by MAXWELL NEELY-COHEN
Right now, as of press time, the fictional Paul Walker stock (symbol: PWALK) is valued at $118.93 a share on the play money Hollywood Stock Exchange. For reference, Leonardo DiCaprio (LDCAP) is valued at $109.22, Ryan Reynolds (RREYN) is at $52.82, George Clooney (GCLOO) is at $55.39, Ben Affleck (BAFFL) is at $53.79, and Ryan Gosling (RGOSL) is at $39.83.
Also, right now, as of press time, Paul Walker has never been the singular leading actor in a movie of note.
In 1998, in black and white, this was the moment Paul Walker pseudo-arrived. Despite his career as a childhood actor and model, it didn’t happen until Pleasantville, when Reese Witherspoon saw him drive up in his car and stopped her time-space continuum, I’m-trapped-in-a-tv-show freakout, and then asked in a teenage daze - “Who’s that?”
Our first image of him was as Skip Martin, the star (white) basketball player in the All-American problemless Chamber of Commerce (white) town. Oh! Gee! Skip Martin! He’s so swell! Little did they know that in Pleasantville, Skip Martin was patient zero. Even though he did not let himself go Technicolor until the climax, he was the first infected, the start of the outbreak, the vector, the drawbridge that had been left down.
Within a few months, Skip Martin gave way to Lance Harbor, the All-Star QB1 of West Canaan’s Coyotes in 1999’s Varsity Blues. Even in a setting five decades later Paul Walker got to be the jock chosen one immortalized on the giant sign planted in the front lawn, number 7 in your programs and number one in Ali Larter’s heart. Late 90s Paul Walker was made to play your platonic ideal of the high school god-king starting quarterback. He was crafted for it, yanked out of the sod of Friday night lit fields across SEC and PAC-10 states. In Varsity Blues, even crippled on crutches with his performance relegated to mystic teenage coach status, the Paul Walker of 1999 was at home using the last seconds of halftime in the championship game to implement a high-powered passing offense that would make the 2010 Oregon Ducks jealous.
The look of elation present on his face as he signals in a hook and lateral to be the final play of the game cannot just belong to the character of Lance Harbor. The real Paul Walker seems like the type of guy who would call trick plays in high stakes situations. If he was coaching your children’s peewee football team (and such a thing might just happen to you one day), with four seconds left on the clock he’d find the most ridiculous farce in the playbook, glare at the parents on the opposing sideline, adjust his baseball cap, and give a little smirk as he directed your local neighborhood 8 year olds to unleash mischief on their poor opponents.
Paul Walker’s final portrayal of a teenager came in She’s All That, you know, that movie where we’re supposed to believe that Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jodi Lyn O’Keefe are somehow the king and queen of a high school also attended by Gabrielle Union and Usher.
As an adolescent devil named Dean Sampson Jr., Paul Walker became a Satan disguised as blonde snake holding a poisoned apple to poor artsy Rachel Leigh Cook. He was a walking, talking plot device, the only actor portraying an actor. He was the force moving the script along, clandestinely chain-smoking in half of his scenes, delivering lines like “Hey, guys, check it. Guess who jammed a 30 year-old flight attendant at 25,000 feet en route to Cancun?” and “Well, well, well, check who’s back from spring break… looking all fine and shit.” All a respite from endless shots of Freddie Prinze Jr. trying his hardest to emote confusion.
For his hard work, Paul Walker was given the title of teenage hunk. It was his picture ripped out from a magazine that hung in the 6th grade locker of a lesbian friend of mine. He was the perfect beard in middle school.
In the final act of his preamble worthy of mention, Paul Walker starred opposite Joshua Jackson in the non-canon Yale-as-opposed-to-Harvard The Social Network prequel The Skulls. Paul Walker got to be Caleb Mandrake, that rich kid who exclusively has threesomes and forgets whom he has dated and loses his keys to his secret societies (probably because they are so various). Caleb was an expert duelist, a marksman, and a murderer. It might be, in terms of acting, the role most removed from Paul Walker’s actual experience. You see Paul Walker is really Paul Walker IV, son of Paul Walker III, a sewer contractor instead of a senator (though this particular sewer contractor married a model).
After graduating high school, Paul Walker IV bounced around several Golden State community colleges taking marine biology classes. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that he had not set foot in the state of Connecticut before shooting The Skulls (which was filmed in Toronto). It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that Paul Walker has never set foot in the state of Connecticut. In fact, to this day there’s little photographic evidence showing him in states other than California.
Regardless, it’s there in fake Canadian Connecticut at that fake Canadian Yale while playing a badly drawn caricature of a Bush that for the first time we see him get behind the wheel of a very fast car.
Film franchises don’t just accidentally gross $1,600,000,000.
The Fast and the Furious and its sequels have thrived by surfing the faultlines of a degenerating American monoculture. One can argue that the first film, released in a pre-9/11 2001, was pop culture’s first glimpse of a different America, a twisted version of Obama’s America, a demographic reality which has since come to be and thoroughly scared the shit out of Republicans everywhere. The Fast and the Furious depicts an urbanized country where whites are The Man and the minority, Latinos are the plurality, and blacks and Asians are competing forces of cultural production in a hypercapitalistic free-for-all. In the films sequels, the United States is just another country, exceptionalism be damned.
In that world, even as it morphs from film to film, Paul Walker’s character Brian O’Conner occupies an identity space that we haven’t even invented a term for yet. Whenever Channing Tatum is asked by an interviewer how he learned how to dance, he says that he grew up in a predominantly Latin place where he was sick of being the awkward white kid who couldn’t dance at all the quinceañeras.
Though we never see the specifics, a similar backstory must be responsible for why Brian O’Conner knows how to drive the way he does.
The sort of street racing culture promoted in the first three films has a reach which lessens as you go up the socio-economic ladder. This is because it takes a special kind of rich white kid to decide that a custom Nissan or Subaru is more appealing than daddy’s Maserati. And while the sequels racked up and the successive volumes became replacements for the 90s action effectfests of Schwarzenegger or Stallone instead of films about racing or import culture, the undercurrents are irremovable. They all still center on the car, the enduring American symbol, now globalized by fetishism for superior imports or honored in nostalgia for a previous period of domestically produced muscle.
Brian O’Conner is a street racer turned LAPD cop turned an FBI agent turned turncoat- a runaway, a vagabond, a master criminal who ends up co-leading a crew that includes ex-Mossad babes and Tokyo drug dealers. He is the hook studio executives toss to white America (and female America) so they’ll buy a ticket.
Paul Walker a.k.a. Brian O’Conner. Vin Diesel’s best friend and Jordana Brewster’s babydaddy. An American you know and love.
The real Paul Walker uses the twitter handle: @RealPaulWalker. The Real Paul Walker was raised Mormon and has a 14 year old daughter. The Real Paul Walker surfs, backpacks, hunts, tracks, fishes, snowboards, races competitively, and holds a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jistu. He does all of these things as if his only goal in life is to become the 90s subcultural version of the Übermensch. He posts photos of his global adventures on his website, flash enabled galleries with black and white versions of his arcing forever-tan biceps holding up a surfboard over his scruff-laden chin as background. He plays frisbee on the beach. He jumps out of helicopters onto snowy peaks. If you study The Fast and the Furious movies closely enough, you’ll notice that as they progress, the more often The Real Paul Walker is flaunting the insurance companies and driving the cars instead of a stuntman. The Real Paul Walker has several dogs. He visits baby lions in nature preserves. He takes relief trips when there are earthquakes.
When you watch enough galley interviews of Paul Walker you start to realize that despite his Californian drawl and cliché ridden answers to cliché ridden questions, he has a surprisingly expansive vocabulary that functions in direct opposition to the stereotypes he represents. As if on some Joycian mission he rarely uses the same word twice, finding synonyms on the fly and following nouns with verbs you aren’t quite expecting. Even while discussing the most mundane topics possible he builds shrinking towers of dependent clauses separated by dashes, all marked by a minimalism worthy of Raymond Carver. When exiting that hypnotic youtube trance caused by watching hours of press conference pre-release dialogues, you wonder, what is going on in that head of his? Who is playing whom? Which Paul Walker is the Real Paul Walker? Is there any difference?
“They try to neuter you as much as you can,” The Real Paul Walker tells a galley interviewer, “And not to pat myself on the back too much but there are, quite frankly, a lot of things I can do better than some of the stuntmen, a lot of the stuntmen, there are certain guys we bring in as specialists, that say are really good at this, or good at that, but my lifestyle, the way that I was raised and playing all the sports and doing everything that I did, I like to consider myself a pretty physical and athletic guy.”
The only thing stranger than Paul Walker’s status as movie star is Paul Walker’s status as sex symbol. Paul Walker will never be People's Sexiest Man Alive. His only appearance in their Most Beautiful issue came in the 2002 edition. The internet is not littered with memes predicated on his hotness. Yet every video clip where he is the subject, every blog post featuring his picture, is littered with comments unilaterally declaring his sexiness: the digital equivalent of panties thrown onstage at a rock show.
Whereas Clooney, Gosling, Tatum, Efron, DiCaprio, et al are or were supermassive celestial objects that generate heat smashing into the atmospheric zeitgeist at apocalyptic velocities, Paul Walker is something else... He is background radiation. He’s the smoldering remnants of the American prettyboy ideal from back when it was exemplified by Abercrombie models playing football shirtless on beaches on the 4th of July. An artifact from the land before fixed gear bikes, Kardashians, and Prii, before teenage tumblrs covered in naked girls wearing Supreme accessories and A$AP Rocky holding court like he actually is a young American royal (and who’s to say he isn’t).
The Real Paul Walker will soon turn 40.
In the coming year he will finally get a movie to call his own, portraying a father trying to save his newborn daughter when Hurricane Katrina kills the generators in a New Orleans hospital.
And in the coming year Paul Walker will once again get behind the wheel.
Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find his website here, and his twitter here. He last wrote in these pages about the safe haven.
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