October 18, 2019

Commitment to Reality

A few months ago I happened to hear a segment on the CBC radio show As It Happens (the Canadian equivalent of NPR’s All Things Considered) about how a Ford Mustang that Steve McQueen drove in the 1968 film Bullitt was being sold at auction by Sean Kiernan, a more or less random person in New Jersey who ended up with it when his father died. The whereabouts of the car had been unknown for decades, but it turned out that Kiernan’s father had bought it after answering a classified ad in a 1974 issue of Road and Track and used it as a family car. According to a 2018 article in Car and Driver, “The Kiernans initially felt so casual about the Mustang’s connection to the film that they employed it as a daily driver.” This persisted despite McQueen himself contacting the family in 1977 an effort to get the car back. Kiernan told the CBC, “You know, Steve wasn’t offering any kind of money. He was just going to swap it for something kind of like it.”

Kiernan, who describes himself as “average guy that happens to have this car — I’m not some eccentric car collector,” was quick to emphasize in the CBC interview that his parents treated the Bullitt Mustang like they would any other car: “We all do, you know, what’s supposed to be done with cars — we drive them.” He likely knows, from having told his story many times, that this is integral to its appeal, the idea that his “average” family tooled around in this film legend like it was no big deal, as if that somehow vouched for the car’s integrity. It’s not merely movie memorabilia; it’s more than that because it’s less than that. An “eccentric” collector preserving valuable esoterica is nothing unusual; what makes Kiernan’s Bullitt car a story is that it is a piece of the movies that seems to have escaped into the real world. It survived without special protection; something that’s now considered so iconic was out there in everyday use, and no one turned it into a rolling pseudo-event.

The nostalgia for the possibility of things to be under the radar is palpable in Kiernan’s account. He makes a point of lamenting the fact that he can’t drive the Mustang now without attracting attention: “Honestly I can’t wait to get another ’68 Fastback — one that I can actually drive and enjoy on the street versus this one where everybody kind of freaks out when I’m out in it.” Maybe he should have taken up McQueen on his offer after all. Eventually, in the course of his parents’ highly normal and routine driving of the Bullitt car, its clutch went bad, the Car and Driver story notes. From that point on, it sat in a garage, unrepaired and partly disassembled. Kiernan’s father kept its existence secret for reasons that aren’t explained, though presumably its market value and its susceptibility to theft dawned on him at some point. But we’re invited to imagine it sitting there not as a valuable collectible but as just another “project” — no different from any car you might see up on blocks in someone’s yard.

After his father’s death, Kiernan, who sold paint for a living, happened to describe the car he’d inherited to his boss, who, it turns out, was not just a paint salesman but also an aspiring film producer. Coincidentally enough, he had been trying for years to make a movie based on a script about two kids who discover the lost Bullitt car in a barn. “What were the chances that a fellow paint salesman who happened to be Kiernan’s boss also happened to be in the movie business?” the Car and Driver article asks. “And that that same person also happened to be trying to make a film that happened to be about the Bullitt Mustang that Kiernan happened to own?” These seem like fair questions. But the article is not especially skeptical of the answers. It reports how Kiernan interpreted this sequence of events as cosmic communication from his late father that he should at last reveal the location of the real Bullitt car as a way of honoring his memory. Later, Kiernan told the CBC that “through quite a bit of inspiration” he was able to find the wherewithal to unveil it.

To authenticate the car, Kiernan ended up in contact with the Ford Motor Co., who seized upon the opportunity to help restore it and stage its rediscovery at an auto-show event in 2018, to promote the announcement of a 2019 line of Bullitt Mustang replicas. Thanks to Kiernan, these would not be a series of simulacra without a real referent, a model without an original. Instead the copies would bask in the aura of the true original Mustang that was really driven by McQueen in the film and replicated millions of times over through that film’s distribution.

The restoration, Kiernan explained to the CBC, was undertaken carefully to preserve the patina of damage the car sustained, most famously in Bullitt’s car chase sequence staged in the streets of San Francisco. “The thing for me is, on the outside of the car, it tells such a story of the history of the car, and I didn’t want to erase any history.” He mentions how the right side still has the original Bondo on it, and that the car still has its original paint job, though he admits that it has also been coated with “UV blockers and stuff like that” so that “if it gets wet or sits out in the sun, nothing’s going to destroy it.”

In other words, efforts have been made to make it appear as though it hadn’t been preserved, to showcase its state of “honest wear.” Fittingly, Car and Driver’s photo gallery focuses particularly on the car’s dents and genuine spots of rust. “It looks like a car that got beat up three times 50 years ago, and it has just kind sat in protective custody for the past 50 years,” Kiernan tells CBC. The point of restoration was not to bring back to its original condition but to make the “story” it tells more readable, to allow its authenticity to shine through. “That’s the part that I love, I think, the most about it,” Kiernan says. “It’s raw.”

It appears, then, that Kiernan has it both ways: The Mustang was both an ordinary family car that was on the road for years, and it was a carefully preserved relic of the film shoot. He’s blurring the line between the “real” and the scripted, just like the film Bullitt itself attempted to do. The idea that the car could only be preserved in its “real state” not despite but through some sort of “normal use” is in keeping with the attitude McQueen himself expresses in a short promotional film made to coincide with Bullitt, called “ Bullitt’: Steve McQueen’s Commitment to Reality.” I first saw this as a DVD extra, and I think about its portentous title all the time. It often comes up in my internal monologue, usually when I’m congratulating myself for some token fact-check: Rob Horning’s Commitment to Reality. I suppose the producers thought “commitment to realism” wasn’t impressive enough. But “commitment to reality” opens up a whole new set of metaphysical possibilities. Where the rest of us are content with the shadows in Plato’s cave, Steve McQueen insists on the true forms. The short’s extremely earnest voice-over doesn’t balk at raising the stakes. As we watch the famous green Mustang — presumably Kiernan’s Mustang — careen into view, tires squealing and smoking as it skids into a 180, the narrator intones, “He started in films as an actor. Today he’s more involved, deeply concerned with life, deeply concerned as a filmmaker.”

“Commitment to Reality” is mainly a testament to McQueen’s vanity, which manifests as a kind of epistemological humble-brag. “The thing we tried to achieve,” he says, “was not to do a theatrical film, but a film about reality.” His privileged access to the highly expensive means of manufacturing “reality” within the entertainment industry is depicted as his heroic surrender to the reality that is out there in the world. But to make a film “about” reality — about accurate representation for its own sake — you would have to situate yourself outside that reality, sitting in judgment over it. From what standpoint exactly can that be done? McQueen poses as a circumspect dedicated member of the stunt crew, while the narration transforms this pose into a heroic feat of truth divination. “The men who drive, like Hickman [the other driver in the car chase] and McQueen, are sensitive to every twitch of the wheel,” the voice-over tells us. “They react with strength and pinpoint timing … Steve McQueen works by instinct, reflex, unconsciously concealed know-how. Above all is his reverence to authenticity. This is the story of his commitment to truth.”

As is often the case in pretentious marketing discourse, “authenticity” and “truth” here are united to spontaneity and immediacy; they appear when thinking is bypassed by “reflex” and “instinct.” It’s not a ploy; he can’t help but be real! Not only is his know-how automatic, but even its “concealment” is unconscious. He doesn’t even know how to fake faking it. He’s apparently too “deeply concerned with life” — a concern that the narration immediately and tellingly links to filmmaking. Filmmaking is both the condition for arbitrating life and what reality is, and the intervention that must be disavowed. In the short, Peter Yates, the director of Bullitt, explains why he chose to film a surgery scene on location in a real hospital with real doctors and real nurses: “This is a kind of reality that’s important in motion pictures. If you try to act it, it doesn’t quite come across as if you’re really doing it.” But if “really doing it” is so important, why shoot scripted scenes at all? If you are so committed to reality, why not make documentaries?

Steve McQueen’s commitment to reality turns out to be a commitment to fake things as deeply as possible, to make something that never happened seem like it happened. “We had the relity we wanted,” Yates says. This allows audiences to see “reality” as something objective, external, representable — as something they can assess rather than be immersed in. But the filmmakers haven’t captured reality, they have complicated it. This is also the case with Kiernan’s car: It has an indefinite status between real car and prop, symbolizing “realism” without being entirely real itself.

Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) is basically a book-length critique of the “commitment to reality,” at least how analytic philosophers have practiced it. “Any theory which views knowledge as accuracy of representation, and which holds that certainty can only be rationally had about representations, will make skepticism inevitable,” he argues. To insist on realism by a single master set of rules only engenders doubt. The pursuit of such rules doesn’t produce better truths but merely a blinkered idea of truth. He draws on Sartre to argue that the commitment to reality is actually a kind of “escape from freedom”:

The notion of “one right way of describing and explaining reality” supposedly contained in our “intuition” about the meaning of “true” is, for Sartre, just the notion of having a way of describing and explaining imposed on us in that brute way in which stones impinge on our feet.

You could call it an “unconsciously concealed” experience of the real. “It is the notion of having reality unveiled to us, not as in a glass darkly, but with some unimaginable sort of immediacy which would make discourse and description superfluous,” Rorty continues.If we could convert knowledge from something discursive, something attained by continual adjustments of ideas or words, into something as ineluctable as being shoved about, or being transfixed by a sight which leaves us speechless” — as when we watch an irresistibly convincing car chase sequence —then we should no longer have the responsibility for choice among competing ideas and words, theories and vocabularies.” This is an ideal of realism as compulsory. A manufactured reality is imposed as if it were an inevitable true representation, and we are excused from considering the ramifications of representing it in a particular way. The “commitment to reality” becomes a commitment to not testing received notions of what’s real.

Incidentally, this is the mission of data science as it is currently practiced. It aims to turn the world into data to “represent it” and thereby control it without necessarily understanding it or opening it to change or human agency. It posits a frozen epistemology of “universal commensuration” that ultimately produces the “dehumanization of human beings.” He writes, “To see the aim of philosophy as truth — namely, the truth about the terms which provide ultimate commensuration for all human inquiries and activities — is to see human beings as objects rather than subject.”

Rorty speculates on the condition of someone who is committed to reality in this way:

Such a being does not confront something alien which makes it necessary for him to choose an attitude toward, or a description of it. He would have no need and no ability to choose actions or descriptions. He can be called “God” if we think of the advantages of this situation, or a “mere machine” if we think of the disadvantages.

McQueen’s hubristic attitude appears to have traces of both.

It’s worth pointing out that Kiernan’s was not the only green Ford Mustang used in making the movie. Several were used to simulate onscreen what appears to be a single vehicle racing through the streets. The Car and Driver article notes that two other green Mustangs that McQueen drove in Bullitt have been identified and authenticated, though the Ford Motor Co. ultimately chose Kiernan’s for its auto-show reveal, helping elevate its claim to be the “real” Bullitt Mustang, the one best conditioned to sell new authentic copies.

But it would be just as well to say none of them are “real” — the car onscreen is a composite that is only possible on film. Independently, each of the Mustangs are essentially, fakes, tricks used to create a car that can appear to do virtually impossible things. Trying to possess that car in real life is an impossible dream, as absurd as believing one knows Truth or Reality or Goodness in whatever time or context.

Kiernan’s paint-salesman boss has not yet made his film, but there’s a biopic from this year that one can stream on Amazon called Chasing Bullitt. It’s official synopsis from iMDB describes it as depicting Steve McQueen in the 1970s, unwilling to take on a new role until he locates “the iconic Ford Mustang GT 390 from his seminal film Bullitt. On his journey across the desert and back to Los Angeles, Steve ruminates on his triumphs and losses. Through his memories, a picture of the man’s reality is slowly revealed: a crumbling marriage, therapy, financial troubles, and a waning career.” I haven’t watched this film yet, and I’m not sure how true to life it’s supposed to be, but it casts the letter McQueen wrote to Kiernan’s father in 1977 in a melancholy light:

Dear Mr. Kiernan,

Again, I would like to appeal to you to get back my ’68 Mustang. I would like very much to keep it in the family in its original condition as it was used in the film, rather than have it restored; which is simply personal with me.

I would be happy to try to find you another Mustang similar to the one you have, if there is not too much monies involved in it. Otherwise, we had better forget it.

I imagine McQueen, who died in Juárez of a heart attack three years later, obscurely seeking to restore himself to his original condition, as he was in the film. I think of him asking this question, not necessarily to Kiernan but to the mirror, over and over again, never quite committing to forget it after all.