A few thoughts on Paul Walker and on going fast

I saw The Fast and the Furious in Savannah on the film’s opening weekend in 2001. I was with Bobby Zarem, the legendary publicist who was still living in New York full time back in those days, and the late Albert Weis, a movie buff and movie theater owner (remember the old Weis theater on Broughton — now SCAD’s Trustees).

We went to a late Sunday afternoon show of The Fast and the Furious, and there was a predictably small crowd on hand. We enjoyed the movie, well enough. Afterwards, we stopped for dinner at a hibachi place on Abercorn. As we were driving from the theater to the restaurant, I kept wondering aloud about the intended audience for the film. A decent amount of action, fast cars, an uninspired script — who would be the audience for that?

When we settled in at the restaurant, the kid throwing the knives and dicing up our dinner asked what we were up to. He was a good-natured young man of Asian descent, but he was obviously thoroughly American. We told him that we had just seen the The Fast and the Furious, and he asked what we thought of it. Eh.

“I’ve seen it three times,” he said matter-of-factly.

The Fast and the Furious did $40 million that opening weekend (vs. a budget of $38 million), racked up $144 million (about $190 million in 2013 dollars) in theaters before the end of the year, and spawned an incredibly lucrative movie franchise that made a star out of Paul Walker, the ridiculously handsome actor who died yesterday in an auto accident in California.

Here are the last three tweets from Walker’s official account:

At that memorable (to me, at least) dinner back in 2001, I quizzed our server/cook about his own car, about what it cost to juice it up, about how and why people were obsessed with street racing. Seriously, a whole new world opened up to me. I remember that relatively uneventful night surprisingly often — I recall it to remind myself that the world is never as small or closed as it sometimes seems. Even in one’s own backyard, there are stories and people that we’ve never noticed and that we don’t understand.

I actually wondered back in 2001 if Paul Walker had a chance to become one of the major Hollywood leading men of the 21st century. He was pretty wooden in The Fast and the Furious, but he appeared on many moviegoers’ radar screens after 1998’s Varsity Blues. I loved the dark film Joy Ride, which was also released in 2001 and in which Walker really had to act.

Joy Ride to some degree explored the American fascination with cars and with the open road. Three young people out for a road trip take a joke too far and find themselves living a nightmare.

So there in that one year — 2001 — Walker starred in films that together express some of the American ambivalence about cars.

That ambivalence seems to be growing more and more obvious. In 2005, Americans began driving less per capita, and we’ve seen a prolonged stagnation in the total number of vehicle miles driven in America. From Calculated Risk:


There has been considerable speculation about this trend, and it seems like young people just don’t need to drive or desperately desire to drive like they did in previous generations. That likely has something to do with the escapes offered by social media. For decades, cars were the key symbol of freedom for American teenagers, but no more.

At the same time, young people — especially young men — still frequently drive their cars dangerously fast. Maybe they just love the thrill or maybe they just understate the risks. Maybe they just aren’t paying attention and are too absorbed by other 21st century devices. As we’ve seen here in the Savannah area over the last few years, fast and/or distracted driving has led to many tragedies. I’ll bet I’ve read a dozen narratives by first-year students at Armstrong about the sudden deaths of good friends in car crashes.

Such behavior doesn’t only belong to the young. It’s hard to forget last summer’s death of Ben Tucker, who was killed by a middle-aged joyrider trying out the Hutchinson Island racetrack in the middle of the day.

Roger Rodas, the racecar driver who died along with Walker in yesterday’s single vehicle crash, had two children, according to the New York Daily News. According to that article, Rodas’ 8-year old son tried to pull his father from the burning car.

Walker had a 15-year old daughter.

What a tragedy.