In our daily lives, the main function of a car is to get us from point A to point B. But in the world of cinema, cars have come to represent far more than just transportation. In his newest video essay, Thomas Flight examines how cars on film can be used to communicate certain character traits, provide safe or intimate settings, and give a scene a literal sense of forward motion. Using dozens of examples from throughout film history, Flight argues that there is a technological kinship between cars and movies given that the two have evolved in tandem over the years.
Putting aside car-centric films like Mad Max: Fury Road or the Fast & Furious franchise for a moment, the video instead looks at movies where cars are less central to the plot, but no less representative of the characters. Flight notes that in The Big Lebowski, “the destruction of the Dude’s car parallels the out-of-control spiral of the story,” whereas Ethan Hawke’s transition in Boyhood from a muscle car to a minivan mirrors his character’s development and reluctant maturity over time. In both cases, the car is an extension of the character’s emotional state and development. It’s a visual cue that the audience immediately understands because our own cars are often extensions of our personalities.
Another interesting thing Flight notices is that cars have been given a special reverence in film that isn’t given to other pieces of technology. Car-like vehicles still populate the futuristic cityscapes and apocalyptic wastelands of our most fantastical sci-fi movies. Cars get regularly anthropomorphized, like in Pixar films or the Transformers franchise, and even when they’re not being literally brought to life we’re still projecting a personality onto them.
Undoubtedly, as Flight says, the link between cars and the film industry has a lot to do with the car culture of Los Angeles, where so many filmmakers and reside. But it also has to do with the fact that car and film technology emerged at about the same time. They’ve evolved together, reacted to one another, and will continue to do so in the coming years. What that next evolution will look like onscreen remains to be seen.
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