Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an essay on Road movies by Rod Bishop. The previous part can be found if you click here. Click on the images to enlarge or to run them as a slideshow.
(Abridged and subbed from Stuffing No 1, edited by Philip Brophy, Raffaele Caputo & Adrian Martin, Melbourne, 1987)
By the late 1960s, political dissent was producing both the exhilaration of power and the promise of social change. Like all power, and all exhilaration for that matter, the results were only transitory – glimpses, illusions, idealistic solutions. To some, the momentum of the 1960s ‘movement’ was to degenerate into nothing more substantial than the liberalized ‘lifestyles’ of the 1970s.
During the early 1970s, if American foreign policy seemed strangely aligned to the demise of the Western, then the road movie was trying to absorb Monte Hellman’s great contribution. Only three years after Easy Rider had attacked Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Two Lane Blacktop had developed an existential nihilism, its characters inhabiting a world that scorned solutions.
Had solutions been possible, the film seemed to reason, some hustler would surely have sold them to us before now.
Under all the flowing blood, it was difficult to miss the murderous, imperialist America portrayed in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch(1969) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man(1970). Neither film resembled the old school Western and both were arty and intellectual in a way real Westerns weren’t. If anything, they were a comment on what was left of the Western.
Old school Westerns had really been in trouble after John Wayne produced the performance of his career as Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers (1955). Great Westerns were made in the USA after 1955, such as Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance(1962); Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo(1959) and Rio Lobo(1970) and Peckinpah’s Ride The High Country(1962), but they were thin on the ground and seemed like memories reflected from another era.
Sensing this malady, John Wayne took the old school Western traditions and bankrolled his disastrous pro-Vietnam War epic The Green Berets(1968). It was to be the wrong film at the wrong time. With Ethan in The Searchers, Wayne had given his character a domineering patriarchal presence, admirably down to earth at times, with a humanism that eventually tempers his racism. But there was no way of ignoring his powerful authoritarianism. In The Green Berets, he regurgitated a bankrupt morality, the critical and box office failures of the film only serving to make him a further source of ridicule.
If the ‘modern’ American Westerns from Peckinpah and Penn reflected the tussle with America’s catastrophic intervention in a civil war in South-East Asia, their films also signaled a major head-on collision with the road movies of the time, particularly Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point and Two Lane Blacktop.
The wreckage bore weird offspring, Westerns besotted with existentialism and films we may never see the like of again – Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here(1969), Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (1971) Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid(1973), Blake Edwards' Wild Rovers (1971), Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and George Englund’s Zachariah(1972) - cowboys with a rock and roll band, a film billed as “the first electric rock Western”.
|Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid|
To make matters worse, Texan cowboy Lyndon Johnson, with a personality interchangeable with Ethan’s, resigned as President only to be replaced by someone who seemed to have more in common with bootlegging gangsters from the past.
With all these factors banked against it, the Western really didn’t stand much of a chance. A politically loaded genre in politically loaded times, it looked like a dinosaur whose past glories were now only lauded by an easily ignored film intelligentsia. Nobody else, particularly those lined up at the box office, wanted to know about it.
Easy Rider had forced Hollywood into A Big Re-Think. The film had reached a mass audience, opening their eyes to a world where ethics were disputed, morality rapidly changing and The American Dream was dead. The Western was a casualty.
Ethan and Wayne had come to represent a conservative world whose authoritarian ‘directions for life’ had put a whole generation up against the wall in a civil war against peasants whose feudal resources and will to win were abysmally underrated. When America lost the war, the Ethans lost control of their patriarchal presence. And America had lost more than a Third World war. It had lost its identity.
Road Movies, however, were embarking on an entirely different journey. Seeing the writing on the wall, they developed a strategy for dealing with fatalism – stay alert, question everything, if caught then escape, if cornered then fight.
Walter Hill tried to riff off Monte Hellman’s existentialist formula with The Driver(1978), but the slick surface couldn’t hide the facile plot. It was a big ask to expect audiences to accept Ryan O’Neal as a credible, rebellious outsider.
The technically awesome and grippingly paranoid Duel(1972) showed the undeniable talent of a new director, but in the end, Steven Spielberg’s film never transcended its truck-chases-car footage. Another undeniable talent emerged with Terrence Malick and Badlands(1973), although the film was less of a road movie and more of a gritty, unromantic reworking of the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow story.
|Electra Glide in Blue|
Other films with road movie sensibilities included the Marxist truckie opus White Line Fever(Jonathan Kaplan, 1975), Peckinpah’s The Getaway(1972), Mark L. Lester’s Truck Stop Women(1974), Michael Miller’s Jackson County Jail(1976), Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet(1977) and Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000(1975).
The highly regarded existentialist Vanishing Point(1971) from director Richard Sarafian tried extending the road movie horizons with some admirably enigmatic sequences, before ending with a predictable explosive suicide (“Seen that before”, muttered the front row).
With Two Lane Blacktop, perhaps the American road movie had grown up too fast. And now it was developing engine trouble.
|The Cars That Ate Paris|
The Brits, cramped for open roads and appropriate motors boasted highly evocative road sequences in some complex genre forms such as Albert Finney’s Charlie Bubbles(1968), Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man(1973), Chris Petit’s insufferable homage to Wim Wenders Radio On(1979) and the 1980s Stephen Frears European gangster road movie The Hit(1984).
|Alice in the Cities|
For Wenders’ characters, their post-war childhoods were defined and constructed by the artefacts of America, their narratives punctuated by rock and roll lyrics, their fatalism and search for love was raw, open and self-obsessed.
1980 - 1985
By the end of the 1970s, there was little consolation for those pursuing road movies from screen to screen and sighing as the opening titles appeared, wondering whether this one would be any better than the last.
Their apprehensions were well founded. Particularly as the B-graders deserted road movies for the more lucrative and exciting resurgence of horror. The field seemed left to the art house.
Like the Western in the late 1960s, road movies suddenly became thin on the ground. This was reflected in their budgets – Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas(1984) was budgeted at $US1.6 million; the impressive Australian road movie Wrong World(1985) from director Ian Pringle had a $AU640,000 budget and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise(1984) cost a miniscule $US160,000. These three films jumped from the low-budget, bottom-feeder category to carry off awards and, relative to their budgets, some respectable box office receipts.
|Stranger Than Paradise|
Wenders’ long-running fascination with the road movie and Americana and his reflections on filmmaking come together in Paris, Texas. His attempts at a Visconti-esque stature caused the film to have its detractors, but its thematic complexities; the enthralling, dense characters; and the meditative dissection of the American family breakdown, couldn’t be ignored.
These three films are examples of the road movie feeding off itself. Wenders has always fed off his previous work, refining and rewiring his German road movies to fit an American model in Paris, Texas. Jarmusch merges the comic and geographic structure of Henry Jaglom’s underrated road movie Sitting Ducks(1978) with the dissolute ambiance of Two Lane Blacktop. Pringle, certainly more honest than Jarmusch with sex and drugs, also shows a Wenders touch with character exposition and a languid mise-en-scène.
Like a pack of cards, the best road movies collapse inward, resolutions become lost in destruction, nihilism and existentialism. They have always been easily dismissed and endless cavalcades of machine, action and landscape masquerading as road movies has not helped. In some, the characters seem to lose their fight with the landscape which tends to walk off with the best scenes.
Maybe the form is bankrupt. Maybe collectively road movies are a film movement and not a genre and a film movement that ended decades ago. Or maybe their mystique lies in the inability to assign to them any permanent definition.
Perhaps for all their overwhelming rejection of answers and solutions and the almost mandatory destruction or reconstruction of their characters, road movies can’t escape the power of their love of life.