Fast, Furious, and Popular

April 10, 2015


“There will no doubt be better movies released in 2015, but ‘Furious 7’ is an early favorite to win the prize for most picture.” A.O. Scott, “In ‘Furious 7,’ a Franchise Continues to Roar,” New York Times

“This is one of the most ridiculous thrillers I’ve ever seen, and yet even with a running time that stretched well beyond two hours, with so many repetitive moments I almost began to wonder if I had missed something and the movie had started again, I have to admit I was entertained by the sheer audacity of the car chases and battle sequences — and there were even some genuinely touching moments.” Richard Roeper, “’Furious 7’ Speeds Up for Cool Action, Slows Down for Touching Moments,” Chicago Sun-Times

Furious 7, the latest installment in the long running Fast and Furious movie franchise (but I didn’t really have to tell you that, did I), easily topped the box office race in its first week in circulation and actually received many more positive reviews than negative from mainstream movie critics. But even the most glowing reviews betrayed seriously mixed feelings on the part of these reviewers, as in A.O. Scott’s back-handed compliment that while the movie may not win an Oscar for Best Picture, it would easily take the prize for “most picture.” Before Richard Roeper can finally “admit” that he was entertained by the movie, he first has to assure us that he knows it was “ridiculous” and “repetitive.” And these were critics who liked the movie!

As I discuss in Screen Ages, a movie like Furious 7 is part of a long lineage in movie history going all the way back to the beginnings of American cinema, the chase movie. It’s not hard to understand the appeal, then and now. The kinetic excitement of bodies and machines in motion; it’s the kind of visual and emotional experience that only the movies can provide, whether we’re watching dozens of would-be-brides chasing a prospective suitor in 1904’s Personal:

Buster Keaton in hot pursuit of kidnappers in Sherlock, Jr. (1924):

or Steve McQueen defying gravity behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang in Bullitt, the 1968 crime thriller credited with reviving and modernizing the movie car chase:

Just watching that great scene from Bullitt suggests why critics like Scott and Roeper have a hard time writing about the screen experience of a chase movie. For one thing, we don’t need to know anything about the larger narrative of Bullitt to find the scene thrilling and even beautiful. There isn’t a scrap of dialogue in the entire sequence; just a tour de force of stunt driving, photography, and visual editing, all set to a soundtrack totally devoid of music. We just hear roaring engines, screaming brakes, and the sound of metal impacting metal.

Of course, the chase itself forms its own narrative sequence, as the pursued becomes the pursuer. The sequence moves from the narrow, hilly streets of downtown San Francisco onto the open road of the California countryside, before ending in a crash and explosion that brings the action to a sudden stop. And a chase scene is far from simple, either for the moviemakers or for viewers. Clearly, an elaborate chase sequence like this one from Bullitt demands a high level of technical movie making expertise, but our ability to follow, decode, and enjoy the scene also represents decades of screen experiences in which movie makers and movie fans worked out the language of the chase. Early on, as in Personal, chases tended to move from the background to the foreground, with characters running at the camera over and over again. Over time, the camera began recording side-angle views and moved along with the chase, as in Sherlock, Jr. Yet filmmakers were careful to follow evolving conventions such as making sure that a chase moved consistently from right to left or vice versa. In short, just as filmmakers had to learn to shoot chase scenes, viewers at the same time had to learn how to watch them.

On an even more theoretical level, the attraction of the car chase recalls the idea of the cinema of attractions, the idea that part of why we enjoy the movies is the excitement and thrill of individual scenes and set pieces. More than with most movies, we tend to see car chase movies as a series of discrete episodes and sequences, any one of which can be enjoyed by itself regardless of the logic or emotional arc of the larger narrative. Yet both cinema theory and literary theory in the twentieth century began to value the idea of a movie or a novel as an organic, coherent whole, with each part of the narrative and description reinforcing and connecting with every other part of the story. The parts, in other words, should always serve the whole. From this perspective, the car chase movie can seem, as Roeper puts it, “ridiculous” and “repetitive,” the main plot line just an excuse for increasingly elaborate chase scenes.

But this way of looking at extended narratives, while a perfectly valid and often insightful way of exploring our experiences of novels or movies, is not the only way to understand those experiences, and the idea of organic unity represents a particular historical reaction to what was seen as an increasingly chaotic and commercialized popular culture. In truth, readers and viewers have also always experienced narratives they love as collections of different parts as much as a unified whole. People would reread particular passages or chapters from favorite novels; theater goers would demand that actors repeat the action of a particularly exciting or moving scene from a play; and in our digital age, we can enjoy the delights of a great car chase as often as we like, as is the case of Bullitt—or Furious 7. And this is as true of a romantic comedy (think of how often the “diner orgasm” sequence is highlighted from When Harry Met Sally) or Shakespeare (especially the soliloquies, which are often enjoyed as stoned-alone set pieces) as an action movie.

One last, great early car chase: Lois Weber’s 1913 thriller, Suspense. For a fascinating and detailed analysis of Weber’s work in this film, read this entry from David Bordwell’s film blog. Enjoy!