I was told by a creative writing professor in college that one should not write road novels, because she thought they betrayed the writer's inability to think of a proper plot. I was told by another creative writing professor that all good writing originates from a sense of place (though she implied that the only legitimate kind of writing was short autobiographical fiction by women in New Mexico about deceased parents and guilt about the Native American genocide, which is weird because she wasn't from New Mexico; as you might imagine, she and I got along so famously that she tried to have me expelled.) Although I disagreed with them on both these points (respectfully and disrespectfully, respectively) it's through having studied with both of them that I figured out how road narratives work when they work. It's when place contributes to the evocation of character, and the journey of the lead character(s) from A to B is the entire point of the narrative. Yes, 19 year old creative writing students deciding “I'm going to write a novel about a bunch of us in a car to California smoking weed” should be discouraged from actually writing that novel. But for stories involving an actual intellectual/emotional/other journey, of import to anyone other than the protagonist him/herself, literalizing that by having the character make a physical journey works just fine, and can be a nice lil ol metaphor there. Thus, today I'm going to write about The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Motorcycle Diaries, and The Trip. (Note: the following contains a few random spoilers here and there, but only for movies that are old enough to buy cigarettes.)
Obviously there have been other road movies. I've seen many of them, just as I've read many road novels (the enduring popularity of which can be blamed entirely on On The Road, which is the most important book in the world when you're 15 but is completely unique and impossible to emulate, even by its own author). There's Easy Rider, but Easy Rider was about Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda looking cool on motorcycles, not character development; Billy and Captain America don't change at all, unless you count when they get lit the fuck up by those dudes in the truck at the end (which sort of counts, death being a change). And there's Thelma & Louise, as Isaac Butler pointed out, which has character development, and does involve a road trip, but belongs to a separate genre, the “outlaws on the run” movie (see also Bonnie and Clyde, True Romance, Thieves Like Us, etc etc.) With those pictures, having The Man (in more ways than one, in Thelma & Louise's case) on one's ass means that the leisurely, unhurried pace necessary for characters to realize shit or mature or what have you on their own schedule is obviated, and that “take your time, we're in no rush” element is a very key element to the three movies I want to talk about.
The least of the three, in terms of heft and cinematic adventurousness, is The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert:
Which is not to say that it's not a delightful movie, because it is. It's also a movie that history has had a few drinks with, because now we can say that it stars Agent Smith, Leonard Shelby, and General Zod (Ed. Note: government names—Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp) as the most fabulous cabaret act in all of Sydney, Australia. Weaving and Pearce are industry-standard drag queens, though Stamp is a trans woman, as a wrinkle. The story is set in motion when an old friend of Weaving's offers them a gig out in Alice Springs (for those of y'all not up on your 'Strayan geography, Sydney's way in the east and is one of the world's cultural capitals and Alice Springs is a couple thousand clicks inland in the Northern Territory, which is basically Crocodile Dundee's turf) and the girls hop on a bus called Priscilla and go have themselves a road trip.
The journey inland clearly parallels Weaving's and Stamp's attempts to make sense of their respective pasts; Pearce's job is more to be comic relief, which he handles brilliantly, but his character isn't given as much depth as the other two. By the time they, and the story, reach(es) their/its destination (fuck you, pronouns) a lot of positive change has taken place, and life can move forward, in brainmeltingly awesome costumes. A large element in everything turning out okay is represented, symbolically, by our protagonists managing to transcend their otherness (which is manifest) and connect with their country and its people. Stamp plays a recent widow who—mild spoiler alert—meets a really nice small town guy who doesn't give two fucks what kinda genitals s/he was born with, he's just mad into Terence Stamp. Hugo Weaving—slightly spicier spoiler—reunites with his not-yet-divorced wife (the old friend who gives them the gig, no less) and young son, with whom he finally forms a father-son relationship amidst the central Australian countryside. One could even make the argument that given Alice Springs' geographical centrality, he journeyed to the heart of Australia, and in bringing his son back with him to Sydney at the end, he brings his rediscovered heart back with him. Oh, yeah, that's right, there's more to that movie than a bunch of ABBA, CeCe Peniston, and Alicia Bridges. Recognize.
Next, a radically different movie (that I stupidly left off my top 10 of the last decade, when it really should clock in at #2), The Motorcycle Diaries:
|Get it? RADICAL? See, it's funny because it's Che Guevara.|
The Motorcycle Diaries, of course, is the story of a very young, not-yet-Che (Gael Garcia Bernal, fucking awesome), who hops on a bike with his pal (Rodrigo de la Serna, just as fucking awesome) for a roundabout tour of South America on their way from Buenos Aires to a leper colony in Peru where they're volunteering and eventually to Caracas. Of course nothing goes the way they plan it, and by the time they get to the end of their journey, proto-Che is at the beginning of the journey that leads to becoming Che, and achieving dorm-room-wall immortality.
It's a story that underscores the principle that a story being happy or sad depends on when you call “cut.” Had it gone on—like Steven Soderbergh's two-part biopic—it would have gotten to the years when Che's good intentions confronted uncooperative realities (to be kind) and he started killing people and fucking shit up (to be less kind). The Motorcycle Diaries stops at a point when young Ernesto still has his whole life ahead of him, yet it's still a complete journey. Going from a liberal but sheltered medical student to a passionate advocate for social justice is quite a leap.
Like Priscilla (Ed. Note: I know this is the first time you ever saw anyone compare these two pictures. I know I'm awesome, you don't have to say it), the characters' journey in The Motorcycle Diaries is paralleled by the massive geographical distance traversed. In this case, the variety of geography is also vast, from snowcapped mountains to deserts to jungles. And, like the journey itself does, proto-Che connects all of these terrains, and the people who inhabit them, coming to regard South America as a continent rather than a group of discrete nation-states, and South Americans similarly as one people. From there, the obvious next step is that the world and all its people are as one.
Director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera do a good job in The Motorcycle Diaries of not judging proto-Che either way, instead letting the events unfold and simply pointing a camera at them. The way those events unfold make it seem inevitable, in the sense of the natural world to which the picture is so indelibly linked, that proto-Che would undergo the moral and intellectual journey he does. But, rather than the movie suggesting that anyone would have this reaction, it restricts itself to its observation on its particular characters. Proto-Che is proto-Che. You are you.
Fuckin' hell The Motorcycle Diaries was good. Anyway, moving on:
This right here is a road picture as only Michael Winterbottom could make, and only in England. Edited down from a BAFTA-winning six-episode TV show about Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan), having been talked into a tour of restaurants in the North of England by his girlfriend (Margo Stilley), who's gone back to America because things aren't going so well, being “forced” to ask his friend Rob Brydon (Rob Brydon) to accompany him on the trip because he “can't do it alone.” And so they spend five days driving around England, eating in restaurants, and talking. And talking. And talking. And talking.
The Trip contains more references to other Michael Winterbottom movies than anyone could possibly be expected to catch without an annotated edition. Catching them all, thankfully, isn't the point, but it does well to note that Michael Winterbottom is a total fucking wiseass, always fucking with audience expectations, throwing change-ups (googlies?), keeping us on our toes.
For this reason, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that a Michael Winterbottom road movie takes place in England, a country you can drive across in one day (provided you don't hit traffic). It's also a place that gives the sense of always having been there, and that isn't going anywhere anytime soon. The same goes, more or less, speaking very generally, for the people as well. While this may not be true in every case, it's still true that there's a prevailing sense of England and its people being this way.
So a road movie where Steve Coogan doesn't really go anywhere or do anything, beginning and ending with him alone moping in his apartment, just trucking along in an anhedonic funk, occasionally sniping at Rob Brydon to hide his secret jealousy of Brydon's relative happiness (and extremely loving marriage), is kind of the perfect English road movie.
I give Winterbottom, Coogan, and Brydon a lot of credit for making the fact that The Trip is almost casually perfect of secondary importance to it being one of the funniest and most quotable pictures in like ever. I'm not even going to embarrass myself trying to describe how awesome the jokes are, so I'm going to let the movie speak for itself. Also, bear in mind, when you watch a whole hour and forty-five minutes of this, the cumulative effect just makes it funnier and funnier:
This one I posted last November before I even knew what The Trip was:
Finally, maybe you have to be an actor to think this is the funniest thing in the fucking universe but I am so it is:
I mean holy shit this movie is so fucking good. The fact that it speaks that perfectly to what it's like being an actor AND has a deeply considered and holistically perfect sense of place AND is a mirror image of the classic road movie AND in so being ends up being one of the best extant examples thereof is . . . well, unlike Messrs. Coogan and Brydon, I have no words. (Also, footnote: Rob Brydon is amazing in this, and Rob Brydon the character is one of my favorites in any movie in years. And, second footnote: I love how Steve Coogan is so willing, in this, Tristram Shandy, 24 Hour Party People—kind of, as that was Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson as Steve Coogan—and Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, how Coogs is willing to the point of eagerness to portray himself as such a raging twat. He always gets it juuuust right before he alienates everyone. It's quite the balancing act.)
Okay, since it's getting to time to say QED and drop the mic, to recap: a successful road narrative in its given medium is dependent on the relationship between character and place, with the place being the progenitor of the character(s), and the change in place paralleling the change, and hopefully evolution, of character. It's not the subtlest metaphor in the world, but there are certain stories—like the three discussed above, and a number of others, I'm sure—that need to be told that way. That's right, motherfucker. Q. E. D.