Everyone who knows anything about film, or a little of something regarding popular culture, agrees without hesitation that the satin flight jacket worn by Ryan Gosling in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is the costume high-point of the decade so far. In off-white, somewhere between cream and silver depending on the lighting, with black detailing round the collar, over the shoulders and under the arms, and in the snug knitted bands of the cuffs and waist, the already stylish jacket is individuated by the yellow scorpion which adorns its back.
At one point during the picture Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver asks Bernie Rose – the Jewish mobster, played by Albert Brooks, who ultimately proves the film’s chief protagonist, murdering a series of witnesses with his precision killing tools and a world-weary display of compassion – ‘Did you ever hear the story of the scorpion and the frog?’
More a fable than a story, ‘The Scorpion and the Frog’ descends in the Western canon from Aesop’s ‘The Frog and the Mouse’, and in the East, from collections based on the Indian Panchatantra which came in the late middle ages to be attributed to the apocryphal ‘Bidpai’, with translations into English by Sir Thomas North (1570) and French by Jean de La Fontaine (1670). But in its modern formulation, ‘The Scorpion and the Frog’ first appears in the script of Orson Welles‘ Mr. Arkadin (1955). It recounts a scorpion who, being carried across a river by a kindly frog, stings his helper thereby condemning both creatures to their untimely deaths, explaining his behaviour as an inevitable product of his nature.
Making the connection between the scorpion on the back of his jacket and his reference to the fable, the film critic Peter Canavese argues, ‘The driver’s nature is to sting, but he finds himself in the role of rescuer.’ So is Gosling’s driver a scorpion, a frog, or some movement between the two, or does his jacket instead indicate something more ambiguous, an aesthetic gesture which calls out to a blurred multiplicity of images and myths?
Gosling has stated that upon reading the part, he developed a sense of the main character as:
‘a guy that’s seen too many movies, and he’s started to confuse his life for a film. He’s lost in the mythology of Hollywood and he’s become an amalgamation of all the characters that he admires.’
And Nicolas Winding Refn has spoken at length about the process of devising and constructing the jacket:
‘I wanted him to wear a white satin jacket so he would be visible at night. It also gave him a sense of armor. I said, I would like a white or silver satin jacket. When you work with great actors, one of the most important things for them to build a character is to know what they wear. So Ryan found a jacket that he would feel comfortable wearing. I liked the jacket, it was an old military jacket. It wasn’t in satin, so we had to get it custom-made. But the old ones had these symbols on them, American symbols, like an eagle. And I thought it would be cool if he had an animal symbol on his.
I was showing the costume designer Scorpio Rising, because we were talking about the clothes people would wear at the garage – I wanted it to be very fetish. Ryan was there, working on his car, because he was building a car to understand the DNA of the motor. Scorpio Rising starts with the famous scorpion coming into frame, and Ryan and I were looking at each other, going, it’s a scorpion. So we constructed a huge scorpion on his back. So when we had to do some ADR for the scene on the roof, Ryan said, ‘Why don’t I tell the story of the scorpion and the frog?”
Less understood than all of this is that the Drive jacket might have been inspired by a vaguely similar piece of satin, worn by Billy Corgan on the cover for The Smashing Pumpkins’ hit single ‘1979’. After all, beyond the material affinity, the film, the song, and the Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris-directed music video share themes and atmospheres of idealised yearning and disaffected youth, depicting endless drives in search emotional wholes overwhelmingly tangible but always just-out-of-reach. In the music video however, Billy Corgan eschews the wheel and stick, never driving but pondering from his place in the backseat.
‘1979’ unfolds on a looped sample of Corgan’s voice and winding drums, a fading epiphany. While the idea for the song was rooted in the Chicago suburbs of Corgan’s early adolescence, and has the band driving a Dodge Charger with Illinois licence plates, the video was shot in California.
Released in January 1996 as the second single from the band’s third studio album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, ‘1979’ became The Smashing Pumpkins’ biggest chart success, reaching number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on both the Mainstream Rock Tracks and Modern Rock Tracks charts. The song was nominated for Record of the Year and Best Rock Performance Grammys, and won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Alternative Video.
Corgan’s pinkish satin number is more of a shirt than a jacket, accompanied by PVC trousers – drummer Jimmy Chamberlin on the right wears a similar fabric in indigo blue – with brown roller skates and a black cap. Loosely buttoned and hanging about the sleeves, perhaps Gosling’s fitted jacket is more refined. But would we ever have embraced it without Corgan’s shirt first testing the cultural tastebuds, whetting the appetite and moistening the lips?