NEED FOR SPEED
Steve McQueen’s Auto Racing Nightmare: Car Crashes, Amputations, and Charles Manson
The drama-filled making of the iconic screen badass’s 1971 film Le Mans is chronicled in the new documentary Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, in theaters Friday.
It’s been an unusually rich year for documentaries that explore the lives of fallen celebrities, and now alongside Amy, Listen To Me Marlon, and Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck, there is Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which documents the fraught set of Steve McQueen’s passion project, the 1971 auto racing film, Le Mans.
With its scope encompassing a relatively limited time in McQueen’s career, Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s film might be for McQueen acolytes only, but for them, there is a wealth of material on display here. The Super 8 footage of McQueen on set and at the races is as compelling as it is beautiful—a perhaps unintentional ode to the colors and textures that could be captured in even the most casual footage before the digital revolution replaced celluloid with pixels.
But if the film is looking to penetrate McQueen’s image to find the man himself, McQueen does not disappoint. Whether or not this is a result of the editing on the part of the documentarians, McQueen retains the elusiveness of his iconic film roles. There is a sense watching the footage of McQueen in this film that the man’s mind was never occupied with what was in front of him, and as his friends and family gather to attest, that image is close to the truth.
It is to the filmmakers’ credit that McQueen never comes across as saintly—this is a warts-and-all portrait of a man at an unstable time in his life, and the film doesn’t look away from the people who were hurt by McQueen’s actions. The film icon’s marriage dissolved on the set of Le Mans, one of his drivers lost a limb, a drunken joyride nearly killed his co-star (and mistress) Louise Edlind, and his son became drawn into some of his father’s most self-destructive habits. If that weren’t enough, McQueen was terrified over the inclusion of him and his family on Charles Manson’s kill list, prompting the actor to carry a handgun—since filming of Le Mans coincided with Manson’s trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders. All of these stories and more are incorporated into the film’s view on McQueen, right alongside the tales of his single-minded commitment to his art.
But for as much as Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans seeks to examine, or even canonize, the film in question—which was shot on location at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1970, and remains a favorite among auto racing enthusiasts—there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding here about the nature of cinema as an object that can be canonized.
The unique gift of cinema as an art form is that by controlling what we see and what we hear, film can trick our senses, manipulating our bodies into a physical and emotional experience by virtue of manipulating the image onscreen. But if the original film Le Mans tricks its audience into believing they’re a racecar driver, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans never leaves the garage.
Cinema’s nature as a medium of images was something that McQueen and his directors clearly understood. We don’t need to hear someone tell us that McQueen cared about where the camera was, or what shots he was going to be in, because to look at scenes from Le Mans is to immediately understand the artist’s curiosity to capture action in images—and the rigor it takes to remove all other distractions.
Le Mans is a film that has scant dialogue—in the documentary, much is made about downplaying the love story, but really, the 1971 film plays down all scenes that might require the image to be diluted for the sake of chatter. The lack of dialogue locks the audience into the mind of McQueen’s racer—the frame itself is anticipating the moment when it will be allowed to fly. But when scenes of the film’s driving play in the documentary, there is no sense of momentum to their inclusion—they’re merely treated as evidence to support the points that have been made through verbal testimony. The images that McQueen and his crew labored so intensely to achieve are robbed of their context and therefore their elusiveness too, and so watching the scenes that are being so effervescently described feels flat.
This is not to say that Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is unworthy of attention or that it is a bad film. I can’t imagine a better document than this coming along if you want to know what it was like to work with McQueen, to live with him, and learn who he associated with and what he left behind. But if you want to see the world the way Steve McQueen saw it, there’s nothing like the real thing: Le Mans doesn’t need McQueen’s words when it already has his eyes.