Such a strange paradox, the road movie – sitting still in one place for a couple of hours while your eyes and imagination go off on a journey along with the characters on screen. Then again, isn’t that exactly why we go to the cinema, so we can travel in our imaginations? (and then get the bus home, hang up our coats on a familiar hook and put the kettle on…)
The roots of the road movie are as old as story telling itself, with mythical tales of the hero’s journey existing in any culture you care to name. The hero, or heroine, leaves home to travel to another place, gaining new insight about themselves and the world.
The road trip can be a quest, a chase, an aimless wander or an escape, but always involves an element of self-discovery. And however ordinary, there is a mythic, heroic quality about the journey. Watching, we become adventurers as well as spectators, and unlike the typical “beginning-middle-end” narrative structure of a film, the plot is often meandering and unresolved, the journey more important than the actual destination.
The lure of the open road reminds us of the nomadic heritage deep in our DNA. It’s about stepping outside the boundaries of everyday life – something we all seem to crave in our built up, over-committed, time-poor existence. Leaving home behind, we find new perspectives on the world and perhaps solutions to our problems. But most of all, we taste freedom.
American road films classically celebrate the dominance of the car as the perfect method of transport – fast, flexible, autonomous – moving through the vast landscape with ease. The topography of America comes into its own in cinema, its sheer scale, its natural beauty and its manmade ugliness all rendered equally luscious through the windscreen and the eye of the lens.
The tracking shot was just born for the road movie – the camera following the journey the way a passenger looks out of the car window. Think of the opening of “Down By Law” – not strictly a road movie but certainly acknowledging the same themes – with the camera lovingly scanning the streets of New Orleans like a caress. All the places you pass through but never stop at, places you will probably never see again, echoing the parallel universes of lives we might have lived.
Also – the intimacy of being in a car together over a period of time means that relationships shift and different kinds of conversations are born. Add in some chance meetings with eccentric characters, a different topography and the odd brush with the law, and the scene is set for new inner horizons to reveal themselves.
Also – music! Driving along new (blue) highways with the perfect soundtrack – isn’t that one of the best things in life? The road movie captures those fleeting feelings of independence, possibility and bliss.
There are so many American road movies – Hitchhiker, They Live by Night, Bonnie and Clyde, Two Lane Blacktop, Buffalo 66, Thelma and Louise, Badlands, Easy Rider, Sideways, Duel – just to name a few. Think of those and you think of space, miles and miles travelled without seeing habitation or another vehicle.
European road movies may be influenced by American themes but describe a smaller continent and tend to be more claustrophobic – think of Radio On, The Wages of Fear, La Strada, The Passenger, Cold Fever. The Vanishing (taking claustrophobia to new heights!)
And then there’s Wim Wenders. His 1970s Road Movie trilogy was shot in Germany but distilled the genre so perfectly that it influenced a new generation of American directors. Returning to the theme a decade later, “Paris, Texas” is the quintessential American / European road film, incorporating elements of both cultures to create a story of longing and loss, a hero’s journey with a destination but no end. Sam Shepherd’s story and Ry Cooder’s soundtrack evoke a nostalgia for a Wild West that maybe never existed, while Robbie Muller’s photography makes even the carparks look beautiful in their way.
Perhaps that’s why this film is so loved, because it touches so many different nerves and there’s something in it that we all seem to recognise. It’s one of those films that it kind of hurts to watch, but that you know you need to see again. So we’re showing it for our March screening in a couple of weeks and we hope you’ll come along and share the experience.
Or send us a postcard from on the road…