©2013 James Clark
While working on a probe of Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, my attention would sometimes drift over to the Steve McQueen film which I had puzzled over for a long time, namely Le Mans (1971). There was about the dignified isolation of the protagonists of both films, as introduced by a brand of cinematography vastly out of step with movie commerce, the oddest and thereby most compelling of kinships. McQueen, sometimes referred to as, “the King of Cool,” was in fact as much an athlete as an entertainer; and, as we know, Rodriguez in his prime did a lot more digging than being digged. McQueen’s sporting efforts were in the area of car and motorcycle racing, a far more spectacular and homage-attracting dynamic than that of cleaning out basements.
That much said, in lining up a case for seeing these disparate figures as teammates, we should draw up logo designs for each, consisting of paths that, in being reverse-images, amount to equivalency. We have, on one hand, a characteristically American embodiment of kinetics in public display, in sharp contrast to the European predilection for letting rip the warp and woof of mobility in private endeavors. (Though operating at the home of renowned motor racing extravaganzas, major European filmmakers—not to be confused with those behind the dreadful soap, A Man and a Woman—had no time for such souped-up events.) While set in Europe, Le Mans, concerning the 24-hour car race in the French town of that name, is a very American film, in its adopting the priorities of its Hollywood star, who was also, with indeterminate input from others, the general producer, director and writer. Thus we have McQueen covered by camerawork at the Le Mans site, heavily immersed in explosive speed, seamlessly dovetailing with actual footage of the 1970 Grand Prix splash, and thereby launching avant-garde proportions and problems under cover of the misleading bluntness of kick-ass prize-winning. Sugar Man, on the other hand, though largely set in America, has been seen (by me) to be a Euro-centric revelation, an avant-garde exposure of fantastic creative intimacy under cover of the misleading overtures involved in recovery of a stolen career. Whereas Le Mans was a commercial disaster, bankrupting its guiding light, and the beginning of the end of McQueen’s shot at bringing to the world something special, Sugar Man was, though also a sort of swansong (for the protagonist), an amazing popular success and the launch of a new auteur of exciting potential.
So, as we get that flashy vehicle lined up on the starting grid, we imagine hearing quite a barrage of protests from its die-hard subscribers along gasoline alley, who, over and over, dare anyone to see their cult gem as anything else than the best damn delivery of the heart of motor sport, mercifully free of story line and anything else that might make them think—with none, therefore, of that wretched European mumbo-jumbo. In regard to Le Mans’ unsuspected mode of athleticism, it comes as a bit of a surprise that there is a nominal director of the final cut, not McQueen’s long-time crony, John Sturgis, but one Lee Katzin, and therein we come upon the extra ingredient this strange filmic invention needed to make it airborne. Katzin was enlisted after Sturgis, beholding the feisty but, until now pragmatic megalomaniac to be scarily intense this time out, put an end to their lucrative association. By all accounts the newcomer was more or less someone for the King to give commands to. But by then, McQueen had hit a speed bump leading to his being, however slightly, amenable to some kind of earthly narrative to complement the primeval discoveries of the phenomena of uniquely fast cars hurtling together along a variegated track. While Sturgis was still a part of the scene, he oversaw a large ream of pre-race, location filming which was irrevocably flawed; and there were other indicators that the six million dollar production budget was headed for a white-knuckle cost overrun. The financing wheels of this wild roll, Cinema Center Films (a subsidiary of CBS), consequently speeded over to that zone of unnerving largesse and saw to it that McQueen—no longer appearing to be a ticket to the gravy train—would be put on a short leash and induced to confine his artistry to the usual side of the camera.
It is, though, the other side of the camera we have to pay some attention to at this stage, because this vehicle has been discreetly outfitted (by somebody) with an unsuspected range of motion, which seals the deal. There was Katzin, and nominal screenwriter, Harry Kleiner—neither being, for all their Ivy League background, a force for the ages. What they did have, however, was an association with Robert Aldrich and a predisposition to attend to dramas where there is someone who must (like Kiss Me Deadly’s Mike Hammer) stand alone, for want of useful encouragement in the workplace and at home. The scenario McQueen had favored, for all its paucity of this-planet enthusiasms, did relate to the loneliness of a top-flight Grand-Prix celebrity, constantly exposed to nature-inflecting, life-changing motions. So between them, this unholy trinity did something that, if ever known, would break many hearts in the driving fraternity and render Le Mans even less marketable than generally understood. A storm-tossed voyage, no doubt; but notably having had its moment of brief, powerful (though unnoticed) buoyancy.
That unlikely triumvirate—American to the core, but pushing the envelope in an unexpected direction—has been joined here by French composer, Michel Legrand. And now, I must confess, what cooks from there is beyond strange. And yet it is the musical component of the prelude, with its bubbly oboe motif, tracking protagonist, Michael Delaney (in his impressive sports/touring vehicle [a Porsche 911S], more understated than Mike Hammer’s [Spillane’s] Jaguar) which keys the focal character’s opening progressions through the French countryside. Whereas Mike plies the California night and is forced into a ditch by a woman hitch-hiker in a light-colored raincoat, Michael sails through the Chateau- glistening Loire countryside, with its narrow roads and their perfect cathedrals formed by overarching trees, and glides by a beautiful, tall blonde woman in a light-colored suit, intent on the poetry to be embraced at a dowdy street vendor’s flower stall (located on a dowdy town square that bears no resemblance to the Rochefort of Legrand’s collaborator, Jacques Demy, after his making every structure a Technicolor dream). (She conspicuously struggles with her large leather bag, in finding payment for the posies. Unlike the spilling open of a large leather book bag, in Demy’s Young Girl’s of Rochefort—as hearkening to the leather bag containing an atomic bomb—a Pandora’s Box—in Kiss Me Deadly—which elicits Gene Kelly and [sort of] happily ever after, there is no melodrama here, Michael in fact proceeding without even noticing her.) This first glimpse of the site of a weekend fete with a motoring theme includes shots from a plane, whereby Michael’s poetry-conversant transportation, amidst vibrant fields, woods and skies, gives us a kick-off similar to that of the outset of Young Girls and its ferrying a carnival troupe headed for a Honda Motorbike promotion, also touched by the celestial music of Michel Legrand.
Michael’s progress (just as that of the carnies, not to mention that of Mike Hammer) is not, however, all clear sailing. His momentum that stirring afternoon comes to an abrupt halt on a stretch of lonely road, where he parks on the shoulder and stares in pain at the guardrail. His anxious reverie, in proximity to his black luxury car entails the precedent of Soberin’s black and deadly Lincoln, in Kiss Me Deadly. McQueen’s convincing confrontation of monstrous abysses—his hands, barely but discernibly, flicking outward from arms placed over the open door at the driver’s side, in a bid to restore poise, and his taut, ravaged face—takes us into a very black night with nuclear-level screaming motors and variously colored headlight discs, pushed like electrons on a cyclotronic pathway. Gradually, planes from the hoods of deluxe racing cars pop in and out of view, a driver emerges, his eyes thrust into fear. There is a deafening crash—a mushroom firebomb fills the sky.
That fulsome brush with death gives way to a far more tempered plunge, namely, the current race course for 24-hours of non-stop exhilaration, where Michael has the briefest of encounters with that lovely woman. She has been part of his reverie, where a sweet Italian member of the Ferrari team to which the bomb victim belonged quietly attends to the shock of her having been robbed of her husband. This angel of mercy addresses her as Signora Belgetti, and there is a visual reinforcement of this tagging in jump cuts between her husband’s name on a charred and shattered helmet, and the same name on her team jacket. (As Mike Hammer’s engagement with the hitch-hiker moves, by way of a fast sports car, inexorably toward her death and, much later, a mushroom cloud—his own sign-off—he learns that her name is Christina, a name chosen with reference to the proselytizing Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti. The catastrophe at Le Mans [having happened one year before, we learn, from the track announcer] takes place at a zone named Maison Blanche [White House; the nuclear frenzy doing in Mike, and his partner, Velda, having taken place at Soberin’s white beach house]. Just before curtains for Christina, the roadster stops for minor repairs at a white gas station, some years later playing a part in the bittersweet denouement of Demy’s film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; and she urges him, “Remember me!”) While the murky earlier race and its moment of truth runs its course, we learn, from the PR feed to the throngs in the Grandstand, that Michael was also involved in that smash-up. And so it is that Signora Belgetti, a welcome visitor to Team Ferrari’s pit area, comes upon Michael, suited up for this year’s action—or more accurately, notices him walking by the Ferrari area and toward his team’s headquarters, that of the Gulf-Porsche complement of four entrees. As befits racing royalty, he is the focus of many cameras, professional and amateur, receives encouraging applause and waves to the faithful with that stiff-armed mixture of the mechanical and the humbly grateful you would see at Buckingham Palace. Signora Belgetti follows with her glance this procession, with a mixture of controlled loss and tantalizing gain, putting her on a markedly different course from that of importunate Christina. How, on the other hand, does Michael measure up to Mike? During his first break, while his teammate hits the blacktop, Michael sees her in the dingy, grotty corridor just in from the pits, and comes over to her. A naturally occurring restraint in each of them covers this encounter. Their voices are not much louder than a whisper—in striking contrast to the screaming and roaring motifs of the race course—and she begins by congratulating him on his “very good start.” He sombrely replies, “It’s a long race,” in doing so almost imperceptibly maintaining a decorum tracing to a wider perspective. “Are you well?” he asks in such a way as to bring onstream that being “well” is beset with heavy odds. She nods yes, and she watches him pass by, after he mumbles, “Excuse me…” Casual viewing of that down time from the thrills of the prize might seem a confirmation that Michael does not at all share Mike’s robust fluency with women—we recall the latter’s becoming entranced with Christina’s murder and becoming distraught about the abduction of his roguish soul mate, Velda.
But here it is the default current of solitude in both of them (amidst much ado, much of it dubious) that makes its case for attention, intimating that a nourishing preparation struggles to make an impact where gamesmanship seems to be the order of the day. Tearing ourselves away from the scuttlebutt hounding this strange (particularly strangely balanced) film, to the effect that it is underwritten, underdirected and by and large pointless (and hence deserving the neglect it has suffered), we can discern many features, of its supposedly dispensable periphery, installed to accentuate and hence illuminate the ways of the protagonist and, for want of a better way to put it, the lady in his life. Le Mans, the film, and Le Mans, the race, are not—despite what cult followers will maintain—distillates of sheer dynamic power. They in fact stream forth with torrents of rancid, self-destructive coagulation. The very first shot, of exquisite flora (from the point of view of configuration, texture and color), looking like a vast showroom for Michael’s approach in his spiffy roadster), is right out of the Demy who would have his settings hand-painted in activation of the “more” which surrealistically haunts his painfully empty players. Therewith, when we first get to the revered racing event, we are especially tripped up by its rampant ugliness of objects and people. Far from a streamline consummation, there is a campground, featuring an almost gravestone-scale and graveyard-array of pup tents (with number tags), and then we see those who have chosen to limit themselves to unsheltered sleeping bags strewn about a grassless yard of mud in that pedestrian homeland. We go on to see a large group brushing their teeth in trough-like sinks. Again activating Young Girls, there are police and military units heading out on what appears to be utterly joyless rounds. From the perspective of a plane, we can size up the enormity of traffic jams and parking lots near the track (a scene insinuating that that track is the only space in view affording free motion). It is a scene dismayingly lacking the thrust of that soaring ferry-bridge into Rochefort. While the subject of acreage is in the air, we should note that somehow a colossal display of design, speed and resoluteness is not enough to occupy those pilgrims; but in addition a huge midway lumbers into contention, and the campers commence to divide their time between attack and retreat. That converse flood is spiked with a number of well-paced vignettes, flashing in and out of sight at Grand Prix speed: camp-followers drained of adventure, picnicking on rude fare in rude perches; a sleep-deprived, obese man, no longer young, wearing a tiny clown’s hat he probably won at one of the games he’ll probably describe as awesome when he gets home; one of the motorcycle cops can’t get his machine to start, all the while the Captain blowing on a whistle and waving his arms; one of those at the trough, soaping up and splashing and all the while clenching a cigarette in his mouth.
The track announcer refers to “an extreme test of speed and stamina.” On the track buffer near the starting line there is an ad with the war cry, “toujours en tete avec…” (“Always in front with…) As Michael meets that searing memory on the road, there are multiple signs, already in place for a contest that spans a coliseum and country roads, snapping out to so many and comprehended by so few: Total, Total, Total… There is a moment when the sublime, fire-red Ferraris and deco-blue-grey Porsches are carefully craned down to the track, the lighting and focus at a startlingly professional bearing, by comparison with grainy, amateurish visuals for the fans trying to wake up. Michael soon joins his Porsche-team colleagues in purposefully milling about their track-side premises, and we notice two parallel lines running vertically down the front of his jacket, and, fastened there, the word (covering a well-known sponsor, but covering a far from well-known factor), “Gulf.” (Similarly, the Ferrari uniform carries the also mundane, and also primal crucible, “Firestone.”) That would locate one of Michael’s teammates, Johann Ritter, who, with his wife in his nearby trailer, discusses retirement. The affection they show for each other is genuine; but also hitting the mark is their inapt retreat from daring to domesticity. (Ritter, meaning knight or champion, some wry irony comes into play here.) Johann asks his wife, Anna, how she will tell their (as yet in the planning stage) children what their father did. She replies with a satisfied twinkle in her eye, “I’d say their father is the greatest chauffeur in the world.” Sipping the tea she has prepared for him, he prolongs the apparently untroubled reverie with, “I’d say to them [about their mother] she lies… Yes, it’s the right time to stop.” (The Ritters are right in line, then, with the peals of national anthems stroking the stolid customers.)
Such definiteness as that just touched upon is especially instrumental here, due to a scenario teetering between torrents of primordial kinetic powers, pit-bull intentness about advantage and a nearly invisible thread of love (between Signora Belgetti and Michael) as difficult to locate and assimilate as it is royally right. In attempting to do justice to that challenging equilibrium, we should perhaps add here that her struggling with her bulky leather handbag at the outset constitutes keeping ajar, in this reflective-metaphorical context, a Pandora’s Box (never mind the absence of horrific climax), a bid to struggle with unearthly prizes, and thereby she forms another kind of Grand Prix driver, her Ferrari jacket that terrible night far from being a merchandizing perk. In blasting off, the race has been cinematically engaged at such a level of close-up intensity that its storm of dynamics (its major broaching of Pandora’s Box) isolates the participants in leaving virtually no room for anything but the choice of knight or chauffeur. (The Gene Kelly role in odd synchronization with this plunge would speak to the ways of the Ritters.) Much of the smattering of admiration for this film has to do with its allowing the viewer to get under the skin of a motor sport contestant. But surely the disclosures give us entities being swept far beyond cool jobs and toward a quite devastating reckoning with a seriously new, advanced and dangerous history. It is in illuminative conjunction with such venturesomeness and its implications for interpersonal continuity, particularly in Michael and Signora Belgetti, that the nearly overwhelming frenzy of speed performs its most significant function. Waiting for the flag that starts the proceedings, we are embedded with Michael, though we briefly invade other drivers on the brink. He is outwardly calm in his sound-proof silence (giving his hands some chance to re-establish a ground zero by way of little chores like touching up the rear-view mirror and moving the gear-shift); but he conveys to us his pounding heartbeat, hitting a wild pace in the last seconds before launching into another space—the actual start being the instant when vacuum-silence becomes deafening interstellar cataclysm.
With the race still raging, but without him—the protagonist having failed to alertly keep track of a slower-category vehicle, a lapse of resolve leading to his swerving at those unforgiving speeds, crunching (shown in both real-time and very slow motion) off the guardrails on both sides of the track, and, very fortunately halting momentum in a heap of shredded metal—Michael brings a shaken and depressed Signora (Lisa being her first, more accessible, first name) to his trailer. (Though he comes out of the nightmare with some pedestrian patchwork to his jaw [hardly momentous for a man of so few words], there is a closely linked accident supplying breathtaking, slow-motion levitation, pulverizing of matter, fire and blood, to underline the abysses being tested.) He thinks to bring her out of it by claiming that the game she’s trying to take the measure of is “a professional blood-sport” (a sort of high-tech gladiatorial conflict—the press having hyped up a bitter rivalry between him and a Ferrari driver). A preposterous self-effacement, which Lisa explodes in an instant. “When people risk their lives, shouldn’t it be for something important? What’s so important about driving faster than anyone else?” This checkmate has forced him to devise a better response, a response his face and body reveal to be peculiarly agonizing, his being a pronouncedly (and necessarily) laconic take upon dynamics. Barely audible, he takes a stab at conveying the nub of his involvement with fast cars. “A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing is important to men who do something well… When you’re racing, it’s life…Anything that happens before and after, it’s just waiting…” That last sentence, as with the “blood sport” crack, betrays a vein of shallow bravado; but it also thereby spotlights less than “doing something well” that matters, to wit, in accommodation of the world at large—including his comportment toward her—a fellow driver (of sorts) who—and here the metaphorical overlay is crucial—is in the midst of fathoming the sensuality of the matter which encompasses racing speeds, and so much more. Her face registers disappointment with that inhospitable end game. She had, in response to his question (at the drivers’ restaurant in the middle of the night, prior to the crash), “I’m just wondering why you came back here,” maintained, “For myself…” As with Michael, at the tete-a-tete after the accident, her first version of a reply needs fleshing out, provision of a more primal structure than mere self-improvement. Her terse comment underplays the aspect of her being part of the thrills, glamor and affectionate resonance of a year ago; but that she “came back here” implies a need for a more trenchant comprehension than before. In short, both of them are like Mike Hammer—captivated by a monstrously difficult purity of action that leaves them in painful suspense and quiet desperation.
On that just cited occasion, Michael had noticed her at the restaurant (where someone calls him “Mike”), and he comes up to her up to her while she flips through a magazine. He starts with, “It [the empty chair at her table] seems to be the only seat left.” There are in fact many empty seats and she, looking up from her glimpse at the world beyond the track, casts a bemused glance over the property. He says, “It must have been hard for you.” She replies, “At first. But now I’m alright…Was it difficult to return to racing?” “Not really,” he says. There was yet another awkward interplay, set off by his asking where she’s living now. “Paris,” she replies. At which point, like some kind of predictably macho jerk, he intones. “I have to watch myself in Paris. I always get fat there.” But she had had him pegged from the beginning of the day, largely on the basis of his unspoken, physical language, that he was (as was Mike to Velda, who knew all about his cheesy side) a source of genuine authoritative energy—in contrast to the mobs, their escapes and even in contrast to a handsome young Italian driver with the Ferraris, whom she politely turns down in his offer of going for coffee with her.
So it is, that, when, during the final repairs of vehicles (to match Michael’s need for some structural repairs to correct dangerous slipping and sliding), the manager of the Porsche team goes to his trailer (where Lisa is seated, wrapped up in a blanket, looking the worse for wear) and asks him to take over Ritter’s car—“He’s not quick enough”—the bruised but more than game exponent of quickness (he was leading when trouble struck), whom we had accompanied at the windshield, sizzling over pavement in sun, rain and the blackest night, knifing past other cars and—our being suddenly outside—coming at us and roaring by at speeds that lift our heart to our mouth, immediately grabs his gear and leaves without so much as a glance at her. Moreover, this fracture comes at us not as a wayward strike of lightning, but rather as something to be engaged from out of the imperfect but promising bonds they have so un-movie-like, cultivated.
Michael is immediately confronted with that priority of canny advantage he has never been able to steer around without some damage being done. On the way to the track, the boss (his golf cap always in place) declares, “I want you to drive flat-out. I want Porsche to win Le Mans!” With only minutes left on the clock, Michael’s drive is largely flattened out on behalf of gobbling down a payoff easily understood, if not fully enjoyed. He manages, by dint of mastery of steering and well-reasoned flights of intimidation, to squelch the lone Ferrari contender; and he brings forward a savvy boosting of the lead Porsche by coming up to and staying for some time within inches of its back. (Earlier in the race, Michael and the “rival” he outmanoeuvres at the last lap are to be seen screaming by a cow pasture, the camera positioned within the field, and showing only the window areas of each car flashing in an otherworldly way, the wheels concealed by the guardrail. During that last lap, the same scene is covered, only now the cows have left the event, helping to evoke a far more nuts and bolts phenomenon.) This thrust of advantage, however, does not drain all of the poetry out of the finale. Michael’s work ensures the other car’s win, and he places second, not without honor. The crowd may only have eyes for the winning car and its two drivers; but the manager gives the also-ran the thinnest of smiles and says, “Thank you, Michael.” Michael nods in a deadpan way.
The last scene indicates that Lisa, too, knows and cares about that disinterestedness deriving from death-defying daring. It includes a preface comprising the self-interest of the Ritters. Johann is a bit shamefaced in ending his career the way he did, as a healthy scratch; but his wife argues, “What’s the difference?” Then there are, in quick succession, various instances of dealing with losing favor in the sweepstakes of advantage. The leader, when Michael checks into his second car of the day, is a Ferrari which proceeds to blow a tire and thereby fails to finish. The driver, so close to victory, takes a breath and stays calm. The Ferrari team-boss also handles well the bad news coming over the PA. A Ferrari second-stringer, however, complains bitterly, making an obvious fool of himself amidst his more professional colleagues. The rival Michael had relegated to a Bronze is generous in his admiration of that protagonist’s smarts and courage (and display of confluence between positing canny schemes and mastery of their uncanny groundswell). Michael gives the latter a two-finger salute, and the two pros enjoy their own (less visible) version of glory. (The winning duo spray champagne in all directions and generally act like fun-seekers at the midway.)
Fun-seekers race along the track, and we see Lisa standing there, her eyes fixed upon Michael. The pace shifts to slow-motion, and Michael attempts to approach her, his face a mixture of amazement and letdown. They have stirred up some intimate factors together, without ever touching each other’s skin. She smiles in conveying that he has made sense of the premium upon those “who do it well,” that, in fact, being a premium upon grace. Disinterestedness is in the air. So is rare mutual respect. So is love, of a certain kind. But his face is set in a frown, his eyes show his having slipped, despite some unusual traction. They are pushed apart, not by a fireball, but by the solitary demands of unfinished business.