Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Bullitt to the Brain and Other High Octane Tales

BULLITT is one of those classic films that never seemed to reach the heights attained by other classic films but remains an unquestionable staple for any serious collection.  It’s unique in that, by no stretch of the imagination, would it be considered a “great” film in the traditional sense but has reached iconic status based (mostly), from what I can tell, on two essential components of its mythology: the now-famous car chase scene and Steve McQueen's legacy for being fucking cool.  In the grand scheme of things, it's hard to refute the validity of these two points.

The film itself is fairly boring, though I'm not sure whether it felt that way due to the temporal disparity between the time the film was made and the generation of moviegoers to which I was birthed (leaving my mother with a hideous scar as a result of the limited surgical knowledge of the 1980s and the vast amount of cocaine it was later discovered to be in the doctor's system) or whether it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who were trying to deliver that slow burn that noirs are notorious for.  I know that the general aesthetic for movies has changed a great deal over the last half century, and movies from the '50s and '60s seem much less kinetic by today's standards, and, as a result, I have been unable to engage with several otherwise great films without the need for mind-altering substances of various varieties (Roughly ...two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls... etc.).        

But BULLITT seemed less like it was moving along at a slow but steady pace and more like it was the comatose victim of an attempted hit from The Organization trying desperately to hold on until it could make it to that deposition before the grand jury.  CHINATOWN, released about six years later and which might reasonably be considered in roughly the same genre of noir police/private eye thriller, is a slow burn as well, but infinitely more engaging.

The back of the Blu-Ray package itself struggles to convey any sense of engagement to the reader beyond "authentic" operational procedures from various public service sectors:

"From opening shot to closing shootout, Bullitt crackles with authenticity: San Francisco locations, crisp dialogue and to-the-letter police, hospital and morgue procedures. [sic]"

Wow.  Nothing says "Fun" quite like to-the-letter morgue procedures.  There's a reason most movies and TV shows sacrifice authenticity when it comes to police and hospital procedures: they are boring as all fuck.  If I want authenticity, I'll watch a documentary or take a shot in the mouth shoot myself in the foot or steal the world's largest cubic zerconia.  Basing something in physical reality is fine, but the artistic embellishment exploring the possibilities of what might be possible is part of what makes movies engaging.  Which is probably why the car chase stood out so much; like the vast majority of car chases depicted onscreen, it is completely impossible yet somehow seems plausible.  

Good morning!  Welcome to the '60s!
And I have to admit that as far as car chases go in movies, BULLITT's legacy is well-deserved.  It's been parodied and imitated so often that were Steve McQueen alive today, he would be all but obligated to start going around town taking names, kicking ass, and not breaking a sweat or giving a shit.

Which brings us to the second of two elements that perpetuate the BULLITT mythology, the now-undeniable fact that Steve McQueen was the fucking McKing of Cool.  In fact, most of what we believe today is based--in some way or another--on this immutable Certainty of Existence.  It's taken for granted the same way that we take for granted running water, feminine hygiene products, the Internet, and the fact that George Clooney is still really, really sorry about BATMAN & ROBIN.  It is simply a known and undisputed truth of our existence.  Steve McQueen has become synonymous with cool just as surely as Abraham Lincoln has become symbolic of honesty and freedom from oppression; it now matters less whether and to what degree the association is accurate and deserved, it only matters that it is now so.  Like any cultural icon, McQueen's value now lay more in what he represents to us as a culture than anything that he might have said or done or banged.

I always shoot first.
More specifically, though, because the cultural meaning of coolness is contextually dependent and relative to the social players and situations with whom and in which we interact, McQueen represents a very broad conceptualization of cool.  His coolness is representative of several idealistic manifestations of cool: staying calm under pressure; an ardent individualistic outlook; an antiauthoritarian defiance; a general sense of social detachment; an almost unshakable self-confidence bordering on arrogance or narcissism; and some kind of internal, unflappable moral compass, usually depicted through the "scoundrel with a heart of gold" motif.

Steve McQueen was basically proof of concept that Han Solo could exist in real life.

It couldn't have been a coincidence that McQueen's character in THE GREAT ESCAPE bore the nickname of The Cooler King; it was a not-so-subtle nod to the fact that even in his own time his reputation for being cool had already begun to exceed his actual ability to be cool because nobody can actually be that cool.  But it's fucking fun to try.  In a lot of ways, BULLITT's greatest legacy was helping to cement this image of Steve McQueen in the public consciousness.  This is, arguably, a valuable public service and a substantial cultural contribution far beyond what most films may ever hope to achieve.  The McQueen is dead.  Long live the McQueen.


Though overrated, BULLITT is one of those classic films that is should be subject to mandatory viewing by the movie-going public just on the merits of the car chase and seeing Steve McQueen in action.  Also of note is the cinematic intertextuality with HEAT, which obviously borrowed heavily from BULLITT's climactic airport chase scene for its own climactic airport chase scene, and with ZODIAC, in which Mark Ruffalo portrayed real-life San Francisco detective Dave Toschi, who McQueen based much of his titular character in BULLITT on.  The more you know.  I give BULLITT a solid 6/10 = One Head Calmly Eating a Sandwich and Drinking a Glass of Milk While Telling an Arrogant District Attorney to Go Fuck Himself


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