Snapshots from the road
Stranger on the highway: I'm from the city... Doesn't matter what city; all cities are alike.
Billy: Well, why'd you mention it then?
Stranger on the highway: 'Cause I'm FROM the city; a long WAY from the city, and that's where I wanna be right now.
Easy Rider (1969)
You need a few things before you begin a road movie: plot, characters etc, but the choice of car is critical. It represents the journey. These days a Model T means you are making a lame comedy whereas a late model white hatchback immediately tells the audience nothing much is going to happen. There’s a thesis waiting to be written on the effect the OPEC crisis had on American cinema. One was that the motor companies downsized their cars and the enormous tailfinned Chevy passed into oblivion. Too bad. Outside of a Harley Davidson, this is the only vehicle suitable for a road movie; not because of any covert symbolism but because it looks right on any road.
When we speak of characters we often mean back story. Some flaw integral to their character has compelled them to set out across the country. The negligent son sets off to be with Dad for the last time or now his marriage has collapsed he needs to understand why. The expression on this man’s face makes him a candidate. He looks like he has just had an epiphany. There’s something he needs to do before he gets into that car with his fiancé. It involves travelling across the country. He promises he won’t be long though we all know that when he returns a profound change will have taken place.
We need a plot, or more accurately, a destination, which is much the same thing. There is no reason for leaving except to reconcile with whatever lies at the other end. A dying father has always been popular though hackneyed these days, especially when you can just fly across to see him. The point is however that a destination logically requires a starting point, and the first road the travellers set out on. It should be long but still lined with the elements of civilization our protagonist has taken for granted.
Outside of town Mr or Ms Protagonist stops at a roadside café. Here he/she looks out the window as a song plays on the jukebox. What song that will be is crucial to the entire film, because, even though we are not even fifteen minutes in, it is the backbone of the soundtrack. Since we haven’t agreed on the purpose for making this journey it is a little hard to be definitive, but let’s say Dad, estranged, is dying, Old Man by Neil Young would be silly but Will to Love might not be. So long as Mr or Ms P has time to smoke a cigarette and reflect. He/She walks out of the café, gets into the car and puts the key in the ignition. Everything up to this point has been a prelude. Finally, we are on our way.
The first real encounter on the road sets the tone for what unfolds. Think of the farmer in Easy Rider who thought California was far away, even though it was just over the mountains. It is the moment Billy and Wyatt realize the enormity of their journey. Not much has to happen, a chance conversation perhaps, but it softens up our protagonist for what lies ahead. Said protagonist has always known that he or she has been selfish or mistaken but needs someone else to remind them: like an anachronistic looking couple whose car has broken down and have to rely on the kindness of strangers. There are two possibilities here. Either Mr or Ms Protagonist has never really helped a stranger or he/she is scared of ageing members of the John Birch Society and gets the lesson: even reactionaries have feelings.
The road movie is always a travelogue. Think of Easy Rider again. Billy is too out of it and Wyatt too boring to really engage our sympathies. It is the desert landscape that really sells the movie in its first hour. Of course it could be snowy wastes or dark forests, so long as we wish we were out there with them.
Every road movie must have a person with a gun and a tenuous understanding of how it should be used and who on. A woman is preferable. According to the rules of cinema, she is harder to predict and, ignoring them altogether, a good deal creepier than the usual dull-eyed men who roam the hinterland. You’ll notice that in American films it is usually a brief confrontation, which the protagonist escapes from. The Europeans prefer that enigmatic figure who turns up at various road stops until suddenly producing the weapon without provocation. The psychotic with the gun is useful for breaking up those periods where nothing much else is happening.
A meeting out on the desolate plain. There’s scarcely a road movie that hasn’t tried to slip a biblical metaphor in there somewhere and here we could really milk it. An encounter with a revivalist group reminds Mr or Ms P that no matter how misguided faith may be it is vital.
Ever since Jack Nicholson asked for plain toast in Five Easy Pieces, the diner scene has been considered essential . Usually it comes during a lull in the action and these days involves a rather unnecessary confession from the protagonist. What is it about cherry pie and horrid coffee that makes Americans open up about themselves?
Romance. We imagine the producers reading the script and wondering, 45 minutes into it, where the love angle is. The most perfunctory element of any film – how many very ordinary ones have been ‘saved’ by a glimpse of the lead actress’s breasts? – it seems nevertheless necessary. So, we’ll put it in. A roadside encounter leads to a night where Mr or Ms P exposes his/her vulnerabilities. Ms Love Interest is eccentric, possibly a little cracked but she awakens ideas in Mr/Ms P that have been suffocated until now. The next morning, as Love Interest pulls out of the motel car park, she leans out the window and smiles. Yes, Mr/Ms P says under the breath, this could have been it. It should have been, but the cinema, like nature, abhors symmetry. As Love Interest’s old car with its billowing exhaust disappears down the road, Mr/Ms P can only grimace at the irony before turning back and setting off in the opposite direction.
Coming in just after halfway through, the visit to the relatives is one of the highlights of the road movie. Usually a brother or sister, he or she has achieved everything our protagonist should have: a happy marriage, beautiful children, the house, the secure job and so forth. There’s a problem though. The family is living in some backwater and in the depths of uncertainty Mr/Ms P still knows that life is too precious to end up there.
Ah yes; the eccentric old lady who implicitly understands our protagonist’s problem. Several encounters have already left him or her vulnerable but our dear old thing will provide a simple phrase that puts everything back in focus. What she says will prove the quality of the film. If it is something banal like ‘everything happens for a reason’, we know we have been duped. If it is more abstruse: ‘You open up the shutters, you see the dogs outside”, we have the key to the whole film. She may even pretend to be a ventriloquist and get her doll to say it. Protagonist will now get back in the car and pause before turning the key in the ignition.
Whatever it is Mr/Ms P needs to do, the old lady’s advice has made it clear. The toughest part of the journey is over. All that remains is to take its lessons and apply them to the problem at hand. The road stretches out ahead. The soundtrack is quiet and melancholic. What awaits may no longer be so difficult though it still won’t be pleasant.
There are only two endings to the road movie. In the first, it is the ultimate in existential solutions: hillbillies shoot protagonist for no reason, protagonists drive off cliff, protagonist faces police barricade and realizing game is up, plants foot on pedal. The second sees our P leaving the scene having come to some resolution. By leaving we can mean walking towards the camera, so in the generally underrated This Must be the Place, Sean Penn walks down the street towards the camera, no longer looking like the Cure’s Robert Smith but more like, well, Sean Penn. Alternatively, he or she walks away, becoming a small figure in the landscape, reminding us that the greatness in a man’s gesture underscores his insignificance. Cue bittersweet music that suddenly breaks out into upbeat mariachi, because, let’s face it, life is a wonderful thing and should be the opposite of an English kitchen sink drama, where things start off bleak and end up back there.