“Senna” was released this week, and even if you have no interest whatsoever in Formula One, or indeed sports in general, I would advise you to go and see it. This is partly because the documentary is an unflinching and relentless exploration of the men who live life in the fast lane, and what motivates their adrenaline-charged addiction to the dangerously mortal world of motor racing: but mostly because, as always, it highlights a popular cinematic trope which is worthy of much greater critical thought.
Men like cars. Even men who say they don’t like cars, like cars. Even men who say they have no interest whatsoever in cars, and claim they wouldn’t know a Mazda from a Maserati, like cars. Perhaps not the engineering, or the aesthetic beauty, or the tedium of the driving process: but all men love, passionately love, the speed. It’s quite simply a primal male urge: the desire to go very fast, certainly much faster than one ought to be going. People are under the impression that men can be satisfied by a hearty meal, a few pints of beer, or a good shag. And this is generally true: but sometimes a man wants more. Sometimes a man wants to get into a vehicle and hurtle along at a stupid speed. If you want to know why the “Fast and Furious” franchise is five films in and stronger than ever, it’s because with the slow erosion of plot, character and any scrap of intelligence more emphasis is given to men going really really fast in really really fast cars. And this pleases a male audience, if only superficially.
The whole adrenaline-pumping business becomes a much more serious matter when the need for speed evolves into something more than a transient thrill, into an experience beyond a chance for some high octane fun and frolics. Namely, when the love of speed becomes a necessity, a way of life, and most importantly of all an obsession.
This is something that the documentary about Ayrton Senna is highly concerned with, to the extent that it develops into the key concern of the film. “Senna” is book-ended by archive footage of a karting race Senna participated in as a young man, accompanied by an audio clip of the driver describing this race much later in his life. He describes the experience as “pure racing,” and one of the greatest thrills he ever had behind the wheel, driving in anger. On the most obvious level this demonstrates Senna’s long-standing resentment of the political and corporate under-current of Formula One, when the desire to be a great racing driver, and claim incredibly victories, and drive exciting races, is supplanted by the desire to accumulate points, and consolidating long term championship victory, or play ball with the powers that be. These frustrations surfaced numerous times in Senna’s racing career, most prominently in his furious rivalry with Alain Prost, who would hold position for points or deliberately (perhaps) crash into his opponents to win the world championship. Senna was more of the opinion that if an individual race isn’t won then the driver has failed, and this is certainly a more idealistic and exciting approach to the sport, one the documentary subtly manipulates us into siding with despite our knowledge of where the lust to win ultimately lands Senna.
It seems to me, though, that there is something more to Senna’s all-consuming desire for race victory and “pure racing” beyond his struggle to rise above the behind the scenes back-stabbings and sly political manoeuvrings of the sport. His devout religious convictions, and insistence that a driver who no longer goes for tight overtaking gaps for fear of crashing the vehicle cannot truly call themselves a racing driver, renders Senna’s monomaniacal pursuit of absolute victory and the complete humiliation of his opponents more profound, and more disturbing. On the latter point, we can potentially see Senna as a reckless and irresponsible maniac, rightly feared by the other drivers: someone with such an utter disregard for his own machine, perhaps his own life, that the natural conclusion drawn by his competitors is that, in his unremitting pursuit of driving excellence, their lives too are expendable. I don’t subscribe to this view, and the way in which we see footage from that tragic weekend in San Marino when both Senna and Roland Ratzenberger shows Senna as a troubled and worried man. It would be easy to view a prophetic knowledge of his impending death in Senna’s eyes following the Ratzenberger accident, but it would be more correct to see a man shaken to the core by what has befallen a colleague, and who finally realises that the same could happen to him. Poignantly, the man who believed himself indestructible comes face to face with his vulnerability, nay his mortality, and promptly suffers the same dreadful fate having been parted from his confidence and belief.
I prefer to see Senna’s approach to motor racing as a quest for three things: the adrenaline and gratification of individual glory, the complete symbiosis of man and machine, and communion with God himself. Senna was an artist as a driver in the same way that Mozart’s art lay in music, and Caravaggio’s in painting. His legendary driving has made him an enduring idol for contemporary drivers, and his death has almost become a Christ-like martyrdom to the sport: no-one has died in Formula One since Senna, and his horrible sacrifice has perhaps paradoxically made his approach to the sport the one to be emulated and admired: he was willing to lay down his life in pursuit of victory, and that’s exactly what he did.
Controversial god-complex insinuations aside, we can nonetheless link the affinity between man and machine demonstrated by Senna to fast driving as a primal male urge mentioned at the start of this piece. In this respect, the car chase as a cinematic trope surely goes beyond the superficial, fleeting adrenaline buzz generated in the mindless action sequences of the aforementioned “Fast and Furious” films. With regard to cinema’s most revered car chases, I would argue that the reason these particular sequences are so celebrated is because they tap into something that transcends the suitability of the car chase to cinematic trademarks such as film editing, sound design, moving cameras and the epic scope of film production. In the greatest film car chases, the action displays the attainment of masculine superiority.
Take “Bullitt” as a particularly obvious example. Steve McQueen was an iconic, super-cool Hollywood star in the first place, as appealing to man as a figure to aspire to as he was to women as an object of desire, and Peter Yates’ thriller provides the star with his best vehicle (pardon the pun). Before that astonishing car chase which sees McQueen hurtle his Ford Mustang down the fearsome hills of San Francisco, his character was not progressing in the case, and was not regarded either as a threat to the criminals or as a suitably virile love interest to Jacqueline Bisset. After the car chase he gains the attention of both, and is transformed from a jaded, aloof and disinterested cop into a penetrative and dangerous force to be reckoned with. In short within the diegesis of the film this car chase established McQueen as the alpha male above Robert Vaughn’s character and above the villains he pursues, and in terms of McQueen’s career this scene works in conjunction with the epic motorbike chase in “The Great Escape,” and “The Getaway” as a means of using high-speed chases to establish McQueen as the ultimate male star of his day.
On a much grittier note, take Gene Hackman’s terrific car chase from “The French Connection,” when he chases an elevated train and cuts up traffic all over New York. One way of reading the entire film is as a character study of Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle as he attempts to become the alpha male of his inner city domain. To achieve this status, he must first be the superior masculine model to his partner Roy Scheider, and afterwards outsmart Fernando Rey’s drug-smuggling mastermind. Hackman’s general volatile behaviour around Scheider consistently displays an assertion of male dominance, yet he is never able to gain the upper hand on Rey: Hackman is continually outsmarted by the Frenchman, most memorably in the subway pursuit sequence. In chasing down his would-be assassin by catching an elevated train in a car, Hackman sees a chance to hit back and supplant his opponents as the ideal masculine figure of the film: and the way he does this is by going far faster and much more furiously than his enemy.
Finally, consider the James Bond film. The car chases in the series are of course far more fantastical than in “Bullitt” and “The French Connection,” but the very repetition of the trope and the self-conscious desire to improve upon previous classic chases in the canon make Bond the greatest example of the film character attempting to achieve supreme masculine dominance through achieving car chase victories. Bond’s cars are, on every single occasion, far more desirable and expensive vehicles than those of his enemies, stocked with far more gadgets and instruments of technical wizardry, and driven far more ruthlessly, professionally and excitingly by the great super spy. In fact, every element of the Bond cocktail is tailored to rendering the character cinema’s greatest alpha male: that’s why he sleeps with so many women.
At Cannes, Nicolas Winding Refn won the best director prize for “Drive.” Apparently the chase sequences were so breathlessly action-packed that hardened Euro critics, who’d just spent the best part of two weeks musing on somnambulistic prostitutes and the meanings of life, the universe and everything, erupted into spontaneous cheers and applause. Maybe the film will come to be celebrated as a superb piece of craftsmanship that further explores the mystical links between speed, masculinity and mechanical engineering.
Or maybe all the critics were just men, getting excited by other men driving really really fast.