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Nick Pinkerton on “Auto-Cinema” at Anthology Film Archives

David Cronenberg, Crash, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes.

BORN IN THE DYING YEARS of the Victorian era, scarcely a decade apart, the automobile and the movie camera are almost exact contemporaries. Ever since, their destinies have been interwoven, together creating an age of The Windshield and The Screen.

At various times it’s been asserted that the essence of moving pictures is the chase, the car chase in particular being the vein with the richest history. Anthology Film Archives’s “Auto-Cinema” program is distinctly not interested in that sort of car movie, but rather in movies where filmmakers variously use the car as a dramatic staging ground. Even within these parameters, there’s a wide world of films to choose from, and “Auto-Cinema,” composed of seven features and a shorts program, can’t help but be defined by its omissions: Where is Pialat’s We Will Not Grow Old Together? Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop? Straub and Huillet’s History Lessons? Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs?

“Auto-Cinema”s narrative selection is built around two auteur tentpoles, while the rest of the program generally has a noncommercial, experimental leaning. Chip Lord, cocreator of Amarillo’s monumental car-culture art installation Cadillac Ranch, is represented by the 1989 faux doc Motorist. From behind the wheel of a ’62 Ford Thunderbird, driving cross-country, Richard Marcus recalls his youth during the Golden Age of the American automobile. His recollections are intercut with vintage advertisements, their fin-tail futurism complementing stop-offs in hyperreality, in the UFO-crazy Sun Belt. Underlining the film’s long view in which one civilization’s artifacts inevitably become another’s status symbols, Marcus crosses the boxed-and-shipped London Bridge in Lake Havasu, Arizona, to deliver a Japanese collector the T-bird, a relic of “an advanced mechanical civilization that no longer exists.”

Another east-to-west cross-country travelogue, Bette Gordon and James Benning’s car radio-scored bicentennial film The United States of America is included in the shorts program, also featuring Alfred Leslie’s 1964 The Last Clean Shirt. Leslie’s film thrice runs the same single take, shot from the backseat of a biracial couple’s convertible as they drive from Astor Place to Macy’s on Thirty-Fourth Street. First the jabbering wife’s gobbledygook monologue is untranslated; the second time around, it’s subtitled; the third time, the subtitles spell out the silent man’s thoughts. The text, jaunty and flittering, was provided by the poet Frank O’Hara and offers an observation on a world in which drivers have supplanted citizens, an observation that might subtitle this series: “It’s the nature of all of us to want to be unconnected.”

Disconnection is pandemic in the future-present world of Léos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Denis Lavant plays a sort-of street theater virtuoso who’s squired around Paris in a white limousine, donning a new disguise at each appointment, where he will perform for a presumed invisible audience. There are moments in which Holy Motors actually is the vivid dream of the mechanical-to-digital age zeitgeist that it aspires to be—say, when the acrobatic Lavant dons a motion capture suit and engages in contortionist, fleshless sex with a spandex-suited partner, creaking like leatherette upholstery. But such an episodic film is only the sum of its parts, and Holy Motors is often logy with import—not to speak of that unmentionable Kylie Minogue song.

Left: Chip Lord, Motorist, 1989, video, color, sound, 69 minutes. Right: Abbas Kiarostami, Ten, 2002, 35 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes.

Holy Motors was one of two “drifting white limousine” movies released last year, the other being David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Cronenberg is a certifiable gearhead—the most anomalous, for-hire piece of work in his filmography, the drag-racing flick Fast Company (1979), was made solely for the opportunity to work with fast cars. The limo in Cosmopolis stays at a stately crawl moving through a distinctly phony Manhattan; its cargo is a twenty-eight-year-old billionaire financier played by translucent-pale Robert Pattinson, lying out as though in his own coffin, the procession through crosstown traffic and rioting protesters turning into his own funeral cortege. Adapting a 2003 Don DeLillo novel, Cronenberg gets a creditable deadpan performance from Pattinson, but his film chokes up on DeLillo’s labored satire and clots of transcribed dialogue. By contrast, Cronenberg’s meeting with J. G. Ballard, adapting Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash into the 1997 film of the same name, is a custom fit. Crash, which inducts the viewer into an underground circle of car crash fetishists, is composed almost entirely of sex and head-on collisions, both arranged with a ceremonious seriousness, Cronenberg’s caressing camera making no differentiation between chrome and flesh. These man-machine conjunctions play up the cybernetic nature of the car-and-driver connection, elucidated by the cult’s resident philosopher, Vaughn, played with a pathological magnetism by a scar-wreathed Elias Koteas. (Interesting companion viewing is the slightly dotty 1971 BBC film Towards Crash, starring Ballard himself, which can be found on YouTube.)

No contemporary filmmaker, however, has dedicated themself so fully to exploring the world-through-a-windshield perspective, and the combination of proximity and isolation that exists between driver and passenger, as Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. In last year’s Japan-set Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami orchestrated a drive-by shot which ranks among his most heartbreaking: A Tokyo student moonlighting as a call girl is en route to an appointment as she listens to a string of voice messages left by her visiting grandmother, who’s trying to arrange a meeting by the train station. The girl instructs her driver to circle the station once, twice so that she may look out at the faraway, so-close old woman, expectantly waiting for a rendezvous that will never happen.

Such a beautifully calibrated moment will come as no surprise to those familiar with Kiarostami’s canonical Iranian films, two of which are playing Anthology: A Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten (2002). The first takes place largely inside the Range Rover of its protagonist, a man who has set his mind on suicide, driving the hills around Tehran in an impossibly distended dusk which renders the atmosphere ever more hazily ethereal. Ten eliminates the exteriors altogether, its ten vignettes taking place entirely inside the car of its female protagonist, who has, it develops, recently been divorced. Here Kiarostami plays with the double-edged nature of the automobile as an element of both agency and dislocation.

“I’m interested in the automobile as a narrative structure”—Kiarostami might’ve said this, but it’s actually Ballard in Before Crash—“as a scenario that describes our real lives and our real fantasies.” Real life and fantasy are among the many dichotomies of the driver’s experience that are explored in “Auto-Cinema”: Intimacy and isolation, withdrawal and worldliness, fleshy sensuality and mechanical coldness, and a snug interiority that opens onto a boundless, ever-changing beyond.

“Auto-Cinema” runs Wednesday, June 19–Tuesday, June 25 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.