Some of my most vivid teenage memories are wrapped in chrome and steel. My first accident in my VW baby blue Bug found me breaking the windshield with my 16-year-old face. I recall stumbling out of the wreckage dazed, suffering a then-unknown concussion, staggering silently through the scene, curiously observing the unscathed, enormous Lincoln Town Car and its calm octogenarian driver. I finally said, quite seriously, “I need a bigger car.” Like Scarlett O’Hara, my mind proclaimed: “As God is my witness, one day I will own a vintage Ford Torino.” And when I grew up, I honored that desire.
But I also remember my obsession with smaller speedsters – chiefly spying an older neighbor’s collection of beautiful Z cars. Somehow I found the courage (or stupidity) to shoulder-tap the mustachioed man for alcohol and not surprisingly he declined. But I didn’t solely want booze, not really, I wanted a lift. Those cars! That guy had to know those classic Z’s lured like sirens to us impressionable teens – multi-colored 240s, 260s and 280s – Peisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia beckoning us to jump in, hot wire and gun it.
And then there was my first real boyfriend. I was 16, he was older. We both loved vintage cars, older movies and older music. We shouldn’t have dated, but it was exciting and briefly serious. Our relationship became many a night of me sneaking out of my bedroom window and jumping into his old black Camaro. One time he knocked on my window, face covered in blood and said, darkly, stupidly, “My car just got in a fight with a tree. The tree won.” He found himself in trouble, bought a truck, and we broke up. He, in his early twenties, felt like a creep. He was worried my mom would find out. I started to wonder if he was in love with my mother. I hated him for dumping me but now, of course, I get it. Every once in a while a black Camaro, any year, will transport me to those dark, dreamy nights. The images flicker in my head like a movie, furthering my understanding of why cinema and cars and maybe even sex co-mingle in my mind.
Cars are an important machine in teenage life and cinema. Speeding, parking, screwing, show-boating and perhaps, most importantly, escaping. Escaping from school, from parents from whatever teen demon you are, quite literally, driving away from, cars are potent adolescent film fodder. From the fleeing young lovers of They Live By Night (Farley Granger is 23 but he's spent his teen years in prison) to the tragic chicken run of Rebel without a Cause to all that sexy American muscle of Dazed and Confused, cars can work like central characters in teen movies, propelling action and aiding in major life decisions. Like Natalie Wood’s drunken, sexually tortured parking lot looseness in Splendor in the Grass or Badlands’ Charlie Starkweather-inspired Kit taking 14-year-old Caril Fugate (named Holly and 15 in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece) and heading out on a killing spree via automobile, the car isn’t just a chunk of steel, a thing to get from one place to another, it’s often a powerful, seductive force; tapping right into that hormone addled and excited part of the teenage brain.
Cars offer abandon, cars offer adulthood. But not a square adulthood – drive away from that if possible (and often, it's not possible). No wonder those kids in the great Over the Edge are so frustrated – they're in junior high, and riding bikes. They want to blast Cheap Trick from a car and scream "Auf Wiedersehen." At the end of the movie, they trap their parents in the school and demolish family sedans and station wagons and light cop cars on fire. We understand.
There are many pure car movies to revere (like Vanishing Point, or the greatest, Two-Lane Blacktop). And there are many car movie moments to love (like Popeye Doyle’s frantic race with the train in The French Connection or Gun Crazy's Peggy Cummins and John Dahl robbing a bank and fleeing in real time, shot from the back seat of the car, for starters) but these involve adults. An adult driver is a different and equally excellent auto-story. And he or she is often tapping into their adolescent angst, mirroring the passion and release of the teen driver, but there’s something extra special about cars in teen movies. Take American Graffiti – a movie I admire for the cars as stars, things of the girl-in-the-T-Bird-fantasy. For me, Paul LeMat is the picture’s heart with his '32 Ford 5-Window Deuce Coupe up against Harrison Ford’s ’55 Chevy. All of those moments cruising around with tomboy Mackenzie Phillips, prattling on, annoying him like a kid sister – you wonder why LeMat doesn’t just dump her in the street for good. But he can’t. He's fond of the kid, sure, but she also represents something – the underdog, the outcast, exactly what he’ll be a few years out of high school. A beautiful loser with a boss set of wheels.
And then there’s the aforementioned Badlands. Not a strict “car” movie like American Graffiti, but a road picture that contains some of the most lyrical and beautifully violent imagery of any film I’ve ever seen, much of that loveliness by car. Badlands, which I happened upon on TV as a pre-teen, became an obsession for me for its poetic understanding of the intense, alienated teen; the extreme impulses and finally, the banality such alienation can create. Martin Sheen’s Kit kills innocent people and I remember my conflict over being so drawn to this character. But I was. And we are. And of course, Sissy Spacek’s Holly was too. As the song goes, "Love is Strange." But like the viewer she becomes tired of him. She grows up fast.
One reason for her ennui -- they practically live in that car. One of my favorite moments is their long drive through the Great Plains, where their isolation matches the spare landscape – the enormous sky and almost unsettlingly magnificent sunsets. It’s interesting then that amidst all of this cinematic gorgeousness their long and bloody road trip is turning sour. Holly is weary and wary of living out of the car. She thinks they live like animals. And she’s becoming wiser as she pictures their ill fated future. But then there’s that moment, that sublimely beautiful moment. In the black of night, with only the car lights illuminating the darkness, they dance to Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” from the tinny car radio. Kit says, “Boy, if I could sing a song like that, I mean, if I could sing a song about the way I feel right now, it'd be a hit.”
This moment stands out among many auto-adolescent instances as doubly cinematic because of that car. It affected me and still affects me and continues to give me chills. And it runs through my mind almost as my own memory, tapping into something primal and wistful and muscial, that youthful feeling of the new, influential and forbidden. You can never drive back but you can always watch. And you can drive, preferably blaring a song that evokes all of that bittersweet youthful yearning that, really, never goes away: "I loved you well never mind..."