Over Easter weekend, The Fate of the Furious, the 8th installment of Vin Diesel's action thriller franchise, took in an estimated $532.5 million dollars world-wide, making it the most successful debut in cinema history. I saw it for free, accompanying a friend who works in the New Yorker fact-checking department. (Yes, the New Yorker checks its film reviews.) Only after we'd seen the film - at which point I was suffering the cinematic equivalent of shell shock - did he confess that he'd asked several colleagues to join him, all of whom had declined. Wisely, perhaps. And yet The Face of the Furious has stayed with me, not because it's a memorable film (virtually everything about it, beginning with the dialogue, is forgettable) but because the experience of the film is so memorable, and so overwhelming, for anyone who lives, as I do, at a remove from what Siegfried Kracauer famously called the "mass ornament."
Let me dispatch with the story before I forget it. Dominic Toretto, aka Dom, the character played by Diesel, has to prevent the accurately named villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) from becoming one-woman nuclear force, but first he has to collaborate with her against his team, which includes his new wife, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). By appearing to betray his allies, he foils Cipher's plot, saves his marriage, the son he didn't know he had, and of course the free world, while getting into some very elaborate car (and helicopter, and submarine) chases and setting off some amazing explosions, without breaking a sweat. A film critic for the BBC explains the formula: "A lot of what drags movies like The Avengers down is the plot, and Fast & Furious isn't trying to compete with those heavy, convoluted story lines. This is just cars smashing into each other."
Indeed. So what is it about The Fate of the Furious that I found so bracing? The sheer, repellent intensity of it: this is film as spectacle and sensation, so barren of "content," so pure in its formalism, that it feels accidentally avant-garde. The Fate of the Furious is as serious about cars and violence as David Cronenberg's Crash, and, in its cynical fashion, no less self-reflexive. It's just that it celebrates with gladiatorial glee the auto-inflicted violence that Cronenberg transforms into an erotically morbid social critique.
The experience to which The Fate of the Furious subjects us (or hammers us with) was anticipated more than a century ago, by Filippo Tomaso Marinetti in the first Futurist Manifesto. "The beauty of the world," Marinetti wrote, has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath." With "our manifesto of burning and overwhelming violence," he added, "we intend to free this nation from its fetid cancer of professors, archaeologists, tour guides, and antiquarians."
Marinetti wanted to liberate Italy from people like me - the intellectual-professional class loathed by the man in the White House (I don't use the p-word); his politico-aesthetic program would soon propel him into an embrace of Mussolini. Walter Benjamin had the Futurists, and writers like Ernst Junger, in mind when he proposed that one of the distinguishing features of fascism is that it aestheticizes violence. (Communism, he claimed, did the reverse, politicizing aesthetics.) I'm not persuaded that fascism has a monopoly on this practice (I can think of a few left-wing examples), but what I think Benjamin meant - clarity was not among his virtues - was that fascist aesthetics stands on the side of the powerful, and encourages us to take vicarious pleasure in aggression against the weak. In that sense, Pasolini's adaptation of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, Salò, whose painfully graphic scenes of fascist violence fill us with horror, is a rigorously anti-fascist film precisely because it is unwatchable.
The Fate of the Furious is too empty-headed to be a properly fascist film, but its speed, intensity and exaltation of winning might have enthralled Marinetti. Its cars resemble his "serpents of explosive breath;" they race so rapidly, and so violently, that they incinerate our - or at least my - capacity for thought.
But am I being a film snob? How do the pleasures of "The Fate and the Furious" - and clearly a great many people do find the film pleasurable - differ from the magnificent films of Jean-Pierre Melville, which will soon be the subject of a retrospective at Film Forum? Don't try and convince me that we watch Melville's films, which I adore, for their insights into crime, or the French Resistance, or masculine solitude, or loyalty, which, intriguing though they sometimes are, aren't original to him. No, we watch them because the great director in the Stetson hat was a cinematic painter of cars, the criminals and police who drive them, and the less travelled zones of Paris, where his Studio Jenner was located. What mesmerizes us in Melville's work is the poetry of movement, the slow, ruminative and patient choreography of robbery, murder and car chases. The Fate of the Furious works a different kind of hypnosis with similar materials. It may be a product of the Culture Industry, but it crashed into me in ways I can't deny. Just don't make me watch it again.