Chris Petit takes the road to everywhere
Friday June 8, 2007
Back in the 1970s, I drove a lot and liked it. I thought the portable tape cassette one of the great 20th-century inventions, and who ever thought to put a radio in a car was a genius. Music and speed, combined with the ratio of the windscreen, made for an experience that was often more cinematic than the films I had to review. Driving with the radio on transcended the dreary reality of Britain, hinted at possibilities of a mythic landscape denied by the realism of the English cinema.
I saw nothing on the English screen that corresponded to a modern life that, for me, combined drift and boredom, jukeboxes, Alphaville, JG Ballard and Kraftwerk. England made me restless, which is why I liked US cinema, with its recurring themes of migration, pioneering and journey. I was never bored by an American road movie as long as it kept moving. Driving, like watching film, is a suspended state, and any drive — well, perhaps not those to the supermarket — has its own narrative: what is being driven away from (the past) and driven towards; a simultaneous journey of flight and progression.
But it wasn't until seeing Rossellini and Wenders that I began to appreciate how making films might be possible. Lured into Wenders' early film The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty Kick by its title and not knowing what to expect, I was intrigued by the way it squandered its plot - goalkeeper loses game, hangs around, strangles cinema cashier and takes to the road — in favour of heightened lesser moments: a bright yellow cigarette machine at a bus station or listening to a familiar song on a crappy transistor with variable reception. Wenders did none of the expected things, preferring the extended journey through landscapes suffering cultural amnesia and a country refusing to face up to its past.
It was Wenders who gave me my break. Radio On was partly produced by his company Road Movies. I wasn't given any audition beyond being asked how I would shoot it; 35mm black-and-white, I said. Looking back, I'm amazed. I hadn't a clue really.
Main reasons for a film-maker (or anyone) to go on the road: fresh horizons; to save a failing relationship; to look back. Road movies are cinematic because they are not a substitute for something else. They are not filmed theatre, like a lot of movies. Despite the limited angles of filming in a car, I am thrilled by a camera inside any vehicle the way I am not when it is in a room. I was never much interested in the filmed story anyway: the what-happens-when. Film was about space or moments or visual geometry. Godard summed it up best: "The important thing is to be aware that one exists. For three-quarters of the time during the day one forgets this truth, which surges up again as you look at houses or a red light, and you have the sensation of existing in that moment."
The road flatters bad directors and brings out the best in good ones. Peckinpah, by association, is a recurring name. Rudy Wurlitzer wrote Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for him, a kind of pre-road movie. Wurlitzer co-directed Candy Mountain with Robert Frank, the great photographer chronicler of the American road and a major influence on Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Wurlitzer wrote Two-Lane Blacktop, the last word on the American road: strung out, existential, narcotic. Three out of a main cast of four died prematurely, Warren Oates while washing his car. Its director Monte Hellman barely worked subsequently. The fate of Two-Lane Blacktop, masterpiece or not, as a film epitomises the doomed romanticism of the road movie and its relationship to cinema, corresponding to Ballard's key image of the modern age as that of 'a man sitting in a car driving down a superhighway'.
· This is an extract from the foreword to 100 Road Movies by Jason Wood, published by the BFI. Radio On will be shown on June 14 at Riverside Studios Cinema, Hammersmith, as part of a season of road movie double-bills running until July 5.