What do Canadian director David Cronenberg, French director Leos Carax and British novelist Salman Rushdie have in common? The short answer: a brand-new articulation of the role of the automobile – and perhaps mobility itself – in contemporary society.
Cronenberg’s most recent film, Cosmopolis (2012), continues his love affair with the car, first explored in his 1996 film Crash. Like Cosmopolis, Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) depicts a day in the life of a man working out of a white super-stretch limousine, fitted out with high-end customized amenities. Rushdie might seem the odd man out here: as a writer, not a filmmaker. Yet his latest book, Joseph Anton (2012) – a memoir of his life in hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 for his ‘blasphemous’ novel The Satanic Verses (1988) – gives cars a starring role, as Rushdie is driven from one secret location to the next by the security forces of the British Special Branch. The writer also gets to ride around in an armoured white stretch limo, although he usually travels in the Branch’s armoured Jaguar or Range Rover (a.k.a. ‘The Beast’), until he acquires his own bulletproof BMW.
In all of these works, the car functions chiefly not as a means of transportation but as an upscale mobile home: a slow-moving capsule, both isolating and secure, in which the passenger-cum-quarry is monitored by chauffeurs-cum-bodyguards. The road trip has little scenery and less spontaneity, since the itinerary is defined not by destinations but by appointments. The road is filled with new obstacles: assassins, terrorists and a host of unseen international players who determine finance and politics. This is not the classic getaway car of a killer or a thief; the protagonists in these stories seem to be trying to get away from the car itself. Its windows are tinted and rarely lowered, if at all; most action takes place in the back seat; forget hitchhiking.
But let’s take the scenic route through the long answer, in case you have not seen the films, nor read the book (no spoilers!). Cronenberg has often found inspiration in literature; just as Crash was based on J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same name, Cosmopolis takes its cue from Don DeLillo’s eponymous 2003 novel about a billionaire financier who, on the way to visit his barber, gets stuck in Manhattan traffic jams caused by a presidential visit, Occupy-like protests and a funeral procession for a Sufi rapper. Carax out-creeps Cronenberg with his protagonist, who uses his limo as a dressing room and steps out from it into the streets of Paris to play a host of characters, from a dying uncle to a mad vagrant. In both films, the limo assumes the appearance of a theatre stage or, perhaps, the rehearsal room, where actors explore multiple roles. Rushdie – referring to himself by his code name of Joseph Anton – may be driven around by the uk security forces, but he must find his own hiding places every night, where he is never completely safe from the prying eyes of maids, plumbers or landlords – all curious to catch of a glimpse of the mysterious new tenant. ‘Poor Joseph Anton had to scurry down the stairs to the garage […] and be driven hurriedly away. The Jaguar circled the city aimlessly, lost in space.’
Jack Kerouac’s classic road trip novel On the Road (1957), which was also recently adapted as a movie, represents everything that these newer road trips are not. If Kerouac used the car both to epitomize and to mobilize the free-spirited, fearless and experimental core of the Beat generation while anticipating Hippie counterculture, Cronenberg et al. put an end to the liberating power of driving. They place the car in a strange nexus of VIP status and disempowerment, survival and death, security and fear. Mobility becomes a prison; the passenger has to keep changing locations and roles. ‘This was what it was like to be invisible,’ writes Rushdie as Anton: not allowed to fly on commercial airlines nor to stay overnight in most foreign countries. And so he is driven, from one place to the next, from one role to the next. ‘One moment he was talking on the phone to Peter Weidhaas, organizer of the Frankfurt Book Fair, who had just informed Iran that its publishers would not be welcome at the fair until the fatwa was lifted. The next he was hiding from a ceiling repairer.’ Although most people are spared a fatwa, such shifts between transient states may sound familiar as we – particularly those of us in the art world – increasingly live and work on the road, moving from one project to the next. Humans, it seems, have come to embody not only the mobility of the car but also its ability to symbolize perpetual change.