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For the love of Cars.

Cars and movies grew up together. Infants at the end of the nineteenth century, by their adolescence in 1920s they had become key components of an emerging consumer culture. Each brought mobility, one geographical and the other visual, to what Henry Ford called 'the great multitude'. In the 1930s automobiles and movies were directly conjoined with the invention of the drive-in theatre, by which time cars had become featured players in movie scenes of every description. In some they served as the foil for the antics of the Keystone Kops, Laurel and Hardy, and other purveyors of film comedy. In others they took on a more serious role, as when they were featured in high-speed duels involving gangsters, the police, and other parties. A generation later, chase scenes were still pumping up box office revenues, as evidenced by the success of Bullitt and The French Connection. By then cars occasionally had taken on a persona of their own in cartoons, and notably in the film adaptation of Steven King's novel Christine, as well as on the small screen in the late and little lamented television series My Mother, the Car.

In Cars the automobiles get top billing. In fact, the only animate objects in the movie are anthropomorphised automobiles and trucks. As with animated cartoons in general, viewers have to suspend disbelief and accept what is being offered on the screen, a world populated by nothing but vehicles. This does not require a great leap of imagination. To give them a more human visage the animators eschewed the standard use of headlights as the location of the vehicles' eyes. Instead, eyes appear behind windshields, allowing a greater range of expressiveness. Also adding to believability are the voices provided by a group of A-list actors who are capable of investing just about anything with human qualities.

Unlike the generic animated vehicles of other cartoons, most cast members have distinct brand identities. The exception is the lead character, Lightning McQueen, a NASCAR racer that cannot be identified as a specific make, as is also the case with current NASCAR entries, which use essentially the same chassis and bodies, no matter what their brand identity is supposed to be. NASCAR enthusiasts will, however, recognise his two major rivals, which are based on cars once driven by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

A particularly appealing figure is Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman), who, true to his name, is a 1951 Hudson. American stock car racing fans with a sense of history (or a long memory) know that the long-defunct Hudson racked up dozens of victories back when NASCAR racers really were stock cars. A major element of the movie's plot centres on the brash young racer's learning important lessons about both racing and life while under the reluctant tutelage of Doc Hudson. If this seems a bit hackneyed, it is; this is a movie driven by the vibrancy of its scenes, not by the sophistication of its plot, which can be summarised in a few words. McQueen is locked in a three-way tie for the Piston Cup, which is scheduled to be resolved by a match race in Los Angeles. On the long drive to the west coast he is inadvertently ejected from the truck carrying him, and after desperately plying the back roads in search of his carrier he winds up in Radiator Springs, a small town that was left to moulder after Route 66 was bypassed by the interstate. There he forges a friendship with a battered tow truck and falls into a romantic attachment with a Porsche Carrera (voiced by Bonnie Hunt), who has settled in Radiator Springs in order to get away from the (literal) fast-lane lifestyle of southern California. McQueen eventually makes it to Los Angeles and the climactic race. As with the opening scene, the race features action sequences that make actual stock car races look like perpetual parade laps. Car aficionados will also appreciate touches like a Fiat 500 portraying the Italian owner of a tyre store, a lowrider voiced by Cheech Marin, and a cameo appearance by Formula I champion Michael Schumacher in the guise of a Ferrari.

In addition to featuring different makes of cars in appropriate roles, Cars offers a number of scenes that will resonate with viewers who are steeped in American car culture. Especially noticeable is a range of mountains with a profile strongly reminiscent of the Cadillacs half buried near Amarillo TX with their tail fins jutting out at a forty-five-degree angle. More arcane is the sequence of blinking lights at Flo's Cafe, which reproduces the firing order of a flathead Ford V-8. And everyone will enjoy the sight of flying insects that look like miniature VW beetles.

To try to plumb deeper meanings in Cars would be a stretch, but it is fair to say that the movie reflects a positive vision of automobiles and their place in our lives. This follows a long-standing movie convention, where cars bring mobility and freedom, and only occasionally are treated as sources of individual or collective trouble. In parallel fashion, most of us see our cars as essential enablers of a modern lifestyle. As in Cars, we may even invest them with distinct personas, complete with pet names. Yet this affection for automobiles has to be tempered with the inescapable realisation that automobile ownership requires budget-squeezing expenditures on fuel and maintenance, rapid depreciation, the frustration of traffic jams, and the ever-present danger of accidents. On the societal level, automobile-based personal transport has contributed mightily to air pollution, global warming, and dependence on oil obtained from politically unstable parts of the world.

None of this is apparent in Cars, where the characters are universally benign. Throughout their history, animated cartoons have demonstrated the power to transform frogs, bugs, and most notably a rodent into objects of worthy of our affection. In Cars inanimate and potentially lethal vehicles are lovable quasi-humans. Through adroit animation, the characters in Cars are individual men and women somehow transmuted into NASCAR racers, tow trucks, and vintage Hudsons. And here the fantasy world of Cars is not too far from reality. While we blame automobiles for a host of today's problems, it is we humans who have designed, engineered, manufactured, bought, sold, maintained, driven, and grown perhaps fatally dependent on them.

Rudi Volti Pitzer College

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Author:Volti, Rudi
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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