By on August 24, 2017

Baby Driver Subaru, Image: Working Title Films, via IMCDB

What’s the difference between art and modern art, between Michelangelo and Mondrian? The best way I know to explain it is this: Modern art requires a deep grounding in a particular context. Modern art is reactive. It assumes you know the history and that you’re capable of seeing how it reacts to, and interacts with, that history. To put it kindly, modern art is a continuation of the dialogue between artist and critic in an era where all of the technical problems of perspective, representation, and accuracy have long been solved. To put it less than kindly, modern art is a tiresome insider’s joke where you pay handsomely to be in on the gag.

To some degree, this is a natural consequence of any mature art form, whether it is painting, rock music, or motion pictures. All of the original ideas have long since been discovered and comprehensively realized in film, so any new movie has to make a choice: Do you approach your chosen genre wholeheartedly and with a craftsman’s intent, like Michael Mann did in “Heat,” or do you spend the whole time winking at the audience, as Matthew Vaughn does in “Kingsman”? In other words, do you create art, or do you create modern art?

In the case of “Baby Driver,” I suspect that the viewer’s opinion on this matter will depend almost entirely on his (or her) age.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Baby is a teen-aged getaway driver who rarely speaks and who suffers from acute tinnitus due to a childhood car crash in which both his parents were killed. To address that tinnitus, he continually plays music from a variety of first- and second-generation iPods. He works for a stereotypical Criminal In A Suit played with modest relish by Kevin Spacey, paying off a debt he has unwittingly incurred. We don’t know how he became a brilliant driver, but the opening scenes establish that he has a nearly inhuman ability to make a pignose WRX (available on eBay) do anything he wants it to do on the road. He’s too good for the cops to ever catch; his only true enemies are the unpredictable and frightening adult criminals with which he is paired on his jobs.

If you, like the fortysomething robbers who alternately praise and attempt to kill Baby, are a Generation-X adult, you will see this film as a patchwork tribute to heist films of the past, loaded past the rated payload with old music, clever sight gags, long single-camera shots, and plot twists that only really make sense as aversions, and inversions, of traditional crime movie tropes. Viewed in that manner, “Baby Driver” is tremendous fun and a great way to pass time.

Yet the film was not made for you. It was made for young people who can effortlessly identify with Baby the way restless rural teenagers identified with Luke Skywalker in 1977. He is a mostly silent sufferer of childhood trauma and abusive parenting; how many of today’s twentysomethings feel like that, and with some justification? He is fundamentally damaged in ways that are difficult to understand for adults but which almost certainly resonate with his peer group. He can barely get a few words out in front of a girl but he can toss a Subaru sideways through an intersection in third gear. Yup, nothing subtle about that shout-out to the viewing audience.

Most of all, however, Baby is a fundamentally passive victim of the adult world. His whole pattern in life has been set by adults without his permission or even input. It’s not until the end of the film that Baby gets to make his own choice for the first time — and when that happens (spoiler!), he finally gets a name besides “Baby.” It’s an interesting message to young people, and one that is likely to both thrill them and make them uncomfortable at the same time. We’re all babies until we strike out from our parents and do something on our own, something that is serious, well thought out, and which carries lasting consequences both good and ill.

In the end, therefore, “Baby Driver” is neither art nor modern art. It is something just as important: a fable, containing a nugget of instruction wrapped in a veneer of storyline and subplot. For that reason alone, it is worth watching and worth recommending to viewers both virginal and venerable.

[Image: Working Title Films, via IMCDB]

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42 Comments on “TTAC at the Movies: Art, Modern Art, and ‘Baby Driver’...”

  • avatar

    Very courteous of Baby to leave the DRLs on during the chase.

    Such a good boy.

    • 0 avatar
      Land Ark

      Not sure about Imprezas, but my Legacy from the same period doesn’t have a way to turn off the DRLs. You have to literally cut the blue wire. No, not THAT blue wi ***

      • 0 avatar

        Good to know. I’m glad that my Toyota lets me turn off the DRLs. I was blowing out the low beam filament in a fairly short period of time before I started turning them off.

        But when you’re averaging 20,000 miles a year, that’s quite a few hours of DRL time.

        • 0 avatar
          Land Ark

          I cut the blue wire on my car soon after buying it. I’d heard about the short bulb lifespans of other people and, frankly, I just didn’t like DRLs in general. I’ve since warmed up to the idea and won’t permanently disable them on any cars in the future.

          • 0 avatar

            I’m very meticulous about “wipers on headlights on” to compensate. (That was the law FYI in Ohio where I grew up.)

          • 0 avatar
            Land Ark

            The same law exists here in VA – but you wouldn’t know it. You also wouldn’t know that you are supposed to have your headlights on when it’s dark a lot of the time.

            Not sure why we haven’t seen a wiper/headlight integration yet. Turn on the wipers, headlights automatically turn on.

          • 0 avatar
            Arthur Dailey

            DRL’s are of course mandatory in Ontario.

            However over the past couple of years, there seems to be an ‘epidemic’ of people driving at night with only their DRL’s on.

            That of course means no tail lights.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m completely opposed to DRL’s on automobiles, primarily because I spend most of my traveling life on motorcycles. And the DRL’s on a bike are one of the few ways we have any hope of being noticed in a world of boneheaded, texting, eating, drinking drivers.

      Start letting the cars do it, too, and we’re back to square one.

      • 0 avatar

        Nobody talks about it anymore, but I recall Canada proved your point. They put DRLs on motorcycles, and motorcycle fatalities dropped. Like Mr. Pine’s neighbors, they adopted DRLs on all vehicles. That helped overall fatalities while people adjusted. Then, overall accident rates went back to where they originally were, including those of motorcyclists before they adopted DRLs.

        • 0 avatar
          Jack Baruth

          The same is true of CHMSL. When only taxis and Toronados had a high brake light it made a big difference. Now it’s a single point of failure for not getting hit in the ass.

    • 0 avatar

      DRLs are the only way I see most cars in the Delaware Valley at night or in bad weather. Some people simply don’t turn on their headlights, ever.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t have a problem with DRL’s. I have a problem with the dash lights automatically turning on with the DRL’s. Thus a percentage of drivers forget to turn on their headlights because the dash is lit up while others think that the “headlights automatically turn on”. I am on the freeway at night and some driver in the next lane is leaning inches away from the windshield peering into the darkness trying to see from the light of his dim DRL’s. Also if DRLs are good for safety why not turn on the tail lights as well? I have followed people in the dark that I could hardly see from behind until they tapped the brakes.

    • 0 avatar

      I never cared for the DRLs on my 03 Matrix . There was a trick to turn them off before starting the engine by lifting the parking brake lever up one click which wouldn’t be enough to engage the brake . Of course then you had to look at the red parking brake light on the dash . Nowadays some of those LED light bar DRLs look pretty cool IMO .

    • 0 avatar

      When I got my 2001 Passsat wagon in 2005, it was my first car with DRLs. Searching for a way to shut them off, I found a Scandinavian (Norwegian, I think) website that allowed me to enter year, make, & model, then led me directly to comprehensive instructions.
      On my Passat, it was very simple.
      – Remove the light switch from the dash.
      – The instructions clearly indicated which contact was for DRLs.
      – Either remove the contact or cover it. I chose to cover mine with tape, allowing for simple pull of the tape to turn the DRLs back on.
      Since I have now had this running strong & looking good 16-year-old car for 12 years now, I doubt that I will never have to reverse the process.

      Newer cars probably are not so simple. Just one more reason among many to keep my old car running. I’m a driver – I do not want a rolling living room with “infotainment” and bells & whistles to tell me to stay in lane and look at my ‘effing mirrors.

  • avatar

    Maybe he’s Canadian.

  • avatar

    Baby driver was actually a good movie. Saw it early and was only person there. Good choice of music.

  • avatar

    One of the best movies I have seen in many a year. Just the right amount of everything that makes a movie good without overdoing any one thing.

    • 0 avatar

      Meh, personally I thought that Baby’s final confrontation (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) was WAY overdone and went on too long. The tonal shift from the first half of the movie to the second half gave me whiplash.

  • avatar

    I really want a RWD WRX now.

  • avatar

    Haven’t seen this one, but Edgar Wright has a way with disaffected youth movies. Example: the CRIMINALLY underrated “Scott Pilgrim.”

    Would have LOVED to see him finish up “Ant-Man.”

    • 0 avatar

      My wife doesn’t get Scott Pilgrim – but I thought it was BRILLIANT. Its one of those movies that each time you watch you notice some tiny detail you missed the last time. The words of the fridge are a good example.

      • 0 avatar

        Scott Pilgrim was absolute excellence in film making. Some of the scene transitions were breathtaking. I loved it so much that I bought the graphic novel after seeing the movie. Was not disappointed.

        Too bad it opened the same weekend as the Expendables (total clichéd moron trash). This is America… we all know how that box office battle went.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny you brought up Scott Pilgrim. The Alamo Ritz is having a fan-party showing at Downtown Austin.

  • avatar
    Jeff Zekas

    my kids are Gen X, love cars, are verbose, happy, well adjusted. Guess we were decent parents.

    • 0 avatar

      You’ll notice that Jack specifically says that the movie is not for Gen Xers. The title character is a teenager, meaning he’s an actual Millennial, as opposed to the disaffected 30-something Gen Ys who keep getting branded as such.

      Gen Xers generally enjoy cars and life, though they often also see the bleak future their Boomer parents have left for them, which can lead to occasional melancholy and malaise.

      • 0 avatar

        Gen Y are the boomers’ children. Also called echo boomers. Xers were the (few) that snuck in, in between. Forever footnotes, as they are bracketed by much bigger cohorts. At least that’s what the marketing guys tell me.

  • avatar

    First movie review I’ve seen from Jack; this gonna be a regular feature?

    I hate laying down my hard-earned jack (heh), and putting up with talkers, texters and chair-kickers for a crappy flick–and there are many–so I’ll read several reviews from critics I trust before doing so. Last time, I wanted to see ‘Baby Driver’ but relented and let my SO pick one, and it was so bad I have a mental block and can’t even remember what it was (and almost got into a fight with a Indian who wouldn’t shut his phone off).

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      This WAS a regular feature in the years before the focus of the site changed. At one point there was even a separate heading for it… search the site for “TTAC At The Movies.”

      • 0 avatar

        Found ’em! Now I can go back and figure out if I liked the movies I wasn’t sure about, or not. Just read the review of ‘Fury Road,’ and now I know I was wise to wait for cable.

  • avatar

    Just like car design, in art you need to have grounding in the craft and a solid grasp of the terminology. Sorry to say, Jack, you are making a classic error here when you think ‘Modern Art’ = ‘what’s happening today.’ Modern Art is actually considered to be the historical period roughly coinciding with the early/mid 20th century. We have been in the Postmodern Art era for roughly the past 40 years. Postmodernism is putting all art, culture and context in a blender, celebrating surface and image often to the point of seeming incoherence. That seems to be more in line with your review and Baby Driver itself.

    On a related note, I think it’s interesting to switch the context of the first paragraph to Car Design, rather than Art, and consider how that may or may not change your mindset about both fields.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Since I’m writing for a general interest audience I wrote “modern art” in lower case; the title of the piece was added by the editors.

      For better or worse, I have a reasonable classical education in both art and architecture through eight years of private school and an omnivorous university curriculum. If you read through my back pages here you will see multiple references to postmodernism in its various forms.

      try to keep it under your hat because there are a lot of C students in here who think their education surpasses mine because I drive a Chevy truck.

      • 0 avatar

        The average grade in the Ivy League is now an A-. That means they’re almost all C students now. Sad to say, but John and Aryeh won’t have much competition. So many of even the smart kids have been conditioned to not work hard and major corporations and government agencies are willing to accept, nay, run by, people who are at best capable of B work.

      • 0 avatar

        Understood, Jack, I just couldn’t resist the pedantry. I do find the comparison between art disciplines interesting because of the dichotomy between popular perception and the insiders’ dialog. Having a non-automotive MFA and working in an Automotive Design studio, I definitely see the connection to Art School Confidential.

        Your secret is safe, but don’t be afraid to fly your inner art flag!


  • avatar
    Rick T.

    “…containing a nugget of instruction wrapped in a veneer of storyline and subplot…”

    Now for some reason I am craving a tater tot bacon bomb.

  • avatar

    Finally a decent car chase movie – a surprise summer hit. I was wondering when it would get a review here , saw it the second week it came out and loved it and most of it’s 31 song soundtrack . The first 6 minutes of the film are available online;

  • avatar

    ” He works for a stereotypical Criminal In A Suit played with modest relish by Kevin Spacey, paying off a debt he has unwittingly incurred…He’s too good for the cops to ever catch; his only true enemies are the unpredictable and frightening adult criminals with which he is paired on his jobs. ”

    A nice example of that theme is David Mamet’s Heist, only at the other end of the age spectrum. Gene Hackman is forced by a gangster played by Danny Devito to do one last job. Ricky Jay, as part of Hackman’s group of thieves, is a treasure. “My motherf***er is so cool, when he goes to bed, sheep count him.”

  • avatar

    WARNING! This comment has plot spoilers. If you’re thinking of see this movie, skip this comment

    Sorry Mr. Baruth…and to anyone who has seen and liked this movie but I did not like it much at all.
    What I saw was a director who was too in love with the “Feel and Style” of his movie. I know in a lot of movies, especially those with a lot of action or science fiction, suspension of disbelief is required. But wow! A whole lot of suspension is required here – like Golden Gate bridge amount of suspension.
    The first scene in the movie opens with the car chase shown in the attached photo. Baby roars away as the getaway driver accompanied by what we quickly learn is the required song of the moment. Due to Baby’s extraordinary driving prowess, he quickly eludes the police pursuit. Does Baby slow down so he doesn’t attract attention? No, he continues to tear-a$$ around the city until…suddenly he is being chased again, this time by FIVE police cars…in classic “V” formation. Yes, this Police tactic happens all the time. Shortly after this we begin how much the director is in love with “Feel and Style” over story and substance
    Often when there is a conversation between two people, Baby and the love interest or Baby and the main bad guy, the camera continually orbits the two people talking, so it looks like they’re dancing. The director likes this shot style. In fact, he likes it so much he does it over and over again. I could almost hear the director when he was reviewing his dailies with the editor, “Ooh, isn’t this cool? It looks like they’re dancing doesn’t it?” And the editor was probably thinking, “Well, yes but didn’t you do this for the last conversation…and the one before that?
    There are some interesting points. Since the chosen songs almost drive the plot forward, it is almost like you’re watching a musical although nobody’s singing or dancing which is an intriguing concept. But the director did it so much it felt like you were getting hit over the head with the concept. Also, one of the last gun fights is timed/choreographed to Hocus Pocus by Focus is pretty cool.
    I really wanted like this movie but there were too many plot-holes and distractions. Like the main bad guy is suddenly not so bad in the last twenty minutes of the movie, Huh? The second bad guy starts monologue-ing when he has Baby dead-to-rights.
    There are other things, but I don’t have the time and your column doesn’t have the space. Thanks for reading.

  • avatar

    @Land Ark, I heard the 2018 Impreza has integrated wipers that when turn on the headights whenever the wipers are activated.

  • avatar

    Nobody beats Baby on a corner!

  • avatar
    Shortest Circuit

    “played (…) by Kevin Spacey, paying off a debt he has unwittingly incurred”
    yeah that was my first thought too, after I watched the movie.

    BTW, don’t the handbrakes on these Imprezas act on ALL 4 WHEELS?

    And I liked his personal Mark VI the best :)

  • avatar

    I wish we had a “What would Jack B buy?” section at TTAC… with Jack’s car preferences, in different price ranges!

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