Gentlemen, start your engines
How our machines describe us, the classic example
Man - Machine focuses on answering the question why we are fascinated by inanimate objects. What's so special about cars, motorcycles, planes, boats, buildings, household objects and many more, at first glance completely ordinary things - not meant to evoque any other emotion than simple satisfaction when they work properly? MM tries to answer why do we feel affinity and sentiment for machines, what makes us think they have personality. Where does the irrational, yet beautiful bond between an object and its user come from and what makes us think that machines have soul?
The first topic on MM is the way an object describes and emphasises the character of its owner. Usually the choice of an object with a certain role isn't random and even if it is, it also tells us a lot about the person who made the choice.
This relation is particularily exploited in films where, often times, every little piece of inventory is part of the character's story.
Let's start with describing that relation based on a widely discussed classic.
It's hard to deny myself the possibility to add my angle on one of the most famous film scenes ever. It is because of that scene that many teenagers - previously bored with slowly developing intrigue - fell in love with American cars and watched two roaring V-8s chase down the streets of San Francisco with a huge grin.
Of course I'm talking about the legendary chase scene from 'Bullitt'. The Academy also had no doubt they're dealing with real talent and awarded the work of Peter Yates with an Oscar for Best Film Editing, which by the way is most prevalent in the aforementioned scene.
From a pedestrian level it's an ordinary classical chase (meaning: before everything had to explode while revolving in slow motion around the main character), well executed, but still not worth a deeper analysis.
For me it is the essence of what makes us get emotional about machines: their character and personality; features we, the people who romanticise the beauty of inanimate objects, often attribute to the machines.
The scene I am writing about is first and foremost an example of perfect vehicle - character match: Frank Bullitt is a 'tough cop' who dresses himself very elegantly, but with much restraint, his weapon is always concealed in a perfect fit holster hidden under his tailored, tweed jacket. Subtle, unassuming elegant who isn't affraid to get his hands dirty.
Tweed sports jacket, French navy blue turtleneck sweater and a Highland Green Mustang. Timeless class.
And what do we see him drive? A 1968 Ford Mustang Fastback in a not wildly popular, but very elegant Highland Green (this name is derived not only from the Scottish Highland, but also from the Highland Park factory in Detroit which rolled out Mustangs at the time), a little banged up and mud stained, stripped of the huge chrome grill adorned with the galloping stallion which decorated every '60s Mustang's front end. Budget looking wheels to go with the image ( by the way: Torq Thrust which they were, were thoroughbred racing wheels), which look very underdone compared to the chrome hubcaps that nearly every car rocked at that time. All these things accentuate the image of the car and its driver - an anassuming elegant. Bear in mind that Mustang was pretty much a budget car in '60s USA, almost a people's car. It cost 2689$ then which you'd have to multiply by ten to understand its value in today's dollars.
The next common characteristic of Bullitt and his car is hiding their assets. What we're dealing here with is not an ordinary Mustang. It's equipped with Koni racing suspension, which is perfectly visable by how firm and accurate the steering is in high speed turns. Everyone familiar with how American cars of that era handle knows that without those changes almost none of the scene's stunts would be possible without the car finishing the turn tailfirst.
Who do we have on the other side though? The mob's hitman and professional getaway driver: two coldblooded, elegant yet indistinctly dressed men with poker faces, no remorse and no mood for chitchat. It's not surprising that these episodic characters don't get much psychological developement from the screenwriters. Their intent and determination to fullfil the task is easly palpable nonetheless.
These two show up in Dodge Charger R/T (Road/Track) also 1968 MY (it was the first model year of Charger's second generation known as B - body, easily recognizable by the the round taillights). Charger, scaled at almost a half size larger than that of the Mustang, is perfectly clean, sleek and cold.
It's also a completely different class, because it isn't a pony car like Mustang, it's a fullblooded muscle car. That's no cramped student's car - it's a sparse, four seat hardtop for a more mature client with much more money to spend. Charger R/T prices in 1968 started from 3506$! I believe that this is a way of telling the audience that it's a David vs Goliath kind of duel we're dealing with here. It is also a duel between Detroit major players: Ford versus Chrysler.
Bullitt is an avant garde film in many aspects. It was the first film to be shot completely out of the studio, putting accent on realism, due to which stuntmen were limited to minimum (these are real doctors in the hospital scenes). It was also the first time a major filmstar, which Steve McQueen undisputedly was, played a policeman ( earlier this was a kind of faux pas, because of the low esteem this profession held) and the main character while at it.
In 'Bullitt' we can observe the beginings of something that's now ubiquitous - product placement. The manufacturer of the product exposed in the film is of course Ford. Not by coincidence then the main protagonist drives a Ford as well as it's no wonder that the competition has to lose the duel against the sponsor's product. Ford plays on the right side, sounds better (though it was allegedly tweaked by replacing the engine sound with that of Ford GT40's here and there) and handles better. Mustang needed no introduction to the audience in 1968. It sold perfectly then as it did for many following years, but by sheer coincidence the examples that were painted Highland Green (sold only in 1968) are up to 13 times more expensive now than other colours.
The very begining of the chase is a pretty well executed psychological play, where Bullitt plays cat and mouse with the mobsters, quickly changing the role of hunted into that of a hunter. I think all of us cracked a smile when the Mustang's snout appeared in Charger's rear view mirror, a moment perfectly underlined by Schifrin brass section. The chase's prologue filled with tension when both sides pretend they're just a part of crosstown traffic is ended ubruptly by almost ostentatious fastening of Charger's seatbelts meaning 'enough fooling around'.
Something you'd rather not see in your mirror if you're a badguy
From the first moments of the actual chase we can clearly see the differences between the two cars. Charger wastes all its advantages on fighting its nature, given to it with the late '60s American customer in mind: high comfort, high velocity and absolute reluctance to take narrow turns. We don't see Charger remaining in its lane after any of the high speed turns it has made, which on the other hand, isn't too much of a problem for Mustang (has it not been for the aforementioned upgrades it wouldn't have been so smooth). The Charger wavers on the suspension too soft for this kind of driving, hitting a parked car and scrathing its side on a barrier.
If you watch cautiously you can notice one more significant difference: ride comfort. Pricier Dodge and budget Ford blast at the same speed, while inside the Charger you can barely hear the hum of 440 cubic inches V8. Mustang's interior on the other hand is filled with engine roaring - nearly redlining ( the noise is undoubtedly multiplied by the open window). We can also notice the sweet sound of Bullitt double clutching to make the gear changes faster than normally on Ford's Toploader transmission.
The cinematography is, or unfortunately shall I say was, a perfect medium for showing the fasination and sentiment we feel towards machines. Especially in the '60s and '70s different vehicles were an attribute of the character. Just as in 'Bullitt' they made the character's image and personality complete. That irrational yet beautiful bond between man and the machine is what makes us love them. Envious of this intimate relationship we try to acquire specific objects to become our heroes and experience the spectacular adventures they have. We believe that these objects will make these adventures happen to us, will make us special like they have done to the stars on the screen. Nowadays when everything is becoming less material and the objects are made to be only utilitarian and temporary. Pushing us to constantly exchange everything we posses perpetuating the vicious circle of consuming, we look for something more human. These old, often times capricious machines make us feel like we're dealing with something human. They carry a story they want to share with us, but just like live beings, they will not endure being mistreated for long.