As British director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, 2006; Fish Tank, 2009) trails the white-lined blacktop across the US midwest with a gang of itinerant, teenage magazine sellers in her latest feature, the Cannes Jury Prize winner American Honey, we throw down a few titles that map their own cinematic routes down highways, motorways and autobahns towards the inevitable end of the road.
But before we start making (short) lists, just what ingredients do you need on the screen to make a film with a motor and some tarmac into a road movie? Here’s what Jason Wood says:
‘…road movies commonly entail the undertaking of a journey by one or more protagonists as they seek out adventure, redemption or escape from the constricting norms of society and its laws… however, closer inspection reveals the dream of the road to be tarnished, a dead end in which love and dreams are dashed and hopes vanquished by harsh reality.’
One more fancy framing quote from Stephanie Watson:
‘…the promise of the road forwards is also accompanied by the fear of going too far, sliding off the map, or simply being trapped along the same piece of road with no hope of progression.’
And that last genre-defining nugget feeds nicely into the first of our five…
Two Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)
The Driver. The Mechanic. The Girl. GTO. And Route 66.
The cast, story, script and performances in Hellman’s 1971 classic are all as stripped down as the engine in its other star, the mean and rustically cool, primer-grey 55 Chevy that James Taylor (the Driver) and Dennis Wilson (the Mechanic) bust relentlessly down highways and from drag race to drag race – in search of what exactly?
Well, there’s something about a race with Warren Oates (GTO) to Washington DC for pink slips (car ownership papers) and there’s a fine thread of love interest when Lauri Bird (the Girl) jumps aboard with the moody lads and then jumps off again with GTO. But really it’s just a film about obsession – obsession with speed, obsession with the road for the road’s sake, obsession with moving forward through America and never looking sideways or back.
Pure, simple and possibly the best.
Radio On (Chris Petit, 1979)
Can there be such a thing as a British road movie? Isn’t this pokey island just too bloody small for anything meaningful to happen on it’s meagre B roads and soulless Motorways?
The sheer lack of Scale has always been a fall-back explainer for the dearth of UK offerings in this sub-genre. As Susan Pickings says: ‘…sooner or later one hits the edge of the world, the end of the road, the sea. Of necessity, the British road is brief.’
But somehow, on a short-haul jaunt from London to Bristol in a knackered old Rover, director Chris Petit creates the best of the British bunch, though admittedly it’s a very small bunch.
Yes, Radio On is a gloomy indictment of a country suffering after a decade of decline and other socio-culturally observational stuff, but there’s fun to be had among all that black and white Balardian introspection: The Westway improbably transformed into a driver’s paradise, for example; the slick soundtrack opening up with Bowie’s Helden (German version of Heroes) and playing through Kraftwerk, Devo, Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric, to name a just a few; oh, and an incongruous but slick turn by old Sting, laying down a class croon of Eddie Cochrane’s ‘Three steps to Heaven.’
Check it above. And check those GT petrol pumps. They don’t make them like that anymore.
Vanishing Point (Richard Sarafian, 1971)
It’s bloody Petrocelli on speed! Driving a Dodge Charger that refuses to stop no matter who gets in the way!
Once I got over the shock of seeing my old nana’s favourite crusading TV lawyer from the 70s throwing back amphetamine pills like my son throws back tic-tacs, I sat back and enjoyed the ride – Denver to San Fran in two days at about 200MPH against the cops and everyone else, under the beat-guidance of ultra-cool, blind radio DJ, Super Soul (Cleavon Little), of KOW Radio. Hear Super Soul here.
Not until the disembodied lips of Lynne Thigpen ghosted The Warriors on their nocturnal flight back to Coney Island would a protagonist’s journey be so stylishly traced over the air waves.
By the end of the film Barry Newman’s not Petrocelli anymore, nowhere near it. He’s Kowalski: ‘The last beautiful free soul on this planet.’
Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976)
The only road movie featuring a live-action dump by the central protagonist? I’d say yes. The only (proper) film ever featuring a live-action dump by the central protagonist? Not sure. I’d still say, probably, yes. Someone will have to help me out on that one.
But don’t just watch Kings of the Road for that disconcerting evacuation.
Watch it for Wenders cinematographer and long time collaborator Robby Muller’s crisp, black and white photography of the fields, towns and country roads unfolding languidly along the liminal spaces of the East/West Germany border in the mid-70s, as Bruno (Rudiger Vogler) and his suicidally depressed, hitcher-sidekick Robert (Hans Zischler), rumble from town to town in a repair van fixing up old projection equipment at sad, clapped out movie theatres.
There aren’t many words. Just lots of time and space and some top driving tracks, such as the one in the clip above from Krautrockers, Improved Sound Limited.
The road beckons. Listen. Watch. Enjoy.
Catch Us If you Can (John Boorman, 1965)
Maybe the second-best of that tiny bunch of (five or six? Three?) British road movies, but it’s a personal favourite.
Boorman was a documentary filmmaker when he embarked on this Dave Clarke five vehicle, and his documentarian’s touch is apparent throughout as we follow stuntman Steve (Dave Clark) and model Dinah (Barbara Ferris) in a white E-Type Jag on the run from a cynical advertising guru.
Boorman captures for posterity London streets almost empty of cars; West End shoppers getting a proper grip on the rampant consumerism sparked in the late 50s; the staggeringly beautiful, snowy and desolate heath and woodlands of the Quantocks, and most spectacularly perhaps, the grassy dunes staring breezily out across a Devon estuary beach to mysterious Burgh Island. On this beach at the climax the running couple will finally have their dreams subsumed into the advertising vortex by your advertising geezer.
No one escapes the advertisers.
As Wood said back at the start, the idea of the road is tarnished, it’s ‘a dead end in which love and dreams are dashed and hopes vanquished by harsh reality’.
Still, Don’t let that stop you. Drive on.