Full speed ahead: the enduring appeal of the road movie | Drama films

Wherever there is an actual physical journey there is inherent narrative interest. It doesn’t matter whether the journey is on foot through the Australian outback (Walkabout) or in the Antarctic (Scott of the…), on horseback (Lonesome Dove) or covered wagon (um, Wagon Train), by boat (Apocalypse Now, Deliverance), train (Von Ryan’s Express), aircraft or spaceship (take your pick), car, or some permutation of any of the above: Planes, Trains and Automobiles. With jour, journey and journal(ism) sharing the same root, we’re linguistically programmed to follow day-by-day accounts of journeys. Writing in 1849, Thomas De Quincey celebrated the unprecedented “velocity” of English mail coaches that revealed to him, first “the glory of motion: suggesting, at the same time, an under-sense, not unpleasurable, of possible though indefinite danger; second, through grand effects for the eye between lamp-light and the darkness upon solitary roads”. De Quincey used that phrase “The Glory of Motion” as a subtitle for his essay, but one is tempted to insert “Pictures” at the end, for these 50 thrilled and thrilling pages are like a trailer (“Coming soon…”) for the invention of the aptly named movies. One of the first of which showed a train arriving at a station in 1895, though this arrival actually heralded a medium of departures, sending us into transports of delight as it whisked us off us to multiple elsewheres, real and imagined.

It quickly became evident that each form of transportation had its particular filmic advantages. Ships and planes mean there is not just a captive audience but a captive cast; since no one can safely leave, the mode of transport becomes a sealed world. Films such as Stagecoach (1939), the logical and geographical extension of De Quincey’s draft treatment, show the dual advantages of a carriage that will, in time, become horseless: a group of characters thrown together in a cramped and jolting stage set, making more or less frequent stops and exposed, whether in repose or at a gallop, to multiple interactions with the hostile world in this back of the western beyond (a word to which we shall return). The difference with trains is that although a route is planned it is not fixed. (While filmic heists are planned, often meticulously, they tend to go better, as far as the audience is concerned, when they don’t go as planned; in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw are reduced to travelling in the back of a garbage truck, which is not how either of them envisaged things panning out.) In real-world Los Angeles the dream of automotive freedom meant that you became routinely stuck in traffic – as exuberantly celebrated at the start of La La Land – en route to the studio, but the lived frustration of gridlock only enhanced the siren song of the open road, as proclaimed in Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name: “To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it.” For film directors, this adds up to a perfect combination of tried and tested generic expectations and the liberty to surpass previous iterations, even if that means going, on occasion, completely off the rails.

‘Ex-cop turned pedal-to-the-metal Sisyphus’: Barry Newman in Richard Sarafian’s 1971 action drama Vanishing Point. Photograph: Photos 12/Alamy

The road movie, then, with its deep roots in the history of storytelling, is almost synonymous with the essence of film: the movieness-of-movie. So while it’s tempting to talk about a new crop of road movies reinventing the genre – reinventing the steering wheel, so to speak – this is somewhat redundant since no genre has such an in-built readiness to adapt itself, in several senses, to changing fashions, social themes (Thelma & Louise, dangerously; Green Book, safely) or world events. (The miniseries Generation Kill, based on Evan Wright’s non-fiction book about a bunch of Recon marines spearheading the invasion of Iraq, is, in essence, a militarised road movie.) Just as cars themselves are constantly being updated and marketed (in those films, otherwise known as car ads, which, minute for minute, might be the most expensive and pernicious ever made, deploying a stunning waste of intelligence, landscape and resources) so road movies reshape, remodel and trick themselves out according to shifting tastes around a defining core and fixed idea.

Shortly before I came of filmic age the road movie had entered its countercultural existential phase. In Vanishing Point (1971), Barry Newman has to deliver a car from Denver, Colorado, to San Francisco in record time. To do this he needs – what else? – speed in order to whiz along in the alternative and lucrative slipstream generated by the runaway success of Easy Rider. Some kind of trippy white hipster rebel thing is going on as this Vietnam vet and ex-cop turned pedal-to-the-metal Sisyphus forms a radio alliance with a blind African American DJ called Super Soul who, broadcasting out of Nevada, updates Bazza on what the pigs pursuing him are up to. One of the things they’re up to is turning up at SS’s studio with a bunch of rednecks to trash the place and teach him a lesson. The lesson, I suppose, is that Super Soul got it vicariously right when he called Newman “the last American hero”, though why this is so is anyone’s guess.

Wim Wenders’s 1976 movie Kings of the Road.
Wim Wenders’s 1976 movie Kings of the Road. Photograph: Ronald Grant

And then, five years later, there was Kings of the Road, one of Wim Wenders’s early films, before he fell victim to the kind of auto-piety whereby he discovered that the elusive deity he had been searching for (search as a form of worship being a common theme on the road) was actually himself. Anyway, those three black-and-white hours of Kings of the Road were weirdly compelling in a lugubrious, cloudy-bong-water kind of way, but one moment is of course burned into the consciousness of anyone who slumped through it. That’s right, the shot of the guy taking a hugely impressive dump in the great outdoors; it was like watching someone give birth to a snake. (McQueen and Newman would have had no truck with that kind of shit!) The fundamental effect – of the film as a whole, I mean, not just this uninhibited bit of fundament – was to prove that whereas in a chase-and-race such as Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) you hurtled along in a state of fast and furious excitement, the meditative road movie could drift to a virtual standstill – and still keep going – anywhere.

Well, I say that but there is a tacit assumption that the road movie is a quintessentially American form. There are obvious practical reasons for this: you can drive for days or weeks without crossing national borders, but since that also holds good for Russia (where, coincidentally, this little journalistic road trip will end up), the real explanation is the tautologous and hegemonic one that our idea of the road movie has been formed by… American road movies! Following in the tracks of the historical pioneers heading towards the promised land of California, the direction of travel tends to be westward. In 1990, my girlfriend and I did a drive-away, picking up a car in New York and dropping it off at an address in LA 10 days later. We were meant to barrel along the most direct route (sticking to the script, as it were) but since no record had been kept of the original mileage we embarked on an epic and exhausting odyssey of relentless blacktop digression. We meandered through every kind of landscape and weather, all the time animated by the feeling that we were starring in our own unfilmed road movie (complete with occasional hints of the dangers mentioned by De Q).

In this respect we were helped by a peculiarity of usage whereby although American cars have windshields we were looking, Englishly, through a windscreen. The only thing needed to properly square the circle would have been to stop off at a drive-in movie where they were showing something such as Lolita with its noncey itinerary as sketched by Nabokov: “Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the Old Oregon Trail; and Abilene, Kansas, the home of the Wild Bill Something Rodeo. Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill.” The combination of stunning natural beauty, mythic precedent and kitschy roadside Americana that so delighted Nabokov has proved irresistible to non-American directors such as Andrea Arnold (American Honey) who get the chance to make a film that is also tacitly about the tradition of the road movies that they are contributing to. The myth is capable not only of withstanding disappointment or disillusionment but is, in part, sustained by it. A few years back, about to make the once-scenic drive from Austin, Texas, to San Antonio (of the Alamo fame) I was cautioned: “These days it’s mainly just Bed, Bath and Beyond.” This was an updated amendment to Louis Simpson’s warning – in a poem dedicated to Whitman – that “The Open road goes to the used-car lot”, but not even saturation retail can obliterate the promise of “beyond”; no amount of corporate encroachment can quite obscure the destination sign on Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus, driven by Neal Cassady (of On the Road notoriety): “Furthur”.

Backseat driver: Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car.
Backseat driver: Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. Photograph: AP

Obviously, the idea and possibility of the visual road trip has been extended fur beyond the US, to every corner of the Earth. Italy, for example, had Federico Fellini’s La Strada. For us in Britain, there is a mini, rather wearisome ironic tradition of people trying to find an equivalent of Route 66 in what DH Lawrence called a country the size of someone’s back garden. Being from a tiny island nation proved no obstacle to Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi in last year’s profoundly (slow) moving version of Haruki Murakami’s story Drive My Car which enlarged geographical restriction to the point where the road – like the staged adaption of Chekhov at the heart of the film – becomes indistinguishable from the vast mysteries of life itself. Or, as Whitman put it still more grandly: “To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.”

The hold of the American landscape, you see, is difficult to escape. “Where are we?” are the first words spoken in Panah Panahi’s forthcoming Hit the Road. If she weren’t speaking Farsi we’d assume, from the surrounding landscape, that we were in the badlands of the south-west United States. While his dad Jafar’s delightful 2015 film Taxi Tehran raised the conceptual question of whether there can be an urban road movie Panahi Jr cleverly counterposes wide-open spaces and intense claustrophobia. The opening shot is a severely restricted and expansive tour (de force) of the inside of a parked car and of the view from each of its windows that establishes the vehicle as the sun around which the filmed world revolves. It captures both the infinite possibility of the road and the inherent confinement of travelling (with family members, in this instance, including a kid so adorable one longed to see him thrown out of the window). Devotees of Panahi Sr might detect a whiff of parable in this demonstration of cinematic succession and the endless potential of the genre, but we’ll close with a mention of something that could be taken as a sign at the end of the cinematic road.

In 2016, there was a brief theatrical release for the Ronsealishly titled The Road Movie, a compilation of dashcam footage from Russia, put together by Dmitrii Kalashnikov. Full of the kind of outlandish real-life craziness found on YouTube safaris, these short clips run the gamut of every conceivable genre: comedy, horror, caper, disaster, sci-fi (when a meteor comes blazing through the Earth’s atmosphere) and so on. It also accidentally deploys some of the trademark touches of the great auteurs of cinematic history. After a collision a driver gets out of his car to confront the person responsible for the accident. In unconscious homage to Robert Bresson the entire exchange takes place out of shot while the moronic camera keeps its gaze fixed – unblinking and unthinking – on the empty road ahead.

Geoff Dyer’s The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings is published by Canongate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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