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 Elviss 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?

In giving his guests room to roam, Jarecki has squandered the fruitful restrictions that come with people in cars getting chatty. Spatial limits can intensify the focus of the drama. Think of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, with its quintet of taxi-cab encounters, or the unsettling Birmingham-to-London motorway monologue of the Tom Hardy drama Locke.

Sitcoms were experimenting with the idea in the 90s – there are episodes of Seinfeld and One Foot in the Grave set entirely in traffic jams – while theatre has used vehicular confines to claustrophobic effect. Harold Pinter’s short 1982 piece, Victoria Station, features a chilling absurdist conversation between a minicab dispatcher and a driver who may have murdered his passenger. The Los Angeles theatre company Moving Arts staged a series, Car Plays, in which two audience members (or passengers) at a time are ushered into the back seat of a vehicle to watch a vignette taking place in the front. The performance artist Greg Wohead made that idea even more intimate with his piece The Backseat of My Car (and Other Safe Places), staged for an audience of one at a time: “It’s just me and you, and it kinda feels like something could happen,” he promised in the publicity material.

The model of four-wheeled film and TV currently cruising the cultural landscape may be rooted in Wim Wenders’ stylishly disaffected early road movies, Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move and Kings of the Road. But there’s also a modern, bespoke benefit to the restricted settings of these newer works. Unlike, say, chase movies such as Bullitt, Ronin or the Mad Max series, they can be watched on mobile devices without losing their visual impact. It’s no accident that Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Carpool Karaoke are well-suited to be watched on a tiny screen.

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Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. Photograph: Filmverlag Der Autoren/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

They also address changes in the social and cultural space represented by the car. When David Cronenberg adapted Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis in 2012, the idea of a man confined to his limousine, as Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is, felt satirical; that limo becomes, over the course of the film, a mobile office, a doctor’s surgery, a bedroom and a boardroom. Eric ventures out only occasionally, most amusingly to liaise with his wife in the back of an adjacent cab into which he has slipped from his own limo in one elegant movement, like a fan-dodging Beatle in A Hard Day’s Night. But as cameras and digital media have eroded divisions between public and private, the car seems now like one of the few spaces where we can expect to be hidden. A scene with Alec Baldwin in The King demonstrates this: winding up the windows in the Rolls-Royce, the actor shuts out the fans brandishing their mobile phones and clamouring for his attention. “‘Can we have a selfie?’” he says, parroting them. “Everyone has a fucking camera now!” The car becomes a refuge from every screen except the windscreen.

Should there ever be a season of these innovative works, it would not be remiss to title it Kiarostami in Cars Getting Chatty, since it was the late Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami who put this subgenre on track: first with Taste of Cherry, his 1997 film about a suicidal man driving around in search of someone who will promise to bury him after his death, and then with his masterpiece, the innovative Ten, in 2002. In making Ten, comprising 10 conversations between the same female driver (Mania Akbari) and assorted passengers, he was responding to the idea that people are more relaxed and candid when talking side by side (he had initially written the driver as a psychotherapist talking to her clients in the car while her office was undergoing renovations) and also to the symbolic weight of the car as a haven for free speech in a repressive society. In Iranian cinema, the car is often the only space where inflammatory topics can be debated. It is important, too, that shooting can be done cheaply with tiny dashboard cameras, away from the prying eyes of the regime.

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Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece, Ten.

The same format has even greater emotional power in Taxi Tehran, Jafar Panahi’s third film since being put under house arrest by the Iranian authorities in 2010. Playing himself as a film-maker turned cabby, the space of the car becomes, once again, a sanctuary – not only for a director unable to mix freely in Iranian society, but for every outcast – from the bootlegger who tries to enlist Panahi in the DVD piracy business to the dying man who needs to film his last will and testament so that his possessions will be passed on to his widow.

In common with the digital technology used in many of these films, the car is a democratic film-making space available to most of society; sets and locations are unnecessary and an automatic commentary on the action is provided by the world as seen through the car windows. Rob Brydon’s melancholy one-man sitcom Marion and Geoff, set entirely in the car of a dejected but desperately chirpy divorcee, was quick to realise this. The drab settings only reinforce the misery of the main character, Keith, a man too insignificant even to have his name in the title of his own show. There’s an argument to be made that this comic actor is our Kiarostami, since Marion and Geoff predated Ten, and it was Brydon also who helped put three series of The Trip on the road. Not bad for the son of a car salesman.

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Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in Night on Earth. Photograph: Allstar

In The King, as in everything from Ten to Car Share, the car seems to be moving but also, paradoxically, to be a still, safe space around which the rest of the world turns. Immediately after Donald Trump is elected president, Jarecki’s camera gazes for the first time out of the back window, throwing a longing look at the landscape, as though bidding farewell to the US. “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are,” observed the hippy mechanic in Alex Cox’s 1984 punk comedy Repo Man. In this instance, though, putting pedal to metal and heading in the opposite direction seems the only sane option.

The King is released in the UK on 24 August

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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