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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

Easy Rider (1969) didn’t chronicle the end of the decade/era, and the death of hope and optimism that the 1960’s promised, but it certainly symbolised it. It could be argued that the loss of hope wasn’t followed by despair, but by a new more measured hope with less lofty ambitions, a more weary even cynical hope, but hope none the less. And this is what we saw on the big screen, the cinema of new Hollywood. In truth, a child of the 70s, I saw it on late night TV, and VHS in the 80s and 90s. The Watergate scandal of 1972 may have ground zero for the political and conspiracy thrillers of the time, films like The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation (1974), but the spirit, or lack thereof found a place on screen before that, it found it on the road!  There has always been a link between cars and movies, the two were invented around the same time, and both found popularity in the United States, a country built out of exploration, and a country built on a dream; and as Mark Cousins reminded us The Story of Film: An Odyssey is a (2011) “movies look live our dreams”.


While there had been movies about cars and drivers before, the road movie as we know it was born in the 70s, buit on a foundation from the Golden Age of Cinema. We are not talking the capers of Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), or the various Gumball/Cannonball movies (various movies from mid 70’s to mid 80s), I am referring to the existential road movies like Two Lane Blacktop (1971), and Vanishing point (1971). Existential movies, where to drive is to live, to stop is to die. Kowalski (Barry Newman), the hero of vanishing point is just driving, we never understand why. He drives for the sake of driving the way we live for the sake of living.  If you don’t know the film, the plot of the film revolves around a man delivering a car 1,200 miles from Denver Colorado, To San Francisco.  He has a week to get there but for reasons never explained is compelled to do it in a couple of days.  There is little plot, and almost no explanation, but flashbacks give us an idea of what is going on.  The Driver (James Taylor) and Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) in Two Lane Blacktop may not have names but they have more of  purpose, or do they.  They cruise around looking for action in the shape of drag races like the subjects of a Bruce Springsteen song, but when we look a little deeper, they have no purpose, they are racing for money to fund their lifestyle, so they can continue racing.  They are not the unwilling or repentant criminal looking for one last job so they can go clean, they are living day to day, a modern take on the hunter gathers of our past.  But does that make them any different to anybody working a day job, as Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt from Fight Club ((1999) said nearly 30 years later “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”.  Are they closer to the breadline than the average wage earner, or do they have a fallback? Both films have an other-worldly character enhanced by uncertainty and ambiguity,  this was lost in the 90s, made for TV remake of Vanishing Point, everything they gave Kowalski by way of motivation, stripped away a layer of meaning from the subtext of the movie. 

Although most associated with America, the genre isn’t exclusive to the nation. By the end of the 70’s the angst and desire had been forgotten, swallowed up by “blockbusters”.  Australian filmmaker George Miller fussed the road ideas of the road, if not the road movie itself with a dystopian future.  For a more recent generation, their knowledge of the Mad Max franchise may not stretch beyond the fourth, and most recent instalment: Fury Road (2015), but it started long before that in 1979. Inspired by the fuel crisis and economic crash of a few years earlier the first film depicted the beginning of society crumbling. Max, the movies “hero” first hits the road for revenge, but by the end of the first movie, he disappears down the road.  Not with the glory of a cowboy riding into the sunset, but a long and dark road, as a man with nothing, and nothing to live for.  Max’s only option for survival it to live, to exist, and he can find this simplicity, only after he has lost himself on the road.  A generation later, the characters of Fury Road think they can find hope, redemption, or even eternity on the road, for most none of this is true. 

Both as surreal and mainly masculine genre, director Chloe Zhao gave her a new take, and grounded and more real take.  Nomadland is loosely based on Jessica Bruder none fiction book of the same name we see real life people living a nomadic existence.  This, like many other road movies was exist in the traditional heartland of the western genre, but this isn’t a pioneering story of A to B, of someone with a destination. It is the story of a person not looking where to live, but how to live.  As the world gets smaller, and cars have begun to lose importance in the world, we may think the days of the road movie are numbered.  I don’t think they are, we may see a day were they become nostalgic chronicling relatively recent past rather than telling their own contemporarily stories, but in the hands of talented filmmakers, this artifice will not prevent the real story, one that is lingering beneath the surface. 

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