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Posts Tagged ‘Easy Rider’

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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When visiting my parents or talking to then on the telephone they often ask what movies I have seen, if I respond with the name of a film they haven’t heard of my mom, knowing I watch a lot of foreign language movies will ask “is it foreign”. On more than one occasion I have given the somewhat flippant and slightly rude response “yes, American”. It is funny that a movie made five thousand miles away in Hollywood is familiar and not foreign because it is in something similar to “The Queens English”, and yet something made across the channel in France, still on the same continent as England, is in some way foreign and exotic. Maybe we are two nations joined by a common language and not divided by it as George Bernard Shaw quipped. Whatever the reason, as we step below the surface of these idea we find an interesting thing, filmmaking does exist beyond the bright lights of Hollywood, both in Europe and in the rest of America.Mean Streets The Terminator Blood Simple Memento

When I talk about American independent cinema it isn’t just the obvious and seminal movies like Easy Rider (1969) (Dennis Hopper) or Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) (Monte Hellman) or the small no budget movies that you have never heard of. Think of some of the biggest name directors working today: Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ethan and Joel Coen, Christopher Nolan, then look at their independent films Mean Streets (1973), The Terminator (1984), Blood Simple (1984), Memento (2000) . Sam Raimi may be making money movies for Disney now but it all started with Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987). Would George Lucas have made Star Wars (1977), if he hadn’t already made THX-1138 (1971) or the hugely profitable American Graffiti (1973)? Then there are directors like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and Darren Aronofsky that are just more comfortable outside or on the edge of the system. There was a time before he started believing his own publicity that Kevin Smith was the darling of the indie scene thanks to the cult status of Clerks (1994), but before that came Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991). A day in the life of various social outcasts and misfits held together by loose strands and an even looser narrative, the style and the realistic dialogue became a blueprint for a generation. Linklater wasn’t seduced by Hollywood instead he remained in Austin and two years later he came up with Dazed And Confused (1993).Dazed And Confused Clerks THX 1138 Evil Dead

The same can be said for foreign language cinema, it isn’t all about weird esoteric art house movies, there are many accessible movies not in the English language. Not that the weird esoteric art house movies are a bad thing, they are just not the best place to start. The test as to if a movie is accessible and worth seeing is simple, would you watch it if it were in English? If the answer is yes, it is worth a look. There were two movies that seemed to cross the language barrier that came out within a year of each other just over a decade ago: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001). Many of the people who watched and enjoyed them wouldn’t normally have seen a movie in another language. There have been some interesting examples too; the French thriller Tell No One (2006) is very American in its style, no great surprise, it is based on an American novel (of the same name) by Harlan Coben. A Hollywood remake was supposed to have been made but it doesn’t appear to have materialised yet. The same can’t be said for Anything for Her (2008), it took just two years for the American remake The Next Three Days to hit cinema screens. Both Tell No One and Anything for Her benefited from the presence of actresses familiar to English speaking audiences Kristin Scott Thomas and Diane Kruger respectively. On the subject of remakes the terrible Queen Latifah movie Taxi (2004) is a remake of a great French movie also called Taxi (1998). It has spawned three sequels (the first of which is also really good) the movies are notable for lots of things including significant early roles for Marion Cotillard.Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Amélie Tell No One Anything for Her

When I first saw Oldboy (2003) it immediately became one of my all time favourite films. I didn‘t expect it to have gained the following that it has, I also didn‘t think Hollywood would dare to touch it, but they have the American remake of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance movievis in production and is set for release later this year, it is directed by Spike Lee. The other movie that plays well to British and American audiences is Run Lola Run (1998). It put its German star Franka Potente and director and Tom Tykwer onto the international stage both have worked in American and their native Germany many times since. But I can trace my first experience of a foreign language movie back a little further than that. In 1990 I read a review of a film I really wanted to see Nikita (1990). At fourteen years old I didn’t have a chance of getting into see it at the cinema to see the eighteen certificate movie, but a couple of months later (when I was fifteen) renting the video was surprisingly easy. Its impact in America was such that it spawned a Hollywood remake and two television series. Its director Luc Besson’s next two films Léon (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997) were in English.Oldboy Run Lola Run Nikita Taxi

I have done little more than scratch the surface of independent and foreign langue movies, but I hope I have inspired at least one person to look below the tent-pole blockbuster and popcorn movie and towards the smaller films that don’t get all the publicity. Many of them will get limited runs in big multiplexes but others are harder to find, but if this means you are also helping to support your local independent cinema’s it’s an added bonus. As you grow to love them as much as I do you will look deeper and further back at older movies and a whole world of cinema will open up to you. I know that I am to a certain extent preaching to the converted as many readers are film fans and bloggers themselves and are far more cineliterate than me.

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