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Driving for Driving’s Sake

Nowhere else is driving as beautiful as in the movies. And never has anyone driven nowhere as resolutely as in the road movie. And in the summer.

Text: Peter Lau Photo: Daniel Espírito Santo 15.10.2020 12 min

Somehow everyone was always on the move back then, long before we started keeping track of time. That was just the way things were. Later they were called hunters and gatherers, but nobody knows what they called themselves. Free spirits? Freaks? Easy riders? Anyway, it all came to an end about ten thousand years ago: agriculture and permanent settlements were the new highways of evolution, cattle breeding and some primitive technologies were added to the mix, and so for a short moment, for a few thousand years, it really looked as if life was quite simple. People worked, multiplied and otherwise sat dully around, a state that, in memory of our ancestors, we still call “stoned” today. But not everyone was happy with the simple life. Some easy riders squatted in front of their huts in the evening and stared out at the horizon, behind which the world ended in an abyss, and while they gnawed at their suppertime bones, a strange feeling rose inside of them, the feeling of having lost something very important. It was as if a gigantic thunderstorm was coming up, a roar louder than a herd of mammoths, something that would make life infinitely more complicated, full of compromises and complex rules. And they were right. Because the pale light in the distance was no summer lightning storm; it was the dawn of civilization.

Nothing against progress. It’s just that novelty and innovation are always a bit suspect, because of the element of the unknown. When the first railroads began setting new speed records, they said it would kill people if they traveled faster than thirty kilometers an hour. When the Lumière brothers showed a train entering a railway station during their early film screenings in 1895, the audience rushed out of the theater in a panic, fearing the train would run them over. For three weeks, the owner of the first cinema in Hong Kong actually paid people to watch his films in order to dispel their fear that the shadows on the screen would jump out and attack them. Eventually, everyone loved it. Speed and man-made imagery were the sensations of the modern age, eerie and fascinating, all the more so when they came together. Soon men were racing across the screen in airplanes, zeppelins, trains, ships, even in suspended railways, but above all in cars – a rush of speed that everyone wanted to experience for themselves. The cinema started out as a spectacle and has remained true to this tradition to this day: most blockbusters still live from high speed and never-before-seen attractions, from hormones seeping into sweaty armrests, and a pace that never for a moment raises the question of meaning.

Driving is fun, but unfortunately at some point you get somewhere. Before you do, however, there is room for hope: an unknown place could become a new home, a small job a big leap in your career, a stranger a love for life. But no sooner have you arrived than a second carriage stops next to the traveler squinting optimistically into the sun, and out of the carriage comes . . . your mother! The past, you know. Misery. And things continue as before. Better to stay on the move and postpone your arrival until the next life. Now if that isn’t a job for the dream factory! Like Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night from 1934. Nobody expected much from this little romantic comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, who, it was said, already had their best times behind them. The plot was pretty thin too: A reporter meets a runaway millionaire’s daughter on a bus whose father is looking for her all over the country. The two travel together from Florida to New York, fall in love, lose each other, and finally find each other again. To everyone's surprise the film was a huge success. It won several Oscars and with its rapid and pointed dialogue went down in film history as the first screwball comedy. It was also the first road movie, albeit a very untypical one: there was a happy ending. And the protagonists mainly used public transportation.

The dream of the road movie is the dream of getting away from it all: being faster than the daily routine – and your mother! The heyday of the road movie was the sixties and seventies, when the rules and boundaries of the genre were set. Essentially, it is about escape and pursuit. The hero is hounded because he has broken the law, sometimes because he is a gangster, but mostly only because he has different ideas about life than everyone else. Everyone else, that’s his mother, the sheriff, the government, the banks, the ex-wife, society, in short: everyone who stands between the hero and his freedom. There are many things the hero could do against this. He could resist, argue, look for allies, start his own country, or appear on a talk show, but none of that occurs to him. Repulsed by a society that makes life difficult for him, for example by introducing speed limits, he jumps into his car and speeds off. It’s probably better somewhere else! His mother, the sheriff, the ex-wife and everyone else rushes after him, they too have a somewhat unhealthy fixation on the automobile, and then there’s really nothing more to see except rear-end collisions and extras who jump to the side at the last moment. Richard Sarafian’s 1971 film Vanishing Point is typical in this regard: Vietnam War veteran Kowalski (Barry Newman) bets that he can get a car from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. He quickly attracts attention because of his high speeds, soon the police are after him, and when he can’t get away despite all his driving skills, he races at full throttle into a roadblock that is so fat and evil and blocks the view of the horizon that you immediately know: this is a symbol! The horsepower tragedy aroused indignation, even disgust, among the younger viewers at the time, since they were all Kowalskis somehow who had to fight for their freedom, i.e. jeans and long hair. If the cops hadn’t already been on their shitlist anyway, the matter would have been clear after seeing this film: “The pigs killed him (him? us!) just for driving too fast!” “Yeah, but he died with his head held high, like a free man!”

About five thousand years ago, money, writing and other cultural achievements created the basis for our civilization, which continues to demand increasingly complex behavior from its members to this day. There was little resistance to this, probably because there was no proper understanding of it. By the time it finally dawned on some people what had happened, it was too late: the time was over when the cerebrum was considered a toy for weaklings because real men hunt with the brain stem. And there was no running away, because the world was completely civilized all around. But driving away perhaps? That’s what the road movie is all about. You could probably shoot any of these films as a foot chase. Take Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, a story about a kind-hearted couple who are shaken by provincial poverty and are finally beaten down by the pig system for minor offences (bank robberies). In the Stone Age version, Faye Dunaway would have been walking about in a fur bikini, with a flat-footed, javelin-throwing horde on her tail. But that just won’t do because there always has to be a technological advantage. The hero always has the better car or at least he is the better driver. Behind all this lies the hope of escaping the consequences of technology, of society – with the help of technology.

Without traffic or turns, i.e. in its purest form, a road is as simple as the thought process of a reptile: fight or flight, stay or go – all it takes is an impulse to set the movement in motion, the rest follows a compelling line, for example that of the asphalt. In the human brain such impulses come from the brain stem (sometimes called the “reptilian brain”). It acts even as the cerebrum is still struggling, thus ensuring fast reactions. Races are won in the brain stem. Most of the time, however, the road movie deals with circumstances that are below reptilian level, because there is usually no choice. Every highway becomes a one-way street as soon as mother appears in the rear-view mirror. And every road in front of the car turns into an arrow pointing to the horizon as soon as you see flight as the only reality. It is only when several roads meet that things become too complicated for the brain stem. That’s why almost all road movies are set in the countryside, preferably in the desert, where nothing reminds you of civilization and its nasty tricks (debate, compromise, responsibility). The few exceptions serve to illustrate the rules of the genre all the more clearly. In American Graffitti (1973), for example, George Lucas portrays a group of young high school graduates on their last evening of summer vacation, cruising through town until early morning. The street grid reflects the network of relationships, the cars are an expression of personality and a means of communication. At the end there is an illegal drag race, outside the city of course. The next morning, the young people split up, drive off to college and grow up. Only the winner of the illegal race, a real easy rider, stays behind in the small town.

The boundaries of the genre were narrow, its heyday short. By the mid-seventies, the road movie myth was complete, with 1969’s Easy Rider influencing the style in particular: Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, as freewheeling hippie bikers (actually a grotesque trivialization of the brutal, misogynist, reactionary Hells Angels), are crushed by the circumstances, thus cementing what road movies are all about. There is no answer, there is only giving up or dying. Steven Spielberg’s Duel from 1972 on the other hand, in which a middle-aged salesman actually ends up defeating an aggressive, seemingly driverless truck – pure technology, so to speak – fails to come up with the necessary pessimism. With the exception of Spielberg, it seemed clear to everyone that you can’t really drive away from civilization. The only realistic hope for anyone who would rather act than think (or drive than talk) was the end of the world, and so the road movie found its logical continuation in the post-apocalyptic film. Here, the social order has been obliterated from the very beginning, by nuclear war, an environmental crisis or bad weather. It’s a time for real warriors, people who fight for true values. Like gasoline. The classic of this subgenre is the Australian film Mad Max, in which Mel Gibson drives down desert roads searching for fuel, which he needs to be able to continue driving down desert roads searching for fuel. The meaning of life for people who have nothing else to do. Driving for the sake of driving.

It’s hard to say what it means when a region is settled by people who are unable to cope with the complicated circumstances of their native country and now hope to start all over again in the land of unlimited opportunities. Fact is that, apart from the US, only Australia has produced any truly compelling road movies. Europe, on the other hand, has mainly given us almost nothing. In Weekend (1967) French director Jean-Luc Godard turns a bourgeois couple into murderous beasts when they get stuck in traffic; his compatriot Jacques Tati encounters various obstacles on a drive from Paris to Amsterdam in 1971’s Trafic; while Italian director Luigi Comencini puts a congested highway at the center of suppressed instincts in Traffic Jam. In Germany, that great automotive nation, going for a drive was rarely shown to be any fun in the movies. The protagonists in Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road got an especially bad deal: two men, somewhat frustrated with life, drive a repair truck at high walking speed through the countryside near the East German border, the greatest danger during the whole film being that the actors would fall asleep before the audience did. Luckily, things never got that far.

The road movie is about the longing for a simple world without rules, a world you inhabit alone. The car is perfect for this, because people spend most of their time in cars by themselves. Everyone makes their own rules in this drivable living space, and because the reaction and orientation processes necessary for driving require only the lowest functional levels of the brain, everyone finds this completely normal. George Lucas designed the logical conclusion to this idea in 1970 at the end of his science-fiction film THX 1138: the main character is picked up by a family who puts the refugee in the trunk of their car, where he is burned for fuel. The important thing is: the road must go on! A delighted child asks, “And what do we do if we can’t find any more? Do we use each other then?”

But the world is no longer as evil as it was during Richard Nixon’s time. In recent years, the car has been cast in a more positive light, especially in young German cinema. In Fatih Akin’s road movie comedy In July, a couple makes its way through southeastern Europe, but without any kind of confrontation – the story is not about driving for any fundamental reasons, but about getting someplace fast. In Absolute Giganten by Sebastian Schipper, there is no destination at all, just a group of people in a car who could easily do without four-wheeled symbols of individuality. The trio spend the night driving through Hamburg, celebrating not the foreign, but the familiar, and find happiness in not being alone. The dark premonitions of the typical road movie, as these films show, were correct: if you leave the car door open long enough, sooner or later someone will be sitting in the passenger seat, and with them the whole complicated network of civilization. What the easy riders didn’t know: this is the best thing that can happen to you.

A survey conducted in the mid-eighties of one hundred and fifty American movies since 1938 revealed that in 84 percent of them someone speaks a particular line: “Let’s get out of here.” That is apparently a popular desire. Now we might ask ourselves: Would the world be a better place if people said that less often? Though perhaps another question is even more interesting: Would the world be a better place if people cared more about their lives than they did about escaping from it?