British Universities Film & Video Council

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Drive: Journeys through Film, Cities and Landscapes by Iain Borden (Reaktion Books, 2013). 256 pages. ISBN: 978-1780230269 (paperback) £18; ISBN: 978-1780230719 (eBook), £17.48

About the reviewer: Brian Ireland is Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Glamorgan. His research and teaching explores the spaces between the promise of the American Dream and the reality of American life, with a particular interest in representations of American history and culture in various mediums including movies, comic books, television programmes, music and literature. His publications include: The US Military in Hawaii: Colonialism, Memory and Resistance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010);

We are fascinated with roads, cars and speed. This is demonstrated in the way we have shaped the physical landscape to enable extensive vehicular transportation, the amount of traffic on our roads, the industries and businesses that have developed to service automobility, and the importance we give to cultural products associated with car usage. The topic has generated an extensive body of writing by anthropologists, social scientists, politicians, urban planners and novelists. Borden’s focus mainly is on filmic depictions of driving in advertisements, travelogues and cinema. This is important, Borden argues, because the driving and cinematic experiences are similar: a car’s windshield acts like a cinema screen to frame, sequence and edit ‘moving pictures’ of the landscape. In addition, these visual depictions of automobility tend to reflect some of the more troubling aspects of contemporary society, exploring themes of restlessness, disengagement, alienation and urban ennui. As such, they rise above the level of mere entertainment by engaging audiences with substantive social issues.

There exists already an extensive body of critical writing about road films in particular: Lackey, Laderman, Cohan and Hark, Sargeant and Watson, and many others have explored the diegetic function of recurring thematic elements of the genre and also their links to significant themes in American history and culture. Road stories, for example, typically feature an all-male cast of characters, themes of rebirth or regeneration, conflict between supposed urban corruption and the rural ideal, and a picaresque hero whose travelling experiences offer a critique of surrounding society. The presence of these themes and how they function in road films indicates that the genre has an important dialogic relationship with society, culture and politics.

… Borden proposes a new approach focusing mainly on the pleasure of driving

To differentiate his work from what has gone before, Borden proposes a new approach focusing mainly on the pleasure of driving. While novelists such as Saroyan, Kerouac and Steinbeck have written of the joys of driving, particularly its potential to liberate travelers from everyday worries or the mundane aspects of modern life, this is the first critical study of road films to focus entirely on this aspect of automotive wanderlust. Its structure is also novel: Borden uses driving speeds to organize his chapters. Unfortunately he quickly moves away from that structure, for example, by talking about the manic speedsters of Death Proof (2007) or the high-speed chase in Robbery (1967) in a chapter that is supposed to focus on city driving at speeds under 30mph. It’s also difficult to ascertain what Death Proof, in particular, has to say about city driving, or indeed why a subheading in this chapter is devoted entirely to depictions of women drivers. Due to these structural issues, a lot of this reads like a series of film reviews without the theoretical or analytical framework in place to help the reader make sense of, or form conclusions from the wealth of information presented.

The perceptive reader will, however, forgive these relatively minor problems and instead be thankful for the remarkable scope of this work. For example, Borden’s encyclopedic knowledge of road films — he claims to have a bibliographic database of over 100,000 print-based references — allows for discussion of such diverse material as Nazi Party propaganda films celebrating the birth of the autobahn, promotional films from the 1950s advertising products by General Motors, art films such as the anti-consumer Zabriskie Point (1970) or the nihilist existentialism of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and big-budget Hollywood productions such as Rain Man (1988) and Thelma and Louise (1991). While previous substantial studies of road films focus mainly on Euro-American productions, Borden goes further, exploring aspects of the genre from Africa, Australia, Central America and Southeast Asia. Such ambition means that Drive’s bibliography, by itself, is an invaluable source of reference.

This is a lavishly illustrated, well-written, and perceptive book, which should prove popular with readers interested in all aspects of automobility.

Brian Ireland

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