While writing the book, there were a number of films that stood out for being particularly emblematic of the traffic experience. I’m not talking road films here (no Two-Lane Blocktop or Vanishing Point), but traffic films, movies that reveal interesting glimpses of the strange social dynamics of traffic (and they don’t have to be particularly good, just interesting traffic-wise). I’m curious to hear other favorites from readers.
1. Motor Mania. Directed by Jack Kinney, 1950.
Originally part of a driving safety instructional film, this Walt Disney short really does a lovely job of describing motorist sociopathy. Everyman (or, er, Everydog) Goofy begins the film as “Mr. Walker,” a nice person who “wouldn’t step on an ant.” In his car, he becomes “Mr. Wheeler,” suddenly terrorizing his former walking comrades, questioning the skills and rights of way of other drivers, and generally acting like a monster. Per minute this really packs the most traffic wisdom. A bit hard to get nowadays, but through Disney Educational Productions you can buy a DVD that also includes a few other films (including Freewayphobia, about driving on the then new superhighways).
2. Trafic. Directed by Jacques Tati, 1971.
With a title like Trafic, how could you not like this one? This overlooked work from French master Tati is hardly his best (it’s no Hulot or Playtime), but there’s enough of the Tati touch to make this one worthwhile. “I’m simply trying to show that individuals change when they’re behind the wheel of a car,” Tati said, and in one of the film’s funniest segments, he presents a succession of shots of oblivious French drivers languidly picking their noses in the perceived anonymity of their cars (people who actually research drivers with in-car cameras have found this happening after the first week or so of the camera being inside the car). This film has been unavailable for a long time (I’ve got a weird Swedish edition), but it’s recently been reissued by Criterion.
3. Falling Down. Directed by Joel Schumacher, 1993.
I can never really make it through the whole thing these days, but I do love the bit that sets off Michael Douglas’ whole repressed-guy-in-a-tie silent majority crusade of rage: A traffic jam. It’s hot, he’s stuck, the merge signs are blinking, a fly in his car is bothering him, the “How’s My Driving? Dial 1-800 EAT-SHIT” bumper stickers accost him — even a Garfield stuffed animal seems to stare back maniacally. He does what many of us have probably wanted to do at some point — just leave the car and walk away.
4. Weekend. By Jean Luc-Godard, 1967.
As the story goes this is actually partly inspired by Julio Cortazar’s great story “The Southern Thruway,” about an epic traffic jam that gradually turns into a sort of society. This story itself begins with an epigraph from L’Espresso magazine: “Sweltering motorists doe not seem to a have a history… As a reality a traffic jam is impressive, but doesn’t say much.” I beg to differ! Anyway, Godard’s black comedy features, famously, the epic, slow drive down a French highway full of carnage, people playing games, arguing, etc. The soundtrack is horns but no one seems to actually be blowing their own. A bit dated these days but worth it for the cool Citroens and Puegots alone…
5. Office Space. Directed by Mike Judge, 1999.
Funny in all sorts of ways, but particularly for my purposes for the opening scene. Peter (Ron Livingston), frustrated by the constant stop and go of his commute — so slow that he observes an old man pushing a walker pass him by on the sidewalk — sees the other lane moving faster. He manages to change lanes, slamming on the brakes as his lane suddenly freezes up. His former lane, of course, begins to move ahead. This is the one of the classic issues in congestion, and is discussed in the book (you can watch a clip here).
6. LA Story. Directed by Mick Jackson, 1991.
Full of whimsical looks at LA traffic life, sort of like Crash without the heavy-handedness. My favorite scene is when Steve Martin gets in his car to go to his next door neighbor’s house, but there’s other good moments, like his crazy shortcuts to get to work, or the ongoing metaphysical conversation with the “changeable message signs” that give traffic info to LA drivers — as if CALTRANS had been replaced by a higher authority (not that there is one for the average LA driver).
7. National Lampoon European Vacation. Directed by Amy Heckerling, 1985.
Not as good as the original and really doesn’t hold up at all anymore (if it ever did), but memorable for one scene: Chevy and family entering a roundabout in London and finding themselves unable to leave. Round and round they go, until night falls and Chevy is babbling uncontrollably. Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing people still think of when they hear the word ’roundabout,’ but modern roundabouts — and please repeat after me — are safer and handle traffic flows better than conventional four-way signalized or stop-sign marked intersections.
8. Singles and Mission Impossible: III (tie).
I lump these together because they both feature characters who are transportation engineers (one an aspiring, and the other, well it’s only his cover, he’s really a spy, but still…). Traffic engineers are hardly the next architects when it comes to giving movie characters ostensibly sexy and easy-to-depict careers (he’s carrying a tube of blueprints — whoa, he’s an architect!), so I’m always interested when they appear. In Cameron Crowe’s Singles, Campbell Scott plays Cliff, an idealistic engineering student who’s obsessed with a “super-train.”
Here’s his pickup line to a fellow single: “Let me ask you a question. You think about traffic? Because I do, constantly. Traffic is caused by the single car driver. Single people get in their cars every morning. They drive and wonder why there’s gridlock.” (Note the double meaning of the word “single”!)
In MI III, we get the pleasure of hearing Tom Cruise drop this line at a cocktail party: “You hit the brakes for a second, just tap them on the freeway, you can literally track the ripple effect of that action across a two-hundred-mile stretch of road, because traffic has a memory. It’s amazing. It’s like a living organism.” And then leaves to mix a drink or something, leaving his guests to digest his feverish musings.
9. Rain Man and Midnight Cowboy. There are two great Dustin Hoffman in the crosswalk moments, and I find each striking for they say about traffic. The first, in Midnight Cowboy, is the famous Ratso Rizzo “I’m walkin’ here” tirade, directed against a taxi cab that has violated his right of way. Indelibly funny stuff, the stuff of ring-tones, and it’s something every New Yorker has wanted to shout at some point (and more New Yorkers, I must point out, are killed crossing with the light than against). The second, in Rain Man (directed by Barry Levinson, 1988), finds Hoffman as the autistic savant Raymond. He’s walking in a crosswalk in a small town when suddenly the light flashes to “don’t walk.” Of course, in traffic law this only means do not enter the crosswalk, but to Raymond’s rigidly programmatic way of thinking, he takes this as a command to stop directly where he is, until he’s retrieved by Tom Cruise (not playing a traffic engineer in this one). This moment in its own way to some of the subtle problems of excessive traffic signs and signals in that an over-reliance on their instructions can see us rather losing the ability to think for ourselves, arguably placing us in new dangers.
10. Sunrise. Directed by F.W. Murnau, 1927.
I was going to go with the otherwise fairly forgettable Starman here for its scene in which the alien, learning the customs of Earth, finds out that the yellow signal at a traffic light means go “really fast,” but I wanted to end on a more lyrical note with this classic, hugely influential silent film. The rush of city traffic is a virtual character in the film, but in one famous moment, the husband and wife cross a large city square, and as the cars and trolleys and horses bear down upon them, they stop to kiss and magically fade into the traffic itself in an intensely memorable scene. Alas, if only traffic were so simple…