Cars are ubiquitous in film. Find out what makes them such great dramatic vehicles (pun intended).
Think about some of your favorite movies. Now think about how many of them have significant sequences that involve cars. Chances are, a lot will come to mind. Just going through some of my personal favorites, each and every one of them include important scenes with cars. Singin’ in the Rain, check. Little Miss Sunshine, check. Before Sunset, check. Why do three vastly different movies, spanning era and genre, all feature cars in such narratively significant ways?
Well in case you haven’t noticed, cars are pretty ubiquitous in film—and we’re not just talking about the Fast and the Furious franchise. Throughout film history, cars have maintained a narrative prominence unmatched by any other mode of transportation. So, why are filmmakers obsessed with cars? First off, they’re omnipresent, everyday objects that serve as blank canvases onto which filmmakers can impose their own meaning. Plus they’re symbolically versatile; they can stand in for freedom or enclosure, safety or violence, isolation or connection. In the video essay “Never Just A Car,” Thomas Flight studies nearly one hundred films to explore the myriad meanings that cars can take on.
Flight examines several facets of the car in cinema, including the car as costume, the car as setting, and the car as character. In Boyhood, Baby Driver, Nightcrawler, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, cars act as costumes, introducing characters and physically marking their traits and evolution. In Logan, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lady Bird, and On the Waterfront, cars are dramatic settings. Their limited space forces intimacy between riders, their front-facing seats create a stage, and their velocity makes escape impossible (unless, like in the case of Lady Bird, you’re willing to break your arm just to get out of an argument with your mother). In Rushmore, La La Land, Taxi Driver, and The Shape of Water, cars are symbolic extensions of characters that can reveal their intentions, motivations, and vulnerabilities.
The constant presence of cars in our everyday lives give filmmakers the opportunity to project a myriad of meanings onto them. While their speed and motion create natural dramatic fodder, their symbolic and narrative value is also at the center of countless movies. Check out the video essay below, and see which of your favorite cinematic cars made the list.