Last Sunday I came across a classic car show in a Seattle suburb. The bright colors and streamlined shapes were impossible to resist. I stopped to join the crowd in rapt admiration of the immaculately restored Mustangs, GTO’s, T-Birds, Corvettes and other beauties dating as far back as the 1920’s. As sculptural objects they offered the tangible pleasures of sweeping lines, voluptuous curves, and an exuberant array of intense colors. But there was more to it than the allure of shiny objects. The classic cars lining the streets were also saturated with nostalgia and myth.
Nostalgia longs for a time when nostalgia didn’t exist because everyone “then” was happily embedded in the present. As Svetlana Boym observes:
At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. (The Future of Nostalgia, p. xv)
Those classic cars were time machines, transporting us into memories both real and imagined. They did not function the way ruins do to produce a melancholy awareness that all things pass away, for these were not dented, rusting hulks. They appeared flawless and bright, impervious to decay, inviting us to re-experience lost time as if we were still there.
The soundtrack of my youth played over loudspeakers. Drive-in trays held plastic replicas of burgers and shakes. A Howdy Doody doll gripped the steering wheel of a convertible. Nostalgia all around. But it wasn’t just personal associations that tugged at me. I also felt communion with a vanished golden age. Classic cars are tangible signs of a less anxious time before fossil fuels, air pollution and climate change became universal worries. A 1980 Tom T. Hall sums up that lost era with a haiku-like refrain:
Back when gas was 30¢ a gallon,
and love was only 60¢ away.
Of course cars are more than just present objects or past memories. They are vehicles designed to propel us ever forward, down the road to whatever Promised Land awaits us. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the Italian poet whose Futurist movement obsessed over novelty, assailed the snail’s pace of the “sleepy” culture prior to the automobile. “Time and Space died yesterday,” he declared in 1909. “We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” For Marinetti, a racing roadster hurling the spirit of its driver across the earth in a headlong blur was “more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”
Not everyone was equally thrilled by a culture of ever-increasing velocity. In 1910, the French writer Octave Mirbeau called “automobilism” a mental illness with “a pretty name: speed.” It makes us “impatient to get going once [we have] arrived somewhere, because it is not somewhere else, somewhere else, always somewhere else.”
But “somewhere else” is the American dream. Pilgrim ships and covered wagons were just the slow-motion precursors of the endless road movie that drives our culture. We are a people enamored of open highways, limitless horizons and liberating journeys to the distant places where we can reinvent ourselves.
Road imagery is abundant in American song. All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood … We’re riding out tonight to case the Promised Land (Bruce Springsteen) … When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide / Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide (Jackson Browne).
And how many times have the movies put us behind the wheel of a classic car in the desperate search for self and meaning? In countless films protagonists flee an oppressive local situation at 70 miles per hour, whooshing toward Somewhere Else in an ecstasy of freedom. As Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard tell it, those drivers want to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.” Thelma and Louise were perhaps the only ones who ever made it that far. When, pursued by a posse of police cars, they run out of road at the edge of a deep canyon, they just keep going, leaving time and history behind as a freeze frame catches them in mid-air. Then they and their car dissolve into a screen of pure whiteness, where their fate remains eternally beyond our view.
It is one of the most exhilarating endings in cinema, an eschatological leap of liberation and transcendence. But many road movies detour into darker terrain, and the perpetual motion of aimless wandering can find no lasting place to dwell. Flight from culture and place constitute the classic quest for regeneration, but if you lose your way and never reconnect with something beyond yourself, you may just die in the wilderness. The American inability to dwell is part of our shadow side, with disastrous consequences for our psyches, communities and natural habitats. For more on that, read Wendell Berry.
The futility of purposeless mobility, of speed going nowhere, is perfectly expressed in the ending of Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s brilliant 1971 film about a couple of pals drifting around the country in their souped-up ’55 Chevy, picking up street races where they can. The minimal narrative structure has pretty much evaporated by the last scene, where the Driver (all the characters are nameless) revs up his engine for one more race. “You can never go fast enough” is his mantra.
The final shot shows him in silhouette from the back seat, his hair blowing wildly as the car picks up speed. This shot also freeze-frames, but instead of dissolving into the white transcendence that embraced Thelma and Louise, the image begins to burn and melt, as if jammed in the projector. Whether you see that burning frame as an image from Beckett or from Dante, it’s not a happy ending.
Those classic cars have brought me this far, but now I’ve run out of road. How do I end? FADE TO WHITE.