never last

It’s called Speed, but really it’s a film about not going anywhere. Jan de Bont’s 1994 blockbuster has only three settings: an elevator, then a bus, then a train. Each of these confined spaces is made to facilitate transition, but in Speed all is Stuck.

It is a movie without movement, because all of its moves are looped. Rather than speed towards something, the busload of hostages has to speed around, in avoidance of everything. After they drive the bus to the airport so they can circle around the tarmac and never drop below the prescribed 50mph, they manage to loop the ostensibly live footage of themselves so they can get off the circling bus without the bomber registering that he’s watching the same sixty seconds of them, on repeat. This is how they prevent the attached bomb from actualising the culminating explosion that it was made for.

The film’s dialogue is also cyclical and profoundly anti-climactic. At what turns out to be a pseudo-ending, when everyone is saved the first time around and the bus crashes into a stationary airplane (!) and things appear to be wrapping up, Sandra Bullock’s character says coquettishly to Keanu Reeve’s, “you know, relationships that start under intense circumstances never last.” Then at the real ending, when the train they’ve been stuck on is derailed, ejecting them out of an unfinished tunnel onto Hollywood Boulevard (!!), hero repeats back to heroine, “relationships based on intense experiences never last …”

To which she responds: “we’ll have to base it on sex then.”

And then the credits roll, negating the consummation. Only when the actionless action movie is finished can this long-awaited sex finally begin. With the bomb defused, the other climactic event – which we’ve just been told is about to form the basis of a new relationship – is necessarily blacked out.

In a 2003 article for Critical Inquiry, cultural theorist Fredric Jameson looks to Speed to demonstrate what he calls ‘the end of temporality’ (or, more accurately – as he comes to realise by the end of his essay – to demonstrate the indemonstrability of the end of temporality) in the wake of modernity. He elucidates the ways in which the spatial confinement of the film – which takes place primarily within an always moving bus – prevents temporal progression. All appears to have momentum and velocity, but, for Jameson, this only functions as a “representation of temporality” that is in fact cut off from time proper.

In this analysis, the maniac bomber played by Dennis Hopper is only there as “narrative compensation” in what Jameson considers to be the film’s utter plotlessness. But, I think, far from merely “plugging the gaps” in Speed’s “pornographic violence”, Hopper’s character is a crucial component in its (perhaps inadvertently) complex web of counter-culmination. And he has the best line in the film:

“A bomb is meant to explode. That’s its meaning, its purpose. Your life is empty because you spend it trying to stop the bomb from becoming. And for who? For what? Do you know what a bomb is, Jack, that doesn’t explode? It is a cheap gold watch, buddy.”

Jack’s reply to this is: “You’re crazy. You’re fucking crazy.”

And the bomber answers, “No. Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric.”

The fact that Hopper was a Bush-supporting Republican somehow makes this last statement all the more sinister … But I digress. Maybe appropriately so, though, since this film is really a thread of digressions, prolongations, avoidances, and refused culminations – all leading up to an off-limits climax in the sex that begins after the end.

With the cheap gold watch attached to it, ticking away, the bomb’s explosion in the film is a latent, indefinitely deferred finality. Everything is oriented towards stopping the bomb from becoming. And this amounts to a suspension of time: because it’s a threat of complete, irrevocable destruction, the bomb’s presence ensures that nothing happens. Things are approached but never realised in this circumambulatory tactic of evasion. And while we’re dealing with temporal loops and perpetual postponements of the end, let’s finish with the film’s invitingly prohibitive opening line:

“Hey! This area is restricted … ”

Catalogue text for Spence Messih‘s exhibition ‘Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is moving’, at MOP, Sydney (August 2013)