Drive, He Said

By Gareth Evans

two-lane-blacktop-monte-hellman.jpgTwo Lane Blacktop, 1971

The allure of the open road finds its perfect driving partner in the cinema

“Back in the 1970s I drove a lot and liked driving. I thought the portable radio cassette one of the great twentieth century inventions and whoever thought to put a radio in a car was a genius. Music and speed, combined with the ratio of the windscreen, made for an experience that was often more cinematic than the films I had to review for Time Out.”

That’s Chris Petit musing, novelist and film-maker who, back in the day, was film editor of this very publication and one of the (still) very few directors to have made a British-set road movie, with his defining debut Radio On in 1979. The words come from his preface to a new BFI Screen Guide, 100 Road Movies, written by the prolific critic and cinema programmer Jason Wood, who also chose ten key works of the genre for a London Riverside Studios season in June. What’s useful about Petit’s observation is that it cuts straight to the chase about why road movies have proved so popular a form for audiences but crucially also, how they work.

As Wood discusses in the informed introduction to his entertaining and readable selection, the automobile and American cinema developed in convenient synchronicity (the road movie is a global initiative but it was moulded first in the US). Nascent Hollywood used the car as a device to achieve tracking shots of action elsewhere, but quickly revealed the framing by windows and front and rear windscreens, thus anchoring the vehicle as part of the aesthetic.

But there are more philosophical, more interior connections, as Petit suggests. In a sense, driving is cinema, and vice-versa. As a spectator/participant, both are passive and yet often exhilaratingly active pursuits. Both look out from contained spaces into wider vistas. Both suspend conventional time frames and the attendant demands of the day while working, sometimes monotonously, sometimes with epiphany, in time and space. The road movie embodies these essential qualities of cinema more intensely than any other genre while at the same time incarnating with equal force the guarantee of narrative. The road is the story.

And what stories it can tell. From flight to pursuit, escape to liberation, desire to death, the road serves as the great metaphorical agent of our times. For JG Ballard, the primary image of the modern world is that of “a man sitting in a car driving down a superhighway.” Whether socially, sexually, politically, spiritually or economically (often criminally) motivated, the urge to take to the road - with the sense of freedom offered, and the all too frequent despair that follows – has provided cinema with some of its most enduring and iconographic moments.

radio-on-chris-petit.jpgRadio On, 1979

Wood’s season, unfolding in five double bills, successfully focused on those films that most clearly inhabit the road movie as their defining narrative form. Elements of the buddy movie, comedy, western, and documentary genres all intersect of course, but it is possible to argue, as Wood does, that certain films have helped to shape this new genre in themselves.

The opener found international horizons clearly visible with the energised Latin pairing of Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Motorcycle Diaries. The road can provide a definitive rite of passage, a threshold into adulthood and a lived experience of the world, whether sexual or political, as Gael Garcia Bernal’s two characters – a Mexican teenager and the young Che Guevara – here discover.

The road is however at perhaps its most ambiguous when it becomes the conduit for an altogether deeper enquiry into personality, as Antonioni’s remarkable The Passenger and Petit’s aforementioned Radio On show. In the former, Jack Nicholson’s adoption of a dead man’s identity, only possible because he can keep ahead of discovery by moving, at least for a while, coupled with Petit’s protagonist and his growing propensity to purposeless drift, reveal the differing forms of alienation that the road can generate.

This is a far cry from the camp camaraderie of The Wizard of Oz and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert where the road loosens antagonisms and brings people finally together, in a riot of colour and comedy. The Wizard... too is interesting because it raises the issue of whether all road movies have to involve vehicular transport (there’s a healthy sub-genre of walking movies for sure, from Paris, Texas to Sátántangó.)

A powered lawn mower is certainly a vehicle but its top speed might seem to mitigate against dynamic storytelling. Not if you’re David Lynch. His wonderfully laconic Straight Story casts the restorative possibility of the road in the warmest hue, with its re-establishment of connections, between people and place. Similarly, Andrew Kötting’s uniquely affecting Gallivant (out recently in a superb double disc dvd set from the BFI) travels to the redemptive heart of family in its UK coastal circuit.

Finally though, if all roads lead, like life, to only one place, then it’s entirely apt that Wood closed his overview with arguably the two purest examples of the genre. Easy Rider offers the definitive portrait of ‘transient mobility with rebellious liberation’. It doesn’t end well. And neither does Monte Hellman’s stunning and still little-seen Two Lane Blacktop. However, with one of the most audacious endings in the history of cinema, it shows that even if the road runs out, the road movie will undoubtedly go on.

100 Road Movies by Jason Wood is out now from BFI Publishing