Friday, October 28, 2016

The Driverless Car: Dirty Trick or Treat?

The disastrous bus crash outside of Palm Springs that claimed 13 lives seems to have been caused, at least in part, by the actions of the driver. The evidence is that he failed to hit the brakes when his bus approached a big-rig. Such lapses on the part of drivers encourage the idea that maybe we’d all be better off with driverless vehicles, which rely on  modern technology (and not human brainpower) to help avoid accidents. But as Halloween approaches, it’s time to consider what the movies would be like if vehicles functioned without help from humans.

Can you imagine a future with no bus drivers? Our movies and television shows just wouldn’t be the same. If buses drove themselves, Ralph Kramden--played by Jackie Gleason in a series of TV sketches known as The Honeymooners—would be out of a job. And the movie Speed, in which Sandra Bullock has to get behind the wheel of a L.A. city bus that’s been rigged with explosives, wouldn’t be the same at all if the bus did all the driving sans human intervention.

Another movie that just wouldn’t work in the world of self-driving vehicles is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Driver. It features a Hollywood stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver for criminal types. These shady gigs inevitably lead him into the L.A. criminal underworld, where he finds himself challenged to hold onto his basic humanity. If the driver, instead of being all too human, is in fact My Mother the Car, the movie loses the entire moral conundrum element.

Of course there’s something to be said for driveless cars in those instances when the car’s owner would rather be smooching with his girlfriend in the back seat than signaling for left turns. When your libido is otherwise occupied, it must be a boon to leave the driving to an automaton.

But it would be a real loss for screenwriters everywhere if driverless cars were to make cabbies unnecessary. Screenwriters are adept at creating colorful characters, full of wisecracks and wisdom, who give taxi scenes ethnic flavor and sometimes add significantly to a movie’s messaging. There’s a smart moment early in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when the lovebirds played by Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier are nuzzling each other in the back seat of a taxi during a ride from San Francisco International Airport. The first interracial kiss ever seen in a Hollywood film appears solely in the cab driver’s rear-view mirror. And on the cabbie’s face is a look of total disgust. In that small moment, director Stanley Kramer silently conveyed what he knew would be one form of  public reaction to this groundbreaking interracial love story. 

A cab driver of another sort is featured in one of my favorite World War II musicals, On the Town. Who can forget Betty Garrett as a pert lady cabbie? The audience loved her determination to show the innocent young sailor played by Frank Sinatra far more than he would ever find in his grandpa’s New York City guidebook.

And of course if you have driverless taxis, you can’t possibly make a movie like Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro stars as Travis Bickle, an ex-Marine turned vigilante. Bickle’s life inexorably changes when a teenaged prostitute played by Jodie Foster enters his cab. A driverless taxi would surely not have the same, very human reaction to Foster’s plight.

And hey, if Driving Miss Daisy played out in a driverless vehicle, how would Jessica Tandy’s little old lady get the life lessons she so badly needs?


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