Road Movies: a Retrospective

Tales of mythic journeys: an homage to the expected and unexpected this month at the Austrian Film Museum

An old man, with lined face, sparkling eyes, white hair and dark moustache, tosses and turns in his sleep. He recounts a “weird and very unpleasant dream.”  During his morning walk he loses his way in empty streets full of ruined houses. He looks up at a clock and sees it has no hands. He pulls out his own watch and sees that it doesn’t have hands either. He takes off his hat, strokes his head and leans against a wall before he continues.

Then he sees the back of a stranger standing on the pavement and walks up to him, places his hand on the stranger’s shoulder but recoils in horror as he sees the stranger’s deformed face. The stranger collapses and a dark liquid flows from him. The old man walks further. A funeral carriage, drawn by two, black horses, turns a corner. It passes the old man but one of its wheels gets caught on a lamp-post, rolls off and shatters. The horses bolt and a coffin falls out of the carriage. The old man approaches the coffin and sees a hand is sticking out of it. The corpse’s hand grasps his arm and when he pulls away, his Doppelgänger emerges from the coffin.

Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman is not your normal “road movie” – the expression gained currency in the 1960s with Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop. Then again, neither is Week-End or Pierrot le fou by Jean-Luc Godard, The Grapes of Wrath by John Ford, the excellent Duel by Steven Spielberg, American Graffiti by George Lucas, Badlands by Terence Malick, La Strada by Federico Fellini or Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn.

They will nevertheless all be shown within the series Autokino, Road Movie 1940 to 1976, showing at the Austrian Film Museum during the month of September. Regardless of classification, as movie lover you are simply grateful to see them, as one is grateful to see the striking Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé by Robert Bresson or the new film by Richard Linklater: Me and Orson Welles that will be coming soon.

Of course there will also be films that correspond to more conventional conceptions of what a road movie should be, such as Easy Rider, with wonderful performances by Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, directed by Dennis Hopper or the cult film Two-Lane Blacktop, by Monte Hellman, which attained its status not least because it stars both James Taylor and Dennis Wilson.

Film Museum Director Alexander Horwath’s selection is thankfully generous, and his interpretation of the definition of what constitutes a road movie is liberal. It above all makes one aware that although the Road Movie has established itself within the last forty years as an independent genre in its own right it is in fact as old as the hills, claiming as its antecedents none lesser than Homer, Virgil or Dante. The car might be a modern phenomenon and movement might be the essence of film but at the end of the day, it is the inner journey that counts.

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