Generally speaking, it’s poor manners (or much worse) to hope someone will experience a car crash. There’s an exception to this rule — when people drive poorly on-screen, constantly craning their heads over to the passenger seat (or, worse, to the back) to carry on a conversation for longer than two seconds, most of the time nothing bad happens. This is not how the world works.
Forget the pernicious effects of seeing smoking on-screen. Forget, even, the vexing, never-to-be-resolved problems with getting science right. This isn’t about dumb people trying to replicate dangerous car chases, “Jackass”-style. If kids learned everything about driving they knew from movies before they went in for their first lessons, we’d all be dead by now.
That’s because most movies film their driving scenes without anyone ever actually driving. You can green-screen it, or hook up the car to a truck with a camera mounted on it. If you’re feeling super-expedient, you can go the “Blue Velvet” route and have a bunch of stagehands simultaneously rock the car while others run past with lights. If you’re feeling ironic and retro, you can always go with rear-projection. Whatever the case, there’s a good chance the person at the wheel isn’t controlling it.
So I’m always tense watching people drive on screen while carrying on meandering conversations. Driving is dangerous business — there’s always a chance some random drunkard will curtail your life or chop off your limbs for no karmically just reason — and watching people chatter away can be like watching the idiot horror movie supporting character descend down the dark, unlit stairway into the basement. It’s just not one of those things that should be done.
For that reason alone, there may be no more satisfyingly retributive car crash than the opening of “Erin Brockovich,” where Julia Roberts drives off and is instantly hit — through no fault of her own — by someone running a red light. The unconscious rules of film grammar don’t tense us up for seeing a famous actress driving a car. We know there’s supposed to be a cut away, to a wide shot or a stunt double or something, but Soderbergh digitally composited a shot of Roberts driving with a radio-controlled car being hit by a stunt driver, delivering a welcome shock to the system.
The only movie I know of that really gets the tedium and danger of driving exactly right is Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny.” There are multiple shots, through a grimy windshield, of nothing but the road unfolding as music plays — it’s soothingly dull, but it’s also accurate. And it sends the right message (a first for Gallo): keep your eyes on the road. Defensive driving is important.
[Photo: “Smokey and the Bandit,” Universal, 1977; “The Brown Bunny,” Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2003]