It is a one way street and there, Walter Benjamin says: “What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving red neon sign says – but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.” The message is an endless proliferation, reproduction, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Nothing new in the West, the new eternal now again and again, neo to the n-th degree, neon. Hyperspace, which suspends time, duration, and which points – where else? – to the eighties, to Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, where theory shows itself more like a too early rooster than a delayed Minerva’s owl. Postmodernism, not for the lack of a better word, but because it hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s invisible, missing, omnipresent.
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) cannot be a subject of film criticism specifically, let alone of a review, the convention of identification already stands in the way, since it claims a film from a film and a director as an auteur. The author is the screen itself: God sive Screen, Screen sive Nature. It is not about coup de maître, but about par excellence. Is Drive a film, i.e. what is (such) a film today? What is the interest, the singularity of its emptiness? It seems to be more crystalline, more polished, more subtracted, more self-reflexive, more paradigmatic, consciously and conscientiously committed to “the consciousness industry.” Winding Refn is very straightforward: “I am a fetish filmmaker.” Drive is pop, absolute advertising as information, “a complete combinatorial, which is that of the superficial transparency of everything,” a video, where differentiating between art-experimental and commercial appears as mere moralizing; it is a fashion/designer video, which continues to be, and is ever more so, the cultural dominant. To put it in up-to-date terms, Drive is a flickr/tumblr/hypem/vimeo aggregate or an aggregator, (1) to the point where it is completely pertinent to ask whether the film is even meant for reception in cinema theatres or rather via VLC player. In less up-to-date terms, Drive is a car-toon, car-tune, an asphalt jingle simulating compliance with the laws of gravity, which is, after a prologue introduced by the opening credits in the manner of a TV series to the beat of Kavinsky’s track “Nightcall” (from the petit fetish empire Ed Banger Records), a blend of Carpenter, Moroder and Knight Driver. It is, Baudrillard style, a “cool, cold pleasure, not even aesthetic in the strict sense: functional pleasure, equational pleasure, pleasure of machination.” Cool-de-sac. A blinding street. That “degraded” version of meta-genre film, retro film, nostalgia film. But here, however, one does not long for a concrete historical period or a specific aesthetic style, (2) but for postmodernism itself. A postmodernism which would be unproblematic or at least less problematic, a postmodernism, in which auteurship would (still) be possible. If Cannes had discovered, and canonized, postmodernism with Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), it had to discover and canonize the fact of the moment missed (albeit through a Tony Scott filter: Drive is Tarantino à la True Romance ). In the words of Gertrude Stein: postmodernism is a postmodernism is a postmodernism is a postmodernism. In its escapist transmission Drive so distinctively doesn’t care to be bothered – by taking itself so deadly serious it’s comical, an utter bore, like some kind of misunderstanding, true, pastiche is not parody, but parody is not the only possibility of humour – that there is almost a sort of omen in that. Orgiastic decadence of the Empire? (3) The mysterious relationship between the crisis and the end continues, as well as the openness of the adjective “late” (belated, dead, pregnant with what?) in “late capitalism”. The ontological status of contradiction.
Film criticism is more naïve than Drive when it accuses it of clichés. Drive goes intentionally into these stylistic connotations, “the purveying of imaginary and stereotypical idealities,” as Jameson translates Roland Barthes (another author who detected, anticipated, aestheticized, fetishized all of this). It drives precisely through the ambiguity of the exhausted and inexhaustible advertising verb to drive. Propaganda, Propp-aganda, Propp-agenda. It attempts to be a modern fairy tale, which is too modest and too pretentious at the same time. A fairy tale in the name of purity, as pure as purified cocaine. (4) An analogous non–synthetic drug and analogous cars in the heavens of information highway. The Social Network was a model example of indistinguishability between classic and generic, to the disadvantage of Fincher as auteur of Se7en (1995), The Game (1997) or Fight Club (1999), but to the advantage of emulating the form of the great American film, which doesn’t prove that Hollywood is picking on Silicon Valley. Drive is chasing the format of a B movie, that is smaller (5) perhaps, but mythical nonetheless. Small and mythical like an indie blockbuster in the manner of indie corporatism, the emblem of it being Apple. iPhone and iPad are put together by Chinese hands, its bodies – due to exhaustion – inexhaustibly throwing themselves away or down like money or machines, an autoluddism (the net works; including the one from circus that intercepts them), which, as indie corporate reasoning goes, doesn’t prevent their alternative, “left-field,” hipster use in the service of ars vivendi.
“How urban squalor can be a delight to the eyes when expressed in commodification, and how an unparalleled quantum leap in the alienation of daily life in the city can now be experienced in the form of a strange new hallucinatory exhilaration,” Jameson wonders. Apparently this is the reason why two of the most interesting scenes/sequences in Drive are less hallucinatory and glossy, more pedestrian, which in Los Angeles, by the way, is an almost impossible perspective. (6) A shadow theatre of the final confrontation, in which the body collapses into its own shadow, and a picnic in the oasis, a thicket grown out of a sewage pool as the dead end of the L.A. River’s concrete channel. The wasteland unspoiled. Androids on a disorientated excursion through something that appears to them as nature (7) and sounds like retro synthpop, twittering about a real human being and a true hero. The androids do turn out to be more humane than humans in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), but it is worth adding that humans turn out to be androids as well. A Turing Test, reduced to a test of emotional intelligence (E.I.), that is, sentimentality: HAL singing about Daisy, Batty releasing the doves into the air…
LA psycho without a psyche, psycho as a lifestyle, a banquet of John Hughes’ Brat Pack and literary Brat Pack. Psychopathy as a slick abolition of psychologizing/characterization brings the stylization, sterilization to the handling of the killer gadgets and methods (8) that are emulsified with love, the formal inventiveness and penetrativity of which gets stuck at a kiss. A man without a name, i.e. Driver, this centaur, a horse and a knight, the horse kraft and the craft of riding all in one, an autopilot, that should be simply named Drive. The pulsion, not an instinct, says the pop version of psychoanalysis, like there existed any other different version, the drive that circles round, (9) objectless, self-sufficient, ascetic. Its attempt to attach to a woman+child – a psychotic’s attempt at an investment in the style of Il conformista (The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) – inevitably results in a massacre. Nothing too terrible, really, it reboots itself and moves on, the drive is immortal, and the teary eye is primarily a reflecting surface, a fiery pool.
Sociopathy without a socio and, accordingly, a missing figure of a policeman, without the Serpico syndrome of idealism vs. corruption, without the lamentation on the bad use of good institutions. What remains is a police vehicle in the role of a measurer of speed/precision/skill/performance, the chase as the drive control, a dexterity meter (hello, Dexter). The sheriff figure is already disappearing in Sergio Leone’s westerns that are inhabited by the outlaws, not because that would be their pathological choice, but because the law itself is out-of-law. During the interrogation of the psychoanalytic circle, Michel Foucault, by a slip of the tongue, said something that shows itself as the truth and the truth alone – utterly alone, but actually not alone even with itself – and against which reality can retaliate only by turning it into a truism: “Who fights against whom? We all fight against each other. And there is always within each of us something that fights something else.” A war of everyone against everyone, a war of everyone within oneself. Something like the state of nature, without the simulation. Wild West? No, pure West.
This article was originally published in the Slovenian film magazine Ekran. English translation by Urša Kozic
- The work-print version of Drive used a part of The Social Network soundtrack (David Fincher, 2010), which has become a classic text in less than a year. An instant classic. According to the aggregator’s criteria, it is almost regrettable that it wasn’t preserved in the final version.
- As in the case of The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011), about which Baudrillard wrote already in 1981: “One talks of remaking silent films, those will also doubtlessly be better than those of the period.” Though better just because they are of this time. Before that Hazanavicius has been spoofing the Eurospy genre, the latter being a spoof of James Bond that is a spoof in itself; therefore the spoofing of a spoof of a spoof.
- Which moves itself (forward) with “Oh My Love”, Riz Ortolani’s exploitation aria from Addio zio Tom (Goodbye Uncle Tom, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, 1971).
- Winding Refn says he is not doing drugs anymore; the role of the stimulant is taken over by pop as a continuous sound background, sound as a screen, the screensaving business/busyness, something that Baudrillard called an “electronic continuum,” “a tape, not an image.” Soundtrack that is – in combination with the absence of speech – perceived as silence.
- Small as a den or a cage: low-rent apartment, hall, elevator, auto repair shop, diner, striptease club’s wardrobe, motel room… and of course the car as a Faraday cage.
- That is used in a still unsurpassed way in the one-shot take in the Massive Attack video “Unfinished Sympathy” (Baillie Walsh, 1991).
- An article on Drive from American Cinematographer magazine shines a light on how many additional lights are necessary for creating the “natural” light of Los Angeles, nature as second-nature. The world is a succession of natures.
- A technicality that brings down the good ol’ moral high ground of Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers in No Country For Old Men (2007), with which Drive shares the tagline “There are no clean getaways.”
- A “narrative stroll,” cruising, neon flâneurism behind the wheel is part of an advertising narrative of the preparations for Drive, according to which the actor-native (Ryan Gossling) initiates the colour blind director-stranger without a driver’s licence (Winding Refn) into the hyperspace of Los Angeles. The vehicle/medium of this initiation is a night drive which has mostly to do with the Volkswagen ad and its slogan “When was the last time you went for a drive?” with music taken from Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002), composed by Cliff Martinez, who also did the Drive soundtrack.