“little Bastard”
On 30 September 1955, James Dean died in a car crash on the road to Sali-
nas. He was driving his silver Porsche Spyder, “Little Bastard,” which is
perhaps the best known of the many celebrity- crashed cars that have been
absorbed into the landscape of postwar art, writing, and film (in fact, it
became a celebrity in its own right, touring the United States as part of
a safe- driving campaign for teens). While I will focus neither on Dean in
particular nor on the celebrity crash in general, I want to invoke momen-
tarily the name of Dean’s car because it encapsulates the dialectical ten-
sions embedded within the cinematic car crash, one of film’s earliest and
most persistent self- reflexive tropes. Through the lens of the crash, I will
explore tensions that exist at the heart of the film experience: between sta-
sis and motion, body and image, proximity and distance, self and other,
and inside and outside. In invoking the figure of a “little bastard,” I hope to
emphasize, rather than explain away, cinema’s inherent impurity at a time
when some critics, especially within the field of art history, are calling for
a renewed focus on the medium, a parallel reinvigoration of traditional
epistemological structures, and a disciplining of the messy field of cinema
studies. Yet if film is, as Hollis Frampton suggests, “a deeply hybridized, bas-
tard technology . . . , as rickety a collection of electromechanical devices as
a Model T Ford,” then perhaps it makes sense to embrace the discourse of
cinema studies less as a discipline than as a thoroughly bastardized field,
one unable to contemplate its impure object of study, as Frampton’s gesture
toward the Model T Ford suggests, without some acknowledgment of the
way cinema’s high and hybrid technology binds it inextricably, if complexly,
to capitalism’s industrial systems and to a wide variety of other media, tech-
nologies, and disciplines.1
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