The movie, running close to three full hours, documents a season on the Formula One tour split across several races, each filmed in a signature style and reflecting some sea change in one or more of our heroes. The women are counterpoint, the soft, sweet-smelling interludes between the time spent on the asphalt and tarmac of Old Europe's new gladiatorial contests. Grand Prix, for racing enthusiasts, is a time capsule of the period right before safety concerns and massive corporate interest took much of the beauty and freedom from the sport. It's also a repository for, let's face it, what remains the finest practical racing footage ever, some of it shot with shockingly little regard for the safety of cast and crew. Frankenheimer in later interviews was always quick to remind that he would call out on loudspeaker daily that should any of the performers ever feel nervous about what they were doing, it was only a movie and they should draw down--but that doesn't explain a moment captured and incorporated into the film where Pete's car catches fire and Garner-as-Pete exits just as a great burst of fire erupts in his face, throwing him backwards against the edge of the track. This is "careful Haskell, it's real" two years before Medium Cool blurred the lines for good.
Grand Prix is a fascinating failure. It's a product of extreme hubris in the pursuit of a technological godhead that's about the very same things, and what's often pegged as stilted and artificial in its "human" interactions I'd argue are calculated to be that way. If it's a better conversation than a motion picture, it's a great conversation. One worth continuing, as it happens, with Steve McQueen's taciturn, sober Le Mans five years later--the culmination of McQueen's career-long desire to be in a movie as introverted and machine-obsessed as he. To that end, he hired a patsy director (Lee H. Katzin), sank in a considerable few of his own bills, and jetted off to participate in the titular annual 24-hour endurance test. Once run by individuals driving the full day away, safety concerns led to the addition of a second driver, then a third, now a fourth--but, like Grand Prix, Le Mans captures the sport in a moment of transition. It's a full 35 minutes until the first line of dialogue, the rest of which could probably fit on ten pages, double-spaced; the bulk of Le Mans rests on the expressiveness of McQueen at this stage of his stardom, learning since The Magnificent Seven the importance of looking instead of upstaging. He vanishes into the film like Faulkner's Bear2 does into its wilderness, and all around him in place of the verdant summer green of Faulkner's lost summers are McQueen's gathering crowds and thundering engines. A flashback that could be a dream, introduced by a series of impressionistic dots that Paul Thomas Anderson will use in his solipsistic romantic reverie Punch-Drunk Love, the wordless prologue finds McQueen's Michael remembering an accident--remembering, not suffering, not regretting-that claimed the life of one of his peers.
Peopled with immensely likable B-movie talent, sporting some gratuitous nudity and a kaboodle of drag footage that culminates, unsurprisingly, in a grudge match where our hero now rides for a rival corporation (see also: Pete's defection to a Honda-inspired Japanese group led by a wonderfully virile Toshiro Mifune in Grand Prix), Fast Company ultimately doesn't provide much in the way of thrills or innovation. For an auteur study of one of our most interesting and vital Western filmmakers, however, it's as invaluable as it is a Rosetta Stone for the allure of the sport in the first place--for why it is that we build things to augment our ambitions and how those creatures, as often as they aggrandize us, immolate us. Fast Company isn't a film that stands by itself as well as appreciators of camp and low culture would have you believe, though as a smaller member of a patchwork whole (what Cronenberg likes to refer to as a cell at the mercy of the larger organism), it offers some measure of resonance and illumination. 1e1e36bf2d