Friday, April 3, 2015

Recent Film Representations of Auto Theft: "Menace II Society," "New Jersey Drive," "Gone in Sixty Seconds," and "Chop Shop"

From "Menace II Society"

From "Chop Shop"


Cultural Representations of Violence in the City
            A prime example highlighting the connection between violence in an urban environment, race, and auto theft can be found in the 1993 release Menace II Society and Spike Lee’s 1994 New Jersey Drive.44 Without doubt, both films are by far the most emotionally powerful and realistic of all twentieth century films that center on the topic of auto theft. Menace II Society paints one image of what it was like to live in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood during the 1990s, including carjacking, auto theft, and drive-by shootings. At the opening of New Jersey Drive viewers are introduced to the central figure in the story, Newark car thief Jason Petty (Sharron Corley), one of a large group of aimless young African-Americans who steal cars, in the process making Newark, New Jersey the car theft capital of America. They do it to “put on a show,” as it “didn't matter what the car” was. As it turns out, a struggle between young car thieves and the Newark police escalates into a deadly war. Lt. Emil Roscoe’s (Saul Stein) auto theft squad brutalizes the young thieves at every opportunity, and excessive force only exacerbates this volatile situation. The power of this movie goes beyond simply the characterization of auto theft in a major American city; a complex picture of hopelessness, despair, social disintegration, racism, hate, and comradeship quickly emerges. 
            Lighter, and whiter, the 2000 the remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds contains plenty of juvenile humor, but is set in a time where a number of contemporary truths concerning auto theft surfaced.45 Unlike Toby Halicki’s 1974 original, this remake contains significant elements of violence, perhaps even violence for violence sake. The most significant theme of the film contrasts the practical wisdom of the organized professional to the impulsiveness of the young amateur. At the beginning of the film, a gang of young thieves led by Kip Raines (Giovanni Ribisi) steals a Porsche 911 by throwing a brick through a dealer showroom window, opening the key box, and crashing through the showroom glass. Somewhat miraculously, not a scratch appears on the stolen car. A foolish flirtation puts the trio in the sights of the law, and they are followed back to the hideout where they elude capture, but also lose the cars they have stolen. Afterwards, these young men are described by one seasoned professional as “little boys in nursery school.” And while the inexperienced young men play a part in the redemptive boosts that follow, lapses in judgment will ultimately reduce them to having their “decision-making processes taken away from them.” Kip’s failure leads to the recruitment of his retired expert car thief brother, Memphis Raines (Nicholas Cage), who, along with former collaborators including Otto (James Duval) are forced by extortion to steal 50 high end vehicles in four days, with South America as the ultimate destination. These retired pros are now doing things like teaching kids karting, restoring cars rather than chopping them, and teaching Asian women how to drive. Perhaps their routine lives are a reflection of more difficult times for the car thief during the last two decades of the twentieth century, the consequence of new deterrent technologies and enforcement procedures.
            In the process of boosting these cars, the viewer learns of a host of high- and low-tech techniques used by organized professional car thieves, varying from Slim Jims and slide-hammers to computers and electronic frequency detectors. One recent technology introduced by manufacturers deters even the best of these thieves--laser cut keys featured on new Mercedes. Laser keys, by the way, are not cut by a laser, but rather by a high-speed titanium bit. It consequently takes the clever ruse of stealing the cars from a police impound to get around this seemingly insurmountable technological barrier. Yet a decade later, defeating a laser cut key is as simple as watching a YouTube video and owning a blank, clay, calipers, a key cutting apparatus and a Dremel tool!46
            All ends well by the film’s conclusion, as Memphis finally making peace with his so-called “unicorn,” a gold 1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500. Cage, who attended several driving schools and did his own driving stunts in the film, is featured in one of the most memorable of all chase scenes toward the conclusion of the film. And his former lover, girlfriend, and female auto thief Sara “Sway” Wayland (Angelina Jolie) adds a feminine touch to what is generally recognized as a masculine criminal activity. Indeed, it is curious to note that the targeted cars are given women’s names--supposedly as code words for the thieves who communicate via radio. Among the fifty “ladies” are the following: 1962 Aston Martin (Barbara); 1964 Bentley Continental (Alma); 1953 Corvette (Pamela); 1969 Dodge Daytona (Vanessa); 1957 Ford Thunderbird (Susan); 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLGullwing (Dorothy); 1950 Mercury Custom (Gabriella); 1961 Porsche Speedster (Natalie); and of course the film’s star, the 1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500 (Eleanor).
            Despite the superficiality of Gone in Sixty Seconds, the film contains some deeper insights, especially when it comes to exploring the motives of a professional car thief. As Sway states while discussing her life working two honest jobs, “I have discovered you have to work twice as hard when it’s honest.” But stealing cars is more than just making easy money. Memphis explains it this way: “I did it for the cars . . . begging to be plucked. I’d blast to Palm Springs, instantly feeling better about myself.” And in driving, Memphis related to his younger brother who lacks these sensibilities, that “the car is you, you are the car.”

            Finally, Chop Shop, a 2007 independent film co-written, edited and directed by Ramin Bahraim, depicts a very different view of contemporary auto thievery, this time from the vantage point of a 12 year old street orphan and accomplice.47 Alejandro, or Ale, played by Alejandro Polanco, and his sixteen year old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), live in the office of a Queens, New York body shop, eking out a living any which way they can. During the day, Ale helps around the shop, putting on side mirrors, buffing hoods, sanding and repairing bumpers, directing traffic into the shop, sweeping up, and finally locking up at the end of the day. Always hustling, always looking for money, when Ale takes breaks, he scavenges for parts or steals hub caps from an airport parking lot. At night, he helps chop a stolen car, dismantling a trunk lid and then carrying it away. In his harsh world of abuse and survival, Ale is nothing more than a victim in a society that has little compassion. At the bottom of the car theft social pyramid, children like Ale do what they have to do to survive as best they can, and are exploited at every turn.

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