Muscle Car Emotions

illustration by Brianna Ashby

A 1972 Buick Skylark in primer black burns rubber in slow motion, sliding threateningly sideways toward the camera, white block letters stenciled onto the sides of the car: Medusa. Flames erupt sky-high from the vertical exhaust pipes poking through the trunk. A miniature dash-mounted TV relays surveillance images from the cameras mounted around the car. This apocalyptic image is inspired by Mad Max but is actually the visual talisman of an emotionally intense nano-budget indie from 2011, Bellflower. The two young men who build the car (Woodrow and Aiden, played by Evan Glodell and Tyler Dawson respectively) are not what you picture as car guys. They are tender in their friendship and open in their affection for each other. They sport MC Hammer t-shirts and awkward beards. They draw cartoons and joke about being warlords when the apocalypse arrives. They are bored, white trash hipsters in a forgotten and depressed coastal town in California who happen to know how to build things. The car is part inside joke, part ironic affectation, part sincere and subsumed projection of masculinity in denial.

My dad was a car guy, though an unlikely one. I guess it was in his blood: he grew up poor in Detroit in the 50s, and by his teenage years in the late 60s was street racing a dragon-green 1965 Plymouth Fury III with a 383 small block, a car with about as good a chance of winning a drag race as he had of winning a date at that point. He wasn’t popular or good looking, though he was smart in a way we’ll call bookish. Car Guy was the only available identity he qualified for that wasn’t social suicide. Over time he added Born Again Christian, Husband, Male Nurse, and Dad.

I joke sometimes that I grew up at drag strips, but it’s not really true; I grew up dirt poor in a trailer park. When my dad started making enough money as a nurse to afford more exciting options for escapism than an occasional trip to Pizza Hut, he started taking me to drag strips: Gainesville, Indianapolis, Detroit, and more rundown rural tracks than I can list. He never made enough money for us to buy even an entry-level drag car of our own to race, so we happily sat in the stands and took turns picking our cars for each race, gloating when our picks won. It was a metal-and-oil Monopoly game for us, a chance to pretend we really owned a hotel on Boardwalk. These weekends were a chance for me to soak in my dad’s undivided attention before things got complicated in our relationship, and despite my adult sensibilities I can’t deny these hours at the track were fun. It’s more or less impossible for a child to be bored when grown-ups are piloting death rockets down a racetrack for your express entertainment. I spent more Friday nights watching sexually frustrated men do burnouts and aborted wheelies in bondoed mid-80s Camaros and Monte Carlos than I can remember.

In high school I discovered music and writing and actual human emotions; I also discovered irony, and suddenly cars were not cool anymore because they were Too Cool. I spent several years, well into my twenties, pretending I was over them. The guys who liked them were dumb brutes and their cars were bad for the environment and I was above it all. A few more years went by before I finally accepted that regardless of my worldview and general aesthetic there were few smells more instantly evocative to me than high octane racing gas (which smells nothing like what we put in our cars) and vaporized rubber, and cars and I settled into an uneasy peace with each other. They can be cool now, with qualifications, with understandings, with asterisks, with self-aware nostalgia.

Everyone saw Nicolas Wending Refn’s Drive in 2011, and for good reason. Stylized to the gills, slickly self-aware, irony-soaked but playing straight and never winking for the camera, the film successfully subverted the hyper-masculine car-and-heist tropes of an older generation of films, defining cool on its own terms while never losing sight of the fundamental absurdity of that word. No one saw Bellflower that same year, but they should have. It was the punk rock, lo-fi cousin to Refn’s film, and the DIY ethos of its production and on-screen presentation made it feel grittier and truer than the Gosling vehicle. Drive was cool but it shopped at The Gap. Bellflower grabbed something dirty to wear from its friend’s beer-can-cluttered bedroom floor or else scoured the bins at the Goodwill on the poor side of town. The film was made for only $17,000 but you’d never know it. Beautifully shot and scored, Bellflower is well-acted and competently and assuredly directed. These characters are people we all hung out with right after high school or met at parties with people who did. They are affable losers, harmless drifters who don’t feel threatening at all until they really, really do. The violence surprises us in Bellflower, and when we realize it’s coming, the intensity of dread makes our hearts beat faster. These are people we walk past on sidewalks and assume are normal, and they are. But normal people can do bad, bad things.

Moroso Motorsports Park, Florida, 1989: a jet-powered dragster blasts off from the starting line fifty feet in front of me and rockets down the track. The crowd gasps audibly as the driver loses control of a machine evolution did not prepare his reflexes for, and the vehicle rocks onto two side tires before he lets off the power and the car levels out. Gainesville, Florida, 1990: the first time I’ve ever seen—or rather, felt—a top fuel dragster open the throttle. The air concussion makes it difficult to breathe, and the noise is surreal in its atmospheric violence. One of the cars blows a tire and a hundred-pound piece of fiberglass fender launches high into the air above the crowd. My dad grabs me by the shoulders, preparing to throw me out of the way if it comes down on us. It does not. Back to Gainesville, 1995: A dragster flips over backward from its own traction at 200 mph, shatters, and rolls endlessly before coming to a stop. Rescue crews rush to get the driver out of what remains of the crumpled roll cage. Every one of these scenarios is patently, categorically absurd, and these are just a sample. The entire enterprise is ridiculous: gross monetary excess, flagrant environmental disregard, outsized egos among the drivers, general douchiness among the fans. Fifty-thousand people paying a day’s wages to watch helmeted maniacs pilot advertisement-spackled suicide machines down a track so fast they need parachutes to slow them down at the other end.

Bellflower is similarly absurd, and only gets away with it on the strength of its earnest humanity, the way it exposes the brokenness of its characters without ever drawing charts for the audience. More than anything else the movie is about the violence ordinary people are capable of when their hearts are broken, and the sickness at the core of American masculinity even when that masculinity doesn’t look like the stereotypes.

The film was written and directed by Evan Glodell (who also stars in it), and he and his team actually built all the silly toys in the movie. They spent months looking for the car, and then dropped a big engine in it (shooting was delayed months when the motor blew) and outfitted it with all the gadgets seen in the film. The phallic exhaust pipes really do shoot flame, the surveillance cameras work, bleach sprays onto the tires during burnouts to soften the rubber and create a smokescreen. The flamethrower the pair builds in the movie really works. None of this real-world functionality is necessary of course, and plenty of wonderful movies exist—the majority of them, in fact—with props that don’t actually work. But the functionality in a movie like this seems to mean something. Glodell, however artistically inclined he may be, however emotionally in-touch and sensitive, however hip and punk, is on some level an actual busted-knuckles-and-greasy-hands Car Guy.

My dad was an amateur mechanic. He did most of the repair on our cars growing up, and tried in vain to pass this appreciation and aptitude on to me. I spent a whole lot of hours on my back staring at the filthy undercarriages of late model American sedans before my dad finally accepted at some point in my teens I was never going to be able to swap out a rear differential on my own. I can change the oil and a tire and, with a set of instructions, a set of brake pads, but mostly I hand everything over to my mechanic, a trustworthy young dude who loves the Fast & Furious movies and asks inappropriate questions about my divorce every time I drop off my Hyundai.

Because I am not mechanically inclined, and because my other interests don’t dovetail often with those of gearheads, it generally comes as a surprise to people to find I actually know quite a bit about cars, that I spent so much time at major drag races growing up, that I know the cubic inch displacements of just about every American V-8 offered between 1960 and 1980—even if I wouldn’t know how to so much as change the spark plugs on any of them. I am the automotive equivalent of an overweight sixty-year-old who’s an expert figure skating commentator. And I learned what I know at my dad’s side on countless summer nights, even if we rarely speak these days.

My relationship with my dad is, as you might have gathered by now, complicated. He loved me; loves me still. He is, however, thoroughly unequipped to do so with any measure of grace or skill. He never knew his own dad, and the streets of Detroit were a poor classroom for picking up the nuances of how healthy relationships are supposed to work. He found Jesus as a teen and devoted his life to studying the Bible as an adult, which smoothed off the rough edges of his personality but only served to back up his poor parental reasoning with ever more abstract authority. When you’re a teenager and your dad tells you something you’re doing is wrong, it pisses you off. When you’re a teenager and your dad tells you something you’re doing is wrong and explains why with Greek and Hebrew words, invoking the Almighty, it’s not so easily shrugged off. Still, I can’t deny the fun we had when I was a kid, and the things I learned while handing him tools and holding flashlights for him underneath various cars growing up.

Bellflower’s Woodrow and Aiden learned about cars from someone, too. They learned about electrical wiring, and firearms, and the plumbing they use while assembling the flamethrower, from someone. These characters most likely have not spoken to their parents since they left Wisconsin a year earlier, and, if they knew their fathers at all, one assumes those men now look on their sons with something less than approval. Still, those fathers Woodrow and Aiden want nothing to do with any more once built the cars these young men now tinker with, and probably taught them how. Is there really much difference between who Woodrow and Aiden are at the beginning of the film and who their fathers were at their age? And by the film’s end-once the capacity for terrible violence in both friends has been horrifyingly exposed-can their behavior do anything else but echo the false machismo of their fathers?

Two friends move to California, to both escape whatever was behind them and because they think it will be cool. They laugh and dream about building a car from which to rule a post-apocalyptic American wasteland, and then, because someone taught them how, they actually build it. They want to love their friends and their girlfriends, and because someone also taught them how, they totally fuck it up. They are nothing like their fathers, and everything like them.

But hey, they have a pretty badass car.