Drunk driving school is a lot like Drivers Ed. No one listens. Occasionally, someone is reprimanded for sleeping or bringing in food. We talk about our jobs, ask what the DMV requires of us, and tune in just in time to object to the teacher’s claim about the dangers of marijuana.
At the start of each class, we take turns recounting what happened on the night in question. In our stories, we are victims of inconvenience, bad luck and occasionally more. I observe that, while my female classmates use their time with the talking marble to divert blame or share plans to compensate for failed background checks, male drunk drivers typically greet the implication that they are alcoholics with either a “yeah right” or “hell yeah I am!!” Mens’ stories share a strange Boogie Nights quality: lobby windows shatter while “Let the good times roll” plays. Pithy spats with valets end abruptly with cheesy tire-skidding sounds. They are comedies of errors, structured around the amorphous restorative power of levity, but typically glaze over the error itself. Womens’, on the other hand, lay out earnest, logical appeals, asking for forgiveness and empathy.
As a native New Yorker turned California drunk-driver, I am habitually amazed by how thoroughly the necessity of driving – or not – echoes throughout day-to-day life in Los Angeles. These car-stories take on distinctly different shapes and structures depending on if a male or female voice is speaking, driving, or riding as a passenger.
If a car takes us through a story, who is driving, and who are the passengers? How should we treat vehicles that appear as characters, or as symbolic guideposts? Is a car ever just a car?
It makes sense that men and women face the loss of a driving privilege differently, since they have different relationships with cars to begin with. In LA, nothing tells more about status than what – and if –you drive. (Documentarian Thom Anderson pays tribute to neighborhoods and experience observed solely by pedestrians, observing “They say nobody walks, but [what they mean is] it’s not rich white people like us who walk.”) The radical divide between car-culture and those outside it tells more than just who has money and doesn’t, and how much – it also signifies how that wealth is treated and which people and neighborhoods are granted more visibility than others.
The car is alternately revered and demonized in fiction and the day-to-day lives of Angelinos, for whom casual greetings are most often taken as inquiries about traffic, smog, or mechanical fires on the 405.
While cars are invoked ad nauseam in most early 20th century American Literature, Fitzgerald’s careening yellow Rolls-Royce is likely its most famous appearance: as any good high school English student knows, Gatsby’s car is a surrogate for what wealth permits and excuses, and the problems it creates. “It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length” Nick Carraway observes, suggesting that, like the Rolls, excess, status, and money often deceive or destroy those who possess them.
Both Anderson and Fitzgerald associate the car with a sort of recklessness that accompanies luxury and dooms its logical conclusion. For Fitzgerald, this is pretty literal: most of the book’s major characters perish in car-accidents or lose loved ones to vehicular tragedy. Anderson deals with car-as-symbol in a broader context, linking cars and freeways to LA’s ever-widening wealth gap and the kinds of experiences represented on screen and in popular literature.
Conversely, in Joan Didion’s “Bureacrats” the freeway is assigned a quasi-hokey mysticism, deemed Los Angeles’ only “secular communion.” Though she doesn’t say so (and likely would object) I see Didion’s elevation of driving as a distinctly female act or impulse, commemorating a space where a private female narrative or experience can take place without the intrusions it might face elsewhere.
Five or six years ago, I lived briefly with an artist friend in Harlem after a relationship ended. He did a lot of unusual things for money, all of which I envied and used gratuitously as material for poetry. Some days, he recovered taxidermy and old civil war currency to sell on the Internet. Others, he left before dawn to labor at a construction site in Red Hook that was supposedly being converted into a Christie’s auction house (I believe these plans were ultimately scrapped).
Out of all of these odd jobs, the one I found oddest was a Friday night late shift driving for a taxi dispatch. This seems much less unusual now, when rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft employ more out-of-work creatives then anyone else, but at the time, the image of my 26-year-old painter friend driving strangers to and from LaGuardia struck me as not only a brave and bizarre act, but also an imaginative one.
I knew one other taxi-driver, now that I think of it – a man who drove a cocaine dealer I met periodically before I realized blow was neither a remotely financially or socially sustainable solution to anxiety. I waited for a taxi many times, jumped in, and felt the baggie long enough to feign an educated response about drug quality/amount. Once, I eagerly reached too early, when the car was stopped at a visible intersection and was scolded by my dealer. This particular momentary lapse of conduct is not what people typically mean when they say taxis are spaces of desire or violence, though both sensations were easy enough to fathom, as they tend to be when we enter cars with strangers.
We meet Hemingway’s impotent Jake Barnes in a taxi, and leave him in one: in both scenes, and throughout The Sun Also Rises, taxis are characterized as spaces in which desire must confront its limitations. In the novel’s opening taxi-ride, Jake deflects a French prostitute’s advances, and we learn about his impotence for the first time. This dynamic is echoed in the novel’s last lines of dialog, which are also spoken in a cab.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Though Jake is robbed of virility, he maintains Hemingway’s attention as a narrator and central (anti) heroic figure throughout the novel, which dwells in ruminations on different forms of crippled masculinity and their virtues and disadvantages.
Brett Ashley, the novel’s leading lady initially seems to embody some loosely defined feminist quality, but her femininity is quickly cannibalized by masculine qualities, from her sexual aggression to her name and haircut. In the end, Brett is less of a strong woman than she is a symptom of the enormous disaster of male disempowerment – the primary theme of Hemingway’s novel, which dwells on the pseudo-tragic realms in which men must suffer clumsy or impossible heterosexual longings compounded by hardships of war or the serious business of their own intellect.
Brett almost gets the last word – but only because she needs to, in order to show the depth of Jake’s wound – in Hemingway’s world, the only thing worse than not staying hard is giving a girl her turn to talk. Pressed together inside the private-public space of the taxi, Jake responds to Brett, his language supplanting one quasi-limp phallic tool with another.
“I was on my way to the shady side of the debt collecting business” begins Nymphomaniac’s sex-addict protagonist (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), “Which, among other things, involved stuff like burning peoples cars.”
While the first installment of the film delves into the childhood, adolescence and sexual coming-of-age of its central character, and is peppered with at least momentary levity, Von Trier’s follow-up is considerably darker and more moralistic. Nymphomaniac gestures to the disappointments of late capitalism, heterosexuality, and sex-positive feminism, but the failures it finds most grievous and are those of narrative itself.
“Whether I left society or it left me I cannot say,” Gainsbourg declares, setting a sedan on fire. This image marks a distinct shift in tone: though it might be Nymphomaniac’s most cathartic comic moment, the scenes that follow are easily its most unsettling.
If early films like Hitchcock’s Rear Window use car-shots to paint woman characters as objects of voyeurism, Nymphomaniac shows a woman exacting violence on a car as a failed attempt to assert control over male narrative. Just as the destroying the car does not destroy what it symbolizes, Joe’s pain extends far after she “opts out” of her therapy group and rejects normalcy outright.
At the beginning, I wanted to write an essay about why women don’t drive cabs, or why they sometimes do. One guess is that women are less likely to feel kinship with cars or other machines as extensions of their own bodies. Another is fear, how devastatingly commonplace it is for women to be assaulted in virtually any situation. I want to close my eyes and enjoy being driven but I do not. It is not enjoyable.
We ride in separate cars, driven by strangers whom we rarely see again, though sometimes we leave with their headshots or business cards if we live in Los Angeles. I’ve taken taxis to work several times a week since my car broke down a month ago. Like narcotics or certain forms of consensual sexual violence, this is at most, a short-term solution.
When I am scared, it is a distinct and female fear. So what? Other times, the driver overcharges me and I become angry. Don’t you understand, I intone witheringly, I am not some silly little girl! You didn’t turn when I said to. It happens when I’m not in cars too – during a prolonged fellating noise at a standup comedy night, or when my boss cuts me off when I speak.
Since my DUI, I am getting better about being driven. (Occasionally, I consider that I might be too good at it.) Like cars, desire possesses a kind of power that is easily sullied by the slightest suggestion of violence.
Stevie Nicks has said of her song “Rooms on Fire”: “[It] is about a girl who goes through a life like I have gone through, where she finally accepts the idea that there never will be those other things in her life. She will never be married, she will never have children, she will never do those [that] part of life.” If, as Didion put it, the family is the last fortress of late capitalism, than the image of a family house or boyfriend’s car aflame is more than just a personal choice – it is a political one, or it could be.
The oppressiveness of sex – and of the car is imagined, and it isn’t. In the famous Lichtenstein, the woman passenger faces forward, her eyelids half lowered. She looks stoned. In the first version, text reads, “I vowed to myself I would not miss my appointment – that I would not go riding with him – yet before I knew it…”
—Lucy Tiven, reluctantly paying back her debt to society.