America's love-hate relationship with the automobile has gotten awfully lopsided in favor of hate. As evidence we have a new race of movie that promises audiences they will see car upon car abused, tortured or demolished. Children, especially, seem driven to these vehicles.
"Thunder and Lightning" and "Grand Theft Auto," now separately dominating a large number of area screens, deliver the promised carnage in abundance. There are at least 15 smash-ups in "Thunder" and no fewer than 35 in "Auto - a bumper crop of four-wheeled corpses.
Auto wrecks have long been staples of movie comedy, and car chases are practically Essence du Cinema. But never before have collisions themselves been the whole point of so many popular films. Ads for "Auto" say, with anything but subtlety, "See the greatest cars in the world destroyed!"
Considering the rigidity of the form and the regularity with which the machines are thrown at one another, you almost get the feeling you're watching auto porno - a movie made for a drive-in theater full of unoccupied cars. Or maybe they're exploiting a widespread grudge against Detroit, and have been made to titillate the little Ralph Nader that lives within us all.
More likely, the films represent a rebellion against machines in general and a backlash against the materialist excesses of a time of plenty. "Auto" makes a point of smashing up not just cars, but expensive cars. A bronze Rolls-Royce is in fact the star of the film, with a yellow Porshe and two black Lincoln Continentals in supporting roles. A Cadillac Seville is spared only because it fails to start.
As a movie, "Grand Theft Auto," about a money-fueled chase from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, is pretty much a crashing bore, with a spoiled-brat mentality behind it. Ron Howard, who co-wrote, directed and plays the lead role in the film, completely lacks the ability to sustain a story between collisions. Aspects that are bluntly imitative of Stanley Kramer's "Its a Mad, Mad, Mad World" and Steven Spielberg's "The Sugarland Express" don't help; they just remind you how superior the originals were.
But "Thunder and Lightning" is not only in the new tradition of crash-'em-ups but also in the old American tradition of crackervilly humor. David Carradine, who is getting to be a pretty ingratiating rascal on screen, and Kate Jackson star as a moonshiner and honeybunch in the Florida Everglades. They zoom around protecting the small businessman against organized moonshining in a black '57 Chevy that survives somersaults, fenderbenders and leaps through the air.
Perhaps because one may be expecting something a bit mor malicious, and cheerful high spirits of the fflm come as a breezy surprise, and Corey Allen's whizbang direction is masterful for a small-budget film. "Thunder and Lightning," except for its overly scatalogical dialogue, is good clean wanton destruction. The final scene of reunited lovers riding in a truck driven by sympathetic old geezers brings back a hundred bucolic-romantic movie memories.
In defense of both films, it should be noted that almost all the damage is done to property rather than people; mangled human bodies as a matinee diversion. Virtually every crash, no matter how devastating, is followed by a scene of the people in the cars walking or swimming away from the scene, dazed but unbloodied. Thus we have violent films striking a blow against violence.
To some extent, the movies also seem a reaction against television - even though both exploit TV names (Howard of "Happy Days," Jackson of "Charlie's Angels"), there is a comic reference to Carradine's old "Kung Fu" series, and an actor playing a hit man in "Thunder" complains about too much violence on the air.
Nevertheless, the films provide an alternative to television in that TV treats us as consumers first and people second and is regularly punctuated with homages and paeans to the glories of merchandise and conspicuous consumption. The auto wreck movies answer that with conspicuous destruction; they take symbols of American affluence and trash them to smithereens.
There is a therapeutic satisfaction to be gleaned from seeing cars killed on the screen (it would be nice if they threw in an electric typewriter now and then). And it may even be healthier in the long run than the sentimentalization of computers and machines in "Star Wars." We have to keep remembering - it's them or us. Autowreck movies give the victory to the people.