Christmas has come and gone – I hope you had a peaceful holiday season, by the way – and the new year is here, with my wishes to you all for a happy and healthy 2016. Now, it only feels natural that I start the year with my selection of first winning depictions of road journeys on celluloid.
My Own Private Idaho (1991) stars River Phoenix. Need I say more? He was that good and I love his movies. But the fact is that this was a thematically groundbreaking film, telling the story of two street hustlers, two young men adrift, Mike Waters (River), a homeless who is narcoleptic, and Scott Favor (Keanu), a rich kid rebelling against his wealthy background and the object of Mike’s desire. Mike takes Scott on a quest on the open highways of the Pacific Northwest in search of an elusive place called home.
Have you seen Paper Moon (1973)? If you haven’t, you must, because you have to see Tatum O’Neil and what is the best ever movie performance by a child. The depression-era road movie is dominated by the presence of Tatum, as nine-year-old Addie Loggins, an orphan left without any close family. Ryan O’Neal, her real-life father, plays a con, Moses Pray, a friend of the girl’s late mother who may be her father and who agrees to deliver her to an aunt in Missouri. Tatum brings an incredible confidence and depth to her character, she hooks you in a way that only book heroes have the ability to do, and you can hardly wait to follow closely her journey as if you were reading the adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
What I probably like the most about Badlands (1973) is that the film introduced us to the unique talent of Terrence Malick and to many of the distinctive elements in his movies: the poetic approach to narrative and character, the innovative editing, the use of voice-over, the collision of human suffering or violence with natural beauty – it is the director’s particular film-making style that makes a story that has been told many times, of two lovers who are criminals and are pursued across America, an original.
Based on the journals of both Alberto Granado and Ernesto Guevara, the man who would later become Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) follows the 1952 journey across South America of the two, a journey of self-discovery, tracing the origins of a revolutionary heart.
Wild Strawberries (1957) is a visionary movie, evoking the kind of frankness you only encounter in non-American movies. Featuring one of the most beautifully crafted dream sequence ever to have been captured on film, the movie in centered on 76-year-old Professor Isak Borg, Victor Sjöström, a distinguished medical scientist who travels from Stockholm to Lund with his daughter-in-law to receive an honorary doctorate. On the 400-mile car journey the old man opens the door to his past, in what has been named by some “the real ur-road movie”.
Two working-class friends, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, hit the road, and freed from their past, discover themselves and have the ride of their lifetime. Thelma and Louise (1991) is in the tradition of the American road movie, but it was truly revolutionary, being centered on two heroines for a change, on the friendship of two women who take a trip together and become outlaws. And let’s not forget the style either, a style that has reached cult status. As the narrative advances, the characters strip off of their heavy make-up and overly stylised clothes and they “become more and more natural, but more and more beautiful as it goes on and by the end… just these mythical looking creatures”, as director Ridley Scott said. It’s very American, simple, free-spirited, sexy, and timeless.
Two for the Road (1967) tells an honest story, one that feels like a real love story, with ups and downs, and a witty look at marriage. And it’s one of my favourite Audrey movies (she delivers one of her finest performances here, and so does her co-star, Albert Finney), much more so than Sabrina or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The film has a non-linear structure, leaping back and forth in time, showing a married couple, Mark (Finney) and Joanna (Hepburn), always on the road, through snapshots of their travels at different stages of their relationship, as they hitchhike, drive and fly around Europe. Instead, it’s the style – from wardrobe, hair-style and make-up, to cars – that is used brilliantly to show the evolution of the characters, of their lifestyle, from poverty to the jet set, and of their marriage.
Steven Spielberg admitted he constantly had Hitchcock in mind when filming Duel (1971). It shows. He never lets the audience off the hook. Dennis Mann (Dennis Weaver) plays a salesman taking a trip for a business meeting and who is unlucky to get stalked by the driver of a mysterious, veteran of a roads truck. You never see the truck driver’s face, and the rule of the unseen is more frightening than what is thrown into the face of the viewer. Spielberg declared he wouldn’t be able to make Duel that way, that good, again and I totally agree.
Il sorpasso (1962), directed by Dino Riso, is actually one of the best comedy-drama films about life you will encounter. Bruno Cortona (Vittorio Gassman) is a soon-to-be middle age man looking for an adeventure and a relaxing short holiday. He meets by pure chance a young law student, Roberto Mariani (Jean-Louis Trintignant), very shy and introverted, whom he convinces to take part in a one-day joyride. The movie belongs to Vittorio Gassman from every point of view. His charisma can easily go from foolish observations to complex humourous situations and to drama when you least expect. Alfio Contini’s cinematography is complimentary to the setting of the movie, mostly taking place in Tuscany, and Riz Ortolani’s music is bound to add flavour to any Italian classic.
Often considered the French Hitchcock due to his technical approach, Henri-George Clouzot delivers with Wages of Fear (1953) tension-fraught scenes of perfect cinema. The film is filled with dark humour and political satire at a time when global capitalism was pioneering. Building tension even when filming faces in close-ups, The Wages of Fear developed in pure cinema manner the relationship between a movie director and his viewer. The film focuses on self-determination in the face of unconquerable odds and Clouzot expands his attention on the main characters’ behaviour in the face of imagined danger, as they have to safely drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerin – it is solely the awareness of nitroglycerin that makes the film a one of a kind suspense classic and keeps you on the edge.
A pioneering screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (1934) has wit, and charm, and humour, and sophistication. A pure classic that reminds me why I can’t watch the romantic comedies of today. Gable is a good-natured, street-smart, roguish newspaper man. Claudette Colbert is delightful as a gamine socialite running away from her controlling father. They meet on the way to New York City (Gable offers to help her get there to reunite with her eloping husband whom her father doesn’t agree with, in exchange of an exclusive on the story) and, together, they are irresistible. I seldom pay attention to what film critics say, but I liked how one critic depicted the movie: “Even more than Dirty Dancing, It Happened One Night is a movie in which sexual bliss is signified by lovers’ harmony as performers.”
photos: 1-New Line Cinema / 2-Paramount Pictures / 3-Warner Brothers / 4-Film Four / 5-Svensk Filmindustri/ 6-MGM / 7-Stanley Donen Films, Twentieth Century Fox / 8-Universal Studios / 9-Incei Film, Sancro Films / 10-Compagnie Industrielle et Commerciale Cinematographique / 11-Columbia Pictures