"We could drive back and forth across the States forever and never run out of [reasons to organize]."
In the tradition of the master craft heist film genre like "Thief" (1981) onwards, "Baby Driver" (2017) is a reminder that criminal status is ascribed by the powerful to the powerless
Note to the reader: This will be part of a series analyzing this film from different perspectives.
In 1976, William Chambliss, with regard to a Marxist interpretation of criminology, wrote, “We live on the edge of the abyss. Rarely in recent memory has societyseemed to teeter so close to disaster. The economy roars out of control;international affairs threaten to overwhelm us; bureaucracy clasps usin its clammy embrace; politics becomes a theater of the absurd”— a live in a society that alienates labor from its product, funnel upwards profits to those doing no labor, and wonder why even the most skilled amongst the workers resent the system, in which they are deemed powerless, by the powerful. Crime, indeed, has an explanation, and it’s largely one of economics and the dynamics of power one’s class prerogatives ascribes.
The heist film genre is a big one, but one subset of it—these master thieves, seemingly with a preternatural gift for something that, when applied to crime, allows them to rise above the strife of everyday poverty to which they might have been accustomed- is what I call the Master Craft Heist genre. These are films as iconic as those like Thief, or as comparatively recent in post-modern homage stylization as Drive; all of these center on a master of a skill like safe cracking, getaway driving, even just the ability to survive another day and entering a risk-reward model so skewed that one would be stupid to participate in without a plan. One such film that, I think, modernizes the genre is Baby Driver. Like all of these films, Baby Driver has a class struggle at the center of the conflict; Baby owes a lot of money to a major criminal, and to repay his debt, and in the process provide for his caregiver (a deaf man who has raised him and has tried to keep him safe in his life of crime), which is the sort of emotional baggage that makes such an arrangement seem like a valuable trade-off.
A major theme of the film is that Baby has severe tinnitus, which he cannot treat, but listening to music allows him to focus on the work of being a gifted driver; the music is a hard constraint on how he does his job. Like Driver in Drive, and Frank in Thief, Baby has a highly organized mind, and it shows int he execution of his work. In Frank’s case, he owns his criminal front businesses, in Driver’s case he is simply a mercenary with a couple of side hustles (I’ll return to this in a minute), and in Baby’s case, he’s simply found an effective (if temporary) source of work that will keep him supplied for as long as needed. The common theme, however, is that societal factors not only precipitated their lives of crime (Frank, for example, is an ex-convict— entrepreneurship is one path that won’t heavily scrutinize your past; Driver is some kind of vagrant/orphan, if you have read the James Sallis novel it was based on), but escalates it as material conditions become more dire for not only themselves, but those around them with no control over the process.
What we’re talking about here is what Chambliss describes as a methodology of understanding the causes of crime as “Going to the streets of the city rather than the records…may bring the role of corruption and complicity between political, economic, and criminal interests into sharp relief”— there are apparent social problems caused by bureaucracy, capitalist interests prioritized above those of citizens, that are causing crime, while treating crime as a barrier to those interests (another discussion, but this is a partial explanation for how the prison-industrial complex operates to fill our jails). In Drive, Driver has a more equitable relationship with his mob handler than most; he’s an active partner in many of their scams (from a driving job, to a gig as a stock car driver, and is the lead mechanic at the shop that is the front for their operation), but ultimately this is because Shannon (played by Bryan Cranston) is also under the boot of mob bureaucracy which has given them a pathway to prosperity no longer possible in Los Angeles for people skilled in the essential work that they do (stunt driving— a huge part of LA’s primary industry, for example; automotive repair, which everyone uses; racing, which is a high risk profession and should be compensated as such, but rarely is for amateur/entry level drivers). This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the working class to access these kinds of riches, even if they ultimately a fraction of the take, for the lion’s share of the labor. So, is the case with Baby.
The idea of making a living under the boot of a mob boss, rather than being killed for stealing from him, seems like a pretty compelling motivator for a kid like Baby. The incentive to continue, well? What else will someone with no assurances from the state that, if we did go legitimate, he’d ever be able to prosper, let alone find steady work? Another compelling motivator, and something often lost in these discourses, is the cathartic nature of being able to do something you enjoy for a living— for Baby, that’s driving and listening to music. That the film, itself, developed as a 20+ year passion project, and rooted in the imagery of hitting the open road, blasting music, is a deeply human impetus for creation.
I’ve written about sublimation, and how this can be a powerful vehicle for artists into a prosperous existence, but in this case, I think it goes beyond that; the ability for Baby to drive is, both, freeing and limiting. Without, he’d have been another petty thief, likely end up in jail, but with it, he is beholden to his criminal organization’s bureaucracy for his debts, with his caretaker’s life in the balance as a result, and the collateral if he fails to do the job. In a just society, or one that even provides for its citizens at the bare minimum, rather than (as seen above) busking on the metaphorical street to express his art for the public, he could be seen as an asset to the public, as all its members always are, but the difference being that those contributions come out as an expression of one’s individualism when a system supports for material needs necessary for life to allow humans to excel.
Driving, in this context, seems like a comparatively mundane expression by that standard, but in the context of American culture, it’s the ultimate expression of rising above one’s circumstances— the only thing the 1950’s gave us was the interstate system, and it did not come without great cost (as all utopian planning does), but it’s the most expedient, accessible way to see an otherwise large swath of ecosystems and communities. It is, however, also the most capitalist thing under the sun to consider being limited by pavement in exploration as a function of the beauty of travel. It’s a fine metaphor for Baby’s malaise in deciding whether or not to move on once his debts are paid.
Deborah, Baby’s love interest, is a waitress; and throughout the film, his interactions with her are separate, apart from his work— it highlights the difference between which of his gifts are merely his work, and what are his passions. This is, again, a critical view of how the precarity of existence in such a society makes this work more and more a part of one’s life, and the riskier/uncertain, but profitible the work can be, the more a part it must, necessarily, play. As Chambliss concludes: “a symbiotic relationship between politics, lawenforcement, legitimate business, and organized crime [is] absolutely necessary for organized crime to survive and flourish as it does in America” and it is no coincidence that most work operates in this manner, and against this gradient, but especially when illegality is a mandate of the work, but crucial to the material outcomes.
Ultimately, Deborah’s exposure to Baby’s job exposes to the audience what Chambliss is proposing; this system breeds depravity from otherwise good people.
There’s a scene in the film, during which all of the principals one last, big heist are having their motives for being criminals evaluated; one of the characters, Bats, is almost Baby’s total inverse. He loves crime, it is the expression of his desires for himself— he says to Buddy, another of the crew, at one point: “You rob to support a drug habit, I do drugs to support a robbery habit.” It speaks to the core message of texts like “Crime and the American Dream” (Messner and Rosenfeld, 1994), that the darker side of participating in the pursuit of the American dream is that this desire spawns conflict, which spawns not just competitiveness, but malice in that competition, and soon the only “winning” move under such a system is to step outside of the rules (because to, simply, “not play” is to forfeit, and in reality, means starving or losing one’s home). The outcome of this is those who identify fully with a criminal element that best exemplifies their personal strengths that society has no room for while remaining compatible with the uglier truth of what pursuit of the American Dream truly is (propaganda to keep workers working while the rich get richer); something Baby has internalized as well, but his conclusion is different— this is not the prosperity he wants. It’s a false choice, and one that Bats recognizes as a calculated risk worth taking, while Baby ultimately cannot accept.
In Thief, Frank is similarly left depraved by the circumstances in which he finds himself, and (without spoiling too many details), he simply burns the system down, and walks off into the night. In Drive, Driver makes peace with the mob— he has leverage and recognizes an exit from the depravity when he sees it. In Baby Driver, however, Baby finds himself a victim of circumstance, and is ultimately held accountable to a system qualified to judge no one— that he accepts his fate is immaterial in a society where even, as one critic of Chambliss puts it, “Chambliss maintained that laws serve as temporary resolutions to conflicts that are rooted in structural contradictions. These contradictions, in turn, lead to visible and concrete disputes between groups, especially social classes. Political elites then face a dilemma in deciding how best to contain and diffuse the conflicts”— would Baby have become a criminal if these conflicts didn’t exist? Would he have been so easily manipulated if his caretaker didn’t require Baby’s support to some extent? Is a child (at the time he begins working in getaway driving) responsible for what he is forced to do in the absence of a state resource for his security and welfare? These are not hard questions, but the state makes them out to be through complex, bureaucratic machinations that, as we’ve discussed, feed back into a culture of breeding criminality, and accelerated, again in a feedback loop, by law enforcement overreach and impropriety, where a robust social state would have far more sufficed.
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