Saturday, March 27, 2010
This is my contribution to the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon hosted by Jason Bellamy at The Cooler.
What's amazing about Le Mans, a film which was branded as McQueen's Folly even as it was being made, is how well it still holds up today. Racing films always seem so full of cinematic potential, speed being the most attractive factor. Yet with rare exception does it ever pan out. I'm speaking strictly from a cinephilic perspective since I am not qualified to render even the most basic opinion about auto racing or even cars (so this is your opportunity to take me to task in the comments section if you have a stronger argument). But contemporary auto racing films like Days of Thunder (1990), Driven (2001), even Pixar's Cars (2006) seem to place a priority on artificially raising tension through camera placement; if one's point-of-view resides amongst the vehicles jockeying for position, then one should get the feel for what it's like to be a driver in one of these competitions. It's just a bunch of horseshit, if you ask me.
Grand Prix (1966)—have over these newer films is they were made by racing enthusiasts, men who not only loved driving as a hobby, but also enjoyed watching and following the sport. Steve McQueen had started dreaming of fashioning an honest paean to the sport in the early sixties. So dedicated was he to conveying the truth of it that there were many abortive starts and broken relationships (including his friendship with John Sturges, the director that made him a star) left in Le Mans' wake. Say what you will about the behind-the-scenes drama, you really get what makes auto racing so alluring to its boosters in some pretty simple, yet eloquent, visual shorthand.
The first half-hour immerses you in the environs of the race track from a multitude of perspectives. From the trailers where the drivers suit up and meditate on the upcoming demands of this 24-hour race to the stands where bored onlookers look at their watches in anticipation, you are there. You're even in the respective minds of McQueen's Michael Delaney and his potential romantic match Lisa Belgeti (Elga Andersen) as they flashback to a fiery crash at last year's race that killed her husband and from which Delaney only barely survived. That's about as much plot as you get before you're plunged into the race proper. The most easily executed yet most exhilarating shot which recurs throughout the race is simply that of the speedway through the windshield from the driver's point-of-view. Another frequent cutaway is from the spectator's angle, a pan from one horizon to the other as cars from Delaney's Team Porsche or the rival Team Ferrari swoosh by. Forget about racing films; none of the running-and-gunning style in contemporary cinema, so often misused by the acolytes-of-Greengrass, can deliver the thrill or immediacy these two examples can without sacrificing coherence in the process.
McQueen took one for the team in reel life and real life in order for Le Mans to succeed. And though it met with little praise initially, over time it has garnered new fans with an appreciation for the skills it takes to capture the essence of auto racing onscreen.