Thursday, November 08, 2007

Stranger than fiction

It's got action, drama, suspense and danger. In other words, it's got everything that a Hollywood scriptwriter is dreaming of. So why have films about motor racing been so uniformly awful?

I remember seeing the trailer for the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman NASCAR-fest, Days of Thunder as a 12 year old kid and thinking, even then, that it was all but guaranteed to be terrible. When I finally got round to watching it, years later, I must say that my suspicions proved to be on the money. Ridiculous, implausible 'racing action' melded together with an absurdly cliched love story so lacking in chemistry that it's frankly amazing that the lead actor and actress were actually married in real life. And that's leaving aside the question of how Kidman was supposed to be a 'top brain surgeon' at an age when most medical students would not yet be out of college.

OK, you might argue, Days of Thunder was a real rotten tomato of a film, but what about the others? The awful truth is, Days of Thunder is not even the worst example of the genre. More recently, we had the diabolical Driven. If 23 year old Nicole Kidman as a brain surgeon stretches credulity, a 55 year old Sylvester Stallone as a racing driver simply threw reality out of the window. The film was nominated for no less than 5 of Hollywood's ignominious Golden Raspberry awards (for worst screenplay, worst performance by a supporting actress, worst on-screen couple, worst picture and worst supporting actor - twice! in case you're wondering.) This after all, was meant to be the Grand Prix film that had Bernie Ecclestone's backing. Bernard, however, evidently knew enough about show business to spot a giant turkey when it came calling. and so the producers had to go running off to speak to the guys at Champ Car, who must have figured that any publicity is good publicity.

What of the rest? Talladega Nights, I am told, is a reasonably entertaining comedy if you like that sort of thing, but as someone with an abiding loathing of both Farrelly Brothers films and NASCAR, I've never actually seen it. Going back a few decades, John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix has achieved quite a reputation among motorsport fans of a certain age, though more for its innovative use of special effects than for the quality of the story or the acting. The film, which I have to admit I am not overly fond of, is a reasonable period piece, but as someone who grew up in the era of the onboard camera, the special effects have rather lost their sheen. That leaves a rather predictable plot, and one can't help noticing that at nearly 3 hours, this is a very long film, and it feels it.

To my mind, the best racing film ever made was Steve McQueen's vanity project, Le Mans. Unlike the movies mentioned above, it doesn't really even try to impose much of a plot on the event, and feels in places more like an art-house documentary about 70s sportscar racing than a Hollywood feature. The first half an hour or so features literally no dialogue. It was not especially successful at the box office. Steve McQueen may have been a major star, but the Le Mans 24 Hour race has never really meant all that much to the cinema-going public in the USA. The film is, by the way, quite possibly the origin of the famous quote "When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after...is just waiting" (it has been suggested that the line was stolen from something which Maurice Trintignant said). If you are at all interested in motor racing of the era. this is the one motorsports film I would recommend making time for.

So why don't they work? It's hard to say for sure, but I suspect that it is because they are essentially redundant. Name a really worthwhile sports movie? It's not easy. The problem is that there is very little that you can do in fiction that you can't do in real life. Why watch a film about Grand Prix racing when you can simply watch a Grand Prix? It is interesting that, just as there have been few successful films about motor racing - in fact, I'd say there has been precisely one - so there haven't really been many novels in which it features either. Years ago, as an impressionable 7 year old, I read Four Wheel Drift, a children's book set around Le Mans by Bruce Carter, but to be honest, I don't remember much about it. Some years later, I also read some of Bob Judd's F1 based novels, but found them far-fetched even in comparison to the kinds of thriller one typically finds at airports (Monza wasn't too bad, though).

As an aside, I'm currently participating in a rather hare-brained event by the name of National Novel Writing Month. Amongst other things, it's the reason this post is a day late. The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. It will, of course, be of awful quality, but the point is to write something from beginning to end. I've attempted it twice before, but have never got beyond the half way stage. This year, I thought I would have a go at writing a "Dick Francis on wheels" to steal a line Murray Walker used to describe Bob Judd's books. Its early days yet, but I feel if there is one thing I'm learning, it's why successful authors don't generally write fiction about sport...

POST SCRIPT: Anyone see Nigel Roebuck's Top 10 drivers of 2007 in Autosport this week? I was amused to see that his list featured exactly the same drivers as mine, and in a somewhat similar order to boot! Do think he rather overestimated Kubica though...

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7 Comments:

Blogger Nicebloke said...

The problem with motorsport as a basis for movies is exactly what you say in the first line of your post. It already HAS everything required of a movie. As a result, I find that the best racing movies are the documentaries. As a bike fan, I LOOOOOOVE Mark Neale's MotoGP doc "Faster", but in terms of storytelling and production values, Dana Brown's "Dust to Glory" is the best racing movie of all time. The Baja 1000 is such a rich source of drama and excitement that even if you're not a fan of off-road racing, you can't fail to be enthralled by the story. And it features what I consider to be the best piece of onboard footage ever shot, as a cameraman shadows the legendary Mouse McCoy on a Honda CRF450 doing 130mph down a Mexican dirt road... with traffic coming the other way. Money!

4:29 PM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

Oh yeah, and it turns out later that that cameraman was riding with a broken hand after a brush with a canyon wall a few miles earlier. Absolute madness on wheels!

4:31 PM  
Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

And I thought I was doing really well to do NaBloPoMo - the NaNoWriMo is a lot, lot harder! You've given the reasons racing fiction tends to fail really, really well here. And good luck on the side project. ;)

4:30 PM  
Blogger patrick said...

Which surely makes me all the more stupid to be attempting to write it.

Still, a learning experience, I suppose. I'm at nearly 13,000 words, which of course still means that I'm behind schedule. I blame trips to the cinema, frisbee games and other distractions.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Pee Wee said...

Frankenheimer's "Grand Prix". I know that it's not much more to chose from, but as a kid it killed me.....still does.

7:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

A plot about motorsports is not popular among people(

7:53 AM  

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