Traffic jams are banal, but they have utility on screen. The juxtaposition of the main character in a car and hundreds of others surrounding them allows for an engaging entry point into a conflict.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many memorable traffic scenes start a film off. They fit in so well because they constitute a metaphor indicating a character’s existential stuck-ness (or run contrary to this trope) that they then deal with as the story progresses.
Due to the high concentration of people, these traffic jams are also adept at establishing class-based or racial divides.
For your reading (and future viewing) pleasure, here are the three most iconic cinematic traffic jams and what they accomplish. Beware of some general spoilers.
You can’t begin a list like this without Office Space’s upbeat opening replete with horn work. The energy of the music contrasts with Peter’s near-motionlessness in his car. There’s nothing funnier than seeing an old man mosey past all of LA traffic with his walker.
The monotony of going from accelerating to braking, accelerating to braking, is hilariously visceral and highlights Peter’s struggle with his boring job.
As the shot shifts to Michael, you get a glimpse into some interesting racial dynamics. He listens to hip-hop music performed by a Black artist, yet sneakily locks his doors as a homeless Black man walks by selling flowers. This sets the stage for later workplace racial offenses, mostly toward Samir, an Indian man.
- Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
- Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey (Actors)
You get similar hopelessness in 1993’s Falling Down with Michael Douglas. This opening traffic scene starts in near silence—the camera pans to steam, suggesting the extreme heat outside, and you gradually get a sense of the unrest.
The spooky music and slow camera crawl make “D-Fens” utter stress palpable. When it’s all too much—the flies, noise, and heat—he jumps out of his car and proclaims, “I’m going home.” This sets off an unraveling of events that continue throughout the movie.
Much happier and more modern than the above examples, La La Land has our final iconic cinematic traffic jam. In true musical fashion, this jam sets off a glorious dance sequence that appears as a continuous shot, one some call an homage to Los Angeles.
It has parkour, bike and skateboard work, car-top dancing, and brilliant colors throughout. While we certainly recommend staying safe in your car while in traffic, “Another Day of Sun” allows for a sense of unity most traffic scenes eschew.
To film it, the production shut down a highway for a week and went through more than 40 grueling takes. This culminated in each dancer/driver returning to their car and shutting their doors in unison, offering a striking opening.
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