Road Movies for the Thinking Photographer: Part I

Fastback (pierced) -- by Joe ReiferSometimes when I dream of the desert, I dream of a dusty, bearded Harry Dean Stanton in a suit and red baseball cap, wandering, in the opening scene of Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas.

Over the weekend, last Summer’s Vanishing Point vs. Two Lane Blacktop post was revisited, and I started thinking again about the influence of road movies on photography, and vice versa. Upon Troy‘s recommendation I watched an IFC documentary called Wanderlust that features clips from tons of road movies. There’s also a list of road movies in the Jeff Brouws photography book Highway: America’s Endless Dream, which is well worth the 20 bucks it usually costs used. I made a big long list of films, many that I’ve seen, and a few that are now in my Netflix queue. I’m not going to be comprehensive here, just listing a few of my favorites. What are your favorite road movies?

  • Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit), Wim Wenders (1976) — according to a Wenders interview in Wanderlust, this film was made with Walker Evans in mind. Wenders and cinematographer Robbie Müller had a book of Walker Evans photography, and a lot of the framing came straight out of that book. A brilliant film that requires some work and patience. Many of you will find this film to be long, boring, and intellectual, but I love it. Not currently available on DVD in the USA, but worth seeking out. Unfortunately Wenders’ photography book Written in the West is out of print and expensive.
  • Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders (1984) — on my top 10 desert island movie list. A phenomenal performance by Harry Dean Stanton. Written by Sam Shepard, with superb cinematography by Robbie Müller. Another classic car themed movie that came out in 1984 was Repo Man, directed by Alex Cox, and also starring Harry Dean Stanton with cinematography by Robbie Müller.
  • Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard (1968) — While many people’s reference point for Godard is Breathless (1961), the later and more difficult Weekend has one of the all-time classic car scenes ever — an almost 10 minute long panning shot of a traffic jam. I was absolutely floored this first time I saw this film. It’s out there. Watching a film like Weekend takes work and thinking to get the most out of it. If you’re ready for art instead of entertainment, maybe you’re ready for Weekend. Godard’s films between 1960-1968 are some of the most important films ever made.
  • Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson (1970) — My favorite Jack Nicholson movie. A contender for the top ten desert island movie list as well. Chicken salad sandwich sold separately.
  • Bagdad Cafe, Percy Adlon (1988) — If you’ve spent some time in the deserts of Southern California, this film will strike a chord. Out there yet hypnotizing in a mysterious yet simple way — that’s the conundrum of the Mojave.

7 thoughts on “Road Movies for the Thinking Photographer: Part I”

  1. Other than Paris, Texas and Repo Man, which you already mentioned, most of my images of the road came from various Twilight Zone clips and independent short films (I wouldn’t know the names of any of them). Not surprisingly, Hollywood has always had a fascination with road trips from the city into the desert, probably because the desert was so accessible to Los Angeles, and it has always been easy for film students to work in the nearby desert.

    And on the Mexican side of the border, don’t forget about Y Tu Mama Tambien; two teenagers and an older woman make unexpected partners on a road trip.

    While we’re talking about car pileup movies, let’s not forget The French Connection :-)

    Andy Frazer

  2. Yep, there’s some great, great films in your list- Repo Man, Bagdad Cafe, I truly love both those flicks. I came to Paris TX a couple of years ago for the first time and was totally mesmerized by the first act, but found it too long and maudlin, especially the third act.

    And don’t be silly, everyone knows the best Nicholson role was the salty career sailor in The Last Detail. A Hal Ashby classic, it even has some road movie qualities.

    Here’s 5 other road movies I love that you didn’t mention:

    It Happened One Night- Best Picture Oscar® winner from 1934 and is the classic road movie that set the stage for ALL road movies. Funny and brisk and still totally watchable. It’sn amazing time capsule of early 30s roadside America.

    Sugarland Express- Spielberg’s first theatrical film (1974), made before he got too blockbuster-y and his movies got too trite. White trash couple on the run hold a highway patrolman hostage and use his car for a long low-speed chase thru west TX in a futile attempt to steal their child back from a foster home. Alternately funny and tragic, it might be Goldie Hawn’s best film.

    The Road Warrior- The post-apocalyptic classic, mayhem on the road as survivors scramble for the last few precious drops of fuel. A true genre starter, there was nothing like it before it and it’s been copied countless times.

    Thelma and Louise- The road movie turned on it’s ear, beautifully shot by Ridley Scott. Filled with nods and winks towards dozens of other road movies, it almost plays like an homage to the genre.

    Deathproof- Speaking of homages, Tarantino’s love letter to Vanishing Point (my favorite road movie of all time) is a ripping good time. You may need to fast forward thru the inane table-talk of the first set of young women, but once it moves to the car action and the 2nd set of women, it’s a great time.

    There’s a ton more including Stranger than Paradise, Badlands, Delusion, The Grapes of Wrath, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Dirty Mary-Crazy Larry, Wild at Heart . . . and on and on.

  3. Great post Joe. How long did this list and your Christmas list take you. I smell a few hours on my watch. You have just added several hours of time/days films to see on my list. I might also suggest Badlands. 1973 with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. It is a precursor to Natural Born Killers. Some traveling involved and some uhhh violence.

    As for Tarantin-blow’s Vanishing Point….
    “You may need to fast forward thru the inane table-talk of the first set of young women, but once it moves to the car action and the 2nd set of women, it’s a great time.”

    Troy is right! You WILL need to hit the gas on the table talk scene. Unless you like audio torture. This scene should of hit the edit floor. It is so bad, that it almost kills the entire movie. Thankfully Kurt Russell and his polished duck comes to the rescue.

  4. Troy’s beat me to it with Stranger Than Paradise</I., an early Jarmusch that uses one camera set up per scene. Probably an economic decision for him in those days, but he made the best of it: I’ve never forgotten the look of the film and am ready to see it again after all these years since it’s original release.

    Not a great film, but something different for the genre is Motorcycle Diaries, which recounts the journey through South America that Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado took in 1952. It was an huge influence on Guevara becoming a revolutionary who worked to better conditions for the peasants.

    Probably the longest road trip/movie is The Long Way Around, a documentary about a motorcycle trip that Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman took all the way around the world. Their observations are a bit thin, but they got themselves into some genuinely hairy situations crossing Mongolia and eastern Russia.

    Wim Wenders’ most recent film, Don’t Come Knocking, is something of a road movie starring Sam Shepard (from his script), Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, and Eva Marie Saint. There is some fabulous western photography and phenomenal performances from Lange. Despite being filmed in the western United States, it’s a German production, so has none of the bullshit Hollywood sentimentality. I think even most of the crew is German.

    Last but not least, there is U Turn, not exactly a road movie, but more a western along the lines of the innocent traveler wandering into a den of vipers. It’s a hoot from Oliver Stone, with Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, J Lo, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jon Voight.

  5. Andy – Y Tu Mama is on the list. Great movie. I think the French Connection is on the drug movie list, not the road movie list. :)

    Troy – you’ve listed a bunch of the stuff that’s on my short list, especially Badlands, Stranger Than Paradise, and Wild at Heart.

    Jay – Blog posts like this take 1-2 hours to put together. Natural Born Killers is basically a weak Badlands ripoff, but then again I don’t like Oliver Stone much at all except for Salvador with James Woods as the photojournalist. Totally agree with you and Troy about the Tarantino flick.

    Kent – Stranger Than Paradise shows a strong Wenders influence, whether Jarmusch wants to admit it or not. I’m also a fan of John Lurie’s music with the Lounge Lizards, and his show Fishing with John is worth renting (especially for the commentary on the Tom Waits episode). And in another weird musical connection, the other male lead in Stranger Than Paradise is Richard Edson, who was the original drummer in Sonic Youth, and played in an influential No Wave band in New York called Konk.

    I thought Don’t Come Knocking wasn’t Wenders best, but has some great acting, and the vibe, set and cinematography are fantastic, and the film is well worth viewing. See my previous comments about Oliver Stone above regarding U Turn. And despite all his critical acclaim for playing challenging parts, Sean Penn’s finest role will always be as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

  6. Great list. May I suggest a couple more?

    -Everything Is Illuminated: a young Jewish writer from New York (played Elijah Wood) travels the roads of Ukraine in search of information about his recently deceased grandfather. His guide is an eccentric Ukrainian (played by Gogol Bordello vocalist Eugene Hutz) whose English is even worse than mine. Directed by Liev Schreiber and adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.

    -The Straight Story: Arguably David Lynch’s most “conventional” film, very touching though (at least IMHO). An old man takes a long journey on a tiny John Deere tractor (or was it a lawnmower?). Great acting by Richard Farnsworth on the lead role.

    -Detour. Edward G. Ulmer’s B&W noir cult classic. A piano player plans to hitchhike from NY to California in order to reunite with his singer girlfriend. But fate has another plan for him. Ann Savage plays the definitive femme fatale.

  7. Joe,

    Coming back to this, I see I didn’t comment upon your inclusion of Weekend in the list. Got to be one of the most stunning and infuriating films made! I remember the first time I saw it during a showing while I was in school, at least half the audience walked out during the first ten minutes. I’ve watched it several times more since, and come back to it over and over in my mind. Perhaps some day I’ll spring for the $50-80 DVD.

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