Many of the movies I fell for as a kid drew a healthy portion of their magic from freely picking over the bones of the cinema that came decades before them. Most of what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg released in the 80s, for example, reveled in an unabashed nostalgia for the past. Many older filmgoers at the time held this approach to filmmaking in disdain, but for me and most everyone my age, it was a legitimate strategy for imagining what movies could be about. “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” were more than just rehashes of old movie serials; they were more sophisticated than their progenitors, more complete in their visions, more contemporary and alive to the audiences of that particular period than the source material could ever have been.
I still feel this way, that revisiting the past — even borrowing heavily from it — is a legitimate and even necessary part of the dialog that film conducts with itself and its audience. (For that matter, it’s an essential dialog for all art forms.) Still, it’s one thing to justify this technique when yours is the generation doing the borrowing; it’s a different experience when yours is the generation being borrowed from.
This was my experience watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” a remarkable movie that is irresistible in its craftsmanship but mildly suspect in its originality. It stars Ryan Gosling as an archetype of cool, a Steve McQueen like mystery man of very few words, absurdly lengthy pauses and super-human fighting and driving skills, whose zen-like mastery of his world goes awry when he begins to entangle himself with other humans.
A Long Time Ago, in a Stylistic Period Far, Far Away
The first reaction many people have had to “Drive” is that it seems heavily influenced by the director Michael Mann, an auteur of “information-age cinema.” Mann is a hero of mine (I wrote about Mann’s last movie, “Public Enemies,” in this blog post) so I take quick notice of such comparisons, and this one is quite accurate.
In plot, theme, style and (especially) soundtrack, Refn’s “Drive” doesn’t just feel like a Michael Mann film, it is a Michael Mann film. On paper, there’s very little distinguishing “Drive” from Mann’s 1981 movie “Thief,” which is about a man of few words and super-human thievery skills, whose zen-like mastery of his world goes awry when he begins to entangle himself with other humans. “Drive” is not much more sophisticated or complete in its vision than “Thief” (if at all), but it is more contemporary and alive to today’s audiences in that it’s a hell of a lot more violent and a hell of a lot cooler. In a contest of style between the awkwardly moneyed James Caan in “Thief” and the practiced, runway-style chicness of Ryan Gosling in “Drive,” there’s no contest. The camera adores Gosling.
I admit, I enjoyed the hell out of “Drive.” Maybe not as much as I liked “Thief,” but Refn’s craftsmanship is undeniable. It drew me in very quickly and sustained its conceits in the way that good, fun movies are supposed to. Its soundtrack, which is loud and cheesy and unrepentantly electro, won me over too, both for the way Refn uses its synthetic tones to add texture, and for the way it makes brilliant use of a track from Desire’s overlooked 2009 album “II.”
Still, the movie left me with a queasy feeling as I realized it was re-creating — even fetishizing — a milieu that was quite familiar to me in its original form. I didn’t see “Thief” in theaters, but I kind of grew up with Michael Mann; he’s a generation older than me, but his work first achieved wide notoriety at about the same time I first became aware of what a director does. In the 1980s, Mann’s work was sometimes shockingly new and always vividly original. It’s a strange sensation indeed to see it as the subject of a revivalist eye. How do I describe this feeling? Oh yes. It makes me feel old.