particular note that one of the most popular and enduring Computer Game genres has been the Car Chase.

As we approach the astounding cinematic technology of the Eighth Generation consoles, it should come as little suprise that one of the most popular gaming franchises is Grand Theft Auto, a game that takes great delight in its fetishisation of the golden age of Car Chase cinema.

Meanwhile, popular cinema is still clinging persistently to the hood of Modernism, obsessed by the ever decreasing returns of high-concept formal abstraction. But digital gaming is raising the stakes and the threat of supercedence by new technical developments acts as a catalyst for experimentation and the pushing of boundaries.  As we enter this strange new cinematic landscape, we might just find ourselves across the border, heading toward the next cinematic Renaissance.   The future is a different country.  They do things differently there.  But one reassuring thing is almost for certain: there will still be Car Chases.