Few cinematic sub-genres have as much cultural kudos as the humble road movie. Seriously – conjure up a handful of films you buzz off and I bet there's a road movie firmly nestled in there somewhere. And if there isn't… you probably haven't watched enough mint films.
Anyway, here's a brief, dumbed-down history to boot things off: the road movie emerged as a sort-of modern-day version of the Western. Like Westerns, road movies featured geezers traversing vast, picturesque expanses of awe-inspiring nowhere in search of… something, but unlike their older, gun-slinging counterparts, the contemporary road movie, influenced by the counter-culture movements of the 60s and Jack Kerouac's seminal novel On the Road, put way more emphasis on the actual journey (and how said journey shapes the character's attitudes and beliefs), rather than the act of reaching a destination.
Without further waffle, stick a tenner's worth of petrol in your car, fasten your seat-belts and let's hit the glorious blacktop expanses of the open road…
HAL ASHBY, THE LAST DETAIL – 1973
Booting things off with an expletive-laden, nautical-scented bang, here's Hal Ashby's masterful maritime road flick The Last Detail.
The Last Detail concerns itself with two Navy ‘lifers’ who, when tasked with escorting a young offender to the clink cross-country, decide to send the lad off with one last good time under his belt with a road-trip filled-to-the-brim with lager-guzzling, sausage-scoffing and brothel excursions.
This one is a fairly exemplary slice of what I'll call 'the classic road movie'. A mainstay in the New Hollywood movement of the 60s and 70s, these types of road movies usual focus on characters on the margins of society as they move through an American landscape they no longer recognise or understand. Disillusionment and anti-establishment attitudes abound during their journeys, and usually culminate in some sort of melancholic personal epiphany, or complete and total carnage, à la Easy Rider.
While these thematic preoccupations proved a hit with the long-locked, reefer-smoking counter-culture youth of the 60s and 70s, the classic road movie formula still endures to this day, thanks to their emphasis on how the changing landscapes of a nation affects its people, which, without stating the obvious, is pretty timeless subject matter.
If you're looking for some more classic road movie flavour, have a look at the aforementioned Easy Rider (1969), Badlands (1973) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
WIM WENDERS, ALICE IN THE CITIES – 1974
Pack a bag and dig out your passport - we're taking a trip to the continent with Wim Wenders and his contemplative, understated masterwork Alice in the Cities.
Alice in the Cities is the tale of Philip Winter, a German journalist entrusted with transporting a ten-year-old girl back to West Germany by her mother, who's ditched her child in favour of rekindling a romance with her ex-lover in New York.
Upon a reread, that hastily-written synopsis sounds like it could easily descend into some eye-roll-inducing, social-realist, misery porn, but it's actually one of the most whimsical, sweet and tender films ever committed to celluloid, and is a prime example of what we'll call the 'Euro road film'.
Wim Wenders is the undisputed don dada of the Euro road film, and Alice in the Cities might just be his petrol-guzzling magnum opus.
For the first forty minutes of the film, Wenders examines the American scenery through a pensive Germanic lens, scrutinising the kind-of national idiosyncrasies that Americans would usually take for granted, simultaneously celebrating and lamenting all things star-spangled – from America's effects on Europe (it's worth noting that Philip, Alice and her mother all live in West Germany, which was controlled by America at the time), consciousness and cinema.
If you're seeking more of this kind-of European je ne sais quoi, Wenders' other road movies The Wrong Move (1975), Kings of the Road (1976) and Paris, Texas (1984) are all worthy of your attention, as is Werner Herzog's Stroszek (1977).
CHRIS PETIT, RADIO ON – 1979
Next up, we've got a rarely-spotted-in-the-wild example of the English road movie – Chris Petit's wonderfully dour Radio On.
Radio On follows Robert, a biscuit factory DJ, as he travels from London to Bristol to investigate the suicide of his brother. Along the way, he meets his fair share of mad heads, including a potty-mouthed Scotsman deserting from the army and a caravan-dwelling Sting.
A road movie set in England might sound pretty daft, as you can cross the country in just a few hours, but this one is a rare exception, partially down to the influence of our good mate Wim Wenders.
“A road movie set in England might sound pretty daft, as you can cross the country in just a few hours, but this one is a rare exception.”
I'm not talking about influence in a metaphysical sense either: Wenders straight up produced this doozy, supplied Chris with a technically-skilled German crew (including Wenders' assistant cameraman Martin Schäfer) and got his then-wife Lisa Kreuzer (who plays Alice's mother in Alice in the Cities) to play the main character's love interest.
Thanks to this influence, Chris Petit and his team of savy Germans purposely photographed England with a foreign eye, focusing on flyovers, high-rises and motorways. The final result is a gloomy, under-seen oddity that looks and feels entirely singular.
GUS VAN SANT, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO – 1991
Penultimately, we've got Gus Van Sant's bittersweet odyssey through the seedy world of street hustling (and the second film in the list to feature a world-famous, craggy-faced bassist) – My Own Private Idaho.
Loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry V, My Own Private Idaho follows two street hustlers, narcoleptic drifter Mike and rich kid Scott, as they embark on a journey from Portland to Mike's hometown in Idaho, and eventually over to Rome in search of Mike's absentee mother.
Unlike the other films I've nattered about here, there isn't really a neatly defined label that does the weirdo wonderment of My Own Private Idaho justice. Sure, I could call it a 'Nouvelle road movie' or an 'avant-garde road film' or something like that, but that makes it sound (for a lack of a more graceful adjective) lame.
Essentially, what I'm trying to say is the 'road movie' aspect of MOPI doesn't factor too much into what makes the film so great - there's a bucket-load of surreal wackiness and mint stuff on display here, from Keanu Reeves reeling-off hip, early-90s updates of Shakespearean dialogue to River Phoenix's softly heartbreaking performance, all the way over to Flea sobbing over a dead, fat creep in a rundown hotel.
Gus Van Sant has also hit this nail on the head before with Drugstore Cowboy (1989), so that might be worth seeking out if this sounds like your proverbial cuppa.
ALEXANDER PAYNE, SIDEWAYS – 2004
Finally, we're (insert driving pun here) to the coasts of sunny California with the film I swear I've seen on DVD in every charity shop I've ever stepped foot in – Alexander Payne's 10/10 Sideways.
Sideways follows Miles, a depressed teacher and unsuccessful writer, and Jack, a past-his-prime actor, on a week-long road trip to Santa Barbara wine country to celebrate Jack's upcoming wedding. While Miles has planned a week choc-a-bloc full of slick activities like wine tasting and whatnot, Jack's more interested in getting his end away before he's locked into the confines of marriage.
“Like many great discoveries, I happened upon Sideways by accident – I remember catching it on Film4 at some ungodly hour when I was about 13.”
Remember how I booted off this article by saying “conjure up a handful of films you proper buzz off and I bet there's a road movie firmly nestled in there somewhere”? Well, this one is mine.
Like many great discoveries, I happened upon Sideways by accident – I remember catching it on Film4 at some ungodly hour when I was about 13. Considering most 13-year-olds aren't typically into dry character studies concerned with the failure of romance, unrealised potential and the intricacies of wine tasting, all set to the tune of laid-back lounge jazz, Sideways somehow struck a chord within me that hasn't waned to this this day.
I'm still not sure why – character studies still aren't really my cinematic weapon of choice, listening to lounge jazz is about as fun as pulling teeth, and I'm fairly convinced that wine is the worst alcoholic beverage to ever curse the face of the earth.
All I know is the scene where Miles gulps his prized bottle of Château Cheval Blanc out of a Styrofoam cup in a scuzzy fast-food restaurant still makes me shed a tear to this day, and the line, “I AM NOT DRINKING ANY FUCKING MERLOT,” is probably my favourite line of dialogue ever written for the screen.
As for suggestions, maybe look at Dino Risi's Il Sorpasso (1962), the film that Sideways is heavily inspired by.
Right. That's it. We've reached our destination. The end. I hope you've had fun, and maybe even learnt something about yourself during this written-road trip.