Burke: The art of watching media in the fast lane

A racing movie — and its narrating dog — offer advice about keeping our eyes on where we want to go.

By: Tom Burke / Herald columnist

“The Art of Racing in the Rain,” a fairly new movie, hasn’t gotten big-time buzz.

We watched it with our best friends, and I can’t imagine 2019 critics liking it, as there’s no satirical Hitler, massacres, comic-book heroes, or horror.

Nope, this was a simple flick, shot in Seattle’s less-expensive-to-film-in-stand-in, Vancouver, B.C., about a dog (Enzo), his family, and Formula-1 racing. It was sweet, sad, and had a mostly happy ending.

I liked it. As did 96 percent of people who reviewed it via the Rotten Tomatoes website, where only 43 percent of “professional” critics gave it a thumbs-up.

And yes, it was sappy and predictable and calculated to manipulate your emotions; but the couple we watched it with knew the fella the movie was about; and they knew the fella who wrote the 156-week-New York Times-best-seller-book about the fella the movie was about; and had actually raced on the tracks in the film, so their commentary added to my enjoyment.

Now the four of us needed some Kleenex before the credits rolled including me, a confirmed cynic; my wife, a self-admitted softie; and our friends: him a 25-plus-year, hard-boiled California Highway Patrol traffic officer (that’s him riding the left-hand bike in the opening shots of the late-70’s “CHiPs” TV series) and her, a Brooklyn, New York-born transplant and accomplished member of the BMW racing club who was taught by the film’s race-driver and regularly clocked 100-plus mph on local tracks.

This wasn’t a movie I would have picked without a recommendation, but there’s lots I never thought to watch until friends or my kids steered me to them.

“Game of Thrones” wasn’t one of ‘em; we couldn’t get into it. But “Chernobyl” was. I’ve never watched “Dancing with the Stars” or “America’s Got Talent,” but do a couple of hours of TV-news a day, and read the Washington Post, New York Times, Politico, CNN, and Fox websites, but that’s part of my job.

(Now one benefit of watching lots of cable news is being qualified, I believe, to sit for the “Boards” to legally practice internal medicine. There’s so much prescription drug advertising aimed at the cable news demographic I’ve learned enough about skin rashes, DVTs, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, etc., that I could successfully treat patients.)

As selective TV watchers, we especially like medical dramas such as the old “Code Black,” and “New Amsterdam” (my wife, a retired nurse, enjoys critiquing them) and documentaries. Ken Burns’ documentary series on jazz, country music and the national parks are favorites. We lamented the end of “Downton Abby,” and will be starting the second season of “The Kominsky Method” next week.

As an ex-ad guy I didn’t, unfortunately, follow “Mad Men,” as actually working on Madison Ave. furnished enough real-life drama without watching a show about it; like the time I sheep-dogged a gifted, alcoholic, coke-addicted, manic/depressive copywriter who thought God lived in his office ventilator. It was my job to get him on lithium to silence the voices; so he could get off the coke; to give up the booze; then work on his depression and manic streaks. Interesting enough, even when totally whacked on whiskey and dope, he could still write amazing ad copy. He spoke German, French, Spanish and read classic Latin and Greek; but couldn’t say, “No,” to single malt Scotch, rotgut gin, or nose candy. Last I heard we was writing catalogues for Country Curtains in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, although they went bust and I lost track of him.

I take a jaundiced view of network programming, and how TV news isn’t anymore; it’s just another revenue stream. (Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie “Network” was amazingly predictive.) Whether Fox or MSNBC, cable news execs analyze viewer demographics, carve out their audience niche, and then program the reporting to reinforce the beliefs of its core viewers. So ya gotta take all they say with a grain of salt the size of Mount Baker. (It’s a far cry from Edward R. Murrow’s philosophy, but thanks to the Post, the Times, and the Christian Science Monitor, true journalism still lives.)

Now Enzo’s owner, the driver in “The Art of Driving,” keeps reminding us that, “In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”

That’s pretty sage advice that Enzo the pooch — named after Enzo Ferrari and voiced by Kevin Costner – keeps repeating. And perfectly appropriate for today. We all need to keep our eyes on the road, and not get sidetracked with deliberate distractions, lies, or a “wall.”

As Enzo himself would say, “Arf.”

Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke.column@gmail.com.

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