Viewfinder Magazine

Drive: Journeys through Film, Cities and Landscapes
by Prof Iain Borden

Given how much many people undoubtedly enjoy automobile driving, and given the enormous number of cars made over the last century, and given the vast literature available on cars, it is remarkable how relatively little exploration has been given to the pleasures of actually driving cars. Masses of studies of car design, car production, advertising, racing, maintenance, highway design and traffic management, yes, but, by comparison, very little on the real experience of driving itself.

... the movie and automobile industries grew together because they both reflected a love kinetic energy, motion and speed

This creates a hole in our understanding of car driving, and instead we need here the kind of exploration proposed by urban geographer Nigel Thrift through the notion of ‘non-representational theory’, that is an investigation of everyday practices, where people create and imagine their lives in a non-academic manner. We need rather more reflection of the kind invoked by Roland Barthes in his famous essay on the Citroën DS, describing how the car is an object of amorous attentions, being touched, caressed and fondled. Or as philosopher Jean Baudrillard comments on freeways in his book America, ‘the point is not to write the sociology or the psychology of the car, the point is to drive. That way you learn more about this society than all academia could ever tell you.’

So why then the particular interdisciplinary intersection of Drive, which brings together concerns with driving experiences and cinema?

There is of course the simple issue of the vastness of the subject, whereby a huge range of primary sources on automobiles runs right the way from personal diaries to government reports, and to myriad enthusiast car magazines and specialist web sites, not to mention a plethora of novels, films, animations, paintings, sculpture, music and poetry. Indeed, my own bibliographic database has over 100,000 automobile references in print alone. Focusing on film thus provides one way of filtering this material down to a manageable size.

But the concentration on film is far from being a purely prosaic act. Firstly, cinema, more than any other media, provides the most direct sense of what it actually feels like to drive, showing how driving involves movement, bodies, thoughts, feelings, spaces, sights and sounds. Cinema articulates what is feels like to drive in space, and also records this experience in a semi-historical manner.

Second, as director Cecil B. De Mille noted, the movie and automobile industries grew together because they both reflected a love kinetic energy, motion and speed. As such, movies help us understand the thrill of modernity, not only through aesthetic experiences of space through effects of framing, signs, mobility and so forth, but also transcending the rational and disciplined qualities of driving, and moving into a realm of the comparatively irrational, into matters of non-codified thought, instinct, and idiosyncratic everyday behaviours. In short, film shows how we often live dynamically and without constant codified thought.

Third, movies do not stay on the screen, but are constantly reproduced in the minds those who have seen them. Driving in cinema is re-lived through the act of driving, and of course in turn re-represented through yet later films. Movies are not, therefore, a simple reflection of driving, but are an integral part of how we perceive and engage in this practice. Driving embodies cinema, just as cinema visualizes driving.

Fourth, as Baudrillard also noted in America, the city has seemingly stepped right out of the movies, and therefore, in order to understand cities, we should not move inwards from city to screen, but the other way round, beginning with the screen and moving outwards to the city. In other words, recognizing that our experiences and city spaces are not natural but are constructed through diverse means, then exploring cinematic depictions of driving helps us to identify ways in which certain aspects of driving culture and experiences have been expressed, encouraged and heightened.

... film shows driving as hugely mediated and varied modern experience

Fifth, and last, a vast range of different driving experiences are presented in movies, and so cinema helps debunk any premise of there being any single kind of driving; film shows driving as hugely mediated and varied modern experience, a practice which varies according to road, speed, car and landscape, as well as to specific life conditions, personalities and narratives. Cinema shows driving as part of the richness of everyday life, as something which we nearly all do, yet in disparate and divergent ways.

Notably, several books and articles do deal with one particular kind of driving - the road movie genre from Gun Crazy and Vanishing Point to Thelma & Louise and Kalifornia. Notable here are The Road Movie Book edited by Cohan and Hark, Cartographic Cinema by Conley, Road Movie by Frasca, Driving Visions by Laderman, Crossing New Europe by Mazierska and Rascaroli, Road Movies by Orgeron, Lost Highways edited by Sargeant and Watson, and 100 Road Movies by Wood. However, even these publications tend to avoid much of the actual experience of driving in terms of velocity and vision. They also, with a few notable exceptions, have a tendency to focus on films of the 1960s and 1970s.

There are also a few other publications which concentrate on cars as objects and on car chases – notably Buckley’s Cars in Films, the Internet Movie Cars Database website at, and Crosse’s The Greatest Movie Car Chases of All Time – but these are enthusiast endeavours, often highly informative in automobile facts and figures, but less concerned with wider contexts. By contrast, in Drive I try to focus on the cultural and social qualities of automobilities in combination with a direct consideration of the experiential nature of driving. I also extend the typical road movie fare of the open country, desert or rural road, extending its scope to include city streets, urban highways, freeways and motorways, as well as more imaginary speeds and forms of driving. Furthermore, I try to cover a much wider chronological range of films, extending from the earliest days of film in the 1900s right through to the 2000s – and consequently in researching Drive I watched over 450 different films, many if not all of which found their way into the final publication.

The result is, I hope, a series of stimulating journeys through film and driving, which move variously from the dusty landscapes of The Grapes of Wrath to the city streets of The Italian Job, from the aesthetic delights of Rain Man and Jacques Tati’s Trafic to the existential musings of Thelma and Louise and Vanishing Point, and from the motorway pleasures of Radio On and London Orbital to the high-speed dangers of Crash, Bullitt, and C’était un Rendezvous. Throughout, I explore how driving, as an integral part of modern life, is something to be celebrated and even encouraged. As a result, various instances of filmic driving are shown to incorporate matters ranging from democracy, gender and youth, to kinaesthetics, adventure and fun, to alienation, transgression and death, to, of course, independence, autonomy and modernity.

Another concern here, therefore, is the way in which some aspects of driving experience have been around for decades or longer, and so can be seen as integral or endemic parts of modernity, and thus, in our frequent contemporary concern to reduce or forego private automobile transport, we should recognize are qualities which are not likely to quickly disappear, be given up or be forgotten. Indeed, one of the central themes of Drive that car driving – and particularly the distinctive cultural, political, social and experiential benefits we gain from directly engaging in it – is an integral part of our modern society, and therefore is something to be preserved, celebrated and even encouraged.

About the author:

Iain Borden is Professor of Architecture and Urban Culture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, where he is also Vice-Dean for Communications for the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, having previously served as Director and Head of the Bartlett School of Architecture from 2001-09. Previous publications include: Bartlett Designs: Speculating With Architecture (Wiley, 2009); Beyond Space: the Ideas of Henri Lefebvre in Relation to Architecture and Cities. Journal of Chinese Urban Science, 3 (1), [2012], pp. 156-193. For a full list of publications, click here.

Drive: Journeys through Film, Cities and Landscapes is published by Reaktion Books - ISBN: 
978-1780230269 (Paperback), £18.00