TTAC at the Movies: Art, Modern Art, and 'Baby Driver'

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
ttac at the movies art modern art and baby driver

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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  • Shortest Circuit Shortest Circuit on Aug 25, 2017

    "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 :)

  • Robbie Robbie on Aug 26, 2017

    I wish we had a "What would Jack B buy?" section at TTAC... with Jack's car preferences, in different price ranges!

  • MaintenanceCosts This class of car competes hard with Chargers/Challengers and modded diesel pickups for the douchey-driving crown.
  • 28-Cars-Later Corey - I think I am going to issue a fatwa demanding a cool kids car meetup in July somewhere in the Ohio region.
  • Master Baiter Might as well light 50 $100 bills on fire.
  • Mike1041 At $300K per copy they may secure as much as 2 or 3 deposits of $1,000
  • Sgeffe Why on Earth can’t you just get the torque specs and do it yourself if you’re so-inclined?!