How do you write an article about road movies? Well to start with you make a list of the best or at least your favourite road movies. That was the first mistake I made I included every film I like that prominently features cars or journeys but are they truly road movies? I would suggest that there is a certain existentialism that separates a true road movie from a Roadtrip movie. Have I just invented a new sub-genre there separating road movies in half? Probably not lots of people have probably already devoted at lot more thought to the idea than me! There are three movies that nearly made it into this article Convoy and Fandango (the best roadtrip movie ever) that on the surface have all the elements of a road movie but that move away from the themes of the films I have picked, and Stagecoach, no cars, no roads but when you break it down it is a road movie. So I started again with a much smaller list. One thing that stands out is that they are all American, there have been a few good none American road movies but the all the iconic ones are American, there is almost an intrinsic link between the genre and the nation. As I said in my movie cars article a few weeks ago: “The early days and popularisation of cars and movies happened around the same time. For this reason the two have always been linked. That is why there is no surprise that America has been responsible for the biggest car culture and the biggest movie industry in the world”. So here it is, essential road movie viewing:
Easy Rider (1969) Made at the end of the sixties Easy Rider is about recapturing something that is gone or fast disappearing. Even the two main characters names Wyatt and Billy hark back to the old west. The film was made in a way that echoes the freedom that the characters strive for, this possible explains the gritty authentic feel of the movie. For example it has been reported that the stars were often drunk and/or stoned on set and during filming. The script was never completed and a lot of the movie was made up as they went along. Instead of hiring a crew they used friends, family and people they met while filming to hold the camera and appear as extras in the film. The best documented example of this is the rednecks in Louisiana that where used in the coffee shop scene. They were locals who were taunting the actors of a local theatre company who were auditioning for the parts. Dennis Hopper spotted them and hired them instead of the actors. The conclusions that can be drawn from the film are endless and personal to the viewer but I always come away from the film torn between two ideas, did they not find the freedom they where looking for or is that freedom just not as much fun as they thought it would be?
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) My all time favourite road movie. Two unnamed friends simply referred to as The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) drive a stripped out 1955 Chevy hot rod. They cruise small towns in California and the southwest looking for other cars to race. Anyone who has seen The Fast and the Furious will probably remember Vin Diesel’s character saying he lives his life quarter of a mile at a time and that nothing else matters. This is the way The Driver and the Mechanic think but it means so much more coming from them, they don’t have to say it, they live it. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker simply credited as The Girl (Laurie Bird) and get into a race with GTO (Warren Oates) a character that simply takes the name of the car he drives. The Driver and The Mechanic only communicate with each other about their car and the cars they are going to race, they have no need to say anything else to each other. GTO picks up hitchhikers telling each one a different story about who he is and what he is doing. These people are lost. Throughout the film as The Driver becomes more attached to the girl does he begin to find himself or does he become more detached. With the burning film at the end the film never truly ends just like the race. This truly is the existential road movie.
Vanishing Point (1971)Whilst Two Lane Blacktop is my favourite road movie Vanishing point has my favourite movie car: Kowalski (Barry Newman) is hired to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco. He says that he needs to be in San Francisco by three PM the next day (fifteen hours) although it is never explained why. Along the way a blind DJ calling himself Super Soul calls Kowalski “the last American hero”. The rest of the film consists of car chases and flashbacks of Kowalski’s past life. The film is about freedom, the car and the road give this freedom but the police take it away. It is about the end of an era in the same way as Sam Peckinpah westerns are about an end of the west. The film is referred to in Death Proof both verbally and by the use of a white Challenger. It is easy to put a classic car in a film but you must remember the Challenger was new at the time the film was made. If you were making a film like this today is there a car half as cool as the Challenger in production at the moment? I doubt it! And a note to other film makers particularly the makers of the Fast and Furious, no Challengers were harmed in the final scene, instead the shell of a Camaro was used. There has been much debate about the ending the ambiguity of Kowalski’s actions, it is perfect.
The Straight Story (1999) A very different film to finish. A 73 year old man decides to travel from his home in Laurens Iowa to visit his sick brother in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin a journey of less than three hundred miles. Hardly the basis for an epic road movie. Based on a true story it follows Alvin Straight’s real life journey on a ride on lawn mower but in the hands of David Lynch things are never simple. Alvin’s journey is a journey through life, Lynch doesn’t settle for metaphors in films, the whole film is a metaphor. Even the people he meets along the way get older as the films progresses. There is a shot that has been used countless times in road movies where all you see is a black road with the white lines passing by. Lynch himself used it at high speed in his previous film, Lost Highway. In The Straight Story it moves at the pace of Alvin on his mower. Richard Farnsworth was nominated for an Oscar for his towering performance but lost out to Kevin Spacey for American Beauty. But how much of his performance was acting? During filming the former stuntman had terminal cancer and chronic arthritis, his pain comes out in what was to be his last film.