Attending my first rally car race at the weekend left me with the overwhelming urge to revisit a favourite film from my childhood, Disney’s ‘The Love Bug’ (1968). Yet when I settled down to watch it last night I felt a sudden shudder of trepidation. What if it was shit? What if it was a film best left to the nostalgic glow of youth?
The good news is that not only is ‘The Love Bug’ as good as I remember but it’s even better than expected. In fact, as a car movie set in San Francisco it’s more satisfying than the overrated ‘Bullet’ (1968) and as a commentary on the counter-culture scene it’s superior, IN EVERY WAY, to the interminable ‘Easy Rider’ (1969). Quite frankly, it’s awesome.
The basic story I still recalled easily enough — Dean Jones is ‘chosen’ by sentient VW beetle Herbie and this bond between man and machine allows Jones to both succeed in motor racing and love — so no surprises there. What was surprising was just how much else was going on that had completely passed me by as a child.
For one, Herbie’s sentience is given a, sort of, explanation. Buddy Hackett, Jones’ buddy and co-driver, has, like many people in the Sixties, gotten into Eastern mysticism and it is this pantheistic world view that explains how Herbie can come to life because in pantheism everything in the universe is alive. This makes ‘The Love Bug’, quite possibly, the only Disney film based on the emanations of the unmanifested Vishnu. Who knew?!
Not only that but it is Hackett who knows that for Jones to successfully “drive” Herbie that Jones must undergo an extreme form of ego-death, to accept it is Herbie, and not his “skill”, who wins. In essence, Dean Jones must transform into a sort of stock car racing version of St Teresa of Ávila, to surrender FULLY his own will to another, to set aside worldly gains and pride and to allow himself to enter into the driver’s seat of the VW totally discalced, or “unshod”.
Obviously there is another road to this state of complete dissolution of subjective self-identity and that is through drugs.
This drug use is explicit in the car’s name — HERBie — and the references in this film set in 1960’s San Francisco to various psychedelic and psychoactive substances are rampant.
At one point, when Herbie is keeping his doors closed to play matchmaker, Michele Lee leans out her passenger window to scream at some nearby hippies that she’s a prisoner, to which one of them, obviously in the process of getting totally baked, replies -
“We all prisoners, chick baby. We all locked in.” (the profundity of this sentence almost blew me through my living room wall)
Obviously, when Jones “realises” his car is actually alive he goes through a severe series of psychological shocks and traumas (brilliantly acted by Jones, incidentally, and I’m not sure any other actor would have the skill to portray the nuances required to convey to the audience the state of mind of “Fucking hell! My car is alive!”) which are only compounded by the fact he has also been stripped of his masculinity in the process.
This emphasis on the annihilation of the self is at its most pronounced, however, when Herbie (trigger warning) attempts to commit suicide and the existential shock wave of this sequence almost reduced me to tears, not only for Herbie’s safety but also regarding that of the entire human condition, something I was not expecting in a film starring David Tomlinson.
Fortunately it’s not all Hindu philosophy, drug use and theological aesthetics as ‘The Love Bug’ is also incredibly funny. There’s a fantastic scene between Hackett and Tomlinson involving Irish coffee that has the two of them engaging in some wonderful bits of comedic business with each other as Tomlinson attempts to get Herbie drunk without Hackett noticing and when he succeeds the way the film manages to portray a car BEING drunk is so utterly convincing and brilliantly handled it’s glorious.
The anthropomorphising of Herbie in general is stupendously well done with the timing of when and how to move the car executed to perfection so we effortlessly buy the idea of it being alive, something I suspect is pulled off by some ingenious model work as well as the full scale effects, all of which are gorgeous to look at and boosted by some excellent art design throughout.
Although my favourite moment might be when Tomlinson, by convoluted and silly means, ends up with a black bear as his co-driver and when he faints in fright from the sight the way the bear then frantically attempts to wake him up before they both crash into a tree left me helpless with uncontrollable laughter.
‘The Love Bug’ is fucking fantastic! It’s fast paced, funny, colourful and you can really tell the influence this must’ve had on films such as Pixar’s ‘Cars’ (2006) and the Wachowski’s ‘Speed Racer’ (2008).
It’s easily the best theosophical car racing movie ever made, and that includes ‘Herbie Goes Bananas’ (1980).