The desire to map new territory, the last-ditch search for self, man's love affair with his automobile: is there hardly a film genre more American than the road movie?
In the midst of road trip season and with films like Tammy now playing in theaters, film critic Garen Dalyjoined Margery Eagan and Jim Braude on Wednesday to break down why Americans love road films, and how the genre has evolved from its inception.
"We are a nation of immigrants, a nation that's always been moving," Daly said. "We're kind of restless. So there's always been a movement about going west and it was always about hope, up until recently." But, like characters on screen, "in the process we're always changing," he said.
Take, for instance, Henry Fonda's performance as Tom Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath. Cinematographer Gregg Toland often juxtaposes shots of his head intersected by other objects along with wide shots of the open American landscape. "So you have confinement, then you have freedom," Daly said.
As Jack Kerouac — an expert on the subject if there ever was one — wrote, the road truly is life.
Fittingly, the road movie has traveled in all kinds of directions since its origins, which we might locate somewhere between the '30s with films like the Depression-era Wild Boys Of The Road (1933) and The Grapes Of Wrath (1940) right along to the classic Hollywood period in the '50s when the Western reigned supreme— John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers is a near-perfect representation of the film industry's obsession with settling the West during that time.
Film scholar David Laderman wrote that the genre stems from both 1) widespread ownership of the automobile and 2) the emergence of a large strata of restless youth in the 1950's: "Thus, the road trip became valorized as a rite of counter-cultural passage."
The Interstate Highway System, which began construction in 1956 as part of the Federal Aid Highway Act, laid the material conditions for "road culture" to flourish. There were economic reasons, too. As American photographer Stephen Shore has noted, by the 1950's, "America had gone through almost twenty years, a generation, of economic depression, drought and war. This was the beginning of American prosperity." Because they could, Americans took road trips.
Perhaps we may consider Dennis Hopper's 1969 film Easy Rider to be the culmination of the genre during its more counter-cultural phase. With its wayward plot, just the right amount of lawlessness, and soundtrack laden with American rock classics, Daly noted that the film "embodies a cultural change."
In 2014, most Americans don't approach the road the same way that their grandparents would have. A recent Expedia report showed that only 22 percent of car owners rely on printed geographical maps, with most preferring instead to use OnStar and other forms of GPS technology. The much-speculated "driverless truck" could become a reality thanks to British manufacturing company Daimler.
But it's not the end of the road for the road movie, according to Daly. The genre today is more about finding an unexpected self-discovery than reaching a destination.
Thelma and Louise, for instance, reinvented the genre in 1991 when it put two females in the driver's seat. Other iterations of the genre appear in the 2012 film Safety Not Guaranteed, in which there is both highway- and time-travel, and the self-reflexive Y Tu Mama Tambien which is equal parts male escapist fantasy and rich snapshot of contemporary Mexican politics.
These films were able to successfully introduce the nebulous "road movie" to an entirely new generation by navigating the tension between classic road movie elements and the economic, political and social realities of today.
And really, what could be more American than reinvention?