No film genre — not slasher flicks, disaster movies, or even porn, which has the deathless cachet of the demimonde — gets a lower rap than the car movie. Either it's regarded with faint condescension, as an artifact of regional folks' curious fascinations, or as nitro-burning redneck kitsch, the province of sweaty sideburns, mag wheels and dudes with names like Stroker Ace. If there's any common bond that car movies share beyond speed and exhaust, it's the class prejudice they tend to provoke. The car movie is cinema's mullet.
But to put it in terms that would probably bug Hal Needham, is there another genre that so suits the kinetic insatiability of the medium? Motion! Velocity! Constant changes of scenery! Even the widescreen aspect ratio mimics "lookin' at the world through a windshield," as the great Del Reeves put it. And with cars and cinema as twin obsessions of the 20th century, the best car movies bear indelibly the make and model of their times. A movie like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, banished to double bills in 1971, is a rolling time capsule of Vietnam-era alienation, as emblematic of its period as Warren Oates or his candy-colored GTO.
Oates, that giant among character actors who pinch-hit from time to time as leading men, is one of the icons of "Road Movies of the 1970s and '80s," a six-week retrospective starting Saturday that proves Nashville's Belcourt could take the pink slip of any arthouse in the country right now. A gumball rally of paired star/director tributes, profane picaresques, blockbuster comedies and beloved cult movies, the films in the Belcourt series form dots along a cinematic blue highway, offering stupefied summer moviegoers an off-ramp for getting lost.
The retrospective is loose enough to showcase uneasy riders as far afield as Jack Nicholson's blustery career-Navy officer in Hal Ashby's delectably salty The Last Detail (Aug. 20-22) and the "loner ... rebel" hero of Tim Burton's evergreen Pee Wee's Big Adventure (Aug. 5-6, on a double bill with National Lampoon's Vacation). And strictly speaking, not all the films in the series are car movies — such as Jack Starrett's surprisingly potent 1975 shocker Race With the Devil (Aug. 13 & 15), with Oates, Peter Fonda and Loretta Swit in an RV tailed by bloodthirsty Satanists. But the best ones in the package make the car movie an art form as uniquely American as Big Daddy Roth's bug-eyed hot-rodders.
Most car movies fall into one of two types — races or chases. Races have rules. Races have clear outcomes and a fixed course. Most importantly, races have winners. But by the early 1970s, in the wake of Easy Rider, the race-car flick had downshifted toward low-budget oblivion. With that diminishment, however, came a freedom to represent the marginalization felt by Americans who weren't "winners" — hence the chase movie. These make up most of the car movies in the Belcourt's series. The often benumbed protagonists of the chase movie deliberately break the rules; they have no prize waiting, nor even a finish line; and they reject the corporate-contained confines of the track for the open road, where they often feel the law breathing down their necks. The car is a ticket in race movies; in chase movies, it's a bullet.
The road may represent the promise of escape in movies such as Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point (screening Saturday and Sunday) and Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express (Aug. 27 & 29) — but it's a dead end leading back to the establishment that controls it. (In Two-Lane Blacktop, which fittingly concludes the series Sept. 3-5, the destination of the meandering road race that literally flares out is Washington, D.C.) In Vanishing Point, scripted by the Cuban novelist and film critic G. Cabrera Infante under a pseudonym, Barry Newman barrels his white Dodge Challenger down roads that are effectively ruled by the cops, whose authority is backed up by racist right-wing goons.
However futile, the (anti)heroes' run in these films taps into a brotherhood not of other racers, but of similarly disenfranchised outsiders: the hippies and blind DJ Cleavon Little in Vanishing Point, the crowds that cheer on fugitives Goldie Hawn and William Atherton in Sugarland Express. A big part of the lasting charm of Needham's quintessential CB comedy Smokey and the Bandit (Aug. 19-20) — yeah, wiseguy, you read that correctly — is the downhome resistance movement of truckers, lot lizards and cornpone allies who keep throwing roadblocks in the path of Jackie Gleason's apoplectic shurf. Talk about a citizens' band.
The flip side of the series is the paranoia about other cross-country denizens that seethes in several highway-bound thrillers, where the anonymity that looks like beautiful-loser glamour in a hero becomes a villain's chilling vacancy. The ultimate example is the TV movie that put young Spielberg on the map, 1971's brilliant Duel (Aug. 27 & 29), in which the tyro director imbues the 18-wheeler bearing down on terrified motorist Dennis Weaver with menace and a macabre wit. The (driverless?) truck itself becomes the embodiment of irrational road rage — a role given flesh by clear-eyed angel of doom Rutger Hauer as The Hitcher (Aug. 6-7), an id unleashed out of too-nice driver C. Thomas Howell's sleep-deprived motoring. And what are Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and their pack of Confederate vampires in Kathryn Bigelow's terrific Near Dark (Sept. 2-3) but the personified fears of every nervous motorist who's ever stopped for directions at some bucket of blood?
The two poles of the Belcourt series, however, may be the double features devoted to its most emblematic stars, Oates and his virtual opposite, Burt Reynolds. Reynolds had the effortless movie-star gleam Oates never possessed — in his '70s heyday, he seemed to be chewing gum even when he wasn't — and yet Oates gave off a reek of rotgut authenticity that Reynolds spent much his career chasing. In Sam Peckinpah's woozy, hallucinogenic, unfairly maligned Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Aug. 13 & 15), Oates is essentially the warped mirror image of Reynolds' breezy, cackling Bandit: a sweaty, anxious creep who risks his neck to deliver an irrelevant payload (in his case, a severed noggin in a burlap sack, not a shitload of Coors) to bosses who scarcely deserve it.
By the same token, Reynolds' avenging ex-moonshine runner in the hooch-hauling sleeper White Lightning (Aug. 19-20) has a rascally ease behind the wheel that's totally beyond Oates. The idol of every 8-year-old I knew (and me) when White Lightning came out in 1973, Reynolds comes across as the guy who considers the road his home, while Oates always looks like the guy who missed the last exit off the road to nowhere. Both belong here in the Belcourt series, jockeying eternally for the express lane.
The car movie's ultimate shift from stuntwork to CGI work is sad but hardly surprising. By the '80s, the car had begun to be supplanted by the computer as the pinnacle of popular technology; the racing movie gave way to the Mad Max post-apocalyptic subgenre, where the once-advanced auto was now regarded as cockroach-primitive enough to survive the hazards of the future. But the cheaper and less digitized the car movie is, the likelier it is to record something of interest. Something as wrenchingly true as the look of the desolate roadside diners and gas stations in Two-Lane Blacktop, a perfect snapshot of the real silent majority. The best movies in The Belcourt's series use the windshield as a window onto the world whizzing by — a world that's already vanished, leaving the ghost trails in these images. It's our loss if we don't at least slow down to take a look.
Portions of this article appeared in the magazine Cinema Scope (cinema-scope.com). Special thanks to Mark Peranson.
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