Wheel life: the strange power of films set inside cars

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The King, a documentary about the state of the US filmed from Elvis’s Rolls-Royce, is just the latest film set mostly inside a car. Is it the perfect vehicle for examining our cultural landscape?

If there is a rule of thumb in the commissioning of modern visual content, it is this: two legs bad, four wheels good. Jerry Seinfeld is now on the 10th series of his mobile chatshow Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, in which he drives, drinks and shoots the breeze with a different comic performer in each episode. James Corden has found the perfect outlet for his particular blend of informality, irreverence and sycophancy in the Carpool Karaoke segment of his Late, Late Show, in which he chauffeurs pop stars (Madonna, Adele, Paul McCartney) while duetting with them on their greatest hits. And one of the most affecting TV successes of recent years was Peter Kay’s Car Share, a comic love story between two supermarket employees on the daily drive to work, which truly put the “sit” into sitcom.

Like a motorist pulling out on to a busy intersection, the film-maker Eugene Jarecki has spotted an opening and darted into the area of car-based conversation with his new documentary, The King. This attempt to draw an analogy between the career of Elvis Presley and the current state of the US is a scattershot affair, which perhaps explains Jarecki’s conceit of conducting interviews with his subjects while driving across the US in Presley’s 1963 Rolls-Royce. The film doesn’t have to rev too hard to get mileage out of the idea of the car as a metaphor for America. When the Rolls breaks down, for instance, the audience can’t help but see it as a comment on the country’s roadworthiness. The vehicle also comes to represent Presley at his most complacent; while he’s cosseted inside it, refusing to speak out on civil rights issues, fellow celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte and Jane Fonda are taking to the streets to march. It’s just a pity that Jarecki loses interest in his unifying device: some of his subjects (Emmylou Harris, Alec Baldwin, the rapper Immortal Technique) are interviewed in the Rolls, while others (Chuck D, Greil Marcus) never set foot inside it. And why are Ethan Hawke and John Hiatt passengers while Ashton Kutcher gets to drive? Come to think of it, why is Kutcher even in the film?

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#elvis presley
#jim jarmusch
#abbas kiarostami
#wim wenders
#film
#culture
#music