By way of an introduction, I apologise for the absence of this column last week. Coming up with a themed stream of consciousness can be a tricky business sometimes. Last Tuesday I was travelling, and I’ve been unable to do it since due to my fiscal wranglings with Intek Communications SW, who have pressganged me into a mobile phone deal I neither need nor want. C’est la vie. I promised you McQueen, here it is. The connections this week may be even more tenuous than usual; I suggest you prepare yourself for mass confusion.
Steve McQueen is regularly hailed as being one of the most iconic figures in the history of American popular culture. His voice was hardboiled, but lilting with a wry sense of humour; his stance was casual yet determined, and his screen presence, together with the semi-interested gaze that follows all icons of cool, confirmed his status. He was an interesting chap; despite what many will tell you, he was a strong actor (I challenge you to find fault with his performance in ‘Papillon’ alongside Dustin Hoffman, and (incredibly) he turned down roles in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, the original ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (starring the rat pack), and ‘Apocalypse Now’ (he was the first character approached to play Willard)) and, alongside his acting career, was a professional racing driver. At one point, he was set to drive, with Jackie Stewart, in Le Mans (he instead chose to make the film, which almost destroyed his career and killed him). In fact, he was such a strong motorcycle rider that, in the scene in ‘The Great Escape’ when he is fleeing from the might of the motorised Wehrmacht, he actually plays one of the German pursuit riders and chases himself, due to the fact that the producers couldn’t find anyone else good enough to keep up with him.
He was inducted into the Off-Road Driving Hall of Fame and, posthumously, the Motorcycle Racing Hall of Fame. Like all good twentieth century icons he died young (well, he was 50) and as a direct result of his lifestyle; when he was driving, to prevent himself from being exposed to the multitude of toxic fumes that would gather around the track, he would dip a rag in liquid asbestos and tie it around his mouth. Whether he was aware of the risks or not (I suspect not), it killed him, and he died in Mexico in 1980 from a heart attack while undergoing dangerous surgery to treat a lung tumour created by the chemical.
But what about his greatest moment? It is, of course, the chase scene in ‘Bullitt.’ A crap film, a brilliant bit of driving.
Now, I’ve watched this scene hundreds of time (and it just keeps getting better), so I’m going to give you a running commentary on the action:
00:15 – He first gets into the car. Note the surly, suspicious expression on his face as he views his nemesis, the Dodge Charger.
02:09 – The guy with the glasses in the Charger looks in his rear view mirror and realises that they’re being followed.
03:15 – The guy with the glasses quietly puts on his seatbelt. The chase is about to begin in earnest.
03:20 – He accelerates away, the music (which has been building the tension up to this point) cuts out and is replaced by the sounds of the engine.
04:07 – McQueen appears to make a mistake – this wasn’t actually in the script, but the director liked it so much he kept it in.
04:42 – While going down a long hill, the Charger passes a green VW Beetle. This will become significant.
04:51 – They pass the Beetle again. On the same hill.
05:08 – And again.
05:18 – And again. Four times in all – were there just that many green VW Beetles in 1960s San Francisco?
07:10 – McQueen almost loses control. The guy in the glasses allows himself to briefly smile.
09:07 – The ramming begins, as does the shooting.
09:40 – One last touch from McQueen sends the Charger flying into a petrol station, where it explodes in a blaze of fire. Job done.
As I mentioned earlier, ‘Bullitt’, in it’s entireity, is not a very good film, and McQueen’s performance is never fantastic – in the chase sequence he is merely playing himself and having fun (although some of it was, shockingly, performed by a stunt driver). But it’s a joy to watch because Frank Bullitt (yes, that’s his real name) is one of a series of American cops who hide behind their cars (Bullitt) or their guns (Dirty Harry) and who consequently don’t have to say or do much. When a superior confronts them with the results of their rule-bending, they shrug. They aren’t concerned. They do what they like, when they like, and they keep the streets clean. They don’t try to be loud, or brash; they don’t have to drink or smoke too much, and if they do they keep it quiet. They just talk softly and carry a big, fuck-off gun. And good luck to them.
So that’s McQueen covered, but what about Kapuscinski? Ryszard Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who travelled extensively in Africa and covered the transition to independence of many African states. His most widely available book is probably ‘The Cobra’s Heart’, among other things an exciting story about the perils of life in the wilderness and an interesting description of Idi Amin’s 1971 coup d’etat in Uganda. The book is available in the Penguin ‘Great Journeys’ series, a collection of books I received through the post almost entirely by accident.
“I never suspected that there could be so much power within a single creature. Such terrifying, monstrous, cosmic power. I had assumed that the canister’s edge would easily cut through the snake – nothing of the kind! I now saw we had beneath us not a snake, but a throbbing, vibrating steel spring, impossible to either break or crush.”
The series also contains books by names like George Orwell (his contribution is, I believe, an extract from ‘Homage to Catalonia’ – it’s called ‘Fighting in Spain’), Mark Twain and Ernest Shackleton. Once again, Penguin prove that that, through economy and style, they are still the people’s publishing house. In terms of innovation, the competition are light years behind.
The Hashmark has it’s finger on a pulse of sorts, but I often think that, by being the way we are, we miss out on covering some of the stories the public at large deem important. So, in a feature I’m entitling “Zeitgeisting It Up!”, I’m going to look beneath the surface of the world of pop entertainment (it’s going to be based on Google’s zeitgeist list of popular searches). But first – during the week I watched some pre-pubescent puke called Ray Quinn (Ray Quinn? He sounds like a prizefighter) belt out a monstrous version of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ on This Morning. My problem is this – everyone knows the only acceptable cover of that song is Sid Vicious’ attempt, during the video of which he decends a staircase in a white tuxedo and proceeds to sing the first verse in a dreadful falsetto, before firing on the audience with a revolver (watch it here). It’s so wrong that it’s right; who better to cover the elder statesman of the Rat Pack’s swansong than a talentless junkie? But ‘Ray’ (if that is his real name) is pushing my patience. The next time he’s entertaining Philip Schofield in the studio I might just dash down the steps from the audience seating and shoot the fucker square between the eyes. And as the police are dragging me away, I’ll shout, laughing like a maniac, “I did it my way! Hahahahahaha!” Hmm…it seems I didn’t cover much populist entertainment…I’ll try harder next week.
Cultural Meanderings branches out! Introducing Weekly Wanderings – current affairs, opinion etc.. This week, a poor start. I was in a cafe on Saturday (I seem to spend much of my life in cafes and pubs) reading a copy of The Daily Mail (it was the only paper available), when I came across the headline “BBC will bring back sitcoms for the family.” The article went on to state that “todays comedies are dominated by sexual themes and bad language.” A fair point. But Paul Revoir, The Mail’s television correspondent (only a newspaper as shit as The Mail could have a ‘television correspondent’ – I imagine he’s on the same payscale as the Iraq correspondent) invalidates his arguement by holding up deplorable examples of the heights of family entertainment; he cites ‘Are You Being Served?’, ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ and Hi-De-Hi’ as being “favourites” that rightly relied on “silly humour.” But what he seems to have forgotten is that os those three examples, ‘Are You Being Served?’ had an obvious sexual agenda, ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ was overtly racist and ‘Hi-De-Hi’ was just rubbish. Should the BBC choose to make more carbon copies of ‘My Family’ and ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ it would signal the end of the broadcaster’s run of producing intelligent, edgy comedy, which would, of course, be a tragedy.
In summary: I’m going through an African phase; with Morocco fresh in my mind, I’ve been inspired to read not only ‘The Cobra’s Heart’ but also Wilfred Thesiger’s ‘Across The Empty Quarter’.
Next week – Why Jim Morrison was a wanker (as confirmed by his cause of death).