Thursday, August 11, 2011

Road to Nowhere

ROAD TO NOWHERE – video                 C+                  
USA  (121 mi)  2010  d:  Monte Hellman         Official site

As in the midst of battle there is room
For thoughts of love, and in foul sin for mirth;
As gossips whisper of a trinket's worth
Spied by the death-bed's flickering candle-gloom;
As in the crevices of Caesar's tomb
The sweet herbs flourish on a little earth:
So in this great disaster of our birth
We can be happy, and forget our doom.

For morning, with a ray of tenderest joy
Gilding the iron heaven, hides the truth,
And evening gently woos us to employ
Our grief in idle catches. Such is youth;
Till from that summer's trance we wake, to find
Despair before us, vanity behind.

As in the Midst of Battle There Is Room, by George Santayana (1863 – 1952)

After waiting 21 years between films, one might develop expectations from a director who used to have his hand on the counter culture element of society, constantly taking a look over the edge, where his vision did not reflect that of mainstream America.  Known for making films on a shoestring budget, usually featuring offbeat, obsessive characters, Hellman was never afraid to show plenty of ambiguity and slow pacing.  As the world has changed so much since his last feature, the utterly forgettable SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT III (1989), one can only imagine what prompted his return.  Initially learning his trade in the 1950’s from the Roger Corman school of movies, creating low budget horror flicks, it’s there he began an association with fellow Corman actor Jack Nicholson, teaming up together to make a couple of existential westerns, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1965) and THE SHOOTING (1968).  But it’s Hellman’s collaboration with writer Rudy Wurlitzer that mesmerized the nation with the infamous road movie TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971), a hit even before the film was released, as the script was released ahead of time in Esquire magazine, hailed as an “instant classic,” showcasing the talents of fan favorite Warren Oates, capturing the epitome of the youth market’s changing values in society, where one dropped out in order to see the light, finding new directions to take instead of the competitive rat race that was purely economically motivated, only to lead to an eventual middle age void, a lack of fulfillment, a state of emptiness when the so-called American Dream didn't bring along with it the promise of happiness.  The film, of course, flopped at the box office, but has reached cult status among cinephiles, heralded as a bleak masterpiece (a phrase often repeated to humorous effect in this movie), but viewed as utter trash by others.  Hellman has always represented that divisive cultural point where his appeal is obviously directed to those open minded enough to stories that don’t come packaged, that remain blurred, offbeat, and empty.    

Shot on HD Video, Hellman has created a work that probably reveals more about the effects of alcoholism and drug abuse than anything recognizable about his life.  While supposedly based on a true story, it's true roots feel more reminiscent of the outrageous life of Beat writer William S. Burroughs, a lifelong drug addict who happened to play the game of William Tell in Mexico City with his girl friend, Joan Vollmer, claiming he could shoot the apple placed on her head with a bow and arrow while drunk, only to kill her instead.  This event so traumatized him that it may have inspired him to invent his autobiographical stream of consciousness writing style, writing in the introduction to his first book, Queer, written in 1953 but not published until 1985 due to its alleged obscenity:  “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death.”  Burroughs never told a straight story, where instead his works are filled with fragments, hallucinations, sexual fantasies, dangling thoughts, poetry, dead ends and lengthy run-on monologues.  It is this style that Hellman seems to be emulating, but without the full-fledged nerve and commitment to let it all hang out.  Instead it’s a very deceptive work that appears clouded in trickery, using the device of filming a story that already happened within an existing story, constantly shifting between time periods, becoming more confusing than illuminating.  Hellman unveils his story in fragments, dangling thoughts, plenty of dead ends, and by the end, seems lost in an alcoholic stupor, a state of mental and psychological paralysis, where the blending of what’s real and what’s imagined stopped being interesting to the viewer a good hour into the film.  Much of this is due to an outrageous stroke of fate with one of the characters that the audience is expected to accept, but more likely it’s the out of synch dialogue and listless acting, where even according to the movie storyline 90 % of a director’s responsibility is in the casting, but here Tygh Runyan, who plays the always onscreen filmmaker recreating a tragic event that already took place, couldn’t be less appealing, while his choice of a look-alike actress, Shannyn Sossamon, chosen very much in a duality homage to VERTIGO (1958), is a gorgeous revelation. 
It’s never a good sign when a filmmaker uses old vintage movie clips in their film, which instead become the most interesting part of the film you’re watching.  The audience is invited to watch several key scenes from Preston Sturges’ THE LADY EVE (1941), watching child actress Ana Torrent in a non-subtitled Spanish version of Erice’s SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (1973), and the infamous chess sequence with Death from Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957).  The idea is that artists fill their imaginations with the collected works of other artists, basically blending their own interior worlds with those of fellow artists, creating for filmmakers a seamless mosaic of dreamlike imagery where the artist himself can’t really claim ownership of his own thoughts.  Inspirations come from everywhere.  Similarly, storylines are a sprawling mess in this movie, more like the fractured, incomplete style of Cubists without the use of Surrealism.  What’s really missing is an emotional connection to any of this, as if it’s really personal and autobiographical, as one assumes it is, only the writer himself appears at all interested.  To that degree, this is a writer’s film, where the writer becomes obsessed with his own work, supposedly written by Steven Gaydos, an executive editor at Variety, where he can no longer distinguish the good from the bad, blending it all together in a haze of ambiguous incomprehensibility and expecting the audience to find something they like about it.  Similarly, the raw, extremely confessional country songs by Tom Russell bookended at the opening and closing of the movie, sounding very much like outlaw country artist Waylon Jennings decades ago, almost make the audience cringe, as they have such a personalized, stream of conscious storyline all to themselves, a style that by the end is really calling attention to itself.  It might make a difference if it was a natural outgrowth of the movie in some way, but it feels overly forced and manipulative, basically telling the audience what mood the director expects them to feel, which is the last thing this director needs to be doing.  Otherwise, there was a surprising lack of soundtrack music used during the film, rarely providing a needed change of pace, where over and over again we return to that same movie set watching a somewhat dysfunctional crew try to develop a movie that is mostly taking place inside the director’s head. 

Note:  Much of this is shot at the Balsam Mountain Inn in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina (a place my wife & I have visited and still have a coffee mug as a memento).

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