Drive (2011)

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Drive will almost certainly split audiences into two camps. There will be those who will describe the film as a triumph of style over substance and those who will argue that its substance is to be found in its style. A.O. Scott described the film as ‘a prisoner of its own emptiness, substituting moods for emotions and borrowed style for real audacity’. Unlike Scott, I find my self in the latter camp; Director Nicholas Winding Refn knowingly uses gloss and surface to illustrate the character of L.A. and the spiritual absence at the core of its inhabitants.

Ryan Gosling plays ‘Driver’ whose real name is never revealed. His apparent rootlessness and lack of motivation adds to his mystique. By day he is a Hollywood stuntman. By night, he is a getaway driver for bank heists. Presumably Driver makes a fair packet from these heists but seems content to assist Shannon (Bryan Cranston) at his garage. The implication is that Driver needs danger to feel alive and as a substitute for a lack of emotional intimacy. This changes when he befriends his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio. Imbued with a tangible purpose, he rises to defend them after an attempt to alleviate Irene’s husband (Oscar Issac) from prison debts goes horribly wrong.

Drive bears comparison to Luc Besson’s Leon. Both are about alienated single-minded professionals who lack any meaningful relationships and who find solace (briefly) before tragedy ensues. The directorial approaches are also similar, the key difference being that Winding Refn’s overall tone is far more pessimistic and cynical whereas Besson’s films are imbued with a child-like enthusiasm. Both place an emphasis on marrying sound and music to image. After the opening sequence, the screen briefly fades to black before Nightcall (by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx) ear-piercingly rips through the speakers accompanied by slick aerial shots of Los Angeles at night. It’s hard not to be seduced by the bombast. There is something inexplicably satisfying when visuals and sound are so effectively synchronised that the images haunt you long after you’ve left the cinema. But there are also disquieting scenes laden with subtle nuances that confirm the director’s range.

There are frequent references to surfaces and reflections; Driver looking through his rear-view mirror, the use of bland stunt masks, neon lights flickering upon faces. Gosling’s acting is understated to the point of self-effacement. With barely any lines he communicates through exchanged glances, unblinking concentration or even the faint curl of a smile. It works very well, though it will no doubt elicit parodies.

I struggled to reconcile Carey Mulligan with her role, but on second viewing it was apparent that she is a good fit. She embodies a believable vulnerability, exuding a warmth of character that attracts Driver’s affections.

The supporting roles are brilliantly fulfilled. Though the plot is plainly elemental, none of the characters are played two-dimensionally. Oscar Issac conveys a palpable susceptibility, which intensifies right up to the films botched robbery. Christina Hendricks extinguishes any hint of her role as Mad Men’s Joan Holloway. Bryan Cranston who has proved such a revelation in Breaking Bad manages to steal some of the film’s laughs alongside Ron Perlman as west coast mobster Nino. Most surprising is Albert Brooks who plays Bernie Rose. Brooks oozes with hostility. He is a terrifying presence, committing horrendous acts without care or hesitation. Rose is a character whose emotions have long since deadened. After committing a murder he sits with a drink at home and looks positively lost. Yes, he did it for practical reasons, yet there is just a hint that he may well realise the absurdity of his existence and the needlessness of the violence which surrounds him.

Film still from 'Drive' (taken from

The violence of the film is highly aestheticised, punctuated aggressively with sound and music. Driver veers between two poles of emotional state, perhaps because he is incapable of any thing in-between. It is not the casual and muted violence of your average action film. Instead, it is searing, disturbing and at times, plainly ridiculous. The tragedy of the film is that in protecting Irene and Benicio, Driver’s capacity for violence will have to reveal itself, thus threatening to destroy the very thing he is attempting to protect.

It struck me throughout the film that though heinous crimes are committed, there is virtually no police presence (save for the opening sequence) or any suggestion that any of the characters are concerned about covering up their actions. This lends itself to the film very well, serving to extenuate the loneliness of the protagonist whilst conveying the expanse of unregulated urban jungle in which he is lost. It’s hard to even image if Driver could ever leave L.A., in the sense that the city stands in for a sort of continuous, inescapable urban environment without any clear boundaries. It lends additional weight to Bernie Rose’s threat: ‘any dreams you have, or plans for your future, I think you’re gonna have to put that on hold. For the rest of your life you’re gonna be looking over your shoulder.’

The visuals reminded me of Michael Mann’s Collateral, its protagonist of numerous lone individuals from Westerns. Its unsurprising that the work of Winding Refn is already being worshipped by cinephiles. He has a brilliant capacity to weave influences, styles and cinematic references together to create something new. His directorial virtuosity inspires admiration amongst his audiences. It is to this type for whom the film will appeal. Others will deem Drive to be shallow and gratuitous. A similar charge was levelled at Besson, whose films inspired the term Cinéma du look. The label stood for the prioritising of the visual over plotting and characterisation. I always felt that the charge was unfair. Besson’s films, whilst being visually slick, are surprisingly affecting (I’m thinking specifically of Leon, Nikita and The Big Blue) as is Drive, which ends on an ambiguous and sombre note. If such films really do articulate the alienation of youth, they should at least inform us of the sophisticated lengths with which emotion is deferred and reconstituted as something palpable, if imperfect.

Gallery Girls

So the Vorticists don't go for blondes?

Nothing sells admission tickets like pretty girls staring at paintings (The Tate particularly adheres to this notion). But there are only so many similar photos one can publish in the Metro or The Evening Standard before the exercise wears thin. What are the marketing department meant to do? The answer’s obvious isn’t it? Make a Hollywood style/damsel in distress promo video!


Cathedral of Shit

Cathedral of Shit homepage (as of 17/08/11)

Nobody knows who’s behind Cathedral of Shit (CoS), though I’ve seen a couple of suggestions circulating online. It’s a very funny (if occasionally vindictive) arts gossip/whistle-blowing blog. When I started working as a Gallery Assistant, I thought I had made a great discovery – only to find that everyone else  in the office reads it – mostly aloud during coffee breaks. I still enjoy it, even though a couple of friends have been the butt of the joke.

The majority of those who fill its pages could do with a bit of ego-deflation. So in that sense it’s providing a great public service.

Richard Phillips: Most Wanted

Richard Phillips, Robert Pattinson, 2010          (Image:

Richard Phillips’ Most Wanted, previously on view at the White Cube in Hoxton, masquerades as a critique of consumer culture when in fact it is entirely subsumed by it. It presents itself as an interrogation of our desires but ultimately has nothing of value to say because it is bound to the very culture it critiques.

Most Wanted consists of ten, two-metre high oil portraits and ten smaller pastel studies. On the ground floor five paintings are hung either side of the room, portraits of male celebrities on the left, and female on the right; Justin Timberlake, Robert Pattinson, Zac Efron, Dakota Fanning, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart to name a few. What they share is the fact that they are all young, white, Western and famous. In between the portraits on the front and back walls are vinyl stencils of recognisable brands; Cartier, Dolce and Gabbana, Versace, Louis Vuitton. These portraits do not signify individuals but brands. Pattinson is perceived to be the brooding, mysterious hunk whom he portrays in Twilight. Taylor Swift is the slim, well-behaved all American country girl. Celebrity is the paradox between the familiar and the unknown. We feel that we must know these individuals, but their lack of physical and real proximity serves to enhance their mystique.

This arrangement implicitly declares that these are the demigods of the twenty-first century. Standing before them, these works fill our line of vision and tower above us. If not omniscient, they are certainly omnipotent and omnipresent.  Each portrait is given an equal and considered distance from their neighbour. Few stare directly back at us, most toward an unknown point in the distance. These are figures as spectral as they are real. Thus, the clinical gallery space is an appropriate setting. We ‘know’ the brands, but have no real proximity to the individual. It’s as if we have intruded upon a private heavenly realm reserved for the privileged elite. Though the brand stencils are a contextual allusion to those which appear in the background of the works, one suspects that they are a practical inclusion to fill up those gallery walls which would otherwise be bare. And, quite by accident, these stenciled walls reveal what many of us use to fill a perceptible void in many of our lives.

Sigmund Freud claimed that the concept of God derives from the need for a Father-figure. In essence, for comfort. The power, influence and attention that the celebrity wields is enviable, and for better or worse, aspirational for millions across the globe. The narratives of their lives provide escapism and fantasy from the otherwise harsh and indifferent mechanisations of reality. Though these individuals surely must eat and sleep (and defecate) like we do, their clinical self- presentation alienates them from the everyday. They are capable of proliferating the world with their image, and most desirably, will do so sometime after their deaths, not unlike the gods and saints of old. The relationship between celebrity and religion is not just one of similarity, but of shared mechanisms, and is a credible and worthy topic for artistic examination.

There are some excellent touches in Phillips’ paintings. From afar, the figures appear clearly contoured and sharply delineated. But as we approach, they become appropriately hazy and diffuse. It encapsulates the experience of celebrity perfectly. The artificial colours combined with the smooth finish of the paint surface compliment the rehearsed and self conscious poses of the figures.

Each figure is surrounded by a multi-colour ‘halo’, a single undulating line of bright colour. This is the clumsiest feature of the portraits. The press release states that these are intended to emphasise the ‘electric stardom of these secular deities’. In truth, they are not immediately apparent and are lost in the overall use of garish colour on the canvas. The force of the work derives from the familiarity of the poses, the sheer scale of the canvases and the luminosity of the paint. Thus the halos only serve to pronounce the very themes of the work which are already at play. Inspired by the work of illustrator Richard Berstein who contributed regularly to Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, the influence of the latter artist is clear. Hung together, the works underscore the proliferation of media images, much like Warhol did throughout his entire oeuvre. However, that Phillips’ technique “evokes the methods of Northern Renaissance painters” is sheer nonsense. It is a familiar example of how art historical precedents are shoved into press releases as if an overall intellectual veneer will inoculate an exhibition against any critical reprive.

Upstairs, between the two walls lined with smaller pastel studies of the portraits, there is an additional vinyl brand which fills up the central wall; the White Cube logo. If one is meant to interpret Phillips’ work as a critique, than the White Cube is certainly not in on the joke. As one leaves the gallery, there is an advertisement for an edition of prints based on the works. A set of ten for £8,500 + VAT. It’s an unusual sight for two reasons; first because most galleries play down the fact that they are sites of commerce and secondly, because it seems so brazen and out of kilter with the very subject of the exhibition.

Though Phillips captures the immediate impact of celebrity as well as demonstrating its proliferation within our culture, what insight do we ultimately glean from his canvases? The very act of painting these figures from photographs and filmed footage is a demand for the viewer to slow down and to contemplate a culture which never pauses for thought. Contemplation is the very enemy of celebrity culture; it knowingly penetrates the surface. Celebrity is the ultimate nihilistic excess at the heart of modern global culture. It demands your attention, yet is disinterested in you. It profits from you, yet you profit nothing in return. It reduces individuals to brands and relationships into market exchanges. It is impossible not to see the exhibition as a symptom of these very ills. Galleries such as the White Cube have long been courting media attention, and in adding their logo amongst the various brands depicted in the show, they explicitly confer celebrity status upon themselves. Phillips’ work cannot divorce itself from the gallery’s commercial mechanisms, and as a result, is implicated within the very culture it portrays. Rather than analysing or critiquing, Phillips merely observes. The instantaneous is captured brilliantly, but just like his subject, real depth is never achieved.