They have been driving for days through the desert, with little sleep. They want to get to Mexico. The police have been relentlessly pursuing them. Yet they are more desperately fleeing their own oppressive society: hard labor at cheap wages, a prisonlike domestic life, verbal and physical abuse, a legal system that presumes them guilty. Crossing numerous state lines, they have likewise crossed into an altered state of perception. Driving, they have rediscovered themselves; they have been reborn, aided by the midwife of their desperate journey. Transcending mere friendship or romance, they are now buddies, comrades, soul mates.
But they will not get to Mexico. A different kind of freedom awaits them. They are trapped. Behind, they are surrounded by a veritable army of law enforcement; before them stretches the Grand Canyon. Having truly lived for a few brief days on the road, they embrace for the last time. Revelation and liberation taste too sweet; the abyss beckons. Suddenly the car speeds over the edge—into a glorious white light.
Sketched in such archetypal terms, these final moments from Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) invoke a vast parade of other road movies, crystallizing many of the essential features of the genre. The film's infamous ending dramatizes the fundamental core impulse of the road movie: rebellion against conservative social norms.
The driving force propelling most road movies, in other words, is an embrace of the journey as a means of cultural critique. Road movies generally aim beyond the borders of cultural familiarity, seeking the unfamiliar for revelation, or at least for the thrill of the unknown. Such traveling, coded as defamiliarization, likewise suggests a mobile refuge from social circumstances felt to be lacking or oppressive in some way. This broadly conceived notion of cultural critique functions in road movies on many levels: cinematically, in terms of innovative traveling camera work, montage, and soundtrack; narratively, in terms of an open-ended, rambling plot structure; thematically, in terms of frustrated, often desperate characters lighting out for something better, someplace else. Thus the road movie celebrates subversion as a literal venturing outside of society. This book charts the historical evolution of such modernist, visionary rebellion as the engine driving the genre—to be sure, in a variety of directions.
But before considering the road movie, let us consider the road: an essential element of American society and history, but also a universal symbol of the course of life, the movement of desire, and the lure of both freedom and destiny. Like the wheel, the road expresses our distinction as humans, embodying the essential stuff that makes human civilization possible. Conjuring an array of utopian connotations (most generally, "possibility" itself), the road secures us with direction and purpose. And yet, the road also can provoke anxiety: We take the road, but it also takes us. Will we survive the upcoming hairpin turn? Are we on an extended detour, full of delusions? Do we need to turn onto a new road? Often the road provides an outlet for our excesses, enticing our desire for thrill and mystery. The horizon beckons both auspiciously and ominously. Exceeding the borders of the culture it makes possible, for better or for worse, the road represents the unknown.
The Road Movie's Modernist Engine
The road movie appears as a dynamic manifestation of American society's fascination with the road. Comprised of an intricate matrix of cultural predilections, the genre of the road movie explores the "borders" (the status quo conventions) of American society. Often from a culturally critical perspective, the road movie asks, What does it mean to exceed the boundaries, to transgress the limits, of American society? The genre insists that not merely excess, but "the road of excess," leads to special insight (a "palace," true—but one need not stay there . . .). Mapping the excessive experiences—whether physical, spiritual, emotional—of those making the journey, road movies also portray a road of excess instead of a practical or functional road: travel for travel's sake, travel as an "end" in itself. In representing such excessive motion through compelling film style and narrative, the road movie constitutes a significant if often overlooked strain of film history. Overlooked because the genre enjoys a uniquely elusive status. During the classical Hollywood era, various traditional genres generated road movie elements; then the road movie emerges with distinction through the New American cinema of the late 1960s, as an "independent" film genre, vehicle of antigenre sensibilities and countercultural rebellion.
Before road movies took off as a distinct genre in the late 1960s, cars and movies had long been sharing the twentieth-century highway of American technology. As consumer objects, cars and films seemed to evolve hand in hand, providing mobility (literally, or in the form of "escapist" narrative entertainment) for Americans in transition, first from rural to urban, then from urban to suburban lifestyles. Both cars and movies promised to express the idealized uniqueness of the individual consumer; it is therefore perhaps no coincidence that both industries became, at approximately the same time (late 1920s), mass production, assembly-line institutions, more or less homogenizing their respective commodities (Hey, 194). Conceived together, automobiles and films dynamically reflect our culture as it becomes transformed by transportational and representational technologies. As Michael Atkinson puts it, "Few cultural developments outside the first atomic bomb test at Los Alamos have had such a decisive impact on movies. The structure of the car, designed both to conform to our bodies' shortcomings and powerfully extend them, has become how we regard the world (through the screen-like, Panavision-shaped lens of the windscreen and, like a miniature movie within a movie, the rear view mirror)" (16).
This historical relationship between cars and films has more specific parameters. Cars assisted in the making of films, and in the early development of film narrative. Directors like D. W. Griffith used them for effective traveling shots. "Whereas motion had been confined to the objects within the image, it was now transferred to the spectator, thrusting him into the action and making him a participant in the drama" (Brougher, 171). But films too assisted in the "making" of cars, which have since the earliest silent films enjoyed "prop star" status. The automobile as icon and driving as action were incorporated in film narratives as early as Biograph's Runaway Match (1903) and The Gentlemen Highwaymen (1905). The former deploys the car to help a couple elope; the latter uses a car to terrorize a couple. A bit later, Griffith's The Drive for a Life (1909) introduces the "saved by an auto" theme (J. Smith, 179-92). Certainly the silent comedians, then the gangsters of the thirties, depended in various ways on their automobiles to keep the story going. The popular classical genres of the 1930s and 1940s continued to develop more sophisticated representations of driving. Then, on the cusp of classical Hollywood's demise, the 1960s counterculture infused the cinematic act of driving with a politically rebellious spirit, best exemplified by Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). Both films integrate road travel (in cars or on motorcycles) more centrally into the narrative. Since then, the road movie has flourished.
Some critics have suggested that the road movie's contemporary proliferation is symptomatic of postmodern anxiety and restlessness. As an "ideogram of human desire and last-ditch search for self," contemporary road movies, according to Atkinson, reflect the crisis in meaning evoked by the end of the millennium for "a generation raised on television and the open-ended roadlike format of the weekly serial" (14-16). Timothy Corrigan, in one of the first extended writings on the genre, similarly considers the road movie a prime example of "generic hysteria": "a historical body in trouble with its representation of itself and its historical place" (143). Corrigan's cursory but insightful description of the road movie's evolution echoes signatures of the postmodern condition:
The historical journey of the road movie might consequently be described through an obsessive itinerary that moves through the prophetic tales of Ulmer and Lang, prototypical road movies that were not yet generic, through the postwar formulation of the genre, characterized by amnesia, hallucinations and theatrical crisis. In the mid-seventies and eighties, the genre has made its very action and subject its own historical hysteria: if genre is the prototype of classification and interpretation, it now becomes the mise-en-abyme reflection of an audience that can no longer imagine a naturalized history. The environment, conditions and actions of the road movie have become a borderless refuse bin. (152-53)
My own historical framework for exploring the genre is an elaboration of what Corrigan here suggests, comprising generally a movement from classical predecessors ("prototypical road movies that were not yet generic"), through a crucial, genre-defining modernist phase ("hallucinations and theatrical crisis"), to the contemporary postmodern period ("borderless refuse bin").
In using the broad, often slippery term "modernist" to characterize the road movie's engine of visionary rebellion and cultural critique, a few preliminary comments are in order. First, modernism as a broad cultural and industrial phenomenon characterizing early- to mid-twentieth-century America. The road movie's love affair with driving—with cars and motorcycles as mechanically developed vehicles of transport and exploration—seems generally driven by this modernist sensibility, which celebrates technology as a liberating force that can lead us into the future. Second, modernism as an aesthetic practice, where romanticism gets modernized. While the great examples of modernism of the early twentieth century—Brecht, Joyce, Woolf, Picasso, the Surrealists—are typically considered reactions against the romanticism and realism dominating nineteenth-century arts and letters, it is important to appreciate the legacy of both romanticism and realism within modernist art and literature. This legacy revolves around the modernist conception of art as visionary, and as capable of social criticism. Despite—and, perhaps, because of—their emphasis on obscure psychological introspection and subversion of the classical realist text, many early-twentieth-century modernist works suggest some romantic sense of liberation, as well as some progressive vision of truth.
In other words, modernist art expands the representational limits of both the realist trend of physical description and the romantic trend of celebrating the imaginary realm. The modernism that inspires the road movie more directly than early-twentieth-century industrial and aesthetic trends would be the films of Bergman, Fellini, Resnais, and the French New Wave. Beyond making self-conscious use of advances in film technology (fast film stock, location shooting, lightweight cameras, etc.), the American road movie of the New Hollywood imports the following from postwar European film modernism: elliptical narrative structure and self-reflexive devices; elusive development of alienated characters; bold traveling shots and montage sequences. Combining the legacies of classical Hollywood and the 1950s highway boom, the road movie offers a distinctly American version of these European modernist influences.
Perhaps the most important and immediate formative feature of the road movie's modernist engine is the countercultural unrest of late-1960s America—a historical moment that may be characterized as modernism's last gasp as it transforms into postmodern culture.3 John Orr makes this point specifically in relation to what he terms the "neomodern" cinema between 1958 and 1978, a "critical and subversive rendering of modernity" that breaks with Hollywood narratives by returning to high modernism. Focusing on "the political revolts of 1968" (the precise countercultural context of the road movie's emergence), Orr describes how modernism and romanticism were "effectively combined": "The political style of Parisian contestation, its street revolts, its existential powers of invention, its self-conscious theatricality and obsession with cultural signs, all were modernist in their inspired dissonance. Yet the apocalyptic dream of a global industrial society based on equal participation of all was utopian and at times romantic." The "neomodern" cinema informing the road movie "uses both the narrative fragment and the play with the camera," but also "needs the linear movement of cinema-as-technique which enhances the mimetic power of the image" (2-4). The road movie's overt concern with rebellion, social criticism, and liberating thrills derives from this modernist sensibility.
Yet historically modernism possesses a conformist streak. Modernist works sometimes reek of elitist reflexivity (allusions to previous masterpieces), perpetuating the politically conservative elevation of the artist as a mystically gifted individual. In many road movies, modernist rebellion continually works itself through such inflections of conformity—inflections derived from classical Hollywood formula, from postmodern aesthetics, from gender and race subtexts, and from modernism itself. Yet the genre's primary modernist drive articulates a suspicious disillusionment with dominant cinematic, cultural, and political institutions—as well as a vision, quite literally, beyond them.
The Journey in Literature
Let us begin our exploration of what makes a road movie with a detour, through the journey narrative in literature. The road movie grows out of this long-standing literary tradition, which in turn reflects the history of Western culture at large. Especially important in the historical continuity between journey literature and road movies is the thematic impulse of cultural critique. However, another purpose here is to distinguish American cinematic versions of the journey from these literary predecessors.
Not all journey literature revolves around cultural critique, but an overview of some major works reveals a general use of the journey narrative structure as a vehicle for some kind of social commentary. We might begin with the beginning, so to speak: Homer's Odyssey. The tale of Odysseus's rambling trajectory to Ithaca after the Trojan War is framed by his imprisonment as the novel begins, and his home, to which he longs to return. The journey itself, fantastic and often grotesque, stages a series of episodes and "detours" that lure him from his goal of returning home. There is a sense in which Homer is perpetually postponing the end of the journey, by distracting Odysseus from his desire to reclaim his identity as King of Ithaca. This emphasizes the journey over the destination, questioning the presumed validity of the latter. Once he finally arrives, he still must struggle to reassert his identity: he has to prove who he is. This dramatizes the difficulty—shared by the Prodigal Son and, more recently, Thomas Wolfe's George Webber—of ever being able to "go home again."
In many ways Homer's Odyssey lays out the basic narrative formula of many later classic works of journey literature. Chaucer's medieval masterpiece The Canterbury Tales weaves a rich diversity of voices, all narrating various adventures during the April pilgrimage to Becket's shrine. Two classic Renaissance works, Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1564) and Cervantes's Don Quixote (1615), are similarly structured as travel adventures. Both works use fanciful, often fantastical episodes during the protagonist's journey as a means of social satire. Through the journey structure, Pantagruel and Don Quixote become relatively disconnected from any stable social context; thus, they become more able to critically observe social mores. Both works are considered classics of Renaissance literature because they critique the religious medieval order Western culture was about to move away from. While Don Quixote, for example, is on one level blinded to reality by the romances he has read and his overexcited imagination, the narrative of his journey contains a veiled attack on the relationship between the Catholic Church and Spanish politics.
The use of the journey narrative as a means of social satire is developed further in several classics of the Enlightenment era, especially through the emerging picaresque novel. Voltaire's Candide (1759) parodies idealist political philosophy through a rambunctious series of adventures for the eponymous main character. This journey novel dramatizes the overwhelming chaos of the emerging mercantile, materialistic culture, as well as the brutal hypocrisy of the Spanish Inquisition (and politics in general). In England, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) use the picaresque novel to scrutinize the social customs of the day. Through its sympathetic realism, Moll Flanders is especially striking for its suggestion that the main character's traveling mishaps are in fact not mishaps, but the results of an exploitative society that forces her from situation to situation.
Moll Flanders eventually comes to America, where the European literary tradition of the journey narrative is given particular nuance and character. The very birth and adolescence of America seems crucially founded upon the notion of the journey, which thus becomes an essential feature of American cultural identity. Janis P. Stout contends that the journey narrative characterizes much American literature because the journey is so essentially embedded in American national history, a history that "begins with voyages, of exploration or escape or migration." Whether as classic westerly movement, or as return to the East, "spatial movement has been the characteristic expression of our sense of life" (4-5). The first European expeditions of conquest, then the flight of persecuted Europeans coming to colonize the New World; the ensuing frontier expansion and homesteading migrations, then continuous immigration waves throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; all these historical chapters constitute America's national self-definition in terms of movement and expansion.
In fact, the sense of the journey at the heart of American cultural identity embodies a romanticized vision of the wilderness (Nash, 67). However, as American journey narratives reveal, the reified, romanticized image of the wilderness bears within it the contradiction between nature and culture; that is, the need to both conquer and celebrate the wilderness. James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales (1823-41) plays out many of these themes, with Natty Bumppo expressing his love for the native beauty and traditions of the land, even as he heralds the encroaching preindustrial culture.
More significant would be Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), where the title character, after escaping from his brutal father, drifts on a raft down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave named Jim. The story of their journey downstream becomes a penetrating commentary on the society they travel past and through, revealing corruption, moral decay, and intellectual impoverishment. Huck learns the dignity of human life by virtue of being on the road ("on the river"); he helps Jim escape at the end, symbolically repudiating the moral blindness of the "respectable" slaveholding culture. Moreover, the novel implies that living with nature (represented by the journey downriver) is more pure and authentic than the culture observed from a fluid distance.
Across the Atlantic in England some years later, another journey downriver would further develop this type of social criticism leveled at cultural modernization. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) describes cruel colonial exploitation in the Belgian Congo through the device of Marlowe's journey in search of the powerful white trader Kurtz, who has abandoned cultural imperialism for his own brand of despotism among the natives. Heart of Darkness is especially significant for the way it engages a powerful political critique through the journey, yet also explores the dark underside of Western cultural expansion on a psychological level. Along these lines, D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1920) provides some notable imagery of travel and mobility, within a modernist political context similar to Conrad's. In a crucial chapter titled "Excurse," Birkin and Ursula take a drive through the country; a violent roadside argument ensues, which eventually brings them into a deep bond of love. To realize this love, they decide they must depart their familiar surroundings and journey aimlessly (308). Anticipating countless road movies, the kind of travel they aim to fulfill is without destination, charged with rebellion against a choking industrialized stability.
Early-twentieth-century American journey literature offers its own brand of such British modernism. While still deploying the journey as cultural critique, contemporary American road novels generally devote more romantic attention to the highway and automobile. Yet the automobile bears within it an ambivalence, around whether it frees or imprisons us. In his discussion of the automobile in modern American fiction, David Laird claims that "cars run through literature in defiantly paradoxical and contradictory ways," as both a means of realizing the "romance impulse" of freedom, exploration and escape, as well as a menacing incarnation of our culture's destructive addiction to technology (245).
One important classic American writer whose work forcefully embodies these tensions is John Steinbeck. Mobility in Steinbeck's work usually functions to examine the depressed economic classes, and the sociopolitical causes that produce them. Modernizing the journey narrative, his writings still echo Whitman and Twain by suggesting that spiritual salvation from a corrupt culture is found in the transcendence of nature. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is Steinbeck's best and most famous treatment of these themes, where a mystical affirmation of all life as holy is interwoven with a family's brutal struggle for survival on the road during the Depression. The source for John Ford's classic Hollywood precursor to the road movie (discussed below), it has been described as "America's best-known proletarian road saga" and "the strongest political test of the redemptive powers of Whitmanesque Transcendentalism in our highway literature" (Lackey, 83).
Janis P. Stout considers The Grapes of Wrath an example of "the home-founding journey"; other classical American journey categories or "patterns" she postulates are the "exploration and escape" (The Pioneers), the "return to Europe" (The Ambassadors), and "the quest" (Moby Dick). Her last category, "lost and wandering," focuses on the twentieth-century journey as one "of uncertain destination or duration, the journey to no end" (105). This American postwar literary landscape more dramatically influences the road movie. An exemplary starting point is Henry Miller's 1947 The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, not discussed by Stout, presumably because it is nonfiction. Yet the work forcefully conveys the spirit of frustrated meandering that precedes and informs the road movie. After returning from a trip to Europe, the author rambles on a cross-country trek, observing with acerbic disgust America's headlong spiral into rampant materialism, leaving behind its more substantial European roots.
Miller's mood of restless wandering gets harnessed and taken for a more glorious ride by Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1955), discussed at length in Stout's "lost and wandering" chapter. Like some of Kerouac's later novels (The Subterraneans,The Dharma Bums,Desolation Angels), On the Road combines spiritual and sensual exploration through the journey motif; but this journey has little direction or destination, and celebrates pure movement as moving purity. Kerouac's watershed novel can be understood, in retrospect, as a "master narrative" for the road movie, especially the distinctive modernist/rebel version that emerges in the late 1960s. It reflects the affluence of American postwar society, which spawns leisure travel (even though the novel's protagonist is often down and out). More importantly, it articulates the alternative social values of the Beat movement that later blossom into the 1960s counterculture. Several of the novel's more specific thematic and stylistic preoccupations prove useful both in describing the road movie as a genre and in outlining its ideological contours and contradictions.
On the Road tells the rambling tale of two young male buddies, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who trek back and forth across America to reawaken their souls by rediscovering the landscape. The somewhat cyclical, meandering quality of the narrative, and Sal's whimsical first-person narration—neither in the classical realist vein—both contribute to the novel's celebration of quest and transience over destination and stability. On the Road quickly became a countercultural manifesto through its articulation of a bohemian lifestyle that rejected traditional, conservative "family values," the Protestant work ethic, and middle-class materialism (all of which, of course, "the 1950s" became shorthand for).
On the Road's strategic mode for expressing this cultural critique is to glorify the automobile, not only as the primary means for traveling, but also as a figurative vehicle of transformation. Many lengthy, poetic descriptions of riding in cars and driving cars suggest even a certain mystical fusion between Sal and Dean, and the car. The road itself is another overinvested motif in the novel, romanticized as a sort of wilderness beyond urban and suburban enclaves. This sense of road travel as outside of and opposed to mainstream urban culture is bolstered in On the Road by the dominant frontier imagery of the American Wild West. Several passages express Sal and Dean's spiritual and sensual awakenings in terms of retrieving a mythical cowboy identity: early on, Sal describes Dean as a "Western kinsman of the sun" (11). A related figure comprising the novel's frame of reference is the hobo, symbol of the Depression era who is idealized by Sal and Dean for his unattached, rambling lifestyle, and for the implicit critique of materialism he represents. They embrace the hobo lifestyle as the debris of a failed economic system—thus as holding special spiritual secrets for them. Many road movies blend the cowboy and hobo figures into the road outlaw, crystallizing the notion of being both morally and literally outside the law and society.
Another landmark work of American fiction first published in 1955 likewise uses road travel to challenge traditional moral and cultural authority, but through a trenchant European perspective full of irony. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita does not embrace road travel as primary narrative design in the way On the Road does; in fact, for the most part the novel elaborates its sardonic and incisive critique of middle American conformity while Humbert and Lo are stationary (at her mother's house, or later while he is teaching and she is in school). But Lolita does periodically put this most unlikely outlaw couple on the road and on the run. During these passages, Humbert vents his disdain for American mass commercial culture (which Lolita so loves, and in fact embodies), trenchantly observing the various provincial towns, motels, roadside amusements and restaurants they pass through. In many ways, Humbert is the ultimate road-traveler-as-American-outsider: his violation of the sacrosanct incest taboo (perhaps the ultimate law) seems a reflection of his bitterly superior (European) deconstruction of American society. His fugitive status as anti-American intellectual criminal becomes symbolically expressed through his often aimless, yet always evasive cross-country journeys with Lolita.
Initially, when Humbert finally has Lolita to himself and they become lovers, the open road signifies freedom and the pursuit of (his) sensual delights. Gradually though, being on the road becomes a nightmarish prison as he becomes paranoid about being pursued. His perpetual mobility likewise renders his control over Lolita ineffective: she finally escapes from him while on the road. Indeed, Humbert is finally captured when, after killing Quilty, he deliberately drives on the wrong side of the road: "The road now stretched across open country, and it occurred to me—not by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel experience—that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. So I crossed to the left side of the highway and checked the feeling, and the feeling was good" (Nabokov, 278-79). While Humbert may not see this act of rebellious driving as symbolic, we certainly are entitled to (I think he insidiously encourages us to, by disavowing any significance to this "novel experience"). In terms of future road movies, we should note the purely aesthetic thrill he derives from reckless driving. This last thrill he will enjoy before going to prison is in fact another incarnation of the core impulse, intolerable to conventional society, that drives him to the nymphet: an amoral sensuality.
But Lolita is more interested in Humbert's relationship with Lolita (and America) than it is with being on the road. It also shares little of Kerouac's celebration of the American landscape. Thus, for the road movie, On the Road is the more formative work, precisely because it both celebrates and criticizes America by driving through it. It also forged quite a literary legacy that continues today, and that very much feeds off the simultaneous film genre. The 1960s and 1970s saw the popularity of novels descending directly from the spirit of On the Road, such as Rabbit Run (John Updike, 1960), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson, 1971), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig, 1974), and The Eden Express (Mark Vonnegut, 1975). In a postmodern vein, Americana (1971), Don DeLillo's first novel, seems remarkably ahead of its time. Inflecting the journey novel with tongue-in-cheek irony (perhaps harking back to the picaresque travel satires mentioned above, as well as Lolita), it foresees Reagan's America of the 1980s, focusing its cultural critique around the omnipresent impact of mass media. All these use the cross-country journey as a means of achieving extreme experiences, conceived as therapeutic relief from stable, repressive domestic American culture.
A more violent critique of American culture is found in two influential road-crime novels, Jim Thompson's The Getaway (1958) and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1965). Thompson's novel (which was made into two mediocre road movies) follows Doc and Carol across country as they flee a bank heist, and one murder after another. Notable here is the mutual paranoia that binds the greedy outlaw couple; the perpetual detouring of their escape route; and the nightmarish haven in Mexico they get away to. In Cold Blood is a "true crime" novel that uses the apparently senseless murder by two ex-convicts of a midwestern family to explore the alienation lurking beneath the surface of both conformist and outlaw America. The novel achieves a critical mosaic by "crosscutting" between the two killers on the road, and the disturbing quirks of the small-town investigation. With short stories such as "Christine" and "Breakdown" (both made into films), and his recent novel Desperation (1997), Stephen King has contributed significantly to the road novel as horror story (which parallels the contemporary road movie trend that foists terror and violence on naive drivers). Two other compelling nightmare-on-the-road novels are Stephen Wright's Going Native (1994) and Steven Dixon's Interstate (1995), both possessing a keen cinematic sensibility.
Despite a predominant obsession with violence, modern road novels still serve the yearning for discovery and social commentary, as reflected in works like William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways (1982), Cynthia Kadohata's The Floating World (1989), Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon (1995), Chelsea Cain's Dharma Girl (1996), and Steve Erickson's American Nomad (1997). Blue Highways provides a powerful Native American perspective on the meaning of America, from within a van named "Ghost Dancing." American Nomad is proffered by the inner sleeve book jacket notes as "part memoir, part road movie." Assigned by Rolling Stone to cover the last election of the millennium, the author gets fired early on, but drives on, impelled by wanderlust, to discover and reveal the contradictions of an America characterized by "memory without history."
Iconography and Style
By emphasizing the imagery and activity of the car (or motorcycle) as the foundation of the narrative, road movies reimagine the journey literature described above in a distinctly American and industrialized context. While often preserving from this literary tradition a focus on the learning experiences of the traveling hero in an unfamiliar setting, road movies rearticulate the quest motif in the "increasingly mechanized" framework of automobile modernity. "Cars and motorcycles represent a mechanized extension of the body, through which that body could move farther and faster than ever before and quite literally evade the trajectory of classical narrative" (Corrigan, 144-46). Car travel in road movies becomes not merely a means of transportation to a destination; rather, the traveling itself becomes the narrative's primary focus. The notion of travel as cultural critique becomes both modernized and modernist, as reinvented by the road movie.
Let us first recognize that road movies depend for their generic distinction on the utter centrality of the combustion engine (automobile or motorcycle) in terms of the movement of the story and characters. "Driving" thus becomes an essential term to clarify. While some very important road movies involve motorcycles, trains, busses, bicycles, or even walking, the most common and most generically privileged vehicle is the automobile. This is due probably to the fact that cars, especially in the postwar era, became so much more popular than motorcycles, trains, or buses. In this respect, we should emphasize the individualized nature of such traveling, in contrast to the popularity of prewar America's collective train and trolley transportation. Mass automobile culture—that is, individual automobiles available to the mass population—invokes the rugged individualist mythology of the Old West, yet extends this mythology as a compelling expression of postwar mobility. But also we should note how the interior space of a car makes for more dramatic possibilities of character interaction. Throughout this study, "driving" therefore designates the road movie's particular motion and motivation. Very often behind the wheel, but also as passenger or hitcher or whatever, road movie characters usually move on the road in a high-speed motorized vehicle. If not literally driving, they "drive" by hitting the road. In this respect, we should think of road movie protagonists as occupying the mobile site that negotiates the motorized vehicle with the highway. On a basic iconographic and narrative level, road movies are about driving.
A second but equally fundamental aspect of the road movie's distinctive iconic features is the interstate highway system—in other words, the specific component of the setting traveled by the cars, motorbikes, and their drivers. According to Daniel Lopez's "road movie" entry in his genre catalog Films by Genre, "the open road is the environment in which the central action takes place" (256). The road movie therefore gains much of its generic material from the accelerated development in the mid-1950s of the interstate highway system (discussed below). Cohan and Hark begin their introduction to The Road Movie Book by observing that, in expressing "liberation" from "hegemonic norms, road movies project American Western mythology onto the landscape traversed and bound by the nation's highways" (1). Configured as visual grounding and context for the genre's primary action of driving, these highways symbolize the potential of venturing beyond the familiarity of home, whether on a whim or as a planned excursion. The ability to cross borders via these highways becomes the central feature of the genre's mise en scène. To cross a state or county line is to leave the familiar behind, to venture into the new and unknown. From this perspective, we can distinguish the road movie from other car-oriented subgenres, such as the racing film of the mid-1960s. In their obsession with destination and winning, films like The Great Race (1965) or Grand Prix (1966) possess little of the road movie's independent spirit (nothing much rebellious about following a race course). Likewise, city driving films like American Graffiti (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Crash (1996), and The Cruise (1999) displace the border crossings and distances crucial to the road movie with confined urban settings and more circular routes going basically nowhere.
Another aspect of the road movie's iconography related to these highways is the vast, open landscape bordered by seductive horizons. These expansive spaces obviously recall the Western's compelling articulation of the frontier, and more generally the shifting nature/culture divide. However, the road movie reinvents the Western's preindustrial iconography of slow-paced horse treks as motorized motion and speed. Important here is not so much the crossing of borders as the traversal of space. These open spaces serve as context and setting for the highways (just as the highways do for the traveling car or motorbike). Sargeant and Watson lucidly convey the privileged road movie space of the desert, "a void in which long-established meanings vanish, the insane heat drives images to haze and nothing is as it once seemed"; with their "vision of the open road eternally vanishing into the horizon," road movies "offer audiences a glimpse at an ecstatic freedom" (13-14). From this angle we can appreciate the road movie's repeated venture beyond familiar culture as a rejuvenating hegira through some emptiness imagined as more primal. Freedom becomes rediscovered as movement across open space.
However, we should emphasize that most road movies do not take place entirely in a so-called wilderness. In fact, road movies exaggerate cultural isolation with vestiges—like the car itself—of that culture. Most often the sense of some wilderness beyond culture becomes heightened in road movies with sundry detours, motels, diners, and gas stations. These various pit stops are often exploited for significant narrative developments. First of all, logic necessitates the drivers must stop somewhere temporarily to meet various rudimentary needs (rest, food, fuel). Second, the journey narrative can gain dramatic intrigue from unexpected plot twists resulting from such intermissions (meeting some new character, committing a crime), or from simply developing the travelers' relationship. Discussing road movies after Easy Rider, Lee Hill relates these "diversions and sidetracks" to the genre's overall portrayal of the journey as aimless and fragmented (43). Put differently, these periodic stationary pauses usually serve to enhance the main narrative and thematic thrust: the journey itself.
Still another important component of the road movie's distinctive look and style are various film techniques. One technique road movies tend to mobilize with a certain verve is the traveling shot. Let us first distinguish the road movie traveling shot from the more conventional tracking shot. The latter is usually more "grounded" and slow, related to running or walking (Touch of Evil's opening shot; Last Year at Marienbad's hallway sequences; the final running shot of The 400 Blows). Road movie traveling shots by contrast attempt to convey a visceral sense of traveling at a hyperhuman, modernized speed. As such, the point of view of these traveling shots is usually located with the driver, or the car itself (though aerial shots and parallel "side-by-side" traveling shots are fairly common). In Cinema and Modernity John Orr describes such road movie aesthetics accordingly:
The studio perennial of talking heads framed against a process screen is dropped in favour of car mounts placed at any number of angles, high angle chopper shots and following shots from other automobiles. The camera moves with the moving object in its lens, as part of the process of movement in general. This reflexive fix is part of what gives the car its spectator appeal, making it an ecstatic version of the body extended in space and time. (130)
Moreover, these traveling shots are often freely and creatively intercut, an expression of the multiple and shifting perspectives of the car and/or the driver. Especially during actual driving sequences, a montage-style editing often predominates. In the legacy of Eisenstein, this montage approach sublimates car travel to an idea or sensibility, in contrast with the linear, destination-oriented concept of travel, where one action leads to another—and which continuity editing expresses more effectively. Road movies of course possess much continuity editing, but they tend to integrate significant montage sequences so as to emphasize "traveling for traveling's sake." Not unlike science fiction's fetishizing of technology, whether from a utopian or dystopian perspective, road movies valorize a certain aesthetic thrill related to high-speed car travel, regardless of plot or message.
Beyond the mise en scène described earlier related to iconography and setting, road movies generally use frame compositions that incorporate the front or side windshields and rearview mirrors. To be sure, this is due largely to driver point of view shots; but these frame compositions also function reflexively, exaggerating or enhancing the camera's presence. Unlike interior domestic scenes that use doorways and windows to create a sense of entrapment and enclosure, the road movie makes use of the formalistic frame-within-a-frame so as to foreground the crucial act of looking and seeing while driving. Additionally, the reflection of characters in glass and mirrors, commonly exploited in road movies, serves often as a literal projection of character onto the car, and into the space being traveled. This framing/reflection technique helps visualize aesthetically the theme of self-exploration as a projection of self through space.
We should mention a last, yet prominent aspect of road movie aesthetics, one that typically complements these framing and editing techniques: a vigorous music soundtrack. The distinctive emergence of the road movie in the late 1960s is culturally interwoven with the advent of rock and popular music, and the genre usually deploys the former as another aesthetic expression of the visceral and sensual thrill of driving, of moving at high speed. "Road movies have become ineluctably tied to the cheap-and-nasty aesthetics of rock 'n' roll (with Chuck Berry's 'Route 66' as the first unofficial anthem), rebel youth culture and the no-future potential of crazed automobile use" (Atkinson, 16). The car radio and tape deck figure commonly here, providing narrative pretext and synchronous source for an overinvested music track during driving scenes. Yet equally prevalent is the more formalistic nonsynchronous music soundtrack, which is less motivated by narrative logic but which aurally enhances the mood of the on-screen driving experience.
Subject Matter and Themes
Turning now to the road movie's general thematic preoccupations, we can begin with its basic plot and character structure. In his concise definition of the genre, Lopez postulates that "the protagonists in this type of film are either rugged individualists who make the road their home and use it for some daredevil purpose or challenge, or they are solitary individuals who embrace the road as a way of life" (256-57). More recently Cohan and Hark expand this basic plot premise by linking the genre's "potential for romanticizing alienation" with its ability to challenge "the uniform identity of the nation's culture" (1). Yet this notion of individuals at odds with social conventions should be further refined to acknowledge that most road movies put a couple behind the wheel. This couple character structure appears mostly in two versions, romance or friendship; yet often it furnishes narrative tension between the two people traveling together. Cohan and Hark situate the prevalence of road movie couples within that of Hollywood movies generally, noting that "two people in the front seat of a vehicle make for easy classical framing and keep the dialogue going," developing "intimacy and plot conflict quickly" (8).
While the couple as narrative focus is fairly typical of classical and popular Hollywood, the road movie's open-ended narrative structure tends to venture beyond typical Hollywood terrain. Because road movie heroes are driven "to seek the freedom of the road as a refuge from a harrowing past, or to search for its exhilarating, liberating strength" (Lopez, 257), the genre's plot often carves out a rambling, picaresque narrative path. As a result, the road movie may not possess a clear-cut beginning, middle, or end; likewise, the genre often shifts gears regarding mood and plot with a certain disorienting, open-air free will. Generally it distances itself from the Aristotelian dramatic unities, in favor of the episodic style of Cervantes or Brecht. By foregrounding the journey in a nomadic vein, the road movie evokes a countercinema in relation to classical narrative (just as its themes generally tend to be countercultural).
Before exploring in more detail these countercultural themes, we should address the genre's articulation of a human-machine interface. Using Buscombe's terms, this theme is the "inner form" to the genre's "outer form" emphasis on driving described above. That is, traveling in a motorized vehicle is what road movie characters do, and the fundamental action and mise en scène convey this. But on a more thematic level, road movie characters bond with their vehicles. Cars and motorbikes often evolve in the narrative as a kind of prosthetic limb or "buddy" for the driver. Road movies may develop character by showing some kind of interaction between car and driver, the latter channeling desire or anger through the former. Cars and their promise of high-speed freedom possess characters, aid them, or destroy them. At times this sense of human-machine interface suggests that the vehicle itself is a character in the film, through special close-ups of the car's machinery "working" to race down the road, for example. Sometimes this interface configuration expresses technophobic criticism of how humans can become overtaken by the automobile. Yet equally common is an affirmative celebration of the thrill of industrial speed, in the spirit of the Italian futurists. Here car travel is conceived as progressive liberation—humans joining forces with machinery, propelled into space. In any case, the road movie often portrays the postindustrial convergence between human and machine as a manic will-to-drive. Though road movies such as Death Race 2000,The Road Warrior, and Crash most literally dramatize a hyperindustrialized, precybernetic fusion of car and driver, all road movies involve some meditation on the human relation to technology.