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The Evolution of the Road Movie

Posted on the 25 November 2011 by Tjatkinson @T_J_atkinson

The Evolution of the Road Movie

For a long time in cinema, filmmakers have become almost obsessed with the concept of driving. Why do we drive? Is it more than just to get to a physical place? In films, the road does more than provide a pathway to a location… its daunting length gives the person driving down it time to think. There are few better times to properly think than while doing something as menial as driving. Driving allows clarity, whether we’re the one driving or simply a passenger. When you’re with a passenger, you have time to talk, discuss things, which can be useful. When we’re alone, we have time to think about whatever issues are pressing us, which can be helpful. And all the while, we’re not bored because we also have to concentrate on driving.

The Evolution of the Road Movie
I haven’t seen a lot of road movies, so perhaps I’m not the best person to be discussing them, but I think I understand what makes them tick, and what’s so attractive about them. Let’s start with the 1969 classic Easy Rider, which was the quintessential road movie. What was it about? What did we learn from it? Sure, it managed to capture such a magical period of time when everyone was carefree and just lived for the sake of living. There were no worries about the economy or anything… it was an almost perfect period, according to many. Easy Rider encapsulates that feeling perfectly. We see two men on motorcycles, driving… where? Anywhere? Sure, there’s a destination, but as with so many road movies, as the film progresses, the destination becomes less important and what becomes more vital is the relationship between the character/s and the road. What freedom has the person or people gained from being out on the open road? I think it’s the freedom from business. From the life of the city, or the sometimes ingratiating normality of home. Just being somewhere, constantly moving, without worries, allows a person to have so much mental clarity, and vision.

Both of Terence Malick’s 1970s films, Badlands and Days of Heaven dealt with the feeling of being on the road, but also added in a different element: being on the run. Particularly in Badlands, which was about two criminals fleeing from the police (a topic revisited with more disturbing clarity of vision in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers). Here, the person still has the freedom of the road, but are fighting to keep it from being taken away from them. The road is almost a key protagonist itself, giving the characters a breath of fresh air and allowing them to simply run.

The Evolution of the Road Movie
One of my favorite road movies is not strictly a road film. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, my favorite film of the entire 1980s decade. It only becomes a “road” film in the second half, which is an interesting approach. At first it explores the mundane boredom of real life, but once the three protagonists escape to the road, their luck changes. The mood doesn’t dramatically shift, but it’s clear they’ve acquired some freedom they didn’t previously have.

In recent years, the road movie has become slightly more prominent: not essentially the prospect of a “driving” movie, but just the idea of traveling. Going places, sometimes to reach a destination or simply just to escape. Travel itself has always been a curious concept; it makes sense to want to visit different places, but is there some deep seated desire to escape, rooted in our want to travel? Though many of us don’t admit it, the want to travel can sometimes be synonymous with the want to escape.

The Evolution of the Road Movie
A film that personifies this feeling absolutely perfectly is one I’ve talked about many times. But it has been a while since I last mentioned it, so I think now is as good as ever to bring it up again. Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny is easily my favorite road movie of the 21st century. Most people associate it with its infamous unsimulated sex scene, but that’s ignorant and irrelevant. The sex scene takes up only 2 minutes of the film’s 92 minute run time, and it’s hardly an important or momentous event, in my opinion. The first hour of the film sees Gallo driving, and doing little else. Occasionally he stops and talks to a stranger, but never for very long. During the first viewing, we don’t understand why so much emphasis is placed on the importance of the driving scenes, but after finding out the film’s big twist and watching the film a second time, it all becomes so hauntingly clear. I won’t spoil the twist, but I will say that, yes, Gallo’s character drives to escape. He has deep seated mental issues he so desperately wants to put behind him, and since he is a good driver, he sees driving as a way of fleeing these problems. So many characters do.

The idea of being in a different location is the simplest form of the reason for travel. We travel to be somewhere else. The road movie is an attempt to harvest these emotional wants, this instinct to feel the need to transport, into a physical being or situation. This is why I think so many of us connect so strongly with the road movie, and why films like Easy Rider and Stranger than Paradise have become favourites among cult movie fans. Because all those thousands of years ago, there were the things man needed to do, such as eat and reproduce. But there was also one big thing they wanted to do, something that has never escaped us, and that all of us still feel the urge to do every day: move.

Those are my thoughts. What do you think? Was my rant all rubbish, or did I have a point? What are some of your favorite road movies? Leave a comment below.

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