The James Clayton Column: to drive or not to drive?

Ahead of Drive’s release in cinemas, James takes a leisurely cruise through the history of auto-obsessed movies…

I feel the need – the need to not have to rely on public transport because I can’t drive, and have never seen Top Gun. I just don’t want to hang around on an aircraft carrier with Tom Cruise. Sorry.

One day, no doubt, I will plug that gap in my pop culture knowledge and run around in aviator shades screaming, “How did I live without you, Maverick?!” but right now I have more pressing priorities, like learning to drive. As far as life skills go, that’s more important than total familiarity with every single Jerry Bruckheimer production.

As Sun Tzu states in The Art Of War: “Know your enemy… but first learn the art of changing gear so you can accelerate away from him when he starts sending Transformers and CGI hamster spies to annihilate you.”

I got a provisional licence years ago, but never took a single lesson or got around to deciding that this is a definite, firm project I should devote myself to. It just never seemed to be the ideal time or circumstances, but then again, when is the ideal time or circumstance? The arrival of the CGI rodent inquisition? The moment I find myself sprinting down the motorway chased by giant robots? The point where Tom Cruise and his lawyers get me in a roadside diner somewhere in the middle of the desert and vaporise me for not wanting to watch Top Gun?

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I need some motivation to finally apply myself to this vital, practical learning process, and I get that most of all when I’m watching movies. I’m an aesthete, who appreciates the strikingly beautiful things of the world, like Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Renaissance architecture and the facial features of Ron Perlman. With cars it’s a little like the “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” scenario, except the art has a steering wheel and can run over your neighbour’s cat.

If I see a cool-looking vehicle that strikes me as being an impressive machine of style and character, I’m going to respond by remarking “Sweet! That’s a cool car!” even though I’m not a motorhead automobile bore who enjoys spending entire weekends drooling over Top Gear repeats.

Really, my ultimate dream is to be a biker rebel, thanks to films like The Wild One, Easy Rider, Akira and Kill Bill. I’ll stick with four wheelers though for the moment, seeing as these hip motorcycle visions aren’t as common and, played out across the American desert and neon Tokyo as they are, are never really going to be achieved on the humdrum highways of Britain.

Cars, however, are more ubiquitous, and have roofs and in-built stereo systems, so you hermetically seal yourself in and ignore ordinary surroundings.  In these conditions, you can potentially accomplish the mystical union of man and machine, celebrated so many times on the silver screen.

It’s a special symbiosis probably best shown by Taxi Driver, or John Carpenter’s Christine. Travis Bickle and his yellow cab are one, lone wanderers through New York’s scummy streets. Likewise, downtrodden nerd Arnie Cunningham’s self-esteem boost and rise to cool is achieved through his bond with the eponymous red-and-white ’58 Plymouth Fury.

Automobile choice is an essential part of the formulation of identity and self-actualisation. Travis, Arnie and Stuntman Mike from Death Proof all define themselves and work out who or what they ultimately are through their cars. (Never mind that they are either killer psychopaths or victims of a possessed Chrysler.)

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Not being a qualified driver and not having a car, I’m concerned that I’m missing out on self-fulfilment. Actually getting your own automobile is a significant rite-of-passage and symbol of maturity in the modern world, and it’s reflected repeatedly in movies. The Karate Kid and Gran Torino are just two examples of this, and the claiming of keys to their respective master’s prized vintage vehicles shows that Daniel-san and Thao (a.k.a. “Eggroll”) have succeeded, gained their mentor’s respect and reached a key mark on their road to manhood.

Mastery of the wheeled machine is, thus, an integral part of the hero’s quest and so, visualising myself as a hero/karate kid/heir to Clint Eastwood, I know I need to get driving lessons. Idle daydreams about being Steve McQueen in Bullitt aren’t going to get me burning rubber for real, but these cinematic reveries are worth clinging on to if they actually encourage me to push at a motor mission.

As time flies, I get increasingly galvanised to rectify this situation, and I know that Drive will provide a shot of fresh motivation when it rolls into cinemas. In all probability, I’m going to emerge from the auditorium imaginatively placing myself in the boots and leather driving gloves of Ryan Gosling, fantasising about being a superslick stunt driver.

I’ll suddenly have an urge to stick a toothpick between my teeth and start strutting round in a retro white satin jacket with a golden scorpion emblazoned on the back. Sadly, even if I did dress up like Ryan Gosling or Frank Bullitt, driving lessons aren’t going to carry any traces of Hollywood style. In fact, the everyday motor experience of real life has very little glamour at all.

It’s always the same, in that films make stuff look exciting or appealing (“Explosions! Big guys with guns! Giant animal attacks! Hell yeah!”), when in reality, they’d be horrifying (Explosions! Big guys with guns! Giant animal attacks! Oh, God, mother help me!”). Alternatively, and this applies more to motoring, the thrilling stuff never happens to most people, or isn’t actually that exhilarating. The Karate Kid makes painting a fence look like an awe-inspiring experience of martial artistry, for example. For most people, however, it’s dull DIY for a summer bank holiday.

When I finally get round to booking driving lessons and taking the wheel in hope of accelerating towards roadworthy independence and self-actualisation, it’s not going to be anything like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! It’s going to be a tedious and trying experience, overseen by a pedantic geriatric who’s getting paid to criticise me.

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When I finally get a driving license, I don’t actually find freedom but instead extortionate insurance fees, high petrol prices and never-ending traffic jams in slow suburban Britain that prevent me from putting pedal to metal. Plus, my car is likely to be a faulty Ford Ka and not a supernatural Plymouth Fury.

The cinematic speed dreams are all lies. Maybe I should just watch Top Gun and look to learn to fly instead.

James’ previous column can be found here.

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