Abridged and subbed from Stuffing No 1, edited by Philip Brophy, Raffaele Caputo & Adrian Martin, Melbourne, 1987 (Click on the images to enlarge or enjoy slideshow)
|Sal Mineo, James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause|
These ingredients were not only endemic to the road movie that matured a decade later, but were also to be found in the Beat culture of the 1950s and the Nouvelle Vagueof the 1960s, particularly Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou(1965), a film shot through with suicidal nihilism and a sense of species madness.
As Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo developed youth culture in A Bout de Souffle(1959), some of America’s young were watching incredulously as their parents became seduced by Madison Avenue’s sell of the coming ‘Camelot Era’ – the John Fitzgerald and Jackie Kennedy presidency. But there were signs of life in the newly named ‘generation gap’ – talk of Cassidy, Ginsberg, Sartre, Kerouac, Camus, Baez, Salinger, Dean, Dylan and others. Life had to be better on the road.
|Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, A Bout de Souffle|
Neil and Bob
Festival Hall, Melbourne, 1985 and Neil Young looked confused. His country band just looked pissed off. The scattered, moronic screams of “ROCK, NEIL!” from the headbangers were actually bothering Young. He began apologizing for the acoustic set, promising the ‘real stuff’ after the interval.
|Neil Young, 1971|
And in 1966, Bob Dylan had faced the music on the same Festival Hall stage, pandering to his audience with their expected acoustic set before returning after interval with the devilish sounds of a Rock and Roll Band. Dylan’s forces of evil on that night were just The Band, a Canadian rockabilly outfit once called The Hawks, but strange as it now seems, a sound fearful enough to drive half the audience clear out of Festival Hall, only ten minutes into the set. Protest audience protests a protest singer’s sell out.
|Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan, 1971|
Roger Corman was behind the wheel through much of the 1960s, his vehicle carried warring bikie gangs and counter-culture refugees in flight from law and civilized society. His films played coast-to-coast drive-ins and selected hardtops.
|Peter Fonda (l), Wild Angels|
Other notable films from the period were two Richard Rush classics Hells Angel on Wheels and Thunder Alley, both made in 1967 and laying the groundwork for his masterpiece Freebie and The Bean(1974). Also, Bruce Kessler’s early Viet Vet saga Angels From Hell(1968), Tom Laughlin’sThe Born Losers (1967), a precursor to Billy Jack(1971) and Martin Scorsese’s Box Car Bertha(1969). From the UK, Sidney J Furie’s The Leather Boys(1962) and Jack Cardiff’s Girl on a Motorcycle (1968).
Car culture in the 1950s and 1960s reflected much of The American Dream. The show-cars developed by General Motors, Chrysler, Ford and others were usually called ‘dream cars’ – designer fantasies that mixed high art with aircraft and space travel design befitting the coming Kennedy Camelot Era.
|Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth creation|
The 60s also produced two television series destined to leave their mark on the road movie. The Fugitive(1963-1967) centred on a character continually in flight from legal authority and injustice, his journey a critique of the comfortable middle-class life of middle America.
|George Maharis, Martin Milner, Route 66|
Despite its attractive ‘youth’ qualities that recalled Pierrot Le Fou, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde(1967) was seen as an ‘adult’ text and spawned a number of films trying to cash in on the success of the outlaw-road movie, including Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run(1971), John Hough’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero(1973) and Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974).
For Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, 1969 was the right place at the right time. A film that introduced the underground cinema to the bikie movie and topped with an atmosphere heavy in political dissent, its mere existence was a cause célèbre. Easy Rider’s welding of these fringe forms actually cracked open an entirely new market – mainstream youth – and it was somehow successfully and fashionably summed up by its brilliant advertising campaign - Peter Fonda in a fetching stars-and-stripes jacket, gazing wistfully into the distance: “A Man Went Looking For America. And Couldn’t Find It Anywhere”.
Perhaps not that surprising given all the dope and dark glasses, but from the advertising world, it’s a one-shot definition of road movies that may never be surpassed.
|Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider|
The central characters, Captain America and Billy, financed their purist search for America on the proceeds of a cocaine deal. They discovered only hypocritical hippies in communes, rednecks out to kill them for their long hair, LSD, a drug-soaked lawyer (Jack Nicholson) and a journey ending in bigotry and death.
Hardly worth the trip, really and only a few years later, it’s morality seemed dated. But at the time, it delivered an emotional treatise on the malaise of contemporary youth.
Easy Rider’s commercial success revolutionized a Hollywood still pondering how to exploit this weird new drug counter-culture that fought for radical, even treasonous causes. Roger Corman (bless his heart) had a go with The Trip(1967) two years earlier. A homage to LSD written by Jack Nicholson, acted by Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern and directed by Corman, the film was not a success.
Easy Rider brought in the bucks, but Zabriskie Point gave the road movie cultural status. Hollywood’s response to the runaway success of Easy Riderwas to try anything even remotely in the youth culture ballpark – drugs, rock and roll, sex, comedies, bikies, hippies, truckies, whatever.
Two Lane Blacktop
Out of all this came Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop(1971), a film that somehow managed to truncate the development of the road movie for years to come. An icon in an embryonic genre, influenced by Bresson and Antonioni, it cast inexperienced actors in major roles and linked the film firmly to the existentialism of the 1950s.
|Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird (front), James|
Taylor, Two Lane Blacktop
Hardly a moment of Two Lane Blacktop diminishes Monte Hellman’s vice-like control; his direction so precise and confident as to transcend the apparent difficulties of the production. The residual effect of his nuance-loaded film expressed more than all the explicit, star-conscious Hollywood youth movies of the period.
In some ways, it was too influential.
Easy Rider may have looked for answers it couldn’t find. Two Lane Blacktop was convinced none existed.