This blog will expand on themes and topics first mentioned in my book, "The Automobile and American Life." I hope to comment on recent developments in the automobile industry, reviews of my readings on the history of the automobile, drafts of my new work, contributions from friends, descriptions of the museums and car shows I attend and anything else relevant to those interested in automobiles and auto history. Copyright 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 , 2016, 2017, by the author.
Message: Greetings! This notice is an initial contact inviting you and/or your organization to participate in the inaugural Automobile Film Festival in Toledo, Ohio. The festival will be held in the spring of 2015 and will feature special automobile-related events associated with the films. An academic conference, in conjunction with the festival, will also be held; this conference will address automobiles and their effect on society, especially through the medium of motion pictures. This project is a direct effort of Destination Toledo and a select group of individuals interested in the development of a special events film festival for the region. This project began solely as an academic effort and has been expanded to include the aforementioned film festival and other relevant special events to enhance the experience. The entire experience will be an exploration of cars and their influence on society. An initial feasibility study and operational plan have been developed under the direction of the academic partners involved, which include both Bowling Green State University and Northwestern Michigan College. A special non-profit organization will be formed to administer the film festival as funding is obtained. The film festival, itself, will be directed with the cooperation of Destination Toledo and the academic representatives who have developed and nurtured the idea from the beginning. The inaugural academic conference will focus on film because it is an instrumental popular medium that tends to romanticize the automobile. There is desperate need for research outlets regarding the socio-cultural and/or psychological aspects of automobiles in order to develop a body of theory. The automobile industry is significant â�� an industry that has grown around individual and societal needs and has a major effect upon our global economy. Automobiles are engrained in our shared mindset and have a profound influence on the societal and cultural elements of civilization. The primary objective of this conference is to develop a high quality/high visibility event that will encourage an interdisciplinary approach to how ideas might be explored and exchanged. An academic journal will be published from the original research presented at the conference for the benefit of scholars, policymakers, and practitioners. This journal will cover all manner of vehicles including cars, trucks, iconic makes and models, race cars, and the like. The conference will be a bridge across several academic disciplines. This bridge will help develop a more focused approach to research without the influence of the parent sciences. A new body of scholarly literature will enhance the uniqueness of the automobilesâ��/motorsportsâ�� discipline. Right now, most submissions to journals define themselves in terms of their associated parent sciences. This proposed new journal will help widen the perspective of submissions and focus specifically on newly-emerging paradigms. There is a distinct possibility that this new journal will be forced to develop academic credibility, and this may prove to be a struggle. Therefore, the emphasis will be on quality presentations that could find a home in any scholarly journal. This is a formal invitation for you and/or your organization to become involved in this project as you have information that is very important to the development of an active research community. We are looking for cooperators who might build bridges across research databases to further the understanding about automobiles and their influence on society, as well as on their importance to individuals. Your involvement is essential to the success of this project. Please submit abstracts for review and/or possible session topics. Even though the primary topic is film, other important issues will also be developed during the academic conference. If you are not interested, please share this announcement with your colleagues. If you know of a person or group that may be interested, please forward the contact to us and we will send them an invitation of their own. Many thanks for your time and attention. We look forward to hearing from you and hope you will consider getting involved with this unique and exciting opportunity. Send all correspondence to Dr. Mark Howell. Dr. Mark D. Howell Professor of Communications Northwestern Michigan College & Ferris State University SH 214 F 1701 East Front Street Traverse City, Michigan 49686(231) firstname.lastname@example.org Dr. David Groves Professor Emeritus Eppler North Bowling Green State University Bowling Green, Ohio email@example.com
This year, the Worldheritage Tourism Expo (WTE), an international event devoted to the promotion of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, will host the first international conference on „Motoring and Heritage". The event (see general details on http://www.worldheritagetourismexpo.com) is taking place in Padova, Italy on September 19-21.
Central aim of this conference is to built bridges between the world of cultural heritage and the community of historic vehicle enthusiasts and to start a fruitful, sustainable dialogue. Supported by an international board of professional from both fields, this years’s subjects will be:
- Motorism as an important part of our cultural heritage
- UNESCO and motoring: examples of designations
- Recent developments in historic vehicle restoration
- The role of the private collectors for the preservation of historic vehicles
- The role of the museums for the preservation of historic vehicles
- The role of events for the preservation of historic vehicles
- The role of training for the preservation of historic vehicles
Freedom: Auto Theft and Autonomous Individualism in American Film
Uhlman and John Heitmann
the closing scenes of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino the stories of one man’s personal redemption and
another’s dream of achieving independent manhood came together in two life
defining moments: one of self-sacrifice, and the other, a rite of passage into
manhood. Confronting a gang that had terrorized his adopted family of immigrant
Hmong neighbors, the cantankerous Polish-American autoworker and Korean War
vet, Walt, goaded the thugs into murdering him before witnesses, thereby saving
the community. By dying Walt spared the life and innocence of Thao, the
neighbor boy intent on exacting revenge for the rape of his sister by the gang.
For Walt, his act eased the haunting memory of his killing of an enemy prisoner
in Korea, a boy not unlike Thao. As the story unfolded, his young Hmong
neighbor was his chance at redemption, if, as Walt described it, he could
manage “to man [Thao] up a bit.” Thao, whom Walt guided in the previous months
into self-respecting appreciation of hard work, independence of mind, and
success with the ladies, was last seen at the close of the film driving Walt’s
beloved Gran Torino toward what must be presumed to be a future life of
dignified manhood. This story of heroic manly self-sacrifice and of a young
man’s coming of age took place in the “motor city”—Detroit, Michigan. And it
began with Thao’s attempted theft of Walt’s Gran Torino.
the real world today auto theft is usually about gangs, drugs and money
(Heitmann and Morales 5). However, since 1945 the visual representation of auto
theft in film has had more to do with the symbolic meaning cars and the act of
driving held in American culture. In the early twentieth century the automobile
and the act of driving became associated with many of the classic qualities of
American identity (March and Collette 107). The roots of that expectation
stretched back even further to the role that movement played in the colonization
of the continent. The unrestrained capacity to move became equated early in the
American cultural imagination with personal reinvention and self-determination
(Feldman 13-19). Those who could control their own movement were deemed
self-sufficient, independent agents. Thus the capacity of movement became
linked to political economy.
Indeed, mobility came to stand for liberty itself. But as in early America the
capacity to move freely was frequently denied to those not white or male. The
lack of mobility marked African-American slaves and women as unfit for
individual liberty and incapable of sovereign selfhood. The American vision of
the mobile, liberal individual was both raced and gendered (Cresswell 147-174).
attitudes towards the automobile were influenced by this tradition (Flink 132).
In the decades after its introduction the automobile and the act of driving
increasingly served as an arch-signifier of the autonomous self-determining
subject—coded white and male—at the heart of American individualism. (Jackson
157-158). Indeed, the importance of the automobile and the act of driving was
magnified because as the historian Cotton Seiler argued in Republic of Drivers both became “the crucial compensation for
apparent losses to the autonomy, privacy, and agency registered by workers
under the transition to corporate capitalism” (Seiler 13). Depictions of cars
in films after 1945 suggest that this relationship crystallized over time.
reverence for the Gran Torino highlighted its symbolic importance to him. The
aggressive sloping posture, aggressive headlight design, muscular engine,
agility, and distinctive appearance of Walt’s Gran Torino provided him with a
sense of mastery and freedom that psychologically counterbalanced the liberty
he had lost working on an assembly line. But this link of consumption,
automobility, and independence faced significant threats as women and people of
color have taken to the wheel (Scharff 112-116, 170-171).Over the last sixty years the empowerment of
youth, women, and minorities, many of whom increasingly became motorists,
altered the social context associated with driving as a symbol of white, male
self-determination (Clark 175, Heitmann, 202-6).Simultaneously, since the 1970s,
deindustrialization and relative declining economic fortunes of laborers has
also strained the link between driving and autonomous individuality. Again, the
film Gran Torino threw all of this
into relief. In it Walt stood as a symbol of virtuous (if not pure), white,
male, working class. Yet he was also depicted as a widowed, aging, embattled
figure, whose prime has passed. Significantly, Walt now never drove his Gran
Torino. The post-war America of Walt’s memories has given way to gender
confusion, multi-ethnicity, rebellious youths, unemployment and mindless
consumption. One sign of the disorder was the way the Hmong gang had become
masters of local roads as they drove menacingly around the neighborhood. The
decay was underscored through the lives of Walt’s children and grandchildren
who the film depicted as having physical and moral retreated into suburban
was in this context of the historical transformation of the United States since
World War II, so well encapsulated in Walt’s life, that the representational
significance of auto theft in film took shape. Because of the strong connection
between automobility and independence, the act of auto theft became the means
by which to symbolically capture popular concerns surrounding personal liberty.
For example, the act of auto theft threatened the sense of self-determination
embodied in automobility. Then again the thief’s identity could challenge race,
gender, or class-based power structures because the thief became the fulcrum
between legitimate and illegitimate automobility. Finally, the increasingly
indiscriminate quality of automobility raised doubts about its usefulness as a
healthy measure of autonomous individuality[JH1].
example of this cultural linkage was the way the auto thief motif in film
frequently engaged the attendant anxieties surrounding the threat to white,
masculine social authority and its special symbolic connection to automobility.
Another was the way the car thief and his/her stolen automobility sometimes
served to express the claim of the young, of women, and of people of color to
social rights denied them. Indeed, since the later 1960s the car thief has
largely evolved into a sympathetic figure whose actions reflected an attempt to
gain or regain autonomous independence denied by oppressive forces. However, in
a reactionary fashion, since the 1970s this figure of noble auto-thief rebel
has more often been reserved for the “dispossessed” mature, white male.
the cultural mediation that auto theft imagery performed was not simply
representational. The attempt by some of these films to reconcile the various
expectations associated with the imagery of auto theft and automobility into a
satisfying conclusion for audiences, frequently performed the cultural work
assigned to myth by Claude Levi-Strauss in Structural
Anthropology, namely: tempering cultural contradictions present in a
society dialectically by providing an analogous but more easily resolved
contradiction. In this case the contradictory expectations versus realities of
individual autonomy in post-war America, were supplanted in such films by the
more easily resolved analogue between the auto thief and legitimate
Hide the Keys: The Unfit Driver
Film portrayals of auto theft in the
decades immediately after World War II highlighted a latent apprehension that
often accompanied the association of authority with automobility in a consumer
society in which access to car ownership was on the rise (Packer 27-76). One
source of concern was young automobility. Another was the suspicion that the
emergence of car crime by young drivers signaled a weakness in the virtue of
the traditional master of mobility, the American male.
education films released after the war focused on the dangers of “joy riding”
youths whose premature access to automobility seemed to present a challenge to
the association of automobile ownership as a legitimate symbol of liberty and
responsible citizenship. Described within the justice system and insurance
industry literature as crimes of opportunity and mischievousness, the
joy-riding auto thief emerged alongside other figures of juvenile delinquency: the
hot-rodder, motorbike hooligan, and “greaser” boy (Gilbert 63-78). An early
version of the troubled teenage joy rider was featured in the 1940 short Boy in Court that follows a young man
through the consequences of his decision to enjoy himself by stealing a car.
Similarly, the 1955 short Teenagers on
Trial told the story of what happened when a delinquent youth stole a car
and hit the town’s beloved police officer. More tragedy followed in the 1956
film Car Theft when three youths
spontaneously decided to steal a parked car that had the keys left in the
ignition and run from pursuing police. Educational film impresario Sid Davis’
1961 Moment of Decision reprised the
same situation. Here the viewer listened to the internal thoughts of four young
men whose desire for freedom led them to joy ride.
the underlying message in each of these films centered upon the negligence of
adults. The stolen cars were linked to the growing opportunity of the young to
indulge in pleasures they were not yet responsible enough to undertake. These
films also suggested that the problems of these wayward youths was a
result of temptations society presented, and the inability of overworked or
self-interested parents, especially their fathers, to tend to their children’s
development. Indeed “to a
greater or lesser degree we are all products of our environment," declared
the narrator in Moment of Decision as the films detailed the
failure of each of the boys’ parents.
In that film it was only the boy whose attentive father taught self-discipline
and personal responsibility that managed to avoid the mistake of joy riding.
the public service films above, Hollywood feature-length films of the 1950s,
such as the sensationalist The Young and
the Wild (1958), often situated the act of car theft within the emerging fear
of juvenile delinquency (Gilbert 178-195). The most complex and penetrating of these
films explored adult fears that they were partly to blame for the emerging
problem. Films such as Quicksand
(1950) and Rebel without a Cause
(1955) suggested that men were losing the willpower to behave responsibly, and
thus were forfeiting the capacity to direct their fate. These films implied
that the pursuit of consumer desires, the pressures of social conformity, and
the assertiveness of women were weakening the masculine virtues of responsible
self-sufficiency and independence of mind needed to be a truly autonomous
self-directed individual. The young men in Rebel
without a Cause were so desperate they sought prematurely to claim the
masculine capacity of self-determination. One of the ways they did that was
through the acts of auto theft and contests of driving skill. Though
unseen in the film, the auto thefts functioned as catalysts to the tragic
events that follow: the stolen
cars were used by the two central characters, Buzz Gunderson (Corey Allen) and Jim Stark
(James Dean), in their "race to the edge." As in the public service films, the
stolen cars and game of chicken reflected the young men’s unruly grasp at an
adult world of responsibility they are incapable of managing (Slocum 7). At the
center of Jim’s confusion was the wavering manly self-sufficiency of his
father: a henpecked, and irresolute man. Without the guidance he begged his
father to provide, Jim faced alone a world of increasing confusion and
dangerously premature opportunities (Kimmel 243-249). Jim, like many other
young male characters in films at this time, was independent of spirit, but
confused by an increasing sense of dependency.The result was rebellion and auto theft.
Birth of the Auto-Theft Rebel
the post-war era many Americans had begun equating youth with rebellion (Hale
13-48). By the end of the 1960s both had become firmly connected to images of
automobility and the road. Building upon the implications evident in Rebel without a Cause, the auto thief
was reconfigured at this time into a heroic rebel against social oppression. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), about the lives
of the infamous 1930s bank robbing duo, inaugurated the transformation of auto
theft in film from a sub textual expression of a delinquent grasp for autonomy
into a gradually more overt use of auto theft imagery as a reaffirming act of
reclaiming lost selfhood. Along with other era defining films of automobility
such as Bullit (1968), Vanishing Point (1971), and Badlands (1973) this story of mobile criminality
captured the complex generational response to the bankruptcy of post-war
American culture (Harris 370). Lurking beneath the evident pleasures that
audiences had watching Bonne and Clyde steal cars, rob banks, outshoot and
evade law enforcement, was a deep disgust and distrust of institutional
authority. The Great Depression was a period in the history of the United
States when economic and political leaders had failed.As it was depicted in the film, the nation’s
financial institutions and law enforcement were running roughshod over the
average man, robbing them of their rightful power of self-determination. By
attacking authority, Bonnie and Clyde appeared the friends of everyday people.
“The fact is when Bonnie and Clyde were killed, they were regarded as enormous
folk heroes,” declared the film’s director Arthur Penn (Penn 21-22). Time magazine concluded that “it is a
measure of the movie’s excellence that it has transformed those unlikely,
unlikable criminals into the leading characters of an epic folk opera”
(“Low-down Hoedown,” 1967). Many viewers of the film in the late 1960s believed
the nation’s leaders had again failed (Cook 11-37). The depiction of Bonnie and
Clyde’s private war against authority in the 1930s satisfied the audiences wish
to rebel and take back control over their lives (Murray 237-56). Auto theft was
one of the key ways that the film depicted Bonnie and Clyde regaining their
powers of self-determination.
opening scene was one of voyeuristic anticipation. Clyde (Warren Beatty)
hesitantly prepared to steal a car. Bonnie (Faye Dunaway), watching from within
her bedroom, observed a handsome young man suspiciously lingering around her
grandmother’s automobile. It was evident her curiosity stemmed from the
banality of her life. Confined in domestic imprisonment, she gazed out to
freedom. Indeed, one of the innovations in this film was its connection of
automobility with female desire and dreams of autonomy (Mills 137-138). As the
scholar of road movies David Laderman pointed out the opening scene
“foreshadows the film’s association of freedom with the road and stolen cars”
(Laderman 50).Soon after, the two
commit their first robbery together and escape by stealing a car to the
accompaniment of the rousing banjo classic “Foggie Bottom Breakdown.” Repeated
acts of stolen mobility followed and each conveyed the thrilling recapture of
control over one’s life.
reasons for stealing cars were rooted in masculine frustrations that complimented
Bonnie’s longings. Clyde’s volatile combination of diffidence and rashness were
expressive of suppressed manhood, a condition embodied in Clyde’s sexual
impotence. Bonnie’s assertive sexuality repeatedly spurred him into substitute
actions of auto theft, bank robbery, gunplay, and stolen mobility. His
manliness has, in effect, been diverted into a bold usurpation and defiance of
authority using cars and guns.
these themes of restoration of selfhood were undercut as the film progressed. Like
many of the films of the New American Cinema movement, Bonnie and Clyde demonstrated a reflexivity that brought into
question symbols conventionally used by Hollywood. In this case the film
introduced a “disenchantment with mobility” (Laderman 53). Midway through the
film a darker mood of futility and inevitable doom surfaced and foreshadowed a bloody
climax. In the end, viewing the bullet-riddled car, the audience was left
feeling that Bonnie and Clyde’s freedom had been a transitory illusion. Societal
constraints had prevailed over individual agency.
Bonnie and Clyde reflected the
emerging concerns in the latter half of the 1960s regarding the degree to which
large-scale forces of mass society inhibited freedom, then events in the
decades after 1970 intensified these fears among many Americans. The post-war economic
boom ended. With that the social contract between management and workers forged
during the Depression and World War II began to dissolve. After this the number
of visual representations of auto theft exploded as more people felt
disempowered. While the conclusion of Bonnie
and Clyde might communicate the futility of individual resistance, it also
casts the auto thief as a freedom fighter (Gitlin 200). This transfiguration
was part of the wider crystallization of “rebellion” as a commodity in which
the image of the rebel was sold as a surrogate for true liberty (Frank 74-87,
Gilbert 196-211). Ultimately, that conceit became a key reason the auto thief
attained cultural cache in the coming decades.
theme evident in film of the 1970s was the populist blue-collar celebration of auto
theft as a rebellious reclaiming of a lost working-class respectability. H.B.
"Toby" Halicki—the owner of a Los Angles junkyard—wrote, directed,
produced, and starred in the 1974 car theft cult classic Gone in Sixty Seconds. Halicki played the part of Maindrian Pace, a
respected insurance investigator and owner of Chase Research by day. At night
and in and around parking lots, streets, chop shop, and dealerships, however,
Pace was the head of a highly organized car theft ring.
Los Angeles Times backhandedly
referred to Gone in Sixty Seconds as
a “genuine primitive work of art” that had the feel of a “well handled documentary.”Despite the films problems, Halicki had
indeed “found exploitable art in his own backyard” by his emphasis upon
blue-collar comradeship, skills and work ethic (Tuckman, 1974). Rather than
descend into lawlessness, the working-class men of this film were depicted as
retrieving their lost independence through an orderly, hard working but ethical
criminality. The thieves espoused a working-class ethos of skilled, almost
artisanal, labor. The virtuous nature of that ethic was exemplified in their
refusal to steal cars that were uninsured. Like Bonnie and Clyde, the men of Gone in Sixty Seconds only stole from
oppressive big businesses. The auto thieves were heroes and the bad guys' the faceless
bureaucracies and moneyed classes of the emerging post-industrial economy. At
the same time, the juxtaposition of Pace’s daytime “fake” job as an insurance
investigator and nighttime “real” labor, served to mock dependent white collar
corporate manhood (Kimmel 223-258). These sophistries permitted the car thief
to be acclaimed a “real man” and a populist hero whose theft of mobility might
satisfy the audience’s wish for rebellion and self-determination.
“Sticking it to the Man”: Representations
of Female and Black Auto Thieves
the subsequent decades the motif of the auto-thief rebel emerged in a number of
films that explored the struggle of women and people of color to attain a
measure of autonomy. One of the first of these was the 1971 dark comedy Harold and Maude. Harold (Bud Cort) was
the young morbidly eccentric scion of a wealthy family who spent his time
staging elaborate suicides and visiting funerals of complete strangers in his hearse.
At one of these funerals he met Maude (Ruth Gordon), a seventy-nine year old
carefree holocaust survivor who also spent her days at funerals. Maud liked to
steal cars whenever she needed a ride. Maude's penchant for stealing cars
expressed her determination to live her life on her own terms. Her carefree
enthusiasm and joy for life revitalized Harold. After she committed suicide,
again having chosen to determine her own fate, we last see Harold walking away
from the edge of a cliff off which he had just driven his hearse. In this film
it was someone else’s bold theft of cars that led to Harold’s salvation. For
him, the destruction of his own car signaled the shedding of his predilection
for death and the beginning of a new life.
most explicit example in film of a woman’s attempt to achieve independence by
stealing cars was Stockard Channing’s heroine in the 1976 movie Dandy: the all American Girl (also
released as Sweet Revenge). Channing
played a young, steely, and clever auto thief named Vurria, who cannot be tamed
by either the police or the love of the district attorney (Sam Waterston).
Through the Waterston character the film equated institutional authority with
paternalism and depicted both as enemies to women’s freedom. Vurria’s quest was
to steal enough cars to legitimately buy a Ferrari. The endeavor was rich in
implication. If Vurria’s goal was simply to possess a Ferrari her approach was
absurd: why not simply steal the Ferrari? But it made sense if her legal
ownership of the Ferrari was meant to signify her legitimate right to
self-determination.Auto theft was
simply the means that the circumstance of discrimination left open to her to
only true friend in the film was Edmund, a black male played by Franklyn Ajaye,
who was able to relate to Vurria’s disempowerment and social oppression. But
Edmund died helping Vurria achieve her aim. His death altered Vurria’s belief
that automobility equaled freedom, and having escaped the police, she drove all
night, and burned the Ferrari—her American dream—at dawn.The act communicated her disillusionment. It
also signaled that a new day in her life had begun.
death in Dandy: the all American Girl
was not surprising because black male automobility in American history has also
been perceived as a threat to the ideology of white, male social dominance
(Franz 132). Because of that, black automobility had frequently been negatively
depicted in popular culture but celebrated by American Americans (Packer
190-195). It was not until the mid-1990s that Menace II Society (1993) and Spike Lee's New Jersey Drive (1994) explored the topic of black auto theft and
attempted to do for the black, male rebel what the above films sought to
achieve for women (Massood 162-174).
New Jersey Drive viewers were
introduced to car thief Jason Petty (Sharron Corley), one of a large group of
aimless young African Americans who stole cars in Newark, New Jersey, “the car
theft capital of America." At first they did it to "put on a
show," in time, however, they began to make money selling what they stole
to chop shops. In this film Lee was self-consciously playing upon the historic
association of automobility with whiteness and the way that the relative
absence of mobility served as a marker of the black man's subaltern status. In
fact, the film exposed the implicit racism lurking within American ideas of
automobility. Lee highlighted white repression of black automobility by pitting
the thieves against an all white, racist, auto theft police squad that
brutalized the young men at every opportunity. Nevertheless, although these
black men faced lives of hopelessness, despair, and racism, by stealing cars they
built comradeship and a sense of dignity. Just as the scholar Paul Gilroy
described when discussing the strong interest in automobility within
African-American culture, in the characters of this film it was possible to see
how the “histories of confinement and coerced labour must have given them
additional receptivity to the pleasures of auto-autonomy as a means of escape,
transcendence and perhaps even resistance” (Gilroy 84). In the end however, the
bonds the men created disintegrated under the relentless pressures of the
social forces. Here Lee made clear the illicit attainment of automobility only
fostered the illusion of liberation, empowerment and self-worth. Gilroy feared
this as well: while it was perhaps the case that the preoccupation with
automobility in African-American culture “may on some level be gesturing their
anti-discipline to power,” it may also be true that it did so “even as the
whirlpool of consumerism sucks them in” (Gilroy 98).
is significant that Harold and Maude,
Dandy: the all American Girl, and New Jersey Drive did not do particularly
well with broader movie audiences. As the New
York Times reviewer observed of Dandy:
the all American Girl: “it's easy to understand why [the film] failed to
find an audience. It seems unsure of itself. It wants to sympathize with the
ambitious, disturbed, inarticulate heroine but can't make her appear to be sympathetic”
(Canby, 1981). Perhaps what appeared to be the “uncertainty” in this film may
lay more in the difficulty some viewers had in understanding the characters'
social perspective. To those who revered automobility burning a Ferrari was
“disturbed.” Perhaps what put-off people was the implication that the
democratic promise embodied in automobility—and thus of America—was denied to
some. Or perhaps the lack of sympathy was simply rooted in sexism and racism.
Whatever the reason, these films were part of a sub-genre of auto theft films
that included Breathless (1983) and Crash (2004), which approached the
promise of automobility, and the capacity to attain virtuous individual
self-realization, with suspicion.
White Comic Auto Theft in B-Films
these prejudices regarding automobility in mind, we can turn back to the
historical depiction of auto theft in films and begin to see why it was that
B-films featuring depictions of car theft by working-class, white males became
popular at the box office beginning in the 1970s (Nystrom 21-58). The
popularity of these films was rooted in two developments. First, it resulted
from the converging pressures on white, male, working-class Americans caused by
the end of the post-war economic boom (Cowie 126-135, 236-247). While jobs were
disappearing, white men also found themselves in an intensifying competition
with female and minority workers as never before. The second development was the
declining respect for authority triggered by the Counterculture, the Vietnam
War, and the Watergate scandal, but worsened by the backlash of some white
working-class men against government. These men perceived government support
for the civil liberties of minorities and women to be an attack upon them
(Edsall and Edsall 137-153). By the mid-1970s the rebellious
anti-authoritarianism of auto theft made it appealing to white males who felt
betrayed by the society. Most of these films were low budget affairs and part
of the white rebel exploitation cinema of the day (Mills 148-150). Much of it
was aimed at rural, drive-in theater audiences in the South and Midwest. The
most successful of these films combined car-theft motifs with comic
elements.The farcical elements may have
deflected the audience's growing suspicions toward the naïve association of
automobility with authentic freedom thus permitting the older myth to function
without being overtly challenged.
1976, B-film entrepreneur Roger Corman produced the hit film Eat my Dust! starring Ron Howard (Corman
209). Howard’s character, the teenager Hoover Niebold, was small-town, “white-trash”
who took a chance by asking the local beauty out for a date only to have her
demand he steal a car (Von Doviack 121). The theft led to a series of
hair-raising car chases but also transformed Hoover’s life for the better. Howard’s own
film, Grand Theft Auto, released a
year later, centered on two young lovers bent upon getting married, Sam Freeman
(Ron Howard) and Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan). Paula, the daughter of wealthy
gubernatorial candidate Bigby Powers, was a headstrong and independent young
woman determined to marry Sam, rather than the wealthy prig planned for her. In
one comic scene after another the characters "borrowed" the cars of
others to suit their immediate convenience. Even a policeman stole, when he
commandeered a bus filled with senior citizens. The message: stealing a car was
a harmless, good-hearted rebellion against authority. But it was also a means
to attain self-fulfillment, equated here with money, women, and status.
Corvette Summer: A Fiberglass Romance
(1978) followed along similar lines. This movie made more explicit the equation
of cars with women and driving with manhood. As the trailer declared, “it’s the
girl, the car, and the time that separate the men from the boys.” Corvette Summer starred Mark Hamill as
Kenny Dartley whose high school shop class, led by Kenny, restored a wrecked
Corvette Stingray. The sharked-nosed, candy apple vehicle with flames painted
on the hood, served as a projection of Kenny’s sense of his own personal
distinctiveness. Kenny’s shop teacher, Mr. McGrath, cautioned his students not
to get too involved with the car. Automobiles, he warned, "always let you
down.” The phrase, often reserved for snide, male observation about women,
foreshadowed coming events. Sure enough, during a night of celebration at a
local cruise-in, the car was stolen. While authorities were resigned to the
loss, Kenny’s identification with the car made it impossible for him to let it
go, and consequently he began an odyssey in search of it that eventually took him
to Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, he discovered not only his car, but that Mr.
McGrath was a member of the stolen car ring. He stole the car back, but rather
than keep it, he returned it to the high school.
Kenny’s decision requires making sense of the parallel significance for Kenny
of the car and the woman he met on his journey to Las Vegas. On the road Kenny
encountered Vanessa (Annie Potts), a want-to-be hooker who drove a customized
love-van. At first, Kenny resisted Vanessa's come-ons, preferring the love of
his car to that of a young woman. Yet Vanessa was as unique as the car Kenny
loved. Vanessa’s sexuality and thinness made her as enticing and as angular as
the shark-nosed vehicle he has lost. Indeed they served as two different but
strangely overlapping objects of desire. This parallel was highlighted by
Vanessa’s customized love-van where the acts of love and mobility came
together. At the end, having become a man, Kenny came to his senses and
realized that the girl was more important than the car. Vanessa, too, saw that
true love was better than making love for money.
The conclusion of Corvette Summer pointed to the reflexive
trend evident in Bonnie and Clyde that
ultimately gained ground in future auto-theft films. Namely, the symbolic link
between life and automobility became superseded by suspicion. While films continued
to loosely compare cars, personal autonomy, and manhood, with increasing
frequency many drew at least a nominal distinction between automobility and
true manly independence.
Shiny Cars and Empty Men
depictions of auto theft in the 1980s gave credence to the view that movies
from that decade were characterized by an earnest effort to revitalize the
masculine ideals of autonomous selfhood and social authority (Jeffords 24-63,
Martin 77-78). The comedic auto-thief hero, still evident in films like Risky Business (1983) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), was
joined by more serious explorations into auto-theft masculinity. Films such as No Man’s Land (1987) and Rain Man (1988) did not offer the viewer
a simple retread of 1950s fear over masculine decline. Rather they combined the
1960s suspicions of the equation of cars and true manhood with a cleverly
indirect pro-American, blue-collar populism by channeling that skepticism
towards foreign luxury vehicles (Kimmel 280-289). In the 1980s foreign-built
luxury performance cars began to rival the hold of the classic American muscle
cars in the nation’s cultural imagination. Both films equated flamboyantly
expensive foreign cars with a shallowly materialistic and merely per formative
manliness identified with the yuppie middle class. The films revolved around
male entrepreneurs who sold such cars to make money and prove their manhood. At
the same time, however, these films merged the 1960s link between automobility
and self-discovery with the older ideal of rugged manhood. In effect, both films
deftly presented hypertrophic imagery of heroic masculinity while at the same
time blunting the absurdity of such narcissistic self-inflation by posing as
penchant for the subject of auto theft resurfaced a decade after the release of
Grand Theft Auto in his role as the
director of No Man's Land (1987).Charlie Sheen played Ted Varrick, a cocky rich
kid turned master auto thief and ringleader. Born to wealth, Varrick has set out to build his own
fortune and self-esteem through the nefarious but lucrative business of
stealing cars. Varrick’s business focused upon Porsches and ripping-off
insurance companies and he ran the operation like a high-flying amoral CEO,
luxuriating in all the sensual perks available to the affluent. Roger Ebert
sensed a “moral question” at the center of the film: why was it that those who
“don’t need to steal and kill” do so anyway (Ebert, 1987). Ebert suspected an
addiction to risk. Perhaps Varrick longed for something that money could not
buy but stealing a car could give.
foil to the alluring but soulless Varrick came in the form of D. B. Sweeney, who was cast as the working-class,
undercover, rookie cop, Benjy. Benjy, a self-taught grease monkey, was able to
assume the identity of mechanic Bill Ayles in order to take Varrick down. The
attractions of a fast life surrounded by sleek cars and sleek women proved
beguiling to Benjy, and for a time his allegiances became unclear. But in the
end Benjy’s blue-color, commonsense led him to reject Varrick’s materialism and
unquenchable ambitions. As the New York
Times critic Caryn James intimated in her review, in the figure of the auto
thief the film wallowed in the sensationalist fantasies of Reagan era
masculinity—aggressive entrepreneurialism and hedonistic irresponsible
materialism—while siding, half heartedly, with the wholesome traditional manly
virtues of self-sacrifice, self-denial, and honest labor (James, 1987).
year later Rain Man engaged similar
themes. Tom Cruise played Charlie Babbitt, a superficial, slick, hard driving,
but quasi-legitimate importer of luxury performance automobiles. Caught in the
middle of a financial crisis involving four grey-market Lamborghinis, Charlie
seemed poised to either attain the success he desperately craved or lose his
shirt. Scenes between Charlie and his loving girlfriend revealed he was boorish
and emotionally dysfunctional. The story thickened with news of his father’s
death in Cincinnati. Returning home, the secrets of Charlie’s past began to
come to light. We learned that the source of his troubled personality lay in
his youthful theft of this father’s classic 1949 Road Master convertible. That
joy ride, prompted by paternal callousness, shaped the rest of his life. Angered
at his father, Charlie ran away and in the intervening years he worked hard to
prove he was his father’s equal. Not surprisingly, given the nature of their
conflict, he sought to achieve it in the automobile business.
here the story took another turn. Charlie learned the estate was left to
Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), an autistic brother he never knew he had. Hoping to
squeeze half the money out of the executor, Charlie kidnapped Raymond. Forced
by the peculiarity of his brother’s conditions to drive cross-country to
California in the Road Master, Charlie was inadvertently put on the road to a
deeper level of self-discovery. During the journey we learned that the
callousness of Charlie’s father was the result of the role Charlie played in
Raymond’s institutionalization: Raymond accidently injured Charlie by scalding
him. As Charlie rediscovered a love for his brother and a need for responsibility,
the audience realized that his previous attempt to achieve autonomous manliness
by selling status vehicles had been doomed to failure. His salvation rested in
a return to the classic, straight-eight, American car he once stole, and the
moral solidity of emotional commitment it signified. At the end of their
journey, Charlie decided he must put Raymond’s needs before his own. His
assumption of manly responsibility reconciled him with his girlfriend and ostensibly
placed him on the road to a happy future.
Vintage Vehicles and the Longing for Lost
we see in the above films, the use of the car and driving to express positive
realization of autonomous manhood remained a powerful motif in American visual
culture at the end of the twentieth century. However there were two notable
developments. One was the rise of a subtler, more nuanced equation of auto
theft with autonomous individuality. The second was the evolution of a
nostalgic automobility that equated classic vehicles with individual
independence, leading to the treatment of vintage cars as fetish objects.
Elements of the celebration of vintage American cars were clearly evident in
some of the films already discussed, for example, the role of a classic Road Master
convertible in Rain Man. The powerful
totemic quality of the vintage Buick Road Master became evident when
contemplated in light of the significance it had in the symbolic life of the
Babbitt family. Driving the point home, the film associated the emptiness of
Charlie’s life before inheriting the Road Master with the new European
performance vehicles he sold to make money. The 2000 remake of Gone in 60 Seconds contained similar
The reimagining of the 1974 auto
theft classic focused more
clearly around the storyline of the auto-thief rebel, Memphis
Raines (Nicholas Cage), who was forced to reluctantly return to his masterful (if illegal)
talents at taking other peoples cars. Memphis was trying hard to be an honest
man. He and his former gang were teaching kids karate, restoring cars rather
than chopping them, and desperately attempting to teach Asian women to drive.
In the latter example, the stereotypical racial and gendered bias of the
humor—and sub-textual resentment—hinted at the film's target audience. The film
communicated that there was no manly dignity to be had in the bland,
unfulfilling and poor paying jobs that blue-collar men could command in
post-industrial America.As one
character put it, "I have discovered you have to work twice as hard when
Forced by circumstance, Memphis and
former collaborators must steal 50 high-end vehicles in four days. If successful he and his brother would no
longer be “owned” by the criminals to whom they were indebted. In effect,
Memphis’ plight was a version of the average under-employed and debt-ridden
American. By returning to stealing cars, he and his brother could be liberated.
But car theft had always given Memphis a sense of individual importance.
Explaining the allure to comrades, after a theft I “instantly feel better about
myself." Perhaps that was because he believed that by taking the car, he
freed himself. As he tells his brother "the car is you, you are the car.”
Here, unambiguously, the car represented the individuality of the thief.His capacity to steal cars and skillfully
elude capture was the basis of personal dignity. The theft of one car in
particular had unique significance for Memphis. Memphis’ dreamed of possessing his
"unicorn," a gold, 1967 Shelby Mustang GT 500 – again, a high-powered V8 from the last
mythical age of the American working class.
as in the remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds
the age of the car in Gran Torino was
significant. The Gran Torino, another celebrated car of the early 1970s, was
for Walt the last thing of loving importance he had in his life. His wife was
gone, and the rest of the family, like white America itself, was emotionally
distant, having fled to the suburbs and embraced an undignified life of smug
self-absorption. It was the Gran Torino that brought the various social groups
into collision with one another. “What the hell does everyone want with my Gran
Torino?” Walt asked during the film. Perhaps it was desired by those in the
present—from his flabby son and grasping granddaughter, to the irresponsible
immigrant youths who plagued his neighborhood—because the car signified the
mastery and the independence – the muscle -- they desperately wanted to
Conclusion: Gran Torino and the Resolution of Cultural Contradictions
end of this essay has taken us back to where we began, namely Clint Eastwood’s
2008 film Gran Torino. We are now in
a position to better grasp the cultural work that the imagery of auto theft
evolved to perform in the last sixty years of American visual culture. In the
films examined, auto theft representations had a great deal to do with shifting
expectations of legitimate and illegitimate automobility, hence the larger
issues of social authority and personal sovereignty. Indeed, much of the
dramatic force in many of these films revolved around contradictions between
the expectations and the realities of independence. The outcome of these films
presented audiences with a negotiated resolution to an underlying social issue.
Gran Torino provided a compelling
example. The expectations and realities of contemporary America, and the competing
ideological perspectives regarding it, were dissolved beneath a reaffirming
myth that the promise of American life was alive and well. That myth revolved
round a totemic automobile.
the outset of the film a dichotomy was established between an ideal and real
United States. Walt’s home and Gran Torino served as symbols of a halcyon
America in which people had enjoyed economic opportunity and promise of
dignified independence. But America had changed. His neighborhood lay blighted
by unemployment, decay, and a decline of the work ethic, personal restraint,
and civic responsibility among the people. This conservative depiction of America’s
recent decline was matched by a progressive critique of the nation’s dispirited
condition. Audiences witnessed that Walt’s attitudes had devolved into an
unproductive bitterness, distrust of others, and contemptuous racism.
Ideologies of individual self-interest and materialist ambition prevailed, but
they had not produced true happiness. After all, Walt’s withdrawal from the
community and his possession of the Gran Torino had not made him whole. The
Church offered only unsatisfactory platitudes. And the audience saw that the
grasping materialism of Walt’s biological family earned them nothing in the
end. For Thao too the realities of life in America seemed to hold out little
promise. He was a boy on the verge of an uncertain manhood because he did not
belong to the Hmong community of his father, and his chances of becoming an
active member in what remained of American civil society appeared remote. He
had few other options than to join the delinquent dead end sub-culture of his
male peers that seemed to thrive on the alienation and anger produced by the
realities of America’s broken dreams.
attempted theft arose out of these vexing contradictions of expectations and
reality. With Thao’s failed car theft Eastwood’s signaled his rejection of the
heroic rebel auto thief we have seen elsewhere. And yet the auto theft remained
the pivotal moment in the story: it was then that the principle characters and
society around them began the journey towards recovery. Walt and the audience
saw that the crime was motivated by coercion and a lack of self-esteem. Thao’s
behavior was desperate but understandable. Like the juvenile auto thieves of
the 1950s Thao’s attempted theft symbolically endangered Walt’s own freedom,
but Walt came to see he was partly at fault, and had already lost his liberty
through his prejudice and withdraw from society. Walt recognized he needed to
take action, not just for Theo but himself. While Thao built discipline and
autonomy under Walt’s guidance, Walt’s self-sacrifice revitalized his sense of
purpose, cover a past sin, and finally gave him the will to exert control over
his fate, a fate that age and illness appeared to have wrested from him.
film continually linked these virtues of personal mastery and civic
responsibility to the masculine culture of barbershop put-downs, tools,
violence, paternal duty, martial sacrifice, but most of all, to the Gran
Torino. The car’s latent muscular capacity of self-directed mobility symbolized
the control that both men sought. The two repeatedly labored over this machine
of freedom, tuning and perfecting it with their sweat and tools. In the
processes they were building and rebuilding themselves, fashioning their capacity
for self-direction. Through the gradual repetition of these scenes man,
machine, and mythology merged. The contradiction between the ideal and reality
faded. Thao’s budding manly virtue erased racial distinctions. His changed
fortunes demonstrated there was no economic impediment to success. Walt’s age
did not prevent him from determining his fate. With his death it was clear that
individuals were not powerless to revitalize community and overcome divisions
between people. Nor does the credo of self-reliance preclude the pleasures of
the consumer fantasy, for with the gift of the Gran Torino Walt insured that
Thao enjoyed the dream of an automobile even though he never asked for it. What
Thao had attempted to steal he had now earned. In the end, when Thao took the
wheel, it was clear that it was not the car that made the man but the man that
made the car. Audience saw that the key to an individual attaining
independence, and the power to control the road of their destiny, was what lay
beneath the hood.
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especially pages 37-64, 143-165, and 245-269.
is a very interesting insight that to my knowledge has never been specifically