Road Movies


While continuing to appeal to independent filmmakers (and constantly appearing at film festivals), the road movie in the mid-1980s swerved to the center of popular film culture. Expanding its parameters into the 1990s, the road movie embraced a wide spectrum of tones, from quirky irony to brash sentimentality to hi-tech ultraviolence. Not surprisingly, many of these films can be characterized as postmodern, and as more multicultural.

A good signpost of the road movie trends of the 1980s is The Road Warrior (1982, Mad Max 2 in native Australia), with its cartoonish, postapocalyptic violence and elaborate driving pyrotechnics. David Lynch's lurid, surrealistic Wild at Heart (1989) is another postmodern hallmark, remaking the outlaw couple for the 1990s with high camp allusions to Elvis and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Conversely, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), and Dead Man (1995) use deadpan, minimalist absurdity to update the quest, prison-break, and Western trek, respectively. Joel and Ethan Coen's Raising Arizona (1987) pokes fun at the outlaw couple with heavy-handed irony; their more recent O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) yokes together Homer and Preston Sturges ( Sullivan's Travels ) for an oddly picaresque Depression-era pilgrimage. Other postmodern road movie parodies are Lost in America (1985), True Stories (1986), and Roadside Prophets (1992); more earnest, sentimental, and yuppified is the only road movie to win the Best Picture Oscar ® , Hollywood's Rain Man (1988).

In the early 1990s, some road movies put more diverse drivers behind the wheel. Thelma and Louise is exemplary here, highly popular and controversial for its feminist carjacking of the male-dominated genre. Their desperate journey is clearly a rebellion against the abuses of patriarchy. On the other hand, some critics felt the film simply plugged two women into the buddy road movie mold, thus neutralizing its feminism. In any case, in its wake women began to appear with more gusto on the celluloid highway, as in Boys on the Side (1995). Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) is a compelling exploration of life on the road for gay hustlers in the Northwest; his Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) similarly trace the routes of marginalized, unconventional travelers. Other road movies notable for their uncommon perspectives are The Living End (1992), an HIV-positive road trip that rages against homophobic culture; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), featuring a multiethnic troupe of transvestites on their way to Hollywood; Get on the Bus , which follows a diverse group of African American men across the country to the Million Man March; and Smoke Signals (1998), which tracks the journey of two Native American buddies into the traumas and magic of their ethnic heritage.

Another significant road movie strain of the 1990s is the ultraviolent outlaw film, which often bleeds into the horror category by focusing on traveling serial killers. With fingerprints going back to Truman Capote's true crime novel In Cold Blood (1966) and the obscure independent film gem The Honeymoon Killers (1970), films like Kalifornia (1993), The Doom Generation (1995), Freeway (1996), and Breakdown (1997) use hypernoir suspense and graphic violence to follow killers who hide and thrive on the road. Natural Born Killers took this tendency to new heights, using MTV-style aesthetics to glorify its killer couple, but also to question such cultural glorification.

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