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Ferrari and the terrible joy

Michael Mann’s Ferrari shows how ambiguity and contradiction fuels us

“It’s a dangerous passion, our terrible joy,” is how Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) describes the mutual, inexplicable love in the room. He’s talking to race car drivers, his race car drivers, about to compete in Italy’s deadly (now banned) 1,000-mile Mille Miglia race that, if won, can save his fledgling car manufacturer. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” it’s said. But he doesn’t race to sell cars, he sells cars to continue racing, a capitalist by accident. To save his company is to salvage his raison d’etre. However, high octane racing comes at a cost, sometimes the highest price. Ferrari, the film, makes this graphically clear.  

Still, the pleasure pulsates. It motivates Enzo and the men around the table, many of whom will, in reality, soon die in fatal car crashes. Michael Mann’s Ferrari, in the spirit of all of Mann’s movies, is about terrible joy. Pleasure and meaning collapse into each other. But there is no hedonism, only a fixation that could either be neurosis or divine inspiration. A sonnet by an individual who straddles such a line — Michelangelo — captures the mood of Mann’s cinematic universe:  

If such a gift I truly have been given

And yet, divided, torn, still burn and stray,

He is to blame who fashioned me for fire.

In Mann’s world, obsessions are wonderful, meaning-making, but are non-negotiable and they can destroy. Albert Camus once wrote, “What is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying.” Figures like Neil McCauley in Heat (1995) and John Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009) understand this existentialist maxim; addicted to a criminal life that will invariably catch up to them, they end up dead. To detectives Sonny Crockett of Miami Vice (2006) and Will Graham of Manhunter (1986), the frisson of identity shift and looking on the dark side is addictive but life-threatening. To all, to quote a line from Heat, “The action is the juice.”  You survive by a code or die at the altar of compromise. 

This vision of the world is both bleak and beautiful. It’s a vision that obsesses the inveterate Michael Mann, who, in returning to the same themes, epitomises the notion that an artist paints the same picture over and over again, continually making art to resolve one big, compelling psychic conundrum. Mann is existentialist and Freudian; pleasure destroys, we don’t know ourselves, our neurosis drives us, life is compromised — always. In one scene, Enzo resorts to psychology and blames an overbearing mother for the death of one of his drivers; she pushed him to date beyond his social class and, in an attempt to impress his partner, pushed too far on the race track and went disastrously beyond the limit. 

Pushing the limit is what interests Mann. Not just in his own technical virtuosity (he continues to be the most underappreciated of innovators, particularly in sound and cinematography), but in subject matter. Ferrari is one of Mann’s most visceral and literal depictions of those limits — of the demand for ever-greater limit-defying speed, and the tragedy of going beyond it. Like his one-time collaborator Tom Cruise, epitomised in the recent Top Gun: Maverick, he’s both transcendentalist and realist.  He wants to go beyond, but he understands the risks. There is exciting tension at the heart of Mann’s artistic project: his religious devotion to the real and the authentic — famous for his scrupulous degree of research — aligned with an intense dedication to the poetic inner lives of his characters. There is no distinction made between historical and psychological verisimilitude, between the real world and symbolic world.

To Mann, the sheen and shine of a racing car carapace concealing turbulence and fire beneath is not merely a neat literary metaphor for his characters, it is a potent symbol as real, present, and relevant as the streets in which he films. These are often the very streets in which the historical action actually took place, including where Dillinger was killed in Chicago and where Enzo received his routine morning shave, with Adam Driver commenting upon Modena FC’s performance in the very same barbershop chair. This is the Romantic Mann, who believes that spirits resonant in stone and must be summoned. In Ferrari, the beautiful red racing car is a metaphor (interestingly, the etymology of the word metaphor comes from transit) for life’s ferocious duality and the inevitability of death: a shiny coffin that can thrill or kill with equal power. It is the ever-present spectre of death, being-towards-death made metal, a literal death drive.

It’s a film of aphorisms and bon mots, snippets and glimpses of interiority that are suddenly closed down and walled away

Chief pleasure in Ferrari comes from its titular character pontificating about his terrible joy, a witty, libidinal, and charismatic leader, aptly played by an imposing Adam Driver, remarking that his cars boast “An ass like a Canova”’, and that “Things that work better are usually more beautiful.” Enzo is an engineer (“L’Ingegnere”, the Italians called him), aesthete, and philosopher. It’s a film of aphorisms and bon mots, snippets and glimpses of interiority that are suddenly closed down and walled away. The editing works similarly: sudden cuts, juxtapositions, and transitions just when you think you are reaching a giving apogee or revelation.  There’s a coldness in the movie that will put many off, disatisfy even. But this is how Mann operates: he drops you in and he pulls you out. Obsession is, by definition, hyper-specific and, in its ruthless nature, alienating to those who do not understand. There is no compromise or hand-holding. Think of the abrupt and unceremonious start and finish of Miami Vice; true catharsis is denied to us, contradictions persist, and authentic connection is rare, if not impossible. For Mann, we are left only to forge and engineer our truth in the ruins of chaos and isolation, to pick up the pieces and make sense of it ourselves, like Ferrari’s wrecked machines. Mann is a tragedian and pessimist.

Audiences may find Mann’s plot-lite abstractions odd and unsettling. Indeed, his film’s are odder than a genre template may suggest. Ferrari is no different: an insular story, set in 1950s small-town Modena, yet the race proceedings are unsubtly imbued with religious-levels of significance. Mann is a deeply serious person, interested in men who make their own religion, fascinated by eccentric and passionate contradictions.  As such, in our trivialising and ambiguphobia culture, it is unlikely Ferrari will find its audience, just as with Mann’s last few films. Not immediately anyway. Before then, the turgid critic-speak will destroy its complexity and the pro and anti camps will bludgeon it into darkened holes of societal “discourse”. The debate continues: is Mann a raging masculinist or is he showing the prison of masculinity? Both and neither. 

Perhaps we should treat language with the same suspicion as Enzo, who has a lot to say about his cars but not a lot to say to his estranged wife, Laura Ferrari (Penelope Cruz), whose marriage to Enzo has eroded since the devastating death of their son and Enzo’s perpetual affairs. To women, including his mistress Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom Enzo has a second family, the deeply flawed Ferrari uses words to evade, delay, and charm, like he does with the press, who are characterised as opportunists and vultures. Words are merely a tool for power and deception, and quite insufficient for expression when compared to the being-in-the-world power and energy of his cars. Enzo is more at home in his stark minimalist factory than in the traditional domestic sphere, recalling the aesthetics of Italian Modernism — an aesthetic of forwardness, yes, but also a denial of the past, a compensation for Enzo being stuck in mistakes and traumas which he wants to get away from as fast as possible. To be sat still, as when Enzo goes to the opera to see Verdi’s La traviata, is to elicit memories of the past, to enter the mental mausoleum where his son resides. He’d rather hear the music of the engines.

The real Enzo called his memoirs, “My Terrible Joys”, a title that Mann could not resist inserting into his movie’s script, for it’s a title that expresses his own artistic mien. Mann has been trying to make a movie about Enzo Ferrari since the 1990s, so it’s not unreasonable to assume an intense level of identification with his life, craft, addictions, and ambivalences. I’ve never made a movie, but I understand that it’s extremely difficult and probably takes a toll. But in the end, as with Ferrari’s cars, it whirs, it roars, and we applaud. A transitory moment of glory, perhaps ecstasy. But death is always near; Ferrari is more concerned with death and mourning than any of Mann’s prior films. But his fascination with people, and the juice that keeps the abyss at bay, has never been more alive. I hope Mann finds pleasure and, perhaps, even solace in his filmmaking. Although, as his films make clear again and again, contradictions are not resolved and closure is the illusion of fiction, the lie we tell ourselves right before everything is taken away. In the meantime, find your terrible joy and enjoy it terribly, for life is always in transit right until it crashes. 

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