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Saturday, January 5, 2008

On the Road, Part 1 (originally published 3/02)

There are some forms of storytelling that move easily from one medium to another. Murder mysteries, for example, work well in novels, on the stage, on the screen, and in radio drama. Other types of stories are more particular about how they get told. If you're a brooding Frenchman looking to cast a philosophical eye back over the course of your life, you pretty well know that you're going to write a novel, which is why the seven parts of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" stand as monuments of that form. If you've got a great idea for a musical, even though you know that movies can do an acceptable job with the form, you're going to produce it on the stage first. That's because you know that there's nothing quite like seeing a dynamic performer step down to the footlights and belt out a great song to a live audience.

Similarly, if your story involves a road trip, a journey that carries the main characters from point A to point B as the story unfolds, you're probably going to do it as a movie. "Crossroads," the recently released Britney Spears vehicle, is a prime example. If you're curious about other cinematic road trips, you'll find that the shelves at the corner video store are loaded with them. Here are a few of the best to look for.

"Detour" (1945). This dark cult classic combines the road picture genre with the relentlessly gloomy genre known as film noir. Tom Neal stars as Al Roberts, a down and out piano player who is thumbing his way from New York to Los Angeles to marry his fiancee. Along the way he is picked up by a fellow named Haskell. During the trip, Haskell suddenly and unexpectedly dies in his sleep while Al is taking his turn at the wheel. In a panic, Al makes the fateful decision to assume the dead man's identity. With the tough break inevitability that is the hallmark of film noir, Al soon falls in with an incredibly unpleasant woman named Vera who happens to have known Haskell. Knowing that Al isn't who he claims to be, Vera proceeds to make his life a living hell under the threat of exposing him to the authorities.

"A Canterbury Tale" (1944). The original road story, of course, was Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," which means that the pedigree of the genre extends as far back as English literature itself. In this fascinating tale of World War II, the famed British writer/director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger borrow Chaucer's title to tell a new Canterbury tale. It isn't the stories of Chaucer's travelers that they update here, only the idea of travelers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. The movie's pilgrims are three Brits - a justice of the peace, a farmer, and a soldier - and an American G.I.

"La Strada" (1954). The title of this early masterpiece by Federico Fellini translates as "The Road." It tells the story of Zampano (Anthony Quinn), a brutal traveling strongman, and Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), the slavishly loyal waif who travels with him. Fellini, typically, renders the road as a metaphor for life, and the world of the traveling circus as a metaphor for its absurdity.

"The Rain People" (1969). Shirley Knight plays Natalie Ravenna, a restless housewife who has just learned that she is pregnant. She doesn't know how she feels about the pregnancy, and isn't even certain that she wants to have the baby. Feeling trapped, she leaves her husband and takes to the road without really knowing where she's headed. Along the way she picks up Jimmie Kilgannon (James Caan), a former football player whose game injuries have left him brain damaged. This unlikely pair travel through West Virginia, Tennessee, and finally Nebraska in search of a job for Jimmie. Ironically, in her increasing concern for Jimmie, Natalie takes on just the sort of maternal responsibilities that she had been running from. This was writer/director Francis Ford Coppola's last film as a relative unknown. Next time out, he would turn the movie world on its ear with "The Godfather" (1972).

The road, as Paul McCartney observed, is long and winding, and we've only begun to explore its peregrinations through the landscape of the silver screen. Next time, we'll look at more classic road pictures.

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