TMA’s Road Films Series Takes A Trip Through The History Of Cars In Film

. June 19, 2019.
American Graffiti

In any inventory of the US’s most enduring cultural contributions to the world, cars and movies would be near the top of the list. Though both originated in Europe, their development and rise to prominence were driven by American invention and sensibilities. So, it’s only natural that in the US cars and films— from road movies to drive-in theaters to the Fast and Furious franchise— have been intertwined throughout their parallel histories.

The metaphor of the car in film is not unlike that of the romanticized pirate ship in earlier centuries’ literature. More than a means of transportation, the car represents freedom, unfettered possibility, agency. It’s the makeshift Hudson pickup that promises salvation for the Joad family through a trek from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to California. It’s the green Mustang GT that keeps Frank Bullitt safe from, and eventually enables him to exact retribution against, a pair of hitmen hell-bent on his demise. It’s the roaring steel armor that allows modern-day knight Dom Toretto to live his life in the moment — “a quarter mile at a time.” Cars and movies have played crucial, pervasive roles within the modern American story. To celebrate this mythical dyad of American culture — and to complement the exhibition, Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture — the Toledo Museum of Art presents the road films series, Find One in Every Car: On the Road in American Movies, from June 27 to September 7.

Get your kicks…

For the TMA, Life is a Highway, is “the first U.S. exhibition to provide an inclusive, historical overview of artists inspired by American car culture with an emphasis on the Midwest region.” Its genesis stemmed from a moment of pure serendipity; TMA curator of works on paper, Robin Reisenfeld’s arrival in Toledo coincided with the Detroit Auto Show. According to TMA Manager of Programs and Audience Engagement, Scott Boberg “It really struck her how important car culture was to the Midwest — more so, even, than other parts of the US.” This sparked Resienfeld to begin assembling the groundbreaking show, which is set to be both a celebration of and an exploration into how the automobile has shaped and changed American culture and art.

In the accompanying TMA film series, Find One in Every Car, Boberg seized the opportunity to explore American cinema’s engagement with cars alongside Life is a Highway’s look at the same subject in visual art.

From blacktop to the silver screen

The Saturday films have a more thought-provoking, historical bent. From the outset, as Boberg points out, the Saturday matinee timing calls back to a quintessentially American activity, complementing perfectly the nostalgic aspects of Life is a Highway’s celebration of car culture. Movies like The Grapes of Wrath and a presentation of early automobile-centric shorts examine cars as an unprecedented tool of movement. These films show cars as a means, through adversity and disillusionment, to change one’s scenery, circumstances, and even destiny, providing entertaining, educational opportunities for visitors of all ages.

The Thursday evening showings, by contrast, are more mature, action-oriented fare. Cars provided movies with an unprecedented sense of suspense and velocity as the vehicular chase scene became a staple action set piece. On Thursdays, the silver screen will light up with blood-pumping chases as the metaphorical freedom of the automobile adopts a decidedly picaresque flavor. Find One in Every Car’s Thursday films will bring out the often dark, always engrossing underbelly of car culture, from pioneering films like Bullitt to the boundary-breaking female “buddy” drama Thelma & Louise, to the inaugural entry in the noble outlaw car epic series, The Fast and the Furious.

Cars are a central part of the American — and, especially, the Midwestern — experience. Through Life is a Highway and Find One in Every Car, the TMA is spending this summer celebrating and examining that pivotal role in our art, culture, and imagination.

American Graffiti

Cars are stars in George Lucas’ love letter to American car culture, American Graffiti, including this yellow ’32 Deuce Coupe.

On Friday, August 23, enjoy a drive-in movie-style presentation of the film at the TMA. Before the outdoor screening at 9:15pm, scope out classic cars and hear an American Graffiti-inspired soundtrack during a TMA Car Show.