Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Thunder Road

"When I'm driving, I got a guy on the radio who talks to me…I can't see him, but he talks to me."
- Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise)

Like his dynamic, rhythmically beautiful The Fan, Tony Scott's Days of Thunder does not have the greatest reputation, even among his admirers. Obviously made to capitalize on the success of Top Gun, reuniting director (Scott), star (Cruise), and producers (Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer) to, what would appear from the outside, lesser commercial effect (though the film was far from the failure many predicted, more than doubling its budget at the worldwide box office). Top Gun was never a critics' darling, but its monumental popularity has ensured it a permanent place in the conversation, while Days of Thunder - so much weirder and more esoteric, nearly the film many perceive Drive to be - has practically been left behind, forever in the shadow of the iconic fighter jet.

Throughout much of the first half, the film lives up to that perception. Dawn-set shots of racetracks anticipate the arrival of Cole Trickle, as if summoned by another character's question, "Who is this driver?" Vrrrroooooommmm and up pulls Cruise in full Movie Star mode, seemingly a lifetime removed from his eager young cadet in Top Gun. This guy had just been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, worked with Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Dustin Hoffman, and Paul Newman. And he knows it.

Days of Thunder was not, however, as has been suggested, something Tom Cruise was trapped in. His "Story By" credit (alongside Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay from there), the only one in his entire career, was not, at least according to Scott, purely a matter of a star managing someone else's idea. "Cruise and Jerry and Don went to a school where you learn to race Porsches," he told Entertainment Weekly. "That's where it all began. They said, 'Fuck, yeah! Let's do a motor-racing movie!" That buoyant spirit carries that first half, as we're left to marvel at Cole's seemingly boundless ambition ("There's nothing I can't do with a race car" is the film's signature line for a reason), his manager, Harry's (Robert Duvall), eternal patience and wisdom, and the entire spectacle that is Nascar, the actual sport of which has perhaps never been depicted better. While television struggles to show it as anything more than cars gradually moving in a circle, Scott gets his camera right down on the racetrack, right up in his drivers' faces, right alongside the cars as they move upwards of 200 mph. And you believe it.

That sense of speed takes on a deadlier meaning once Cole nearly gets killed in a race. He's then transferred to the medical care of one Dr. Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), a neurosurgeon who also happens to be beautiful enough to sleep with Tom Cruise. This element of the film has received its share of guffaws and ridicule from those who tend to believe beautiful women rarely amount to anything substantial, which, even if this particularly sexist view held any water, is actually directly mocked when Cole embarrasses himself by mistaking Claire for a stripper. You could condescendingly say the film knows what it is, and that'd be true, but it doesn't make excuses for it - it just lays it all out there without a care or second-guess in the world. "That's right," it might as well be saying, "this young, beautiful woman is a brain surgeon, and you'd be a fool to question it."

Moreover, their romance contains a heft usually left on the table in these types of pictures. In addition to not considering Claire at all when he puts himself in danger, Cole nearly kills her when he decides to race an annoying taxi driver in the populated city streets, a feat for which she justly rebukes him. Aside from a rather lovely and teasing sex-y scene, Cole and Claire are rarely satisfied with one another. Top Gun's Charlie might have disliked the type of guy Cruise's Maverick was, but Claire is completely opposed to the man Cole is. He only becomes more difficult and more determined. His idea of dates are to go to race tracks and visit fellow drivers. She wonders if he wants anything more in life; he wonders who she's really asking for. Even in their bedroom scene, the most affection she can lend him is physical curiosity - "'How can I be in bed with this guy?'" Cruise asks for her. "I know the answer to that one," she replies. Her brief cheers in the final showdown are less those of a converted fan, and more of someone genuinely concerned for his safety. Before he steps out on the track, they seem to be telling one another, "I love you, but I can't accept you," even as they're withholding even that much. People in Tony Scott movies don't always explain themselves so well, but they do understand one another.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's essential piece on Scott, "Smearing the Senses," addresses just this, and provides a window through which all of the filmmaker's work can be viewed and appreciated. An excerpt, describing Spy Game:
The images cut [Redford and Pitt] apart and then the editing glues them back together until it becomes clear that their camaraderie isn't just a question of professionalism, but is in fact an emotional bond existing on some kind of more subtle level. Sure, this is the usual male weepie hokum - but it's in movies more than anywhere else that hokum finds its greatest opportunity to be profound....
Scott's late period is rich with this sort of form-theme-plot unity. His hyperactive, impressionistic style made no attempt to accurately represent physical reality - and the movies, in turn, are about people who establish relationships that transcend physical presence while dealing with some concrete, physical threat which the relationship ultimately allows them to overcome. These are movies about the denial of physical reality made in a style that denies physical reality - and, occasionally, common sense - at every opportunity.

A more fitting description of Days of Thunder, there may not be. Cole, and every other race car driver, forcefully deny themselves the potential physical consequences of their lifestyle. "The only time a driver goes to a funeral is when he's actually dead," Harry says. Scott abstracts the race sequences, never letting us know the context for the race outside of what is immediately surrounding Cole, and relying on Harry to let us know his immediate goals. Yet its physicality is striking; the fragility of the cars, and their drivers, is never forgotten. They are shaken and thrown every which way as their vehicles seem on the edge of exploding at any second. The image above is at once a striking illustration of danger, and a manifestation of Cole's worst fears. Below, Scott throws in light patterns to indicate either nirvana or panic - in both cases, flirting with death, brushing up against the edges of this mortal coil.

While Cole's bond with Claire is more physically manifested, literally (in their sexual contact) and figuratively (by how often Scott places them in the same frame), Cole's with Harry is an ethereal one, lending that very quality that would come to define Scott's later work. Much of their relationship is cemented with Cole in the car, and Harry speaking to him a mile away. Look at that quote at the top of this post - "I can't see him, but he talks to me." Cole is laying in an MRI machine, desperate for someone to say something to him, so accustomed has he become to being alone in a metal box, yet accompanied by a friendly, reassuring voice.

The excitement of the race is gradually whittled away, as we see the addiction to racing and, more generally, to one's ability to survive, erode Cole's relationship with Claire and his rival Rowdy's relationship with everyone. Rowdy's deterministic, "I'll only see a doctor when I'm dying" philosophy nearly kills him. He can't remember winning the Winston Cup; even his own name seems to be slipping. We, too, question Cole's need to get back into the car for one more race. It was one thing for Maverick to funnel that "need for speed" into flying. Theoretically, he'd end up fighting for his country and all that (this isn't really the space to debate military ethics, mind). Cole gets a gold cup. Days of Thunder never really makes some larger moral justification for its sport, the way dozens of basketball, baseball, and football films do - racing brings glory, at most, and not even lasting glory. Racing is cheap, and drivers are disposable, easily replaced or moved between the cars, the real stars. In Scott's opening montage, he gives us a shot of a huge American flag, then a small Confederate one, then a whole line of corporate flags. Racing is deteriorating the type of desire that once fueled American ideology, funneling a hunger for greatness towards outmoded values and commercial exploitation.

Cole is perfect for this world, something of a blank slate, almost purely a bundle of instincts and ambitions. He's like Robert Stack in The Tarnished Angels, the kind of guy who could win the war if he had a war to win. Without one, he's nothing, just a guy with a lot of talent that needs an outlet. "Harry, where'd you say your driver's from?" he's asked, in anticipation of Cole's seemingly heroic arrival. "Eagle Rock," his partner replies. "That's up around Wilkesboro, isn't it?" "No, Glendale. California." "He's a Yankee?" Harry asks. "Not exactly. If you're from California, you're not a Yankee. You're not really anything." It's an easy way to appeal to people predisposed against the very town that produces the entertainment of which they cannot get enough, but it also violently subverts Cruise's archetype before he even gets onscreen. What appears to be a nearly mythological figure is actually just a shell. And he'll have to grapple with that for the rest of the picture.

As a final aside, Quentin Tarantino claims to likened Tony Scott to Douglas Sirk back in the early 90s, and it's one of those things that's stuck with me. Both are obviously marvelous visual directors, and Tarantino mentioned it as a way of saying that cinephiles would only realize later what they had with Scott, but the more I think on it, the deeper that tunnel runs. They're both fascinated with exploring illusions of happiness and archetypes (intense melancholy runs through many of their films), presenting characters at once the way they perceive themselves, and how they're perceived by others, and the slippery bits that fall between each side. Anyway, beyond the comparison to Stack in AngelsDays of Thunder has one of the more Sirkian titles in Scott's filmography (which also makes it one of the better ones); you could line that up alongside many of Sirk's most famous - Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, The Tarnished Angels - and it'd fit right in.

Days of Thunder is far from the most exciting entry in Scott's filmography, let alone his best, but I was really struck by just how strong and affecting it is, and how it really signaled the way for everything he was about to unleash on the world over the next twenty years. It's not just the boldness of his style, his willingness to embrace a certain otherworldly quality in his images - it's the repression, the sincerity, the subversion, the true embrace of that great Ernst Lubitsch maxim, "Every shot is the most important shot." No matter how many of them there are.

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