restricted access Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 172-173

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Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie. By David Laderman. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Pp. 322. $65/$24.95.

Driving Visions explores and analyses a carefully defined genre of films, the "road movie," which David Laderman characterizes as a distinctly American invention, although he includes a few foreign productions as well. As I understand Laderman's criteria, a true road movie is one in which the vehicle—typically either a car or motorcycle, although it can be a truck—is in some way a character in the film. That is expressed primarily by the film's adoption of a point of view from the vehicle, not from the sidelines, with the primary movement of the film taking place as the vehicle is in motion, not during scenes when the (human) characters are stopped by the roadside. Laderman's thesis is that such movies are a unique American contribution to the art of good filmmaking.

Such a definition is at some level arbitrary, and most readers will quickly think of films that could have been included in this book but were not. (I have my own list.) For Laderman, the road movie embodies the theme of rebellion against all that is confining in America. The road movie further expresses a tragic theme, in which those who take to the road as a form of rebellion eventually discover that the escape it offers is ephemeral and illusory. This theme is best expressed in two movies made during the tumultuous 1960s: Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Both embody long passages celebrating rebellion and freedom through motorized mobility, and both end tragically, as their characters recognize that they ultimately have nowhere else to go.

From those two pathbreaking movies came a series of variations on the theme, evolving into what the author calls the "postmodern" road movies of the 1980s and 1990s: Natural Born Killers and My Own Private Idaho are examples. Thelma and Louise likewise plays off this basic theme, though it has a much lighter touch (perhaps the reason why it was such a commercial success).

Such movies have deep roots in American literature and culture, going back at least as far as the poetry of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The most direct literary inspiration for the road movie, its "master narrative," was Jack Kerouac's On the Road. That novel was never made into a movie, although there was a successful, if sanitized, television series called Route 66, which featured two actors who looked like Kerouac and Neal Cassidy (the real-life wanderers on whom the fictional characters of the novel were based) and drove a convertible across wide open spaces every week. On the Road included all the basic components: long passages simply about driving down a highway, freedom, rebellion, rejection of America while professing [End Page 172] a love of America, sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol use, jazz (morphed into rock and roll in the road movies), and the tragic ending.

My primary criticism of Laderman's book is that On the Road has not stood up well to the passage of time (neither has Easy Rider, as Laderman acknowledges). As rebelliousness has become commodified, its theme no longer rings true. The rebellions (plural) of the 1960s included not just the cultural rebellion of Haight-Ashbury but also the civil rights movement, the struggle for women's equality, and resistance to the war in Vietnam. Those movements express much more than a simple follow-on to the themes of On the Road and, by extension, to road movies. I note that, currently, one of the most intriguing commercials on television is for a soft drink in which a balding middle-aged man is digitally spliced into scenes of Easy Rider alongside Peter Fonda. Will future generations look on road movies as we today look on the film noir classics of the 1940s?

I enjoyed this book, and I suspect many of Technology and Culture's readers will enjoy...