Sunday, 3 June 2018

Retrieving the pre-digital - Rod Bishop's essay on the road movie and the cultural forces surrounding it.

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)
Part 1
Sal Mineo, James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause
From its beginnings, the film industry looked kindly, if condescendingly on the ‘youth movie’. In the 1950s, the youth films promised a new market, both exploitable and potentially very lucrative. The escapist, romantic, disturbing, films of the 1950s such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One showed the entrapment, claustrophobia, neuroses, repression and resolute all-in brawl of the young with the “established order”.
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
The best of them left their family compounds long before Kennedy was elected. Standing on the blacktop, their heads ‘full of new ideas’, not sure whether to turn left or right, “too late to stop now…”
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
So off went the Good Ol’ Boys and on came Crazy Horse. Ever the professional, Young delivered the ‘real stuff’ for his middle-class audience of middle-twenties yobbos, and they loved it. The same audience members were barely able to walk when Young, the folkie, lost all credibility by ‘selling out’ and ‘going electric’ with Buffalo Springfield in 1966.
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
The ironies kept piling up. Young and Dylan, musicians with the same folkie pasts, same electric transitions, same ‘voices from the heartland’, one persecuted for not playing rock, the other for not playing folk. Both big enough to throw personal wealth away on road movies – Young’s Journey Through The Past(1978) and Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara(1974), both disguising their urban personas behind cowboy masks, both showing influences from Kerouac, Guthrie et al, and both drifting out of the Fifties in search of transformation.

Roger Corman
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
Corman’s own The Wild Angels(1966), a Venice Film Festival entry, spawned a whole cycle of motorcycle movies, cutting new ground with orgies, drugs, helicopters and other 1960s ingredients. It was edited by Monte Hellman with Peter Fonda in the cast, both to later make significant contributions to the road movie.
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
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
As the 1960s progressed and The American Dream diminished in a welter of assassinations, war, drugs and political dissent, a mutant form of Car Culture emerged. One exponent of this form was Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, a pin-striper and custom car artist Tom Wolfe once described as “the Salvador Dali” of the custom car movement. His designs, inspired in part by comic strip culture, were baroque, sculptural forms – strange art objects produced by the Southern Californian hot rod ethos. Their outrageous, mutated forms attacked the good taste of the ‘dream cars’, and hence The American Dream, while their inspiration seemed more attuned to the outlaw B-grade bikie/car movies of the period.
Route 66
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
More influential was Route 66(1960 – 1964), an ultra-cool road series with Martin Milner, George Maharis and later, Glenn Corbett, driving from town-to-town across America in a Corvette convertible searching for love, action and adventure. Route 66 fan Biff Rosenstock remembers: “I hadn’t yet discovered Jack Kerouac, but even if I had, being depressed in a sports car was better than being depressed hitchhiking. Especially to a kid who didn’t have a driver’s license. Route 66 altered my fantasies…
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).
Easy Rider
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 célèbreEasy 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
Unlike many of its 1960s predecessors, Easy Rider was made by a major Hollywood studio who locked horns with Hopper over the final cut. Finally, it was Henry Jaglom (of all people) who was given the task of reducing the film to a manageable length. Scriptwriters Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern had injected a completely new resonance into the tired old bikie form, setting Easy Rider against the climate of the Vietnam War and scoring a direct hit with the international youth/dissent movement – most of whom had never seen a bikie movie before.
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.
Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point
MGM released Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point the same year as Easy Rider. Drifting away from campus politics toward a masochistic nihilism, Antonioni’s characters escape with a plane and car flight into the Nevada desert, ending their ennui with a spectacular dynamite blast of suicidal anarchism. The same ending as Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou.
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
Minimalist dialogue; long, atmospheric shots; action that barely ticked over; a plot that appeared banal and characters portentiously known by their functions: The Driver; The Mechanic; The Girl; GTO. None of them seemed to care the slightest about what might happen at the end of their relentless road odyssey, played out against the mundane landscapes of America’s South-West.
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.
PART 2 covering the years 1971-86 will be published shortly

Monte Hellman

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