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Road Movies

Road Movies
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Road Movies
From Muybridge and Méliès to
Lynch and Kiarostami
Devin Orgeron
road movies
Copyright © Devin Orgeron, 2008.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any
manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief
quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
First published in 2008 by
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010 and
Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England RG21 6XS.
Companies and representatives throughout the world.
PALGRAVE MACMILLAN is the global academic imprint of the Palgrave
Macmillan division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC and of Palgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Macmillan® is a registered trademark in the United States, United Kingdom
and other countries. Palgrave is a registered trademark in the European
Union and other countries.
ISBN-13: 978-0-230-60127-7
ISBN-10: 0-230-60127-8
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Orgeron, Devin.
Road movies : from Muybridge and Méliès to Lynch and Kiarostami / Devin
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-230-60127-8
1. Road films—History and criticism. I. Title.
PN1995.9.R63O74 2008
A catalogue record of the book is available from the British Library.
Design by Scribe Inc.
First edition: January 2008
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America.
Parts of Chapter Six were first published as “Revising the Postmodern American
Road Movie: David Lynch’s The Straight Story,” Journal of Film and Video 54, no. 3
(Winter 2002): 31–46. An early version of the epilogue was published as “The
Import/Export Business: The Road to Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry,” in
CineAction (June 2002): 46–51.
This book is dedicated to the memory of Nicholas Ray, whose deep
(perhaps painfully so) understanding of mobility in the name of
stability is most perfectly expressed in five words uttered by Sterling
Hayden, who plays the title character in Johnny Guitar (1956).
Their spirit runs through these pages:
I’m a stranger here myself
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List of Figures
Introduction Road Work Ahead
Early Cinema and the
Mobilization of Narrative
Highways and Trails: Postwar American
Cinema and the Journey Home in
Detour and The Searchers
Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and
the Road to the Road Movie
Misreading America in
Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider
Kings of the Road: Wim Wenders
and the Mobile Home Movie
Road Movies as Another Century
Turns: Oliver Stone and David Lynch
New Directions and Intersections:
The Road Reworked and the Case
of Abbas Kiarostami
The Automobile Accident
A Trip to the Moon
A Change of Heart
An Interrupted Elopement
The Searchers
Easy Rider
Natural Born Killers
Natural Born Killers
Blue Velvet
The Straight Story
am grateful to the three universities that I called home as I assembled these ideas: The University of Maryland, where, under the unfaltering eye of Robert Kolker, they first took shape; The Catholic
University of America, where I taught a senior seminar on the road
movie that allowed them to expand; and North Carolina State
University, where a Humanities research grant funded a journey to
the Library of Congress that revealed the history lurking behind
them. I owe a considerable debt to nearly a decade’s worth of students
at all of the above-named institutions for whom Easy Rider, I hope, is
no longer simply a relic.
Thanks to the many eyes that perused iterations of this study,
especially those of Peter Beicken, Linda Kauffman, Robert Kolker, and
David Wyatt. I am also grateful for the camaraderie of my colleagues
in Film Studies at North Carolina State University—Joe Gomez,
Andrea Mensch, Maria Pramaggiore, and Tom Wallis.
Farideh Koohi-Kamali and Julia Cohen at Palgrave Macmillan
provided encouragement and guidance as I prepared the manuscript,
and my editors made the process run smoothly. Thanks, also, to The
Journal of Film and Video and CineAction for publishing my work
while it was on the road to becoming a book and for giving me permission to reprint it here.
Fred Orgeron’s love of all things automotive and Brenda Orgeron’s
love of all things cinematic ignited my own passions, and I thank
them for this and for more years of school than I’d care to enumerate.
Finally, this book would not exist were it not for the tremendous
and sustaining support of Marsha Orgeron.
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Road Work Ahead
The Seduction of the Century
Where the others spend their time in libraries, I spend mine in the
deserts and on the roads. Where they draw their material from the
history of ideas, I draw mine from what is happening now, from the
life of the streets, the beauty of nature. This country is so naïve, so
you have to be naïve. Everything here still bears the mark of a primitive society: technologies, the media, total simulation (bio-, socio-,
stereo-, video-) are developing in a wild state, in their original state.
Insignificance exists on a grand scale and the desert remains the primal scene, even in the big cities. Inordinate space, a simplicity of language and character . . .
—Jean Baudrillard, America1
audrillard’s words, themselves the rambling and ecstatic product
of road travel, begin to articulate many of the themes that run
through Road Movies. His America, first published as Amérique in
1986, is the transitory account of a French postmodern theorist traversing and attempting to make sense of the literal and philosophical
American landscape.2 Like many of the international filmmakers
explored in these pages, Baudrillard is “taken” by America, and the
transportational valence of the word “taken” is appropriate. Baudrillard
sees in the American road, which he links to the American cinema, an
apt metaphor for contemporary existence in relation to America. The
road, for Baudrillard, is emblematic of America’s curiously seductive
and seemingly contradictory primitive modernism. Travel along it
reveals a landscape of constantly evolving, barely sustainable “newness,”
an endless series of rapidly moving and occasionally dumbfounding
images that we experience only fleetingly, that remain—conceptually
and literally—primitive. Deny it as he might, in terms that themselves
indicate his own self-awareness, Baudrillard is seduced by what he
refers to as astral America—an America of speed, surfaces, and (to
borrow his term) “vanishing points.”
Road Movies examines the terms of this seduction, engaging with
the two foundational twentieth-century technologies at the center of
Baudrillard’s work in America: cinematic and automotive. As its title
suggests, this is a book about road movies, a genre burdened, it seems,
by the seductiveness of its own mythological systems. Road movies
appeal to us because they tap into as well as arouse our desire for
modernity, our desire to be perceived as moving (and quickly at that)
against or beyond tradition. Road Movies, however, is also a book
about mobility more generally and the socially critical function that
images of human motion have served since the cinema’s inception.
Through a series of chapters focused on major figures of and
moments in film history, Road Movies foregrounds a much broader
pattern of self-reflection and self-criticism in the cinema and automobility’s central and often surprising position within this pattern.
More than a study of any single generic category, its attending history,
or its iconography, Road Movies makes a case for the cinema’s transnational, trans-historical, and trans-generic attraction to the subject
of transportation. Contrary to what we might assume to be the
attractiveness of the road movie, however, this vehicular curiosity
arises from the cinema’s perennial though rarely discussed skepticism
of modernity and its social costs.
Beneath an attractive veneer of iconoclastic radicalism, especially
as the American road movie genre peaked in the 1960s and 1970s,
these motion-obsessed films are often, paradoxically it seems, dead
set against the forward march of culture, clinging nostalgically to a
past that really only ever existed cinematically. Mining the cinematic
history of these mobile obsessions straight through to their current
manifestations, we will find that the films themselves repeatedly focus
on the consequences of a culture moving, often quite rapidly, away
from the stabilizing structures of community and communication.
Road movies, I argue, extend a longstanding cinematic tradition that
posits a hopeless and lamentable mobility in an effort to eulogize or
find stability. The book’s goal is to trace the history and evolution of
this tradition.
The Transportation of American Culture
In contextualizing the Baudrillard quote that opens this introduction, I refer to the critic’s being “taken by” America and to the appropriateness of this language for its transportational suggestiveness, for
its conjuring up images of a country literally driving the imaginations of its own inhabitants and its spectators overseas. One of Road
Movies’s more complex tasks, in fact, is to examine the mobility of
American culture itself, especially American cinema and the seductiveness of the myths contained within this highly mobile cultural
form. As we shall see, this very seductiveness, the allure of certain
American cultural myths, has helped shape critical approaches to the
road movie thus far.
In his 1991 A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After
Vietnam, Timothy Corrigan discusses the hysterical nature and the
near impossibility of genre. In a chapter that has become central to
scholarly examinations of the road movie—its subtitle, “The Road
Movie in Outer Space,” encapsulates its spatial concerns—he writes
that “[contemporary] genre seems invariably to overdetermine,
mimic, repeat, and shuffle its structures so excessively that what is
mostly designated is a contemporary history that insists that it cannot be ritualized according to a single transhistorical pattern. The
image of genre seems to taunt contemporary reception with its
utopian possibilities only to turn those audiences back before its historical impossibilities.”3 Within this categorical chaos, Corrigan positions the road movie as a modern, postwar, and knowingly impure
generic phenomenon, underscoring its overdetermined and built-in
genre-blending tendencies. In so many words, Corrigan suggests that
we read the road movie as a highly self-conscious, post-generic, hysterical genre, unique in part for its nearly exhaustive classical generic
Sowed in the soil of classical genre, the road movie, in this way, is
first and foremost about the cinema, about the culture of the image.
Road Movies seeks to roll back Corrigan’s explicit historical markers,
exposing the cinema’s international and pre-generic interest in the
subject of vehicularity. Doing so ultimately casts Corrigan’s assertions even more boldly. Not only is the road movie about genre, but
cinematic genre itself seems to arise at least in part from the cinema’s
relationship to vehicularity.
If the road movie is assembled from the dispersed particles of
Classical-era Hollywood genres, we must also, however, attend to the
structures that laid the so-called Classical period to rest. Implied
though interestingly veiled in Corrigan’s work is the enormous postwar influence European cinema in particular exerted over American
attempts to reorganize after the fall. As a newly forming, highly educated, and deeply skeptical postwar youth market clamored in the
1960s for new fare, a wave of existentially inflected, formally inventive
European cinematic products filled the recently opened gap. The
road movie is one of the first postwar, post-Hollywood, postgeneric
American cinematic categories to bear the sometimes uneasy mark of
this relationship. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969), in
this respect, are heirs to what we might call, in an echo of Michel
(Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (à bout de
souffle, 1960), a cine-ideological “Franco-American encounter.”5
Not simply a homespun cinematic movement erupting from the
literary spirit of Jack Kerouac, the road movie’s structure arises—
strangely, perhaps—out of a postwar European cinematic swell
(French cinema in the 1960s was one of its most important waves)
intent on questioning the ease and plentitude of the Hollywood
machine, while celebrating and drawing inspiration from the periphery of that machine. The road movie’s famed political, aesthetic,
philosophical and moral confusion (what Corrigan might call its hysteria) arises, in this way, from its similarly conflicted lineage; from its
desire to both admire and critique American mythologies in a distinctly European dialect. Baudrillard seems acutely aware of this
mode of address when he states that “it may be that the truth of
America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover
here the perfect simulacrum—that of the immanence and material
transcription of all values.” 6 Commenting further on the nature of
this continental exchange, a state induced by a desire for history,
authenticity, and a mythically rooted intellectualism—desires forming the core of the American road movie—Baudrillard writes,
When I see Americans, particularly American intellectuals, casting a
nostalgic eye towards Europe, its history, its metaphysics, its cuisine,
and its past, I tell myself that this is just a case of unhappy transference. History and Marxism are like fine wines and haute cuisine: they
do not really cross the ocean, in spite of many impressive attempts
that have been made to adapt them to new surroundings. This is just
revenge for the fact that Europeans have never really been able to
domesticate modernity, which also refuses to cross the ocean, though
in the other direction.7
Modernity, in Baudrillard’s understanding, is a distinctly American
affair; something coveted across the Atlantic but only incompletely
absorbed. History, on the other hand—and Baudrillard’s understanding of history is as broad as any of his terms—is understood to
be a distinctly European commodity. The road movie, perhaps more
than any genre, exists between these poles; it is a genre that appears to
move forward, though always longs for some mythic past.
In her engaging book on the postcolonial shift in French consumer
culture, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of
French Culture, Kristin Ross offers support for Baudrillard’s sentiment, arguing that, while the desire to reach specifically American levels of modernity was not uniquely French, France’s colonial past made
the soil particularly rich for rapid consumer growth. The nearly
instantaneous domestic attainment of modernity, the rapid spread of
consumer goods promising to make the French elite truly “modern,”
would create within dominant French culture the necessary postcolonial difference that would separate “the nation” from the nation’s
still-lacking postcolonial subjects. The key areas of French life
affected by these products were domestic and vehicular, locations
central to Road Movies as well. Ross writes that the French described
their newly acquired modernity “in terms of abrupt transformations
in home and transport: the coming of objects—large-scale consumer
durables, cars, refrigerators—into their streets and homes, into their
workplaces and their employs du temps.”8 This desire for specifically
American standards of modernity, however, is cinematically fed.
Ross goes on to indicate that the speed of Fordist production and
consumption in France paired with these attempts at modernization
along American lines were, in some ways, the result of France’s voracious appetite for newly available American cinematic products,
which, in their own way, were selling a way of life; selling, that is, a
host of other goods. A pivotal precursor to the American road movie,
Godard’s Breathless stands at the intersection of this transcontinental
flow of traffic, signaling Europe’s conflicted relationship to American
cinematic modernity and providing a richly modern cinematic template for a generation of international introspection on the subjects
of vehicularity and domesticity.
With the exception of Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark’s excellent
and diverse collection of essays, The Road Movie Book, and David
Laderman’s impressively comprehensive overview of the genre, Driving
Visions, little sustained critical attention has been paid to the road
movie, and still less to this much broader international and historical
context. Perhaps descending from Timothy Corrigan’s chapter on the
road movie in A Cinema Without Walls, most studies of the auto-cinematic pairing peel the generic layers only as far back as the Western
and film noir, extending a reasonable but problematic “genre begets
genre” logic. Additionally, the scholarly attention that has been paid,
more often than not, rather unproblematically assumes the inherent
Americanness of the road movie, a state of affairs Road Movies seeks to
reevaluate. In the introduction to their collection, Cohan and Hark
suggest, for example, that “[f]rom the old studio system to the new
Hollywood in short, the American road movie has measured the continuity of the US film industry throughout its various economic
incarnations. The road movie is, in this regard, like the musical or the
Western, a Hollywood genre that catches peculiarly American
dreams, tensions, and anxieties, even when imported by the motion
picture industries of other nations.”9
Cohan and Hark’s provocative suggestion that the road movie is a
Hollywood genre because it functions like other Hollywood genres—
containing, as it does, American dreams, tensions, and anxieties—
acknowledges the possibility of a wider sphere of influence, but it
stops just short of addressing either the peculiar mobility of this and
other presumably American obsessions via the cinema or the equally
critical fact that the road movie is modeled on postwar European cinematic reflections upon American genre and, to some degree at least,
its impossibility.
Though David Laderman’s Driving Visions makes strides towards
critically unearthing both the continuity and the importation Cohan
and Hark refer to, his argument, too, hinges upon what in the end
proves to be a frustratingly—for him and for the reader—elusive,
largely mythic vision of the perfectly rebellious American road movie
of the 1960s. This is, in other words, Laderman’s driving vision. The
opening to his section on the European road movie encapsulates his
In the spirit of the genre, then, our critical survey ends with an openended continuation of our exploration in Europe.
Such exploration helps to “define” the genre by way of contrast
with the formative American version. In venturing to Europe, we can
more lucidly appreciate the cultural specificity of the genre’s American
development and influence. Indeed, many contemporary European
road movies seem a reaction to, or reformulation of, the American
Laderman is aware of Europe’s importance, and his analyses here are,
as elsewhere, first rate. They are also, however, clouded by a conviction that the road movie has, since its American pinnacle in the
1960s, been orbiting further and further away from its politically
charged center of gravity (to borrow and alter Corrigan’s titular
invention in referring to “The Road Movie in Outer Space”). For
example, in a move that has become almost an obligatory gesture,
Laderman offers a section at the end of the book entitled “Traveling
Other Highways,” which features critical overviews of no less than six
European road films. While elsewhere acknowledging the American
cycle’s debt to Europe, this notion of a “formative version” and the
book’s structural foregrounding of American films is misleading.
The trouble is, as Laderman keeps realizing and cautiously tiptoeing away from, this politically charged center never existed—not, at
least, in the form Laderman appears to be searching for. This is, in
fact, the illusion the genre perpetually critiques. Laderman’s poetic
suggestion in an earlier article that “Tradition maps the trajectory of
Rebellion—sometimes even going along for the ride” is, in this way,
an important miscalculation.11 The films Laderman and I examine
are frequently about rebels. Perhaps even more critically, however,
these films often wage war against a state of affairs—social, political,
technological—that has resulted in this particular form of rebellion.
Driving aimlessly and wandering are late-model cinematic responses
to modernity, a dilemma European films of the 1960s pulled into focus.
Far from rebelling against tradition, our road-bound protagonists rebel
against the corrosion of the substantial and buoying myths that once
sustained them. In this respect, the journeys explored in the latter
chapters of Road Movies share much in common with the preservational acts of mobility explored in Chapter 1, where we consider the
ideological motivation, for instance, of Eadweard Muybridge’s Motion
Studies. Like those early images, the wave of American road movies
central to Laderman’s study, their European predecessors, and the
international road movies riding in their wake rebel; they rebel, however, against a culture that, in the name of modernity, has buried its traditions, cinematic and otherwise.
Again, America is a central player in this international relay. The
history and the politics of this centrality, however, needs to be excavated and not simply assumed. Jack Sargeant and Stephanie
Watson’s collection, Lost Highways: An Illustrated Guide to the Road
Movie, while demonstrating an admirable grasp of the genre’s considerable international breadth, also demonstrates the tendency,
when approaching the auto-cinematic pairing, to catalogue—both
films and generic tropes—and to adopt a nearly encyclopedic form.12
Sargeant and Watson’s collection is less idealizing of American iterations of the genre, suggesting the importance of a transnational and
historically broad approach, though each “entry” in the book functions almost discretely and the history they suggest is never made
concrete, never unified.
As their titles and implied mission statements would indicate,
though, all of these books are primarily interested in charting out the
admittedly expansive generic territory of the road movie: one is a collection of essays about the genre, one is a guide to it, and one is a critical survey. The rationale for these forms is perfectly justified. The
genre is enjoying a continued, maybe even a revitalized screen relevance as it considers a new wave of drivers and passengers (see, for
example, Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny [2003], Alexander Payne’s
Sideways [2004], Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers [2005], and Kelly
Reichardt’s Old Joy [2006] for four recent American spins) and as critical interest in the genre has continued to flourish. Road Movies adds
to this expanding field while suggesting a move away from traditional
genre studies or surveys and toward an analytical process that seeks to
account for the larger, genre-defying cultural influences that shape and
define this particular representational obsession. By casting America
not just as a “star” producer of road movies but as an integral part of a
longstanding international cinematic conversation about the human
price of modernity, I hope, in Road Movies, to create a sense of global
and historical context. As we will see, this conversation often pivots
upon a veiled faith in “The Familiar,” a concept infrequently associated
with the genre, its predecessors, or its decedents.
Stops Along the Road
“The Familiar” manifests itself in a variety of ways in the films examined here, and Road Movies traces the roots of this association to the
turning of the twentieth century. Chapter 1, “Early Cinema and the
Mobilization of Narrative,” lays the foundation for the book by
demonstrating the degree to which cinematic modes of narration
and presentation were shaped by advancements in transportation
technologies. The relationship, however, was uneasy from the beginning. Eadweard Muybridge’s “scientific” attempts to unravel the
mysteries of human and animal locomotion, a fascination predated
by Muybridge’s own highly mobile traveling photography, demonstrate an early imagistic fascination with travel and movement, but
they also express a degree of skepticism with regard to machines. This
skepticism emerges in Muybridge’s work precisely in the photographer’s desire to, with the assistance of his own machines of course,
scrutinize and preserve the human body in its organic mobile form at
a moment when machines were about to permanently alter the
human relationship to space and time. The chapter traces this preservational impulse as it takes narrative shape in the similarly transportationally obsessed work of the Lumière Brothers; as it goes lunar
in Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune, 1902);
and as it examines transitional modes of transit in Edison and
Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). All of these works warn of
the physical and social costs of mechanized mobility. This tendency
takes on nearly generic proportions from the early 1900s through
1915 in the Keystone comedies of Mack Sennett and the early Billy
Bitzer/D. W. Griffith Biograph films, where plots often turn on the
automobility of a young couple and the perceived threat they pose
not to the physical body but to the established body familial. These
largely domestic concerns will come to occupy the center of the modern road movie.
Chapter 2, “Highways and Trails: Postwar American Cinema and
the Journey Home in Detour and The Searchers,” explores the emergence of American film genres around the central motif of mobility,
focusing on the Western and Film Noir to demonstrate the degree to
which these American genres shaped international perspectives both
on the American landscape and American mobility. The chapter
looks closely at exemplary films from opposite ends of the economic
strata: Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945) and John Ford’s The Searchers
(1956). Ford’s film establishes the questionable motives of and
strained sympathies toward the cinematic wanderer, a character the
road movie genre will organize around. Ethan Edwards’s (John
Wayne) mobility—violent, vengeful, and solitary—must, in the end,
serve the unity and stability of the family. Mobility in Austrian born
filmmaker Edgar Ulmer’s Detour is similarly conceptualized. Al
Roberts (Tom Neal) keeps moving, the carrot of family and home
dangling just beyond his reach. Perhaps as false as anything in the
grim Ulmerian universe, home is one of the victims of a culture that
keeps orbiting away from its influence in search of other, perhaps
more seductive myths. These analyses reveal the road’s metaphorical
position in America’s darkening cinematic reflections upon its own
postwar and cold war fears. Critically informing these fears are
modernity’s effects upon human communication. The following
three chapters will explore this perceived breakdown and its centrality to the road movie even more closely.
Chapter 3, “Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and the Road to the
Road Movie,” departs from the American scene of Chapter 2 and
travels to France in order to establish Jean-Luc Godard’s central position in an international cinematic conversation at the center of which
the road and automotive travel have presided. Godard, beginning
with Breathless and extending well into 1960s, adopted the automobile as a central metaphor in his films, frequently placing it and his
camera on the same tree-lined stretch of French country road.
Organized as this portion of Godard’s career was around the investigation of American cinematic genres and American culture more
generally, the automobile became central to Godard’s work and to his
attempts at self-definition. The chapter closely explores Breathless
through this lens, suggesting that the film is a frustrated road movie
focused upon its protagonist’s inability to leave the streets of Paris
except through imaginative, cinematic links to America’s perceived
and highly generic hyper-mobility. Godard’s oft-discussed, infrequently contextualized jumpcuts are examined as a reaction to the
false order of American mobility, an idea Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider
picks up.
Chapter 4, “Misreading America in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider,”
develops the linguistic argument begun in the preceding chapters.
Easy Rider’s much-discussed (often uncharitably) inarticulateness is,
I suggest, an important part of the film’s formal and thematic strategy. Turning to the work of Roland Barthes, I posit the possibility of
reading the road itself as a deeply and problematically seductive text,
one capable of rendering its “reader” speechless. While critics have
often remarked upon the film’s self-indulgently clipped dialogue and
its vapid echoes of New Wave formal strategies, I argue that Hopper,
though certainly not free of self-indulgence, is engaged in a process of
self-reflexive self-criticism. Though focused on Easy Rider, the chapter traces this same trajectory through several American films of the
1960s and 70s (including Hopper’s almost career-killing 1971
endeavor, The Last Movie).
The seductions so central to our analysis of Easy Rider and to our
exploration of the road as a potentially and lamentably misreadable
text, brings us to Chapter 5, “Kings of the Road: Wim Wenders and the
Mobile Home Movie.” Focused on Wenders’s Kings of the Road (Im
Lauf der Zeit, 1976), a film bearing the mark of Godard and Hopper
(not to mention Ford and Ulmer), the chapter analyzes Wenders’s
almost Muybridgian attempt to slow male automobility down in an
effort to reveal its motivations. Instead of Godardian quick cuts, the
film is defined by the long take and its ability to comment upon the
fracturing of the structures his characters seem anxious to move away
from, an idea most articulately presented as Robert Lander (Hanns
Zischler), in the midst of the kamikaze drive that opens the film, tears
into pieces a photograph of “home.” The film’s many remaining minutes will find Robert and Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) moving
futilely and silently back toward that very structure, a structure
modernity itself has rendered impossible.
Chapter 6, “Roads and Movies as Another Century Turns: Oliver
Stone and David Lynch,” concerns itself with postmodernity, less as a
theoretical construct and more as a large-scale cultural phenomenon
manifesting itself in an increased sense of chaos in a historical
moment of technological and communicational change akin to the
one Muybridge found himself in at the end of the nineteenth century.
As in the century prior, reactions to this era of transformation often
focus on issues of mobility, in this case both literal and communicational. Baudrillard’s America, an account of the French critic’s road
trip across America, forms the critical core of this chapter while its
cinematic center is formed by David Lynch and Oliver Stone.
Through close examinations of Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994)
and Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), the chapter illustrates the
manner by which each filmmaker has explored the human consequences of the postmodern condition through the use of road
imagery and a kinetic—or anti-kinetic, as the case may be—formalism. As in the turning of the last century, “home” and “the family”
preside over both of these road narratives. The movement these films
present is decidedly preservational; Stone and Lynch both imagine
characters moving toward some longed-for and long-denied stability.
Road Movies ends by reflecting back on the ground covered over
the course of the book, and offering a focused analysis of Iranian
filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s transportational obsessions from his
earliest, Neorealist influenced shorts through his highly acclaimed
feature work. Kiarostami descends in marked ways from the other
filmmakers explored in the book and, in an era that has classified his
region of the world as part of the “axis of evil,” has found in the road
and in transportational metaphors more generally a new language by
which to critique the politics of global stasis and mobility. Focused on
Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass, 1997) and Ten (2002),“New Directions
and Intersections: The Road Reworked and the Case of Abbas
Kiarostami,” underscores the abiding relevance of the cinematic road
as metaphor and suggests the manner by which the Euro-American
dialectic upon which the road movie is built has expanded geographically. At the center of Kiarostami’s narratives of mobility are family
and home, mythically stable structures rendered all the more complicated given Iran’s particular and, some would argue, highly unstable
recent history. The epilogue includes a brief overview of the road’s
continued screen presence, from reality television programs to the
recent work of Jim Jarmusch and Vincent Gallo. The final pages of
Road Movies reinforce the book’s central thesis by focusing on the
increased frankness with which images of road travel have come to
support not independence and mobility but community and stability.
* * *
In his 1983 analysis of international modernist cinema, The Altering
Eye, Robert Kolker comments on several of the present study’s key
terms as they occur in the cinema of Wim Wenders, gesturing, towards
the end of that analysis, to the international allure of America’s mythic
mobility. Kolker writes, “The road is more than a physical presence in
American film; it is a sign—a communicative cultural presence connoting freedom of movement, adventure, discovery, danger, escape.”13
While some attention has been paid to the cinematic road in recent
years, the cultural exchange it fosters and its function as an especially
problematic American “sign” readable and transferable outside of its
borders has remained virtually unexplored. This is due, in part, to the
scope of the road movie’s history: to analyze the significance of the
road in the cinema is to trace more than one hundred years of cinematic practice. It is also to expose the hollowness and the falsity of the
road’s legendary and romantic connotations.
Road Movies seeks to suggest something of the historical scope of
the auto-cinematic pairing and its surprisingly consistent socio-cultural criticism. The book charts a selective route through film history,
guiding readers from the turn of one century to the turning of
another. Road Movies, in fact, reads like a story with two closely
related, mutually informing plot lines, one cinematic and the other
transportational. This pairing, as we shall see, has its origins in the
cinema’s roots and has, since the late 1800s, driven down a curiously
technophobic road.
Early Cinema and the
Mobilization of Narrative
he cinema’s perennial critique of mechanized motion as a highly
attractive, thoroughly modern threat to the accepted “order of
things” begins, with the cinema itself, around the turn of the century.
This chapter moves from what are typically considered non-narrative, pseudo-scientific and anthropological attempts to unravel the
mysteries of mobility through early narrative comedies. This historical perspective foregrounds the cinema’s social and technological
anxieties in a manner that should cause us to reconsider the terms, if
not the very idea, of rebellion the road film appears to posit. Perhaps
more critically, this far-reaching historical scope allows us to trace the
central importance of motion itself to the formation of cinematic
narrative generally and cinematic genre more specifically. My own
ideas converge around the turn of the century “attractiveness” of the
subject of transportation—an attraction, I argue, motivated by
curiosity and fear.1
The motion picture was born at a curious moment in our much
larger scientific history, a moment when new means of transportation
(the automobile), a standardized way to mark time (the result of major
locomotive modernizations in the early 1800s), and psychoanalysis (a
kind of “time-traveling” therapy) were also born. It is no coincidence
that early cinematic innovators explored the cultural ramifications of
and, indeed, were ramified by each of these new advancements. The
cultural perception of time and space and the individual’s relationship
to both were changing dramatically, and the cinema both contributed
to and recorded those changing perceptions.2
Ian Christie, in his excellent, highly accessible book on turn-ofthe-century technologies and the cinema, The Last Machine, discusses
the locomotive’s impact on an emerging generation of spectators,
whimsically but quite rightly suggesting that the move “[f]rom the
carriage window to the screen was an easy transition” and that “sixty
years of railways had prepared people to be film spectators.”3
Christie’s comments acknowledge the moving image’s unique ability
to at least symbolically, and sometimes literally, move the viewer, and
the connection is central to Christie’s project as a whole. Some of the
cinema’s earliest subjects, Christie reminds us, were simulated “tours”
or trips narrated by an expert on the region being explored. These
programs would simulate the mechanics of travel and created, in the
process, a spectatorial subject receptive to the narrative situation of
“the journey”; a spectatorial subject, in other words, expecting to be
transported. Christie suggests that the railroad’s influence over how
time and space were understood and negotiated transferred to emergent screen practices and that, while Hales Tours might have been a
short-lived trend, their effect on the products and attitudes of the cinematic century were more enduring.
Christie’s analysis is a valuable starting point for my own work in
this chapter on the cinema’s mobile preoccupations through 1915.4
Given the turn-of-the-century scope of Christie’s project, however, he
fails to account for the sustainability of this preoccupation—for, as I
seek to demonstrate in this book, the cinema is, though in a decidedly
different fashion, still offering its spectators “views” of journeys.
Nicholas Daly’s Literature, Technology, and Modernity, 1860–2000
pushes the chronological markers of Christie’s analysis, arguing, like
Christie, that “modernity” has been defined by the machines of a given
age. Focusing on the narrative and psychological impact of these
machines, Daly’s work examines over a century of images of “human
agency in the face of an increasingly mechanized (for which we might
also read bureaucratized, rationalized, administered, commodified)
world.”5 This affirmation of human agency, in fact, is the glue that
binds my own cast of characters in this chapter and beyond.
The cinematic innovators explored in this chapter all sought to
control and know time and space in a period that predicted that both
categories were about to spin wildly out of control and beyond rationality. As I have indicated, however, the railroad, though certainly an
important influence on the cinema and its projected anxieties, was not
its sole influence. It is most especially the invention of the internal
combustion engine and the steadily growing availability of the automobile in the mid- to late-1890s that would come to preoccupy the
cinematic imagination at both the thematic and formal levels.6 It is
the autonomy of the automobile—its speed, its existence outside of
the restrictive locomotive timetables—that the cinema would grow
to emulate, evaluate, and critique. We must first, however, examine
the roots of the cinema’s mobile obsessions.
The Story of Motion
Charles Musser, in his expansive work on early cinema, refers to notyet-cinematic projected narratives as early moments in “screen practice”: from the Magic Lantern (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries),
which consisted of a light source and lens in front of which was passed
a glass slide containing discrete “scenes”; the Fantasmagorie (early
nineteenth century), which was a more complex system of smaller
lanterns that, because they were operated by roaming projectionists,
created the illusion of movement and interaction between images; to
Eadweard Muybridge’s more advanced zoopraxiscope (late nineteenth century), which achieved the effect of motion by turning circular glass plates upon which still images of the moving subject had
been recorded in front of the light source.7 From the inception of
these screen practices, early innovators attempted, through all sorts
of ingenious rigging, to create the illusion of motion.
The simple fact of motion is critical to what André Gaudreault
might call monstration (showing) or the “first level” of narrative significance.8 While I do not wish to enter the debate revolving around
the narrative intent of early cinema, I am fascinated by the spectator’s
implication in the cinematic event. By the mere act of viewing, the
spectator agrees to participate in an elaborate fiction, the elements of
which are themselves derived from the visual situation and vocabulary of travel.9 This is not to make a naïve supposition about the spectator’s innocent belief in images that he/she sees, but rather an
acknowledgment of the spectator’s complicity in the ritual of spectatorship. In short, the viewer agrees to be “transported.” Sergei
Eisenstein, in Film Form, discusses the specific effect this implied
“movement” has upon the emotions or, in the word he uses, “pathos”:
“Pathos shows its affect—when the spectator is compelled to jump
from his seat. When he is compelled to collapse where he stands.
When he is compelled to applaud, to cry out. When his eyes are compelled to shine with delight, before gushing to tears of delight . . . In
brief—when the spectator is forced ‘to go out of himself.’”10
Eisenstein’s use of the language of motion to describe the cinematic
provocation of emotion indicates an understanding of the cinema’s
ability to “move” its viewers. As he elaborates further upon this idea,
his language becomes increasingly transportative until, finally, he
describes the spectator’s relationship to the cinematic event as a
process of “departing from his ordinary condition.”11
Eisenstein’s subject in the previous passage is neither “primitive”
cinema nor the cinema in general. He describes the specific and emotionally transportative effects of Soviet Montage—his own 1925 film
The Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin) is his model and his
frame of reference. As modern as his ideas are, however, they may be
usefully applied to early cinematic moments, which were similarly
committed to “transporting” the viewer both emotionally and
metaphorically. The degrees of spectatorial mobility are variable to be
sure; Eisenstein hoped to move his viewers to revolution. The hinge,
however, is the idea of movement.
Eisenstein, whose ideas are rarely explored for their comments
about the spectator, conceives of a psychically dynamic viewer, a spectator complicit in the act of coming out of himself. The “Cinema of
Attractions,” as Tom Gunning theorizes it, is a fundamentally nonnarrative enterprise reliant upon sudden shocks and instantaneous
spectatorial reactions; in fact, as Charles Musser points out, Gunning
borrows the term “attractions” from Eisenstein.12 It is, however,
Eisenstein’s acute understanding of spectatorial desire, the desire to
conceive of the cinematic event in narrative terms even if those narrative terms are a stripped down and simplified version of the already
simple “travel situation,” that needs attention. For Eisenstein the narrative concept of the journey, even if it is only out of oneself, is always
Re-reading Gaudreault’s “Film, Narrative, Narration,” where
Gaudreault finds himself re-reading Christian Metz, Musser offers
the following: “Gaudreault asserted in ‘Film, Narrative, Narration’
that all films have narrative, whether they be Déjeuner de bébé or
L’Aroseur arrosé. ‘Thus when cinema is said to “take the narrative
road” at a certain moment of its history,’ Gaudreault argued that ‘this
is not the “innate” kind of narrativity just described, but the second
Gaudreault’s choice of words is especially important to this examination of the road film and its cinematic predecessors. He discusses,
via Christian Metz, the cinema “taking the narrative road,” a phrasing
that describes film history itself in terms of travel. What Gaudreault,
Musser, and Gunning seem aware of and yet unable to reconcile,
however, is that motion itself is inherently narratival. Movement
simultaneously shows and tells a story, or, perhaps more accurately, it
tells through showing.14 Motion is, of course, the most primitive of
stories, but it is also a fascinatingly seductive one, an idea Eisenstein
is quite aware of. Montage—or, more generally, cutting—is effective
because it is spatially and temporally dynamic. The cut, at the most
basic level, facilitates motion, elongating, restructuring, and hyperbolizing it. What many scholars of early cinema seem to underplay,
however, is the equally dynamic—we might substitute with the word
“transportative” or even “narratival”—potential of mise-en-scène.15
The movement within a frame, the dynamism and composition of
the shot, is as important to a film’s narrative potential and its emotional effect as the eventual organization of those shots. The so-called
“second layer of narrativity,” to which Musser and Gaudreault refer, is
motion itself; the cut is simply its most articulate and most complex
In Time and Free Will, turn-of-the-century French philosopher
Henri Bergson analyzes motion in terms that reveal the early part of
the century’s narratival understanding of the concept, an idea that
will prove especially valuable as we examine images of the period. In
his discussion of mobility, space, and time Bergson asserts that:
the successive positions of the moving body really do occupy space,
but . . . the process by which it passes from one position to the other, a
process which occupies duration and which has no reality except for a
conscious spectator, eludes space. We have to do here not with an
object but with a progress: motion, in so far as it is a passage from one
point to another, is a mental synthesis, a psychic and therefore unextended process. Space contains only parts of space, and at whatever
point of space we consider the moving body, we shall get only a position. If consciousness is aware of anything more than positions, the
reason is that it keeps successive positions in mind and synthesizes
While he never articulates the idea of narrative experience, and while
his work never explores the then-new technology of the cinema, both
ideas lurk in the background of Bergson’s words. Bergson’s idea that
the experience of motion is facilitated by a mental synthesis that links
the “parts” of motion into an experiential “whole” sound very much
like the accepted explanation for the optical “trick” of the cinema.
As in Bergson’s analogy, the parts of a film (i.e. each frame) are linked
together in the mind’s eye to create a seamless “whole.” It is the complexity of this process, its “divisibility,” to use Bergson’s terminology,
that constitutes the “narrativity” of the cinema.17 Moving pictures, no
matter their simplicity, tell the story of motion. As Bergson is careful
to point out, this idea of motion is conceived of in terms of
“progress,” an idea that we will return to in a variety of ways throughout this study. Key to Bergson’s understanding of the body moving
through space, however, is the idea of the conscious and synthesizing
spectator, a key though critically elusive narratival element. Whatever
the reasons for the simultaneity, spectatorial desire for motion, for
increasingly and more complexly mobile images, coincided with
what Metz might call the cinema’s taking “the narrative road.” Early
attempts to meet, perhaps even to catalyze, this demand frequently
focused on the narrative structure of travel. From the beginning,
however, the story being told was far from romantic. Eadweard
Muybridge, one of the cinema’s important forerunners, whose work
largely pre-dates the invention of the automobile, was fascinated by and
attracted to motion. In the age of the machine, however, Muybridge’s
work reveals a desire to return to the organic, autonomous, and not
automated body in motion.
Studying Muybridge’s Motion:
The Picaresque Meets the Picturesque
While it is tempting to refer to Muybridge as a cinematic pioneer, his
energies at the turn of the century were focused squarely on a project
that appears opposite to the cinema itself. As Brian Winston succinctly indicates in a short “ode” to the Zoetrope written for Sight and
Sound, Muybridge sought to stop motion so that it could be critically
studied; he in fact saw no narrative or entertainment potential for his
groundbreaking work.18 Despite his well publicized and highly commercial work as a still photographer and his often-remarked-upon
flamboyance, Muybridge saw his motion studies principally as scientific curiosities; at least this is how he sold them. Muybridge’s basic
organizing principals and his obsession to “know” and display the
secrets of motion, however, are of critical importance to this examination because they function to create and, in a literal and figurative
sense, mobilize an audience in need of motion.
Critical examinations of Muybridge’s “fascination” with motion
have concentrated almost solely on his work in Pennsylvania in the
mid-1880s, primarily on the series photographs of animals and people for which Muybridge became most famous. Comparatively little
attention has been paid to Muybridge’s earlier flirtations with what
we today regard as the motion picture. These originary moments are
of particular importance for their biographical peculiarities and their
bizarre relationship to the contemporary road movie. Early in his
imagistic career, Muybridge was principally concerned with his own
physical, geographical motion and became one of the first photographers to literally take his show on the road.
Muybridge’s non-series photographs, many of which were produced in the midst of a portraiture boom, are as concerned with and
governed by the concept of motion as his work in Pennsylvania.
These early photographs resemble, in form and content, the subjects
that would dominate the cinema in years to come. He was an innovator of travel views, still photographs taken at popular landmarks or
conversely at locations deemed inaccessible to the general public.
Through this work in the realm of still photography he helped to
forecast the future direction of the cinematic arts, which would, as
Christie has demonstrated, include the task of transporting the spectator via the moving image.
In the late 1850s, Muybridge, somewhat bored with portraiture
and its studio-based rigors, changed his name to “Helios” (the
ancient Greek sun-god typically represented driving a chariot across
the heavens) and began his career as a traveling photographer. He
packed his studio into, around, and on top of a custom-designed light
carriage, calling the transformed contraption “Helios’ Flying Studio.”
Gordon Hendricks, in what remains the most comprehensive biographical study of Muybridge, captures the mobility of the young photographer: “‘Helios’ continued to make his rounds and by early 1870
had acquired a specially built wagon for his equipment. This wagon
was caught by his lens in a stereograph. He also photographed his
apparatus. His business in photographing private residences also
resulted in excellent work, and, on May 25 he photographed the laying of the cornerstone of the new Mint. ‘A photographer with his flying studio was on hand,’ the Bulletin reported, ‘and took several views
of the scene.’”19
Hendricks implies a certain restlessness in spirit in Muybridge, a
picaro’s desire for travel and adventure substantiated most peculiarly
in Muybridge’s lack of a home address during 1879. As Hendrick’s
succinctly puts it, “Other photographers solicited customers for their
parlors, but only ‘Helios’ wanted to go afield.”20
While still photography was the only photography available to him,
mobility was of critical importance to Muybridge’s understanding of
the photographic world, allowing him to “view” scenes the public
would pay to see. Muybridge’s itinerant photography appealed to a
public for whom the novelty of static, indoor portraits was fading.
His work and the work of other mobile photographers helped to
develop a taste for seeing the world “out there” through the photographer’s portable lens. This relationship between traveler and spectator would have a profound effect on the soon-to-form cinematic
audience’s relationship to screen subjects.
In the summer and fall of 1867 Muybridge photographed Yosemite
Valley. The resulting 260 published views (some stereographic and
others mounted on cardboard) earned the photographer a local (soon
to become national) reputation. Muybridge’s keen sense of self-promotion, along with a string of favorable reviews of the Yosemite
images, propelled the photographer’s rise. Many of the reviewers were
impressed by Helios’s ability to, in photographing the waterfalls in the
valley, capture a sense of motion. The review of the series of photographs in The Daily Alta California, however, is most interesting in its
prefiguring of Muybridge’s later career: “The view of the Yu-wi-hah
or Nevada Fall is a fine piece of Instantaneous photographing. It
seems as though the artist had arrested the descending sheet of water
until its mottled and foamy surface paid tribute to his genius.”21
Muybridge, the mobile photographer, was already gaining a reputation as a “photographer of motion” as well.
Muybridge merged “mobility” and its mysteries with what had
hitherto been conceived of as a static art form and, as Helios, photographed an array of remote and especially picturesque locations.
This rethinking of photography as not necessarily studio-bound
occurred at precisely the moment that America’s feelings regarding
mobility and stasis were being profoundly altered by the resurgent
proliferation of the American railroad. Although the bulk of
Muybridge’s work predates the introduction of the automobile in
America, America’s mobile curiosity had already been piqued;
indeed, Helios’ flying studio is testament to what might be understood as this country’s intrepid vehicularity. Muybridge’s own personal mobility was becoming increasingly important to a public
demanding motion. Soon he would respond to that demand in a
more microscopic way.
His extraordinary popularity as mobile photographer and his talent as self-promoter made Muybridge the perfect candidate to settle a
now-familiar longstanding debate regarding the stride of the running
horse: do all four legs of the horse leave the ground as the horse
reaches a full gait? Muybridge’s involvement in this debate and his
eventual dedication to understanding the mobility of animals generally, soon put the photographer “on the road” again to present, narrate, and in some cases sell his findings to an equally motion-mad
international public. In the 1870s, Muybridge’s subject for his study
of motion was a horse (Occident) and carriage moving, at a distance
of some forty feet, in front of his camera at a rate of thirty-six feet per
second. As Muybridge’s notes indicate, the resulting photograph was
“retouched as is customary at this time with all first-class photographic work, for the purpose of giving a better effect to the details.”22
As Muybridge’s words indicate, his purpose in 1877 was to
mechanically reproduce the same critical photograph—the photograph that contained the “answer” to the bet’s question. In other
words, his task was to capture (stop) and distribute one fleeting but
frozen (and enhanced) moment of motion. These “scientific” curiosities were performed in answer to a presumed spectatorial question.
Muybridge’s work, then, is based on a conversational model, a fact
supported by his eventual commitment to the lecture circuit in support of his work. More than a series of attractions whose interest is
self-contained, Muybridge’s work might be considered a series of
responses to implied spectatorial questions: What does a horse look
like when it runs? What about a man?
There were, however, those in Muybridge’s “public” who doubted
the veracity of his claims and who accused the photographer of trickery, thereby increasing the outward reach of Muybridge’s work and
creating a need for more of it (to “prove” his claims). A reviewer from
The Post, for example, faults the “stiffness” of the driver and calls the
whole set-up “un-natural.” His untrained eye imagines a photo
“alive” with movement and reverberating with an occasional “hieyar.”23 What the author and others like him did not realize, however,
was that their criticism actually created for Muybridge a need to do
precisely that: to create “photographs alive with motion.” His first
attempts toward this goal are his now quite famous series photographs, which account more fully for the process of motion.
Muybridge’s photographs, series and otherwise, demonstrate the
nascent period of a growing American interest in mobility, with control and loss of control over time and space. Muybridge fed the public’s hunger, offering photographic examinations of more and more
bodies in motion, and eventually arranging quantities of these still
images to create the illusion of re-animation. Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope—which projected light through a rapidly moving glass disc
upon which were printed detailed drawings, modeled on the photographs he had taken—created a sensation in the early 1880s, leading
to renewed and increasingly advanced efforts in serial imagery in
Philadelphia that resulted, ultimately, in the 1887 publication of
Animal Locomotion.
Even in his earliest traveling career, the success of Muybridge’s photographs and the press surrounding them attest to the public’s pleasure in images that could move them, however metaphorically. By the
late 1880s, this interest in mobility had developed into something less
metaphorically “tourisitic” and, on the surface at least, more “scientific.” Rather than exotic, unfamiliar, or inaccessible landscapes,
Muybridge produced images of bodies, animal and human, engaged
in familiar activities. The increasingly complex technology of
Muybridge’s apparatus, however, and an artificially rigorous mise-enscène (rather than a natural landscape or even the white background
of his earlier series photographs, his later images depict figures “performing” in front of a numbered grid), render these activities strange,
make the ordinary seem remarkable, perhaps even distant.
In Muybridge’s “science,” however, can also be found the critical,
primal stirrings of a larger set of concerns with regard to motion,
anxieties that continue to linger in our cinematic present. This is
more than one man’s obsession with questions regarding human
kinesis; these images betray a national—in fact, an international—
dilemma that Muybridge was responding to and helping to address.
While a number of Muybridge’s Philadelphia motion studies concern animals, most fascinating are those series of photographs that
take the human body as their subject. Muybridge’s work occurred at
a time when man’s relationship to machines, especially to the technology of transportation, was changing the way individuals perceived
themselves and their landscape. Much attention has been given to the
gender problems inherent in these images—to the fact that the men
often perform “masculine” activities and the women perform “feminine” or domestic activities, and to the fact that most of these activities are performed unclothed. Linda Williams is especially attentive to
this idea and explores the same tendency in the work of French narrative film pioneer Georges Méliès.24
Beyond their controversially erotic and gendered content, however, these images also speak to the issue of modernity. The bodies
depicted, male and female, are stripped of all technological prosthetics—including clothing. These are “primitive” bodies whose only
activity is their momentarily glimpsed motion. Muybridge’s famous
“Man Walking” or perhaps his “Man Cutting Wood” might be understood as assuaging the anxiety of “man in the midst of a technological revolution” by presenting images of humanity in an idealized,
pre-technological state.25
But it is a bit too romantic to speculate that audiences were simply
put at ease by the mere act of watching still images of naked people
reanimated. As “natural” as Muybridge wanted his images to seem,
there is nothing natural about a naked man cutting wood in front of
a numbered grid. There is something else going on in this work, then,
something besides assuagement and something beyond voyeurism
but something related to both. These unnatural naturalist images are,
once again, an answer to an implied spectatorial question: “What will
become of the body?“ Muybridge’s work appears to offer a degree of
protected optimism as it consistently reaffirms the efficiency of the
human machine. This is a potentially humanizing effect, yet it is one
based on the fact of visual denial and self-imposed compositional
erasure. The images themselves are easy because they deny those elements that are disruptive to the body’s prominence in the order of
things. Muybridge’s images, in other words, artificially compose a
world where the human body, in all of its stripped-down, oxymoronically complex simplicity, is once again central.
Muybridge’s primitive scenarios, in this way, are contradictory on
a number of levels. First, technology was necessary to the experiments themselves even if the subjects appear organic. Mark Seltzer, in
Bodies and Machines, discusses what he terms “Muybridge’s fascination with the technological replication of ‘the natural.’”26 We are
faced with images of man or woman by him or herself—but caught
by a machine. These photographs do depict the human body at an
important transitional period, before those bodies became inextricably linked to mechanisms of transportation such as the train and
automobile. The intrusion of Muybridge’s apparatus itself, however,
becomes a transportative machine in its ability to contain the body
and make it appear elsewhere, in its ability to capture that body in a
state that is at once supposedly natural and utterly impossible.
By linking Muybridge’s pre-series photography to his work in the
late 1880s, a curious pattern of memorialization develops. His early
work “caught” a landscape about to be permanently altered by a culture
bent on making the inaccessible seem accessible, making the distant
seem near. The rise of vehicular culture in the years following this work
renders these landscape images all the more extraordinary. Similarly,
Muybridge’s later work “caught” (perhaps “created” or “re-created”
would be better terms) human bodies free from the machines that
would soon come to define them, and caught these images with
another critically important machine. Muybridge, then, speaks to the
cultural fascination with motion on two distinct but related levels. He
begins as a picaresque adventurer, satisfying the public’s desire to
look at the unreachable and providing “views” of a world that seemed
incomprehensibly large, and ends by creating strangely nostalgic
views of man’s still central position in a curiously and rapidly shrinking world, views in which the subject is, quite literally, the mise-enscène. Though drawing a direct line from Muybridge’s work to, for
example, road movies of the twenty-first century would be a bit of a
critical stretch, his images do presage a set of concerns that will be
central to the cinema generally and will come to shape the road movie
specifically. Muybridge, however, was most assuredly not alone. As
pictures began to truly move in the mid-1890s, the desire to memorialize the familiar and to problematize intrusions upon it becomes
almost standardized.
The Lumières: Moving Snapshots,
Travel, and The Automobile Accident
Heirs to a highly successful photographic plate manufacturing company, Louis and Auguste Lumière, like Muybridge, were weaned on
still photography. In 1894 their father, Antoine, purchased an Edison
Kinetoscope, and the brothers went to work tinkering with and improving the machine. These improvements resulted in the Cinématographe in
1895, a combined moving-picture camera and projector.27 Lightweight
and elegant in its technological simplicity, the device also traveled easily; this transportability, in fact, would facilitate an important part of
the Lumières’ relationship to the subject of motion. Designed as the
Cinématographe was to capture and project motion, mobile and vehicular subjects seemed to beg for its gaze. The Lumières’ compositional
selectivity, however, tells us much about their relationship to and skepticism of the world of machines, at least certain machines.
Compositionally deliberate, the “typical” Cinématographe subject
was the static recording of motion, generally human motion.28 A case
in point is a beautifully composed film entitled Washerwomen on the
River (Lumière Catalogue #626).29 Fascinating, in part because it captures the intricacies of “routine,” the film’s composition is vertically
stacked, creating the illusion of several strips of film contained within
one immobile frame. This vertical stacking is ideologically suggestive
because the vertical arrangement of the planes of action indicates a
hierarchy of labor and leisure. Shot from across the river and composed as a medium-long shot, the film captures women washing
clothes in the bottom of the frame (horizontal plane of action #1).
This, of course, is the “subject” of the film—its catalogue title indicates as much. Directly above the washerwomen, however, men gaze
towards the camera, smiling and, it seems, acknowledging its existence (horizontal plane of action #2). Above the men, a fairly
crowded street is observed (horizontal plane of action #3). The film is
remarkable in that it captures three separate fields of motion in one
fifty-second, stationary shot. More than the pre-cinematic equivalent
of the establishing shot, this short, self-contained film moves beyond
the geographical, establishing with incredible economy and without
cuts, the socially complex space of labor that the women occupy. This
shot in particular demonstrates the Lumières’ desire to capture as
much mobility—and critically, ideologically significant mobility—as
possible. Labor and leisure are, of course, of fundamental importance
to the films in the Lumière catalogue, and this is a rare film that
exhibits both realms within the same frame, vertically stacked and
separated by gender.
To argue that the planes of action in Washerwomen on the River represent discrete “scenes,” however, is to overstate the point. This film and
several similar to it demonstrate the degree to which motion was
important to the Lumières. It also suggests an acknowledgement of
spectatorial sophistication. The lore surrounding the early cinematic
event frequently presents the naïve audience member who, for
instance, would have been terrified by the image of a train “approaching” them. The visual design of many of the Lumière subjects, however,
suggests a faith in the audience. The films are often compositionally
intricate and complex; the levels of action multiple and deep. As
Charles Musser observes, location compositions like this one are the
aesthetic antithesis of, for instance, the early Edison films, which were
shot within the walls of the Black Maria, against black backdrops so
that the “subject” of the film could be more simply “focused” upon.30
Not transportational in the conventional sense of the term, this
film—like so many of the Lumières’ earliest subjects—relies upon the
apparatus’s ability to glimpse the critical centrality of collective
mobility to the social order of contemporary French culture, however
divided (by class, by gender) that order might be.
Following, consciously or unconsciously, Siegfried Kracauer’s suggestion that the Lumières “seemed anxious to avoid any personal
interference with the given data” and his designation of their work as
“detached records,” there has, until recently, been some reluctance to
attach anything resembling authorial agency to these films. This, in
spite of the fact that Kracauer himself also acknowledges (though is
seldom remembered for doing so) the keen sense of thematic organization, the precise compositional decisions binding many of their
earliest films when he writes that “their themes were public places,
with throngs of people moving in diverse directions. The crowded
streets captured by the stereographic photographs of the late ‘fifties
thus reappeared on the primitive screen.”31 Camera position was critical in their effort to capture as much of this mass movement within
the frame as possible. The Lumière diagonal is a case in point. In perhaps their most famous film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat
(Catalogue #653), the upper right to lower left diagonal composition
is strikingly realized. The movement of the train across the diagonal
allows the train to remain in the frame for as long as possible. The
result is a frame literally alive with motion. This short film that depicts
the arrival and unloading of locomotive passengers is also a precursor
to the travel films that would later comprise the bulk of the Lumières’
catalogue. Already the technology of transportation, here in the form
of a locomotive, becomes a seductive cinematic subject.
The logic contained within this image would seem to contradict
the presentation of the pure, organic body, however much an illusion
or construction, as it exists in Muybridge’s work. In the frame of the
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat is a mass of clothed men and women
using technology and seemingly pleased to be doing so. Not only does
the film appear unanxious about the technology of transportation, it
seems to celebrate it. Key to this film and the several films in the
Lumière catalogue composed along the same basic lines is the fact
that the technology at hand maintains, in fact effectively creates, new
notions of community. Motion, at least as it is imagined in these train
films, is a process that occurs when people are together. The film’s
clear attention to the crowd is evidence of this idea. In fact, it seems
clear that the train is less the subject of the shot than the crowd itself
or is, at least, equal to it in importance. This is consistent, of course,
with the Lumières’ general interest in groups of people—playing, eating, working, leaving work, etc. The momentary chaos the camera
glimpses, what Kracuaer calls the “confusion of arrival and departure,” is also a heavily mediated, timed, and officially coordinated
moment of confusion.32 Though the film’s fifty seconds pass before a
proper “resolution,” the implication of one is strong enough. The
viewer is not invited to feel bewildered, confused, or distressed about
the future of these particular traveling bodies.
The technology of travel changed the way individuals saw the
world around them; for the first time people could experience landscapes moving past them in rapid motion while they remained (relatively) stationary on board a moving object. The cinema, which was
developing alongside this technology, recreated these ways of seeing.
A remarkable Lumière film shot at the Universal Exhibition in 1900,
a location that literalizes the notion of “attraction,” seems to defy
logic because its subjects appear to move effortlessly. Universal
Exhibition 1900: View of a Moving Sidewalk (Catalogue #1156) is an
unedited fifty-second “tracking” shot created by carrying the camera
onto a moving sidewalk, like a flattened out escalator, while two other
moving sidewalks are in full operation. Positioned to exploit the
right-to-left diagonal so that as many bodies as possible are contained within the frame at once, the camera moves or tracks forward.
The result is a beautiful symphony of kineticism—back and forth
with only the slightest suggestion of bodily effort on the part of the
spirit-like passers by. The shot is technically important in that it suggests the evocative power of the camera in motion. It is sociologically
interesting also in that it captures a group of uncontained bodies
being effortlessly transported. Again, the mobility of this shot is celebrated—the passers-by glide along in front of the camera, smiling
amusedly and comfortably. Technology both facilitates their collective movement and captures it.
Obviously interested in the complexities of motion and its onscreen potential, the Lumières engaged in a variety of experiments.
One such experiment, an edited fifty-second film “about” the
destructive power of the automobile, fits within a larger early cinematic trend. This film, like Muybridge’s work, laments the connection
between bodies and machines, though in a much more intentionally
humorous way. The film is titled The Automobile Accident (Catalogue
#2020), and while this is not their first edited film, it marks an interesting movement in the early cinema’s journey toward narrative
complexity in a fashion that is intricately related to the automobile
and its ability not so much to transport as to transform. It is a film
that speaks to the automobile’s effects on the community, its class
status, and its potential violence both to the individual and, more
critically for the brothers, the collective body the bulk of their work
so reveres.
This early road—or, perhaps more appropriately, “street”—film
can best be thought of as a trick film of sorts, as its chief interest
would have been its presentation of a whimsical, if violent, illusion. A
disheveled, already crippled, and apparently homeless man attempts
to cross the street and is run over by a speeding automobile. His
crumpled and thoroughly dismembered body, left in the middle of
the street, is then re-assembled (legs are dipped into a large vat of glue
and placed appropriately, etc.) by a concerned group of passers-by
(see Figure 1.1). The illusion is created by several deftly placed and,
one would suppose, barely perceptible cuts. Directly before “impact”
the actor’s body is substituted with a similarly clothed mannequin.
The substitution trick, as it is called, is often associated with Geroges
Méliès in France and Cecil Hepworth in England, although it was
used widely for “special effects” in the early twentieth century.33
Edison and Porter employ it at an especially violent moment atop the
moving locomotive in The Great Train Robbery (1903), examined
later in the chapter. The Lumières, however, were also interested in its
spectacular and in this case socially critical potential. Since the man is
crippled from the beginning of the film, the viewer assumes that such
collision between man and machine is a regular occurrence. The
streets, the film suggests in its own disturbingly comedic fashion, are
no longer safe for a man alone without his attending machines, or
more specifically, without an automobile.
Lynne Kirby, in her article “Male Hysteria and Early Cinema,” and
Ian Christie, in The Last Machine, both address the early cinematic
fascination with the destructive capabilities of automobiles and locomotives and their effect upon the collective psyche. Christie in particular discusses the formation of a highly iconographic, early cinematic
mini-genre that we might call “the automobile accident film.” Films
such as the Lumières’ The Automobile Accident cast machine and
operator in a villainous light as both, in the space of only minutes
(sometimes seconds), spin wildly out of control, destroying everything in their path.
As Christie suggests, the automobile and its resulting destruction
were, in fact, favorite topics of the trick film. British director Cecil
Hepworth’s How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900) takes an automobile as
its subject and, as the catalogue vividly describes, “It dashes full into
the spectator, who sees ‘stars’ as the picture comes to an end.” Christie
describes what we actually see in the following, more understated
terms: “A black screen with animated exclamation marks and, presumably, the victim’s last words: ‘Oh dear, mother will be pleased.’”34
Figure 1.1 The Automobile Accident. Automotive technology has rendered
the body vulnerable, and the community must unite to reassemble the hapless pedestrian.
Less a “trick film” in fact, the effect here is achieved by camera placement in front of the oncoming vehicle and by a barrage of exclamatory, semi-coherent titles. Hepworth employed stop motion
photography for a thematically similar film of the same year entitled
Explosion of a Motor Car where, as per the film’s unambiguous title, a
motorcar approaching the camera, which is placed on almost the
identical diagonal as in the first film, explodes spontaneously, creating a shower of limbs much to the bewilderment of a concerned
policeman. Both of these films are especially intriguing for their
desire to depict automotive destruction alongside mobility as usual.
In the first film, a passenger-filled horse and carriage actively and
responsibly misses the camera and in the second, bystanders gaze at
the rain of dismemberment in awe and shock. Méliès’s The ParisMonte Carlo Run in Two Hours (Le Raid Paris-Monte Carlo en deux
heures, 1905) also uses stop motion to depict “a reckless automobile
race across France, with someone or something being knocked over
by a car in every scene.” 35 In spite of the broad humor and in spite of
Christie’s well-honed understatement, however, there is something
horrifying in these films; collectively they evince a logic of terror
framed by a delight in the cinema’s presumably less destructive technological capabilities.
The trend of the automobile trick film had a good run, about half
a dozen years. While it is tempting simply to write off this sub-generic
moment as an interesting phase in the development of the cinema, it
is important to note the degree to which its precepts affect even
today’s cinema. Occurring early in the cinema’s narrative history,
these films demonstrate the narrative possibility of the cut to create
the illusion of the passage of time and space. Furthermore, there is a
remarkable self-consciousness to the “cutting” of these films that
themselves are about the “cutting” apart of the human body and its
various parts. Along with this more personal sort of dismemberment,
the Lumières’ film suggests that the automobile is in the process of
destroying and dismembering what was once “community.” The old
man in the film walks alone. The driver of the car drives alone. It is
not until the man is dismembered by the vehicle that the community
unites to put him back together.
Taken collectively, these films define an early moment in the formation of a recurring motif in the contemporary road film: the witnessing of roadside atrocities as a sign of the times, something
contemporary directors such as David Lynch and Oliver Stone
repeatedly return to.36 On a certain level, roads signify progress. The
rhetoric surrounding both rail and paved roads capitalizes on this
forward-moving, linear logic. Progress, however, in these early films
and in many later road films is viewed as an invasive and often destructive venture. Jean-Luc Godard’s famous tracking shot in Weekend
(Week End, 1967) seems most poignantly to illustrate this point: the
long take, while replete with a sharp humor (not unlike its early predecessors), reveals what seems like miles of road-side chaos and destruction: bodies bleeding, people crying out in pain, cars aflame, horns
honking, traffic barely moving, etc. This moment in the film, interrupted by full-screen titles, comments on the destructive stasis of a
contemporary society that remains under the illusion that it’s moving
right along.
There is an interesting coda to this analysis of the Lumières and
their relationship to the gestational road movie. While I have referred
in the preceding analysis to the operators responsible for these films
as “the Lumières,” it is critical to point out that Louis (the principal
photographer) was responsible for less than fifty of the 2,113 items in
the Lumières’ 1903 catalogue. The remainder was shot by hired operators using the Lumière camera.37 Tracing who shot which film would
be as difficult as it would be intriguing. The mere fact of the
Lumières’ “world-roving” operators photographing scenes and, perhaps without fully realizing it, shrinking the globe as a result, however, complicates the brothers’ relationship to the idea of mobility.
These traveling cameramen created for the early 1900s spectator a
sensation of instantaneous travel beyond the fastest motor-cars and
far exceeding the speediest trains. In one evening, the viewer could be
treated to scenes of Paris, Venice, London, Dublin, Belfast, Spain,
New York, Chicago, Mexico, Russia, Jerusalem, Egypt, Indochina,
Japan and Africa. In fact, as Charles Musser points out, “by 1897 the
Lumières had shot on every continent but Antarctica.”38 The
Cinématographe was itself a world traveler, simulating its experiences for those who witnessed its play of light and shadow. While the
views it provided most certainly provoked curiosity about the world
“out there,” it also potentially supplanted, or at least supplemented,
the need to venture out on one’s own. Spectators at these programs
were collectively being moved (in all senses), collectively experiencing.
The Lumière brothers, of course, were neither the only producers
of travel views, nor were they rare or especially provocative among
trick filmmakers. Eager to employ the latest fad and committed to
their conviction that the entire moving-picture phenomenon would
eventually fade, the diversity within the brothers’ catalogue represents
much larger trends and a desire to appeal to rapidly shifting public
tastes. That they produced a “topical” comedy film like The
Automobile Accident alongside films celebrating more collective and,
at the time, traditional modes of transportation, however, is significant, reflecting a skepticism of modernity as it was represented by the
automobile and its socially disruptive potential. This protection of the
status quo, this articulation of a distinct distrust of modernity, points
to the cinema’s early-formed fears, its seemingly inherent nostalgia,
and its ability to surreptitiously thrust these fears and this nostalgia
upon the viewer. As I seek to demonstrate, the road movie’s apparent
celebration of forward motion is, much as it was in these earlier examples, often a self-consciously tragic cover for a desire to roll history
back, to return to a pre-technological, mythically innocent moment.
As the 1900s began, these concerns manifested themselves in increasingly unexpected ways. In the work of cinematic pioneer Georges
Méliès, they became lunar as the cinematic magician humorously
warned against the technological by looking toward its future;
Thomas Edison and Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903),
on the other hand, critiqued progress by looking back.
Allegorical Journeys Back and Forth:
A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery
Two seemingly divergent narrative films from the early 1900s concretize the key ideological aspects of the journey film’s relationship to
progress and technological advancement. A Trip to the Moon
(Georges Méliès, 1902) and The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter
and Thomas Edison, 1903) both imagine collective travel scenarios
and pattern their complex narrative aesthetic on the potentialities of
this situation. One looking to the future and the other to a slowly
receding past, the films also interestingly presage the generic and the
pre-generic road movie’s puzzling, often troubling, blend of nostalgia
and modernity.
While typically considered a screen magician and a master of the
trick film, Méliès demonstrates in A Trip to the Moon a profound
interest in and knowledge of the power of kinesis to the cinematic
process.39 A longer film and one heavily reliant on editing, Méliès’s
film, like the Lumières’ road/street film, is a trick film. The tricks,
however, are most frequently employed to create the illusion of linear
mobility, and here the mobility is interplanetary.
The film begins with the travelers’ elaborate, earth-bound preparations for flight. The leader of “The Astronomer’s Club,” played by
Méliès himself, has drawn on a blackboard his plan for the trip and,
in the background, our lunar destination can be faintly discerned at
telescope’s end. As John Frazer has noted, the interior of the factory
resembles Méliès’s glass-roofed studio in Montreuil, connecting in a
manner that should not be understated the implied similarities
between filmmaker and, in this case, interplanetary travel coordinator.40 The scene dissolves into a scene in the factory where the ship is
being constructed. Another dissolve brings the viewer to the roof of
the factory; the city below appears to be awash in industrial pollution
as the factory chimneys emit thick columns of smoke.
While the astronauts’ adventures on the moon and their return to
earth are of interest largely for their acrobatic accomplishments, it is
the overall continuity of the film and its relationship to the more
“accepted” travel genre that is critical to us here. Méliès’s film is important to the genre of the road film in that it, like its offspring, occurs at
a moment of technological crisis and reaction. Méliès was obsessed
with transportation; the narrative structure of the journey and its
inherent surprises are perfectly suited to his magical approach. Later
in his career, he even produced his own version of the car-as-destroyer
film, The Paris-Monte Carlo Run in Two Hours (1905). A Trip to the
Moon, however, extends the theme of earth-bound chaos to otherplanetary realms. The film is, to be sure, good humored enough, but
it simultaneously tells a disturbing story about technological
progress, colonialism, and destruction. It is a thoroughly modern
film in both form and content, using editing to create an unlikely but
cohesive narrative structure. However, it is also a film nervous about
its own modernity. The critical roof-top shot previously alluded to,
where the factory chimneys belch forth endless streams of smoke into
the atmosphere, indicates that the purpose of the launch has something to do with the destruction of what is presumably our own
planet. Travel to the moon is not therefore merely whimsical; it is,
perhaps, necessary (see Figure 1.2).
Linear movement is key to Méliès’s film; the plot advances with
the imaginary vehicle. The implied “motion” of the rocket, however,
involves more than the dissolve or the substitution trick. The launch
(through double exposure) creates the illusion of a traveling shot; it is
as though the camera was strapped to the front of the rocket ship.
The rocket’s return to the earth’s atmosphere is equally fascinating
and quite differently realized. John Frazer summarizes the sequence
of shots as follows: “The next three shots have an editorial linkage seldom found in Méliès’s work. The spaceship falls toward the earth. It
leaves the frame. In the next shot it reenters the frame and plunges
into the sea, a real photographed sea. In the third shot the missile
again enters the frame and lands on the bottom of the sea, this time a
fish tank. The continuity of action and direction are maintained
through all three shots.”41
What Frazer attends to here and what I find so fascinating is
Méliès’s use of the cut to simulate linear, and in this case vertical and
downward, motion, his use of technique to enhance the journey-like
narrative structure. Paul Hammond has commented on the importance of travel to Méliès’s form: “Méliès’ travelogues are his most
majestic productions, on a spectacular scale, sometimes consisting of
thirty or more scenes, and lasting 15–20 minutes. The simple linear
structure of the journey ‘from A to B’ lent itself to the simple linear
construction of Star Films: there is a sort of ‘pantographic’ relationship between the metres of film expended and the kilometres of road
or ocean or space to be covered.”42
Simple? Perhaps. But the imagery involved and the mechanisms
employed to create the illusion of motion have sufficiently captivated
audiences and filmmakers alike since 1902 to necessitate not only this
Figure 1.2 A Trip to the Moon (1902). Prior to launch, astronomers examine
the planet they will leave behind as their own interplanetary labors choke
the earth’s atmosphere.
chapter, which explores the prehistory of the road film, but this book
as a whole, which looks at the ways in which this early cinematic
obsession, brought on by the cinema’s simultaneous birth with mechanized travel, still guides us. Hammond’s invocation of pantography
suggests that there is a scaled correspondence between the physical,
unwinding length of film and the road that is graphically represented.
This relationship, this suggestion that film resembles the road, is one
that road film makers return to repeatedly.
Despite its fantastic theme, Méliès’s narrative film works with cinematic conventions already established in the travel film. A Trip to the
Moon, however, takes the basic premise of the journey and hyperextends it spatially, temporally, and dramatically. For, unlike the travel
film, the entire process of the journey is represented. The spectator is
not offered merely a few views from the rocket ship window but is
aligned with the space explorers from their pre-launch preparations
until their return to the earth. This film has characters, and they guide
the viewer through what was a fairly complex linear narrative structure. The omnipresence of the movie camera is disrupted and reinforced by this film. The camera travels to a supposed location
impossible to the viewer both temporally and spatially. Yet each step
in the journey is accounted for. The Lumière travel subjects, as a
counterexample, would begin and end in the same location, usually
within the same frame.
A Trip to the Moon is also critically linked to the travel films of the
day in its depiction of the moon’s inhabitants, the Selenites, who are
dressed and behave in a perversely exaggerated spectacle of the
“native”; they even throw spears at our unfortunate travelers. A film
reliant upon both the wonder and the terror of mechanized travel—
here of the lunar variety—A Trip to the Moon establishes the critical
link between cinematic narrative and the journey and begins to articulate the cinema’s conflicted relationship to mobile technologies. The
cinematic journey provided early narrative filmmakers with the profound challenge of creating viable techniques by which the illusion of
the passage through time and space could be visually represented.
These ideas, as well as the sometimes not-so-latent anxieties informing them, become even more complex in The Great Train Robbery.
Ian Christie, in discussing the switch from trains to automobiles as
cinematic subjects and formal templates, argues that: “Trains were
established technology; they ran on rails and transported the masses,
according to a timetable. The final years of the old century saw the
emergence of a radical challenge to this predictable, conformist means
of travel. After German engineers developed the internal combustion
engine in the 1880s, the motor car soon became an attractive personal
alternative to the enforced collectivity of the railway. Motor cars not
only allowed brave individualists to ‘go off the rails’; they also fostered
an enthusiasm for speed as a new and soon addictive sensation.”43
Christie’s assertions will certainly be of use in Chapter 2, which,
among other things, will examine the curious fascination with the
automobile in film noir and American gangster pictures, as well as
the rugged and romantic individualism of the horse in the Western.
But they are also relevant to an understanding of Edison and Porter’s
The Great Train Robbery (1903), which arises as something of a counterpoint to the Lumières’ earlier celebration of locomotion. The film
is decidedly about the locomotive. It is also, however, a deeply disturbing commentary on the idea of progress itself.
While even Edison’s earlier Black Maria films are about motion in
the most basic sense, The Great Train Robbery is unusual in its frankness regarding the connectedness between forward, linear motion
and the idea of narrative identification. The hand-colored gunman
shooting at the spectator, an emblematic shot that might have been
inserted by the exhibitor at either the movie’s beginning or conclusion, labeled “realism” in the catalogue, is a telling reminder that, with
this film, an old way of viewing was being systematically destroyed, to
be replaced by a new mode.44
As Charles Musser has pointed out, The Great Train Robbery seems
to utilize, in potentially frightening ways, several of the elements of
the former “passenger” genre and was, in fact, sometimes programmed with railway “views.”45 The viewer is compelled to align his
or her sympathies with the passengers on board the train—becoming
a surrogate passenger him-/herself. This process of identification is
reminiscent of the premise of early travel films, which encouraged
their “participants” to come along on their journeys to remote locations. The shots from the interior of the moving train, the simulated
landscape whizzing by through the window in the background, help
to reinforce this notion in a manner not unlike the phantom rides
some years prior. The shots that physically follow the bandits outside
and on top of the train, however, complicate this process of indentification, allowing the spectator views beyond those of the passengers
for the sake of dramatic tension. Spectatorial alignment is, on one
very important level, with the technology of movement itself, with
the locomotive and its forward motion through space and narrative.
This is significant, for it introduces an early fascination with following the fate of a moving object precisely because its occupants are
forced along due to the collective nature of this mode of transportation. This is a passenger film gone wrong, with the passengers’ vulnerability brought on by technology.46
The unloading of the car and the subsequent murder of several
passengers is especially shocking in its disturbing parallels to the collectivity and vulnerability of cinematic spectatorship. Indeed, the terror of The Great Train Robbery is precisely this connection between
audience and passenger, suggesting the vulnerability and potential victimization of the viewing audience, which, in a manner quite similar
to the characters depicted on screen, has been corralled together in the
hopes of being transported, only to find themselves witness to a
moment of unforeseen violence. The close-up of the bandit aiming
and firing his gun straight at the audience reinforces this paranoid
vision. The shot is brutal. It enforces and punishes viewer identification in the space of seconds and comments on the consequences of
technology and progress in a manner that will run through the road
movie well into its present form. Mickey and Mallory’s TV-induced
nightmare visions in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) are the
information age’s version of this emblematic shot. The Great Train
Robbery aligns “progress” (the railroad) with terror and violence, a
type of violence akin to that in the Lumières’ film but all the more
“real” for its lack of humor, for its severity.
Muybridge, the Lumières, Méliès, and Edison and Porter set in
motion the impulse to analyze motion. Together they illustrate the
importance of the concept of human mobility to the early cinematic
imagination. The impulse toward movement, however, does not arise
simply from a desire to move beyond the “real” stasis of, for instance,
paintings, photography, or sculpture. The work of these cinematic
luminaries suggests that the impulse itself is symptomatic of a much
larger need to make sense out of the modern world’s rapidly changing experience of both time and space as a technologically inclined
era was radically altering both. As the cinema grew increasingly comfortable in its narrative capacity, it would continue to explore the idea
of the journey, imposing upon the idea of automotive travel in particular an at times surprising set of ideological concerns.
Outlaws, In-laws, and the Road to Domesticity
What began as my own journey to the Library of Congress Paper
Print Collection to view films catalogued under “automobile” in
Kemp Niver’s Early Motion Pictures became something else altogether
when, in the midst of my preliminary research, a strange and fascinatingly consistent thematic strain began to reveal itself. What
emerged was an odd titular preoccupation with the pairing of marriage (sanctioned or unsanctioned) and automobiles. As I made my
way through the alphabetized list of some ninety-odd films, referencing the descriptions as I did, I soon realized that even many of the less
obvious titles (titles not containing the words “wedding,” “engagement,” or “elopement”) were similarly concerned with the automobile’s role in domestic union. This was puzzling, to say the least. Was I
witness to a large-scale and largely undocumented cinematic trend?
Was this evidence of an early generic hybrid? Was I being misled by
the idiosyncratic cataloguing of Kemp Niver?
Though not easily explained, the topical confluence I detected is, in
part at least, the result of the vagaries of copyright law itself. In terms
of a general cultural understanding of imagistic and/or narrative
“property,” the years covered by the catalogue—1894–1915—seem a
bit like the Wild West. Cinematic images and ideas, when met with
public interest and approval, radiated rapidly within and outside of
their country of origin. Sometimes actual and sometimes subtle
thievery (of self and others) was a governing early industrial principle. The short-lived but enormous popularity of the “auto-dismemberment” films explored earlier, or of films organized around the
logic of “the tour” are evidence of this trend toward periods of thematic uniformity, and it’s a trend that still guides the waves and ripples of popular cinematic tastes. Automobiles and youth culture were
hot topics at the turn of the century, palpable symbols of “the new,”
and, as these films seem to demonstrate, the two were ideologically
connected at a very early point in our cinematic history.
While the analysis that follows does not pretend exhaustiveness, it
is somewhat representative of Niver’s list, which is itself comprised in
large part of films produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph
and Keystone, companies that, along with Edison, were especially
interested in staking their particular cinematic claim. For this reason,
names associated with one or both of these companies—Billy Bitzer,
D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennett—appear to have set what we must suspect was a much larger cinematic trend.47
Where our previous sections have established the aesthetic roots
of the cinema’s mobile obsessions, glancing along the way at the ideologies that fed these preoccupations, my hope, in turning briefly to
these somewhat later films, is to get to the historical core of the apparent ideological contradictions of the post-1960s road movie, especially with regard to ideas of domesticity and stability; in doing so I
hope to, in a sense, look forward by looking back.
I have claimed in the preceding pages that pre- and early cinematic
image culture was aligned in its metaphorical use of “transportation”
in large part to critique “progress.” In both Muybridge and the early
Lumière films, “traditional” notions of transportation are valorized:
organic and bodily in the former, social and collective in the latter.
The Lumières’ The Automobile Accident, along with Méliès’s A Trip to
the Moon and Edison and Porter’s The Great Train Robbery imagine
the destructive potential of mechanically assisted motion: the
Lumières humorously explored their rapidly evolving present, Méliès
provocatively and whimsically prophesied the transportational
future, and Edison and Porter looked to the mobile dangers of a
slowly receding past. As the century progressed, however, these concerns were brought, quite literally, much closer to home. An acknowledged, though difficult-to-reconcile, feature of the contemporary
road movie is its tendency to envelope within its often paranoid critique of modernity a vision of irresponsible, semi-domestic union
that, in many ways, is more terrifying than the technology its characters inevitably abuse. The road movie’s seemingly illogical thematic
interest in domesticity, I hope to demonstrate, has its roots in some of
narrative cinema’s earliest moments.
Growing in part out of and at times indistinguishable from the
chase film, these films are unique for their mobile motivations.
Where chase films, one of the earliest sustainable narrative forms,
most typically focus on criminal behavior and attempts to contain it,
the social and moral implications of the hybrid films examined here
seem somewhat more complex.48 As I have briefly indicated, the narrative “push” of these films is most frequently a young couple’s
attempts at domestic union, followed by familial pursuit. While interesting variations on the form abound (and some will be examined
presently), it is the couple’s eventual reabsorption into the community that it initially sought to escape that is of particular interest. Like
the vehicular films that precede them, and, as subsequent chapters
will illustrate, like the vehicular films that grow from them, these
films, while inviting and indulging our desire for speed, danger, and
rebellion, are principally concerned, as they conclude, with upholding their opposites.
A 1907 American Mutoscope and Biograph film shot by Billy
Bitzer perfectly encapsulates the overall ideological timbre of this
narrative ploy. The Elopement (which shares its title with two other
AM&B films, one shot by Arthur Marvin in 1900 and another by
Bitzer in 1903) is a remarkably mobile short film that, within its 266
feet, manages to embody a host of social themes central to the road
movie’s generic and pre-generic manifestations. The film begins in
the family library, where our young protagonists are denied permission to marry by the girl’s father. Determined, they make their escape
to the preacher in the young man’s sporty roadster. From the start,
their rebellion is figured in purely domestic terms. A long shot lingers
on the exterior of the family home until, in a chaotic burst of activity,
the girl’s parents erupt from the front door, and the automobile pursuit commences, the young elopers in a modern open vehicle and the
parents in a much larger, differently aged, and differently classed
chauffeur-driven touring car.
Throughout the chase, telephone lines remain visible in the frame,
reminding the viewer, in a manner that will become iconic, of the
central role communication—and, in this case, miscommunication—will play. The viewer is also treated to a number of beautifully
captured location scenes shot along the roadway supplemented, as
the car spins out in a sharp turn, by a bit of excellent trick editing.
Suspense peaks as the young couple, faced with car trouble, are forced
to proceed on foot. When they reach the water at the edge of the
woods, they take a motorboat that explodes, forcing them to swim.
When they arrive at the preacher’s, they are taken in and married. The
parents arrive, just at the end, and to our surprise and everyone’s
delight, wish the young couple well.
The film equates automobility with a very specific form of familial
or domestic rebellion. The car is a means of escape, or so it seems,
from the confines of home and paternal law, an idea that is, I think,
brilliantly and provocatively realized in the shot, summarized earlier,
of the parents “exploding” from the house that contains them and
threatens to contain their daughter. That the car fails the young couple is only part of the irony here. More critically, the couple’s “rebellion,” which finally receives official, paternal sanction, is limited by its
own replication of the domestic they imagine themselves escaping
from. Variations on this pattern abound.
Biograph’s similarly themed They Would Elope (1909), directed by
D. W. Griffith and also shot by Bitzer, elaborates on the absurdity of
rebellion and the role of miscommunication. The film begins, as does
the former, in the heart of parental domesticity as our young protagonist (Mary Pickford), dramatically and in close-up, plucks petals
from a flower. Her lover (Billy Quirk) arrives, nattily dressed and
sporting a finely cocked straw boater hat, and they kiss under what
appear to be the disapproving eyes of her parents. Sensing this
parental rejection, the young couple agrees to elope, leaving a note
indicating as much and escaping onto the street. The next shot shows
her parents, to our shock, reading the letter and smiling delightedly.
Once again, youthful mobility is initiated by a generational misunderstanding. While the automobile here and elsewhere only plays
what might be considered a supporting role, both its speed and the
violence of its eventual failure are boldly foregrounded.
An early and highly successful example of Griffith’s ability to build
and move between layers of parallel action, the next shot shows the
young couple making their “escape” in a horse-driven buggy, which
promptly falls apart. They run until a car comes by and picks up the
desperate-looking pair. The car does not simply break down, however. It explodes violently, and our couple is once again foot-bound.
Unlike the earlier trick films this explosion seems to descend from,
the primary interest here is not the comical agony of bodily dismemberment and reattachment but, rather, the vehicle’s role in familial
dislocation and its eventual and wholly inevitable reunion. The automobile, a key figure in the young couple’s fantasy of escape, is ultimately contained by a narrative logic that hopes to foreground its
inability to disrupt the continuity of family. Throughout the chapters
that follow, I hope to reveal the surprising longevity of this narrative
The young girl falls to her knees from exhaustion, and the couple
appears to be doomed until they encounter a farmer (Mack Sennett)
with a wheelbarrow, which the young man purchases and transforms
into a conveyance for his immobile lover. The agrarian implications
here are not to be overlooked. The wheelbarrow is, by film’s end, the
only vehicle that does not fail the young couple. 49 When they reach
the water, they pay for a canoe, which they manage to tip over in due
time. Discouraged and filthy, they resign their efforts and return
home, only to find that the young woman’s mother and father have
arranged an elaborate wedding party with all of their friends and
Though present elsewhere, perhaps most notably in Méliès’s A
Trip to the Moon, these films are interested in foregrounding the protection and stability offered by home and the home’s contrast with
the characters’ shortsighted attempts to escape to worlds of mobility
and freedom. Though less complex in its motivations, AM&B’s earlier An Acadian Elopement (1907), shot by O. M. Gove and O. L.
Poore, is a series of vignettes that draws much the same conclusion.
After their elopement, which is unexplained, a young couple embarks
upon their mobile honeymoon. Though automobility begins and
ends their journey, the film, like the others discussed here, is interested in various modes of transportation; one shot in particular
depicts our young male protagonist in a situation much like that
found in the Lumières’ Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat, save for the fact
that a cable car, and not a train, enters the station, carrying with it the
threat of violence. Our bridegroom, in fact, fights in every one of the
film’s several post-elopement vignettes until, at film’s end, the couple
returns home and are greeted warmly by their fellow villagers. The
automobile both leads our couple into danger—the aforementioned
series of brawls are brought on, we suspect, by the fact that our couple finds themselves in a strange land with strange and unknown
codes of behavior—and conveys them back to the safety of the familiar, the communal.
Though it is implied in the Lumières’ dismemberment film and
other films of the sort, it is the automobile’s growing association with
carelessness, avarice, greed, lust, irresponsibility, and villainy that
finds particularly articulate expression in these films. Unlike their
violently humorous predecessors, however, these films seek redemption in the guise of reform. D. W. Griffith’s 1909 A Change of Heart
capitalizes precisely on this process, casting the car itself in a central
role and ending, like several of these films, in an officially sanctioned
marriage. The film concerns a wealthy young man from the city and
his auto-seduction of, perhaps unsurprisingly, the farmer’s innocent
daughter; once again, the agrarian here is meant to symbolize the traditional. Frustrated by the young woman’s unwillingness to accompany him to the city, our automotive villain promises marriage. His
behavior, here and elsewhere, is likened to the automobile: it is rapid,
unpredictable, dangerous, and a threat to traditional and communal
values. Bidding her family farewell, she joins the young man and they
are falsely married, appropriately enough at a crossroads, which functions here morally as well as literally. Learning of the wrong done his
daughter, the farmer righteously swears revenge.
The film’s conclusion moves as rapidly as its beginning. At a wild
drinking party with his friends and accomplices, the wealthy young
man’s mother unexpectedly shows up, giving him some “old fashioned advice” (as an intertitle informs us) that causes him to change
course, to stop drinking, and to reconsider his reckless behavior. The
film ends with our newly reformed city boy legally marrying the
farmer’s daughter, once again at the symbolically charged crossroads.
The reel ends as all parties embrace (see Figure 1.3).
Griffith’s Sunshine Sue (1910) is also concerned with the automobile as “sophisticated” and seductive corruptor of innocence. This
time a pair of summer boarders make a visit to the country. One of
them, Harry, takes a liking to Sue, and they go driving. His automobile disabled, Harry promises to marry her in the city if she spends
the night with him at a roadhouse. Sue writes her parents a letter that
brilliantly articulates the automobile’s mounting disruption to traditional notions of morality: “Harry and I met with a romantic auto
accident and could not get back, so to complete the romance we are
going to town to be married. Will return at once. Sue.” When her citysuitor deserts her, she is too ashamed to return home and instead
wanders the terrifyingly lascivious city. Her job at a piano store ends
abruptly when its owner attempts to get overly familiar with her. Her
father, aware that the young man has no intention of marrying her,
keeps a candle burning in memory of his abused daughter. Upon her
long-awaited return, Sue and her father are delighted to learn that
their humble and, we presume, more class-appropriate hired hand
had intended all along to ask for her hand. The reel ends with the pair
seated cozily close to each other in her father’s parlor. Automotive
and urban threats behind them, the family is relieved to return to
their tranquil and traditional domestic scene.
Another case of appropriate vs. inappropriate object choice occurs
in Mack Sennett’s 1912 An Interrupted Elopement. A young suitor,
Bob, is denied the girl he desires, Mabel. A title card summarizes her
father’s sentiments: “My daughter’s husband must be a man, not a
milksop.” What the unfortunate young man lacks in brawn, however,
he attempts to make up for, albeit rather pathetically, in brains. Bob
and his friends plot an elaborate elopement by automobile, but
Mabel’s father intercepts the explanatory note to this effect and
makes his way towards the minister himself, hoping to halt their
plans. Learning of this unfortunate situation, Bob’s friends plan to
kidnap the minister and perform the wedding in transit. Idiotically,
however, they kidnap the father instead, who has beaten them to the
location. Bagged and abused, father is conveyed via automobile to the
decided-upon nuptial location and released, much to the dismay and
confusion of all. Bob, peeved at his friends and reeling from the
shocking revelation, socks their appointed, though decidedly inept,
Figure 1.3 A Change of Heart (1909). Part of a larger cycle of films that
imagine the automobile’s role in escaping the home, this film and others
like it end with the promise of new homes. Image courtesy of the Library of
Congress Motion Picture Division.
leader. Father, impressed by the show of strength, agrees to the wedding after all. The film ends in a highly communal, highly congenial
group shot (see Figure 1.4).
A Beast at Bay (1912),50 Another Griffith and Bitzer film starring
Mary Pickford, is similarly concerned with the fate of the milksops
and their ultimate and highly mobile revenge. Here, Griffith combines the classic criminal motivation of the chase film with the
romantic/domestic motivations we have analyzed. The narrative
begins with an escaped convict being closely pursued by a group of
policemen. As this action develops, our heroine and her friend spy a
good-looking, well-dressed young man who, after a round of golf, is
loading his golf clubs and preparing to leave the country club. A ruffian approaches the young women and taunts them, kicking violently
and brutishly at their car, acting rough, and hurling insults. The girls
get into the car, disappointed that the object of their desire is unwilling to intervene. He is, it seems to them, a perfect coward, a milksop.
The action cuts to the convict, still roaming about, looking menacing. On the side of the road, he forces our heroine to aid him in his
escape, forcing her to drive him to safety. Our “cowardly” hero, seeing
this, is moved to action. Knowing that the train tracks run parallel to
the road, he attempts to secure an engine for the pursuit. As we might
suspect, the film transforms into a brilliant and technically masterful,
if highly unlikely, battle between train and auto. The utter impossibility of this pursuit and pursuits like it that figure in other films seems
to underscore the critical centrality of its implied symbolic systems;
here most clearly, transportational forms, like the characters that
occupy them, are categorized as either good or evil, responsible or
irresponsible, reasonable or rash. The camerawork in this section of
the film is truly remarkable: lengthy and highly energized tracking
shots from a camera-car at the front of the action elegantly frame the
convict and our heroine in a large open automobile with the enormous speeding locomotive engine closing the distance to the left of
the frame. Separating automobile from locomotive in the composition are section after section of telephone lines, a detail of mise-enscène that is, of course, historically accurate but also highly symbolic
to the development of the cinema’s vehicular obsessions, which will
grow, as the years progress, increasingly entangled in these wires and
their communicational significance. Here, in 1912, we have a perfect
capsule of our ambiguous relationship with modernity and its
objects: a car, chased by a locomotive, separated by telephone lines,
and contained within a film (see cover).
Figure 1.4 An Interrupted Elopement (1912). The interruption, in this case,
is the father’s eventual sanctioning of the proceedings. Image courtesy of the
Library of Congress Motion Picture Division.
Our convict, desperate for a solution and attempting to “cover his
tracks” as a title card informs us, takes our heroine hostage, holing up
in an abandoned barn. Our hero arrives just in time, moving forward
to rescue the young woman against a hailstorm of bullets. With some
intervention on her part, they manage to defeat the convict. Order is
restored, and our heroine’s thirst for speed and danger has, we suspect, been permanently abated, replaced with a palpable satisfaction
with (once again) reason, order and tradition.
* * *
In a manner befitting the subject at hand, we have moved quite a lot
in this chapter: from Muybridge’s traveling lens—his “flying studio”—to the nascent generic beginnings of a clearly defined cinematic narrative sensibility revolving around automotive technology.
We have studied the centrality of motion to the cinema’s progression
and have, additionally, examined the cinema’s own ambiguous relationship to the more general concept of progress, a concept, in these
films, typically reduced to vehicular signs and typically regarded with
an equal amount of interest, humor, and anxiety. As the cinema’s own
path became increasingly genre-based and as Hollywood organized
and, to some degree, standardized its narrative practices, it refused to
abandon its interest in the nuts and bolts of mobility. That we call
them motion pictures at all is telling. More intriguing, however, are
the ideological uses this mobility has been put to and the remarkable
consistency of these ideological designs. Chapter 2, in looking at
Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, follows along this same path, suggesting the manner by which genre arises from the thematic idea of
travel and anticipating, as it does so, the formation of the road movie
genre itself.
Highways and Trails
Postwar American Cinema and
the Journey Home in
Detour and The Searchers
hough I have been critical of what I refer to as strict generic
approaches to the road movie, its connection to genre is undeniable.1 This fact has resulted in a fascinating degree of sometimes
unquestioning scholarly repetition. A compelling Darwinistic logic
has emerged that imagines the demise of unsustainable genres—the
Western, for example—and the growth and development of mutated,
hybrid (Timothy Corrigan might call them hysterical) genres capable
of fulfilling a given culture’s complex and evolving mythological
needs.2 The road movie, in this manner, is viewed as ideologically and
aesthetically revising the Western and film noir. Here, however, I hope
to establish its continuity with its generic predecessors.
In Hollywood’s late-classical period, the cinema’s longstanding
desire to pin broad, socially critical stories to the narrative skeleton of
the journey began to fork in two geographically specific directions:
through the American West and through the American city. On the
surface, no two cinematic locations seem more diametrically
opposed: one is the landscape of America’s mythic past and the other
the equally mythic urban landscape of American modernity. One
location is governed by an uneasy nostalgia and the other by an
equally uneasy and often grotesquely pessimistic sense of the present.
The highly iconic locations of both the Western and film noir, however, are the largely static backdrops to the cinema’s sustained desire
to capture and critique motion through space.
While the present chapter acknowledges the importance of the
road movie’s generic lineage, the previous chapter, I hope, provokes
consideration of the cinema’s more global, more durable attraction to
the subject of motion. Growing out of a postwar environment that
had shifted radically, both at the micro and macro-geographical levels, film noir and the Western posit a set of fascinatingly similar (to
each other and to their pre-generic predecessors) ideological concerns that have come to shape the road movie as well. It is especially
their influential focus upon community and communication,
notions that on their surface seem opposed to the mythological individualism the road movie is supposed to embody, that concern us
here. Modernity, which is metaphorically linked in these films to
mobility, has altered the foundation of these structures. The road
movie, like its turn-of-the-century and late-classical predecessors,
continues to examine the root of this change.
In establishing both their ideological link to the past and their profound impact upon future road movies, this chapter closely examines
a pair of particularly emblematic films from opposite ends of
Hollywood’s economic spectrum, films that make this interest in
communication and community explicit: Edgar Ulmer’s Detour
(1945) and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Ulmer’s artistically
acclaimed, tensely compressed sub-”B” picture illustrates the fiscal
and temporal efficiency of the cinematic road and allows for an
exploration of the metaphorical connection linking the road to the
narrational process generally and to the cinema more specifically.
Grimly ambiguous in its overall moral temperature, Detour’s mobility, its initially hopeful but ultimately doomed journey west to
California, is enacted in the name of domestic union, critically false
though it might be. Fate—an Ulmerian euphemism for the chaos of
modernity—intervenes, halting the journey and sullying the dream.
This attention to a micro-budgeted crime film from Hollywood’s
tiny PRC Studios is balanced somewhat by the studio-financed, location-shot grandeur of Ford’s film, which was a cinematic event so significant that it warranted a television program starring Jeffrey Hunter
that traced the development of its production.3 Often referred to as a
“filmmaker’s film,” The Searchers’s widely influential, frequently
emulated, and highly mobile narrative structure, centered on the preautomotive “trail” instead of the road per se, is similarly concerned,
almost painfully so, with the domestic space and the price the family
has paid in the name of progress.4
David Laderman, addressing Barbara Klinger’s attempts to
debunk the notion of “progressive” or “rebellious” Hollywood genres,
summarizes her position, stating that “classical genres foster such
‘rebellion’ as a temporary titillation, destined finally to be contained
and corrected by the status quo.”5 He then goes on to suggest the road
movie’s difference, arguing that
This sense of restless wandering, foregrounded throughout, lingering
at the end, distinguishes the road movie’s rebellion against conformity
from that of classical Hollywood. Thus, I submit that the road movie
is more authentically progressive than Klinger’s examples, yet still bears
within it the ideological give-and-take derived from the classical genre
system, between anarchy and order, rebellion and conformity. Beyond
reflecting the influence of classical genres, this dialectic likewise
expresses an American society historically torn between the two
sides—inside and outside—of the frontier. In other words, what
makes the genre so provocative is its distinctively modernist staging of
a rather classical, perhaps timeless and universal struggle between two
primal drives: the dynamic and the static.6
Laderman’s position here is fantastically difficult to take issue with
because it is next to impossible to pin down. The road movie, in his
understanding of it, is both more “authentically progressive” than
and subject to the same old pitfalls as classical genre. Its progressiveness seems to hinge on the genre’s supposed but, I think, highly dubious “independence” from Hollywood and its vague appropriation of
a modernist formal sensibility, what Laderman calls its “staging.”
Throughout his analysis, then, Laderman is left wondering why otherwise “progressive” films attend to such “mainstream” or “classical”
concerns as “family” or “community,” items that are underplayed in
his typically quite insightful analyses. The pattern in some ways crystallizes Klinger’s position, revolving as it does around a systematic
listing and valuation of “progressive” features (what she might refer to
as “inventions”) followed by a muted but marked tendency to apologize for the conservative ideology operating “insidiously beneath the
genre’s surface of wild adventure.”7 How do we account for this “progressive regression”?
The answer may well lie in the international appeal of both film
noir and the Western, an appeal that necessitates our specific generic
scrutiny in this chapter and dictates its directions. The postwar, postembargo flood of American films onto French screens catalyzed a
growing cineliterate and cinephilic French culture, a culture that
would come to identify and name film noir and would appreciate the
peculiar Americaness both of these films and the Westerns that shared
screen-time with them. From the start, however, it was a remarkably
ambivalent love affair. Jean-Luc Godard, our subject in Chapter 3,
was especially keen to this and to the mobile influence of American
culture more generally, commenting as early as 1962 within the pages
of Cahiers du cinéma, that “things American have a mythical element
which creates their own existence” and complaining, some years later
but in much the same spirit, that “what was really going on is that we
were living under the mythology of the American cinema.”8
Seduced though he was, Godard’s words begin to crack away at the
attractive façade of American products, most especially American
cinematic products, in a manner that will come to absorb him and
increasingly color his image-making, all the way through to the
moment of this writing. The process, however, was begun with
Breathless (1960), a film synonymous with the emergence of the
French New Wave that most articulately expresses the impossibility of
genre in postwar France. Its confused generic nostalgia, its fits of aimless mobility, and its tormented pauses, as we shall see, also formally
launch the genre this book investigates, a genre that, curiously, is also
concerned with generic impossibility. The generic ambivalence that
Laderman so rightly recognizes and, to some degree, laments, then, is
imported. Strangely, however, it is imported from sources themselves
reliant upon and torn over imported generic signifiers.
The logic I propose, then, departs somewhat from convention.
Less a late-model outcropping of previously recognized and themselves always problematic cinematic categories, I wish to foreground
the road movie’s—and the Western’s, and film noir’s, and the French
New Wave’s—place within a much larger pattern of critical imagistic
reflection upon the politics of motion. This larger, trans-generic category of films (we might call them Motion Studies) utilizes the mobile
human body to critique notions of progress. Like their turn-of-thecentury predecessors, the mobile stories these films tell often serve to
valorize—or at least lament the disintegration of—traditional and
stable notions of community and communication. Detour and The
Searchers demonstrate the underpinnings of this valorization with
particular grace and in a manner that will begin to make sense out of
Godard’s use of a similar generic vocabulary.
“I’ll Be There if I Have to Crawl”:
Chasing Home in Edgar Ulmer’s Detour
Paul Schrader has argued in his highly influential article “Notes on
Film Noir” that noir is not a genre but a cinematic style and a period
of fascinatingly varied thematic preoccupations.9 In this way, noir is
quite different from the more thematically identifiable Western, an
indisputable genre to which studios and filmmakers consciously contributed. In Schrader’s analysis, style alone functions to determine
noir. As R. Barton Palmer points out, however, Schrader’s article,
which was heavily influenced by Raymond Durgnat, was especially
important in the newly forming cine-academic climate of the early
1970s, as it helped to justify interest in and the study of Hollywood
cinema.10 Schrader valorizes form over theme for a reason, but also at
a cost. As Palmer points out, the style of film noir is a direct function
of theme. Style, in fact, was attended to little by the early French critics who first began theorizing American noir. These French critics
were more interested, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, in the films’
common thematic links of criminality and their particularly critical
depiction of the American city.11 Still, Schrader’s observations
directly or indirectly caused critics to attend to the stylistic means by
which these stories were being told and to their peculiar narrational
techniques, details that are critical to noir and influence, along with
key thematic elements, the direction of the road movie.
While American noir is not “discussed” until the late 1940s and
early 1950s, more or less similar films—both thematically and stylistically—were being produced in this country because they were relevant. They were relevant because they answered or at least raised
pertinent questions and because, like the Western, they addressed
war-time and postwar anxieties about space, place, and nation—
questions that the road movie would come to adopt as its own.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these questions are often raised, in films we
now call noir, on the road itself—raised, that is, in the spaces between
the places that have come to define urban modernity. The road
movie’s history, in fact, shares much in common with noir; both are
defined largely after the fact and both, as we shall see, are deeply
indebted to the conflicted culture of French cinephilia.
Nicholas Christopher, in his 1997 study of the city in film noir,
Somewhere in the Night, points out the importance of the automobile
and, to a certain extent, the railroad and the subway to film noir. The
core of Christopher’s argument is infallible. I would add to his vehiclebased litany, however, the structures supporting these machines, most
especially noir’s roads, its omnipresent networks of intertwining interstate highways and byways. Christopher argues that “the automobile’s
effect on the postwar city is inestimable. It has transformed the city
more profoundly—and negatively—in a more compressed period of
time, than any previous factor.” 12 Christopher goes on to illustrate
the importance of what he refers to as the “labyrinths” of film noir:
the genre’s thematic interest in the many forms of transportation that
make their way into the noir narrative and seem to shape its urban
landscape. He fails to connect this important and complex network to
its correlative in the narrative forms these films often take—the critical connection between these images that appear so frequently in noir
narratives and the ways in which those narratives are themselves
“told.” Unlike Schrader, Christopher is more interested in content
than form and, at least in this formulation, fails to connect them; fails,
in fact, to address the manner by which noir’s narrational techniques
correspond to its mobile structure.
Christopher continues by arguing that “the passengers are traveling between two sets of existential or emotional situations—or two
sets of trouble—often symbolized by the cities at either end of the
journey. Detour (1945), Gun Crazy (1950), The Devil Thumbs a Ride
(1948), and The Hitch-Hiker (1953) are all important—and very different—examples of such films, in which the automobile’s interior
can carry the same charged or claustrophobic atmosphere as the noir
city itself. The automobile becomes an insulated version of the city in
miniature, in transit.”13
Christopher is alert to the centrality of the vehicle as a noir location. His idea that the automobile is a “version of the city . . . in transit,” however, largely misses the mark. While it is true that the
automobile offers little “actual” relief from the confines of the city
and that its cramped, claustrophobic quarters are often shot to
heighten the effect, the car is a decidedly different space in its mobility, in its promise of “removal” from the supposed offending location,
and noir narratives frequently pivot, in their vehicular obsessions, on
this promise. In this way, the noir automobile functions rather like its
pre-generic ancestors explored earlier in the century by Griffith,
Bitzer, and Sennett. It promises freedom from structures that ultimately prove inescapable. The act of travel, in these films, functions
both at the physical and psychological levels; characters typically
move back in time as they journey through space. The automobile,
then, works as a sort of mobile psychoanalytic couch, and this referencing of “the talking cure” is anything but felicitous.
The flashback/voiceover narrative style so central to film noir, so
much a part of its oft-repeated psychological journeys, is also closely
tied, metaphorically and literally, to the road, and no film better
demonstrates the implications of this connection than Edgar Ulmer’s
Detour, a film whose narrative structure relies not on the automobile
necessarily but on the road—and notably, a diner car on the side of
the road—for its continuity. The diner car is both a literal and figurative reminder of motion stalled in Ulmer’s film, and this pause in
physical motion sets the narrative in motion.
As previously noted, Ulmer’s film is a classic of Hollywood “B”
grade cinema. James Naremore, in fact, recognizes that the film is one
of only a very few noir films perceived as “B” that actually was a “B”
film in the economic sense.14 It is a tightly woven narrative that
unfolds in slightly over one hour and, in that short time, manages to
set into place a number of ideas that will later become important to
the road genre proper. The film traces the misadventures of its protagonist, Al Roberts (Tom Neal) and the trouble, mostly of the female
variety, that he encounters on the road. Told in a highly stylized flashback fashion, the story begins in a grimy New York night spot called
the Break O’ Dawn, where Roberts15 and his girlfriend Sue Harvey
(Claudia Drake) scratch out a meager living for themselves, he on the
piano and she singing for the spot’s low-ball clientele. Sue, disgusted
with her dead-end life, decides to make a go of Hollywood, splitting
up with Roberts temporarily as she tries her luck in another big city
in a grim reworking of the A Star is Born (1937) formula.
The bulk of the film concentrates on Roberts’s desperate attempt to
meet up again with Sue in Los Angeles. During his eventful and unfortunate trip across the country, Roberts witnesses and is, by implication, culpable for two deaths: one a man, Haskell, who dies after
Roberts picks him up on the road and whose identity Roberts later
must adopt in order to save himself; and the other, a woman, Vera
(Ann Savage), whom Roberts also picks up and who, because she had
previously ridden with Haskell and knows the “truth,” controls
Roberts’s movement for the remainder of the film by repeatedly
threatening to turn him in. Roberts “accidentally” kills her (strangling
her with a phone cord he tugs at from another room) as she attempts
to place a call to the police in the hotel room where they hide out.
Roberts’s connection to both deaths, the narrative keeps reminding
us, is tied to his dogged and ill-fated domestic determination.
After an extended, day-lit and road-bound credit sequence, the
film’s narrative begins on a dark and damp road, a car swerving
toward the viewer and our protagonist who, expressionless and eerily
silent, accepts a ride. A wipe brings the viewer and this character
inside a roadside diner, where a fellow driver asks if he needs a lift,
explaining that he is craving company and mumbling that he’s “one
of those guys that’s gotta talk or he falls asleep.” The driver gets
change for the jukebox and spins a tune that sets our mysterious passenger off into the extended flashback that comprises the majority of
the film; this is how we come to know Al Roberts. This brief conversation in the diner between our none-too-friendly protagonist and
his would-be ride is of interest because it illustrates quite poignantly
the importance of communication to this proto-road movie. The
conversation, as truncated as Roberts’s side of it is, is a conversation
about the need to maintain channels of communication—an idea
that, as we learn later, is not entirely palatable to our protagonist.
Roberts’s character, in fact, is revealed for this contradiction even at
this early moment in the film: he is communicationally reserved, even
hostile at times, and yet evinces an overarching need to tell his story.
Like so many noir films, Detour is held together by voiceover narration. The voiceover, however, is not just a convenience to advance the
narrative in as economical fashion as possible. It is also a desperately
anxious voice that expresses a dire need to tell its story. There is a confessional quality to Roberts’s narration, and his words take on a sort
of semiarticulate, mythic quality that will be adopted in a variety of
ways by future road film protagonists.16 Bonnie and Clyde, in Arthur
Penn’s 1967 film, are immortalized by Bonnie Parker’s doggerel
poem, which “tells the story of Bonnie and Clyde.” Mickey and
Mallory, in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, always leave one person alive to “tell the story.” Kit (Martin Sheen) in Terrence Malick’s
Badlands (1973) leaves mementos of himself, including a hastily made
phonographic record, that tell his story. Thelma and Louise (Geena
Davis and Susan Sarandon) are obsessed with photographing themselves
in Ridley Scott’s 1991 road movie of the same name. Even Dorothy (Judy
Garland) in The Wizard of Oz (1939) needs to tell her story, though the
promise to do so is the note upon which the film finally ends. In spite of
the road traveler’s often outwardly antisocial intentions, these often preverbal attempts at communication point to a need—desperate, sad,
unfulfilled, and often realized too late—for community.
To signal Roberts’s flashback, that staple of noir narration, the
space of the diner suddenly goes black leaving only Roberts’s eyes
illuminated, suggesting that, in remembering, he is truly “seeing
again” the events on the road that brought him to his current situation. Roberts’s impassioned and seemingly desperate narrational
desire connects the process of storytelling to the process of the journey, which begins with his girlfriend Sue’s frustration at living in New
York city and working at the old Break O’ Dawn, where on any given
night she was pawed at by the club’s male visitors. Sue exerts her own
(within the context of the film) fearsomely willful mobility in her
escape from this world, a mobility that impels Roberts into a sort of
existential crisis because the only thing that made living in the city
bearable for Roberts was Sue.17 Like The Searchers some years later,
Ulmer’s film posits that men move because of women. Here, however,
the mobile women, both Sue and later in the film Vera, are mobile by
their own free will; they are not victims of some savage nomadic
tribe, and they are not women who need protection. Vera, in fact, is
the film’s “savage” victimizer, and her power over Roberts is not
unlike Scar’s power over Debbie in The Searchers.
In fact, Detour imagines a world spinning toward chaos precisely
because women have suddenly gained access to mobility.18 The
femme fatale character so central to noir is, at least partly, the product of wartime anxieties about the modern woman and her new
access to domains usually occupied by men, including the freedom to
move about the country at will and without the stabilizing force of a
man behind the wheel. Detour literalizes this idea of the newly mobilized woman and speculates disastrous results. Even Sue, the somewhat sympathetic female character who “moves” in part to escape the
humiliation of her New York nightclub existence, is figured as an
indirect cause for Roberts’s fateful descent.
Sue’s liberated mobility, however, is only partly to blame. The
Break O’ Dawn and its immediate environs also contribute to
Roberts’s mounting though barely articulated domestic desires. Once
Sue is gone, the club itself is shot from only three angles, suggesting
formally the unbearable limitations of the location itself: an establishing shot conveys its red tablecloth status; a close-up on Roberts’s
face his disinterest; and a close-up on his hands his robotic workethic. The result is a palpable sense of anxiety and claustrophobia,
precisely the sort burdening both Roberts and Sue. The camera’s
three positions pulsate nervously as Roberts plays an energized, hepped-up, and jazzy version of a classical tune, though only one slightly
intoxicated patron seems to notice, offering Roberts ten dollars for
his trouble. Roberts, the scene illustrates, is getting nowhere, a colloquialism the film will revisit ad infinitum.
The exterior of the club offers little in the way of relief; it, too, is
engulfing, entrapping, and claustrophobic. The streets are littered and
damp, and the whole of the outside world seems to be encased in a
deep, thick layer of fog that makes even the characters’ faces barely discernable. There is, of course, an economic explanation for the fog: it
literally covers up a cheap and probably recycled set. Metaphorically,
however, it descends from A Trip to the Moon, where the city was envisioned as a crowded space literally overcome with a steady and dense
stream of factory smoke. In both films, the city must be escaped from,
even if only to enter the equally hostile environment of another
“space,” which in Detour takes the semi-lunar form of the American
It is, in fact, in the gloomy, heavy atmosphere of the club’s exterior
that Sue announces her decision to try her luck in Hollywood.
Roberts, unable to sever his roots so quickly, still desperate to get
married, to “make with the ring and the license,” decides to stay back,
and his dejected expression at the end of their walk home articulates
his disappointment. Sue dreams—and, in fact, Roberts shares her
dreams—of becoming a star and is not afraid of losing Roberts in the
attainment of that dream. Roberts, however, is unwilling to make the
sacrifice and, perhaps over his better instincts, places a phone call to
inform Sue of his plans to follow her out West, making promises
(threats?) of marriage to which Sue, in her own compromised situation—she’s become a waitress, not a star—begins to warm.
The phone call draws the connection between travel and communication very clearly, reminding us of the convergence between telephone lines and speeding vehicles discussed in Chapter 1 and, more
specifically, prefiguring the fatality caused by communication in
Detour’s later telephone-strangling scene. It also suggests the futility
of what is here figured to be the male dream of domestic stability. In
this rather elegant montage of communication are images of busy
operators across the country and wires, demonstrating the distance
(and technology) between them and the difficulty with which they
communicate at all. Roberts says, “Train, plane, bus, magic carpet . . .
I’ll be there if I have to crawl . . . have to travel by pogo stick.” Instead,
he thumbs rides across the country and the distance between New
York and California is implied by yet another montage, this time a
travel montage of images of Roberts walking, maps with a line moving across them, and images of Roberts with his thumb out, followed
by the map again, and so on (see Figure 2.1). All of this motion, conveyed so expressively and exhaustingly, is, for Roberts, undertaken in
the name of stability.
Communication and mobility are critically linked in this film
that imagines the impossibility of completing either in any meaningful way. Commenting in a manner especially appropriate to this
discussion of language and its relationship to the journey, Roland
Barthes in S/Z offers the following comments in a section aptly titled
to depart / to travel / to arrive to stay: the journey is saturated. To end,
to fill, to join, to unify—one might say that this is the basic requirement of the readerly, as though it were prey to some obsessive fear:
that of omitting a connection. Fear of forgetting engenders the
appearance of a logic of actions; terms and links between them are
posited (invented) in such a way that they unite, duplicate each other,
create an illusion of continuity . . . What would be the narrative of a
journey in which it was said that one stays somewhere without having arrived, that one travels without having departed—in which it
was never said that, having departed, one arrives or fails to arrive?
Such a narrative would be scandal, the extenuation, by hemorrhage,
of readerliness.20
Barthes’ analysis is key because it unearths the paranoia of the
incomplete utterance—of a narrative without a form or a journey
without an end—and this paranoia is precisely what motivates
Roberts’s voiceover. It is, more than anything else, an attempt to apply
logic, to make whole a life, an identity, and a story that has been fractured. Moreover, Roberts’s narration (like his journey) is a desperate
attempt at unification.
Figure 2.1 Detour (1945). Al Roberts thumbs rides and awaits his fate in the
name of stability.
Communication and narration are central to Detour and are
aligned with the space of the road in interesting and often very frank
ways. After being picked up by Haskell in Arizona, Roberts says,
“Emily Post ought’a write a book of rules for guys thumbin’ rides
cause as it is now you never know what’s right and what’s wrong . . .
We rode along for a little while with neither one of us saying anything . . . I never know what to say to strange people drivin’ cars . . .
Then, too, you can never know if a guy wants to talk. Lotta rides been
cut short because of a big mouth. So I kept my mouth shut until he
started opening up.”
Roberts, here and in the earlier moment at the diner car, indicates
an important and self-inflicted verbal impotence upon which the
road film will come to rely. In Detour, as the previous quotation indicates, this self-imposed silence is brought on by distrust and paranoia. But this is a peculiar brand of distrust and paranoia created, in
part, by the isolated and isolating activity of modern automobile
travel and the relative powerlessness of “passengers.” As Haskell
drones on and on about how woman is the most dangerous animal in
the world, Roberts simply nods his head, says “Yeah” and occasionally
exclaims with little emotion “That’s the stuff,” replying vaguely so as
to maintain the mobility Haskell controls. Roberts’s monologue
regarding hitchhiking etiquette is also wonderfully ironic in its
expression of gendered knowledge. Emily Post is imagined as the
expert on a decidedly male activity, and this male activity itself is
described as being necessarily though frustratingly silent.
Although he is the male center of the film, Roberts is defined
almost exclusively by his longed for reunion with Sue, his desire to
make the journey and the utterance complete. This idea is driven
home in a highly expressionistic moment in the film where, as
Roberts drives and checks himself in the mirror—seemingly to reaffirm his fleeting, fractured existence—the mirror fades into a screen,
expands to fill the frame of the shot, and slowly transforms into a
severely canted shot of Sue singing “I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love
with Me” in a nightclub accompanied only by horn-playing shadows.
The details of this moment coalesce to suggest that Roberts’s movement, indeed his very identity, is motivated by Sue’s and not his own
“making it.” The road, however, refuses to accommodate the wishes of
either of our characters. Haskell’s unexpected death shortly after
Roberts’s daydream does not help matters.
Along with Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and, later, Alfred
Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Detour suggests that the American highway
is not always a viable escape route either from the city (in Ulmer’s
film) or from the doldrums and confines of domestic or working life
(in Lupino’s and Hitchcock’s films). These later films depict a world
where travel along America’s open roads is no longer safe, with gun
toting lunatics or knife-wielding mother-obsessed boy-children
seemingly lurking around every curve, behind every roadside motel
sign. In Detour, of course, the source of the threat is somewhat less
tangible, seeming to have more to do with modern mobility’s effects
on identity and community. Violence occurs, but appears unmotivated, the stuff of fate, something that happens when human beings
try to move outside of their tightly fitting urban boxes.
Roads and the sort of isolationist travel encouraged by the automobile were, in fact, perceived both as sites of liberating recreation
and as potentially dangerous in the American popular imagination.
Automobile manufacturers and the businesses that profited from
road travel worked to combat this latter image problem by foregrounding the automobile’s ability to transport not just individuals,
but the nuclear family itself. Commercial renderings of road travel in
the 1950s, especially in the form of motel brochures and advertisements, consistently promoted the activity as safe, comfortable, familiar, familial, and in this context, as necessarily white.21 The road was
being sold, in other words, against its reputation, against the notion
that it separated. Detour, as early as 1945, grimly and evocatively suggests otherwise.
In Detour, Vera is the unlikely poster child for the threat of automobility, its adverse effect on the domestic. Disenfranchised and diseased, Vera’s own desperation finds her wandering, thumbing a ride
in front of a gas station where chance—a cousin to fate in Ulmer’s
cinematic universe—has placed Roberts himself (see Figure 2.2). He
offers her the lift, and several miles of road whiz by as they converse
tensely, awkwardly, Roberts’s voiceover cueing the viewer in to his
observations as they do so; he is intrigued, nervous, then calmer as
her tense eyes close in slumber. Vera’s desperation runs deep, however, and it is not long before she puts the pieces together, prematurely ending Roberts’s contentment in the process. She had ridden
with Haskell in the car Roberts claims is his own, and Vera plans to
use this upper hand to her advantage.
Vera, in a highly ironic mockery of Roberts’s domestic plans, forces
Roberts to masquerade as her husband; only if they pose as a married
couple can Vera hope to get them a room without arousing suspicion,
without undermining her plan to sell Haskell’s car and collect the
Figure 2.2 Detour (1956). After accidental murder number one, Roberts
(assuming the identity of his victim) pauses for fuel. Vera (screen-right),
sensing his vulnerability, prepares to strike.
cash. The scenes of the “couple” in the small rooms where Vera effectively holds Roberts hostage are some of the starkest, most uncomfortable, and cramped in the noir catalogue. Though standing still,
Vera drives the situation in the direction that best suits her, and the
discomfort is palpable. Vera and Roberts frequently occupy an
absurdly tight frame. The viewer anticipates, perhaps even longs, for
an eruption. Ulmer enhances this claustrophobic sense by favoring
tight two-shots in these sequences so that Roberts’s existence is now
inseparable from Vera’s, an idea Vera articulates when she says to
Roberts, “You and I are like Siamese twins.”
The uncomfortable proximity of this false domestic space makes
Roberts all the more aware of his increasing separation from Sue who,
ironically, is very close in a purely geographical sense. The charade
continues when Roberts and Vera attempt to hock Haskell’s car at a
local dealership. Vera verbally dominates the situation despite
Roberts’s feeble request that she sit back and let him do “all of the
talking.” Vera proves, here and elsewhere, that not only does she have
access to mobility (she had hitched a ride with Haskell all the way
from Louisiana) but that her control of verbal situations correlates
directly to her control over mobility as she here dictates the terms of
the automobile’s sale, deciding at the last minute not to sell the vehicle
because, in the glove box, she has found papers suggesting that
Haskell was to inherit fifteen million dollars from his dying father.
And so she plans to force Roberts to maintain his false identity, posing as Haskell and intercepting the inheritance.
After a night of drunken argument, made doubly uncomfortable
for the spectator because of Benjamin Kline’s extremely close cinematography, Vera threatens to turn Roberts in, dialing the number
for the police and, once again, verbally taunting him. When she asks
him to open a window—all along she has kept windows and doors
shut tight against the outside world—she takes the opportunity to
run into the bedroom with the phone to place what turns out to be a
fatal call. Roberts tugs violently at the phone cord from the other side
of the closed bedroom door, an illogical act in a film brimming with
them. The cord, which had wrapped itself around Vera’s neck as she
passed out on the bed, tightens and makes the unplaced call fatal
indeed, but not for Roberts. In the space of only a few emotionally
packed minutes, the scene connects the road to the failure of the
domestic (Vera and Roberts, but also Roberts and Sue); it also suggests the potentially violent end result of this failed existence, positing that communication, especially electronic communication (here,
in the form of a phone cord), is not only incapable of shrinking the
physical world (as the earlier montage of phone lines and operators
would have us believe) but that it is potentially threatening and fatal
when it comes to stand in place of real human contact, the loss of
which the film laments throughout.
Later road films will pick up this theme of failed communication
and run with it well into the current age. Detour returns repeatedly to
the topic of communication between human beings and suggests, at
every turn, breakdown, distrust, and eventually chaos. Roberts’s
voiceover narration arises, in this sense, as a desperate attempt to reopen critical channels of human discourse. His only chance at reaffirmation (false though it might be) is narrational: he must tell his story
and seeks to tell it through direct, confessional address. This need for
self-documentation appears in The Searchers as well, though in epistolary form. Ford is careful to imagine a frontier held together, however tenuously, by the mail, held together by letters addressed to the
family, to the threatened and vulnerable site of the domestic. As we
shall see, the community, injured though it is, fares much better in
Ford’s film. Ulmer’s tale is grimmer as it suggests that fate, here
closely tied to newly forming definitions of modernity, has closed
ranks on community and communication and thus has rendered
stability impossible.
“Let’s Go Home, Debbie”:
Wandering Home in John Ford’s The Searchers
The Western is often regarded as the most “authentically American”
of genres, fitting as it does within a much broader network of
American myth.22 It is also a remarkably varied cinematic category, as
contradictory—between and within films—as the country it imagines. In a much-quoted passage that has become a favorite among
scholars of the film Western, André Bazin, in “The Western, or the
American Film Par Excellence,” even equates the history and evolution of the genre with the history and evolution of film, stating that
“The Western is the only genre whose origins are almost identical
with those of the cinema itself.”23 The Manifest Destiny that informs
the Western has something to do with this Americanness. Distasteful
as it is, the brutally basic narrative structure Manifest Destiny
implies—its structural, as opposed to its political, social, or philosophical appeal—has to do with its reliance on motion through
space. This is, to be sure, a very particular brand of motion arising, as
it does, from the myth of pre-ordained expansionism and territorial
Many Westerns, of which The Searchers is just one exception, figure Native Americans as impediments to this necessarily white and
European forward motion through space, disrupting this “natural”
progression and causing the moving group to stop or move in
another direction.25 Movement, these films suggest, is a racially and
nationally determined activity. In The Searchers, however, mobility—
and especially a violent, anti-social mobility—is explored as being a
peculiarly Native American activity and the antithesis of civilized stability. The settlers “moved,” to be sure, but in the name of stability and
in an effort to plant roots, to domesticate the frontier. Stopping,
Ford’s film suggests, is both the key to and the problem of civilization.
It is the Western’s peculiar fascination with space and time, its
nearly obsessive need to justify the masculinized conquering of each,
that makes it especially American.26 All Westerns demonstrate and
perhaps perpetuate this obsession. It is, however, the cinema of John
Ford that most interestingly plays it out. Many of his non-Western
films are equally charged with this idea of perpetual mobility, The
Grapes of Wrath (1939)—a film about people who desperately want
stability, who long for the domestic but are forced to take to the
road—being only the most obvious. While Ford’s later films will
more outwardly critique the mythic heroism of the mobile male
body, The Searchers begins to ask the questions that guide his later
Lee Mitchell, in his work on Western film and literature, has discussed at length the masculine space of the Western narrative and the
fact that the male body lies at its center.27 Mitchell discusses the
repeated theme in Westerns of the destruction and convalescence of
the heroic male body. He focuses, however, on the bodies themselves
and not what those bodies do on the screen that seems to “masculinize” them, critically overlooking the fact that, at the most basic level
the hero’s body is defined by its motion, its movement across space.
This idea, made imagistically concrete as early as Eadweard Muybridge’s
experiments, suggests that motion or travel itself is “masculinizing”
because it necessarily involves a movement away from the domestic
sphere.28 Linda Williams, in discussing the gender problems of
Muybridge’s work, has argued that “Men’s naked bodies appear natural
in action: they act and do; women’s must be explained and situated: they
act and appear in minidramas that perpetually circle about the question
of their femininity. In other words, in Muybridge’s case fetishization
seems to call for narrative, not to retard it.”29
Williams’s ideas about the “natural” appearance of men’s bodies in
action are more than a little hyperbolic. As we have noted, there is
nothing natural about images of a naked man cutting wood against a
numbered grid; these images, too, are highly gendered “minidramas.”
Nonetheless, her ideas are pertinent, for she identifies the long imagistic history that associates masculinity with motion and femininity
with the domestic. Of course, these associations are still very much
with us. Additionally, her ideas regarding the narrative completeness
of the male body in action, its independence from the process of narration, are important to our understanding of the male body at the
center of the American Western. The male body of the Western is
defined by its activity, particularly its activity in a direction away
from, but always in relation to, the sphere of feminine domesticity.
Stagecoach (1939) is an early example of John Ford’s interest in frontier mobility and its gendered associations. Stagecoach, in spite of its
straightforwardness, is a complex film that begins to ask questions
that are asked more complexly in The Searchers. These questions, like
the films themselves, are about space and belonging, which return
repeatedly to issues of community and communication.
The Searchers tells the story of the five-year journey of its two male
protagonists, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey
Hunter).30 The “search” begins after the home of Martha (Dorothy
Jordan) and Aaron (Walter Coy) is raided and destroyed by Indians
and their daughters are stolen. The men begin in search of the young
girls with what appears to be a like-minded group, all of whom seem
to be interested solely in rescuing the girls and reuniting what
remains of the family. As the narrative progresses, however, Ethan and
Martin disband from the original group and their divergent motives
begin to materialize. Martin hopes to return his “sisters” to their family and Ethan, as time passes, regards the case of the surviving sister as
hopeless. In his racist paranoia, Ethan’s logic prefigures Vietnam-era
policy: Ethan seeks to destroy her in order to save her.
The term “Western” suggests, more than some unknowable and
largely mythic topography, movement in a Westerly direction. The
Searchers foregrounds this idea of motion and critically contrasts male
“life on the trail” with female domestic existence or life on the homestead. This narrative pairing of “home” and “the trail,” of course, is
square one for most road movies as well. Jane Tompkins’s West of
Everything takes this notion further and suggests that the Western
itself is a reaction to the domestic novel. Lee Mitchell’s dismissive
summary of Tompkins’s thesis comments on and swiftly dispenses
with this idea. He writes, “West of Everything (1992) makes the generic
claim that ‘the Western answers the domestic novel.’ . . . Tompkins
moves through a broad swath of Westerns to prompt provocative
observations she can neither prove nor disprove.”31 Mitchell’s comments are partly valid, for Tompkins’s intriguing, topic-sentence
approach to cultural history does occasionally simplify. At the same
time, however, the backbone of her theories requires attention. At the
root of her work is the gendered conflict presented repeatedly in the
cinematic Western between the realms of motion (male) and stability
(female). While this conflict may not necessarily be in response to
Victorian mandates of domestic stability, it is certainly a defining
characteristic of the film Western and the road films that take up and
sometimes question this pattern.
This theme of motion is alluded to early in Ford’s film during the
credit sequence with the song “The Searchers” by Stan Jones with its
questioning lyrics: “What makes a man to wander?” The question
posed by the title song is, of course, answered in the film but problematically. For the true wanderer of the film, Ethan Edwards, is a
largely unsympathetic character through much of the film; his
actions and motions are designed to be questioned. This song plays as
the opening credits roll over a red brick background and the opening
ends on the Warner Bros. logo. The brick wall is an interesting choice
for an opening image when considered in relationship to the song,
which is about a man who denies walls, who refuses to be, as classical
Western music would have it, “fenced in.” It is also interesting in
terms of genre. The wall is strangely “urban” in its appearance and
suggests the crime film more than the Western, especially given the
Warner Bros. logo that ends the credit sequence, which signifies a studio historically associated with the crime genre. The wall seems more
than anything to suggest “change” in a mythological space unused to
The film begins in iconic fashion with the wanderer, Ethan
Edwards, returning home from the wilderness. The composition of
this opening shot establishes the theme of the film itself. From the
interior of the home Martha (Dorothy Jordan)—or, more precisely,
her silhouette—opens a door revealing the immense Technicolor
desert outside and Ethan Edwards on horseback in the deep field. The
contrast between “in here” and “out there” is critical to the Western
genre and to this film in particular, and the dark, silhouetted space of
the interior of the home next to the bright and colorful world outside
helps establish this contrast. Martha’s featureless silhouette highlights
the contrast—her image is interior, off-center, shadowed, and still
while Ethan’s is central, bright, and, most importantly, approaching.
This visual difference is not unlike the color as fantasy and black and
white as reality scheme in The Wizard of Oz, a non-Western protoroad movie. As in that film, “out there” is attractive and fantastic,
larger than life while “in here”—for the spectator looks with Martha
from within—is, as we soon learn, strangely cramped and not altogether desirable.
The interior shots are warm but nearly washed of color. Low
angles give Ethan a towering appearance and, more importantly, create a subtle but effective sense of claustrophobia achieved through
the inclusion of the ceiling. This discomfort with the interior spaces
of the film, typical of noir as well, serves to align the viewer, at least at
this point in the film, with the character who seems most “outside,”
the character whose movements within these interior confines make
the least sense: in this case, Ethan Edwards. His mobility and the
world he occupies are, then, initially seductive, both to the viewer and
the children that in a moment will greet him. This initial alignment is
problematized, however, by Ethan’s racism, which is exhibited early
in the film.
In fact, the viewer identifies almost immediately with the character
who appears to be the source of Ethan’s racial hatred—his part-Indian
(“half-breed”) “nephew,” Martin Pawley. While the two men are constantly at odds with each other, it is their relationship and their similar ways of achieving different goals—one in avoidance of and the
other in maintenance of the domestic sphere—that propel this narrative onto the seemingly endless trail. The “search” of the film’s title, its
mobile “quest” begins after the previously mentioned raid on Martha
and Aaron’s home.32 This movement, of course, is central to the film’s
structure. The film’s comments on community and the means by
which the journey is “preserved” or communicated, however, are the
key elements that situate the film as an unusually influential, prototypical road movie; a film that will be revisited and interpreted by
road film makers in the decades to follow.
The “search” of the film is extensive both temporally (the men are
on the trail for a handful of years) and geographically (their search
leads them from Texas as far as New Mexico). Ford masterfully creates
the illusion of the passage of time and space on the screen by using a
variety of techniques that, combined, achieve a very fluid whole.
Montages of changing seasons and landscapes are key indicators as to
the journey’s duration. This constant motion, however, is periodically
interrupted, punctuated by scenes of apparent calm next to the
campfire. The campfire in The Searchers and in the many road films
that follow it serves not only as a break in the kineticism of travel but
also to establish the connection to home that is so important to all
road movies.
Here the campfire functions as a surrogate, temporary, and
entirely male domestic space, a mobile home away from home, and a
space in which the characters involved come to terms with their relationships with each other and their actual homes. These rest points in
the trail narrative of The Searchers are also quite critical in that they
become major turning points for the characters involved in the journey. Like many road movies that follow it, Ford’s film sets into place
the notion of the inarticulate or “quiet” journey; the men have very
little to say to one another while in actual transit. The campfire—or
its otherwise restful equivalent in cantinas, outposts, gravesites, etc.—
is the “stationary” point at which characters disclose information,
reveal their anxieties, and develop their relationships over the course
of the film. Stability, this pattern suggests, encourages human interaction where mobility comes to take its place.
Interestingly, the campfire scenes in The Searchers, a film otherwise deeply engaged in the mise-en-scène of its outdoors locations,
are studio set pieces. They convey an air of artificiality and seem, in
spite of their “outdoor” props—sand, shrubs, clouds, etc.—to convey
a closed-in, claustrophobic sense paralleled only by the film’s interior
locations. The result is the distinct impression that there is something
unnatural and uncomfortable in pausing. The scenes themselves
foreground this idea and place in bold relief the connection between
the masculine pause in motion and the female domestic sphere. The
heightened emotions of these scenes, their honesty, their verbosity,
and most critically their ironic duplications of the domestic scene
point out the absurdity of man not in motion.
In an especially crucial campfire scene, Ethan tends, in a jokingly
maternal fashion, to Martin’s comfort and warmth by offering him
blankets and adding wood to the already roaring fire, much to
Martin’s chagrin. These attentions, however, prove to be false and, in
retrospect, are uncovered for their duplicity. Ethan “tucks Marty in”
to maintain the kinetic energy of the film and to defend himself and
Marty from the threat only he knows lurks in the shrubs above them:
the outpost trader, Jerem Futterman, who intends to rob the journeying men. As Martin points out in anger, Ethan intends all along to use
him as a decoy. More interestingly, however, is the equation the scene
posits between stillness and vulnerability, an idea the film explores
repeatedly and from various perspectives.
Another aspect of the road film set into place by The Searchers is
the wanderer’s need to wander in spite of attempts to keep him
grounded, particularly at “home” within a stable domestic environment. Both Ethan and Martin are “tempted,” or at least attempts are
made to tempt them, into not following the trail of the lost girls. Early
in the film, after the burial service for the slain Martha and Aaron, a
neighbor attempts to convince Ethan to stay and in her words “care
for the boys” that remain living. Ethan, of course, can do no such
thing. Similar attempts are made to persuade Martin to stay. After the
death of Brad, the men return to break the news to the Jorgensen
family. After the telling, Ethan intends to continue the search. Martin
intends to join him as he feels a kinship with his only surviving “sister” Debbie (by this time in the story it has been revealed that Lucy,
the other sister, is dead).
But everyone has different plans for Martin: Mr. Jorgensen offers
to keep Martin on as long as he’d like and Laurie would be content
with this arrangement for romantic reasons. Ethan especially wants
Martin to stay on with Jorgensen; he recognizes no kinship between
Martin and Debbie largely for racist reasons and is accustomed to
traveling the trail alone. Martin’s fate, however, is too entwined with
Ethan’s to give up that easily. He is, in spite of Ethan’s torment, the
wanderer’s pupil, one whose contentment in the space of the domestic will only come later in the film after certain items are in place.
Unlike his mobile tutor, however, Martin maintains a connection
to the domestic throughout the journey, and in the end this connection will triumph. Ford’s film relies on the Pony Express postal network as a means to narrate the road and to keep its wanderers
connected to the site of the domestic. The Jorgensen family relies on
the mail to learn of Brad’s death, as well as other bad news the men
encounter on the trail. The searchers themselves learn of a piece of
calico dress from a letter, their first real clue as to Debbie’s whereabouts. While the searchers are on the trail, Charlie comes courting
with a letter to the Jorgensen family. Laurie, of course, is interested in
the letter and not her courtier, and there is a discernible amount of
tension and pride associated with the act of reading and writing, ideas
that also form a significant trope in Ford’s films that deal with early
immigrant communities. The reading of the letter is in Laurie’s voice
and soon the images of the living room fade so that Laurie’s narration
is over images of the trail itself and of the trade being narrated.
The narration eventually changes to Martin’s voice and soon is
dropped entirely, making the whole process seem uncommonly natural and fluid (the seasons change when Martin’s voice takes over).
This narrational process is not merely a simple and economical way
to tell significant portions of the story; it also comments on the characters involved and contributes to the mythic status of the journey.
Martin’s letter to the Jorgensen family—however delinquent, however solitary—demonstrates his connectedness to the domestic realm
of the family and home. His time on the trail is spent in search of
something tangible that, when found, will place him back in the space
of the domestic. Ethan, on the other hand, is in search of something
wholly intangible—a somewhat psychotic salvation of the white race.
One suspects that, with or without Debbie’s capture, Ethan would be
on the trail for one reason or another.
This postal narration of the journey—a narrational form that itself
must travel—projects the journey mythically, actualizing it in a manner that will be replicated in countless road films that follow The
Searchers. The letter is the documented “proof ” of the journey’s
ephemeral and geographically fleeting existence. This mythic status is
projected further in The Searchers by the constant references throughout the film to the Indian’s life on the trail, a wandering mythology
that is differently documented and, in part, exists primarily in the settlers’ tellings and re-tellings.
The mythic notion of the nomadic Native American is common
enough to the Western genre. The connections established in The
Searchers between this wandering and (within the film) destructive
group and the assumed protagonist of the film, however, are rare.
Ethan, who is full of what he considers to be Indian wisdom and
knowledge, and who is depicted by Ford as Comanche Chief Scar’s
double, is not shy about sharing his knowledge. Interestingly, much
of what Ethan “knows” about Native Americans has to do with wandering or travel, ideas that Ethan has himself grown to adopt.
This connection between Ethan’s nomadic ways and Scar’s underscores the savagery that motivates Ethan’s motion. Both have become
an impediment to white civilized progress. The film barely contains a
sense of nostalgia and regret with regard to the destructive erasure of
Ethan’s civilized character, but civilization holds its problematic place
in the end. Gaylyn Studlar expands upon and assigns a gender to this
idea in her provocative essay on the topic, “‘What Would Martha
Want?’: Captivity, Purity, and Feminine Values in The Searchers.”
Studlar makes a case for the triumph of feminine (read: civilized)
values in the film, arguing that “far from demonstrating Tompkins’s
claim that ‘the discourse of love and peace that women articulate is
never listened to,’ The Searchers . . . illustrates the triumph of “feminine” values that are ultimately “listened to” by Ethan Edwards as well
as by the film’s audience.”33 In a manner that will have a profound
effect upon the road movies that follow more than a decade later, the
film’s critique of progress begins with the protagonist himself, who
has been so wounded by change that he has, himself, become incapable of change. He is nostalgically romanticized, to be sure, but dead
wrong. He must heroically step aside or, as Ford’s film would have it,
This, of course, is the film’s complex crux. Ethan’s knowledge and
his mobility are attractive, but, like that which he imagines himself
fighting against, they must be defeated. Early in the film the group
encounters the unburied body of a dead Indian. In a fit of frustration
and anger, Jorgensen stones the corpse. Ethan suggests that he finish
the job and proceeds to shoot the Indian’s eyes out. When asked why
he behaves in such a violent fashion, Ethan, assisted by Old Mose
Harper, says that an Indian with no eyes is doomed to wander forever
“between the winds.”34 This bit of impassioned dialogue seems
deeply significant given Ethan’s own wandering tendencies and his
utter lack of vision. Later, Ethan says “Human rides a horse ‘till it dies,
and then goes by foot. Comanche comes along, gets that horse up,
rides ‘im another twenty miles then eats ‘im.” And still later, he says
“Injun’ll chase a thing ‘til he thinks he’s chased it enough . . . same way
when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter’ll keep on comin’ on. So we’ll find ‘em in the end. I promise ya . . .
just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth” (see Figure 2.3).
All of these “words of wisdom” share one critical and common element and that is that each of them centers on the idea of the wandering or nomadic native American, on the idea that America’s first
inhabitants have, for one reason or another, movement in their blood.
These words also describe Ethan himself, and herein lies the conundrum of Ethan’s racial hatred and paranoia. At its base is a complex
feeling of envy. On the one hand, Ethan envies his brother who married and settled with Martha; scenes composed specifically to show
the visual attention Ethan and Martha lavish upon one another and
not words suggest their complex relationship. He longs for, and is
therefore hostile toward, this life that has been closed off to him. On
the other hand, Ethan envies the Indian, especially Chief Scar, who, in
the mythology of the film, is both entirely mobile and is able, however
violently, to “have” Martha. This idea—this love/hate relationship
with and misunderstanding of this county’s original inhabitants—is
one that recurs well into the contemporary road movie. Oliver Stone
in Natural Born Killers explores the idea most poignantly by depicting
the major turning point in Mallory’s character in a teepee and, not
coincidentally, in front of a fire.35 Ethan, though, uses his knowledge
of Indian lore against the Indians—and against himself.
As has been established, The Searchers is a male-driven narrative
and one that takes the very notion of masculine mobility as its subject. In fact, only the male characters in the film are truly mobile;
Debbie and Lucy are moved by the hypermobility of Chief Scar and
his warriors, not by any action of their own. Debbie is domesticated,
too, though in an Indian fashion. When Martin and Ethan first
encounter her at Scar’s camp, she tells the men that Scar’s people are
now her people, punctuating her comments about her own boundedness with words and a gesture indicating her male counterparts’
mobility: in her “native tongue” she tells them to go, and motions, in
a wave-like gesture, in the direction in which they are to depart. To be
sure, Laurie is defined by her own more traditional (read: white)
home-boundedness. At one point in the narrative, as Martin is about
to return to the trail in search of Debbie, Laurie tells him that she will
not wait. Yet, in this narrative, all of the female characters wait in one
way or another.
Figure 2.3 The Searchers (1956). Ethan lectures Martin on native mobility
while on the trail.
As the opening scene of the film suggests, however, even the film’s
mobile characters are bound by the landscape that surrounds them.
Monument Valley’s visual effect is nearly expressionistic, and this
subtle connection to the visual style of film noir is no accident. In
many ways created by Ford and repeated, by him and others many
times since, the valley itself is a set, a point that Jean Baudrillard, in
America, is at great pains to demonstrate. Ford, in fact, was so committed to the location’s cinematic qualities that he initiated the building of roads into the valley to ease the in and out flow of his crew.36
Where the noir city is monstrously threatening, however, Ford’s
landscape is beautifully so. It is, in the word’s original and now hopelessly lost sense, awesome. The landscape, in all of its vastness, also
offers interesting insights into the character of Ethan. From the
beginning of the film, Ethan encounters bodies seeking refuge from
the elements or from hostile enemies: people hiding in barns, caves,
between rocks, etc. It is not until Ethan sees Debbie seek shelter from
his own hostility that he begins to see the error in his ways. He has
become a part of this hostile and overbearing environment.
Lee Mitchell has discussed this landscape and, focusing on
Stagecoach, has pointed to its “vertiginous” qualities, arguing that the
landscape is heroically “Americanizing” for its sheer immensity.37 The
hero in Stagecoach emerges larger than life in the midst of this
immense landscape through the film’s famed dolly in to a close-up of
John Wayne as The Ringo Kid. Like its graphic and literary predecessors, though, the landscape in the Western film is also strangely minimalizing to its inhabitants; in a sense, it is the center of the narrative
and the film’s star. The Western landscape also appears curiously
“urban”; the mesas and the buttes themselves resemble, in their
impossible immensity and their illogical and curious formations, the
contemporary cityscape. The optical effect of Ford’s Monument
Valley and the noir city are quite similar. Vertical space, in both genres, dwarfs the individual(s) in its midst and creates an illusion of
enclosure. But where noir imagines characters who take to the road to
escape these enclosures, the Western, and The Searchers in particular,
imagines communities engaged in the building of walls separating
inside from outside. The wall in the film’s opening, strange as it
appears, is in this way what the film is ultimately about. Mitchell discusses this idea in relation to the closing of the frontier, writing,
“Urban and industrial transformations had begun to feed a nostalgia
for supposedly simpler ways of life, contributing to the celebration of
an unindustrial West—a celebration that was also, of course, a barely
disguised effort at restoring cultural hegemony.”38
The road, or more specifically in this case, the trail is, of course, a
transitional space, a space between extremes of modernity and primitiveness. It is a prominent part of the Western precisely because it
foregrounds this idea of transition at major turning points in
American history. It is not entirely romantic in its “between-ness,”
however. In other words, the “old way” must, at various points, give
way to some vague notion of progress. The trail in the Western exists
as a space between progression and regression, between the old and
the new. Travel on it, as indicated at the beginning of this examination, is a physical, kinetic form of denial that “change” is taking place.
Ethan’s arm-clutching return to this space of denial at the end of The
Searchers, then, is a retreat in precisely the way other characters
throughout the film have been observed to retreat from the threat of
physical harm. Ethan seeks shelter in the desert landscape and, in his
own blindness, has doomed himself to a lifetime of walking between
the winds, away from both community and communication.
This is the critical connection between Al Roberts and Ethan
Edwards, the connection that gives birth to the supposedly rebellious
road movie and its often confused relationship to home. Both Roberts
and Ethan are imagined to be victims of modernity, the desperate
leftovers of cultural progression. In The Searchers, this progress is in
the direction of the domestic which, as Gaylyn Studlar illustrates,
must triumph, however problematically, by film’s end. Home, however, leaves Ethan and his unchanging—and, with few exceptions,
unsympathetic—ways at the threshold. In Detour, desperate as Al
seems to be to attain it, domesticity as such has vaporized, has become
another cruel joke of fate, has itself fallen victim to the march of
modernity and its frighteningly powerful and ill-intentioned female
spawn. As with their turn-of-the-century predecessors, however, both
films, even if by negative corollary, valorize the home and vilify
impediments to its stability. In The Searchers, these impediments are
savagely racialized, and Ethan, until the end, has become one of
“them.” In Detour, a film even more perversely guided by postwar anxieties with regard to masculinity, these impediments are feminized.
As I argue throughout this chapter, Detour and The Searchers
evince the central thematic, ideological, and structural tensions that
emerge in the formal road movie genre of the 1960s and 1970s.
However, it is the uneasy digestion and rearticulation of these same
ideas in Godard’s Breathless that most clearly anticipates the road
movie genre’s directions. A film about the films that precede it, a film
that, as Laderman would have it, helps define the “modernist staging”
that, in his estimation, sets the road movie apart from traditional
genres, Godard’s film is equally set upon lamenting, not celebrating,
its hero’s rambling condition, his existence outside of society, its
structures, and its institutions.
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Jean-Luc Godard’s
Breathless and the Road to
the Road Movie
Mobile American Culture
o begin with a requisite, though perhaps readily apparent, point:
films represent motion on the screen and are themselves mobile,
traveling between screens and nations. Fueled by a complex and selfinterested studio system desperate to sell its product overseas, a combination of clamoring postwar French collectors and programmers
and the lifting of France’s wartime embargo on American films
caused an enormous influx of American cinema into France in the
years following World War II. French intellectuals watched eagerly,
sometimes enthusiastically attending to films largely overlooked or
completely dismissed in the United States. Although France is singular in terms of the scope of this influx and in the journalistic interest
it generated, the basic pattern repeated itself in country after country
and, to this day, American films appear to occupy a great percentage
of our international screens, extending into the early twenty-first century the continued impression of a distinctly, though occasionally
and interestingly interrupted, one-way flow of cinematic traffic.
As the French New Wave was forming, the American film industry
and the American automotive industry were at their peaks, both economically and in terms of their respective grips on the international
imagination; and, of course, this pairing of the cinematic and the
automotive industries is far from random. The cinema and the automobile are the twentieth century’s crowning achievements in mobility, one enhancing and the other capturing it. By the late 1950s,
however, the global mobility of American cinema, its imagistic and
economic stronghold abroad, was causing international intellectuals
and would-be filmmakers to ask questions about the influence of the
American product. The answers to some of these questions soon took
cinematic form.
Another critical though frequently overlooked point: filmmakers
watch each other and, in patterning their own cinematic practice,
adopt ideas they admire from one another. They make direct or subtle references to or criticisms of their predecessors and contemporaries
and, perhaps less obviously, form larger cinematic conversations as
they do so. The road movie is the product of one of the twentieth century’s most enduring international cinematic conversations, and the
next three chapters explore this intricate policy of exchange, examining three closely related films that speak to the road movie’s broader
concerns. The three filmmakers—Jean-Luc Godard, Dennis Hopper,
and Wim Wenders—have all participated in this practice of cinematic
reference and borrowing, drawing from cinematic history generally
as well as from each other in their repeated cinematic explorations of
the journey.
Involved as each of these filmmakers was in a young, more or less
cohesive film movement intent upon exploring, challenging, and
renegotiating the very foundation of the cinematic, each filmmaker’s
deliberate choice of the road is especially revealing. Godard, Hopper,
and Wenders situate their narratives on the road, that most linear of
structures—for, in spite of its inherent curves, it suggests forward
movement—to raise questions about the various and typically
assumed components of an equally linear cinematic grammar. That
the roots of this grammar are imbedded in classical-era American
genre pictures allows each filmmaker to interrogate the impact, significance, and mobility of American images in particular—expressing, sometimes simultaneously, both a love affair with and concern
over the globalization of American mythologies. Godard, Hopper,
and Wenders are also linked by an intense, sometimes overwhelming
interest in the key elements I hope to illuminate. The road, in the
work of these three filmmakers, emerges as a mechanism by which to
critique a global culture that has rendered stability impossible—a
threateningly and perversely modern world that has severed, perhaps
irreparably, its relationship to both community and communication
and has cast its inhabitants out, on the road.
The directors and critics of the French New Wave and their
attempts to understand and theorize American cinematic genres form
the first link in this international chain of cinematic exchange. JeanLuc Godard, when asked to define the cinema, once famously
remarked that the cinema was a gun and a girl, an obvious reference to
his interest in the 1940s American “B” gangster/noir tradition.1 To this
equation, at least in the French understanding of it, might also be
added the automobile and the road, both of which appear with regularity in French films of the 1960s and are a fundamental part of
Godard’s cinematic practice at least through the end of that decade.
Godard’s fascination with the automobile and the road is rooted in
his fascination with (and skepticism of) all things “modern” and all
things “American,” categories that become increasingly intertwined in
Godard’s work. In this way, Godard’s images prefigure the words of
Jean Baudrillard, whose America similarly critiques the modern
American culture machine and its international effects. Interestingly,
both French thinkers locate their criticisms on the road. The automobile is a modern object with inarguable American associations, and
Godard draws out this Americanness by frequently using American
cars in his films. These associations, in fact, are so ingrained that the
road movie itself is often, problematically I think, considered an
inherently American form. The automobile, however, is both thematically and metaphorically important to Godard’s cinema. It is the
physical embodiment of transportability and it signifies, in Godard’s
work, the global movement of American popular culture.2
This chapter explores Godard’s Breathless as a road movie and as a
source for the formal and thematic rupture and experimentation its
road-bound American cousins are celebrated and decried for. As with
its generic predecessors, however, Godard’s film imagines a world, or
at least a character, driven mad by and painfully obsessed with modern motion, a character whose humanity hangs in the balance
between mobility and stasis.
Breathless follows the exploits of Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul
Belmondo), a small-time car thief unable to exist within or without
the generic confines that determine his behavior. Governed as he is by
an ill-fitting faith in the prototypical American gangster, Michel’s
mobility, his desire to hit the road, is cinematically derived, stumblingly absurd, and also tragically doomed. This need for mobility is
counter-balanced by a similarly overdetermined, similarly generic,
and (for Michel and perhaps the viewer as well) excruciating stasis.
Michel’s American love interest, Patricia (Jean Seberg), who sells the
New York Herald Tribune along the Champs-Elysées, is not Michel’s
moll and seems to exist, though also somewhat tentatively, on
another generic plane altogether, one that seems to follow more
closely (or wants to follow more closely) the mandates of American
domestic melodrama. Genres clash in this film about genre, and, as
they do so, the film pulsates nervously with its own discomfort.
The narrative proximity between the road and the cinema are key
to Godard’s work, which, in this early period, was frequently focused
on understanding the relationship between text, narrative, image, and
motion. These elements swirl together in Breathless and leave in their
wake characters that can neither move nor stand still. Godard’s personal obsessions, on screen and off, with the subject of mobility, however, must be read not as celebrations of rapidity and escape but as
the desperate, though one suspects self-knowing, attempts of a man
struggling to keep up, struggling to stay or become human, and struggling, finally, to understand the cinema’s deciding role in all of this.
Breathless, on its surface at least, might appear to be the least obviously “road-obsessed” of Godard’s films. Weekend (1967) and Pierrot
le fou (1968), with their concentration on space, distance, and postwar dislocation, and Alphaville (1965), with its post–atomic age
implications of the same, may well appear to be better, more literal, or
more “pure” examples. These films, after all, devote significant screen
time to actual, physical travel. 3 Breathless, however, presents the primal stirrings of what will become a governing thematic in Godard’s
films of the 1960s, providing the basic formula for a host of road
movies to follow. Breatlhess, in this way, assembles the formal and
generic logic of the modernist cinematic road movie, paving the road
in many ways for future makers of road films.
Godard, however, claims to have intended for Breathless to fit
within a distinct chain of American films. He was, in other words,
looking back and abroad to generic traditions that had fascinated
him. The resulting film, of course, was quite different from the films
that predated it. Godard’s own views regarding this generic confusion, this “inability”—for this is how Godard himself frames it—to
work successfully within the American idiom, are illuminating. In a
much-cited conversational fragment, Godard suggests, “Although I
felt ashamed of it at one time, I do like A bout de souffle very much,
but now I see where it belongs—along with Alice in Wonderland. I
thought it was Scarface.”4 Godard’s words are remarkable in that they
recognize the film’s seldom-remarked-upon fairy-tale-like qualities,
its play upon and within a world of illusions and allusions. The film’s
protagonist, Michel, falls victim to the same illusions Godard claims
to have been chasing.
Godard’s casual citation of Alice’s adventures hints at the elusiveness of the obsessions that haunt both the filmmaker and his film’s
protagonist; both seem desperately to want something they can not
have. Godard’s film enacts the danger of pursuing a mythical and
fairy-tale-like Americanness, and Godard admits to, or plays at, being
duped himself. Godard’s words also call to mind “the looking glass”
through which Alice travels and, in the process, “discovers” herself, an
idea relevant in many ways to Breathless, which, as critics like to point
out, contains many self-consciously constructed gazes into mirrors
and a host of other reflective planes.5 Breathless itself might be understood as a reflection of American culture as France in the 1950s imagined it and in which American audiences, perhaps for the first time,
recognized themselves. The self Godard asks America to recognize is
its illusionary, cinematic self—what Jean Baudrillard might refer to
as simulacra-America.6 This self-recognition, in fact, results in an
American wave of road movies equally critical of “America” and its
genuinely seductive, cinematically derived myths of “freedom.”
Regardless of its “success” as a genre picture, Breathless is clearly a
film about genre. Dudley Andrew, for example, discusses the film’s
noir roots when he suggests that “Belmondo’s dream of going south
to Italy with his girl and his swag recalls the ‘escape over the border’
dreams of so many forties’ antiheroes, like the fated couple of Gun
Crazy.”7 More than simply “recalling” these generically determined
dreams, however, the film suggests the seductive traps set by genre.
Michel can only behave within the troublingly romanticized parameters of American genre. Godard dedicates his film to Monogram
Pictures, the Poverty Row production company that produced Joseph
Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950). The dedication, however, is no casual,
name-dropping gesture. Lewis’s film is an early and important
American proto-road movie, one that presents a version of the roadbound Bonnie and Clyde myth that Arthur Penn—himself under the
influence of Godard and the New Wave—took up in 1967 with his
breakthrough Bonnie and Clyde, a film that was first offered to
Godard and then to Truffaut before Penn took on the project.
Godard, as early as 1959, explores the effect of this cinematic “diplomacy,” placing at the center of his narrative a character taken in by the
mobility of these cinematic myths and who, as a result, is rendered
frustratingly and hopelessly static.
The noir films that Godard admired were frequently smart
beyond their means and were themselves often engaged in cinematic
critiques of American culture, which impressed Godard and the
other young critics of the New Wave. Built along the line between
mobility and stasis, a line indelibly connected to America’s national
mythology, these films were also directly interested in exploring
America’s fascination with and occasional fear of the road. Andrew
goes on to summarize the plot of Breathless in a manner especially
befitting this exploration: “The net of plot might best be symbolized . . . as a maniacal system of roads. The highway where the crime
takes place harbors no hiding places.”8 Andrew has identified perhaps
the most important characteristic of Breathless and of Godard’s cinematic world more generally: the “maniacal system of roads” that constitutes the plot, such as it is, of Breathless. This is the grid upon which
many of his later films are built; and it becomes a metaphor for the
modern traffic in images that was, in 1959, both the object of
Godard’s passion and the emergent source of his contempt.
“Communication Is Going from One Place to Another”
Language at the Cinematic Crossroads
In a 1980 interview with Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone, Godard
offers the following highly relevant, though characteristically elliptical, comment on the relationship between language and movement,
the central elements of Breathless:
I think that communication is going from one place to another—
moving from, say, New York to Telluride. To me, being a human being
is being between two places. It’s the movement that’s important, not
remaining in one place. As a moviemaker, I feel as if I’m living more
than I’m moving. That’s why I think there’s no difference between my
life and my movies. I exist more when I’m making movies than when
I’m not. That’s why someone might say to me, “You have no personal
life; I can’t have a relationship with you. When we’re making love,
you’re suddenly saying, ‘What a beautiful shot I’m thinking of!’ It’s like
a painter only speaking of colors.” But I think what I’m doing is the
only thing I can speak of—creation.9
Godard’s words imply an inability, perhaps an unwillingness to separate life from the movies, and this problem lies at the center of
Breathless as well. Movement—both cinematic and literal—is imagined to be a fundamentally humanizing activity, a preferred form of
communication, though he admits that his own practice of it results
in alienation from other people. Godard’s comments reflect aptly
upon Michel, a character who is alienated, troublingly disconnected
throughout the film, and for whom an often ridiculous, cinematically
determined mobility is compensatory, functioning ineptly in place
of, and tempting him away from, communication and community.
Breathless opens on images of linguistic and communicatory significance. A close-up reveals Michel “reading” Paris Flirt, a semi-lurid
pulp publication whose cover features a scantily clad woman suggestively holding a doll.10 He holds the paper up over his face, obscuring
his identity as he surreptitiously surveys the situation, waiting for his
vehicular prey. In voice-over, Michel refers to himself as “a dumb bastard” and, removing a cigarette from his mouth to do so, rubs his lips
self-consciously and exaggeratedly with the side of his thumb, mimicking Humphrey Bogart and introducing the viewer to a gesture that
continues through the remainder of the film.11 The gesture, however,
is not only cinematically reflexive. Combined with other elements in
the film, Michel’s thumb-to-lip gesture, along with the voice-over
that precedes it, also suggests the primacy, but ultimate failure, of oral
communication in this film where characters continually speak not to
or with but just beyond one another, their relationships remaining
verbally stunted, fundamentally dumb. “Dumbness,” though perhaps
not in the sense Michel means, is an important idea in this film about
attempts at and breakdowns in communication, about verbal and
cinematic misfires.
A series of communicative though non-verbal nods between Michel
and his dark-haired female counterpart occur just before he hotwires
an older American couple’s rather conspicuous American car—a 1950
Oldsmobile—beginning the albeit rather fleeting geographic motion
of the film. The exchange of glances and gestures between Michel and
his accomplice are indicative of this film’s engagement in alternative,
non-verbal means of communication. They also comment critically on
Michel’s character. Michel, we learn quickly, desires a relationship
defined in terms of movement, not words.
Robert Kolker has pointed out that the opening of the film denies
the viewer the customary establishing shot and suggests that the
viewer’s “attention is instantly diverted, even though it is not yet
diverted from anything.”12 The film opens on a close-up of an
unidentified and obscured character whose identity and whose relationship to the space around him will be further fractured by a series
of rapid and disorienting cuts. Spatial relationships and locations are
not immediately clear and do not promise to become clear until
Michel enters the automobile, denying his female counterpart access
to the world of motion as he does so.
The film’s opening, however, is as shocking and disorienting for its
verbal starkness as it is for its unorthodox visual organization. The
missing establishing shot is accompanied by near-perfect silence.
Unmoored by the usual narrative anchors, then, the viewer grasps at
the familiarly seductive promise of mobility, that most basic, nearly
universal narrative structure. Mobility, in other words, will come to
stand in for narrative clarity, will placate in its absence, and will suggest the smooth contours of narrative (while covering up actual lack),
which here and elsewhere in the film, is synonymous with communication. The apparent mobile clarity of the automobile on the road,
however, is also fragile and impermanent. In this film, mobility is
merely one of several highly attractive, highly cinematic illusions and
the automobile’s generic past, its ability to “speak” on behalf of its
characters, is both invoked and questioned from the very beginning.
The perspective shifts, after a slow dissolve, to a series of tightly
framed and similarly disorienting interior shots from various locations within the recently acquired American car. The sequence begins
with a point-of-view shot of a rural tree-lined highway, followed by a
shot from the back seat (echoing the elegant and frequently discussed
extended take from Gun Crazy’s famed bank-robbery scene), and one
from the passenger seat. These suggestive positions place the viewer
squarely into the narrative and the motion, but not comfortably, not
fixedly; like Michel, the viewer—via Godard and cinematographer
Raoul Coutard’s highly mobile camera—is dislocated, unstable.
Michel sings and talks to himself as a series of jump cuts alters the
very basic representation of distance traveled and time spent. To the
already shaken viewer, these “gaps,” these discontinuous representations of space and time, challenge the basic notion of “classical” cinematic linearity. In films like The Searchers or Detour, for example,
where narrative chronology is reorganized via flashbacks, the reading
of letters, etc., motion (through the narrative, through space) still
appears “fluid” because the cuts are soft, gradual, and suggest “continuation.” Both of these earlier films, as we have seen, use montage to suggest the length of the journey represented. While montage in these
films functions economically, since less film and time are required, the
effect is the illusion of duration. Time and space, in other words, are
compressed to frugally and seamlessly narrate a journey of continental
scope. Godard, on the other hand, cuts in a manner that foregrounds
the seams and renders the artifice of the “whole” all the more apparent.
Godard’s editorial technique, his jump cuts from the dash, most
obviously illustrate that the classical Hollywood style is mere convention.13 But the mechanism also works more complicatedly. Michel
Marie, focusing on the radical editing of this portion of the film, calling it, after the literal road it’s filmed along, the “Nationale 7”
sequence, notes that “Godard could not have found a more devastating way of reviving the dynamics of Eisensteinian montage and the
deconstruction of the revolutionary machine-guns in October.”14
Calling up Eisenstein, Marie hints at a more interesting reading of
Godard’s early formalism than is typically suggested. Implicit in
Marie’s analysis is the idea that Godard’s editorial techniques are ideologically motivated. Godard’s ideology, however, is cinematically
framed. Though it is no less political in its inspiration or its intent,
Godard here imagines a revolution of images and not of fists. His film
revolts, but its revolution is aimed squarely at a cinematic tradition
that has seduced Michel onto the road in the first place.15
Godard, more Brechtian than Eisensteinian at the time of
Breathless, seeks to expose the artifice of the image and its organization in order to lay bare and reconstruct cinematic and (later) political practice. Like Eisenstein’s, however, his editorial technique is
emotionally impacting, psychologically expressive. The cut in
Godard’s work is, in short, moving, though problematically so, and, in
Breathless, it functions to expose the political as it functions on the
personal level. From these opening frames through the film’s highly
symbolic conclusion, Godard’s editing raises critical questions about
the relationship between mobility and communication and represents
graphically Michel’s devastatingly limited access to either category.16
More than a tribute to or revival of Eisensteinian montage,
Godard’s editing achieves a metaphorical and deeply troubling kind
of ancillary kineticism that road film makers since him have adopted
more or less successfully. The film, its protagonist and, by proxy, its
viewer move recklessly and impatiently in search of some impossibly
whole, impossibly linear, impossibly cinematic logic; a logic that, in
the end, cannot be found.17 These multiple impossibilities are rendered all the more elusive by the film’s similarly disorienting and
equally slippery verbal track. Shot in the postwar Italian style—
silently on the streets with sound dubbed in later—utterances in
Breathless seem to search for their “proper” image and vice-versa.
Michel Marie, discussing the relationship between sound and
image in the film, has noted, “This deliberate opting for visual discontinuity goes hand and hand with the general autonomy of the
soundtrack, which has its own time, regardless of its links with the
image. Thus, at the beginning of the film, while Michel is talking to
himself at the wheel of his American car, the image track cuts
between fragmented images of his journey with the very obvious spatial ellipses, while the language, however nonsensical, operates in a
relatively continuous way.”18
Marie continues to discuss Michel’s use of a highly idiomatic—
and, one should add, notoriously difficult to translate—slang and the
English-speaking Patricia’s inability, throughout the film, to understand his often rambling narrative logic. Marie concludes by saying
that “A bout de souffle is a tragedy of language and the impossibility of
communication.” 19
Marie’s comments hint at the parallel Godard draws in Breathless
between verbal and cinematic language and the glaring inadequacies
of both. Indeed, the unspoken element in Marie’s conceptualization
of “a tragedy of language” is the equally tragic, equally confused cinematic language Godard employs. Dudley Andrew, quoting Godard,
has offered the following perspective: “‘Clumsiness,’ Godard said,
‘attempts to fix simplicity straight in the eye. It is not a mark of
incompetence but of reticence.’ No film would try harder than
Breathless to fix simplicity straight in the eye. No film so joyously and
cavalierly disregards finesse and technical competence in the pursuit
of direct expression.”20 More than a simple disavowal of “finesse and
technical competence,” however, Godard’s film foregrounds the conventions by which we mark competence and, in the process, becomes
less about “direct expression” than about the search—and, for all of
its pleasure I do not think it’s an especially joyous search—for an adequate means of expression. Godard searches, as does Michel, who, at
this point in the film finds community only with himself and the
camera that records him.
The “National 7” sequence is marked, significantly I think, by its
reliance on monologue. In fact, Michel’s most articulate—or, at least
his most vocal—moments occur alone in the stolen American car as
he speaks either to himself or directly to his interestingly captive
audience (like Detour and The Searchers, this is, in its own way, a captivity narrative). In what might most appropriately be called his automonologue, Michel mumbles to himself, “First I’ll pick up the dough.
Then I’ll ask Patricia ‘Yes?’ or ‘No?’ And then, ‘Buenas noches, mi
amore!’” Michel’s words imply a fantastically linear, uninterrupted,
forward moving logic; a structure of first, then, and then again. This
logic resembles, in skeletal form, the plot-line of a classical-era
American gangster film. In this way, Michel verbally connects his
story to its cinematic heritage. Here and elsewhere, Michel fancies
himself a cinematic tough guy who must keep moving, who refuses to
slow down; a conventional, generic imperative that threatens to
become reality when Michel shoots the policeman who follows him
off the side of the road (see Figure 3.1). This linearity, however, cannot, be maintained and is everywhere undermined.
Michel’s monologue summons up and obliterates the noir tradition of voiceover narration. The direct address of Detour has been
turned on its head here as Michel turns directly to the camera, asks
questions of and then proceeds to dismiss the spectator, further
alienating himself and the viewer in the process. Michel’s direct
address differs critically from the traditional noir use of the voiceover
in its temporal and spatial proximity. Detour, for instance, like so
many 1940s noir films, employs the voiceover to suggest the hindsight of its protagonist, his memories. The relationship between Al
Roberts and the spectator is based, at least in part, on the spectator’s
probable disbelief of what has happened or what is about to happen
and Al’s desperate need to convince.
Breathless, on the other hand, is somewhat more complicated. The
audience joins and is spoken to by Michel in the present. In spite of
this nearness, however, Michel remains distant, incomplete, and
removed, and this proximate distance, as we might term it, becomes a
defining characteristic of the road movies that follow Godard’s film,
films that similarly ask the viewer to ride along with characters that
remain puzzlingly closed, characters the spectator willingly follows
because of their always seductive mobility.
As much a product, or, perhaps more appropriately, a byproduct, of
“The Cinema” as Godard’s jump cuts, Michel is little more than a displaced generic element. His spasmodic wanderings—verbal and physical—are in this way parallel to the film’s own formal and generic
confusion. Godard, like Michel, struggles to find a fit, and his structure
throughout, like Michel’s behavior, reveals the fissures. Critically, however,
these fissures occur when characters are in transit or in conversation.
Speaking, again somewhat hyperbolically, about his editorial decisions in Breathless, Godard remarks, “Unless you are very good, most
first movies are too long and you lose your rhythm and your audience
over two or three hours. In fact, the first cut of Breathless was two and
a half hours and the producer said, ‘You have to cut out one hour.’ We
decided to do it mathematically. We cut three seconds here, three
here, three here . . . ”21
Figure 3.1 Breathless, driving under the influence of American images.
As unlikely as such an explanation is, it is remarkable that what
Godard claims to be his “random acts of editing,” occur most typically at certain moments within the film: they disrupt moments of
dialogue (usually involving the telling of a story or a joke) and
moments of travel (an act itself usually accompanied by conversation). In interviews Godard has commented that he cut on dialogue
because he grew impatient with his characters’ yammering on and
was impatient to get to the meat, however scant, of the matter. The
statement clearly indicates that, far from cutting randomly, Godard
chose which narrative sequences to cut, if not exactly which frames.
In selecting to cut within motion or conversation, Godard effectively renders communication—as it is generally understood and as
he articulates it in his interview with Jonathan Cott—impossible. If it
is the movement itself, the “betweenness” that is communicative and
“important,” then something is sacrificed in compressing it. That it is
so aggressively compressed indicates the degree to which Godard
hopes to make the sacrifice itself visible.
Just before Michel confronts and shoots the cop who has followed
him off the road, he exclaims, frustrated at the slow female driver
ahead of him, “Cars are meant to go, not to stop!” One might extrapolate Michel’s comments to apply more broadly to conversations, which
in the context of the film, also have a curious habit of stuttering, of
stopping short of their mark. Godard’s decision to cut most aggressively when characters are between spaces, conversational or geographical, disallows the growth of their humanity. But this cutting,
this compression of time, this apparent impatience with the spaces in
between is, finally, expressive of our characters who are, themselves,
consumed with destination: Michel with Rome and Patricia with
Paris, where she intends to stay all along. Their motion, in other
words, is a desperate attempt to find a way or a place to stop.
Godard suggests that Michel’s failure, his tragic outcome, is predicated upon an unquestioning reliance on a certain stock of
American images that are, for him, wholly unsuitable. Try as he
might, Michel cannot connect with either of his American obsessions—Patricia or Bogart. Hollywood fantasy, Godard suggests, is
eminently transportable but, perhaps, not translatable. In other
words, the fantasy itself collapses when language intervenes.
“Cars Are Meant to Go, Not to Stop!”
Godard frequently returns to the metaphor of travel in comments about
his work, compelling Jonathan Rosenbaum to open his 1980 interview
with the director by saying, “Jean-Luc Godard seems to be into transportation metaphors a lot nowadays. It’s been rumored that when Paul
Schrader sidled up to him recently at a film festival and said,‘I think you
should know that I took something of yours from The Married Woman
and put it in American Gigolo,’ the master coolly replied,‘What’s important isn’t what you take—it [sic] where you take it to.’”22
Godard’s words affirm his dual and always-connected fascinations
with travel and its relationship to cinematic citation and borrowing.
The process of cinematic citation has, for Godard, collapsed with
travel and has become, through pun (the preeminent Godardian pastime), something that you take from one place to another—something transported. Suggested here is that other system of maniacal
roads, a system through which cinematic images and ideas travel, stop,
and are integrated into the work of others. In Breathless, a film rife
with cinematic and pop-cultural citations, mobility of the generic,
American sort, sits most uncomfortably. As we have explored,
Godard’s form bears evidence of this uncomfortable importation.
By 1980, of course, Godard had seen the traffic in images moving
in the other direction. Approximately three decades after Breathless,
the idea of an American director borrowing from European sources
not only made sense, it had become a rite of directorial passage. Citing,
sometimes idly and sometimes quite meaningfully, one’s international
influences was the shiny, hip coin of the New Hollywood realm.
Breathless, however, is an early example of a type of cinematic practice
(one that would soon become widespread) that questions the notion of
the cinematic narrative as a closed, complete, and wholly self-contained
universe. One of Godard’s central questions in the film revolves around
the apparent ease and plentitude of motion and its attendant mythologies in classical-era American genre films, which themselves seemed to
move with ease. This particular question and the language used to
articulate it would, in due time, be absorbed into a wave of American
road films similarly intent upon questioning these generic myths.23
The hyperkinetic world of the beginning of Breathless comes, quite
literally, to a screeching halt when Michel, behind the wheel of his
recently stolen vehicle, pulls over to the side of the road. After Michel
shoots the cop, a scene replete with some of the film’s most exciting
and jarring editing effects, there is a quick cut to an extreme long shot
of Michel running across a field in a slight diagonal from right to left.
The camera pans to follow him as he runs off into the distance, getting smaller and smaller as the jazz score, a variation on Michel’s
theme, swells dramatically in the background.
This “disappearance” of an actively mobile Michel is critical in that
it marks a turning point in the film. Actual “road-based” and rural
movement has been interrupted and will be replaced by a deeply signifying metaphorical and formal movement within the city.
Breathless, in fact, never leaves Paris and spends much of its time
indoors in the rooms of its various characters. Michel, however,
would have his narrative be a road movie. He longs for the impossible
mobility of American cinematic images, though his desire is finally
thwarted by Patricia’s compulsion to stop moving. The dilemma
imagined in Godard’s film is, in fact, the exact opposite of Detour’s
where Al’s doomed mobility is motivated by female prime movers.
Here, in a fashion more or less modeled on the “traditional”
Hollywood type, the female character expresses her comfort in her
rootedness; she is unwilling to move and continually exhibits her
connectedness to the domestic sphere. Her journey to France, we are
led to assume, was an act of bravery, but even this act remains under
the watchful eye of her father, who demands that she finish her studies. The film will continue to ponder the possibility of movement. It
will also continually disallow it, creating in the viewer a desire for
mobile action parallel to Michel’s. The desire, however, is tragic and
ultimately unfulfilled.
At a critical moment on the streets of Paris, Michel attempts to
convince Patricia to go with him to Rome, claiming that he is in danger in Paris. When the two part, the scene is punctuated by a close up
of a portion of a French movie poster for Robert Aldrich’s 1959 Ten
Seconds to Hell that reads “Vivre dangereusement jusqu’au bout” or
“To live dangerously until the end!” The names Jack Palance and Jeff
Chandler are visible in the lower right hand corner of the frame. The
poster’s language sums up Michel’s fantastic self-perception, his cinematically derived ambitions.
Michel’s walk and Godard’s moment of cinematic self-reflection
are interrupted briefly by a young girl holding, as if to drive the point
further, an issue of Cahiers du cinéma, the journal where Godard
made his name writing critical articles about American cinema.24 The
girl, curiously but indignantly, asks if he has anything against youth,
and Michel replies simply that he prefers old people. Next there is an
especially significant, though brief, moment in the film. The camera
cuts to a long shot of a car dangerously screeching around a corner,
and a series of quick cuts create the illusion that it hits a man in the
process. Though formally quite different from the Lumières’ The
Automobile Accident (explored in Chapter 1), this moment in the film
does resemble the automotive disaster films so popular at the turn of
the century and, like those films, employs a number of cinematic
tricks to achieve its effect. Lying dead in the street, the unfortunate
pedestrian is surrounded by onlookers, including Michel, whose only
reaction is to make the sign of the cross and walk on, reading his
newspaper, hoping to maintain his own pedestrian motion. The
scene ends with a close-up of the newspaper headline: “Police have
identified the interstate killer.” In a very literal sense, Michel is
arrested—is made immobile—by these words. The printing of his
image makes him vulnerable on the streets, where he might be recognized. Michel must, once again, seek shelter. Movement, the moment
reminds us, can be dangerous, even deadly business.
After the accident in the street, Michel goes to visit his underworld
contact, Tolmatchoff (Richard Balducci), at the suggestive locale of
the travel bureau where he receives his mail in order to maintain his
anonymity. The scene is replete with technical innovations, but its
formal virtuosity is not simply an exercise; again, it is deeply significant to the theme of the film and the anxiety, on the part of Michel
(and, by extension, Godard), to maintain motion and to return to the
road. As with many of Godard’s more impressive visual moments in
the film, the scene begins with a long frontal back-tracking shot of
Michel. The camera, through this entire extended shot, remains in
slow, smooth motion, circling Michel and, at times, predicting new
We learn, during the conversation between Tolmatchoff and
Michel, that Michel has arrived to collect his money. The camera stays
with the men as they exchange small talk. Dudley Andrew’s continuity script, however, interprets the movement in a curious, but highly
relevant way: “During the conversation the camera tracks from
Michel’s left to his right, reversing the movement it had made earlier
at the receptionist’s desk. Neither hesitating nor slowing, it seems to
lead Michel back in the direction he had come.” 25 Andrew has identified and described a very important element in Godard’s formal work
in the film: the role played by the camera. Raoul Coutard’s wheelchair
tracking shots have been explored for their virtuosity, but their thematic significance, the purpose for their placement, has been ignored.
Andrew implies that the camera invites Michel to move. I’d like to
suggest that it dares him.26 The collaborative camerawork of Godard
and Coutard constantly riffs on the history of the cinema. It is a selfconscious, highly aware and very mobile element in the film, and
Michel has an intimate relationship with this element; in his automonologue, as he claims his adoration for the country and countryside he speeds through, he treats the camera like a character, looking
directly at it (and, by extension, the audience as well) as he exclaims
“go fuck yourself ” if you don’t like the sea, the mountains, or the big
city. This is a dangerously prophetic statement as Michel, who is himself geographically dissatisfied, finds himself “fucked” by film’s end.
But Michel, here and elsewhere, should be read as a desperate performer seduced by this trickster camera that seeks to replicate and
critique—or to critique by replication—generic American cinematic
moments and movements. The camera provokes and perpetuates
Michel’s need for motion; it incites him.
The scene ends with the detectives, who pass Michel unknowingly
as they enter the building, questioning Tolmatchoff about Michel’s
whereabouts. The travel bureau scene alerts the viewer to two important details. First, we learn of Michel’s cinematically self-aware alias: he
names himself Laszlo Kovacs, who was a real cinephile living in Paris
at the time and who would later go on to become a cinematographer,
perhaps most famous for his work on Easy Rider. The viewer also
learns that before becoming a car thief Michel worked as a steward for
Air France. This is yet another reminder of the character and the
film’s obsession with motion and, perhaps, a hint at the idea of international exchange with which this analysis is also concerned.
This sequence is punctuated with a shot of Michel standing, once
again, in front of a movie poster, this time for The Harder They Fall,
featuring Humphrey Bogart in his final film role. Michel stares
intently at the poster, which we see in close-up, and he again imitates
his impossible alter ego, taking his glasses off, puffing his cigarette
self-consciously and rubbing his lip left and right. Michel’s violent
moment in a men’s restroom moments later in the film, where he
knocks a man cold and steals his wallet, is a misreading of Bogart, to
be sure, but does indicate the degree to which Michel is guided by his
own idiosyncratic understanding of cinematic images. The senseless
violence also helps to maintain the pointless kineticism that Michel
has doomed himself to. Michel is moving, but he is going nowhere, in
part because his motion, like the violence in the bathroom, is utterly
random, lacking in both direction and purpose. The film continually
alerts us to its own aimlessness.
“Where to?” are the words that open the next scene in the film, a
brief scene that is critical mostly for its dialogical obsessions. Michel,
throughout the film, expresses very little about himself verbally. We
have already explored his revealing auto-monologue and its function
within the noir tradition. Here, as they walk along the street together,
Michel tells Patricia about the France Soir news item that has caught
his attention, an item that seems to reveal Michel’s own criminally
mobile fantasies: “Seems a bus driver stole five million francs to
seduce a girl . . . He made out like he was a tycoon. They went down
to the coast together. In three days, they dropped the five million. But
there, the guy didn’t back down. He said to the girl, ‘It was stolen
money. I’m a poor slob, but I love you.’ But the best part is that the
girl didn’t drop him. She said ‘I love you too.’ They went back to Paris
together and were picked up burglarizing villas at Passy. She was
keeping watch. It was nice of her.”
Michel’s articulate romanticization of this French Bonnie and
Clyde pair is predicated upon the young woman’s desire to move
along with her male counterpart. Michel tries to reenact this scenario
with Patricia but fails because of Patricia’s promise to her father to
attend classes at the Sorbonne. He is also fascinated, of course, by
the fact that the journalistic word has immortalized the pair. Along
with his image and an array of movie posters, Michel continually
consults the papers to learn of his own status and seems genuinely
intrigued by the disconcerting rapid mobility of the press. Through
the entire scene, the camera maintains a back-tracking motion similar to that in the travel bureau scene, keeping Michel and Patricia in
medium close-up and stopping when they stop. The shots themselves
are bold, highly mobile, and move through the streets of Paris with
precisely the sort of graceful bravado Michel fancies. Again, the
taunting camera wins out, leaving Michel and Patricia quite literally
behind. When Michel offers to give Patricia a ride to her date with the
journalist, Van Doude, however, the visual world of the film again
shifts and begins to “speak” metaphorically.
The scene takes place in yet another automobile and once again
points to the central, though tragic, implications of mobility within
this film. Within this highly mobile scene, Godard most clearly illustrates the inevitability of communication breakdowns in situations
where the spoken word cannot find its appropriate receiver. These
detours in conversational momentum and direction lead to related
complications in physical motion. As Michel and Patricia talk—the
conversation begins on the topic of mobility, with Patricia inquiring
about Michel’s Ford, which is, according to him, in the garage—the
position of the camera shifts constantly, restlessly. A series of abrupt,
though at times barely perceptible, cuts make the visual situation
impossible to nail down. The result is a scene in which words on the
soundtrack are being clearly spoken in an orderly fashion, although
the topic of conversation shifts rather rapidly, but the visual evidence of
this conversation is never allowed the viewer. The typical shot/reverse
shot conversational cutting pattern is dispensed with here, replaced by
what appears to be a good deal of B-roll footage of the couple driving.
Sound and image, the basic units of cinematic narrative, appear to be
out of synch, and the unsuitability of the cinematic container these
characters inhabit is rendered all the more apparent. This conversational chaos is transposed onto the characters in the film creating a
de-humanizing disjointedness that is made clear by Michel’s itemization of Patricia’s admirable body parts—an itemization that, through
the jumpcuts that separate the parts, serves to fracture her humanity.
Michel’s wholly cinematic worldview is itself similarly fractured.
Their ride together does not work, and the forward motion of the
journey must be stopped. Visually, the impossibility of this motion is
hinted at through the jump cuts, which serve not only to disorient
the viewer spatially, but more critically to demonstrate the futility of
Michel’s attempts at cinematic linearity. As Michel and Patricia’s
conversation proceeds in a fairly linear fashion in spite of attending
misunderstandings, the visual space of the journey appears to be
going nowhere. Michel and Patricia are incompatible, and their
incompatibility is heightened when they are in motion together.
Patricia’s words, which effectively break the chain of futile motion,
are, “Here it is! Stop!” Michel offers to park the car, and Patricia
responds by telling him it’s useless. His final exclamation as she exits
is one that will play a central role later in the narrative, when Michel’s
motion has literally and permanently been halted—he says: “Fine,
beat it! I don’t want to see you again! Beat it. Beat it, you bitch!”
This very telling moment in an automobile initiates the immobility that comprises much of the remainder of the film. The failure
between the two characters to keep any semblance of conversational
momentum results in excruciating stasis and finally death. Much of
the rest of the film takes place indoors, in Patricia’s hotel room, where
Godard’s emphasis on language and its failures is heightened by the
prolonged stasis of the extended scene. The room itself is claustrophobic, or at least this illusion is created by Michel’s hyperactive presence within the room. Michel exteriorizes his need to move by
constantly fidgeting and pacing; the film contains Michel in a space
totally removed from his noir fantasy of the open road. Here he is
forced to be still and to communicate verbally; he has been removed
from the space of the noir monologue and thrust into human conversation, one that runs threateningly close to the domestic.
Again, Godard is taken by and interested in exploring the various
levels of conversational banality, which is nicely encapsulated in a
brief moment that focuses on the very foundation of language.
Michel teases Patricia about her boyish looks and tells her not to
make a certain facial expression. Patricia misunderstands and asks
“What do you mean, ‘make a face’?” Michel responds by contorting
his face as he has throughout the film and in precisely the manner
that ends the film. He opens his mouth wide, forming “ah,” shows his
teeth for “eeh,” and circles his lips for “ooh.” Michel has given Patricia
and the viewer a lesson in forming vowel sounds, the very basis for
spoken language.
Meaningful language is impossible in this “Franco-American
encounter,” as Michel terms it. A full third of the film takes place in
this location and not once does the couple seem to truly communicate. Patricia attempts to discuss art, music, and a variety of subjects,
including the possibility that she might be pregnant. Michel, on the
other hand, is intent on living up to his “all or nothing” philosophy
and systematically ignores Patricia’s attempts at conversation as he
makes “business” phone calls, talks about cars, attempts to get Patricia
to remove her clothing, and tries yet again to convince her to come
with him to Italy. This is an extremely dialogue-heavy moment in the
film and repeatedly Patricia speaks the same lines: “Qu’est-ce que
c’est . . . ?”
Patricia is aware of their dialogical differences and repeatedly stops
the flow of conversation to re-orient herself, to get a translation. In a
1960 interview with Yvonne Baby, Godard offers the following commentary on the linguistic gap between Patricia and Michel in the
film: “The American, Patricia, is on a psychological level, whereas the
guy, Michel, is on a poetic level. They use words—the same words—
but they don’t have the same meaning.”27 While I remain baffled by
Godard’s use of the word “poetic,” for Michel seems anything but, at
least in the traditional sense of the word, Godard does point to the
fact that these are characters existing on two wholly separate linguistic planes, a state of affairs rendered all the more apparent when the
two are still. Michel’s linguistic existence mirrors his spatial existence;
both are governed by a need to keep moving, and quickly. The more
“psychological” Patricia, however, is spatially and linguistically static,
interested in analyzing and existing within the moment rather than
moving rapidly to the next one.
Another attempt to “keep things moving” is made immediately
after the hotel room scene, and again the attempt is foiled—this time
in a more tellingly metaphorical way. In the center of Paris, Michel
steals a Ford, which he will use to drive Patricia to her interview with
the author Parvulesco (played by Jean-Pierre Melville). As he waits on
the street for her to change her clothes at the New York Herald Tribune
offices, Michel buys the latest edition of France-Soir. Off screen,
another man calls for the newsman, and a medium shot from across
the street reveals that he is none other than Godard himself. An
extreme close-up of the paper pans slowly up, revealing a photo of
Michel with the heading “Route 7 Road Killer Still at Large.” The
man, recognizing Michel’s photograph from the paper, informs the
police just as Michel and Patricia speed away from the scene. Film,
Godard’s cameo suggests, is both responsible for Michel’s fantasy and
for its ultimate failure.
After Patricia’s interview with Parvulesco and after Michel beats
up the junkyard dealer, Mansard, over a stolen car deal (stealing
money from him instead, claiming it’s for cab fare), Michel’s immediate situation becomes more perilous. The press and the police are
on to him, and his options are becoming fewer and fewer. A brief
scene in a Paris taxicab indicates the degree to which this narrative
tension, for Michel, translates into a need to move, and quickly. The
scene fades into a medium shot from the back seat of the taxi and the
first words spoken are Michel’s (from off camera): “Go on, step on it!
Don’t worry about pedestrians. Hurry, that’s all I ask you. Go on, step
on it! In the name of God, you’re dragging!” Michel’s words are interesting in relation to the earlier scene in which a pedestrian is hit in the
street—the walkers of the world are once again of no consequence.
Michel is the embodiment of the egomania the Lumières imagined
the automobile would inspire. His egomania, however, is inspired by
cinematic images of egomaniacal gangsters. The irony of our putative
gangster’s position, then, is all the more poignant—he is not driving,
nor has he some willing Bonnie to take the wheel on his behalf; he sits
in the back of a taxi cab, helpless and shouting.
The chaos and speed is rhythmically heightened by a number of
jump cuts in the scene. A transcription from the continuity script
demonstrates the chaotic kineticism of the scene and also indicates
Michel’s role as failed “director” of the narrative action of the film—
he quite literally is calling the shots here: “Michel (to the driver after a
JUMP CUT, off): Get going, my man, pass that 403. (JUMP CUT)
Don’t touch your gear shift. What do you mean dragging yourself
behind a 4-CV? (JUMP CUT) Hang on, look, you’re being passed by
a Manurhin. (JUMP CUT) Put on your turn signal, we’re turning
left.”28 Michel is the quintessential backseat driver whose attempts to
“control” motion, in no small way, resemble Godard’s attempts to
control narrative. Both, it seems, are governed by an urgency that
finds expression through speed. Dudley Andrew indicates as much
when he comments on Godard’s basic theory: “From the very outset
Godard was certain that the defining characteristics of modern life
had to be speed, boldness, and ingenuity. He was infatuated with
André Malraux’s early novels for precisely these qualities.”29 From the
backseat, Michel seems to have verbally mastered at least “speed” and
“boldness”; critically, however, he lacks control.
When the cab arrives at the New York Herald Tribune office,
Patricia is questioned about Michel and immediately claims ignorance. Her tune changes significantly, however, when it becomes clear
to her that the Paris police have the power and authority to make it
impossible for her to stay on in Paris. It seems fair to assert that
Patricia’s eventual decision to turn Michel over to the police is governed at least in part by her desire to, unlike Michel, stay put, to stay
grounded in Paris and not continue to move senselessly about.
As Michel and Patricia continue on together in search of an adequate hiding place, it seems the streets themselves have revolted
against Michel and have themselves taken on the power of language.
After they switch cars—for a Cadillac Eldorado, no less—and drive
out of the parking structure, Michel sees a large, scrolling, electronic
tele-news marquee that reads: “Paris: Arrest of Michel Poiccard is certain.” 30 Michel’s name in lights replicates a convention of gangster
films, but again ironically. Here the gangster seems less interested in
his ability to outrun the cops than the simple fact of his name, which,
in a fashion far more dynamic than would be possible on the printed
page, actually moves across the night sky. Michel has not just made
headlines, but skylines. Even if Michel is unable to move in the way he
desires, his name moves; however, it moves against him.
As Patricia walks down the busy Paris sidewalk from screen left to
screen right, just before she reaches the café phone she uses to inform
on Michel, a quick cut changes her screen direction from right to left,
signifying an abrupt change in the direction of the narrative. Dudley
Andrew has commented on this moment: “When Patricia finally
resolves to turn in Michel, her trip to the café telephone consists of
three shots . . . , each reversing her screen direction and the speed of
her gait. Unlike the rapid flow of motion that the New Wave taught
Madison Avenue how to use in the stylish TV ads of the 1960s,
Breathless stutters and spurts in scenes like this, jolting the viewer
nervously and unpredictably.”31
The extreme mobility of Patricia in these scenes is in direct contrast
to her prior static characterization. Here she has mobilized, but with
the intent of betrayal. The images are also critical in their commentary
on the space of the hideout Michel has chosen for himself and Patricia.
The studio belongs to a still photographer, we assume, of female models—the very characterization of female stasis and the notion of
woman as mere image. Here, in the space of only a few shots, Patricia’s
desire to escape this characterization is formally imagined.
As Michel and Patricia are hiding out in the studio shortly after
Patricia informs on him to the police, the linguistic disconnectedness
of Michel and Patricia’s relationship is realized most eloquently and
signifies the literal end of the road for Michel. The scene itself is rich
with metaphorical possibilities. Patricia tells Michel that she no
longer feels like leaving with him. Michel says, “I knew it” and continues, off camera, saying, “When we talked, I talked about myself, and
you about yourself.” In Breathless, this inability to communicate
results in an excruciating stasis. This is a film about articulation, and
the double meaning of articulation is quite relevant here. To articulate is to express, usually verbally. It also means “to connect” one part
or one space to another. This second meaning of the word articulation is especially relevant, for Breathless is ultimately about disconnectedness as a consequence of inarticulateness.
Patricia tries to explain why she has turned Michel in and he hears
nothing as he tries pathetically, perhaps even tragically to explain his
views on love. Patricia then attempts to convince Michel to leave, to
force him out of her life and out of the way of eminent danger. He
decides, however, not to leave and gives up, saying “No, I’m staying!
I’m all messed up. Anyway, I feel like going to prison.” In pointing to
prison, the ultimate static location—second only, perhaps, to the
final stasis of death—Michel quite literally puts the brakes on in this
frustrated road movie. He defies his own mythic notions of gangster
methodology and looks ahead to a static, monological life.
Berutti (another of Michel’s underworld friends referred to early
in the film and introduced late, played by Henri-Jacques Huet)
arrives with Michel’s money and offers him a ride, but Michel treats
him in much the same fashion as he does Patricia, telling him to beat
it and denying Berutti’s offer of an automatic gun with which to
defend himself. Berutti, as he drives off, throws the gun to Michel,
who picks it up as the police begin to approach him. Police Inspector
Vital, the cop closest to him, fires once and hits Michel, sending him
into one final and very telling attempt at motion and articulation.
Michel, grasping his back where he has been shot, continues to run,
stumbling into parked cars and falling to his hands and knees at several points. His balletic run is hyperbolic, playing on the prolonged
conventions of death in gangster cinema, such as Rico’s (Edward G.
Robinson) final machine gun dance, utterance, and demise in Little
Caesar (1931). Michel appears to be almost cartoonishly acting out
his final run down the street.
As Michel makes his ultimate “journey,” the camera trails behind
him by fifty feet as if to suggest that this masochistic relationship
between man and camera is about to be terminated, that the camera
can no longer lead Michel, taunting him along a path of movement.
Michel lies on his back in the middle of the street, dying, and the now
terrified-looking Patricia stands above him. Michel, as he does earlier
in the film, makes vowel faces at Patricia, who collects herself and
stares blankly at Michel. Michel’s final words are “That’s really disgusting,” but Vital mistranslates them to the confused Patricia as,
“You are really a bitch.”
Communication has once again failed Michel and Patricia, and
this time the results are deadly, as well as borrowed from another
film. Dudley Andrew comments: “Her ingenuous question standing
over Belmondo’s corpse, “Qu’est-ce que c’est ‘degueulasse?’” is modeled precisely on Ida Lupino’s blank stare at Bogart’s riddled body in
the final scene of High Sierra: ‘What does it mean to crash out?’ Both
women are fascinated by the death drive of their men.”32 Andrew’s
choice of words here is also fascinating. He refers to Michel’s “death
drive,” and I have been arguing all along that Michel’s “drive” is fueled
by a desire to live, to find life. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive, however. For, ultimately, Michel’s desire to live, predicated as it is
on American representations of life, can only end in death, and a
highly cinematic death at that. Michel is gunned down in the middle
of the street but manages, however impossibly, to drag his body to the
middle of an intersection and the intersection itself is deeply symbolic. Here the road enters again as a metaphor for Michel’s—and, by
extension, Godard’s—search for a viable narrative direction. The film
ends, quite literally, at the crossroads.
The Road Traveled . . . The Road Ahead
Michel’s death journey at the end of the film ties together many ideas
running throughout this book. The film’s final image itself is literally
transported into Samuel Fuller’s Underworld USA (1961), which contains a similarly protracted death sequence in which the film’s protagonist runs several agonizing blocks before dying in the exact spot
his father had died before him. Godard’s death sequence, contained
within a film about cinematic influence and the pervasiveness of
American images, is taken (to use Paul Schrader’s term, which
Godard playfully puns upon) by one of the directors Godard most
admired.33 Godard, by 1961, had already begun to realize a sort of
reversed cinematic transportation: his own images had been mobilized, quoted, and reiterated to a remarkable degree.
The scene also symbolically suggests Michel’s and Godard’s cinematic predicament. They are caught in the intersection between a
need for and distrust of American images and their glossy myths of
wholeness. In the film, Michel is betrayed by the embodiment of the
American image—Patricia, on the one hand, and Bogart on the other.
To extend the film’s noir fascinations, America itself is figured as a
sort of impossibly attractive, ferociously dangerous femme fatale.
And Michel is powerless in her presence. But what has all of this to do
with the road movie?
Godard’s relationship to the road is a complicated one. Dennis
Turner has pointed to the ways in which Breathless is about a
Lacanian crisis of identity and, in his 1983 article “Mirror Stage of the
Nouvelle Vague,” he explores the film’s “oscillation between a belief in
the inherent superiority of ‘things American’—Michel Poiccard steals
T-Birds and Cadillacs, courts an American girl, dresses like a Warner
Brothers gangster—and the recognition of the fact that a French hero
cannot attain the mythical status of the American; the cars get him in
trouble with the police, the girl betrays him, he is haunted by a nostalgia for ‘le néant’ from which the Hollywood gangster was manifestly free.”34
Turner’s idea is an intriguing one that revolves largely around
Michel’s desire to see himself reflected in the American images he
aspires to. Turner, however, underplays Godard’s equally fascinating
role in this Lacanian game of identification. In Lacan’s theories, the
child learns of its selfhood in front of the mirror, and this selfhood is
predicated upon his recognition that he is an entity separate from his
surroundings. Godard points to the increasing impossibility of this
process of identification in a postwar European country literally
swimming in American images. It is impossible for Michel to imagine himself as “separate” from these images, just as it is impossible for
Godard to create a cinematic narrative that does not, in some way,
reflect its American predecessors.
My desire to classify Godard’s film as a road movie is, in part, a
desire to trace the road movie’s self-conscious roots back to an
important source of generic self-consciousness. Godard’s film is concerned with the road at the literal level—Michel begins on the road
and tries through the remainder of the film to return to it, until he is
finally gunned down in the street. The film also uses the metaphor of
the road to comment on the influx and influence of American culture
in general, but particularly American cinematic images on the
European community.
The imaginary road connecting America to France, however, is
essentially a one-way road until this time in history because American
images were seen as going in, but French images did not enjoy a proportionally equivalent freedom coming out. Godard’s film is revolutionary in this respect, for it quite literally opened up a passage into
America. A film commenting on the influence of American images
became, perhaps ironically, a widely influential film in America.
Nowhere was this influence as deeply felt as it was on the American
road movie, whose generic birth was to occur later in the decade
and, in its self-consciousness, stylistic innovations, and thematic
preoccupations, clearly looked to Godard for inspiration. Godard
also provided for American filmmakers a mechanism by which to
explore themselves critically, and the road—that captivating, frequently romanticized, and seemingly American space—was an
important site for this critical introspection. By the late 1960s,
American films were beginning to question their own mythos and its
widespread influence. Godard, most especially with Breathless, was in
large part responsible for opening up the possibility for this selfreflexive cinematic response.
Misreading America in
Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider
“This used to be one helluva good country.”
George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) in
Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969)
“Some day, this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to be.”
Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey) in
John Ford’s The Searchers (1956)
asy Rider is a film that bids farewell to a number of ideas. The idea
of community, a persistent though always receding theme in the
film, is one of them. Hopper’s own, admittedly hackneyed, words on
the subject give shape to this assertion. Here, in the space of three
semi-intelligible sentences about cinematic authorship, Hopper articulates a generation’s surging faith in the individual: “Film is an artform, an expensive art-form, it’s the Sistine Chapel of the Twentieth
Century, it’s the best way to reach people. The artist, not the industry,
must take responsibility for the entire work. Michelangelo did less
than a quarter of the Sistine Chapel; yet directed all work, stone by
stone, mural by mural, on and on and on.”1
Confused and romantic as Hopper’s words are, they very neatly
encapsulate the stateside proliferation of the auteur theory and, ultimately, its marketability. Easy Rider, in some ways, initiated the popular growth of the concept, signaling its studio viability, and the result
was a series—more a group of ripples than a wave itself—of American
road movies produced by soon-to-be or would-be auteurs, each
touching, in its own unique way, on the subject of this country’s post1960s fragmentation: among them The Rain People (Francis Ford
Coppola, 1969), Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970), Two Lane
Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971), Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971),
Vanishing Point (Richard Sarafian, 1971), Boxcar Bertha (Martin
Scorsese, 1972), Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973), Electra Glide in
Blue (James William Guerico, 1973), The Sugarland Express (Steven
Spielberg, 1974), and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin
Scorsese, 1974).2 While critical approaches to the road movie have
thus far attempted to further slot these films into subcategories—
outlaw couple road movies, buddy road movies, road melodramas,
disenchanted cop road movies, etc.—I hope to draw attention to
their connectedness, both to each other and to a larger tradition of
films that use motion to critique the hypermobility of the contemporary moment, to lament the passing of stability, of community,
and of communication. These are strange fascinations indeed for a
genre associated with, and that would in fact ignite, a movement in
Easy Rider helped solidify the rules of this cinematic tradition,
establishing as it did so a genre that, in spite of its visitation of themes
that have been with the cinema since its inception, would forever be
associated with a generation’s youth culture. To this day, the road
movie in its myriad forms travels the same roads and attempts to
reckon with the same core problems Hopper confronted in 1969. It is,
however, Easy Rider’s mode of address that made it, within the late
1960s popular American context, seem so new, so revolutionary, so
rebellious, so countercultural. All of this “newness,” however, has origins that can be traced to France, to the films of Jean Luc-Godard,
and most especially to Breathless.3 Like Godard’s film, which resituates the cinema’s perennial desire to explore the tragedy of mobility,
its mistaken directions, Hopper’s film similarly explores the seductive
powers of modern motion and critiques its often empty inspiration.
Although the examination that follows is a critical one, I hope to
offer a more generous reading of the film than currently exists. Many
of the film’s “failures,” I contend, need to be explored for their critical
and symbolic importance as well as their popular reception. This is,
of course, a film about failure. In this sense, its form fits its theme.
The confusion of the film’s visual world, its seemingly self-indulgent
and meaningless formalism, even its empty attempts at a meaningful
and significant verbal language are symptomatic—more self-critical
than they are self-indulgent. They are important, though difficult to
negotiate, parts of the film, which, in the final analysis, give way to
meaning. Easy Rider is, ultimately, a film that admits its own confusion, its naïveté, and perhaps even its failure. The deliberateness of
these admissions is questionable. The effect, however, is remarkable
and has too often been overlooked.
Godard introduces to the road narrative a wide variety of concerns that are still fundamental to the road movie, even for those
films that move more successfully than, for instance, Breathless.
Godard’s interest in the narrativity of the road—transportation’s
deeply significant relationship to language and to story—occupies a
central position in the post-Breathless road movie. Godard’s concurrent exploration of the road’s seductive nature, its promise (often
false) of fulfillment, escape, and completion, has also been absorbed
into the basic road movie structure. These mutually informing ideas
are central to Easy Rider, a film most film historians consider to be
the first of the road movie genre. These same concepts find theoretical expression in the work of Roland Barthes, particularly in The
Pleasure of the Text, where Barthes’ investigations of textual eros often
quite explicitly employ the language of transportation. Though perhaps less concerned with its relationship to narrative, Jean
Baudrillard, since the late 1960s, has been similarly drawn to critically
exploring automobility’s fascinatingly erotic call and its relationship
to contemporary existence.
In this chapter I hope to unravel the mysteries of these seductions,
beginning with the Barthesian notion of drift, an idea that, at its center, is concerned with the erotic relationship between reader and
text.4 The relationship between driver and road, as we will see, is
provocatively similar, and Barthes’ own text everywhere bears the
mark of its maker’s own readerly and writerly journeys.
Roland Barthes and the Pleasure of the Road
In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes describes the curious,
erotic tie that binds reader to text by alphabetically enumerating the
details of that relationship. While Barthes’ text is itself wonderfully
seductive—for with little work Barthes’ elegantly phrased ideas can
be almost universally “applied”—the road film, and especially the
road film in light of Dennis Hopper’s contributions to it, seems to
demand Barthesian scrutiny. Discussing the seductive nature of the
text, Barthes offers the following (seductive) words: “The text you
write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama
Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).”5 Barthes
describes the text as a desiring subject—a critical component to an
assumed pairing between text and reader. The Barthesian text is not
an innocent object but a seductive and placating one. This idea would
seem to run counter to Barthes’ notion of the liberated and active
reader because it imagines the textual seducer as the dominatrix of
this pairing—the imagined active desire of the text, it appears, makes
the reader passive. Barthes, however, describes a peculiar sort of active
passivity wherein the reader’s liberation (or activity) is enacted precisely out of a giving in to (which involves, also, a giving up on) the
text. It is the rebellious act of giving in or up that constitutes readerly
Road movies also demand—Barthes might say seduce—their
viewers, a logic that is central to Hopper’s film and to the road movie
more generally. They create in the viewer the seductive illusion of
motion by locking the viewer’s gaze into the three elements that make
up the road film—subject, vehicle, and landscape. These cinematic
elements and the process by which they are presented, however, are
entirely familiar. They are the components of road travel itself, which,
as we have explored, is a curiously textual activity. Road films,
because of their narrative attention to motion, implicate a viewer
similar in disposition to Barthes’ reader. Seduced by motion, the
road movie viewer actively agrees to be passive—to be a passenger—
and is liberated in his/her identification with the presumably liberated on-screen road traveler. The viewer figures into the equation as
“passenger” and is left “riding along” wherever the subject(s) of the
road film takes him/her. This structure, as we have seen, is as old as
the cinema itself. Road movies, in reducing this structure to its bare
essentials, also foreground the consequences of this active passivity,
and Easy Rider perfectly illustrates this idea. Tenuous to begin with,
by film’s end the viewer’s own sense of pleasure in the journey, analogous to the pleasure that presumably leads the protagonists on the
road in the first place, is not just disrupted, it is destroyed. Our
seduction, however ineptly, is critiqued. The road’s innate ability to
seduce has to do, in part at least, with its ability to create in the
viewer a sense of “drifting.”
Barthes employs the metaphor of unthinking travel through space
to describe the elation of losing one’s narrative bearings, of “drifting”
off and allowing one’s own unconscious to enter into the narrative
process. In the classic Barthesian figuration, readers complete texts in
this manner through a fairly complex, though instinctive and passive,
interaction with them.6 Road movies foreground this idea of drift,
often introducing characters that have succumbed to its spatial or
geographical pleasures. More important than their presentation of
characters adrift, road films encourage spectatorial drift by employing a variety of formal techniques to visually approximate the film’s
desire for movement, its particular modes of travel. In Breathless, for
example, Godard uses the jump cut to represent Michel’s frustrated,
stuttering attempts to regain kinetic energy in a world that would
have him stand still. Michel, it can be said, is guilty of “drifting” when
the narrative would dictate otherwise. Nowhere is this more perfectly
realized than in the extended indoor sequence in the film where even
the viewer is anxious for the action, or at least Michel’s attempts at
action, to resume. These “drift-inducing” techniques capitalize on the
(sometimes disorienting) pleasure of the journey itself.
Barthes describes the process of drift in the following, highly
provocative way: “The pleasure of the text is not necessarily of a triumphant, heroic, muscular type. No need to throw out one’s chest.
My pleasure can very well take the form of a drift. Drifting occurs
whenever I do not respect the whole, and whenever, by dint of seeming
driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidation,
like a cork on the waves, I remain motionless, pivoting on the
intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world).”7
Barthes’ explanation of the process of drift is particularly illuminating in relation to the road, for it clearly relies on the metaphor of
transportation. Barthes speaks of being “driven about by language’s
illusions” and suggests that in drifting, the reader—or, for our purposes, viewer—assumes the role of passenger; he or she is motionless
but constantly moving through narrative time and space.
While Barthes speaks of written language, the visual language of
cinema is doubly seductive because it is itself always, already kinetic.
Known as a language of light and shadow, the cinema is equally a language of motion and stasis. and it capitalizes on the tensions that
exist between. In their explicit focus on these basic elements, road
movies literalize and exaggerate within the viewer a sense of being
chauffeured about by narrative, often in the face of its quite literal
absence. Travelers along the cinematic road become easy surrogates
because they participate in a motion that is the basis for cinematic
narrative and of cinematic pleasure. We are all, in this very basic
sense, “passengers.” As will be demonstrated, Easy Rider thinks critically about this process of identification, about the ease with which
viewers are transported.
For Barthes, drift moves rebelliously against the rigid textual
grain. Pleasure, as Barthes understands it, is linked to the reader’s
ability to subvert writerly attempts to control and corral the readerly
process, to determine the shape and scope of readerly pleasure. Easy
Rider and its Godardian source, then, present us with something of a
puzzle. If spectatorial pleasure is similarly linked to the viewer’s ability to circumvent an overly determined, orderly, and confining logic,
what do we do in the face of disorderly films, films whose formal
“structures” self-consciously mirror the thematic chaos they hope to
represent? In their formal presentation of diegetic drift, these films
determine their own breaches and impose limits on spectatorial drift.
The resulting structure, then, is perversely orderly and, I think,
inescapable. This logic is picked up in Oliver Stone’s 1994 Natural
Born Killers, a film that critiques the manner by which our contemporary universe controls through its illusions of “freely” accessed
channels of information. Hopper, too, is critical in his use of a formal
structure that unmasks his characters’, his generation’s, and perhaps
his own inattentiveness.
Barthes continues his description of drift and states, “Drifting
occurs whenever social language, the sociolect, fails me (as we say: my
courage fails me). Thus another name for drifting would be: the
intractable—or perhaps even: Stupidity.”8 This idea is critical in two
very important ways. First, the characters adrift in the contemporary
road film are characters for whom “social language, the sociolect” has
failed. As I argue throughout this book, the road movie’s protagonists
are curiously inarticulate individuals whose motion seems, in many
ways, to stand in place of communication. Secondly, Barthes’ statement about the failure of language sheds light on the opening
through which the spectator enters (or is forced to enter) the process
of alignment. In road movies, language also frequently fails the
viewer. Like the drifting characters, then, the viewer finds him/herself
in a forced state of compensatory drift. This idea of spectatorial alignment with the inarticulate is handled with unusual dexterity in Easy
Rider, and the film’s preoccupation with language and its connection
to the road is re-examined in subsequent road movies. We are along
for the ride, but our willingness, in the end, is punished.
Easy Rider is about the state of drift, both formally and thematically. It begins with only the vaguest notion of narrative motivation
(a silent drug deal) and continues for nearly its whole length wandering about and refusing to stop for any extended period. While the
men have a destination, Mardi Gras, it is rendered largely arbitrary;
that the men focus on the event more than the place that hosts it is
key. The film provides Billy (Dennis Hopper), Wyatt (Peter Fonda),
and the viewer with several narrative options, several opportunities
to stop drifting. The rancher’s house and the hippie commune are
both viable possibilities, and Wyatt even vocalizes his approval of
both of these social alternatives, one of the antiquated, patriarchally
organized domestic variety and the other a more countercultural,
though still cultural, variation. Yet Wyatt and Billy take pleasure in the
disconnect of the road, in their silent and blind drift across the country. In this way, their road—which is, of course, ours as well—resembles the Barthesian text. Billy, Wyatt, and, by proxy, the viewer are
guilty of skimming through the text of the American landscape, of
“not respecting the whole” of its history, its present, its future. This
may well be pleasurable were it not for the stark fact that the landscape
itself, that textual structure they and we ignore, contains the presumed
“goal” we are questing toward: the film’s longed for “America.” Billy,
Wyatt, and the viewer are seduced by the highly charged kinetic language of the road, and these stops, the details themselves seem just
that: interruptions in what becomes the forceful, predictable, and
unsustainable narrative energy of the film.
The distinct, often-overcharged pleasure of the road and the need
to continue along it has, of course, to do with the journey and not
the destination. This idea takes hold in part because the characters in
road films are always, in some critical way, incomplete. The road
itself, however, is an incomplete text without the traveler. It offers
the illusion of completeness because in traveling along it, the incomplete character completes the road that, as previously indicated,
“needs or wants” him or her. Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz
(1939), another important road film predecessor, takes this characteristic quite literally by featuring characters in search of completeness along the yellow brick road, characters in search of missing
parts. This idea is introduced, even though it is self-consciously
stunted, in Godard’s Breathless; it is expanded upon and, in the end,
questioned in Easy Rider; it is re-worked in important ways in the
films of Wim Wenders; and recent years have seen equally committed explorations of the subject in films by Oliver Stone, Abbas
Kiarostami, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and a host of other more or
less self-conscious road film makers. Often with a sense of irony, our
road-bound travelers are forced to accept the fact that the missing
elements are precisely those the road seems to lead away from: community and communication.
Easy Rider, in this sense, is significantly different from its predecessors and its followers, and the difference is largely dispositional.
The Searchers and Detour, for example, explore the journey as a desperate and obstacle-laden necessity, something that must be endured
in an effort to find or restore some degree of unreachable domestic
stability. Ethan Edwards and Al Roberts are doomed to wander forever, and their perpetual mobility, set as it is against the disintegrating
promise of home, is de-romanticized, tragic. Breathless, of course,
responds differently. Michel’s mobile desires, which affect even the
film’s hyperkinetic form, are, like so much in the film, the product of
mistranslation, a misreading of the generic codes his character mimics. Michel, unlike his generic predecessors, wants to keep moving.
Though he is not personally aware of its sources, however, Michel’s
desire for automobility is a product of the cinema and, relatedly, his
wish to make narrative sense of his own self-willed alienation.
Godard, in this way, comes close to exploring the road’s textual
seductiveness in Barthesian terms but disallows completion of the
mobile act by cutting Michel’s “drift” short figuratively in the film’s
formal propensity towards the jump cut and literally in Michel’s
hyperkinetic death at the intersection. Michel’s death, in fact, is the
mantle Easy Rider picks up. Hopper’s film imagines a pair of characters in drift, consumed and enthralled by the road’s seductive structures, living the mobility Michel longs for even in death. Their
seduction is itself seductive, though their disconnect (social, cultural,
geographical) is, in the end, problematic.
In its focus on Billy and Wyatt’s largely antisocial rebellion, Easy
Rider—like its turn-of-the-century predecessors and, for that matter,
like Detour and The Searchers—makes a case for the social, a case for
community. There is no question that bigotry—here, as in so many
films of the era, rendered as a particularly Southern affliction—is one
of the film’s enemies. It is also clear that the death of Billy and Wyatt
carries on its surface all of the earmarks of martyrdom. The pair are
shot down brutally, unfairly. Save for a few semi-articulate rants
about “freedom,” however, Billy and Wyatt’s worldview is also flawed,
and their desire to pull away, to remain deaf, dumb, and blind, is held
up for scrutiny. Critically, one of the elements Wyatt and Billy pull
away from is the landscape itself.
The Landscape of Myth
We learn early in the film that Wyatt and Billy are from Los Angeles,
California. LA—or “El-Eh,” as the rancher calls it—is a mythic location. It suggests promise, fortune, and fame. It is a modern, cinematic
El Dorado. It is also the destination for films like Edgar Ulmer’s
Detour. Our protagonists in Easy Rider, however, have exhausted the
mythic city and are in search of something “different.” LA is also, of
course, the land of movies—an artificial dream machine where back
lots are transformed into “landscapes.” Ideally, Billy and Wyatt seek to
escape the artifice of LA, its movie-made reality. A fragment of dialogue blurted out in their jail-cell after they are arrested for parading
without a permit reveals that Billy and Wyatt (as Billy the Kid and
Captain America) have been employed in the service of artifice as
stunt motorcyclists. The move outside of and away from LA, in this
sense, seems a self-conscious move away from the nonreality of stunt
work and away from merely “representing” life, danger, and excitement. Unfortunately, however, their treatment of reality and of the
real American landscape seems equally representational. Monument
Valley, we quickly learn, is little more than a backdrop for Billy and
Monument Valley figures early in the film to alert the viewer to a
contradiction that the film is intent on calling to the surface. For
despite its arising from the handiwork of nature, Monument Valley
has all of the earmarks of artificiality. It is too big, too colorful, too
precarious, and perhaps even too beautiful. It is nature’s supreme
artifice. This natural artificiality is compounded further by the fact
that by 1969 it was recognizable first and foremost as a cinematic
location, a very large back-lot. The Searchers is, of course, the most
famous aesthetic predecessor, and Ford’s legacy in Monument Valley
is crucial. For it was John Ford, in 1956, who brought roads (primitive though they were) to the valley floor, making it from that point
on Hollywood-accessible and, significantly, I think, making it an
especially important location for a number of road movies from Easy
Rider forward.
The valley’s role in Hopper’s film is complicated further by our
travelers’ ignorance of it. For, in spite of its delicate and majestic
beauty, Monument Valley is of little interest to our traveling pair. This
is due at least in part to the fact that the valley itself shares many characteristics with the city. It initiates only vague and always critically
passing interest in our otherwise concerned travelers. It, like the city,
is a place to move through.
Billy and Wyatt pick up the Stranger (Luke Askew) directly before
entering the valley. They also fuel up for the journey ahead, a moment
attended by Billy’s paranoia and distrust as he fears that the Stranger
will see the money they have stashed in the gas-tank. The journey into
the valley is formally remarkable. Laszlo Kovacs’s camerawork is in
constant motion and, for that reason, captures a Monument Valley
significantly different from Ford’s more static and lingering vision.
This is not to suggest that Ford’s camera or, for that matter, his
themes are motionless. We have discussed the mobility of The
Searchers. It is important to point out, however, that this mobility is
infrequently represented through camerawork. The cavalry scene,
near the end of the film, with its stately tracking shots, is an important exception. In Ford’s film, motion is for the most part calmly, even
statically observed. In Easy Rider, it is watched nervously and anticipated by an equally mobile camera.
The camera zooms in and out on the traveling trio, pans along
with them, tracks in front or behind them. These shots of motion are
interrupted by occasional cutaways to the location’s open terrain and
visually impossible rock formations. The composition and editing of
the sequence suggest some separation between our travelers and the
landscape they travel through. Nowhere is this more evident than in
the technically remarkable ascent that begins in a medium shot, the
men composed tightly in the frame, and zooms back, seemingly at the
command of the Stranger’s perhaps more attentive pointing finger.
Billy, as the camera zooms back, rides to the left of the road and seems
to push the frame out with him as he moves. Directly before the shot
is cut, however, the frame again constricts and squeezes the composition back near the center. The men believe in the illusion of their
“escape” but the film’s form suggests their mistake. They are as contained in the wilderness as they were in the big city. And their containment itself is perceptual (see Figure 4.1).
The idea of cities enters into the campfire conversation that night.
Billy asks the Stranger where he’s from. The Stranger responds by saying, “It’s hard to say.” Frustrated, Billy asks again, and the Stranger
teases him, saying, “It’s hard to say because it’s a very long word.” Billy
asks again, and the Stranger says, “A city” and elaborates at Billy’s
request saying, “It doesn’t make any difference what city. All cities are
alike. That’s why I’m out here now . . . ‘Cause I’m from the city, a long
way from the city—and that’s where I want to be right now.” The
Stranger’s words are fairly obvious and fairly clichéd, as words tend to
be in the film. The camera, however, tells another story. I have
remarked on the fact that Monument Valley, in its extreme verticality
and the separation between formations, resembles some surreal
cityscape. The campfire conversation takes place in a location that
drives the idea home—a Mexican village built right into the landscape. Billy, as always, is loud, abrupt, defensive, and unthinking.
While the Stranger chastises Billy for his lack of respect, informing
him that they are resting atop an Indian burial ground, the irony of
his earlier comment is profound. For not all cities are alike, and this
native city upon which they rest is an important exception. The men,
however, seem hardly to notice the alternate civilization, which they
hurriedly vacate in the morning. Once again, America’s alternatives
are lost on our wanderers as they continue their blind ramblings.
Hopper’s use of the iconography of the film Western throughout
Easy Rider demonstrates his preoccupation with its mythology. In his
seminal essay, “The Western, or the American Film Par Excellence,”
André Bazin states this relationship between the Western and motion
through the American landscape quite succinctly when he writes,“It is
easy to say that because the cinema is movement the western is cinema
Figure 4.1 Easy Rider (1969). The frame expands as Billy swerves, capturing
more of the landscape as it does so. As he swerves back, this momentarily
expansive space constricts around him.
par excellence.”10 Bazin continues, arguing that while the Western cannot be reduced to a set of characteristics, these formal attributes combine with myth and an equally mythic geography, creating a
fundamentally American generic form. As always, Bazin’s idea is
more suggestive than dogmatic and leaves ample room for interpretation. The idea grows legs, however, when aligned with a statement
made at the beginning of the same essay (I have quoted this statement
already in Chapter 2, but it bears repeating): “The western is the only
genre whose origins are almost identical with those of the cinema
itself.”11 The shared origins of the Western and the cinema, it would
follow, have something to do with the profound interest in motion
contained within each. The stability of the Western, even when it
ceases to be “The Western,” has to do with its interest in the mobility
that comes naturally to the cinematic event. It is precisely this connection between the Western and the cinema in general that intrigued
Early filmmakers turned to the subjects of the road and travel
because they were thematic concerns suited to a new medium that
“caught” motion in a way that painting, sculpture, and even still photography could not. The road remained important to the cinema in
the years up through the late 1960s, but its appearance in films and its
effects on film were simply assumed and not commented on, with the
important and trend-setting exception of Breathless. In fact, the road
in Godard’s film might have much to do with Godard’s belief all
along that he was discovering the cinema for the first time and, in so
doing, inevitably discovered also its primal themes.
By the late 1960s, when Easy Rider was in production, a similar
process of discovery (or rediscovery) was taking place, this time
brought about by the collapse of the once-seemingly omnipotent studio system and significant advancements in the tools of the trade. New
lightweight and highly portable cameras were being manufactured
that not only made taking the show on the road more convenient but
more affordable as well. Easy Rider takes place on the road, in part,
because the road is accessible in ways that it had not been before.
Cameras could move like the vehicles they recorded—could even easily be mounted on those vehicles—and Hopper did not have to pay
exorbitantly for union crews bound to the studio. The film’s “location”
and its mobility has everything to do with the highly kinetic spirit of
the so-called “new Hollywood.” “Old” Hollywood did, of course, go
outside. In part a reaction to Italian Neorealist films of the 40s, many
noir films explored the city streets—an idea wonderfully realized in
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Westerns, especially those of John
Ford, also spent much time outdoors. The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valence (1962), a film some regard as the last “classical” Western, is
shot in a studio and seems to play self-consciously with that fact. Easy
Rider seems to want to open the doors to these worlds once again.
The progressive, linear myths associated with these locations, however, are not so easily handled in Hopper’s film.
In comments after the release of the film, Hopper did much to
romanticize the decision to shoot on the road, exaggerating—in fact,
lying blatantly at times about—the linearity of the shooting schedule.
Hopper spread the idea that he and Fonda simply mounted their
bikes and shot as they went. Peter Biskind and Lee Hill have uncovered a more accurate shooting schedule and have also dispelled the
myth of spontaneity that has circulated since 1969. Hopper, continuing to mythologize the film’s location, is quoted in the Los Angeles
Times as saying, “The whole damn country’s one big real place to utilize and film, and God’s a great gaffer.”12 Tom Burke’s interview with
Hopper entitled “Will Easy Do It for Dennis Hopper?” captures this
bit of romanticization. Hopper said, “[Bert Schneider and Bob
Rafelson] gave us complete control. They just said, ‘Go and do your
thing and come back and show us.’ And we did, man. Except for the
Mardi Gras scenes, we just started out on our bikes across the West
and shot entirely in sequence, as things happened to us.”13
Hopper’s words are indicative of his own seduction, his own desire
to buy into the very myth his film systematically dismantles. Less a
banal celebration of its characters’ search for freedom, Easy Rider is a
celebration of cinematic freedom, and the proximity of these two
worlds—the cinematic and the extra-cinematic—results in a degree
of confusion. The film, however, is highly, and I should think selfconsciously, aware of itself as a film about filmmaking, an idea that
Hopper takes to its extreme in The Last Movie.14
Hopper is acutely aware of the fact that his characters are relying—rather like Michel in Breathless—on a recycled mythological
framework. They exist problematically within what has become a
cinematic and not a real landscape. At the beginning of the first
campfire scene, Billy articulates the mythic confusion that both characters are guided by: “Out here in the wilderness, fighting Indians and
cowboys on every side.” Billy does not appear to understand the
parameters of the dying myth of the expansionist West and imagines,
like a child, a scenario in which everyone, at least within the rubric of
the film Western, is the “enemy”: he’s fighting both cowboys and
Indians, a paranoid view that cannot be sustained. Along with the
Stranger, the men rest on top of an Indian burial ground and, except
for the Stranger, seem wholly unaware of the location’s significance.
Easy Rider, like Breathless before it, is also interested in exploring
the road as metaphor, as a tenuous connective tissue binding international cinematic practice. Hopper is sensitive to the idea of intellectual trade and foregrounds his Godardian and Brechtian influences.
His concrete metaphor for the idea of artistic import/export, however, is more problematic. Cocaine, the journey’s primary motivation, was a relatively “new” drug in 1969. Half-bragging, Hopper
continues, in comments about the film, to claim that he introduced
the country to the substance. The deal, however, also signals the fact
that Easy Rider is a film about a new breed of filmmaker, right on
down to the rock-star-style deals (drug and otherwise) that “New
Hollywood” became famous for. Read in this way, the film’s tragic
silence is also a prophetic statement about the naïveté and ultimate
failure of the post-Hollywood era.
The Search for Language
The American Art Film cannot be an imitation of the European Art
Film. Simple enough statement. Yes, it’s simple enough, that statement. What’s the answer? What’s the question?15
—Dennis Hopper
Easy Rider continues, and perhaps establishes as iconic to the genre of
the road, the interest in language and its relationship to the road
found in the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard. Hopper’s characters are, as
critics have continued to point out, frustratingly silent. This silence,
however, and its occasional, semi-articulate interruptions, foregrounds the importance of language to the cinematic road narrative.
It is important to recall that Easy Rider is not a triumphant road narrative but one that ends tragically with the death of its protagonists.
Its tragedy, like the tragedy that punctuates Breathless, needs to be
understood specifically as a failure in language. This failure in language occurs on two levels. First, the film explores the failure in verbal communication between its two male protagonists. Billy and
Wyatt’s dumbness is, for a short time in the film, compensated for by
the film’s highly pathetic and unusually (within the context of the
film) articulate “voice,” George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). George, a
hard-drinking, educated, ACLU lawyer whom Billy and Wyatt meet
in jail and travel with for much of the film, is a critical figure. He is
the voice of the film, there is no doubt, providing both a hearty dose
of comic relief and, in his monologues, an equal degree of seemingly
right-minded ideology. But Hopper is also careful to demonstrate
George’s own problematic removal. Spending more of his time cooling off in jail than fighting for civil rights (unless, it seems, those in
need happen to be sharing a cell with him), George’s highly sensible
verbal logic goes unheard. Billy and Wyatt, in fact, only half-register
it, failing even to comprehend the significance of his death at the
hands of the angry rednecks whose appearance in the second half of
the film forecasts their own doom.16
In addition to this more literal interest in the failure of language,
Easy Rider also explores its own failure to contain itself—its own
inability to find a cinematic language suitable for itself. This second,
more reflexive understanding of the film’s preoccupation with language is especially interesting in relation to an oft-quoted line of dialogue in the film, an admission of both of the film’s failures: “We blew
it.” Both of these linguistic failures coalesce in the film, and the distinctions between the two are blurred, so that the film’s confused
visual construction comments on the characters and vice-versa. The
strange quote that opens this section finds Hopper struggling with
his relationship to both literal language (his statement is characteristically circular and nonsensical) and cinematic language. Unable or
unwilling to reconcile his imitative strategies, Hopper, like his film, is
Speaking Parts: Verbal Language and the Road
Easy Rider begins its investigation of linguistic failure with a fairly
traditional establishing shot of “La Contenta Bar.” Billy and Wyatt
ride in on dirt-bikes from frame left to this undisclosed location in
Mexico near an automobile wrecking yard where the initial drug
transaction takes place. The wrecking yard speaks silently and symbolically about our protagonists and the world they inhabit. Billy and
Wyatt are on motorbikes, vehicular symbols of autonomy, freedom,
and rebellion. Motorcycles are essentially antisocial, antifamilial
modes of transportation; this is the case for reasons that are both
practical—they are loud, usually intended for one rider, and physically and linguistically isolating—and mythological. By 1969, the
motorcycle’s reputation as the carrier of trouble was firmly in place in
part because of real news events and in part because of the cinema;
one need only look back to The Wild One (1953) to encounter an
early instance of this representational tendency. Automobiles, however, and especially the antiquated automobiles that litter the wrecking yard, are symbols of the family rather than the individual on the
move, signifying a dead 1950s social and familial conservatism that
Billy and Wyatt are quite literally moving against, or so it seems.
The dialogue at the beginning of the film is all in Spanish without
subtitles, and while translations affirm that the conversations themselves are not especially interesting, the viewer is introduced to a cinematic world where language and basic communication are immediately
rendered problematic. The English-speaking viewer is denied a simple
linguistic entrance into the film and, to be perfectly accurate, is never
really compensated for the loss; in Barthesian terms, we might say
that social language has, in the film’s opening, failed us. Like Godard’s
characters in Breathless, Billy and Wyatt, despite some expenditure of
wind, are wholly unable to communicate with each other or, for that
matter, with the viewer. This inarticulateness is important to the film,
for it is itself an exploration of the consequences of non-communication. Motion, not language, is the primary seducer in Easy Rider.
Hopper claims to have opted for a predominantly “visual” style of
filmmaking, a more “pure” cinema. This idea, imported from the
French films he claims to have admired, is as naïve as it is distracting.
His words, as is so often the case, mask a broader concern in the film
to explore the breakdown of the counterculture, an idea that I believe
Hopper was loath to admit to if he was responsible for its entrance
into the film. The characters in the film are not just quiet, they are
self-consciously so, and their quietness needs to be explored for its
implications within and outside of the genre. Easy Rider is a film that
at every moment seems to concern itself with aurality, with what we
might more generally call the “noise” of contemporary existence, and
yet the film denies both its characters and the audience access to traditional, verbal communication. Billy and Wyatt begin by speaking
Spanish and move, after extended stretches of silence, into the hip,
truncated, and socially signifying English of the counterculture. By
having his genuinely misdirected characters speak the language of the
counterculture, Dennis Hopper levels a critique against it, though the
critique still goes unnoticed by generations of fans captivated by the
romance of motion, or who pay attention only to the film’s surfacelevel rejection of the dominant culture and its intolerant trappings. In
the end, however, the counterculture (or at least its language) has little to say about its situation.
The scene where the men meet their Connection (Phil Spector)
and receive payment for the two containers (motorcycle batteries)
filled with cocaine, takes place on an airport runway, a setting that
foregrounds the film’s concerns. To begin with, this is Phil Spector
more or less playing himself in a film where characters and locations
always carry with them a certain amount of reflexivity. Spector, of
course, was a recognizable rock figure. Not a performer, but an innovative—perhaps auteuristic—producer, Spector seems to stand in for
the pop industry, and filmmakers, I would argue, are a critical part of
that industry. Spector is most certainly not a member of the square,
dominant culture; he is, in fact, the epitome of what we might call the
“landed” counterculture. The cocaine deal, however, places him in a
critical light. In the scene, Wyatt refuses to “sample” the product and
The Connection, smiling, takes a nose-full. This moment establishes
a central theme in the film: making it, even for the counterculture,
means moral corruption; it means losing touch. When the tables are
turned, when Billy and Wyatt have “made it,” they are guilty of the
same. The lines, and the pun is deliberate, between “making it” and
“blowing it” are blurred, indistinct.
Like the automobile wrecking yard that precedes it, the runway
where the deal transpires is an obvious signifier for motion, for modern transportation. The location, which makes anything resembling
traditional verbal communication impossible, fascinates Wyatt and
terrifies Billy and The Connection. The transaction, which takes
place in Billy and Wyatt’s pickup, is largely silent save for a few grunts
from the men and the gigantic, almost deafening sound of incoming
planes. In the first two scenes Hopper has presented the non-verbal
texture of his cinematic world. Billy and Wyatt’s physical existence
within these spaces, however, does much to describe their characters.
Billy is clearly concerned about the money; he cannot, in fact, keep
his eyes off of it when they see The Connection off to his automobile.
Wyatt, on the other hand, seems visibly distracted. Wyatt’s body language suggests his ease within the space of this scene in a fashion that
signifies beyond it: he moves slowly; his gaze is calm, direct and
steady; he exists within space and is not merely contained by it. Billy,
on the other hand, cowers within the film’s scope—he is typically
hunched over, his motions are jerky, his gaze is shifty at best, he is
almost always physically withdrawn.
The silence of the film continues through the next scene as Wyatt
rolls bills into a corked tube, which he then delicately stuffs into the
teardrop tank of his chopper. The suggestion here, of course, is that
money fuels the American dream and that the dream, like the cocaine
that begins the film, can be bought and sold, used and abused. This
idea is critiqued in Hopper’s film, as it scrutinizes the dominant as
well as a certain segment of the counterculture’s ideals. The counterculture, as it is imagined in this scene, has adopted the fiscal ideals of
the dominant culture. Steppenwolf ’s “The Pusher” comments, however superficially, on the action, but the characters themselves do not
Wim Wenders, a fan of the film and, perhaps more critically, a legendary rock music devotee, has suggested (but does not take quite far
enough) that the now-treasured soundtrack of Easy Rider functions
counter to cinematic narrative itself. Wenders observes that, at critical
moments in the film, the soundtrack seems to suggest more about
these characters and their situations than the characters, the mise-enscène, or the cinematography are able to express. As Wenders suggests, the images comment on the music, and not the other way
around.17 Rock music, a preexisting and well-established form of
expressive revolution in this country, is simply plugged into the film
in order to suggest the idea of revolution; an idea our characters are
only passively engaged in.
Traditional notions of narrative are disrupted further by the film’s
treatment of space and time. In preparation for the journey ahead of
them and directly following an abrupt cut that is both visual and
aural, for “The Pusher” stops prematurely without any decrease in
volume, Wyatt self-consciously looks at his watch and drops it to the
ground near his bike. As this action transpires, the camera zooms
abruptly in and out, first on him and then on the watch. The rather
obvious gesture of the sacrificed watch coupled with Laszlo Kovacs’s
camerawork suggests that traditional notions of both space and time
will not be adhered to in this film.
Indeed, as the men travel to their first resting point with
Steppenwolf ’s “Born to Be Wild” on the soundtrack, time and space
both seem to collapse. No concrete sense of the length of the journey
is provided, and the camera, while typically framing the men from
the side in expansive tracking shots, zooms in and out, disrupting
spatial constraints and making the viewer’s relationship to the space
represented and the characters depicted even more problematic. Lens
flares, another taboo of traditional Hollywood cinema, also lend to
the riding sequence an amateurish, documentary-like feel, an awareness of the camera’s presence in the proceedings. This formally produced disorientation, however, is part of the film’s seduction, a key
element in the manufacturing of a viewer willing (forced?) to identify
with its characters’ drift.
“Traditional” sound enters the film when the men arrive at sundown at a roadside motel. The background music stops and is
replaced by the deep grumble of motorcycle engines, one of the film’s
alternative dialogues giving way to another. Billy honks his horn
impatiently and the innkeeper, an old man, emerges, looks at Billy and
Wyatt, and goes back inside. Wyatt yells “You got a room? Hey man—
you got a room?” Silently, the old man answers: the vacancy sign in
front of the motel changes to “No Vacancy.” This moment, compounded by Billy and Wyatt’s own communicational difficulties, indicates that the world has become increasingly alienating, troublingly
non-verbal. Barthes’ ideas about the failure of the sociolect and its
relationship to drift returns, this time complete with Saussurean
reminders, in the form of literal signs.18 The old man answers through
the sign and Billy responds in kind, yelling “You asshole!” and giving
him the finger. Meaningful verbal communication is foiled throughout this film and is replaced by half-articulate grunts (from Billy),
clipped and vacant “words of wisdom” (from Wyatt), and gestures
(most obviously represented by Billy’s up-turned finger).
Unwelcome at the motel, Wyatt and Billy opt to camp outdoors.
The campfire scenes, here and elsewhere, are the most verbal (though
still largely incoherent) moments in the film. Throughout they are
preceded by a series of rhythmically organized direct cuts back and
forth, a jarring technique that further disrupts traditional notions
regarding the cinematic treatment of time and space. The cuts do,
however, advance the confused kinetic energy of the film. In their
back-and-forth movement, they suggest a certain irreverence with
regard to both time and space that is punished in the end. The cuts
also demonstrate, I think, a degree of trepidation with regard to cinematic language. The intensely linguistic or verbal moments in the
film are always bookended by these rather obvious moments of cinematic language, which indicates the filmmaker’s confusion. Like the
characters of the film, who seem unable to advance their relationship
linguistically, the film’s form suggests that Hopper is unsure as well as
to whether he should advance his narrative or let it stand still.
In this first campfire scene, the differences between Billy and
Wyatt are drawn more distinctly. Through much of the movie Wyatt
is clearly the more attractive character with his supposedly liberated
worldview and his quietness in the midst of Billy’s pot-induced babble and more flagrantly displayed uncouthness. In spite of Wyatt’s
equally questionable morality, the viewer is swayed by his poetic
(though uninformed) view if only for its romantic dedication to
kinesis. Billy sings of “Going down to Mardi Gras” to get himself “a
Mardi Gras queen” and criticizes Wyatt for his silence, saying, “You’re
pulling inside, man. You’re getting a little distance tonight. You’re getting a little distance, man.” While Wyatt’s words are certainly less
offensive in their gender implications—for, even when Wyatt is face
to face with a “Mardi Gras queen,” he seems wholly uninterested—his
words are equally lame. He responds “I’m just getting my thing
together, man.”
Billy’s critique of Wyatt is interesting, for it points out the major
flaw in both of their characters. Distance, in Billy’s understanding of
the term, has to do with pulling inside—has to do with self-centeredness and self-absorption. Both Billy and Wyatt are “distant” in this
way. Their ideas about manhood are borrowed, it seems, from the film
Western’s representation of the solitary wanderer—the Fordian hero.
Yet all the while both men attempt to achieve a different, positive kind
of distance, one that is both geographical and spatial. The breakdown
in these characters rests in their inability to reconcile these two “distances”—to achieve spatial distance together, while not submitting to
social distance from each other, those they encounter, etc.
When the film was released in 1969, detractors were especially
angered by the film’s large silent sections and the fact that, in their
inarticulateness, Wyatt and Billy could not be “related” to by the
youth generation the film appeared to target. That same criticism
exists in a number of recent critical approaches to the film. Lee Hill
has claimed,
Easy Rider can be crude, occasionally incoherent, smug and self-indulgent. The short and clipped dialogue is something of an error in strategy. The shooting script and rough cut were more verbose. America is
a nation of talkers, but the richness of regional voices is muffled in the
film . . . And, of course, there are no speaking parts for blacks in the
film. George Hanson refers to the racism of the South, but he is, after
all, a privileged white liberal. The absence of a significant dialogue
scene or encounter with a single black man or woman was a missed
opportunity to expand the film’s critique of the American Dream.19
I have quoted at some length here because Hill’s concerns with the
film’s failure at the verbal level and with what the film does or does
not do are intriguing. Like many before him, he suggests that “more
powerful dialogue” and a more even hand with regard to gender and
race would have advanced the film’s critique of the American Dream.
Hill’s oversight lies in his assumption that Wyatt and Billy are
meant to be read as purely sympathetic characters, as arbiters of some
mythic 1960s idealism. I would argue instead that Hopper’s film critiques not only the American Dream but also these two American
Dreamers. Their inability to communicate coherently with the world
around them or each other makes them unattractive, to be sure, but
this is the point. Relating to these characters was precisely what
Hopper wanted viewers not to do—or at least not in any simple way.
The film is about outcasts, individuals who have removed themselves
from society (the viewer is included in this group in his/her relationship to the motion represented on screen) and are forced, in the end,
to admit the failure of their vision. They are strangely Fordian characters: like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, they are occasionally
interesting or funny; they captivate our attention; we “follow” them;
but they are also tragically flawed. The explosions and bloodshed at
the end of Easy Rider are a modern-day version of Ethan’s walk back
into the wilderness clutching his arm, defeated and alone.
Hill has in mind a dream film, an Easy Rider that moves beyond
the uncomfortable realm of ambiguity and into the realm of reasoned and sustainable ideology. Easy Rider, however, is not so easy. It
is a film that holds up a generation as it was coming to a close and
asks its viewers to scrutinize its emptiness. Hill suggests that “regional
voices” are “muffled” in the film. While the comment is, on the surface, wholly accurate, it seems to be not an error in, but an important
aspect of, the film’s strategy. The silence of this “nation of talkers” is
indicative of the listening skills of the film’s protagonists, and perhaps
of its viewers. Billy and Wyatt do not see or hear their surroundings
because they are not looking or listening, as is made clear in the
campfire scene set atop the Indian burial ground. This is made doubly disturbing by the fact that the viewer, in the ninety minutes that
the film rolls, might find him or herself in an equally ambiguous
moral location. The seduced viewer, perhaps without reasoning why,
wants the motion of the film to continue. Stopping means paying
The characters do speak, however infrequently, and their language
often mixes prophecy with self-referentially. The campfire scene with
the Stranger demonstrates vividly Billy’s intolerance and Wyatt’s inaction. The inarticulateness of the conversation that takes place here, a
conversation that, as is typical of these sequences, is heavily steeped in
marijuana, has generally been explored for its absurdity, its comic
pointlessness. But within this conversation can be found a rather
telling explanation of the film’s motivations and a rather accurate
reading of its characters. Also under the veil of smoke can be found an
interesting explanation of the film’s confused form and its apparent
irreverence with regard to the constraints of both space and time.
Wyatt’s seemingly self-referential words at the campfire, directly
following his prophetic (though ultimately practical) statement—“I
think I’m gonna crash”—are especially useful to this discussion. In
the midst of the scene’s pot-induced babble, Wyatt’s, sitting uncomfortably close to the fire, says “I keep seeing things jumpin” all over the
place” (emphasis mine). After plucking a moth from the air and rubbing his eyes, he says that the smoke (and the reference is deliberately
vague) is getting to him. The Stranger responds by saying “Yeah, but I
notice you’re not moving.”
This brief exchange of dialogue, despite its giddy circularity, is
important for its dual valences. Wyatt is speaking about the film on
which he worked as a producer and is commenting on the formal
jumpiness of the film itself. Within the film he is also explaining away
the seemingly self-referential moment as a drug-induced hallucination. It is the Stranger’s comment regarding the stasis of Fonda and
the film in the midst of what appears to be the motion of both that is
most self-critical. His statement in fact functions as an admission that
the film and its characters cannot or will not go anywhere.
In the virtual absence of language, the film’s form begins to
express ideas about space, time, and movement that the characters are
not fully able to articulate. A film about mobility, Easy Rider, like
Breathless, employs a kinetically suggestive formalism from its camera movements, to the lens effects, to the film’s cutting structure, to
the changes in film stocks. Some of the ideas appear dated now and
have lost their particularly timely efficacy. Others have been absorbed
wholesale into the structure of the road film specifically, and mainstream cinema more generally. Still others, through this absorption,
have become clichéd. Like the film’s verbal language, however, its formal language requires our attention.
Formally Speaking: A Road Grammar Primer
While Easy Rider’s form is fairly apparent, it is worth commenting on
some of its techniques in detail, as many of these elements of cinematic language continue to be central to the road movie. Because it is
a film about movement, the camera work in Easy Rider is both suggestive of motion and is specially suited to capture it. It is also, like the
film’s verbal language, constantly shifting. We have explored in passing
the collapsing effect of the zoom lens in the film and its ability to disrupt traditional notions of space and time. The dolly in or out is primarily a technique of proximity. A dolly in seems to bring the viewer
closer to the subject of the gaze, while a dolly out seems to back the
gaze up, seems to create distance. The zoom in or out functions differently. It can be observational—like the dolly—guiding the viewer’s
gaze, directing or playfully misdirecting it as it peers into the recesses
of space. Even in this primarily “practical” capacity, however, the zoom
is also expressive. In the films of Robert Altman, for example, it functions poetically, its haphazard meanderings mirroring the randomness and the democracy at the center of Altman’s cinematic world.
Because of its inherent optical distortions, however, the zoom also
suggests ideas about space, characters’ interactions in and with it, and
the viewer’s relationship to it. As we have noted, the zoom creates the
illusion of space expanding or contracting around the subject of the
gaze. Functioning in this capacity, the zoom is not a suturing device
but a poetic component that describes and elaborates upon a character’s relationship to the space he/she inhabits. In Easy Rider, the zoom
enters into the formal milieu to illustrate the confused and confusing
relationship our characters have with the world they occupy. The
zoom in Easy Rider is rarely a singular movement in or out; it is more
typically a rapid movement in and out suggesting that, for our characters, the American landscape is an ever expanding and contracting
space. Even in its “practical” capacity, however, the zoom in Easy
Rider does more than simply direct the viewer’s gaze towards our
traveling protagonists. In its often quite supple pan and zoom combinations, in its constant and often quite rapid reframings, Kovacs’s
zoom lens aesthetic in Easy Rider comments upon our protagonists’
perceived dominion over and curious disregard for the landscape
they traverse, a landscape that, within the space of the film, exists
despite their diminished attentions. Even as the zoom seems primarily to facilitate following the motion of our characters (functioning,
in this respect, much like it did in televised motor sports in the early
1960s), it continues to elaborate on the psychological state of Billy
and Wyatt, whose relationship to space is always fragile.
Less obtrusive, though functioning in an equally metaphorical
capacity within the film, are the camera movements themselves. The
tracking shot and the pan are critical to the road movie, for they allow
the frame to “follow” the horizontal movement of the subject in
motion. In Easy Rider these camera movements are dexterously handled and have been widely celebrated by fans of the movie. However,
these movements are not mere celebrations of mobility. They are
expressive of some of the film’s core concerns. A curiosity of Kovacs’s
work is that it frequently disallows the subject (Billy or Wyatt) to
“escape” the frame. The composition of these tracking shots typically
places the motorcycle riding men at the center of the frame and keeps
them centered until such composition becomes impossible, at which
time, typically, the film is cut. Billy and Wyatt, this composition hints,
are always “contained” within the space of the road and the recording
space of the apparatus. This is an interesting and telling technique,
considering that containment seems to be precisely what they strive
to escape.
Editing, too, is symbolically important in the film. Hopper was
intrigued by Godard’s use of direct cutting and wanted to achieve
much the same effect of stuttering motion in his film. And yet
Hopper, as Peter Biskind’s research has revealed, was a remarkably
bad editor:
According to Bill Hayward, Hopper’s knowledge of editing came from
the hot splicing days, where you cut into a frame every time you make
a splice, losing the frame in the process. In the 60s, film editors developed butt splicing, cutting between frames. Consequently he would
never cut anything. One day, Hayward asked him to take out a scene:
“If we hate it, we’ll stick it back in.” But Hopper stared at him blankly.
“Dennis believed,” he continues, “and this was a revelation after we
found it out, because he cut for months under this misapprehension—
that once you made a cut you couldn’t put anything back. It was
absolutely stunning. He was the worst editor that’s ever been.”20
Hopper’s misunderstanding is uniquely suited to the road film; in
fact, his logic seems strangely road-based. Decisions made on the
road are narratively permanent. The driver along the road can turn
around, but the narrative has been inflected by the mistake; it has
been changed. With or without the misunderstanding—which may
or may not be, also, the product of hyperbole—Easy Rider, which
squeezes most of its meaning not from the cut but from the shot and
its Fordian resonances, does contain a few interestingly cut moments;
moments that render the Fordian shots themselves interestingly
problematic. We have already discussed the pre-campfire back-andforth cuts that give way to the confusion over the forward motion of
the narrative. The function of this technique, however, is not entirely
unlike the function of the dissolve in its ability to connect two discrete moments in time. Like the dissolve, the cuts back-and-forth
suggest here a more confused passage of time.
The direct cut in general, however, is something of a curiosity. At
its base, it seems to betray the road and its governing logic, the passage of time. Godard’s Breathless uses direct cutting techniques to
emphasize the frustrated kinetic energy of its protagonist, who
desires but only momentarily realizes the space of the road. The
direct cut fits here, suggesting as it does a degree of impatience.
Hopper’s cuts function similarly, demonstrating his protagonists’ disregard for the duration of the road, their inability to patiently absorb
its passages. Even their drift seems stripped of pleasure, as it is ultimately only a means to an end. The viewer is enthralled by the landscape while, save for one especially odd, satisfyingly under-lit,
silhouetted ascent of a rock formation in Monument Valley, where
Billy and Wyatt rather robotically point at what they see, our characters seem otherwise concerned.
Changes in film stock are also suggestive of the film’s formal, optical, and psychological distraction. An often-remarked upon scene in
the film, the acid-laced Mardi Gras sequence, stands apart from the
rest of the film because it is shot in a grainy, under-lit 16mm stock.
The change fits nicely into the context of the film, as the characters at
this point in the journey are forced to literally see things differently.
However, the different stock also has a somewhat less mystical and
more practical explanation. The footage was shot much earlier than
the rest of the film, by people including Henry Jaglom, as a sort of
experiment; the studio okayed Hopper’s project with the provision
that he shoot some film and screen his results; the Mardi Gras scenes
are those results.
An object of critical neglect, however, is the scene’s unusual relationship to The Wizard of Oz, that other, very “Old Hollywood” road
film. Like the Wizard of Oz, with its alterations between black and
white and color, the 35mm and 16mm worlds of Easy Rider suggest a
difference between the realm of the real and the drug-induced realm
of the fantastic. Changes in film stocks and a general consciousness
about the effect of the “material” of the cinema on the efficacy of the
journey have become fundamental icons of the road genre. David
Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise
(1991), and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) all begin in
black and white. Natural Born Killers, in fact, with its desire to comment on the effect of the media, employs a wide array of visual formats including animation. Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here
Anymore (1974) moves beyond mere black and white and, in a selfconscious mining of The Wizard of Oz and its visual structure, imagines a young Alice who plots an escape that will take her far too long
to realize in a Kansas-like landscape drenched in an oppressive blanket of red. The use of alternative film stocks to mark a transition
between “here” and “there” is absorbed into the road movie vocabulary to such an extent, in fact, that its negation, in films like Wim
Wenders’s Kings of the Road (1976) or Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than
Paradise (1984) is itself a self-conscious acknowledgment of the
impossibility of escape.
Easy Rider, then, begins to strike a cinematic language peculiar to
the road, the lexicon of which is partly borrowed and partly new.
What many critics have written off as its stylistic abuses—the film’s
formal confusion, its indulgence in “empty” and naïve experimentation—is, in truth, a metaphor for existence: existence generally, but
also the film’s specific existence. Easy Rider appeared at the end of the
1960s when, in a moment that has proven rare indeed, American culture found itself at a loss for adequate words. For a period, American
cinema reflected upon this loss, and many of these reflections—Euroinflected, ponderous, empty—took place on the American highway.
Emptiness, I think, is Easy Rider’s point, and the American road
movie spends much of the 1970s contemplating precisely this notion.
In looking for a cinematic language suitable to contain its late1960s narrative of the frontier’s second mythic death, Easy Rider begins
to articulate the importance of the search itself, empty or not. The
film’s highly quotable commercial credo: “A man went looking for
America and couldn’t find it anywhere” has, in this way, more to do
with the filmmaker’s search than with any of the film’s characters. The
film’s sometimes falsely ringing European echoes are a fundamental
part of the search. Hopper, intrigued by Godard’s skepticism of things
American, adopts a similar position; he finds himself, in fact, using the
same confused language of disbelief as the French director. Easy Rider,
in other words, is the product of an American director obsessed with
French images of America. Godard’s longed-for and always stymied
mobility is realized in Hopper’s film; Michel cannot move, but his
need to move has translated to the American screen where it becomes
more mobile but equally tragic.
As we have discussed, the beginning of the 1970s brought with it a
flood of American road movies, most bearing the uneasy mark of the
genre’s European inheritance. Wim Wenders, an acutely aware
German director, however, contributed most consistently to the genre
and to the perpetuation of its curiosity with regard to the international movement of cinema itself. His work continues to ask questions about the relationship between the road and narrative cinema.
Wenders is also conscious of the rate of cinematic exchange and the
profound influence of American images on the rest of the world’s
image-makers. His 1976 film, Kings of the Road, makes explicit many
of the ideas left shrouded or neglected in Hopper’s film. His entire
body of work—itself a continuing, expanding road narrative—
explores the transportability of images and the metaphorical highway
that makes that transportability possible. Through a profound formal sensibility exactly opposite to Hopper’s or Godard’s, Wenders
also sets out to redeem the articulate image; he sets out, in fact, to rescue the redemptive and political power of cinematic drift.
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Kings of the Road
Wim Wenders and
the Mobile Home Movie
have referred throughout this book to the cinema and the writing
of Wim Wenders, a filmmaker whose much remarked upon distrust of “stories” through the better part of the 1970s resulted in a
series of films circling around the history of images. In their overdetermined desire not to tell stories, Wenders’s films from this period
end up narrating the historical connection between the road and the
cinema that this study has sought to address throughout. Jeffrey
Ruoff, in the introductory essay to his excellent collection on travel
and the cinema, states that “directors who reject classical narratives
and conventional storytelling—such as Wim Wenders . . . have consistently returned to a ground-zero travelogue aesthetic as a means of
reinventing the cinema.”1 It is, however, more than rejection of narrative and more than mere reinvention. Wenders is, in many ways, a
direct descendant of Eadweard Muybridge, who, in the midst of a farreaching technological revolution, focused his own pre-cinematic
apparatus on the mysteries of non-technologically mediated human
mobility. Wenders, a child of the postwar, postmodern age, is aware of
and fascinated by man’s cyborgian connection to his transportative
machines. His cinema uncovers within that connection a resonant
statement about man’s tenuous, highly dependent existence in the
late twentieth century. If Godardian rapidity has been one “language”
by which to describe this state of affairs, Wenders’s quiet patience has
been equally influential, informing the aesthetic and thematic shape
of countless similarly de-dramatized road movies .
In a cinematic oeuvre that for many years appeared to be a continuous journey down one narrative road, Wenders’s Kings of the Road
(1976) stands as a centerpiece. It is a road movie, one aware of and
willing to question its own cinematic lineage. Robert Kolker and Peter
Beicken in The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire
point to the primal roots of these questions and locate them in
Wenders’s characteristic response to a 1987 questionnaire that asked,
“Why do you make films?” Wenders, in a move that destabilizes his by
then–legendary narrative skepticism, answers the question by means
of a story, here of his childhood:
I was twelve years old when I made my very first film, with an 8-mm
camera. I stood by the window and filmed the street below, the cars
and pedestrians. My father saw me and asked: “What are you doing
with your camera?” And I said: “Can’t you see? I’m filming the street.”
“What for?” he asked. I had no answer. Ten or twelve years later, I was
making my first short film in 16 mm. A reel of film lasted three minutes. I filmed a crossroads from the sixth floor, without moving the
camera until the reel was finished. It didn’t occur to me to pull away or
stop filming. With hindsight, I suppose it would have seemed sacrilege
to me.2
While Kolker and Beicken are particularly concerned with Wenders’s
anecdote for its placement of the paternal (fathers and sons are critical to Wenders’s work) and its mythologizing of cinematic desire, I
am most interested in the filmmaker’s narration of a thematic thread
and its formal expression. In both episodes, as a boy and as a young
man, Wenders shoots “the world,” as it is realized in the form of
pedestrian and automotive traffic, from a window, removed, as it
were, from that world. Wenders’s desire to respect the truth of time
and space (this is how he frames it), finds expression in the long take.
Also critical to the anecdote is the fact that the young Wenders, in
response to his father’s interrogation (and, in fact, in his initial
response to the question addressed to him on the questionnaire) is
left speechless: “I had no answer.” In the tradition of the road film
makers and the pre–road film makers that precede him, Wenders is
interested in the function and organization of language and its relationship to the road. Yet here his thoughts and elsewhere his films
explore the realm of inarticulateness. It is, in fact, this inarticulateness, this inability to maintain communication or community, that
pushes many of Wenders’s protagonists onto the road where, perhaps
strangely, sometimes futilely, they begin to rebuild both structures.
Wenders’s films are always about home, though that physical and
social structure itself is infrequently glimpsed. An overbearing sense
of displacement, what Michael Covino has referred to as a “worldwide homesickness,” marks his characters, defines them and their
wandering.3 Like Ford’s Ethan, Wenders’s wanderers long for community, but something buried in their personal history, often itself
distinctly domestic, makes sustained connection impossible.
Disconnected and set adrift, Wenders’s characters move, but the
director’s critically aware aesthetic decisions problematize that movement, calling its motivations into question. Wenders’s patience, in
other words, allows the viewer the time and space to contemplate the
tragedy of his characters’ wandering, a luxury always just beyond the
viewer’s grasp, for instance, in Easy Rider, where spectatorial perception is as corrupted (and deliberately so) as the characters we follow.
Kings of the Road, Wenders’s sixth feature film, functions as a sort
of treatise against corrupted perception and charts the progression of
that corruption. Set against the desolate landscape of postwar
Germany, the film’s answer to Ford’s Monument Valley, Kings of the
Road engages in an act of critical inquiry into the collapsing sign systems of contemporary culture. Bookended by a pair of first-person
interviews with elderly cinema operators, the film’s low-key narrative
opens on cross-cut shots of motion and stasis. Robert Lander (Hanns
Zischler), a runaway husband, frantically drives his Volkswagen into
the water, and Bruno Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), an itinerant repairer
of cinema projectors who is disconnected, it seems, from anything
save rock and roll and his own perpetual movement across the
German borderlands, rises lazily in the morning for a shave.
Similarly, the film ends with cross-cut shots of simultaneous motion:
after their journey together, the men part—Bruno in his truck,
singing “King of the Road” and Robert aboard a train. It is, however,
what lies between these technically masterful moments that comprises the bulk of the film’s 176 minutes.
This between space, too, functions according to the logic (or at
least the illusion) of real time, and Wenders’s form, unlike that of
Hopper or Godard, is consciously opposed to editorial devices that
aggressively disrupt temporal or geographical unity. Wenders creates
the illusion of uncut action by allowing, perhaps forcing, the camera
to ponder otherwise unfilmed or unfilmable events, those daily and
unremarkable activities with which the film is so concerned: shaving, defecating, talking, and (most importantly for our purposes)
driving. His eye is ponderous, scrutinizing, at times lingering, and
his ear is equally inquisitive. It is precisely this complex and inclusive
understanding of the narrative process in general, and the cinematic
narrative process specifically, that makes the film remarkable for its
thematic as well as its formal work. Like Godard, Wenders is keenly
aware of the importance of language to the cinematic process. In fact,
both filmmakers seem to operate, in part, according to a literary logic.
But where the visual and aural syntax of Godard’s Breathless is fragmented, a syntactical construction that finds its way into Hopper’s
work as well, Wenders’s film is a self-conscious exploration of a
largely silent, strangely salient run-on sentence. These alternative
approaches to the road, forking as they do in opposite directions, suggest what remains the road movie’s primary modes: the fragmented
and chaotic or the slow and contemplative. Both routes, however, lead
to the same underlying critique of modernity and its human costs.
Between Here and There: Road Signs and Articulate Motion
Desiring the camera to engage in a great rescue mission, arresting,
recording, and memorializing what otherwise continually vanishes in
the visible realm, Wenders understands that filming is a “heroic act”
directed at the preservation of a phenomenon and its underlying
Robert Kolker and Peter Beicken.4
Wenders’s repeated cinematic “rescue missions” are not just heroic
because the filmmaker captures people, places, and things that he
deems threatened by the passing of time; they are heroic also in their
attempt to preserve what Wenders takes to be a critical and decaying
way of seeing. To Wenders, this mode of perception is threatened by a
shrinking attention span and a collective spirit grown complacent
with imagistic and sonic inundation. This is the same mass cultural
shift in perception that the elderly female cinema operator interviewed at the end of Kings of the Road objects to and finds “exploitative” in the ultra-violent and pornographic images that have invaded
rural German screens. It is precisely this objection to sensory bombardment that characterizes the slow-moving and meditative Kings of
the Road as a reaction to or perhaps even against Dennis Hopper’s
Easy Rider.
Wenders himself was seduced by, but leery of, Hopper’s film. He
focused much of his attention, as did many of Hopper’s contemporary critics, on precisely those details that Wyatt and Billy ignore as
they journey between Los Angeles and New Orleans: the American
landscape and the “honesty” of the characters’ simple movement
through it. In spite of Hopper’s form, this landscape seized Wenders’s
attention and reminded him of America’s cinematic past as it was
realized in the American Western and particularly the films of John
Ford. However naïvely, Wenders sees in John Ford’s work what
Roland Barthes might term a “respect for the whole” that is lacking in
Hopper’s film.5 Wenders’s characters and the film that contains them
drift, but the pace of their movement, even the formal construction
of the circuitous journey itself, allows rather than forces the spectator
to drift in a more Barthesian manner, to not respect the whole as it is
presented, to chart out his own path toward cinematic pleasure.
Moving against the by-then popularized notion of the road movie as
a perpetual, chaotic, sped-up Kerouacian gooooo!, Wenders’s film,
perhaps ironically, is about slowing down, a process linked in
Wenders’s understanding to notions of home, both at the micro and
macro level. The road’s supposed disconnectedness allows these characters to connect with each other, with their past, with what they have
left behind, with what lies ahead. Perhaps most critically, the viewer is
also connected, also communicated with.
With Kings of the Road Wenders tries to bring the spectatorial
senses to something closer to “the truth,” that illusory something that
Wenders continues to search for in his contemporary documentary
and fiction work as well. His task in Kings of the Road, however, is fundamentally similar to Hopper’s. Both filmmakers seek to critique
their own historical moment: where Hopper uses the exaggerated
and fragmented language of the present to point out the flaws of
1960s American culture, Wenders renegotiates the cinematic language of the past and rallies it in a critique against his present. While
Wenders actively explores the aftermath of a divided Germany, his
film is also a very telling critique of American popular culture. Kings
of the Road is, in fact, one of the cinema’s most intelligent examinations of America.
Like Godard before him, Wenders is interested in the evolving history of cinematic language and frequently evokes that history, particularly its American roots. Unlike Godard, however, Wenders seems
intent on clinging to and finding salvation in the past. He remains
nostalgic where Godard is hesitatingly allusive and deeply critical.
Kolker and Beicken articulate the difference in the following terms:
“Everything Godard does is critique as well as homage, an investigation of the image as well as an embrace. Wenders, however, is more
taken with America than he is critical of it. The Godardian artifice of
interrupting narrative with semiotically rich graphics was not to be a
favored device.”6 This idea of being “taken with America” is fundamental to any understanding of Wenders’s cinematic world. Contained
within Kolker and Beicken’s phrasing of the situation is the transportative idea upon which Wenders’s continued explorations of America are
based: America is something that can “take” the subject somewhere.
America, in other words, is inherently mobile.
Wenders’s film opens on a set of formally, temporally, and geographically explicit titles: “In black and white . . . Wide Screen
1:1.66 . . . Original Soundtrack . . . Shot in 11 weeks . . . Between July
1st and October 31 1975 . . . Between Hamburg and Hoff along the
Frontier with East Germany.” This text divulges the basic “elements”
of the film; Wenders seeks to expose, not to conceal. Wenders’s attention to microscopic details is also evidence of his reverence toward
and faith in the cinematic (decaying though it might be). Along with
the German title of the film, “Im Lauf der Zeit” or “In the Course of
Time,” the text demonstrates a profound preoccupation with the
functions of space and time. For Wenders, images—specifically of the
cinematic variety—are a sort of salvation, a means by which to fix (to
stop as well as to repair) space and time. In his literary opening to this
intensely visually oriented film, he emphasizes the importance of
“betweenness”: the film exists both temporally and spatially
“between” edges. This is an idea hinted at more subtly in the reference
to the wide-screen format of the film, its implied expansiveness.
Borders and frontiers are of obvious importance to a post–World War
II West German filmmaker, as much perhaps as they were to Ford’s
mythic exploration of the West. They are of equal concern, however,
to a filmmaker interested in discerning the lay of the cinematic road
and the borders of cinematic history, and Wenders is guided by all of
these impulses.
This idea of betweenness is the essential grammar of Wenders’s
cinematic language. Even the “story” of the film itself, minimal
though it may be, is caught between the interviews that begin and end
the film, interviews that foreground Wenders’s nostalgia for a passing
(maybe passed) mode of perception. His cinema is frequently about
individuals caught between spaces, moments, or conditions. These
characters are on the verge of teetering either one way or the other.
Wenders is interested in these narratives that revolve around the
spaces in-between because they represent an indecisiveness, that critical, inconclusive period where “possibility” reigns.7 His form is unified with his theme and itself maintains a posture of hesitating
betweenness. His camera wanders in Kings of the Road, moving
between the two main characters and their unique spaces and situations, observing but never commenting decisively, and the long take
is its basic communicational unit.
The narrative “proper” of Kings of the Road begins with an ideal
visual realization of the betweenness that governs Wenders’s cinematic language. A remarkably neutral, seemingly disconnected and
fairly high-angle establishing shot of the German countryside pans
slowly to the right to follow a barely perceptible, rapidly accelerating
car followed by a trail of dust clouds. From this point on, Wenders
cuts between his characters, who remain unnamed through much of
the film, and their independent actions. The first cut is to Robert
driving rapidly with his head out the window, followed by an interior
point of view shot of a photograph of a house that Robert carefully
tears into fragments and throws out of the window. These shots from
the interior of Robert’s car recall Godard’s early treatment of Michel
in Breathless. In fact, the kamikaze-like movement, however fleeting,
that Robert here realizes is precisely the motion Michel seeks through
most of Breathless. The imagery and the pacing create a feeling of
unboundedness surrounding this perpetually bounded character; it
suggests unbridled and undirected kinetic energy, as well as fragmentation, signaled in part by Robert’s treatment of the photograph, a
visible reminder of the road movie’s abiding domestic obsessions and
an image the film will keep returning to. Robert imagines himself to
be moving away from this space when in truth he is moving toward
an understanding of it.
Simultaneous with Robert’s kamikaze run, Bruno rises slowly
from dreams that have clearly disturbed him—“How can you dream
such shit?” he says to himself, stretching and preparing himself for his
morning. Bruno, who will turn out to be the “mover” of the duo, the
character that most seems to fit into the category of the Fordian wanderer, moves slowly, carefully. His vehicle, a truck first glimpsed in
long shot, is stationary, home-like. Bruno engages in a variety of unremarkable domestic activities: he talks to himself, dresses, and
begins to shave. Though Bruno’s screen-time is intercut with the rapidly approaching Robert, the shots of Bruno convey a sense of pensiveness and slowness. The camera seems to contemplate his
plodding morning ritual and, especially in contrast to the shots of
Robert, the camera adopts a pacing similar to Bruno’s. Bruno’s existence on the road, on the outskirts, is remarkably ordinary and familiar. Where Robert imagines himself to be moving away from home,
here we are introduced to a character who moves with his home; a
home decidedly lacking the human ingredients that make a home
something more than an architectural structure. There is also something of a Neorealist sensibility to these images of Bruno engaged in
the repetitive activities of his alienated daily existence.
Wenders’s techniques for arriving at this idea are remarkably similar to those of the Neorealists as well: unobtrusive editing, deep field
composition, and a premium placed on mise-en-scène rather than
virtuoso cutting or expressive camera placement. Commenting on
the visual style of Kings of the Road, Wenders indicates his desire for a
strictly visual language (an idea we explored in Hopper as well but
which seems, somehow, more genuine in this context): “I wanted a
completely cinematic feel. Working with Robby [Müller, the film’s
cinematographer] guaranteed that. He knew that the language of the
film would be cinematic, but that it would be made under entirely
new circumstances . . . The last thing I wanted was for it to look like a
documentary film.”8
Wenders demands a cinematic language capable of teasing out and
lingering upon the ordinary activities that occur between “events,” yet
he distinguishes between what he understands to be “cinematic” and
“documentary” practice. The distinction, strange as it seems, underscores Wenders’s faith in a very particular aesthetic. What Kolker and
Beicken identify as Wenders’s “articulate spaces” in fact have much
more to do with Wenders’s salvational attempts to allow the inarticulate (or at the very least, the ignored) to signify through artful, deliberate, painstaking arrangement.
Also in this early series of shots between Robert and Bruno are
several preliminary reminders of Wenders’s desire to explore a means
of non-verbal communication. Robert, in the midst of his mad race
to nowhere, pauses momentarily at a gas station—not to refuel but to
silently (in fact, using sign-language) warn a young girl playing in
front of the station not to hitch rides with strangers. The moment is
played out in universal gestures. The two characters gaze at each
other, and with a slight turn of the head in the direction of the passenger seat he invites the young girl to join him. She shakes her head
in a negative answer. He shakes his finger back and forth in a sign of
disapproval. This easily overlooked moment in the film is remarkable
for its emphasis on non-verbal signs as well as its clues as to the reasons behind Robert’s mobility; he is literally a character in search of
the displaced fragments of his childhood.9 Robert warns the girl not
to become a mere passenger and not to forsake her control over her
own motion, as he himself is about to do when he joins Bruno as a
passenger. The moment in the film is also interesting in terms of
Robert’s occupation. We learn later in the film that Robert researches
the developmental stages of reading and writing in young children.
Robert’s unspoken conversation with the young girl resonates with
longing, the longing for the innocent perception of and communicational honesty of children.
Robert quickly resumes his kamikaze journey and, after driving
his VW into the water directly in front of a baffled and eye-rubbing
Bruno, silent “conversations” once again take precedence. The first of
these conversations begins with Robert’s absurdly squeaking shoes
and a brief verbal comment about the noise. It continues through a
series of non-verbal signs, gestures, laughs, and nods. Bruno and
Robert watch the car sink into the water together and with it, Robert’s
control and autonomy. This act of automotive suicide, made all the
more interesting by the fact that Robert’s car is a German-made VW,
does not abort Robert’s movement through space; it simply forces
him into a temporary state of passengerhood.10 And so their journey
together begins. The rapid cutting, used only at the beginning and
end of this film, has functioned to draw these characters together, to
unite, through the glue of editing, their apparently very different
existences. Through it all, however, Wenders is careful to signify the
elements that divide these characters and their independent desires
for meaningful and honest verbal communication. Aggressive cutting
will return at the end of the film to re-divide the two men.
Their journey together begins with a series of shots from the interior of the truck, further illustrating, in their composition and organization, the idea of division, of the essential space in between. Here,
Wenders uses a standard shot/reverse shot pattern with the camera
placed directly between the as yet unnamed characters. The cutting
pattern typically used in classical Hollywood film to facilitate the
rhythmic flow of conversation is subverted here to signify differently.
The characters remain silent, frustratingly so. The cutting pattern
intensifies the silence in that it facilitates that which does not occur.
While we expect the men to initiate a conversation based upon our
familiarity with this cinematic convention, Wenders denies us the
comfort of having this promise fulfilled. The gazes exchanged
between the men, however, and the more-than-a-little-ironic lyrics of
the song playing on Bruno’s portable turntable—“the more I see you,
the more I want you. The more this feeling grows and grows”—serve
as alternate communicators. The desire suggested by the exchange of
gazes and the song’s lyrics, however, is far from simple. For the subject
and object of this desire remains multiple. On one level, the men
desire words of each other. This desire, however, has the effect of
silencing them. Equally critical, Bruno and Robert wish to comprehend the space they find themselves traversing and their fit within
that space; for while this landscape is, as Kolker and Beicken suggest,
articulate, it articulates emptiness; a state the men fight (albeit pathetically) against.11
Metaphorically, all of this attention to betweenness functions to
comment on what lies between the film’s two male protagonists. On
the one hand, there is something between them, some cultural material that makes their emergent relationship impossible. On the other
hand, something else, a peculiar kind of bond against which they both
rebel, is also forming, facilitated in part by their movement through
space. The details of their journey together combine to make this
partnership even more problematic. Through much of the film, Bruno
and Robert are palpably alone together. They do not share the road
with other vehicles. In fact, it is only the pauses in their journey
together that bring the men in contact with other people. The journey
itself is isolating, but life and community exist between the spaces of
the journey. Interestingly, however, these immersions into the world of
community, these pauses, make Bruno and Robert uncomfortable. As
in The Searchers and Easy Rider, stopping means communicating and
communicating leaves one vulnerable. In Ford’s and Hopper’s films,
stability facilitates vulnerability to attack or invasion in the physical
sense. Here, the attack or invasion is internalized and has more to do
with memory and personal psychology than with external threats.
Bruno’s truck, in this way, comes to resemble the lonely homestead in
The Searchers. It is a place of uncomfortable, ritualistic community,
but it is forever isolated and vulnerable; a mobile homestead.
As they drive together in Bruno’s truck, the camera backtracks,
allowing the truck to perpetually follow its own movement. The characters remain visible behind the slight glare of the windshield.
Critical to the composition of these shots, however, is the apparent
division of Bruno and Robert, marked by the line that separates the
two front windshield panels. A series of very subtle dissolves resembling Ford’s use of the technique in The Searchers suggest the idea of
lapsed time and distance traveled. Placed within this series of dissolves, however, is a peculiar cutaway to the lighted, plastic Michelin
Man that decorates the front of Bruno’s truck. This exact cutaway will
be used elsewhere in the film when, for the first time, Bruno inquires
about Robert’s life.
In this later scene, Bruno asks what Robert does besides “test driving.” Robert begins to describe his work as a children’s doctor and
divulges that he has separated from his wife. Bruno responds by saying, “I didn’t ask you about that. There’s no need to tell me your stories.” Robert is anxious to confess and hopes to arrive at some sort of
personal understanding through a closer, more self-revelatory relationship to words. Bruno, on the other hand, resists the intimacy
associated with language and is embarrassed by Robert’s candor.
Bruno indicates that he simply wants to know who Robert is, and
Robert arrogantly claims that he is his story. His comment is followed
by a cut to Bruno’s ornamental Michelin Man. Kolker and Beicken
have commented on this cutaway’s placement in this later scene: “The
sudden appearance of the glowing, jolly, unchanging advertising figure serves to reduce Robert’s evasive overstatement, and, at the same
time, as a reference point—similar to the trees and passing train in
the earlier montage, or the moon and clouds seen through the truck’s
skylight later in this sequence—it deflects our concentration, widens
the spatial context, defuses the moment.”12
The glowing Michelin Man’s ironic function, however, is more
complex. In widening the spatial context and in its service as a reference point, the logo functions also as a critical reminder of direction.
The Michelin company is, of course, most famous for the production
of tires. Their guides and maps, however, are equally important, and
the connection to this product is especially apt given these characters’
search for direction, particularly communicational direction, over
the course of the film. While his significance in North America is
somewhat diffuse, Bibendum (the Michelin Man’s proper name) is
an important and loved figure throughout Europe, a character whose
presence along the sides of roads, on the front of maps and guides,
etc., is a reassuring constant.13
Critical to the company’s understanding of Bibendum is the fact
that he is given a mythically signifying “voice.” He becomes the
motorists’ “spokesperson,” a critical role predicated upon his ability
to make out itineraries for potential motor tourists. Key to
Bibendum’s function to the traveler is his assurance of safe arrivals. In
a film more concerned with the spaces between, his presence is a puzzling reminder of the impossibility of destinations.
In an especially relevant essay in Mythologies, Roland Barthes
unravels the peculiar and mythic language of France’s Blue Guides
and decodes the guides’ ability to homogenize the mysteries of travel
in their attempt to narrate and rate that process. The Michelin Guides
serve a similar function with the intent of creating safe, knowledgeable
travelers. The Michelin Man, a mythic symbol for “direction” or
“guidance,” is ironized in this film about characters who seem to lack
direction and guidance; his appearance seems to hint at their unspoken (perhaps unspeakable) desire for both. Bibendum expresses what
Bruno and Robert cannot. The figure is another silently articulate signifier speaking on behalf of our similarly silent, verbally inarticulate
Wenders’s characters are silent for a reason: the filmmaker is disturbed by language’s ability to conceal the truth he hopes to arrive at
imagistically. In this way, his cinematic work is further connected to
the theories of Roland Barthes, who consistently argues for the
integrity of the image and language’s ability to conceal or distort that
integrity. This is an idea that Barthes struggles with throughout his
career, and it is most fully realized in his 1980 book Camera Lucida.
The book, which is part investigation into the existence of photography and part search for his mother, is skeptical of the cinema.
Barthes’ description of photography, however, sounds uncannily like
Wenders’s cinematic rationale:
The photograph does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has
been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has
indeed existed . . . .
In the cinema, whose raw material is photographic, the image does
not, however, have this completeness (which is fortunate for the cinema). Why? Because the photograph, taken in flux, is impelled, is
ceaselessly drawn toward other views; in the cinema, no doubt, there is
always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not
make a claim in favor of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a specter. . . . Motionless, the
photograph flows back from presentation to retention.14
It is strange that a film so concerned with the idea of motion on its
surface should fit so comfortably into Barthes’ notions regarding still
photography. While apparently supporting the language of motion,
however, Kings of the Road most eloquently speaks the language of
stillness. Wenders’s characters are allowed a presence in time and
space that does not seek to eradicate the stillness of non-activity. They
perform, inasmuch as the cinema can be said to allow such performance, the act of reality, which is at once active and inert; they perform
the non-cinematic. This is, as Wenders will claim throughout his
career, in part the influence of Yasujiro Ozu, whose famously static,
low angle shots were equally unflinching. When Barthes discusses the
supposedly pure representational system of photography, he suggests
that it is unique in its ability to transform itself into the “weightless,
transparent envelope” of the thing itself.15 Wenders, in focusing relentlessly on the traditionally non-cinematic, reveals a kindred desire.
This battle between language and image is played out beautifully
when, fairly early in the film—and, therefore, also early in Robert and
Bruno’s relationship—the men are required to repair a malfunctioning sound system in a rural cinema. Key to the scene is the fact that
the audience for the upcoming “event” is a group of wide-eyed and
anxious school children. The innocence of children is enviable in
Wenders’s world and, in fact, the film will end with a reminder of the
perceptive powers of children. As the children wait and are told to be
still by their elders, Bruno and Robert go to work behind the screen.
They are backlit and, therefore, throw gigantic shadows on the screen
before the children, much to the children’s delight and amusement.
Bruno and Robert, suddenly aware of their performative situation,
play out a scenario in pantomime and begin to beat each other in cartoon-like fashion to the howling satisfaction of the audience.
As other critics have pointed out, this is a moment of previously
unrealized intimacy between Bruno and Robert. Shortly after the
pantomime, in fact, both men rebel against it and discuss their disgust and discomfort with the openness of their gazes toward each
other and the performative nature of their “show.” What is critical to
the scene are its multiple layers of signification. The men have arrived
to reunite sound to image. In the process, however, they act out a scenario where sound and image have been disconnected; in this respect
they have returned to cinema’s primitive pre-history, with which this
study began. The children, who fail to obey the words of their elders,
are entranced by the spell of the silent shadow-play before them and
read its signs unproblematically. For the men, it is a different story
entirely. This passionate, adventurous, childlike language has died,
and the viewer is reminded of its death by the hangman’s noose that,
at the end of their “show,” swings between them.
The Inexpressible Need to Speak
Robert is paralyzed—which, ironically, is what keeps him in motion
both here and throughout the film—by a need for language that
manifests itself in a variety of ways.16 When they first stop for gas
early in the film, Robert rushes across the street to use a phone in the
window of an empty building as if coming up from a sea of silence for
a breath of verbal communication. This action is repeated often
throughout the film as he attempts to reconnect, at least verbally, with
his wife, from whom he has, we learn, run away. Following the shot of
Robert struggling with the phone Wenders cuts to an interior shot
inside the car; Robert, after his attempt at a phone call, sleeps as
Bruno attends to the vehicle. This shot pans up to capture the telephone lines upon which Robert so desperately relies. The shot then
dissolves into a shot of the road upon which Bruno and Robert travel
composed in an identical manner, stretching out in the same direction. The lines in the road are thus aligned with the telephone lines.
As these formally rhyming images suggest, the road has become a
substitute for verbal communication. Both characters rely on distance for their survival: Robert on “long distance,” signified by the
phone lines, and Bruno on social and geographical distance, signified
by the road. Neither alternative, however, is held up as an ideal.
Robert is also deeply attached to the written word. He carries with
him a pad and pen through much of the film and leaves a variety of
brief, sometimes cryptic written notes for Bruno. Robert is also especially concerned with newspapers and the printed word, primarily
because of its connection to his youth as the son of a newspaperman.
In fact, Robert’s interest in the press—or at least the produce of the
press—is really only cinematically rivaled by that of Michel in
Breathless, who goes through newspapers (presumably searching for
his own name) at an alarming rate. Bruno also has a relationship with
the printed word: he reads and seems to have an intimate knowledge
of maps of the German countryside. He also reads American literature in the form of William Faulkner.
These choices in reading material do much, then, to describe
Bruno and Robert. Robert is interested in “the truth” and has been
trained to believe that the truncated language of the press will provide him with facts, with answers. Bruno’s relationship to language,
on the other hand, is like his relationship to geography, thus his parallel interest in maps. Reading from Faulkner’s Wild Palms, he stumbles over the word “loon” and asks Robert for a translation. In asking,
however, he fails to place the troublesome term in context and Robert
tells him that a loon is a crazy person. Like his existence on the road,
Bruno here demonstrates a desire to forget about the past or the
future (the words before or after) and focuses on the moment, or the
troublesome word. He is, in fact, a character who needs to put himself
in context.
Robert’s textual obsession is evidenced early in the film when he
notices a group of children playing with greased newspaper boats in
a small stream on the side of the road and asks if he can have one of
their boats. He picks it up and restores it to its original form and
function by beginning to read it. In a sense, he is already looking for
his father, who is a newspaperman. More importantly, however, the
moment illustrates Robert’s practical, routine relationship to language, a relationship that he actively laments when he describes, near
the film’s conclusion, the details of his linguistic research. The children take the printed word and reform it, make it transportable, turn
it into a playful vehicle. Robert, on the other hand, is left reading and
searching for clues not in the “real” world of the road, but in the “representational” realm of the written word. It is, in fact, in another
newspaper from his father’s press found on the side of the road that
Robert finds the motivation to visit his father in Ostheim.
This solo journey to Ostheim occurs roughly in the middle of the
film and constitutes a fundamental shift in what has hitherto been
the film’s primary visual and narrative logic, a logic based on pairs.
Robert leaves Bruno and their communal ride, leaving a short note
for Bruno so that he might be picked up later; he understands that
their journey together is not yet complete. Bruno, alone again, continues his routine, and the film cuts between Bruno and Robert. In
fact, this middle section resembles the beginning and end of the film
in its crosscutting between separate characters and locations whose
connectedness the spectator has grown accustomed to. Kolker and
Beicken point out this moment’s unusual structure: “Wenders—who,
like most postwar European filmmakers, tends not to use editing as
an expressive device—makes one of the most interesting edits in his
work, a dissolve that links Bruno’s actions with those of Robert in his
father’s print shop and connects two actions of communication.”17
Bruno and Robert are connected formally by a series of cuts from one
character and his location back to the other. Yet the sequence foregrounds the fact that they are also finally disconnected in the physical
sense. They are out on their own attempting to re-engage with the
world of social interaction: Bruno with a young woman who runs her
grandfather’s cinema and Robert, perhaps more critically—for it will
remind Bruno of his need to contextualize his own life—with his
Robert’s father runs a small printing press, yet another tie to the
realm of linguistic communication, albeit written. His encounter with
his father also revolves largely around a verbal problem—namely, his
father’s verbal domination over Robert and Robert’s deceased
mother. The scene contains within it a sense of emergent violence,
and Wenders’s camera, which typically keeps its distance from such
emotionally explosive moments, frames the men separately in oneshots, thereby also accentuating the gulf between father and son.
Robert demands silence of his father exclaiming, “If you start talking,
I’m leaving!” He remains speechless for over two hours and ends up
publishing a paper overnight with the headline “How to be able to
respect a woman.” Unable yet to find his own conversational voice,
Robert responds in the written language he inherits from his father
and, in this tentative language, points to a dilemma few critics of the
film have acknowledged. While the father/son relationship is central
to the film, it is finally a film about silent and concealed mothers.
Bruno’s own quest somewhat later in the film will flesh this idea out
more fully, but in this scene it is Robert’s anguish over his father’s
abuse of his mother that is he crucial motivator behind his return
home and, perhaps, his confusion in his own marital life.
This episode is crosscut with Bruno’s episode at a rural amusement
park and cinema on his route and his interactions with the young
woman who runs the cinema. Like Robert’s, Bruno’s episode is also an
attempt to communicate meaningfully. His mode of communication,
however, is primarily visual, and it is really his highly reflexive film
loop that narrates Bruno most effectively. Sitting half-interestedly
through the porno film being shown in the theatre, Bruno notices a
small blank spot in the screen. He tells the young female operator, who
is inexperienced and cannot work the phone, to call the projectionist’s
booth. Bruno, then, investigates on his own and finds that the operator has devised a scheme whereby, through placing a small mirror in
front of the projector, he is able to have his own little show reflected on
the opposite wall. Bruno interrupts the projectionist’s show and his
masturbatory act, causing the projectionist to leave in an embarrassed
fury. Cleaning up the mess of spilled film on the floor, Bruno occupies
his time by splicing pieces together that seem to narrate his own feelings about himself, sexuality in general, and the current exploitative
state of West German cinema. The loop contains images of sex and
violence, precisely the inundating images the film objects to, and in
its cyclical repetitiveness suggests the monotony of the modern
Both men, in their journeys away from each other, attempt to connect with and make sense out of aspects of their lives they have been
running away from. And both of their attempts revolve interestingly
around women. Robert seeks to learn the truth of his father’s relationship with his mother and his own troubled marital existence.
Bruno, as we learn later, seeks to escape the emptiness he feels with
women. Easy Rider explores similar terrain but never attempts to
explain the motivation behind Billy and Wyatt’s nearly all-male community. In both films, women figure merely as pauses in the action;
they are tied to stationary existences. In Hopper’s film they are other
peoples’ wives, residents in the commune, or whores. In Wenders’s
film women function in a similar capacity but they are also memories—distant, foggy, and uncomfortable memories the men in the
film have about the women in their lives. Both men need to reconcile
these memories in order to “see the world differently.”
Near the end of the film, after he has parted ways with Bruno, this
time permanently, and reconciled his relationship with his father,
Robert makes a final attempt to see the world differently. The scene
takes place at a railroad station, a location rich with symbolism of
change, of forward and positive movement. Robert notices a young
boy writing in a notebook and asks him what he is writing. Robert,
nostalgic as he is for perceptual and verbal innocence, is fascinated by
the boy and his ability to observe and narrate his surroundings
unproblematically. Kolker and Beicken comment on this moment in
the film when they suggest, “Many of Wenders’ adult characters—
most especially Travis in Paris, Texas—are struck to the point of
dumbness by the treacherous slippages of verbal communication, the
uncertainties occurring between the spaces of intent, language, and
meaning. But the child, and especially this child at the railroad station, is aware of no treachery, or danger. He simply beholds the world
and writes a description of it, trusting fully the authenticity of his
The child in this scene has the ability to name with absolute confidence everything that Robert points out: “a man with a suitcase, an
empty suitcase, a grin, a black eye, a fist, throwing a stone . . . ” It is precisely this innocent, pristine understanding of subjectivity that Robert
longs for. He also understands all too well how temporary this ease of
perception is. This scene also echoes the scene of extreme tension and
verbal and physical excess just prior to this one, where Bruno and
Robert momentarily regain language only to learn, once again, of its
In the scene, the men, drunk on American whiskey, lose their way
on the road and stumble upon a deserted U.S. Army observation hut
on the GDR border, a structure whose interior is covered in American
graffiti. It is in this structural reminder of America’s global reach that
the men have their lengthiest and most interesting discussion.
Robert, upon being interrogated by Bruno about his career as a “children’s doctor” responds, “I’m not a children’s doctor . . . I work on the
borderline . . . linguistics and pediatrics . . . I don’t have a practice . . .
I evaluate research on the first months of reading and writing . . . At
that stage, letters and figures are an adventure. Later, writing becomes
a routine and this imaginative phase is forgotten . . . There was a boy
for whom lines were paths along which letters moved by means of a
motorbike—a pen—. ‘I’ and ‘E’ always rode together. ‘I’ was clever
and pointed.”
Bruno replies with: “That makes me ‘I’ and you ‘E.’” This discussion of childhood language maps out the premise of this examination. Language for both men—primarily verbal for Robert and
visual for Bruno—has become merely routine, is no longer an
adventure. And, it seems, both characters are motivated by a desire to
return to a state of linguistic and physical exuberance. Cinema, for
Bruno, is a means to an end and, once its mysteries are revealed, does
little but occupy his time. It is, in short, part of his routine. His discussions with cinema operators suggest a desire to return, through
their stories, to a romantic, mythic time when the cinema was meaningful, true, mysterious—an adventure. Even his vain attempts to
take pleasure in, for instance, the fairly dry story of the Maltese
Cross, that oddly shaped device in the projector that draws film at
the rate of twenty-four intermittent frames per second, indicates his
desire to find something new, something pure in his merely practical
and mechanical relationship to cinematic language.19
Similarly, Robert seeks, through his interactions with children, a
way back to the primitive, exciting, and pleasurable stage in linguistic development when language is still true, when language reveals,
rather than concealing or wounding. He lives out his desires by
proxy, interacting with kids while he remains absurdly quiet. His
moment at the depot with the young and linguistically pure boy,
however, lays bare the despair this character feels. This is especially
evident in the exchange that punctuates the scene. Envious of the
boy’s control over language, Robert trades his sunglasses and his
suitcase for the boy’s observational journal. Robert cannot access the
language he desires and so, at this late stage in the film, opts merely
to study it once again.
It is finally Easy Rider’s dialogical and visual inarticulateness, its
inability to speak the language it so desperately wishes to speak, that
causes Wyatt right before his prefigured death to say “We blew it” to a
still reeling Billy. Both Wenders’s and Hopper’s films are quiet, save
for their rock and roll soundtracks that act as a pop-cultural chorus
for the film’s verbally challenged protagonists. Kings of the Road,
however, elucidates the gaps in Hopper’s film by attending more
faithfully to the progression of time. Bruno and Robert’s journey is
not exclusively a spatial journey but a temporal and linguistic adventure as well. Their journey is as much a reconciliation with history,
both personal and national, as it is a movement toward the future.
Revealing as this is, however, the film ends with both characters
returning to routine—Robert back home and Bruno back to his
mobile cinema repair circuit. As he sings the words to the Roger
Miller song “King of the Road,” it is clear that, for Bruno, to be “taken
with America,” and an illusion of America at that, is still preferable to
his German reality.
Breathless, Easy Rider and Kings of the Road all make reference to
or otherwise critique America’s pop-cultural mobility. Bruno, in fact,
comments on the process directly when he proclaims, in the scene in
the observation hut, that “the yanks have colonized our unconsciousness.” For Bruno, perhaps for Wenders, however, this colonization—
aggressive though it may be—has become a highly seductive, albeit
false salvation. It has become a temptation every bit as desirable,
every bit as impossible as Roberts’s domestic fantasy or Sue’s dream
of Hollywood in Ulmer’s Detour. The road and its attending mythology are important parts of this seduction, though in Kings of the Road
and through much of his career, Wenders has also been careful to
underscore the unyielding despair of this option, an option that
results in a host of quietly mobile victims.
American Culture on the Road and Postmodern Victimology
imagine America
without all the false images
and I see a great and beautiful and generous and open country,
a country one could only dream OF,
a country one could only dream IN.
Where you could be at home
yet on the road at the same time.
They have that in America:
Wim Wenders, 198420
Wenders’s poem is premised upon a basic misunderstanding of
America, or more accurately, of American cinema, as a possessor of
true images. The America Wenders envisions manifests itself
metaphorically in Kings of the Road in the form of Bruno’s truck, a
home on wheels that allows him to be simultaneously “at home” and
“on the road.”21 Wenders is fascinated by America’s mobility, and this
fascination stems in part from what he takes to be his own country’s
perplexing immobility.22 Hitler’s wartime Germany was intensely and
dangerously mobile, set upon the decimation of “obstacles”—be they
borders or groups of people. Postwar Germany was in every way
marked by its stasis, by its inability to move beyond or out of its history. Wenders has, on many occasions, attested to his own anxiety
with regard to his country’s history, particularly this aspect of it.
These ideas of cultural mobility and stasis, however, are fundamental
to Wenders’s cinema, which began, theoretically at least (for the
young pre-filmmaking Wenders was an avid viewer and thinker), in a
period when American culture—in the form of pinball machines,
rock music, cinema, soda, and jukeboxes—was being absorbed into
German culture. The artifacts of American culture, it might be said,
were welcomed as replacements for German culture.23
Bruno has generously appointed his vehicle with these artifacts. As
Robert says in a moment of hostility in the film, Bruno’s truck is literally a museum on wheels; more critically, it is a museum of
American popular culture, containing defunct jukeboxes and fragments of neon signage. The truck literalizes the idea of America’s cultural mobility, containing remnants of its ascendancy that Bruno
totes around the German landscape as a means of negating his own
and his country’s history.
But the spectator is left wondering why Bruno feels compelled to
remain in constant motion, bringing with him these American signs
as he drives around the country restoring functionality to motion
picture houses. The reasons behind Bruno’s motion are hinted at in
the sequence involving the trip to his childhood home on the Rhine.
This moment, late in the film, is critical in that this process of self-discovery is achieved with Robert’s assistance. It is, in fact, on Robert’s
suggestion that the men embark on this leg of their journey.
The fact that this scene contains one of Wenders’s most discussed
cinematic “borrowings” is critical. Bruno’s “memories” are contained in
a film canister both literally and figuratively; literally, in that the comics
and personal belongings he unearths under the stairs are preserved in
a film canister and figuratively in that the entire scene is narrated in
Once I stole a scene from The Lusty Men for a film of mine: in Kings of
the Road, when Bruno goes back to his place of birth and finds an old
box of comics under the stairs, that’s a copy of a scene at the beginning
of The Lusty Men, where Mitchum goes back to the house where he
was born and takes out a dusty box in which he’s kept a few coins, a
rusty revolver and a rodeo programme. That’s my favourite scene, and
not only in this film. In a few shots and not many minutes, Nicholas
Ray says everything that the cinema is capable of saying. What it’s
capable of saying and how. That’s why you can’t really call that kind of
stealing theft. (If I imagine this homecoming scene in my head, even in
my memory I like the flow that the story has: without any pressure,
without any sense of haste, every shot gradually becomes a sign in
some sort of runic script, that you slowly see and hear. A song. . . . )24
Wenders’s unusually cryptic narration of the process of “stealing”
links the process to the emergence of language: “Every shot . . .
becomes a sign in some sort of runic script.” Wenders acknowledges
here that Bruno’s story is told using the borrowed language of
Nicholas Ray. The mobility of America that so fascinates Wenders is
here realized. The film canister grounds this process diegetically, for it
suggests that Bruno’s memories have been usurped by American cinematic memories. Replacing Ray’s gun, a signifier of violent memory,
with a film canister, Wenders suggests the centrality of the cinema
and its images to the formation of Bruno’s identity. This process of
discovery brings Bruno to tears because its terms have presented
themselves. He realizes that he has insulated himself against history
and the future, as well as his own emotions, by participating exclusively in imported culture and refusing to pause, to reflect. His
denial—of his past, present, and future—can no longer be sustained.
This moment of self-realization, however, is short-lived and tentative, as was Robert’s earlier in the film. The two men do not discuss it
and make haste to return to the road after very little reflection. Bruno
is forced to recognize the repressed material that has led to his
nomadic, insulated, and isolated existence but still returns to that
existence. Like Ethan at the end of The Searchers, he is compelled to
return to the wilderness and to his itinerant routine.
Wenders, a filmmaker of imagistic subtlety rather than narrative
fulfillment, allows Bruno to contemplate his existence without narrating it. Bruno later remarks to Robert, “I’m glad we went to the Rhine.
For the first time I see myself as someone who has gone through a certain time . . . and this time is my history. This feeling is quite comforting.” Comforting, perhaps, but brought about by violence and
discomfort. This moment of discovery occurs during a pause in the
motion of the film. The pause itself, and the memories that surface
because of it, cause Bruno to act out in a rare moment of violence and
emotion: he smashes windows and sobs. More interesting, however, is
the fact that he refuses to give the pause any further time. Robert wants
to spend the night, wants to stop, and, we presume, wants to force
Bruno into a deeper state of contemplation. Bruno, however, feels
compelled to move on and maintain his wall of illusions.25
Bruno’s existence on the road is predicated on the re-creation and
maintenance of an artificial sense of home. For Bruno, this re-creation is fundamentally American, because part of the pain of his real
history is its Germanness. The fact that this moment of the film is
told in quotation, is in fact a borrowed moment from Nicholas Ray’s
earlier film, demonstrates the inescapability of the circle that Bruno
has created for himself. Looking to America, Bruno—and perhaps
Wenders, too—has forsaken his own past, his own roots, his own
“cinema” as it is manifest in the canister that contains this past. His
occupation as a cinema repairman also demonstrates the degree to
which this character exists in order to perpetuate the cinema’s illusion, or at least the projection of its illusion.
This moment on the Rhine is certainly not the film’s only moment
of violent self-recognition. As we have explored already, Robert’s
interactions with his father earlier in the film function according to
the same logic. Robert and Bruno’s fight near the end of the film in
the American outpost hut is similarly structured. All three of these
moments involve a pause in the motion of the film, a coming to terms
with personal history, and a recognition of the fact that—however
uncomfortable, however impossible—this “personal” material needs
to be made public. This is particularly the case at the outpost, because
after their discussion of language and child linguistics, their conversation becomes more openly volatile; in fact, they participate, in their
drunkenness, in the honest language of children—and it hurts. This is
in part because, once again, Robert attempts to call his wife on the
telephone in the outpost. Bruno, who has mumbled his disapproval of
Robert’s continued attempts to reconnect, calls Robert a coward and
claims that, contrary to what Robert believes, he is afraid not of his
wife killing herself—like the stranger’s wife in an earlier scene who, in
an act of domestic desperation drives her car into a tree—but of his
own inability to live without her. Robert, in turn, accuses Bruno of
being a passionless shell of a human being. This brutal honesty is
more than either of them can handle; they are, after all, adults and
not children. The moment turns violent, and the camera positions
itself at a distance from the action and allows the fight between the
two men to draw to a conclusion before re-entering in this interesting, less idyllic reenactment of their earlier shadow-play. The camera,
which has entered the personal spaces of these men throughout,
keeps its distance at this moment of real violence. This is another
intensely personal moment of intimacy between Bruno and Robert,
but one they must work out on their own.
The end of the fight returns the conversation to the question of
sexuality. Bruno, in a rare moment of honesty and self-reflection,
admits that he is loneliest when he makes love to a woman and that,
in fact, sex—like language, like the cinema—has become routine for
him. This film, which so many critics have explored for its comments
on the paternal chain, is at its base deeply anxious about the feminine
in general and about the maternal specifically. Robert’s encounter
with his father revolves around the question of the mother and her
forced silence. Bruno’s interaction with the young cinema operator
midway through the film turns momentarily ugly when he questions
her about her life at home and she states that she lives with her
daughter and intends to keep things that way. Finally, Bruno’s return
to the maternal in the form of his homestead indicates the degree to
which his movement has, in part, been motivated by a running away
from the female and the memories associated with the maternal. The
film’s search for language never escapes the language of the father (in
its many manifestations) though it suggests the possibility that an
answer lies with the mother.
“Every Man Is an Adventurer . . . Women Just Look On”
Our final section borrows its title from the 1976 German poster advertising Kings of the Road, and its assertions with regard to gender—
specific to the film but also relevant in a far more general
way—require our attention. Wenders writes of the situation in the
following manner: “This film is the story of two men, but it doesn’t
take a Hollywood approach to the subject. American films about
men—especially recent ones—are exercises in suppression: the men’s
true relationships with women, or with each other, are displaced by
story, action and the need to entertain. They leave out the real nub:
why the men prefer to be together, why they get on with each other,
why they don’t get on with women, or, if they do, then only as a pastime.”26
Far from romantic, Wenders sees his sometimes exclusively male
spaces as problematic, even symptomatic. Like the turn-of-the-century images of male mobility this book begins with, Wenders’s images
are most typically of men in motion. But Wenders is interested in
interrogating masculine movement where Muybridge and Méliès
simply presented it, Muybridge with his purported interest in its “scientific” mysteries and Méliès with an interest in its magical potential.
Wenders is concerned with the psychology of masculine movement
more than its biology. This is the vague “nub” to which he refers in the
previous fragment. Wenders is also interested in exploring the male
freedom to move at will, outside of the domestic realm. Nowhere is
this concept more interestingly examined than in the episode involving the mourning stranger whose late-night stone throwing in the
quarry near Bruno’s truck awakens Robert. Invited into the truck, the
stranger recounts a tale of failed domestic life and marital crisis and
his wife’s dramatic solution. The stranger’s wife had grown “fed up
with the bed, the washbasin, the kitchen, the lamp, the painting” and
in a fit of desperation, drove her car into a tree, killing herself and
tragically punctuating her existence in an act of momentary and
immensely violent mobility.
Though never shown, this act of self-violence is told graphically
and emotionally in a way that exposes the supreme narcissism
involved in Robert’s vain and half-hearted attempt to end his domestic life by driving into a pond. Dissatisfied with the stasis of the
domestic, Robert opts in favor of motion and, symbolically, the drive
into the pond functions as a sort of re-birth. The stranger’s wife, on
the other hand, is afforded only as much motion as is required to end
her life in an act of final and decisive stasis. The moment is one of
many “signs along the road” for Robert and Bruno. And, while the
change is not immediate, it does eventually send them searching for
answers to their own curious domestic crises: Robert seeks his father
as a means of resolving issues with his mother and Bruno seeks his
Wenders’s world, at least in this film, is exclusively male. But the
film serves to critique the cinematic exclusivity of the male right to
mobility and escape; in fact the film questions the very terms of
mobility and escape. The English title of the film and the film’s closing musical motif, then, are ironic, for the film questions the nobility
of mobility. In fact, the film suggests the vanity of its wanderers and
seeks answers through a reconnection to the realm of the female. The
masculinity of Kings of the Road is, in part, a reaction to Easy Rider,
where women are reduced to domestic servants and whores. Myths of
nationalism, however, are also fundamental to Wenders’s film.
America, whose national/political body is traditionally conceived of
as female—the Statue of Liberty being only the most visible reminder
of this concept—is central to Hopper’s narrative. Images of
“America” turn up everywhere in the film, from Wyatt’s decorated
bike, helmet, and jacket to the flags that decorate the storefronts
along the side of the road, to the more subtle iconography of the
American landscape. Peter Fonda has told interviewers repeatedly
that “‘Easy Rider’ is a Southern term for a whore’s old man, not a
pimp, but the dude who lives with a chick. Because he’s got the easy
ride. Well, that’s what’s happened to America, man. Liberty’s become
a whore, and we’re all taking an easy ride.”27 In Hopper’s film, the
“female part” is America, and part of the project of that surprisingly
patriotic and nationalistic film is to demonstrate the ways in which
she is being abused, neglected, and disrespected by its men.
In Kings of the Road nationhood is masculinized, in part because
of postwar Germany’s inherent associations with the unfortunate
paternal image of Hitler. The fight the characters are engaged in is
against the oppressive weight of the paternal (read: German). In their
reliance on the false images of America, however, it seems that
Wenders’s characters have inadvertently found substitute mothers.
Kolker and Beicken argue, “Wenders escapes the dilemma (of paralysis and violence) by creating works that are forever about movement.
Instead of allowing his characters to succumb (only a few of them
do), he sets them on the road and hopes that salvation will be found
in the controlled motion of an automobile. . . . Wenders replays the
myths of male odyssey, the belief that movement will produce experience, that change will satisfy desire. In their transience, they yield to
the inevitable or struggle against it in a curious combination of passivity and motivation, inertia and energy.”28
The controlled movement to which Kolker and Beicken refer is, as
we have examined, inscribed by the mythic language of America, a
country where Liberty is a lady and men can re-birth themselves
through the process of wandering self-discovery. Wenders is keen to
the myth and acknowledges it; his poem, after all, refers to “The
American Dream” and not to the American reality. But again and
again his films, and his own biographical and poetic writing, foreground the often painful necessity of this dream. Our final chapter,
which explores late twentieth-century contributions to the road movie
genre, is also concerned with dreams and with the curious position the
mobile American male body occupies in the cinematic subconscious.
Like the films that paved the way for them, the films of Oliver Stone
and David Lynch, are, at their base, films about disconnectedness.
They are also, however, highly articulate pleas for connection.
Roads and Movies as
Another Century Turns
Oliver Stone and David Lynch
his chapter, like Chapter 1, is poised at the fin de siècle and hopes
to illuminate a new generation’s social and technological concerns as they are expressed along the cinematic highway. The chapter
closely examines the late twentieth-century films of two filmmakers
with established relationships to the cinematic road. Although their
routes are different, like their cinematic predecessors of one hundred
years prior, each uses the road to comment critically on the costs of
modernity. Oliver Stone, whose Natural Born Killers (1994) we will
explore closely, has returned repeatedly to the subject of desperate
and destructive mobility since Salvador (1986). The noirish U-Turn
(1997), sort of a Detour with the lid blown off, was received with very
little fanfare. Its look—the film was shot using airplane surveillance
stock—and its mobile generic obsessions punctuate (though it may
only be a comma) a career-long and sometimes both terrified and
terrifying investigation of American vulnerability. This vulnerability,
Stone’s work suggests, peaks at moments of mobility: at war overseas,
along the motorcade, or, as Jim Morrison’s nightmare visions in The
Doors (1991) and the whole narrative trajectory of U-Turn or Natural
Born Killers would have it, along the Western American highway.
David Lynch nurtures a similar relationship to the subject of
mobility, one that has cropped up repeatedly in his work since Blue
Velvet (1986). The mock-ironic family values at the center of the
Lynchian universe, some critics have suggested, set his particular road
narratives apart from the supposed anti-establishment sentiments
running through the road movies of the 1960s and 1970s. A careful
examination of his 1999 The Straight Story, however, reveals that the
film’s own wry subversiveness lies in its ability to frankly represent
ideas that the road movie (Lynch’s included) has both thrived upon
and concealed since its inception. The often-horrific chaos of the
Lynchian imagination arises from breakdowns within both the familial and the linguistic order, concepts central to our previous analyses.
Oliver Stone and David Lynch’s work at the end of the twentieth
century also establishes a critical link between the literal, physical
road and its metaphorical counterpart, the road along which our culture’s vast quantities of information must travel. These filmmakers,
in other words, have developed an approach to the road movie that
has flexed to accommodate the postmodern condition, a perhaps
decreasingly physical era of rapidity. As I hope to indicate, these films,
exemplary though they are, exist within a larger turn-of-the-century
gravitational pull toward the road as a critical cinematic location, a
pull that expresses itself in a variety of ways ranging from the barely
articulate but still somehow intriguing Dumb and Dumber (Peter
Farrelley, 1994) to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000); from
Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003) to Alexander Payne’s more
conventional Sideways (2004); from the painfully defeated Broken
Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005) to the muted, almost-Wendersian
Pacific Northwest, mid-age angst of Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006).
In spite of their inherent differences, road movies have always
been about communication, about the need, and sometimes the
inability to “tell.” In the information age, however, the genre’s interest
in this idea has increased exponentially as we stand, as they stood a
century prior, gape-jawed, contemplating the human effects of a new
era’s technologies. I have argued in previous chapters that modernity
has been defined in large part by our transportational machines,
especially the automobile. The technology of postmodern existence,
however, is less discrete and, critically, is less a matter of moving
“matter” than moving information, strings of numbers, binaries, and
Postmodern ecstasy, of the sort that Jean Baudrillard discusses, is a
giving-in to this fact: it is joy in the chaotic, technological traffic we
find ourselves in. When I use the term “the information superhighway,” then, I refer not only to the worldwide Web to which the term has
traditionally referred, but also to the more general web that is postmodern existence. This web intersects in interesting ways with our literal highways. Oliver Stone’s fin de siècle film, Natural Born Killers, is
especially interested in the relationship between this postmodern flow
and the figure of the road. The film reorganizes the road movie’s
terms, capitalizing on the genre’s ability to critique the particular
misdirection of contemporary culture.
Oliver Stone: Natural Born Killers
and Cinematic Channel Surfing1
There are said to be certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable
them to see a whole landscape in a bean. Precisely what the first analysts of narrative were attempting: to see all the world’s stories (and
there have been ever so many) within a single structure . . .
Roland Barthes, S/Z2
So it’s a road movie/prison movie crossed with 90s media; criminals
are perceived in the movie via the media. In the old days they would
have had an independent existence—in Scarface you don’t see much
media—but in the 90’s version of the gangster movie (or at least in
this one) they exist only through the media.
Oliver Stone3
Though it seems like an odd pairing, Roland Barthes’ comments
regarding the study of narrative structure and Oliver Stone’s comments regarding Natural Born Killers share much in common. Stone,
himself a dabbler in Eastern philosophy and religion, is as concerned
with narrative structure as is Barthes. Stone’s film, which attempts to
dramatize many of the world’s late-twentieth-century stories, is
nonetheless contained within a single structure. While Stone wants to
point out that his film is not only a road film, Natural Born Killers
begins and ends on the road. Structurally, the road functions in a way
similar to the Barthesian bean: it has emerged as a highly symbolic
master narrative that is concerned with a variety of topics including
criminality, the media, the family, the human psyche, and the postmodern condition. The cinematic road has, it seems, absorbed the
landscape of contemporary existence, and Stone’s film skillfully
draws the connection between the flow of media and the flow of
symbols and signs along the road.
Natural Born Killers takes the Bonnie and Clyde myth and both
updates and hyperbolizes it for the information age. It is the story of
Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), an outlaw
couple on the run from their violent domestic pasts and from society,
who go on a rapacious killing spree that appears primarily motivated by
the sheer pleasure they take in harming others and being talked about
for doing so. It is also a postmodern parable of the information age.
In a 1993 Cineaste interview with Gary Crowdus and Richard
Porton, Arthur Penn claims that all along his landmark late-1960s
film was intended to be allegorical and not historical. In 1967, it was
a film about 1967 and beyond; not necessarily a film about Bonnie
and Clyde’s historical moment.4 Natural Born Killers is similarly allegorical, similarly larger than the narrative that (barely) contains it.
Contrary to Stone’s attempts to distinguish generically between road
movies and films about the media, road movies have always taken an
interest in the flow of information. But where Bonnie and Clyde
exploit the media in an attempt to mythologize themselves, Stone’s
film explores the competing desire of the media to mythologize itself.
In fact the media, embodied by exploitation TV personality Wayne
Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), seeks Mickey and Mallory out in an
attempt to boost ratings. The police, too, are seen as an extension of
the media, or at least as pandering to the media’s perceived powers:
Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) is a self-adoring cop in search of
increased book sales and his own sensational mythologization.
From the very beginning of the film, Stone attempts to demonstrate the symbiotic and cannibalistic relationship between the media
and criminality in a way that echoes and perhaps pays homage to
Bonnie and Clyde. After an intensely violent and jolting prologue in a
diner, the credits roll in front of an obviously projected background
of various “media images.” Also in the frame are Mickey and Mallory
in a hyperkinetic toy-like car directly in front of the already competing images of the credits and the media/stock footage. Mickey and
Mallory are here envisioned as quite literally riding off into a media
frenzy/sunset in search of a multi-media narrative form adequate to
“tell” their stories. The moment formalizes the connection between
the road and postmodern culture by transcribing to the visual realm
the decay of American culture catalogued in Baudrillard’s America.
The American landscape, Stone suggests, no longer exists. It has been
replaced by a sort of “drive-thru” movie. Mickey and Mallory drive
gleefully through the flow of media images and give in to the drift of
modern culture. The viewer’s position in all of this, however, is less
Stone literalizes, but perhaps banalizes, his characters’ search for
narrative space by switching formal and contextual modes throughout
the film—at the price, some of his critics have argued, of narrative
continuity. In a 1994 interview in Sight and Sound Gavin Smith asks
Stone, “In terms of its form, doesn’t the film raise a lot of questions
about the medium of cinema? For instance, the idea of a unified,
coherent text is all but swept away—or is the film only superficially
incoherent?” Stone retorts with a laugh that the film is perfectly
coherent to him and asks in return, “Is it my fault for not having clarified? Possibly, but haven’t I been criticized eternally for being heavy
handed?” 5
In Natural Born Killers, Stone does not escape his heavy-handedness. It is difficult for him to identify, however, because unlike his previous endeavors, Natural Born Killers is simultaneously ideologically
and formally heavy-handed; it is visually and aurally anarchic
because the film is concerned with a foreboding sense of late twentieth-century cultural anarchy and the havoc that confusion has played
on the human psyche. That psyche, Stone suggests, has itself become
another product of media culture.
Mickey and Mallory undergo several critical transformations during their journey, but perhaps the most critical change they undergo
is the switch from the oral tradition—leaving “one clerk alive to tell
the tale of Mickey and Mallory”—to visually-oriented documentation. This shift to a kind of video tradition is a modern twist on the
several photographing scenes in Bonnie and Clyde, where members of
the Barrow gang pose for photographs (sometimes with a captive) in
order to perpetuate their own myth. Wenders, too, has a thematic
interest in the preservational potential of photography, especially
“instant” Polaroid photography; in The American Friend (Der
Amerikanische Freund, 1977), Ripley nearly drowns himself in a mass
of Polaroid photos, and photojournalist Philip Winter, in Alice in the
Cities (Alice in den Städten, 1974), is similarly obsessed.
Oral narrative, which Mickey and Mallory abandon, is perhaps the
most complete of narrative forms in that it presumes the critical “presence” of the narrator. Mickey and Mallory, who so desperately seek to
legitimize their own existence, begin their story with the “human element” still intact. Their myth is perpetuated from mouth to mouth, or
at least from mouth to media. The pre-credit scene in the diner, that
site of so many road film encounters from Detour to The Postman
Always Rings Twice, is a case in point. After a hyperbolically violent
showdown with a group of sexually delinquent rednecks—shot in a
color-rich stock equal to the scene’s thematic exaggeration—Mallory
advises the petrified waitress, who has witnessed the entire scene, with
the following words: “When them people come in here and they ask
you who done this, you tell ‘em Mickey and Mallory Knox did it,
alright? Say it!” Orality, here and elsewhere in the film, is an acknowledged necessity in the perpetuation of the myth, and it fuels the pair’s
murderous road trip.
As the film progresses, however, the teller becomes less critical
because he or she can be effectively replaced by technology. A fundamental turning point that speaks to this issue occurs at a Native
American lodge. After Mickey inadvertently kills their Native
American host, Mallory, in their escape, is bitten by a rattlesnake. As
they seek out the anti-venom in a fluorescently lit super-drugstore,
Drug Zone, the situation turns violent. A clerk, another Native
American, who has been watching the story of Mickey and Mallory
on Wayne Gale’s sensationalistic American Maniacs from behind the
pharmaceutical booth, is held at gunpoint. But the clerk reminds
Mickey that the duo always leave one person alive to tell the story.
Mickey, in a transitional moment, laughs and says, “If I don’t kill you,
what is there to talk about?” Like many road movie protagonists
before him, Mickey has learned that his own—in his case, extremely
violent—motion is his story. And though he doesn’t comment on it at
this point, the recording of Mickey and Mallory’s exploits via surveillance and security cameras will become central to the film’s understanding of this contemporary imagistic crisis.
As in so many heterosexual outlaw road films like Bonnie and
Clyde and Gun Crazy, the road in Natural Born Killers is figured as a
space between crimes. It is also a space where the characters attempt,
in a variety of ways, to reaffirm their broken heterosexuality, to renegotiate their fragmented family structures. In Bonnie and Clyde, a
roadside motor lodge becomes an important, failed alternative
domestic site, and, later in the film, a roadside roll in the hay “cures”
Clyde of his impotence. In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory,
in an impromptu “ceremony” complete with blood letting, are married on a bridge overlooking a deep canyon (see Figure 6.1). The
episode resembles the roadside marriages our first chapter ended
with. Both those earlier films and Stone’s are premised upon generational hemorrhages, a perceived need for the younger generation to
escape the domestic confines of the older generation, albeit to establish their own domestic situations. But where our early 1900s elopers
are, in the end, re-absorbed back into the familial, Stone throws physical, mental, and media abuse into the mix, a frightening combination of ingredients that, rather like the murder that starts Kit and
Holly (Sissy Spacek) on the road in Badlands, results in the slaughter
of Mallory’s sexually abusive father (Rodney Dangerfield) and her
dangerously silent mother (Edie McClurg). Mickey and Mallory
must “escape,” but we are always painfully aware of their fate; they are
doomed to repeat the cycle. Violently programmed, the “I Love
Mallory” sitcom, which awkwardly parodies their familial disharmony and their brutal solution, will be rerun in perpetuity.
Stone’s masterful crane shots lend to Mickey and Mallory’s roadside marriage scene a warped kind of majesty. While the canyon and
much of the road scenery in the film suggests John Ford, the irony of
our socially, morally, and mentally inept protagonists within this
landscape is equally foregrounded. Their “togetherness,” symbolized
rather obviously by the bridge and its own geographically connective
function, is as problematic as it is inevitable. This idea is driven home
in the roadside motel room scene (Mickey and Mallory’s first failed
domestic site) where Mickey’s sexual interest in their female hostage
causes Mallory to leave Mickey temporarily and commit murder in
her own act of sexual violence, at a gas station no less. Movement, the
location not so subtly reminds us, is fueled by unfortunately fractured domestic interpretations, by incomplete, inappropriate simulations of community.
Stone’s film, in fact, is quite concerned with the consequences of
simulated culture. When security video cameras have not caught
Figure 6.1 Natural Born Killers (1994). Mickey and Mallory’s transitory
wedding recalls the confused domestic aspirations of road-bound characters
nearly a century prior.
Mickey and Mallory in action, reenactments are staged for Wayne
Gale’s trash/trauma television show American Maniacs. This is the
simulacra realized and fed by the public’s need, fostered as it is by the
media, to be eyewitness to such events. In fact, at one point in the film,
Wayne Gale’s crew reviews a reenacted version of one of Mickey and
Mallory’s early murders of a cop. Complaining about the ethics of
cannibalizing a previous show, one of Gale’s editors says, “We really
raped and pillaged the first show to do this.” In a statement that in
many ways seems to represent Stone’s sneering attitude regarding
contemporary culture, Gale says—and the shot is repeated to foreground the centrality of the idea and, perhaps, to test its underlying
thesis—“repetition, works David.” By referring to the simulated cultural process that he participates in and perpetuates as “junk food for
the brain,” Gale acknowledges both the cheapness and addictive qualities of his products. This “junk food” has, as American culture always
has, international appeal, as is suggested by the montages of French,
Japanese, and Chinese Mickey and Mallory “fans.” Junk food, Stone
indicates, has superseded “real” culture; it has fostered what we, along
with Baudrillard, might refer to as “the death of the real.”
The death of the real is enacted most dramatically in the final narrative sequence in the film. The scene rewrites the slow-motion, balletic death scene in Bonnie and Clyde, only here it is the media, in its
“human” form, that is riddled with bullets. The scene is positioned
directly prior to an extended media-montage sequence composed of
1990s news footage complete with the sound of changing channels,
itself followed by the final credit sequence, which depicts flashback
images from the film and a flash-forward of Mickey and Mallory in a
mobile home with their newly-started “post”-nuclear family, driving
happily down the American road. Wayne Gale has, by this time in the
film, himself transformed into a camera-toting media maniac after
the jail riots that were (surprise!) incited by the television broadcast
of Mickey’s interview with Wayne Gale. Before shooting Wayne Gale,
Mickey says to Mallory, “Let’s make some music, Colorado,” quoting
Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, and the couple proceeds to open fire on
the already half-dead Gale. All the while, Gale’s also dying video
recorder is aimed at the scene as well and we witness the scene in large
part through the eyes of this video camera. The scene solidifies a relationship between the camera and the gun, commenting not only on
technology’s ability to take the place of the human, but on the connections between the image and violence. As Mickey and Mallory
make clear, the camera is all they need to “tell the tale.”
Natural Born Killers critiques that which Bonnie and Clyde only
refers to obliquely: the corruptive force of the visual media.6 Stone’s
film is a highly self-conscious meditation on the relationship between
the media and criminality, and his point is clearly that the two are
complicit in each other’s acts. But this is a dangerous line of interrogation for Stone, whose own film came under the gun for purportedly instigating violent acts of criminal mimicry. The lines between
fiction and reality are often blurred by Stone, by his critics, and by his
audience, particularly those who miss the irony of his films’ violence
altogether. In Gavin Smith’s interview with Stone, this line of questioning is pursued when Smith comments, “This film suggests doubt
about film’s suitability as a medium of truth or to represent reality.”
Stone replies, “How often have we heard, ‘The book had more density’? Reading allows you to experience multifaceted points of view
and depth that you don’t get in a movie. I feel the limitations of
movies because I’m interested in writing. In a sense this movie for me
has pushed to the limits of 2D.”7
While Stone’s response seems rather cryptic, Gavin Smith’s question contains a trace of what will become a central motif in the road
films that follow Stone’s. Smith comments on the film’s critique of
image culture and seems, in a veiled way, to be referring to the film’s
referencing of the multiple acts of violence that, caught on tape, have
come to define that part of the 1990s. These filmed or otherwise
recorded moments from the time frame in which the film was
made—the Rodney King beating, the O. J. Simpson chase, the
Menendez Brothers trial, etc.—“suggest doubt about film’s sustainability as a medium of truth.” These moments, which constitute the
very landscape that Mickey and Mallory drive through, have coalesced, menacingly, with cinematic and fictional television images to
shape Mickey and Mallory’s mythological existence. This is, to be
sure, the terrified realization of the information superhighway as I
have defined it earlier. The informational elements that constitute it
are undifferentiated fragments of information, some fictional, some
“true,” but almost all violent. Mickey and Mallory have, in a hyperbolic extension of the type of ecstasy Jean Baudrillard describes,
given in to these images; they have let themselves be defined by these
images and they have reveled in this definition.
Like Bonnie and Clyde, Mickey and Mallory are concerned about
their mythic status, not as populist heroes acting out the fantasies of
the depression-era poor but as postmodern killers indulging in arbitrary and cartoon-like violence for seemingly little purpose save for a
desire to become famous. This idea of self-created, deluded heroism
is indicated especially in the montage sequence mentioned earlier,
where throngs of adolescents (presumably of the age when our
“heroes” were themselves most violently abused) proclaim their
empty admiration for the images of Mickey and Mallory. But Mickey
and Mallory’s stardom has a lineage; they become vessels for alreadyestablished, already-mediated public notions of violent criminality.
In preparation for his interview with Wayne Gale, Mickey shaves his
head in homage to his sensationalized, real-world serial killer forefather Charles Manson and asks about the ratings for shows dedicated
to him himself in comparison to shows on his “competition.” Mickey
decides, after finding out that Manson “beat” him, that it’s “tough to
beat the king.” Stone, too, acknowledges his film’s ancestors. Natural
Born Killers, like The Wizard of Oz, Thelma and Louise and, on a different level, Bonnie and Clyde, begins in black and white; like the
Western, many of which are “road narratives,” the film also begins in
Monument Valley. Stone, like Mickey, pays homage to the “kings” by
including references to the John Ford Western and to himself with
Scarface. Herein lies the conundrum Baudrillard finds himself in. At
what point does one’s critique of postmodernity become a contribution to it, and what are the consequences? There are, of course, no
easy answers to these questions, and part of what makes Stone’s films
so frustrating to his critics is his playful walk along the edge of both
By the end of the film, Mickey and Mallory have literally captured
the apparatus and “produced” their own show. This act, however,
takes place only after their confinement and momentary stasis and
separation in jail. In fact, the prison bloodbath that they perpetrate is
enacted in a desperate attempt to gain access, once again, to mobility
and each other—to be back in that car hurtling through the seductive
mediascape that, for this pair, is indecipherable from the literal landscape. Indeed, it is this final image that the film ends with: only the
“show” has been altered significantly; the “channel” has been
changed. Mickey and Mallory, as the credits roll, now bob and weave
through the traffic of images in a Winnebago full of kids. This is, as
Mickey (and Ulmer’s Al Roberts as well) would have it, their “fate”
(see Figure 6.2).
Stone’s warped Winnebago, however, does more than simply suggest what is certain to be the perpetuation of a violently mobile line.
Like the couple’s roadside wedding, in fact, the image returns us in no
subtle way to the cinema’s core turn-of-the-century concerns. Though
perhaps dancing along a more problematically comedic edge than
many of his early cinematic predecessors, Stone is similarly skeptical
of technology’s effect upon the social and the familial. Where these
concerns were expressed in exclusively vehicular terms as the nineteenth became the twentieth century, Stone also interrogates the
increased mobility and rapidity of our information. Rapidity,
instantaneity, and repetition, in fact, are the real villains in Stone’s
film. This ideological trinity, however, also forms the film’s aesthetic
foundation; it practices what it preaches against. These ideas, the
risks of unthinking rapidity, are even more aggressively called into
question and perhaps even answered in David Lynch’s The Straight
Story (1999).
Revising the Postmodern American Road Movie:
David Lynch’s The Straight Story
The Straight Story is a film by a director obsessed with the evocative
power of the road. Since Blue Velvet (1986), David Lynch has
returned repeatedly to this conceptual locale in films like Fire Walk
with Me (1992), Wild at Heart (1990), Lost Highway (1997), and
Mulholland Drive (2001).8 His early 1990s television series Twin Peaks
(1990) traced the consequences of getting lost on the road, both literally and figuratively, an idea perfectly encapsulated in the program’s
opening image of a road sign along an empty highway. The Straight
Story, however, is a conundrum, one that requires consideration in
Figure 6.2 Natural Born Killers (1994). Riding off into the media sunset:
Mickey, Mallory, and the mobile domestic.
light of the director’s road-repertoire and of the road film’s substantial past. What follows is an argument for the film’s ideological consistency within Lynch’s body of work and within the broader context
of the road film itself. Lynch, like his road-bound predecessors, finds
between the road and the cinema a deep, significant, and sustaining
connection that allows him to investigate, in ways that are infrequently discussed, issues of family and communication, the abiding
interests of the road movie, its ancestors, and its offspring.
Alvin Straight—the film’s road-bound protagonist, played by
Richard Farnsworth—undertakes a journey significant not only for
its destination but for what lies before that destination. His journey is
an attempt at self-contextualization. A sense of what lies before The
Straight Story—those other road films that pave the way for Lynch’s
contribution to the genre—supports reading The Straight Story as an
attempt to correct what precedes it, a cinematic revision that mirrors
Alvin’s own narrative reconciliation. The Straight Story doesn’t bathe,
however resentfully, in the contemporary condition—as films such as
Easy Rider or even Natural Born Killers appear to—but rather suggests a return to the pre-modern.
Lynch, in a manner that seems to move against his postmodern
dedication to the disconnected and the arbitrary, finds in the road a
tenuous form of connectedness and meaning. It is a space linked first
and foremost to the family, or at least a Lynchian version of family, and
its cinematic point of reference has less to do with Two Lane Blacktop
(1971) than with the Wizard of Oz (1939).9 As with The Wizard of Oz,
the road in Lynch’s films is a space of reunion, not rebellion; a space of
community and communication, not of solitude and silence. Dorothy
in The Wizard of Oz, like so many of Lynch’s protagonists, seeks adventure and the unfamiliar, but finds instead a makeshift community with
which to reconstruct her identity away from home. It is not until she
regains consciousness at film’s end that she realizes that her “adventures” were peopled with her own family and community, the familiar
in disguise. The road functions similarly in Lynch’s films, providing his
protagonists with “alternative” families that, ultimately, bring them
back to an appreciation of the “traditional” family.
Lynch’s films repeatedly place his characters on the road to find
connection, community, and family in a world grown impatient with
and insensitive to these more “stable” ideas and institutions. While his
earlier films explore the creation of imperfect, alternative communities memorable for their terrifying freakishness, The Straight Story
takes a different road. The postmodern spectacle created by Lynch’s
bizarre, ad-hoc communities has tended to overshadow the motivation his characters have had to create them in the first place. As a
result, his films have been misread as celebrations of anti-establishment perversity rather than lamentations for a perceived loss of
familial stability. The Straight Story responds to this misreading.
Joy Rides: David Lynch and the
Postmodern American Family
David Lynch’s familial understanding of the road indicates his commitment to traditional family values and his critique of the contemporary breakdown of those values. More than a critique of modern
media culture, his films repeatedly position themselves against the
breakdown of the familial unit. The trajectory from Blue Velvet to the
more overtly familial The Straight Story, however, is not necessarily
an easily followed one. Key to each of Lynch’s films is his desire to
depict characters who, perhaps without fully knowing it themselves,
set out on the road not to escape but to rebuild families, however
warped those re-domesticated structures might ultimately be.
In an interview with David Breskin, Lynch was questioned, as he
often is, about his politics and especially his well-known support of
Ronald Reagan. In response to a question regarding patriotism,
Lynch offered the following, quite telling response: “The thing is,
America is suffering such a . . . everybody’s got a . . . maybe it’s changing a little bit now, it’s coming back a hair. But for a while we were all
so down on ourselves, it was not one bit cool—just the word ‘patriotic.’ Because we’d done a lot of things in the name of that that were
so, so bad. Anyway, it’s a losing game and it has nothing to do with the
films I’m making.”10
Lynch’s relationship to politics, it seems, is very much like his relationship to the familial, an idea both his comments and his films lend
credence to in spite of his hope that his films have nothing whatsoever to do with this “losing game.” Both political and familial structures seem boring, “not one bit cool.” Lynch’s films, in fact, feature
characters receding from and rebelling against both structures. The
false starts that mark his words, along with his tendency towards
denial, suggest that perhaps, like his characters, Lynch too has sought
to recede from that which is not cool: the family, patriotism, etc. His
films, however, resolve with an unflinching desire for and faith in
structure. The road—away from and back to structure—arises in his
films as an integral element in the community-building process.11
Lynch’s 1997 “road” film, Lost Highway, is an extreme articulation
of the filmmaker’s obsessions and a paranoid culmination of ideas
brewing in the filmmaker’s mind at least since the 1980s. The film was
his last before The Straight Story, and it revisits, with uncanny, occasionally off-putting clarity, some of the themes that the director has
made a career of: voyeurism; the existence of alternate, though frighteningly familiar, realities (an Oz idea Lynch is seduced by); and most
critically, the breakdown of the familial, or potentially familial, unit.
The film is about the growing rift between a white, upper-middleclass couple. It is a film that, in spite of its title, rarely takes to the literal road. Instead, the road in the film is equated with the
psychological travel its protagonist, Fred (Bill Pullman), undergoes in
his dream/fantasy state. This fantasy state, where doubles exist and
where the impossible seems ordinary, is introduced in the film by a
series of highly kinetic shots of a broken yellow highway line from the
front of a rapidly moving vehicle.
It is this strange and fast-moving image, an exact facsimile of the
image used to convey road travel in Blue Velvet (analyzed below), that
opens and closes the film. The image itself is one of disconnectedness:
the lines are broken, uneven, crooked, and lead (we suspect) nowhere.
The dotted yellow line is a metaphor for the protagonists’ fragmented
identities. It is similar to its ideological opposite: the linear, connected, yellow brick road of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. In
Fleming’s film, the road, while as much a product of the unconscious
as Lynch’s, is ultimately a catalyst for familial and self-unification; it
leads, we might say, to wholeness, and in the end it leads home.
Lynch’s dotted yellow line in this film leads to fragmentation and disorientation. It also structurally resembles the very idea of narrative
about which this strange film is so deeply concerned. Narrative, the
line suggests, goes nowhere, is itself disconnected, crooked, an illusion—an idea upheld by the body of Lynch’s work, which simultaneously participates in and defies narrative linearity.
This idea is driven home by the thematic details of Lost Highway.
The couple receives anonymously sent VHS cassettes on their doorstep,
fragmented narrative pieces of their private lives together, portions that
not even they have access to in their memories because they occur
while they are sleeping. The pieces, out of context and with no identifiable source, are threatening not only because of their voyeuristic implications but because they lack narrative wholeness and linearity; they
are critically incomplete. They are all the more threatening because as
the narrative develops, these dream-like narrative fragments seem to
have a source—a slightly diminutive, pale and extremely creepy individual known in the credits only as the Mystery Man (Robert Blake),
a product of Fred’s unconscious mind. But Fred’s interactions with
this “character” suggest also that what his unconscious mind fears
most is the dissolution of his relationship with his wife Renée
(Patricia Arquette).
Lynch’s film argues, strangely, that the individual and his/her
unconscious desires and fears are to blame; the road away from
domestic unity unfolds across the landscape of the unconscious.
When those desires and fears take the shape of media technology
(i.e., the strange videocassettes that greet the couple each morning)
and threaten the stability of the domestic sphere, they are all the more
terrifying. This interest in the fragility of the domestic can be traced
back to Lynch’s earliest films: from the fractured “family” tree of The
Grandmother (1970) to the nightmarish domestic scene in Eraserhead
(1976). The Elephant Man (1980) similarly concerns itself with the
familial, John Merrick’s fondest memories being of his mother.12 The
explicit connection between the familial and the road, however, is
more recent.
In Blue Velvet, the road makes a brief but highly kinetic appearance and functions as a disconnected, otherworldly space where
Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and his gang torture the young, naïve,
and insatiably curious Jeffrey (Kyle McLachlan). Frank’s gang forms a
sort of ad hoc family, its members assembled precisely because, in
their societal and familial status as outsiders, they belong nowhere
else, a trait shared by a number of road-bound characters. Frank’s
confused relationship with Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini) indicates this character’s tortured sense of family: he is both daddy and
child, she is both mommy and baby. This confusion has functioned to
make Frank himself wholly inarticulate, notwithstanding his liberal
use of the word “fuck.”
Charles Drazin’s Blue Velvet monograph focuses on the critical
role played by family in the film. Drazin writes that “this sense of
Jeffrey as the surrogate son is at its strongest when Frank kidnaps him
and takes him on a ‘joyride.’ It’s like a family outing.”13 Drazin is correct, But equally critical is the road’s effect on Frank, who has a brief
and pathetic roadside moment of articulateness. As the car radio
plays in the background, Frank mouths words from the song that
seems to express his own state: Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Frank’s
act of applying lipstick to and then kissing the mouth of Jeffrey is a
Lynchian act of adoption. Jeffrey, who was fairly deeply implicated
already, has become irreversibly a member of Frank’s self-created and
destructive family unit. In the car, before being punched by Jeffrey,
Frank mutters to Jeffrey, “You’re like me.” This strange initiation,
however, takes place not in the traditional domestic sphere but alongside an abandoned road (see Figure 6.3). Frank, like Dorothy in The
Wizard of Oz, constructs his family from the individuals he encounters along it. In this way, Jeffrey is like him. Both characters seek
wholeness: a heart, a brain, courage. At the end of his adventure, however, Jeffrey is able to return home to his family with a new appreciation for the “strange world” beneath the surface of Lumberton and
for his own surface-level existence. This familial resolution is unavailable to Frank, in spite of his confused and perverse attempts to
achieve it.
Wild at Heart extends hyperbolically Lynch’s Wizard of Oz notion
of the road and incorporates its elements far more frankly, a fact not
lost on Lynch scholars and written about rather extensively in
Michael Chion’s 1995 book on Lynch. Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and
Lula (Laura Dern) are, like Mickey and Mallory in Oliver Stone’s
Natural Born Killers, a contemporary Bonnie and Clyde. Also like
Mickey and Mallory, they are consumed with an alternative, roadbased notion of family that runs counter to their restrictive, abusive
home lives. Lynch, who is always interested in exploring what lies
beneath the Rockwellian façade of American family life, is especially
interested in its stasis. This stasis transforms Sailor and Lula into a
constantly and dangerously mobile pair perpetually dodging Lula’s
murderous mother (Diane Ladd) who, we learn, was responsible for
the death of Lula’s father and who didn’t intervene when Lula was
raped by her uncle as a young girl.
For all of its wildness, Wild at Heart’s ending begins to articulate
ideas that will become central to and less ironically handled in The
Straight Story. Lula, against the wishes of her mother, goes with her
young son, Pace, to meet Sailor when he is released from prison.
Attempting to gently leave Lula and their son because “it makes
sense,” Sailor is assaulted by a band of thugs and, in his semi-conscious state, is advised by a hallucination of Glenda the Good Witch
to return to Lula. Following this overt allusion to The Wizard of Oz,
and a nicely handled tracking shot of Sailor running over the roofs
of cars (tellingly, stuck in traffic) to reach Lula and their son,
Lynch’s tone changes momentarily. The high-pitched irony and
bloody absurdity of the preceding scenes is punctuated by a series of
deep focus shots of the reunited trio and the moment seems genuine,
Figure 6.3 Blue Velvet (1986). The view from the back seat: Jeffrey looks on
as his ad-hoc family decides his fate on the side of the road.
the family reunited in this midst of absurdity. The Straight Story, I
will demonstrate, is a feature-length extension of these moments.
Alvin . . . I Don’t Think You’re in Laurens Anymore: Or, “If You
Want to Send a Message, Go to Western Union”14
The Straight Story follows the already-established Lynchian trajectory
in every way and makes unambiguous several of the director’s previously veiled concerns about the decay of the American family. In this
way, the film can be understood as Lynch’s attempt to “straighten
out” the postmodern road film’s reputation. Reviews of the film were
prone to commenting on the film’s inconsistency within Lynch’s
body of work, on the film’s seductive straightness. Brendan Lemon’s
review of the film for the New York Times, “Even Auteurs Need a
Break From Themselves,” falls into this category: “And for those who
think that Mr. Lynch, best known for movies with sadistic, drugenhanced sex and small town violence, must have discovered Iowa’s
dark side—the creepy-crawlers beneath the corn—the news is that
The Straight Story is Disney’s cleanest non-animated picture since
Son of Flubber.”15
Other reviewers, in a gesture of critical snobbery, were eager to
point out all of the weird “Lynchian moments” contained in the film
that “less sophisticated” viewers were missing. This was Kevin
Jackson’s tactic in his review of the film for Sight and Sound, which
attends to at least two “Lynchian” moments: “To be sure there are a
few sequences showing Lynch in a more familiar vein, such as Alvin’s
encounter with a woman who has inadvertently become a serial
‘bambicide’ (‘Every week I plough into at least one deer—and I love
deer!’), or his dispute with the identical twin mechanics who spend
more time sniping at each other than tinkering with engines.”16 My
understanding of the film, however, is somewhat different. I don’t see
it as a warped, Lynchian vision in a wholesome disguise, nor do I see
the film as being a departure from Lynch’s usual fare. On the contrary,
while its presentation differs slightly, The Straight Story’s ideology is
perfectly consistent with Lynch’s concerns regarding the family and
the road’s power as familial redeemer.
Unlike the frenetic Wild at Heart, the chaotic and disturbing Lost
Highway, or the haunting Blue Velvet, Lynch’s The Straight Story is
patient, slow, linear, and, it seems, about relatively ordinary people.
The film is based on the true story of Alvin Straight, an elderly
Laurens, Iowa man without a driver’s license who, upon learning the
news of his brother’s stroke and his own escalating ill-health, decides
to drive his ride-on lawnmower across the state to visit him in Mt.
Zion, Wisconsin. Unlike Lynch’s other films, which contain notably
violent and grotesque moments, The Straight Story garnered both a
“G” rating and Disney distribution. While his films have always been
about family, The Straight Story is a family picture.
On the one hand I wish to argue that, with or without the official
stamp of the Disney logo, Lynch has been making, at least ideologically, Disney films all along—films that, in spite of their apparently
subversive surfaces, turn repeatedly on themes of familial unification.
The “Bambicidal” moment Kevin Jackson refers to is a joke on
Disney’s quintessential product. The larger and more interesting joke,
however, would seem to be the film’s ultimate approval and replication of Bambi’s (1942) central themes, particularly of the notion that
families are meant to be together and that misdirected human
actions, undertaken most typically in the name of “progress,” pulls
them apart (see Figure 6.4).
The Straight Story, in its familial familiarity, moves against the
road genre’s perceived thematic grain and pronounces most clearly
Lynch’s variant treatment of its perennial concerns. Lynch’s film quite
frankly holds on to and attempts to reaffirm the traditional family, an
idea he hints at even as he loses grip of it in his other films. In an
interview with David Breskin, Lynch comments autobiographically
on his own family life in a manner that is relevant here:
It was like the fifties: there were a lot of advertisements in magazines
where you see a well-dressed woman bringing a pie out of an oven,
and a certain smile on her face, or a couple smiling, walking together
up to their house, with a picket fence. Those were pretty much all I
saw . . . they’re strange smiles. They’re the smiles of the way the world
should be or could be. They really made me dream like crazy. And I
like that whole side of it a lot. But I longed for some sort of . . . not a
catastrophe, but something out of the ordinary to happen. Something
so that everyone will feel sorry for you, and you’ll be like a victim. You
know, if there was a tremendous accident and you were left alone. It’s
kind of like a nice dream. But things kept on going, normally, forward.17
Here, Lynch speaks to the evocative power of the ordinary, the
clichés of a 1950s boyhood. Ordinariness made him “dream like
crazy” and, by extension, we are to assume that his films are the slowly
emerging products of those childhood dreams. The Straight Story, on
the other hand, is a replication of the quotidian; it is an exceedingly
ordinary tale about a man who did an extraordinary thing. Lynch’s
choice of words—the theme of his description—is quite illuminating, however. When Lynch speaks of a “tremendous accident” he
seems to be speaking quite specifically about a roadside automobile
accident. Such an event, he suggests, would interrupt the linear
momentum of the familial trajectory. Alvin’s journey, much like
Lynch’s family life, keeps “on going, normally, forward” in spite the
Figure 6.4 The Straight Story (1999) examines the mortal consequences of a
culture moving too fast.
occasional obstacle. Somehow, though, this normal, forward motion
(at least to those initiated to Lynch’s previous work) is capable of
making the viewer dream like crazy.
Where Lynch’s previous films were a litany of those “out of the
ordinary things” longed for in his early family life, Alvin Straight’s
story is a case study in normalcy. Alvin is a dedicated father to his
grown, though mentally juvenile, daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), and
his journey is in the name of family unification, in the name of putting old familial grudges to rest. It is a “matured” road film and a feature-length version of Lynch’s faith in the redeeming power of the
familial bond. Alvin Straight, we are led to suppose, was himself once
an adventure-seeking wanderer. We learn that he was more often than
not an absentee father, and when he tells Rose of his plans to visit his
brother, he states in a manner pregnant with possibilities, “Rose, darling . . . I’m gonna go back on the road. . . . I’ve gotta go see Lyle” (italics mine). Contained in his words is the indication that the road for
Alvin was once a mechanism for familial escapism. In this film, it
functions differently.
Alvin takes to the road in spite of his community’s urging to the
contrary and in doing so exhibits a geriatric remnant of the free spirit
earlier road films explored. The narrative, however, is careful to
demonstrate that his is most decidedly not an act of abandonment
but one of recuperation. Once the community has been made aware
of his determination, it sets out to assist him; the journey itself, we are
reminded, is being made in the name of community. He is outfitted,
after a failed attempt to make the journey on his run-down lawnmower, with a newer, more powerful one owned previously by a local
and amiable dealer. His daughter Rose buys groceries (mostly in the
form of wieners) to fill his cooler. He even buys the local elderly hardware salesman’s “grabber”—“for grabbin’ things,” Alvin tells him—a
transaction that the salesman would prefer not to make, but makes
nonetheless. The community unites in the name of the journey and,
in doing so, facilitates it.
This theme of non-abandonment is an especially important one as
it relates to Rose. Rose, while apparently self-sufficient, is, as Alvin
reveals later in the film, a little slow. Her speech resembles a series of
gasps and her look is spookily hollow. Alvin’s connection with his
daughter is, however, one of extreme care and dedication. A call to
Rose is the only call Alvin makes on his entire journey, the phone his
only indulgence in non-lawnmower technology. This relationship
between parent and child is an especially important one that Lynch
invokes constantly throughout the film. It is in part what appears to
justify the Disney mark at the start of the film. It is also, as we’ve seen,
a theme common to all of his films. Rose, we learn, was once herself a
dedicated parent to four children of her own. As Alvin explains: “One
night somebody else was watching them and there was a fire. Her second boy got burned real bad. Rose had nothing to do with it but on
account of the way Rose is, they figured she wasn’t competent to take
care of all them kids and they took ‘em all away from her. There isn’t
a day goes by that she doesn’t pine for them kids.”
As Alvin speaks, the camera pans to the campfire in front of him.
Fire, in Lynch’s cinematic universe, is an important symbol and one
that has everything to do with the family. In Wild at Heart, Lula’s
father is doused with gasoline and burned to death, a plan her
mother had been in on all along. Here it functions similarly to split
the family apart. Later in the film, just before Alvin speeds out of
control as he attempts to descend a hill, a controlled fire roars as the
local townspeople watch with pleasure on lawn chairs. One woman
comments that “that old Rumelthanger place was an eyesore.”
Lynch’s critique is subtle but effective. Home and family, this
moment suggests, have become too easily disposed of in contemporary culture and, in fact, their destruction is itself spectacular, an
idea sentimentally explored in Bambi as well. This spectacular
destruction is at the center of Lynch’s other work. The Straight Story,
however, allows us to read those destructive moments as critical of
While its intentions appear different, The Straight Story’s structure
is strangely similar to the road films of the 1960s and 1970s. Like
Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) in Easy Rider, Alvin
encounters a variety of familial “options” on his journey. Alvin tells
the story of his daughter’s children to a teenage runaway he passes on
the road and re-encounters later at his campsite. The encounter contains some of the film’s most memorable, if slightly sappy, dialogue.
It is also the point at which the film’s concerns with the familial bubble to the surface. Alvin’s comments regarding Rose’s children follow
his observation that the runaway herself is pregnant, about five
months along, she tells him. After narrating Rose’s story, Alvin offers
the following: “When my kids were real little I used to play a game
with ‘em. I’d give each one of ‘em a stick, one for each of ‘em, and I’d
say ‘now you break that.’ ‘Course they could, real easy. Then I’d say,
‘Tie them sticks in a bundle and try to break that.’ ’Course they couldn’t.
Then I’d say, ‘That bundle . . . that’s family.’”
The runaway, for whom the road had been functioning as an
escape from the responsibility and connectedness of family, leaves a
bundle of tied sticks near the campsite for Alvin to find the next
morning, indicating that she has seen the value in his story and that
she intends to return to her family. Alvin and David Lynch seem, here
and elsewhere in the film, to have stepped into the murky waters of
Western Union–style message sending, a method Lynch himself has,
as the quote that opens this section makes clear, been critical of.
Alvin’s stick story is Lynch’s most frank pro-community argument
to date, and it stands in direct defiance of what appears to be the road
film’s privileging of the individual. But the road film itself has suffered from this misreading. For, while road films like Easy Rider do
focus on the wandering of the individual (or pair of individuals), this
self-inflicted, social disconnectedness is not uncritically romanticized. The characters themselves might be only partially aware of
their situations; in Easy Rider, Wyatt realizes that he and Billy have
blown it, and, at the end of The Searchers, Ethan returns to the wilderness, unable to participate in the community he has been away from
for so many years. Rarely, however, does the character adrift on the
road espouse so directly the virtues of community and of family. At
its most basic level, Alvin’s story is about the importance of sticking
together and his slower-than-typical journey is in the name of retying
the metaphorical bundle.
Later in the film, Alvin encounters yet another familial option.
When his lawnmower breaks down toward the end of his journey,
Alvin resides temporarily with what appears to be a Lynchian ideal
Midwestern American couple, secure and playful in their relationship, smiling in precisely the way Lynch describes his own parents—
plainly, but happily. His tractor, however, is repaired by the bickering
twins Kevin Jackson discusses. The caricature-like brothers, exact
twins with the last name “Olson,” provide an opportunity for Lynch
to reinstate the centrality of the familial. After settling his bill, which
takes some correcting on his own behalf, Alvin tells the story of his
own brother, claiming that “no one knows you better than a brother
that’s near your own age. He knows you and what you are better than
anyone on earth. My brother and I said some unforgivable things . . .
but I’m trying to put that behind me, and this trip is a hard swallow.”
Alvin’s words, here, are interesting in relation to Lynch’s road-logic.
Alvin is trying to “put that behind” himself through the act of the
journey. He puts distance, in the physical and psychological senses,
behind him in the process of moving forward. And moving forward,
in this film and in all of Lynch’s films, is a move toward the familial.
While the road film has in recent years relied quite heavily upon
the twin notions of speed and chaos, Lynch’s film, in the tradition of
fellow AFI alumnus Terrence Malick’s Badlands (also starring Sissy
Spacek) or Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road, relies on a leisurely photographic pace. Unlike Malick’s or Wenders’s films, however, Lynch’s
protagonist, Alvin Straight, is as patient as the narrative that contains
him. He is not the young, frustrated, and aimlessly angry Kit of
Malick’s film or the equally aimless and endlessly fidgeting Robert
Lander of Wenders’s. He is, instead, an elderly, experienced man with
a destination he’s determined to get to. He is the opposite of
Elsaesser’s unmotivated hero.18 Because of this pacing, the film, more
than Lynch’s other films to date, allows the filmmaker to indulge his
well-publicized love for the painterly subjects of Edward Hopper, a
tremendous visual influence on Malick as well.19 The resultant film is
a slow-moving, cinematic piece of agrarian Americana and one that
captures the beauty, if not the repetitiveness, of the Midwestern
American landscape.
The film’s establishing shots look especially Hopperesque (Edward,
not Dennis) and recall, though in a more extended fashion, the opening shots of Blue Velvet. The absurdly simple Lumberton, with its smiling school children and its redder-than-red fire truck complete with
waving crew, are here replaced with the more realist rural landscape of
Iowa cornfields, deserted main streets, a water tower, and a slightly
large woman sunning herself on her lawn while eating brightly colored coconut snowballs. These shots are potentially misreadable,
their tone confusing to audience members familiar with Lynch’s
treatment of similar subjects in his previous films. The initiated smile
wryly in anticipation of the shocking event that will set this quiet,
simple setting upside down, as it does in Blue Velvet when Jeffrey’s
father suffers a stroke while watering the front lawn and Jeffrey, in his
sophomoric, summertime boredom, seeks a form of adventure his
immobilized father and television-watching mother and aunt can’t
provide him with, which he gets in spades.
Audience expectations are played out further in the opening
scene’s masterfully handled form. The soundtrack is quiet, save for
the high hum of insects, and the camera dollies in slowly from its
perch above the sunning woman. It moves slowly, its motion seductively voyeuristic, and it refuses to pause or focus. The viewer is given
a point of reference, however, as the camera pauses just short of a
window, through which the inner activities of the home cannot be
seen but, it seems, can be audibly discerned. The faint sounds of
creaking and fumbling register on the soundtrack as the camera
remains motionless at its post. Then, from within, a deep, dead thud,
followed by silence and an immediate cut to the outside of a downtown bar, where a group of elderly men (again, heard more than seen)
decide who is going to go and check on Alvin, who was supposed to
meet them there.
It takes little time before the agent of the thud is identified as
Alvin, who has fallen to the floor, unable to prop himself up. Lynch,
however, handles this revelation delicately, not ironically. The camera,
paused in front of Alvin’s window prior to his fall, is rightly figured as
voyeuristic; its voyeurism, however, is critically incomplete. It is
forced to reside just beyond the interior action, a position the camera
will find itself in repeatedly in the film. It is not until the camera is
accompanied, as it were, by members of the community—by the man
elected to check on Alvin, by a concerned neighbor, by Alvin’s daughter Rose—that the camera is “allowed” indoors. This is careful planning on Lynch’s part, and it indicates the degree to which Lynch
requires that these subjects be treated with dignity. This somewhat
atypical introduction to Lynch’s characters suggests that we have been
invited to participate in the community being observed, a theme that
the film will continue to visit.
As we’ve seen, the notion of community, and especially familial
community, is common to Lynch’s films. The spectator’s position
within it, however, is illustrative of something quite different. In Blue
Velvet, the spectator is also implicated as he/she hides in the closet
with Jeffrey and watches Dorothy Vallens undress. In the former film,
however, the viewer is subjected to Hitchcockian scrutiny; our own
voyeuristic desires, aligned as they are with Jeffrey’s, are called into
question. The Straight Story’s careful preamble ensures a different,
inscrutable sort of connection at once less voyeuristic and more
Different as it seems, however, the film also follows in the tradition
of Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet, both of which explore, though in different ways, the need to move beyond the family in order to finally
appreciate the family. The impetus for the movement in the film is
also of a piece with the prior films. Trauma, of a physical sort, sets the
characters into motion. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey’s father’s stroke sets
Jeffrey “free” into the world outside of the family; in the end, however,
he happily returns home, a situation not unlike Dorothy’s blow to the
head in The Wizard of Oz. Here, Alvin’s estranged brother suffers a
stroke. The older, wiser Alvin, however, doesn’t seek adventure but
seeks a reestablishment of their fraternal affection realizing, as his
own health and his brother’s health diminish, that their time on earth
is limited.
I have noted The Straight Story’s eerie, silent opening, but the film
maintains a stance against silence that is unusual, particularly
because this is a road film in which only one man is on the road.
Alvin’s daughter Rose suffers from a severe speech impediment. Alvin
and his daughter, however, share a deeply significant relationship that
revolves largely around verbal communication; as noted earlier, he
even calls her as he makes his journey. Alvin’s trip, in fact, is motivated by a need to reconcile the gulf of silence that has developed
between himself and his brother Lyle. Lynch’s choice of Harry Dean
Stanton in this role is critical as well as cross-referential. Stanton,
along with his fleeting role in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop
(1971), is perhaps best known for his role in Wim Wenders’s road
movie, Paris, Texas (1984), where he plays Travis, a mute wanderer in
search of his own past. Lynch’s film insists on the importance of
human—and, more specifically, familial—contact; while this is much
the same point made in Wenders’s film, it is made in a radically different, sometimes more puzzling fashion.
Alvin’s journey is therefore also one of linguistic significance.
Alvin is a man who contains within himself a generation of pent up
emotions regarding his daughter, his deceased wife, his tour in World
War II, and his relationship with his brother. His code has been to
remain silent, and the film documents his own undoing of that code.
His journey thrusts him—though thrust may not be the best word for
a film that moves so gently—into situations where he is forced to discuss each of these matters and put words to the emotions that have
immobilized this once–free roaming man. At one point in the film
Alvin shares war stories over a small beer in a bar with another old
man with similar memories; Lynch’s masterful sound engineering
makes audible even the minute sounds of their memories, as the
noise of the bar fades and the faint sounds of battle fills the atmosphere. Alvin’s discussion of the importance of family with the young
runaway earlier in the film functions similarly, giving voice to
another set of memories and emotions.
In its pacing, the film is also an immensely thoughtful reaction to
the speed of modernity from a director whose work rarely functions
as such a legible articulation of criticism. Lynch’s slowing down of
the image—in sharp contrast to the frenetic blur of dotted yellow
lines of Lost Highway—and the film’s insistence on actual, meaningful, maybe even old-fashioned, human contact is played out unironically and comments critically on contemporary society’s movement
away from the dialogical. Communication technologies, critical elements to the postmodern road film—often, as in Natural Born
Killers, in the shape of the media—are all but absent in this film
about Alvin’s need to see and speak with his brother. True to the
film’s preamble, this much anticipated conversation remains private:
the film ends quietly and immediately after the brothers greet each
other on Lyle’s porch.
Lynch goes to great lengths in the film to create a cinematic pacing true to Alvin’s journey. This film moves against all of the rules of
pacing and cutting that seem inherent to late 1990s filmmaking. It is
methodical, highly reliant on a rich and evocative mise-en-scène,
slow, and edited in a continuous, fluid, invisible fashion. The only
formally bizarre moments in the film involve the use of the zoom lens
(accompanied by rapid cuts), which, since Easy Rider, has been a central formal technique of the road movie. Here it is used to convey a
sense of rapidly approaching danger, as when Alvin nearly crashes his
mower, and the effect is quite remarkable and jolting in this film that
otherwise moves extremely slowly.
Kevin Jackson detects something peculiar about Lynch’s formal
manipulation of Alvin’s slow-moving trek across the prairie: “The
Straight Story also has the best crane-shot joke in years: the camera
catches Alvin’s puttering progress from behind, rises into the sky with
epic majesty, then gracefully sweeps down again—to reveal Alvin,
about four feet further down the highway.”20 More than a joke, however, the shot reinforces the film’s central theme, casting in bold relief
the loneliness, the solitary slowness of Alvin’s Midwestern trek. This
is not man’s tendency to wander glorified; this is man’s need to get
somewhere, however slowly. In his own comments about the film,
Lynch has been especially complimentary to cinematographer
Freddie Francis for his patience with Lynch’s requirements for these
technically masterful and moving helicopter shots of Alvin Straight
and his lawnmower; these shots reveal, time and time again, the lonesome perseverance of the film’s senior protagonist.
The Straight Story, in its studied slowness and concern with the
movement of one man, is a film strangely reminiscent of Eadweard
Muybridge’s “motion studies.” In a curious way, Lynch’s film brings
us, once again, back to the beginning of cinema. Muybridge’s work
frequently concerned the motion of one sartorially and technologically stripped down man. Some of his studies took the bearded and
grizzled photographer himself as their subject, placing his naked
body in front of his pseudo-scientific numbered grid. Muybridge’s
work, influential as it was to the direction cinematic technology
would ultimately take, was also strangely anti-technological in its
attention to the artificially arranged movements of his “natural” and
“organic” subjects: men, women, horses, and a variety of other animals. The bulk of his work was also undertaken in the midst of an
international, technological revolution, one in which the technology
of transportation played a central role; we might make analogous
connections to Lynch’s film, itself the product of an era of massive
communicational transition. Muybridge’s gaze toward the naked
bodies of men and women walking, or even the horse’s gait, can be
explored as a reaction to the swiftness with which these changes were
taking place, as a reaffirmation of man alone.
Lynch has reacted to technology similarly and has, in The Straight
Story, sought to slow man down and analyze both his motion and his
emotions removed, to whatever extent this is actually possible, from
the technologies with which he has become inseparable, which have,
in fact, separated him from the communities he once relied upon.
Lynch, to this end, also gives the subject of his own motion study a
destination. Where his previous films critiqued the postmodern condition by participating in its chaos, The Straight Story achieves its
criticism by denial. Lynch, then, finds the elusive—as opposed to the
lost—highway. The film’s success, it seems, hinges upon a Troglodytic
reaction to technology and an almost neo-Victorian notion of family
that Lynch’s films and the tradition they belong to have always sought
to disseminate.
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New Directions
and Intersections
The Road Reworked and the
Case of Abbas Kiarostami
ur final chapter teetered on the brink of the twenty-first century.
By way of an epilogue, I’d like to briefly consider the continuing
cinematic fascination with the road and its meandering course
through both familiar and new territory beyond, at least partly,
American and European traditions. The year 2005 saw the re-release
of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (Professione: reporter,
1975), a film that finds David Locke, a British citizen educated in
America and played by road movie veteran Jack Nicholson, struggling
with his own and a recently assumed identity as he drives an oversized
and conspicuously red American convertible through the deserts of
Africa and along the coast of Spain.1 Twenty years after its initial
release, Antonioni’s film seems, somehow, both more at home and
more alien at a moment in our cultural history that finds the international community and not just intellectual European or Europeaninfluenced auteurs interested in the topic of alienation and the road’s
peculiar capacity for commenting upon it. Our media, in fact, are
consumed with what seemed, for a time at least, to be a widespread
but curiously elitist thematic tick.
No longer confined to the big screen, America’s fascination with
space and place now finds us contemplating yet another season, for
example, of MTV’s Road Rules, which, in its own albeit sometimes
revoltingly juvenile fashion, is built along the road movie’s crooked
backbone. Where the road movie gloried in its sometimes hardearned ambiguity, however, Road Rules and its somewhat more
“mature” reality offspring, The Amazing Race, demonstrate on a
weekly basis the desire for structure and community that always
lurked in the road movie’s background. Alliances, these and other socalled reality programs want us to believe, prevail. Alvin’s stick
metaphor, his idea of the unbreakable bundle, in other words, has
become a central and no longer a veiled aim. But the veil, as we have
seen, was never really so opaque. The cinema’s road-loners have
always been held up for spectatorial inspection, even as they scrutinized the somewhat less attractive alternatives that surrounded them.
Perhaps arising from the same nervous nostalgia that pulled
Muybridge’s lens in the direction of the unadorned mobile human
body, perhaps issuing from the same giddy anxiety that caused the
Lumières to capture the automobile’s ability to tear apart the human
as well as the communal body they so revered or Griffith’s desire to
depict repeatedly the perceived harm this oddly attractive technology
might cause the familial body, the road movie, its generic precursors
as well as its international progeny, are the curious and often confusing product of modern cultural apprehension. The road, the internal
combustion engine, and the cinema have always intersected and,
romantically defeatist as their themes of alienated existence might
have been as these intersections become more abundant in the late
1960s and early 1970s, the films themselves often bear the traces of an
albeit faltering faith in the necessity of community, the need for communication.
In a peculiar way, the road movie seems to be driving in reverse, an
idea that guides David Laderman’s approach to the genre and what he
perceives to be its decadal creep toward conservatism. The road itself,
however, has changed very little since the turn of the century. Our
experience of it, our interaction with its increasingly unambiguous
motivations since the 1970s, has, however, grown more elastic. Where
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces
(1970), exposes the modern sickness of the American family and a
host of other disintegrating structures by blindly and unsuccessfully
fleeing from them, the contemporary road movie quite frequently
exposes the same sickness through its highly motivated though typically understated attempts to re-assemble those not-so-easy pieces.
This pattern is played out in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, but it is
present also in the work of filmmakers less commonly associated with
the structures of family and home. And, intriguingly, the contemporary road movie aesthetic seems to owe more to Wenders’s ambling
mobility than to the potentially misreadable hyperkineticism of, for
instance, Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
What during the 1980s was perceived to be the youthful and
deeply Euro-inflected alienated angst of Jim Jarmusch—a somewhat
subdued anguish that expressed itself in the wandering sub-narratives of Stranger than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Mystery
Train (1989), and Night on Earth (1991)—has not so much changed
focus as it has come into focus in recent years. The quiet and often
painfully comical desperation in those films, the turmoil that sent his
characters adrift, was a desire for and profound inability to find significance and, oddly perhaps, stability in the contemporary world.
His 2005 film, Broken Flowers, drives the point home, quite literally.
Don Johnston, played with characteristic nonchalance by Bill
Murray, is a disconnected and deeply depressed “techie” who takes to
the road to find and possibly reconnect the broken and scattered elements of his misdirected personal life.2 The film is coolly unsentimental about the whole thing, yet its movement is decidedly opposite
the motion in Rafelson’s film, right down to its replication of the former film’s—perhaps that decade’s—low-key tonal qualities, its
apparent but usually deceptive directionlessness.3
Vincent Gallo’s much maligned The Brown Bunny (2003) is similarly deceptive. As with the genre’s international explosion in the
1960s and 1970s, Gallo’s film is the product of newly mobile and
affordable—almost ridiculously so now—moving image technologies capable of reorganizing the road movie’s basic grammar. Gallo
takes full advantage of the transportability of the extremely compact,
high-quality digital camera. The film, like so many of the films
explored or referred to in Road Movies, is a fundamentally auteurist
film; Gallo’s credits for the decidedly minimalist The Brown Bunny
reads like a perfectly executed Pauline Kael-style parody of the cult
des auteurs: he is actor, producer, director, camera operator, set
designer, makeup artist (one wants terribly for him to be credited as
caterer as well).
Uncomfortably close to its subject/creator, the film takes the positional metaphor of spectator as passenger to its logical extreme. It
also rather vigorously rearticulates the highly problematic notion of
the author alone in a manner that is at once desperate and, perhaps
because of the desperation, troublingly romantic. Gallo achieves
these effects through what one can only hope is a self-aware but still
quite dangerously narcissistic self-absorption. He has, in other words,
literalized and de-sublimated what we might call the classical road
movie–era’s own contradictory impulses. Critical of “square” culture
and its hypocrisy and control, road protagonists of the 1960s and
1970s nonetheless couldn’t help but replicate its ills; they were, after
all, contained by a narrative structure even if that structure envisioned itself as being anti-. More than unmotivated, however, Gallo’s
Bud Clay is unlikeable, uninteresting, and unconnected; he is, in fact,
almost unwatchable. And this is, perhaps, the point. Like the road
protagonists that precede him, Gallo’s character moves in search of
something approximating stability. The film, like those earlier films,
is painfully obsessed with family, with shattered relationships, broken
lines of communication, and seeks, largely within its final fifteen
minutes, to feebly explain those obsessions. The film’s semi-legendary
final oral sex scene is, in this way, a comment on deficiencies in other
more critical forms of orality.
Where American images of the road have become somewhat less
ambiguous in their call for community, however, the films of Iranian
filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, perhaps due to their uncommonly and
perhaps even deceptively straightforward design, appear to be impenetrable. The road is a recurring trope in Kiarostami’s cinema and is
the explicit foundation of much of his recent work: Taste of Cherry
(1997), Ten (2002), and 10 on Ten (2003). 4 What follows, then, is an
attempt to situate Kiarostami’s remarkable dedication to the miseen-scène of vehicularity within the larger historical and generic frame
established in these pages.
Looking closely at Kiarostami will allow us, in fact, to evaluate the
ground Road Movies has covered and, no doubt, will raise what are in
the end difficult-to-answer questions regarding the road’s peculiar
but undeniable auteurist appeal, an appeal Jarmusch and Gallo
indulge in domestically but which reaches much farther.5 While our
popular culture in general is interested in the road and the narrative
potential of the journey, the particular spell these narrative elements
cast upon the auteur (self-conceived or otherwise) has been a deliberate organizing feature of this book. Kiarostami’s work widens the
sphere and his films, in their self-consciousness, might allow us to
better understand the road and its influence on our evolving notions
regarding cinematic authorship. Communication and community,
our perennial concerns in this book, are central concepts within
Kiarostami’s own critique of contemporary culture, but they are
freighted here with the additional burden of commenting on the
myth of authorial isolation.
Postwar European Cinema and the Road to Kiarostami6
Kiarostami, though he is famously loath to list his “influences,” has
acknowledged his admiration of and debt to Italian Neorealism and
his alienation when faced with Hollywood films from roughly the
same period (Italian and American films were screened regularly in
the Iran of Kiarostami’s youth). As influential as it had been to the
formation of the French New Wave, Neorealism was integral to the
formation of pre- and post-revolutionary Iranian film culture.
Often no less romantic or melodramatic, Neorealist films presented
Kiarostami with something simultaneously new and familiar. In a
1997 interview with Nassia Hamid, Kiarostami explains this apparent contradiction with characteristic aplomb: “For the first time I
saw people who were very close to the people who were around me
in Iran.”7
These people who seemed familiar to Kiarostami were often
engaged in narratives of mobility. Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves
(Ladri di biciclette, 1948), with its postwar landscapes of desolation,
its stinging images of social and economic displacement, and its narrative structure revolving around its protagonist’s tenuous access to
mobility, is a clear influence on Kiarostami’s filmmaking practices,
and Kiarostami’s earliest work is markedly descended from its
modes. Bread and Alley (Nan va Koutcheh, 1970), Kiarostami’s first
film, is a wordless eleven-minute piece tracing a boy’s sometimes
frightening, obstacle-laden walk home from school. Like the young
boy in de Sica’s film (Enzo Staiola), for whom the spectator feels an
unyielding sympathy, the boy protagonist in Kiarostami’s film is irresistible as he struggles to complete the seemingly simple task of
returning to his house. Both in its presentation and in its reliance on
the emotional significance of children, it is Kiarostami’s ode to
Neorealism, or at least to de Sica’s brand of it. It also establishes the
road—or, more generally, mobility—as a central and guiding
metaphorical idea for Kiarostami, an idea that has followed the filmmaker through his most recent work.
It was the Neorealists’ attention to spatial depth and temporal
duration that, for André Bazin, was the cinema’s salvation, and the
journey in Kiarostami’s work exploits both of these critical qualities.
Writing specifically of Neorealism’s oppositional treatment of time,
Bazin, in “De Sica: Metteur en Scène,” argues,
It is perhaps especially the structure of the narrative which is most
radically turned upside down. It must now respect the actual duration
of the event. The cuts that logic demands can only be, at best, descriptive. The assemblage of the film must never add anything to the existing reality. If it is part of the meaning of the film, as with Rossellini, it
is because the empty gaps, the white spaces, the parts of the event that
we are not given, are themselves of a concrete nature: stones which are
missing from the building. It is the same in life: we do not know everything that happens to others. Ellipsis in classic montage is an effect of
style. In Rossellin’s films it is a lacuna in reality, or rather in the knowledge we have of it, which is by its nature limited.8
Bazin’s ideal aesthetic, it seems, is one of skilled authorial self-effacement. This logic opposes, for example, Rudolf Arnheim’s notion of
“film as art” in its practiced denial of the artistic function.9 Critics
and supporters have pointed to the religious undertones in Bazin’s
reasoning, his fear that cinematic artistry would result in a dangerous
form of demagoguery and a problematic denial of reality’s own,
unmediated grandeur. Style, in the Bazinian realm, is a form of trickery, and so the main stylistic units of the cinematic form—the shot
and the cut—must adopt a seemingly more “democratic” nature. It is,
in fact, Neorealism’s allowance for perceptual choice that Bazin values, though he is keen to advertise his awareness that this democratic
illusion is itself a stylistic choice.
Kiarostami’s mobile realist narratives function interestingly
within this Bazinian logic and the curious, observational situation of
the journey becomes his primary narrative device, one that allows
him to draw attention also to the critical fissures in the logic itself.
Bicycle Thieves, for example, also appears to have influenced
Kiarostami’s at times quite subtle brand of extra-cinematic cultural
criticism in a manner that, strangely perhaps, reaffirms the author’s
position and affords an alternative though complimentary realist element. De Sica’s film about mobility and access contains within it a
wry commentary on the ease with which American culture, especially
American cinematic culture, travels across national borders. In the
film, Antonio’s (Lamberto Maggiaroni) hard-earned employment
requires that he affix posters for American films (one featuring Rita
Hayworth) onto the walls of the city that contains him. Bread and
Alley’s swinging contemporary jazz soundtrack achieves much the
same effect, though at the aural level, and his later films will feature
even more centrally the scattered but carefully selected signifiers of
Western and American culture. His narratives, frequently focused on
his characters’ mobile struggles, render these scattered signifiers and
the ease of their transnational assimilation all the more ironic.
Though it appears to run counter to the realist agenda, Kiarostami’s
films, to a perhaps even greater degree than their Italian predecessors,
are in conversation with the world outside the frame and, in this way,
acknowledge the frame and the framer themselves.
One of Kiarostami’s early short features, The Traveler (Mossafer,
1974), similarly straddles the border between authorial effacement
and acknowledgment. In the film, Qasem (Hassan Darabi), a soccerobsessed village boy, journeys to Tehran hoping to see an important
game. His difficult-to-finance journey is facilitated in part by an
image-making scam he and a friend perpetrate on the local villagers.
Setting up a camera and inviting passers-by to pose for a small sum,
the boys appear to be operating an amateur portrait studio. But
there’s a punch line here, because the camera has no film. Kiarostami
frequently allows photographic or cinematic technologies to enter his
highly self-aware narratives, and in The Traveler the joke is quite
plain: image making is a method by which to become mobile. This
seemingly autobiographical idea takes on deeper significance in
Kiarostami’s later films, where the process of filmmaking is rendered
visible. A complex and extended study of this process takes place in
Kiarostami’s Close Up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990). An account of
Hossain Sabzian (who plays himself in the film) and his cinematic
scam—he pretends to a rich family that he is the renowned Iranian
filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf—the film proposes the equally fascinating idea of image-making as key to social mobility. Many of the
film’s concluding images feature Sabzian and Makhmalbaf himself
aboard a motorbike, literalizing the film’s interest in the connections
between social and physical movement.
Like the 1960s work of Godard, Kiarostami’s films are self-reflexive, similarly skeptical of the curious mobility of Western culture.10
One of Kiarostami’s early Godardian experiments is explicitly concerned with highways. The Solution (Rah Hal e Yek, 1978) is a formal,
eleven-minute film following a man on an isolated mountain road as
he rolls a newly repaired tire to his stranded automobile. This short
film addresses several key Kiarostmian themes—themes that his feature-length films of the 1980s and 1990s would revolve around more
explicitly. Key among them is the idea of transportable culture—here,
of the imported variety. The film’s protagonist drives a French Citroën
and wears a Vietnam-era American M-65 field jacket; his actions are
set to Western classical music. Like his Italian and French predecessors, the protagonist in this short film is surrounded by signifiers of
cultural mobility at the moment of his own problematic stasis.
This interest in the road and its ability to comment on the reach of
non-domestic cultures, as we have seen, is also at the center Wim
Wenders’s work, and is especially critical to Kings of the Road. Though
his recent films (some American-made) have diverged somewhat
from his original method, Wenders’s films, like Kiarostami’s work,
seemed markedly descended from Italian Neorealism. His interest in
the sometimes excruciating duration of events (especially driving)
materialize in a cinema, like Kiarostami’s, reliant on the long take.
These limit-defying mobile shots in Wenders’s films also glimpsed
signifying transitional landscapes, almost Bazinian in their extremes.
This contemplativeness was, also like Kiarostami’s work, frequently
tempered by the naïve, sometimes starkly learned point of view of
children, an idea both directors gleaned from postwar Italian cinema.
But Wenders’s key metaphorical expression of modernity was mediated through images of traffic—a doubly significant idea in
Wenders’s road films that, as indicated earlier, were obsessed as much
with the international traffic of cultures and ideas as in the physical
traffic of bodies and vehicles. Traffic is also a crucial Kiarostamian
theme, and it figures prominently in both Breaktime (Zang-e Tafrih,
1972) and Regularly or Irregularly (Be Tartib ya Bedoun-e Tartib,
1981), both fifteen-minute films featuring the sometimes dangerous
act of crossing busy highways, as well as in Fellow Citizen (Hamshahri,
1983), a fifty-two minute film exploring a traffic cop’s attempts to
direct the flow of vehicles. What does all of this traffic in Kiarostami’s
work mean?
Two-Way Traffic: Standing at The Euro-Persian Cross-roads
In his ties to Neorealism, the French New Wave, and the New German
Cinema, Kiarostami is implicated in the circle of Western auteurs
similarly interested in the metaphorical potential of the road. But we
won’t be abandoning him there. Kiarostami’s use of the road as a critical tool also has domestic roots that extend much further back. In
fact, the journey was an especially important philosophical and
poetic conceit in the Middle Ages, when Persian culture found itself
at what Godfrey Cheshire has identified as its own metaphorical
crossroads—with Western empirical thought forking roughly to the
left and Eastern esoteric thought forking roughly to the right.11
Cheshire comments on the importance of the narrative structure
of the journey to the form of Iranian philosophical thought, turning
to the scholarly research of French Iranologist Henry Corbin, a
scholar whose writings explored the links between Western and
Persian thought. Via Corbin, Chesire identifies the importance of the
journey or quest-like structure to two key Persian thinkers of the
Middle Ages, Abu Ali Ibn (known as Avicenna in the West) and
Shihabuddin Suhrawardi. Cheshire writes that both philosophers
“gave their most evocative accounts of ‘Oriental philosophy’ in fictional tales that recount a journey or quest, a narrative paradigm significantly shared by most of Kiarostami’s films.”12
Kiarostami’s films, then, are in conversation as much with Persian
philosophy and literature—traditions that have historically pondered
notions of Western cultural influence—as they are with Western theoretical constructs or the history of cinema. Nassia Hamid, in her
interview with Kiarostami, asked the filmmaker to comment on the
self-conscious exposure of the filmmaking apparatus in his “Koker
trilogy”—Where Is the Friend’s Home? (Khane-ye doust kodjast?,
1987), And Life Goes On . . . (Zendegi va digar hich, 1992), and
Through the Olive Trees (Zire darakhatan zeyton, 1994)—a process of
exposure that, by now, has become something of a Kiarostamian
icon. Even his films that are not explicitly about the process of filmmaking are marked by booms falling into the frame, members of the
crew interrupting the narrative fantasy, and the like. The question
itself invokes the notion of Brechtian distanciation—a Western influence Kiarostami, in his response, is careful not to deny. He is equally
careful, however, to complicate the issue further by, once again, citing
a more traditional, or at least more local, source in a way that also
suggests the parallels Kiarostami detects between the act of directing
a film and the act of directing traffic:
I found distanciation in Taazieh (the traditional folk theatre depicting
the Shi’ite account of the murder of Imam Hossein, the son of
Mohammed, by the tyrant Yazid, which is performed each year on the
anniversary of the event) . . . This year I went to a village near Teheran
to watch a Taazieh . . . at the moment Yazid is supposed to chop off
Imam Hossein’s head, they were served tea, and Yazid signaled with a
nod for his to be placed next to him as he continued with the decapitation. These things really helped me. I saw how nothing could affect
this scene. For example the lion, which was played by a very old man
wearing a lion skin, became tired—and went to lie down in the shade
of a boulder. He began to smoke a cigarette. A smoking lion. I didn’t
see anyone laugh at this. He could be the lion and not be the lion.13
Kiarostami points to the free flow of traffic he allows in and out of his
own films: his films are open to both traditional and modern influences in precisely the same way that they are, to the spectator, open
(for some, frustratingly so) to interpretation. Taste of Cherry’s memorable coda, which exposes cast and crew as cast and crew, functions
according to the same logic as Kiarostami’s image of the smoking lion:
Homayon Ershadi, the actor playing Mr. Badii, is and isn’t Mr. Badii.
Kiarostami’s work is, one might suggest, positioned at an intersection between traditions that have used the form of the journey to
comment upon the contemporary condition. Kiarostami, while
studying for his entrance exams at the School of Fine Arts in Teheran,
was himself literally employed at the intersection: he was a traffic cop,
an occupation explored semi-autobiographically in the previouslymentioned Fellow Citizen. In a way, however, all of his films are about
traffic—literal, automotive traffic, to a certain extent, but also the
transhistorical, transnational traffic of ideas, words and images—and
the effect this other type of traffic has upon human mobility, both
physical and psychical.
This idea is at the heart of Taste of Cherry, a film whose narrative
structure is defined by a series of dusty and circuitous roads in the
hills just outside of Teheran. Taste of Cherry begins in the interior of
Mr. Badii’s Range Rover. A series of shots establishes the location, an
urban environment atypical of Kiarostami’s films. The traffic at the
beginning of the film seems to be primarily traffic in bodies as men
approach Mr. Badii’s slowly moving car offering their service to him
without asking what that service might involve. These are men in
search of employment.14 The irony of this moment, though, will not
be fully realized until later in the film, when we learn that Mr. Badii,
who refuses these initial offers of assistance, does indeed seek a
His journey, we later learn, is an attempt to convince those he
encounters to help him the next day by returning to his pre-dug burial site either to rescue him, if he fails in his attempt at suicide, or bury
him if he is successful. From its opening frame onward, however, the
film is relentlessly (though slowly) mobile, as Mr. Badii returns
repeatedly to the site with a different potential assistant each time: a
young Kurdish soldier (Ali Moradi), an Afghani seminarian (Hossein
Noori), and an elderly taxidermist (Abdolrahman Bagheri). The last
of these three finally, though reluctantly, agrees to help Mr. Badii. The
bulk of the film, quite critically I think, occurs between Mr. Badii’s
unknown past and his unknowable future. Positioned as so many of
Kiarostami’s narratives are at the intersection between here and
there, past and present, the film focuses relentlessly on the here and
now, a focus attained in part by Kiarostmi’s own stripped down aesthetic of proximity.
The litany of “foreigners,” of outsiders, contributes to the film’s
deep feelings of alienation throughout. Each character narrates himself as a stranger in a strange land, a land of ill-defined borders—definitions that are certainly pertinent to Kiarostami’s own highly
mobile star-auteur situation. This sense of solitude is the film’s primary formal device. As Mr. Badii makes his way out of the city, shots
alternate from roughly his point of view as he gazes upon the changing landscape he traverses to shots of Mr. Badii himself. These scenes
are shot by a cameraman who has, it seems, become Mr. Badii’s passenger and his real accomplice, and their overall effect is to render
Mr. Badii’s isolation all the more palpable. Through the vehicle’s windows, however, and faintly on the soundtrack are the traces of human
labor. The city itself is expanding outward, and all around Mr. Badii
are signs of this process of building, signs of “progress,” signs of what
we might wish to call “urban traffic.”
Early on, Mr. Badii encounters a pair of children “playing cars” in
an abandoned Volkswagen. Their exchange seems almost incidental.
They are on the screen briefly and might merely remind the viewer of
earlier Kiarsotami films that took children as their protagonists and
of Kiarostami’s Neorealist inheritance. Unlike those earlier children,
however, these youngsters are merely playing at mobility, mimicking
its rituals while remaining static. The moment hints at a change or
interruption in the flow of traffic. As if to reinforce this idea, Mr.
Badii, who makes a fairly elaborate U-turn several minutes later,
passes them once again. Badii, the imagery would indicate, is moving
in circles while the children, desirous as they might be, are unable to
move at all.
Shortly after this encounter, Mr. Badii chances upon another indicator of these problematic traffic patterns. He passes a brightly colored and isolated phone booth from which emanates one side of a
heated conversation. As is so often the case in Kiarostami’s films, we
hear the man in the booth screaming about his precarious economic
situation but we don’t see him until later. Spectators are only privileged to a long take of Mr. Badii, who seems distressed by the conversation but moves on with a renewed plan to offer this man money for
his services, which, at this point in the film, are not only undisclosed
but carry with them decidedly perverse undertones.
Kiarostami’s unusually limited perspective functions to foreground Mr. Badii’s problematic and painful isolation. Throughout
the film, this sense of alienation is interrupted repeatedly, though
fleetingly, by his string of passengers, some more talkative than others. It seems that he is unaware of his own desire for community, but
the camera gently reveals Mr. Badii’s dilemma as well as his need. One
scene in particular draws upon the road movie’s perennial desire to
investigate the wanderer’s unspoken need for community and communication. Hypnotically following the winding, dusty path of Mr.
Badii’s vehicle, the camera, seemingly reacting to an unexpected noise
on the soundtrack and Mr. Badii’s own expression of concern, adopts
a wider, more distanced angle revealing Mr. Badii’s situation: one of
his Range Rover’s wheels dangles dangerously over the edge of a cliff.
He is quite literally spinning his wheels and getting nowhere, but the
laboring masses in the hills gather to remedy the situation and return
vehicle and driver to their former mobile state. Perhaps unaware of it
himself, Mr. Badii is reliant upon the community, even for his isolationist endeavors. This never-articulated need for community plays
an increasingly central role as the film continues.
Kiarostami’s own relationship to the subject of mobility is a decidedly conflicted one. His films are, essentially, exports. In a 1991 interview for Cineaste, Kiarostami joked that films currently rank with
pistachio nuts, carpets, and oil as Iran’s major exports.15 Taste of
Cherry, even more than his earlier films, is an especially dense, poetic
and, I think his critics would argue, non-populist (read: exportready) film. But it is also a film about reclaiming or returning to the
local and the dangers of a culture that too readily embraces “exports.”
This language of imports and exports, a language so central to Iran’s
history, is also the language of traffic. Taste of Cherry clearly testifies
against the one-way movement of this traffic.
An especially wry joke in the film’s preamble plays with this notion.
Mr. Badii, after being threatened by an economically strapped worker
who suspects that he is making sexual advances, spies a man in a
bright red shirt moving rather chaotically and picking up debris in the
valley below the road he and his Range Rover traverse. Mr. Badii tracks
the man’s movement across the valley floor and, after a series of cuts
between the man and Mr. Badii’s outward gaze, we see him drive
ahead and pause to wait for the man. As he waits, a large dump truck,
ironically dumping loads of dirt into a ditch (precisely, we learn later,
the services Mr. Badii seeks), can be seen outside of the driver’s side
window. As the man enters the frame, the letters U-C-L-A can clearly
be read across the front of his shirt. This appears to be a not-so-subtle joke about the reach of American culture, its ability to move about
freely and globally. It is also a reference to the film-school culture that
has deemed Kiarostami auteur of the moment. Most importantly,
however, it is a comment on the notion of displacement, an idea that
permeates all of Kiarostami’s work and is especially central to Taste of
The children encountered earlier, the man in the phone booth,
and in fact all of the characters in the film, especially Mr. Badii himself, are characters in search of place, and each exhibits varying
degrees of comfort or confusion with regard to this search. The fact
that these characters, as well as each character Mr. Badii encounters
in the film after the bag collector, discuss their not-local origins suggests that, in Kiarostami’s world, we are all away from home. Or perhaps, to use Dorothy’s words from that yellow-brick paved studio
road film made at the apex of Hollywood’s Golden Age, “There’s no
place like home.”
Mr. Badii spends the entire film attaching familial names to the
passengers he picks up on the road. His pre-suicidal hours are spent
with a surrogate son, a surrogate brother, and a surrogate father; an
artificial and desperate paternalism, in fact, seems to form the core of
Mr. Badii’s turmoil. While the details are never revealed in any precise
manner, the film’s penultimate and most painfully static scene occurs
at what we presume to be Mr. Badii’s home. The camera takes his
preparations in from a distance as we watch, through illuminated
windows, Mr. Badii’s barely discernible figure scurry about, gathering
items within a structure so alien, so barren, so empty that, as the
scene quietly unfolds, our own “presence” begins to fade; we begin, in
other words, to drift away from this character to whom we were
barely attached to begin with, a character whose own final movements toward detachment have, perhaps oddly, revealed his need for
As it does in all of the films examined in this book, the road and its
associated activities arise in Taste of Cherry and in Kiarostami’s work
more generally to remind us of our own perhaps irreparable dislocation: from each other, our spaces, and our presumed moment in the
temporal order. As we have seen, this anxiety, this fear that social
chaos and disconnection is the cost of modernity, has ridden along
with the cinema since its inception, forming the core of what on the
surface appeared, in the 1960s and 1970s to be the most radicalized of
generic categories. Kiarostami lends to the image of the cinematic
road a form as alienating, as desperate, and as sorrowful about this
state of affairs as the journey itself. His travelers, and there are many
of them, are no more a “celebration” of some mythic mobile freedom
than Godard’s or Wenders’s. His cinema depicts mournful journeys
toward an equally mythic stability, and this stability always dances—
drives, I suspect, is the more appropriate term—around notions of
Ten (2002) pushes this familial element, always running through
Kiarostami’s work, to the foreground. Unusual within the history of
the road movie, its predecessors, and its post generic offspring,
where so many of the drivers are barely articulate males, Ten focuses
relentlessly upon one highly articulate female driver and, as its title
would suggest, ten of her transitory conversations.16 The film is shot
digitally from the dashboard of her usually moving vehicle, and its
conversations refer repeatedly to the site of the domestic, a trait the
film shares with many of Kiarostami’s films and, as we have seen,
connects it to the road film’s own circuitous and sometimes deceptive history. Speaking of this thematic strain in Kiarostami’s work,
Godfrey Cheshire writes, “The importance of place as aesthetic
grounding has a corollary on the emotional and thematic levels: the
idea of home. In most Kiarostami films, the characters are seen moving away from or toward home; whichever direction they are taking,
or even when they are not in motion, home remains the constant reference, the lodestone.”17
Never allowing the camera to exit the vehicle, Ten hyperbolizes this
concept. Home and its myriad anxieties are constant subjects, though
the location itself remains conspicuously invisible. This visual elision,
I think, is the core of Kiarostami’s particular critique and has much to
do with his quietly confrontational notion of cinematic authorship.
Like that which remains thematically invisible in his films, Kiarostami
as author is both self-effacing and insistently present.
Mania, the driver and in some ways the center of the film, is the
divorced and recently remarried mother of Amin. The first of four
“chapters” focused on Amin, the film’s first scene sets into motion
(here quite literally) the film’s domestic concerns.18 Invisible for the
first fifteen or so minutes of the film, Mania is subjected to her son’s
stinging and also quite sad critiques of her mothering skills, her
choice of a new husband, and even her driving. In our forced scrutiny
of Amin, we notice his T-shirt, a Joe Camel promotional item. Here,
Kiarostami’s assessment of import/export culture capitalizes on the
strange Western commercial conceptualization of the Middle East: a
tobacco-peddling cartoon figure. More critically, however, our
forced perspective causes us to bear witness to Amin’s anguish.
Loud, emotionally volatile, and, for the most part, rather frighteningly male, the ten-year-old is only borderline sympathetic. He is
also, the film subtly reminds us, a product of his equally volatile and
confused domestic situation. In interviews, Kiarostami frequently
discusses his affection for the automobile’s escapist potential, its privacy. He complicates both notions in this film, critically invading its
privacy and demonstrating, ultimately, his characters’ inability to
escape, conceptually at least, the broken domestic site (see Figure
7.1). Far from an escape, though containing moments of great communicational significance, these drives are a part of Mania’s and a
part of her son’s revised domestic routines. That the film’s fifth and
its final scenes are identical (Mania picks her son up from her former
husband in both scenes and Kiarostami only slightly alters the
footage), illustrates the point.
In addition to her son, Mania picks up and engages in conversations with her sister, two women roughly her own age, a pious elderly
woman, and a prostitute. She has brief, largely gestural exchanges
with other drivers, and one vehicle-to-vehicle exchange with her
jeep-driving ex-husband over what the evening holds for young
Amin. All the while the digital apparatus, which focuses alternately
on driver and passenger, unobtrusively records what seems to be the
dream structure (though differently gendered) of Cesare Zavattini,
who, in the 1940s, imagined a film recording “90 minutes in the life of
a man to whom nothing happens.”19 What Zavattini, Bazin, and
Kiarostami are aware of, of course, is that nothing is something, that
absence is simply a more subtle, perhaps more insistent brand of
Mania’s mobile routine—her several passengers, her several conversations, her several routes—all reflect upon issues central to questions of cinematic authorship: consistency and control. Engaged as
she is in an evolving form of self-authorship, Mania’s mobility itself is
a critical, physical expression of her attempts at control, and there is
an undeniable, palpably realist pleasure in seeing this control express
itself randomly. Allowing for the uncontrolled, in other words, is
Mania’s principle form of control. But behind all of this controlled
chaos rests an uneasy author, not altogether prepared for this implied
self-effacement, not quite willing to relinquish his own fleeting control over the proceedings. At a key moment in Ten, Mania collects her
friend, a woman of about her own age, whose boyfriend, upon whom
Figure 7.1 Ten (2002). Mother and father (in separate vehicles) plan Amin’s
immediate future—will he or will he not spend the night with his mother?
she has become problematically dependant, has left her. Through
their conversation the woman attends rather obsessively to her scarf,
finally letting it slip partially, revealing her closely shorn hair. Mania
compliments her friend’s beauty and encourages her to let the veil
slip entirely. This unveiling finds its corollary in Kiarostami’s own
self-revelatory acts.
This film so filled with statements against dependency is a profound statement in favor of connection. Mania’s own emergent sense
of independence is assembled from the conversational fragments she
amasses in transit. Communication and community, in other words,
are her salvation. This idea is not only in keeping with Kiarostami’s
other work but seems, perhaps even more critically, to inform his
increasingly frank authorial unveilings in his most recent work.
Kiarostami’s oddly academic structures—alphanumerical titles and
structures, for instance, in ABC Africa (2001), Ten, 10 on Ten, Five
Dedicated to Ozu (2003)—hints at his faith in “lessons” and reminds
us of his earliest work making educational films, ostensibly for children.20 These films, by virtue of their didactic structures, are also
actively in the business of creating communities.
Speaking to the camera as he drives along the outskirts of Teheran
in 10 on Ten, a conceptual documentary on the Kiarostami process,
Kiarostami appears both supremely self-absorbed and also seemingly
desperate, like so many of his characters, to make a connection, to
find an audience. He explains his filmmaking methods, all the while
warning that his way is not the only or the best way. He is in many
ways like Mr. Badii and like Mania, isolated but longing to be listened
to. Kiarostami makes himself a perfect vehicle for understanding the
communicative desires of the cinematic author, who has, since the
cinema’s birth, been drawn to the subject of transportation and who,
in this age of supposed proximity, fears his own sometimes selfwilled distance. Distance, separation, the disintegration of community, and the evaporation of communication are the perennial
concerns of the cinema and are especially central to the cinema of the
road which has consistently turned its attention to the human costs
of modernity. We are returned once again to those foundational,
turn-of-the-century images of Muybridge walking, reaffirming the
human subject at a moment of unprecedented, widespread technological advancement. At a moment of even broader technological and
global growth, Kiarostami’s humanizing journeys have grown similarly expansive and radically self-reflexive. In interview with Geoff
Andrew, Kiarostami comments in a manner that suggests something
of the future of the road movie, its evolving concerns and its continued relevance. His words also form an intriguing coda for this book:
The journey is very important to me. It’s like all my roads: you don’t
know how far they go, there are no signs telling you where they lead, and
you don’t know where they end. But it’s important just to be moving.21
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1. Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso,
1988), 63.
2. Since the late 1960s, in fact, Baudrillard had been considering the cultural and philosophical impact of automobility. In 1967, he anticipated America, writing that “mobility without effort constitutes a kind
of unreal happiness, a suspension of existence, an irresponsibility.” See
Jean Baudrillard, Le Système des Objets (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), 94.
3. Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After
Vietnam (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1991), 138.
4. See Christopher D. Morris, The Figure of the Road: Deconstructive
Studies in Humanities Disciplines (New York: Peter Lang, 2006) and
Katie Mills, The Road Story and the Rebel: Moving Through Film, Fiction,
and Television (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006)
for more on the intertextuality of the road.
5. Except in direct quotes, English film titles are used throughout followed, after the first usage, by the original release title.
6. Baudrillard, America, 28.
7. Ibid., 79. Abbas Kiarostami, while certainly not alone in this, extends
the reach of this transnational relay to Iran, where he creates films,
also about vehicularity, that think critically about the influence of
Western culture. That these films are, according to some critics,
“export-ready”—ready, in other words, for consumption by a largely
Western audience—complicates the issue, but only in the most fascinating way. Kiarostami’s films are examined in detail in Chapter 6 of
this study. For more on the complexities of “imports” and “exports” in
Kiarostami’s work, see Devin Orgeron, “The Import/Export Business:
The Road to Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry,” CineAction (June
2002): 46–51.
8. Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering
of French Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 5
9. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, eds., The Road Movie Book (New
York: Routledge, 1997), 2.
10. See David Laderman, Exploring the Road Movie (Austin: University of
Texas Press, 2002), 247.
11. David Laderman,“What a Trip: The Road Film and American Culture,”
The Journal of Film and Video 48: 1–2, (Spring-Summer 1996), 55.
Laderman’s “The Road Movie Rediscovers Mexico: Alex Cox’s Highway
Patrolman,” Cinema Journal 39 (Winter 2000): 74–99, a detailed examination of Cox’s 1992 road movie, similarly attends to what Laderman
calls “the contradictory textual fissures” of the road movie (95).
12. Jack Sargeant and Stephanie Watson, eds., Lost Highways: An Illustrated
Guide to the Road Movie (London: Creation Books, 1999). I should
note, too, that this list-making tendency slips into more scholarly
examinations of the genre as well.
13. Robert Phillip Kolker, The Altering Eye: Contemporary International
Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 228–29.
Chapter 1
1. My use of the word “attraction” is informed by, but different from, that
term’s widespread use in early cinema scholarship. I am, of course,
thinking here of Tom Gunning’s “Cinema of Attractions” and reactions to that highly influential theoretical formulation. See Tom
Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator, and
the Avant-Garde,” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, Thomas
Elsaesser, ed. (London: British Film Institute, 1990), 56–62, for
Gunning’s slightly retooled version of the original article, which
appeared in Wide Angle 8 no. 3/4, (Fall 1986): 63–70. For an equally
influential response to Gunning’s idea, see Charles Musser, “Rethinking
Early Cinema: Cinema of Attractions and Narrativity,” The Yale Journal
of Criticism 7, no. 2 (1994): 203–32. My argument is also indebted to
Jonathan Auerbach’s “Chasing Film Narrative: Repetition, Recursion,
and the Body in Early Cinema,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 4 (Summer
2000): 798–820. Auerbach argues, in a manner that holds sway over
this and subsequent chapters, that “If motion largely defines the distinctive logic of the medium, helping to distinguish moving pictures
from other media, then moving pictures that make such movement
their primary subject would seem to hold the key for understanding
how viewers learned to negotiate the shift from showing to telling”
(802). Identifying, as he does, the immense popularity of the chase film,
Auerbach hints at this alternate notion of attraction, an attraction, I
contend, that did not reach its peak and peter out at the end of its
1903–06 cycle (as Miriam Hansen seems to suggest) but is still very
much a part of our cinematic understanding of narrative. See Miriam
Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in Early American Cinema
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 46.
For a recent and quite remarkable collection tracing the history of the
cinema’s interest in the subject of travel, see Jeffrey Ruoff, ed., Virtual
Voyages: Cinema and Travel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).
Ian Christie, The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the
Modern World (London: BBC Educational, 1994), 17. Christie’s work,
an educational companion to a BBC program of the same name, is a
highly articulate and popular re-framing of the research Gunning,
Musser, André Gaudreault, and others had undertaken some years earlier. Minus the anxiety and hysteria at the core of her (and, for that
matter, my own) research, The Last Machine also interestingly presages
Lynne Kirby’s excellent work on locomotion and the cinema. See
Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 1997).
My end date here is not entirely arbitrary. 1915 is the end-date of
Kemp Niver’s expanded Library of Congress catalogue, Early Motion
Pictures, which will be explored in some detail towards the end of this
chapter. It is also the year of D. W. Griffith’s epic narrative film The
Birth of a Nation. See Kemp Niver, Early Motion Pictures: The Paper
Print Collection in the Library of Congress, ed. Bebe Bergsten, intro.
Erik Barnouw (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1985).
Nicholas Daly, Literature, Technology, and Modernity, 1860–2000
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 4.
This representational obsession is not, of course, confined to the cinema. Kris Lackey’s RoadFrames and Roger N. Casey’s Textual Vehicles
both explore the profound impact automobility had on literary production, both at the formal and thematic levels. Lackey’s book
focuses on the American highway in literature and Casey examines
the American literary fascination with the automobile. Casey’s book
also offers a very concise and lucid history of automobility in the
United States. See Roger N. Casey, Textual Vehicles: The Automobile in
American Literature (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), and Kris
Lackey, Road Frames: The American Highway Narrative (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1997). Warren James Belasco, using
travel magazines, trade journals, and diaries, explores the history of
American road touring in Americans on the Road. Warren James
Belasco, Americans on the Road: From, Autocamp to Motel (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to
1907 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 15–54. Musser’s
chapter, aside from providing a highly detailed history of pre-cinematic
screen practices, also does much to establish the early narrative organization of these projected images.
See André Gaudreault, “Film, Narrative, Narrations: The Cinema of
the Lumière Brothers,” Early Cinema, 71–72.
For more on the history of this implicit agreement and the particular
relationship between travel and the cinematic situation, see Charles
Musser, “The Travel Genre in 1903–1904: Moving Towards Fictional
Narrative,” Early Cinema, 123–32. Musser also does much in this essay
to historicize travel’s role in the cinema’s narrative trajectory.
Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt
Brace and Company, 1977), 166.
Musser, “Rethinking Early Cinema,” 205.
Ibid., 213. Gaudreault, in invoking the “narrative road,” quotes
Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans.
Michael Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 44.
Gaudreault comes closest to this understanding, both in his evocation
of Claude Brémond’s definition of narrative from Logique du récit—
“The message should place a subject (either animate or inanimate) at
a time t, then a time t + n, and what becomes of the subject at the
moment t + n should follow from the predicates characterizing it at
the moment t”—and in his examination of Chris Marker’s narrative
experiment, La Jetée (1963), where still shots linked together through
montage (and, incidentally, voiceover narration) create “story” sans
the first level of narrativity (i.e. movement and alteration within the
mise-en-scène). Gaudreault, “Film, Narrative, Narration,” 68 and 72;
Claude Brémond, Logique du récit (Paris: Seuil, 1973), 99–100.
This is a state of affairs, I should add, that Musser and others have
sought to remedy.
Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will (New York: Harper and Row, 1960),
Brian Winston, “Sight and Sound A-Z of Cinema: Z-Zoetrope,” Sight
and Sound 8, no. 7 (July 1998): 28–30. What Winston overlooks and
what needs more critical attention is the fact that Muybridge, himself
a rather flamboyant showman, would eventually take his images and
his ideas “on the road.” Part informative lecture, part entertainment,
Muybridge’s lecture circuit is another embodiment of the attraction.
Gordon Hendricks, Eadweard Muybridge: The Father of the Motion
Picture (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 28. Hendricks quotes from The
San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, May 25, 1870. While smartly and
thoroughly researched, Hendricks is prone to hyperbole (his title indicates as much, relying as it does upon a patrilineal logic that recent
scholarship has convincingly questioned). Musser’s work on Muybridge
in The Emergence of Cinema provides some much-needed balance and
is especially attentive to Muybridge’s complex relationship to the
“business” of images. It is, however, Hendricks’s ability to weave into
his biography contemporary reviews of Muybridge’s work that makes
this an invaluable piece of scholarship and a brilliant glimpse into
Muybridge’s own carefully constructed public image. See also Robert
Barlett Haas, Muybridge, Man in Motion (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1976); Anita V. Mozely, Eadweard Muybridge: The
Stanford Years (Palo Alto: Stanford University, Dept. of Art, 1972); and
Kevin MacDonnell, Eadweard Muybridge: The Man who Invented the
Moving Picture (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972).
Hendricks, Eadweard Muybridge, 29. This spirit and the details of
Muybridge’s mobility are documented in both Hendricks’s and Haas’s
biographies. They are smartly and poetically expanded upon, as is
Muybridge’s general fit within the shifting technological grid of the
turn of the century, in Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard
Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (New York: Viking Press,
2003). The sense of adventure examined here, this restlessness, no
doubt accounts in part for Muybridge’s much earlier journey from his
native England to the United States. Mobility for Muybridge, in other
words, was a principle and longstanding concern.
Hendricks, Eadweard Muybridge, 19. Hendricks quotes from The
Daily Alta California, San Francisco, February 19, 1868.
The Daily Alta California, San Francisco, August 3, 1877, quoted in
Haas, Muybridge, Man in Motion, 94.
The Post (1877), quoted in Haas, Muybridge, Man in Motion, 94.
Linda Williams, “Film Body: An Implementation of Perversions,”
Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, Philip Rosen,
ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986): 507–34.
Of course the images and their own reproducibility are a part of this
revolution, a notion Walter Benjamin reminds us of. See Walter
Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”
Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York:
Schocken Books, 1969): 217–51.
Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992), 160.
Projection, of course, was dependent upon a light source, typically a
magic lantern. The device also served as a printer. Like Muybridge’s
traveling operations under the pseudonym “Helios,” the brothers had
developed, on a much more portable scale, a traveling motion picture
studio. For a concise history of these developments, see Christie, The
Last Machine, 23. See also Tom Gunning, “New Thresholds of Vision:
Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumière,”
Impossible Presence: Surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era, ed. Terry
Smith (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001): 72–99, for an
excellent historical contextualization of the Lumières that suggests the
importance of the brothers’ amateur roots in the formation of their
unique relationship to the world around them.
Gunning’s “New Thresholds of Vision” illuminates the parallel
between the brothers’ aesthetic sensibilities and a related movement in
amateur photography.
For the sake of clarity, I include only the approximate English titles of
the Lumières’ films followed by their number in the catalogue.
Musser’s ideas are found in the notes that accompany the DVD collection of Lumière films, The Lumière Brothers’ First Films.
Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality,
Miriam Bratu Hansen, intro. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1960), 31.
Ian Christie comments in passing on a special magazine publication
entitled L’illustration, whose sole purpose was to explain the screen
trickery to which audiences were being so frequently exposed. See
Christie, The Last Machine, 84.
Christie, The Last Machine, 21. The titles actually read “Oh . . . Mother
will be pleased.”
And, I should add, something that J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash
seemed most acutely aware of in its troubling eroticization of the
same. David Cronenberg’s 1997 film of the same name recapitulates
the idea.
For more on the Lumières’ roaming cameramen see Christie, The Last
Machine, 23.
From the notes accompanying The Lumière Brothers’ First Films.
In many ways combating what in truth was, from the beginning, a
debasement of Siegfried Kracauer’s understanding of the relative
“realism” of the Lumières and the artifice of Méliès, recent scholarship
has suggested the diversity of both. Elizabeth Ezra, for example, has
indicated the highly cinematic character of Méliès’s approach and has
unearthed the sometimes veiled narrative logic that governs his tricks.
See Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film, and Elizabeth Ezra Georges
Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 2000).
John Frazer, Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès
(Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979), 95. Méliès’s “role” in the film suggests a degree
of self-consciousness that moves well beyond need or self-promotion.
Ibid., 98.
Paul Hammond, Marvelous Méliès (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
1975), 117.
43. Christie, The Last Machine, 20.
44. For more on what remains one of early cinema’s most recognizable
shots, see Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, 354–55.
45. Musser, “The Travel Genre in 1903–1904,” 129.
46. This remains a popular movie premise, from Jan de Bont’s bus thriller
Speed (1994) to James Cameron’s fatally romantic shipboard
romance, Titanic (1998). David R. Ellis’s highly parodic Snakes on a
Plane (2006) takes the premise to its illogical extreme.
47. Charles Musser, for example, has argued that “of all the symbols of
urban life, Vitagraph was most enchanted by the automobile, which
was still a vehicle for the well to do.” See Musser, The Emergence of
Cinema, 410. While the fact that the automobile was a central early
cinematic subject is incontestable, the critical social role of this thematic focus has been left largely unexamined.
48. For more on this see Auerbach, “Chasing Film Narrative: Repetition,
Recursion, and the Body in Early Cinema.”
49. This reliance on a vehicle linked with tradition, decidedly anti-technological, and inextricably tied to “the land” finds its ultimate expression in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), a film that, like these,
finds its protagonist ambling toward familial reunification.
50. Though Niver assigns the film the 1912 date (it was, according to his
research, both shot and registered in that year), the film’s opening title
card suggests that the film was made the year prior, in 1911.
Chapter 2
1. New editions of Barry Keith Grant’s Film Genre Reader would suggest,
in fact, that even the notion of a “strict” generic approach is something
of a misnomer, as the field of genre studies continues to flex to accommodate a wide array of approaches. See Barry Keith Grant, Film Genre
Reader III (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003).
2. Corrigan’s formulation, as we have seen, is substantially more complex and considers, in a manner typically neglected by the scholars
writing in his wake, the critical and often non-cinematic cultural
forces that come to bear on genre generally and have resulted, through
a not altogether easy alchemy, in the road movie in particular. See
Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls, 137–60.
3. Hosted by Gig Young, the program was part of the “Warner Brothers
Presents” series and functioned as a sort of behind the scenes sneak
preview intended to generate interest in Warner Brothers’s latest project.
4. The film’s influence upon the cinema’s creators continues to be a
highly documented fact. See, for example, Arthur M. Eckstein and
Peter Lehman, eds., The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s
Classic Western (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), where
the longevity of the film’s hold upon the cinematic imagination is
remarked upon repeatedly, both in the book’s preface and within the
essays themselves. This recent collection of essays, however, is most
remarkable for its ability to bring together perspectives on the film
from an especially broad, not necessarily cine-centric group of
David Laderman, Driving Visions, 36. For more on Klinger’s highly relevant stance on the possibility of “subversive” genre, see Barbara
Klinger, “‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited: The Progressive
Genre,” Barry Keith, ed., Film Genre Reader III (Austin, University of
Texas Press, 2003), 87–90.
David Laderman, Driving Visions, 37.
Ibid., 36.
The first quote is reprinted in Tom Milne, trans. and ed., Godard on
Godard (New York: De Capo Press), 44. The second quote is from
Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction a une veritable histoire du cinema, vol. 1
(Paris: Editions Albatross, 1980), 92.
See Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Perspectives on Film Noir, ed.
R. Barton Palmer (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), 99–109. The article
originally appeared in Film Comment 8, no. 1 (Spring 1972), 8–13
R. Barton Palmer, ed. Perspectives on Film Noir (New York: G. K. Hall,
1996), 14–17. See also Raymond Durgnat, “Paint it Black: The Family
Tree of Film Noir,” Cinema (U.K.), nos. 6–7 (August 1970), 49–56. It
should be noted, too, that Schrader’s formulation follows from and
grows out of the French criticism that pre-dates it.
James Naremore, at a February 14, 1999 talk at the National Gallery of
Art in Washington, DC, pointed out the interesting and often confused fact that the term film noir was not coined by the French as a
reaction to American films of a certain type but that, in fact, French
writers in the 1930s had used the term to discuss Popular Front films
like Pépé le Moko (1936). Noticing a similar strain of films in America
in the 1940s, French critics applied the term accordingly. See James
Naremore, More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1998), 15, for a discussion that moves in
the same direction. The matter, of course, was not helped by many of
the early New Wave critics, who contributed to the conflation between
crime and gangster film and noir. For more on the range of noir
themes, see J. P. Telotte, Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of
Film Noir (Urbana and Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1989)
which, I might add, is especially attentive to the highly formalized role
of noir narration.
Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the
American City (New York: Owl, 1997), 93. For more on the cinema’s
urban fascinations, noir and otherwise, see David B. Clarke, ed., The
Cinematic City (New York: Routledge, 1997); Mark Shiel and Tony
Fitzmaurice, Screening the City (New York, Verso, 2003). Frank
Krutnik, “Something More than Night: Tales of the Noir City,” in
Clarke, ed., The Cinematic City, 83–109, is particularly instructive in
its ability to lay out the details of noir’s urban geography.
Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night, 94.
James Naremore, More than Night, 145–50.
Interacting with strangers throughout the film, Al is most typically
referred to as Roberts.
Andrew Britton has written convincingly on the unreliability of Al’s
narration and the points where that narration breaks from the images
we are afforded. See Andrew Britton, “Detour,” The Book of Film Noir,
ed. Ian Cameron, (New York: Continuum, 1993), 174–78.
As Britton points out, however, the brief time they spend on-screen
together seems to tell a different story. See Britton, “Detour,” 175.
For more on the role of women in noir, see Elizabeth Cowie, “Film
Noir and Women,” in Shades of Noir: A Reader, ed. Joan Copjec (New
York: Verso, 1993), 121–66. Copjec’s reader offers a fascinatingly
diverse set of perspectives on noir, as does Ian Cameron’s, published
the same year. See Ian Cameron, ed., The Book of Film Noir (New York:
Continuum, 1993).
The “lunacy” of the desert is commented upon in Baudrillard’s
America and would seem to be a factor in the subtitle to Corrigan’s
chapter on genre, “The Road Movie in Outer Space.”
Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang,
1994), 105.
Washington, DC’s National Building Museum featured an exhibit on
the culture of road travel, “See the U.S.A.,” in which this marketing
was nicely demonstrated. The exhibit ran from November 19, 1999
through May 7, 2000.
For more on the frontier myth’s function within American history, see
Richard Slotkin, “Myth and the Production of History,” Ideology and
Classic American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch et al. (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1987), 70–90.
André Bazin, “The Western, or the American Film Par Excellence,”
What is Cinema? Volume II. (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1971), 140. For an excellent analysis of the cinematic western as genre,
see Thomas Schatz, “The Western,” Handbook of American Film
Genres, ed. Wes D. Gehring (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988),
24–46. See also Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye, eds., The Book of
Westerns (New York: Continuum, 1996).
For more on the Western’s presentation of what he calls “the basic scenario,” see Joseph Reed, American Scenarios: The Uses of Film Genre
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 255.
John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is an example of this sort of film that
focuses on Western migration and the “threat” of passing through
Indian territory.
26. There are, to be sure, several Westerns that focus on female characters.
Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1953) is, perhaps, the most interesting. The
contrast, though, is remarkable. In Ray’s film Vienna (Joan Crawford)
does everything in her power to, in the final analysis, stay home.
27. Lee Clark Mitchell, Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
28. Extrapolating this idea somewhat, and applying it to a key road movie
not closely examined in these pages but referenced throughout, we
might suggest that Thelma and Louise’s journey, in Ridley Scott’s
Thelma and Louise (1991), is a masculinizing one in that both characters are forced at every turn to use essentializing and stereotypically
masculine means to escape the situations they face. This is perhaps
why, for an unusually elongated period after the film’s release, the
film’s “feminism,” or, conversely, its “reactionary” stance, continued to
be debated by critics and scholars alike.
29. Linda Williams, Hard-Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the
Visible,” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 43.
30. As a number of the essayists in Eckstein and Lehman’s anthology note,
the actual number of years here is notoriously difficult to figure out.
31. Lee Mitchell, Westerns, 11. See also Jane Tompkins, West of Everything
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
32. In Driving Visions Laderman traces the quest motif from classical
Hollywood era films through contemporary road movies organized
around the same logic. The theme is also a guiding one in the essays
collected in Cohan and Hark, The Road Movie Book.
33. Gaylan Studlar, “‘What Would Martha Want?’: Captivity, Purity, and
Feminine Values in The Searchers,” ed. Arthur M. Eckstein Peter
Lehman, The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic
Western (Detroit: Wayne State Univeristy Press, 2004), 171–96. An
interesting and differently gendered companion to Studlar’s essay is
Philip Skerry, “What Makes a Man to Wander? Ethan Edwards of John
Ford’s The Searchers,” New Orleans Review (Winter 1991): 86–91.
34. Interestingly Mose, the Fordian/Shakespearean wise fool, looks forward throughout the film to an end to his own wandering and longs to
rest, as he does in the film’s closing images, on the porch in his promised rocking chair.
35. Young Jim Morrison’s recurring dream of the crashed American
Indians on the side of the road that appears in Stone’s The Doors
(1991) is another important moment.
36. For more on the history of Monument Valley, its roads, and
Hollywood’s use of it, see Richard E. Klinck, Land of Room Enough and
Time Enough (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953).
Ford’s particular “conquest” of the location is documented in the
“Warner Brothers Presents” series included in the DVD extras of The
37. Lee Mitchell, Westerns, 93.
38. Ibid., 97.
Chapter 3
1. Like so many Godard quotes, this one is notoriously difficult to
source. Colin MacCabe, in his recent biography on Godard, indicates
in a note his own frustration in tracing the source of these oft-quoted
words which, Godard still insists, are themselves a direct quote of D.
W. Griffith. MacCabe’s research has turned up nothing to support or
crumble Godard’s claim. See Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the
Artist at Seventy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), 391.
The issue is not helped by the fact that the details of the quote itself
vary from time to time. A case in point is to be found in Jacques
Rancière and Charles Tesson’s 2001 interview with Godard for Cahiers
du cinéma, where the interviewers approach Godard with “In
Histoire(s) du cinéma, you say that America is ‘a girl and a gun,’” to
which Godard replies, “It was Griffith who said that, not me. What he
meant to say at the time was fairly simple. You only need a revolver
and a girl and you can make a film. Likewise, when I saw Voyage in
Italy I thought, ‘With two characters in a car you can make a film.’” As
the exchange reveals, the variations on the quote are limitless, though
this author is especially intrigued by its recent automotive suggestiveness. See Jean-Luc Godard: The Future(s) of Film: Three Interviews
2000/2001 (Berlin: Gachnang & Springer, 2002), 60.
2. Though Godard’s perspective has flexed to accommodate more fully
America’s continued and far more alarming political mobility, his
recent comments demonstrate his continued frustration over the freedom with which American ideology roams the planet. Just prior to the
shooting of Notre musique, Godard told Frédéric Bonnaud, “The
Americans say they are defending themselves by traveling around the
world and going into other people’s countries.” Godard continues,
turning back to America’s cultural imperialism, saying, “In a way, the
cinema I know, the one I live in, has always felt like the cinema of an
occupied country. And the occupier has always been Hollywood.” See
“Occupational Hazards: JLG at Work, as told to Frédéric Bonnaud,”
Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2005): 37–41.
3. For reasons having largely to do with traffic jams, Laderman and
Sargeant and Watson, for example, attend to Weekend. There seems to
be, in both of these works, an acknowledgment of Godard’s interest in
automobility but little desire to plumb the depths of this interest or to
examine its impact on the wave of American films that followed from
Godard. John Orr, in a chapter called “Commodified Demons II: The
Automobile,” is more generally interested in the role cars play in
Godard’s work and the films that arise from Godard’s automotive passions. See John Orr, Cinema and Modernity (Cambridge, Polity Press,
1993), 127–54. His chapter “The Absent Image and the Unreal Object”
(86–107) is similarly concerned and begins to articulate the road’s
centrality in international postwar films that contemplate notions of
home and displacement.
See Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (New York:
SUNY Press, 1997), 18. Though more whimsically hyperbolic,
Godard’s statement also resembles Corrigan’s ideas regarding generic
See, for example, Dennis Turner, “Breathless: Mirror Stage of the
Nouvelle Vague,” SubStance 12 (1983): 50–63.
While Baudrillard’s writing frequently returns to the subject, the concept is most explicitly laid out in Simulacra and Simulation, trans.
Sheila Faria Glaser Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Dudley Andrew, ed., Breathless (New Brunswick: Rutgers University
Press, 1995), 14. For more on the noir elements of the film, see also
Steve Smith, “Godard and Film Noir: A Reading of A bout de souffle,”
Nottingham French Studies 32, no. 1 (March 1993): 65–73. Smith’s suggestion that “Godard does not so much imitate as enact the process of
imitation thorough the story of a perilous and fatal attempt to imitate” (67) is especially relevant here.
Andrew, Breathless, 14.
Quoted in David Sterritt, ed., Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews (Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 97. The phrase “I’m living more
than I’m moving” is in the original, though I suspect, given the larger
context and the opacity of the phrase itself, that Godard should be
quoted as saying that he is “living more when he is moving.”
Journalism and a more generalized notion of “the press” are ideas that
occur with regularity in the films of Godard, who was himself a journalist (of the film-critical sort) before his entrée into the cinema. Sam
Fuller, another journalist (of the yellow sort)-turned-filmmaker and a
director very near the center of Godard’s referential universe, also frequently invoked the imagery of the press in his films. Wim Wenders’s
Kings of the Road, in its frequent images of newspapers, has both directors in mind. In the work of all three filmmakers, the press arises as an
earlier example of media-mobility and the rapidity of modern communication. This idea and its connectedness to automobility is brilliantly
expressed in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde—where publicity is a catalyst for sustained mobility—and is updated for the late twentieth century in Oliver Stone’s similarly media-obsessed Natural Born Killers
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations refer to the English Language
continuity script, reprinted in Dudley Andrew, ed. Breathless. Michel’s
gesture references a Bogart tic that is seen only occasionally in his feature
roles but turns up with some regularity in publicity and newsreel
images. The actor, who famously had a hard time deciding what to do
with his hands, fidgeted even more, for example, in footage of his late
1940s Committee for the First Amendment activities.
Robert Kolker, The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 176.
Of course, Godard’s stylistic experimentation became, in due time,
conventional in its own right. By the mid-1960s, Madison Avenue had
invested so deeply in what it perceived as a new, more youthful visual
grammar that TV ads from the period seem overcome with jarring
edits. See Dudley Andrew, ed. Breathless, 11. This process of mainstreaming (and selling) also had a profound effect on American cinema of the period. The ripples of what we might rather narrowly call
“Godardian” form extend into our contemporary images as well,
affecting, by way of Richard Lester, the rock video aesthetic to be sure,
but more centrally affecting what has become the road movie’s dominant form. Hyperbolic and overstated as they are, Oliver Stone’s formal explosions in Natural Born Killers are Godardian in reverse,
commenting on the commercial culture that appropriated Godard’s
structure and the manner by which this culture has seduced another
generation of viewers-turned-consumers.
Michel Marie, “‘It really makes you sick!’: Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de
souffle (1959),” French Film: Texts and Contexts, ed. Susan Hayward
and Ginette Vincendeau (New York: Routledge, 1990), 207.
For a nearly comprehensive cataloguing of the various critical approaches
to Godard’s editing, see Richard Raskin, “Five Explanations for the Jump
Cuts in Godard’s Breathless,” POV: A Danish Journal of Film Studies 6
(Dec. 1998): 141–53. Perhaps most valuable for its plea not to sacrifice one
reading in favor of another, Raskin’s list also indicates the fascination surrounding this singular formal decision.
Raskin identifies some of the key “metaphorical” readers of Godard’s
editing, critics for whom the jumpcuts are directly connected to
Michel’s fractured perspective. See, for example, Bosley Crowther,
“Breathless,” The New York Times, February 8, 1961, Section 1. See also
Luc Moullet, “Jean-Luc Godard,” Cahiers du cinéma (April 1960):
25–26. For a more nuanced reading, though one that, as Raskin points
out, fails to supply adequate evidence, see Annie Goldmann, Cinéma
et société moderne (Paris: Denoël/Gonthier, 1971/1974), 85–86.
As our next chapter will demonstrate, the elusiveness of these desires will
be picked up by Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, a film with the tagline “A
man went searching for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”
Michel Marie, “‘It really makes you sick!’” 209.
Ibid, 211.
Andrew, Breathless, 8.
Quoted in Wheeler Winston Dixon, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, 16.
22. Quoted in David Sterritt, ed., Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews, 100.
23. I should interrupt myself briefly to explain the apparent “ease and
plentitude” of my own argumentative movement. As I have indicated
elsewhere, the examples I have chosen to explore in Road Movies, my
particular case studies, are not unique but exemplary. Not only could
or should other Godard films be considered in this context, but the
films of Federico Fellini, especially La Strada (1954), fit well into this
paradigm. Fellini’s film, even in its casting of Anthony Quinn, seems to
raise questions about American mobility. The films of Michelangelo
Antonioni come to mind as well. Antonioni was every bit as motionobsessed as Godard, though always, because of the expansive emptiness that is so central a part of his form, less likely to be accused of
celebrating rapidity or spontaneity. Zabriskie Point (1969) is not only
a road movie (like L’avventura [1960], like The Passenger [1975]), it is
a film set in the United States, soaked in and critical of the hypocrisy
of its own era. And the examples are not just European in origin.
Satyajit Ray, most especially in the Apu trilogy (1955–59), expresses a
deep commitment to exploring the idea of literal travel and the mobility of, here, Western culture.
24. This moment, of course, is another rupture in the film’s narrative skin,
one that works in coordination with the film’s highly self-conscious
(albeit entirely convenient) film and film-critical population: Godard
himself, Jean-Pierre Melville, André S. Labarthe, Jean Domarchi,
Philippe de Broca, Jean Douchet, and Jacques Sicilier all appear in the
film and are all filmmakers and/or film critics. Though they are not
credited in the film itself, Dudley Andrew’s continuity script identifies
these key figures. See Andrew, Breathless, 32.
25. Ibid., 52, emphasis mine.
26. Michel’s relationship to the camera is similar to the brief, though
important, relationship between Jim Stark (James Dean) and Buzz
(Corey Allen) in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). In Ray’s
film, a “chickie run” between the young men establishes “manhood,”
with tragic consequences. In Godard’s film, Michel and the camera
seem enmeshed in their own “chickie run,” and the reasons seem similar. As Buzz tells Jim, “You gotta do something.” The camera seems to
pose a similar, though non-verbal, command to Michel.
27. Quoted in Andrew, Breathless, 165.
28. Ibid., 111.
29. Ibid., 7.
30. Howard Hawks’s El Dorado would not appear until 1967, but the legend of the Promised Land of gold was very much in circulation in
1959 and would later attract Werner Herzog to Peru to shoot Aguirre,
Wrath of God (1977). The legend is relevant also to Godard’s film,
which, after all, is about two characters in search of their own mythic
land: Patricia seeks to exist in a mythic Paris, and Michel searches for
some equally mythic cinematic version of America.
Andrew, Breathless, 11.
Ibid., 15.
Fuller appears some years later in Godard’s Pierrot le fou.
Dennis Turner, “Breathless: Mirror Stage of the Nouvelle Vague,”
SubStance 12 (1983): 50–63.
Chapter 4
1. Nancy Hardin and Marilyn Schlossberg, eds., Easy Rider: Original
Screenplay by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern Plus
Stills, Interviews and Articles (New York: Signet, 1969), 11. I should
note, also, that Hopper is now far more articulate and significantly less
romantic about the director’s role generally and his own role specifically on Easy Rider. Kenneth Bowser’s film, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
(2003) finds Hopper discussing in remarkably frank terms his fortune
in being aided by the talent that surrounded him and in being given,
in spite of his admitted excesses, free rein on a project that was not
guaranteed to succeed.
2. David Laderman’s Driving Visions explores many of these films.
3. Again, I have singled out the French New Wave and Godard specifically in
spite of, for example, Hopper’s marked interest in the thematically similar
cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni. Hopper’s emerging grasp of cinematic modernism, in 1969, seems to have been confined to Godardian
experiments in editing and was less involved in the contemplative study of
mise-en-scène that was the hallmark of Antonioni’s work.
4. Laderman’s Driving Visions explores the idea of drift as it is filtered
through Leo Charney. Reduced—problematically I think—to a sense
of aimlessness and wandering, the idea becomes central to Laderman’s
thesis that the road movie has become, post–Easy Rider, less politically
engaged. Tracing Charney’s idea to its Barthesian roots, however, the
road’s seductive capacities, similar to the seductive power of the
Barthesian text, emerge in a manner that foregrounds the cinema’s
longstanding use of the road as false temptress. See Leo Charney,
Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift (Durham: Duke
University Press, 1998).
5. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New
York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 6.
6. Barthes’ concept of the drift owes much to the Situationist
International’s understanding of the dérive—a favorite play-form of
SI and its predecessor organization, the Lettrist International. Libero
Andreotti describes the process as “the art of wandering through
urban space” (38). See Libero Andreotti, “Play-tactics of the
Internationale Situationiste,” October 91, (Winter 2000): 36–58.
Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 19.
For more on the nostalgic and nationalistic uses of landscape in the
film, see Barbara Klinger, “The Road to Dystopia,” Steven Cohan and
Ina Rae Hark, eds., The Road Movie Book (New York: Routledge, 1997),
179–203. Jennifer Lynn Peterson traces the roots of this impulse in
“The Nation’s First Playground: Travel Films and The American West,
1895–1920,” Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel, ed. Jeffrey Ruoff
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 79–98. And this particular
landscape features rather prominently in Baudrillard’s America, as
André Bazin, “The Western, or the American Film Par Excellence,”
What is Cinema? Volume II. (Berkeley: UC Press, 1971), 141.
Ibid, 140.
The article is reprinted in the notes accompanying the laser disc version of the film.
Tom Burke, “Will Easy Do It for Dennis Hopper?,” Hardin and
Schlossberg, eds., Easy Rider: Original Screenplay, 16.
The Last Movie contains a film within a film directed by Sam Fuller,
favored director of Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders. The gesture,
in Hopper’s hands, seems only to mimic the French director (Fuller
appears in Pierrot le fou [1964]). Wenders casts Fuller in The American
Friend (1977), The State of Things (1982), and The End of Violence
(1997). This interplay suggests the policy of exchange and borrowing
that exists within the road genre.
Dennis Hopper, “Into the Issue of the Good Old Time Movie Versus
the Good Old Time,” Hardin and Schlossberg, eds., Easy Rider:
Original Screenplay, 11.
For a highly articulate study of 1960s cinematic politics that answers
far more than its albeit quite important titular question, see Mark
Shiel, “Why Call Them ‘Cult Movies’? American Independent Filmmaking and the Counterculture in the 1960s,” Scope: An Online Journal
of Film Studies (May, 2003),
Quoted in Eric Rentschler, ed., West German Filmmakers on Film:
Visions and Voices (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988), 43–44.
Unlike its function in Saussurean semiology, here the sign, while
understood, effectively truncates communication. See Ferdinand De
Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (Peru: Open Court, 1986).
Lee Hill, Easy Rider (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 1996),
Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock
’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1998), 70. Kenneth Bowser’s 2002 documentary film borrows its name
from and claims to be based on Biskind’s book and should be consulted as well, though its tone is far more uncritically adoring and
runs very near the territory of hero worship.
Chapter 5
1. See Jeffrey Ruoff, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension,” Virtual Voyages
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 12.
2. Robert Kolker and Peter Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema
as Vision and Desire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),
1–2. Kolker and Beicken’s examination is singular both for its clarity
and its coverage and remains the central critical source on Wenders.
See also Alexander Graf, The Cinema of Wim Wenders: The Celluloid
Highway (London, Wallflower Press, 2002). Where Kolker and Beicken
usefully cast a wide net, Graf works more closely, guided by a singular
and deeply important question (a question the filmmaker and this
author obsess over as well) regarding what might best be called the
cinema’s narrative drive. The resulting text is more a sustained and
quite convincing argument than a critical overview and compliments
its predecessor (which, oddly, is scantly referenced) quite nicely. Roger
F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden’s The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image,
Narrative and the Postmodern Condition (Detroit: Wayne State
University, 1997) also provides a useful overview.
3. Michael Covino, “A Worldwide Homesickness,” Film Quarterly
(Winter 1977–78): 9–19.
4. Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders, 4.
5. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 19.
6. Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders, 22
7. Pinball machines, featured in many of Wenders’s films and with which
Wenders spent much of his youth, function on exactly this logic of
“betweenness.” Pinball machines provide an interesting metaphor for
Wenders’s cinematic world, which typically focuses on characters
attempting to “stay in play” in a world where events and obstacles
occur randomly.
8. Wim Wenders, The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations, 16
(brackets mine).
9. Like the “no vacancy” scene in Easy Rider, signs here are mutually
understood. Here, however, the pre-verbal serves to establish rather
than further sever community.
10. The legacy of Volkswagen, especially the company’s commercial relationship to Nazism, is here quite literally sunk. The Beetle’s Germanic
roots make it an impossible vehicle for either of the film’s characters,
who are undone, at least in part, by their uncomfortable relationships
to their nation and its history. Later in the film, at a lunch counter at a
VW plant, Robert decides to join Bruno in his drifting repairman’s
Gerd Gemünden, in “On The Way to Language: Wenders’ Kings of the
Road,” comments on the non-verbal linguistic playfulness of this scene
and hints at the politics of desire that seem to inform it. His analysis,
however, leaves out the critical openness of this desire’s subject/object
relationship and fails to recognize the fact that language is one of the
scene’s desirable objects. See Gerd Gemünden, “On the Way to
Language: Wenders’ Kings of the Road,” Film Criticism XV, no. 2
(Winter 1991), 16.
Robert Kolker and Peter Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders, 71.
For more on the fascinating history of Bibendum, see the company’s
excellent and surprisingly thorough historical website at: http://www
9&lang=EN. By the company’s own account, Bibendum was more
than a corporate mascot; he was something of a pop-cultural icon
whose visibility signified in very specific ways, ways that moved (the
company would like us to believe) beyond product sales.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans.
Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 82–90.
Ibid., 5
For a detailed analysis of the film’s interest in the idea of language, see
Timothy Corrigan, “Wender’s [sic] Kings of the Road: The Voyage from
Desire to Language,” New German Critique 24–25 (Fall/Winter
1981–82): 94–107. See also Gerd Gemünden, “On the Way to
Language: Wenders’ Kings of the Road,” 13–28.
Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders, 78.
Ibid., 54
Key also is the shape of this device and its symbolic association with
German military history generally and Nazism in particular. The connection is never commented upon, but the film’s occasional referencing of German cinematic fathers—the pictures of Fritz Lang that
appear in the film—and Wenders’s acknowledged uncomfortable relationship to German images indicate that the association is working in
the background.
“The American Dream,” quoted in Wim Wenders, Emotion Pictures:
Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Sean Whiteside in association with
Michael Hofmann (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 144.
A mobile home also figures prominently in Wenders’s The State of
Things (1982).
For a smart reading of this notion of American mobility in New
German Cinema, see William Beard, “American Madness,” Yearbook of
Comparative and General Literature, 40 (January 1992): 59–74. See
also Eric Rentschler, “American Friends and New German Cinema:
Patterns of Reception,” New German Critique 24–25 (Fall/Winter
1981–82): 7–35.
For more on the historical context of the New German Cinema, its
political investments, and young German culture’s relationship to
American popular culture, see Timothy Corrigan, New German Film
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). Eric Rentschler’s West
German Film in the Course of Time: Reflections on the Twenty Years
since Oberhausen (Bedford Hills: Redgrave Publishing Company,
1984) is also a useful overview, as is John Sanford, The New German
Cinema (New York: Oswald Wolff, 1980).
Wim Wenders, “The Men in the Rodeo Arena: Lusty,” Emotion
Pictures, 114–15.
Bruno’s process of concealment and his subsequent return to the place
of his birth are interestingly related to Sigmund Freud’s ideas regarding the uncanny, das unheimliche. In his work on the uncanny, Freud
recognizes the ambivalence of the term. See Sigmund Freud, “The
‘Uncanny,’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works
of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press,
1997), 224. Bruno’s journey to the house where he lived alone with his
mother functions according to both of Freud’s definitions. On the one
hand, it is a journey back to the familiar, back to the womb, as it were.
The mise-en-scène of this portion of the journey is, in fact, strangely
womb-like—shrouded in fog, concealed. On the other hand, it is a terrifying moment, where multiple layers of concealment are exposed.
Bruno’s connection to the past is called to the surface, as is his connection to the maternal, which in the Freudian sense is always simultaneously comforting and terrifying.
Wim Wenders, “Kings of the Road,” The Logic of Images, 13.
Quoted in Nancy Hardin and Marilyn Schlossberg, Easy Rider:
Original Screenplay by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern
Plus Stills, Interviews and Articles (New York: Signet, 1969), 28.
Kolker and Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders, 59.
Chapter 6
1. My ideas about the film and about Stone more generally owe a great
deal to Robert Kolker’s chapter on Stone—whom he pairs with fellow
road film maker Arthur Penn—in The Cinema of Loneliness. See
Robert Kolker, The Cinema of Loneliness, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2000).
2. Roland Barthes, S/Z, Richard Miller, trans. (New York: Hill and Wang,
1994), 3.
3. Gavin Smith, “Oliver Stone: Why Do I Have to Provoke?” Sight and
Sound (December 1994): 10.
4. Gary Crowdus and Richard Porton, “The Importance of a Singular,
Guiding Vision: An Interview with Arthur Penn” Cineaste 20, no. 2
(1993): 9.
5. Smith, “Oliver Stone” 12. Few critics, in fact, neglect to mention
Stone’s legendary heavy-handedness. For a smart, contemporary
review of the film, see Nick James, “Natural Born Killers: Film Review,”
Sight and Sound (March 1995): 44–45. For a somewhat more typical
summation of Stone’s style, see Jon Katz, “Natural Born Killjoy,” Wired
(December 1994): 126–33.
6. While both films are certainly in some way “about” the aftermath of
the Vietnam War, it is perhaps this critical gesture toward the media
that sets Stone’s film apart. In the years following the “crisis” in the
Gulf, Stone poignantly critiques “the first” multimedia war.
7. Smith, “Oliver Stone,” 12.
8. Inland Empire (2006) is less concerned with the physical image of the
9. I am not alone in my identification of this tendency. See, for example,
Michel Chion, David Lynch (London: British Film Institute, 1995), 92,
for a discussion of the strange familial politics of Blue Velvet. Chion
also contends that Wild at Heart, aside from being a film enmeshed in
the plot of The Wizard of Oz, is “a film of childhood” (138). See also
Charles Drazin, Charles Drazin on Blue Velvet: Bloomsbury Movie
Guide No. 3 (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), for a discussion of “families” (50–51) and The Wizard of Oz (172–76). I should note, however,
that despite their learnedness, both books suffer for their imitation of
Lynch’s own organizational strategies and the subject of his 1968 short
film The Alphabet. The strategy confuses and creates the artificial “feeling” that things are connected by virtue of their fitting into their
alphabetical categories. For a more scholarly approach to Lynch’s work
through Lost Highway, and one that attempts to get at the heart of the
sometimes confusing gender politics of Lynch’s work, see Martha
Nochimson, The Passion of David Lynch (Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1997). Additionally, my Two Lane Blacktop vs. The Wizard of Oz
dichotomy is itself overstated, though usefully so. What’s at issue, I
think, has more to do with public perception—Hellman’s film as
rebellious, anti-social, and the story of Dorothy in Oz as wholesome.
As we’ve seen throughout, however, these perceptions often lose sight
of the common thread that runs through both films; a thread that, in
both films, effectively returns viewers to the structures the characters
appear to flee from.
10. David Breskin, Inner Views (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992), 92.
11. See Chris Rodley, Lynch on Lynch, Revised Edition (New York: Faber
and Faber, 2005), where Lynch can be found talking about (but not
connecting) everything from his family life to, more recently, his
interest in the location of the road.
12. For an interesting discussion of the “maternal energies” at work in The
Elephant Man, see Martha Nochimson, The Passion of David Lynch
(131–38). See also David Breskin, Inner Views (70–71). Here, when
asked about the “oedipal thing” happening in his films, Lynch identifies the familial obsessions contained in The Elephant Man and, as
Breskin notes, becomes somewhat defensive over Breskin’s attempts to
find this connection across his body of work, stating that “it could just
be a coincidence” and adding, “How much is something inside me? I
think the inside-you part dictates a lot.” (71). Lynch’s choice of words
here is interesting in that they conjure up birthing images themselves—ideas residing inside of the artist.
13. Drazin, Charles Drazin on Blue Velvet, 51.
14. The second portion of this title is a quote from David Lynch from his
interview with David Breskin (72). Lynch, in defense of artistic
abstraction and works of art that create the same sort of confusion
that life offers up, uses the cliché verbally here and participates in it
visually in The Straight Story.
15. Brendan Lemon, “Even Auteurs Need a Break from Themselves,” New
York Times, October 10, 1999.
16. Kevin Jackson, “The Straight Story: Film Review,” Sight and Sound 9,
no.12 (December 1999): 58.
17. Breskin, Inner Views, 55—56.
18. Thomas Elsaesser, “The Pathos of Failure,” in The Last Great American
Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s, ed. Thomas
Elsaesser, Alexander Howarth and Noel King (Amsterdam:
Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 279–92.
19. See Charles Drazin on Blue Velvet , 64—66, for more on Lynch’s interest
in Edward Hopper. It is Hopper’s capturing of an America so real as to
be unreal (as in Baudrillard), I think, that Lynch finds so captivating.
20. Jackson, “The Straight Story,” 58
1. Antonioni’s metaphorical use of travel in this film and elsewhere, in fact,
holds as central a place as Godard’s in the history of vehicularity’s critical
function in the cinema. For an excellent and smartly contextualized
reading of the Italian road movie more generally and its own considerable international influence, see Kerstin Pilz, “Dreams of Escape:
Variations of the Italian Road Movie,” Romance Studies 21, no. 2 (July
2003): 140–52.
Murray’s work for Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic) and in
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation establish him as something of an
iconic mid-life wanderer, a status Jarmusch clearly capitalizes on.
Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), with its premarital chaos and
tidily ironic marital ending is a poor but widely popular film that,
nonetheless, moves in the same direction as Jarmusch’s film. This
direction even more blatantly descends, in Payne’s case, from the happily hokey road-elopement films explored at the beginning of this
book, films that begin with the illusion of institutional escape only to
find the outlaws themselves re-absorbed, surrounded by in-laws.
Though not released in theaters in the United States at the time of this
writing, Kiarostami’s latest feature endeavor, Tickets (2005), features
sections directed by Britain’s Ken Loach and Italy’s Ermanno Olmi, as
well. In step with Kiarostami’s larger transportational interests, the
film is organized around three stories taking place on the same intercity train traveling between Central Europe and Rome.
Jarmusch’s work with Wenders’s cinematographer Robby Müller and
his relationship with Finnish road movie director Aki Kaurismäki is
suggestive of this international interplay.
I am especially grateful to Azar Nafisi for her role in organizing
“Encounters With Kiarostami,” a month-long series of screenings and
dialogues with the director held between March and April of 2001 at
the Freer Gallery of Art, The National Gallery of Art, and the Johns
Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
in Washington, DC. The series introduced me to a number of rarely
screened Kiarostami films and, along with his collection of photography, made abundantly clear his unyielding interest in the metaphorical richness of the road. See Mir-Ahmad Mir-Ehsan and Abbas
Kiarostami, Abbas Kiarostami: Photo Collection, trans. Claude Karbassi
(Tehran, Iranian Art Publishing, 2000), for a photographic and poetic
journey through Kiarostami’s road obsession.
Nassia Hamid, “Near and Far: Abbas Kiarostami with Nassia Hamid,”
Sight and Sound 7, no. 2 (February 1997): 24.
André Bazin, “De Sica: Metteur en Scène,” What is Cinema? Volume II.
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 65–66.
See Rudolf Arnheim, “The Complete Film,” from Film as Art (1957),
reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2004), 183—86, and “Film and Reality,” from Film as Art (1957),
reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism, 322–31.
Shohini Chaudhuri and Howard Finn, “The Open Image: Poetic
Realism and the New Iranian Cinema,” Screen 44, no. 1 (Spring 2003):
38–57, though not focused exclusively on Kiarostami, also traces the
layers of influence in Iranian cinema, paying particular attention to
Neorealism and the French New Wave. Key to their analysis is the
treatment of time and place in each movement.
See Godfrey Cheshire, “How to Read Kiarostami,” Cineaste 25, no. 4
(2000): 13.
Hamid, “Near and Far,” 24.
Laura Mulvey, in an article on Kiarostami written for Sight and Sound
around the time of Taste of Cherry’s British opening, explains this
road/cinema connection in terms that focus on the degree to which
both structures function to record human existence and labor is a critical factor within this process. She also identifies the preservational
capacity of both the cinema and the road—a similarity that, I think,
Kiarostami himself is both aware of and intrigued by. Roads, like film,
record and contain human activity, human mobility. See Laura Mulvey’s
“Kiarostami’s Uncertainty Principle,” Sight and Sound (June 1998): 27
Like Godard’s quip regarding guns and girls, the “origins” of this
quote are fantastically difficult to trace, cropping up as it does in a
number of interviews, essays, etc. One very early instance occurs in
Miriam Rosen, “The Camera of Art: An Interview with Abbas
Kiarostami,” Cineaste 19, nos. 2–3 (Fall 1992): 40.
Ten, a deceptively simple though highly conceptual film, has generated a good deal of critical thought, some of it Kiarostami’s own. See
Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003) for a personal overview of
Kiarostami’s work and its context. The book includes interviews with
the filmmaker where he specifically discusses Ten. Geoff Andrew’s 10
(London: British Film Institute, 2005) is a thoughtful analysis of the
film that attends both to the director’s interest in the road and in his
interest in the very act of “direction.” Kiarostami’s own 10 on Ten
(2004), which Andrew discusses, is the filmmaker’s own pedagogical,
cinematic journey through his own process. It is also yet another in a
series of Kiarostamian road movies.
See Godfrey Cheshire, “Abbas Kiarostami: Seeking a Home,”
Projections: A Forum for Filmmakers 8 (1998): 217.
Each dramatic unit in the film is marked by a number, counting down
from ten, and a counterclockwise, animated wipe. On the soundtrack,
a whirring, projector-like nose punctuated by singular bell-ring lends
to the film’s overall suggestion of time passing.
Zavattini’s oft-quoted and never cited dictum is relevant to
Kiarostami’s cinema and to the cinema of the road more generally. See
David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 4th Edition (New York:
Norton, 2004), 355—67, for an accessible account of Zavattini’s influence on Neorealism.
20. Jonathan Rosenbaum, discussing this early work and its peculiarly
appealing didacticism, connects this to Brecht’s “Lehrstücken” or
learning plays. See Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, 9.
21. Geoff Andrew, 10, 46.
ABC Africa (film), 198
Acadian Elopement, An (film), 41
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
(film), 102, 125
Alice in the Cities (film), 159
Almost Famous (film), 156
Alphaville (film), 78
Altman, Robert, 123
Amazing Race, The (TV), 183–84
American Mutoscope and Biograph
(AM&B), 9, 38, 39, 40, 41
American culture abroad, 1–5,
49–50, 75–77, 79, 86, 87–88, 89,
91, 97–98, 99–100, 147–51,
188–90, 194–95, 196–97
And Life Goes On . . . (film), 191
Andrew, Dudley, 79, 84, 90, 95, 96,
Andrew, Geoff, 199
Antonioni, Michelangelo, 183,
222n23, 223n3, 229n1
Attractions, 16, 21, 210n1
Auerbach, Jonathan, 210n1, 215n48
authorship, 101–2, 171–72, 185–86,
188, 193, 223n1
and carelessness, 38, 41–42
as central to the early cinematic imagination, 14–15
as central metaphor in Godard,
10, 77, 96
destructive powers of, 27–31,
32–33, 89
in domestic union, 37–45
in film noir, 35, 51–52
influence on cinematic narrative, 13
in Kemp Niver, 37
Muybridge’s work before the
widespread availability of,
switch from trains to, 35
automobile trick films, 27–30, 38,
Baby, Yvonne, 94
Badlands (film), 54, 102
Barthes, Roland, 10, 56–57, 103,
133, 139–40, 157
Baudrillard, Jean
America, 1–5
and American culture, 77, 158
and automobility, 103, 209n2
and Monument Valley, 71
and postmodern ecstasy,
156–57, 163, 164
on the seductiveness of the
American road, 1–5
and the simulacra, 79, 162
Bazin, André, 62, 111–12, 187–88,
190, 197
Beicken, Peter, 130, 132, 133–34,
136, 138, 153
Belasco, Warren James, 211n6
Bergson, Henri, 17–18
Bibendum. See Michelin Man
Bicycle Thieves (film), 187–88
Biskind, Peter, 113, 124
Bitzer, Billy, 9, 38, 39, 40, 44, 52
Blue Velvet (film), 165, 169–70, 177
Bonnie and Clyde (film), 54, 79, 158,
163, 164
Bonnie and Clyde myth, 91, 95,
Boxcar Bertha (film), 102
Bread and Alley (film), 187
Breaktime (film), 190
Breathless (film)
as central to road movie genre,
10, 50, 88, 99–100, 102–3
and drift, 105
and gangster genre, 78, 97
relationship to American cinema, 4, 5, 10, 50, 73, 86, 98
and travel metaphors, 89–91
Breskin, David, 167
Broken Flowers (film), 8, 156
Brown Bunny, The (film), 8, 156,
campfire as mobile domestic,
66–67, 110–11, 113, 119, 121–22,
Casey, Roger N., 211n6
Change of Heart, A (film), 42, 43
chase films, 39
Cheshire, Godfrey, 190–91
Christie, Ian, 13–14, 28–29, 35
Christopher, Nicholas, 51–52
city, the, 32, 42, 47, 51–53, 55–56,
58–59, 71, 72, 88, 90, 109–11,
112, 193
Close Up (film), 189
Cohan, Steve, 5–7
in Breathless, 83–87, 92–94,
and community, 2, 12, 26, 27,
29, 30, 39, 48, 53–54, 56–58,
68, 81, 107–8, 174, 184
failure of, 106, 114–15
in Kings of the Road, 130,
136–38, 141–47, 150–51
silent, 81, 82, 115, 141, 224n18,
225n9, 226n11
in The Straight Story, 179–81
Coppola, Francis Ford, 102
Corrigan, Timothy, 3, 6, 47
Cott, Jonathan, 80, 86
Coutard, Raoul, 82, 90
Covino, Michael, 131
Crowdus, Gary, 158
Daly, Nicholas, 14
Detour (film), 9, 47–48, 50, 52–61,
73, 82, 84, 85, 88, 108, 109, 147,
155, 159
Devil Thumbs a Ride, The (film), 52
direct editing. See jump cuts
in Breathless, 88–89
in Easy Rider, 107
and elopement films, 37–45
as male dream, 56, 58
in Lost Highway, 168–69
mockery of in Detour, 59–61
in Natural Born Killers, 160–61,
in Searchers, The, 69, 70
and the Western, 63–69
and Wim Wenders, 130–31
valorization of, 72–73
drift, 103, 104–7, 108, 133, 223n4,
Duel (film), 102
Dumb and Dumber (film), 155
Easy Rider (film)
and changes in film stock,
and editing, 119, 122, 124–25
and European influences, 102,
114, 126
and influence abroad, 126–27,
Laszlo Kovacs and, 90, 110
and language, 114–22, 138
and myths regarding shooting
schedule, 113
and the road movie genre, 102
and rock and roll, 118
and silence, 115–18
and the seductiveness of the
road, 10, 103–5, 113
and the Western, 111–12,
113–14, 120
Edison, Thomas, 9, 25, 31, 38
Eisenstein, Sergei, 15–16, 83
Electra Glide in Blue (film), 102
Elopement, The (film), 39–40
elopement films, 37–45
Explosion of a Motor Car (film), 29
familiar, the 8–9
Fellow Citizen (film), 190
film noir
automobile in, 51–52
the city in, 51–52, 112–13
defining, 50–52
flashback/voiceover in, 52–55,
85, 217n16
and French cinephilia, 216n11
Godard’s admiration of, 79
style vs. theme in, 51
fin de siècle. See turn of the century
Fire Walk with Me (film), 165
Five Dedicated to Ozu (film), 198
Five Easy Pieces (film), 102, 184
Fleming, Victor, 107
Ford, John, 9, 11, 48, 109, 110
Frazer, John, 33
Gaudreault, André, 15, 16–17,
Breathless and relationship to,
79, 85, 88
defining film noir, 50–52
flexibility of, 215n1
French New Wave and effect
on, 3–5
international influence of
American, 9, 49
road movie’s continuity with
classical era, 47
road movie’s existence outside
of, 48
Timothy Corrigan on road
movie’s relationship to, 3
Godard, Jean-Luc
on America’s international
influence, 50, 133, 219n1,
and Breathless as central to
road movie genre, 10, 50,
and cinematic reference, 76,
on mobility and communication, 80–81
roadside atrocities in the work
of, 30, 89
Great Train Robbery, The (film), 9,
28, 31, 32, 35–37, 38
Griffith, D. W., 9, 38, 39, 42, 44
Guerico, William James, 102
Gun Crazy (film), 52, 79, 82
Hales Tours, 14
Hamid, Nassia, 191
Hammond, Paul, 33, 34
Hark, Ina Rae, 5–7
Hellman, Monte, 102
Hendricks, Gordon, 19
Hepworth, Cecil, 28–29
Hill, Lee, 113
Hitchcock, Alfred, 58, 69,
Hitch-Hiker, The (film), 52, 58
Hopper, Dennis, 10, 76, 114–15,
See also Easy Rider
How It Feels to Be Run Over, 28
individual, the
and alienation in Kiarostami,
107, 186, 194
and isolation in Easy Rider, 120
in Lost Highway, 169
and the monologue in
Breathless, 84, 85, 90, 91, 93
and the monologue in Detour, 58
Interrupted Elopement, An (film),
Italian Neorealism, 83, 112, 136,
187–89, 193, 197
Jaglom, Henry, 125
Jarmusch, Jim, 8, 12, 107, 126, 185
jump cuts
in Breathless, 82–83, 85–87,
92–93, 95, 105, 221n13,
in Easy Rider, 118–19, 122,
Kerouac, Jack, 4, 133
Keystone comedies, 9, 38
Kiarostami, Abbas
and characters in search of
completeness, 107, 186
and Muybridge, 199
and Persian culture, 190–92
and personal mobility, 194
and traffic, 190, 192, 194
transportational obsessions of,
11, 186, 209n7
and Western cultural inheritance, 187–90, 194
Kings of the Road (film)
and “betweenness,” 131,
134–35, 137–38
and black and white, 126
and communication/community, 130, 136–37, 141–47,
and domesticity, 135–36, 144,
152, 227n25
and Easy Rider, 132, 153
and family, 143–44
and landscape, 131, 138
and the long take, 11, 130, 131
and silence, 136–37
and stillness, 140–41
and women, 151–54
Kirby, Lynne, 28
Klinger, Barbara, 48–49, 216n5,
Kolker, Robert, 12, 81, 130, 132,
133–34, 136, 138, 152, 227n1
Kovacs, Laszlo, 90, 110
Kracauer, Siegfried, 25–26
Lackey, Kris, 211n6
Laderman, David, 5–7, 48–49, 184
in Kings of the Road, 131
in Searchers, The, 71–72
Lewis, Joseph, 79
Locomotives. See rail travel
Los Angeles, 53, 109
Lost Highway (film), 165, 168–69
Lumière, Louis and August
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat
(film), 26–27
Automobile Accident, The
(film), 27–28, 29, 31, 38
compositional selectivity in the
work of, 24
distrust of technology/modernity in the work of, 9, 31
ideological function of mobility in the work of, 25–28
photographic origins of, 24
travel films of, 30–31
Universal Exhibition 1900: View of
a Moving Sidewalk (film), 27
Washerwomen on the River
(film), 24–25
Lupino, Ida, 58, 69
Lynch, David
and characters in search of
completeness, 107
and family values, 155–56,
166–71, 178
and postmodernity, 11
and road imagery, 155–56,
roadside atrocities in the work
of, 30
Malick, Terrence, 102
Marie, Michel, 83
Méliès, Georges
gender in the work of, 22
travel and transportation in
the work of, 29, 32–35
trick films of, 28
Trip to the Moon, A (film), 9,
31–33, 34, 38, 41
Metz, Christian, 16
Michelin Man, 138–40, 226n13
Mitchell, Lee, 63, 64, 71
of American culture, 3, 4–5, 50,
75–77, 87–88, 89, 91, 97–98,
99–100, 147–51, 188–90,
194–95, 196–97
anxiety over, 2, 35, 38–39, 45,
attractiveness of, 69, 103–5
in Breathless, 94–95
and editing, 82–83
and Godard, 80–81, 87
or “movement” and film narrative, 15–18, 32, 35, 78, 82
of Native Americans, 62, 69–70
in the Western, 63–65, 67
social costs of, 2, 8, 11, 31, 72,
Monument Valley, 71, 108–11, 125,
131, 164, 218n36
Morris, Christopher, 209n4
motorcycles, 115–16
Mulholland Drive (film), 156
Mulvey, Laura, 231n14
Musser, Charles, 15–17, 25, 31, 36
Muybridge, Eadweard
and changing ideas regarding
time and space, 21–22
critical focus on series photography, 18–19
and his doubters, 21
gender issues in the work of,
memorialization of the human
body in the work of, 22–24
motion studies of, 7, 8
and Occident, 20–21
technology and the work of,
traveling photography of, 9,
19–20, 213n20
Natural Born Killers (film)
and domesticity, 160, 161, 162,
and drift, 106
and media, 158–59, 161–64
and narration, 159–60
and Native Americans, 70, 160
and postmodernity, 11
and TV, 36
Niver, Kemp, 37–38, 211n4
Old Joy (film), 8, 156
Palmer, R. Barton, 51
Paris-Monte Carlo Run in Two
Hours, The (film), 29, 33
Passenger, The (Professione: reporter)
(film), 183
Penn, Arthur, 54, 79, 158
phones/phone lines, 39, 44, 53, 56,
61, 141–42, 144, 193
Pierrot le fou (film), 78
Porter, Edwin S., 9, 31
Porton, Richard, 158
press, the, 22, 77, 89, 91, 92, 94, 95,
96, 142, 143–44, 158–59, 161–64,
Psycho (film), 58
Rafelson, Bob, 102
rail travel
anxieties regarding, 35
celebration of in the Lumières,
and the cinematic situation,
13–14, 36–37, 230n4
Rain People, The (film), 102
Ray, Nicholas, 149, 150
and the counterculture, 107,
117, 224n16
and drift, 106
in elopement films, 39, 40
as road movie myth, 2, 7, 12,
72–73, 216n5
Regularly or Irregularly (film), 190
road, the
as eulogy to stability, 76
and the information superhighway, 156–57, 158, 163
international appeal of, 3, 5–8,
10, 12, 75–77, 222n23,
224n14, 229n1, 230n5
in literature, 211n6
seductiveness of, 12, 103–5,
as transitional space, 72
as unsafe, 58–59
Road Movie Book, The, 5–6
Road Rules, 183–84
rock and roll, 114, 117, 118, 131,
147, 148, 221n13
Ross, Kristin, 5
Ruoff, Jeffrey, 129, 211n2
Sarafian, Richard, 102
Salvador (film), 155
Sargeant, Jack, 7
Schrader, Paul, 50–51, 52, 87, 98
Scorsese, Martin, 102, 125
Scott, Ridley, 54, 125
Searchers, The (film), 9, 48, 50, 55,
61, 62–73, 82, 108, 138
Seltzer, Mark, 23
Sennet, Mack, 9, 38, 41, 43
Shiel, Mark, 224n16
Sideways (film), 8, 156, 230n3
Smith, Gavin, 163
Solnit, Rebecca, 213n20
Solution, The (film), 189
Spielberg, Steven, 102
in Breathless, 79, 95, 96
in Detour, 57, 61, 73
in early films about automobility, 38–45
in Kings of the Road, 140–41
mobility in the name of, 56, 57
in The Searchers, 9, 62, 64, 66,
in Stone and Lynch, 11
valorized in road movies, 2, 12,
Stone, Oliver
and characters in search of
completeness, 107
and format changes in Natural
Born Killers, 125, 158–59
on media, 157
and postmodernity, 11
and road imagery, 155–56
roadside atrocities in the work
of, 30, 218n35
Straight Story, The (film)
and anti-kineticism, 11, 172,
177, 179–81
and communication, 179–81
and familial options, 175–77
and family values, 167, 171–74
and Lynchian ideology, 165–66
and postmodernity, 166
Stranger than Paradise (film), 126
Studlar, Gaylan, 69
Sugarland Express, The (film), 102
Sunshine Sue (film), 42–43
Taste of Cherry (film)
and comments on Western
influence, 194–95
and the family, 195–96
and the non-Western road
movie, 12
and traffic, 192, 194
Ten (film)
and communication, 198
and the family, 196–99
10 on Ten (film), 198
Thelma and Louise (film), 54, 125,
164, 218n28
They Would Elope (film), 40–41
Through the Olive Trees (film), 191
Tompkins, Jane, 64
tracking shots, 90, 123, 222n26
trains. See rail travel
Traveler, The (film), 189
Trip to the Moon, A (film). See
Turner, Dennis, 99
turn of the century
and postmodernity, 155
and technological change, 11
technologies and impact on
cinema, 13–14
Twin Peaks, 165
Two-Lane Blacktop (film), 102
Ulmer, Edgar, 9, 11, 48
See also Detour
U-Turn (film), 155
Vanishing Point (film), 102
wanderer, the, 67
Watson, Stephanie, 7
Weekend (Week End) (film), 30, 78
Wenders, Wim
and America, 225n7
and black and white, 126
and cinematic reference, 76
and distrust of stories, 129
and the legacy of Muybridge,
11, 129
Western, the, 9, 48, 49, 51, 62–64
Where is the Friend’s Home (film), 191
Wild at Heart, 125, 165, 170
Williams, Linda, 22, 63
Winston, Brian, 18
Wizard of Oz, The (film), 54, 65,
107, 125, 164, 166, 170–71,
women and mobility, 55, 59, 60, 70,
82, 88, 136–37, 144–45, 151–54,
196–99, 218n28
zoom lens, 110, 111, 123