Learning, or not learning, from the road movie

It’s summer … let’s road trip!

Wait – hold that thought – New York City has been non-stop rain this June, and most of us in the Big Apple don’t have cars anyway, so road-tripping is reserved for road movies.

I saw one last night, AWAY WE GO (blogged about previously by Perrin Drumm here), more accurately a plane/train/road movie from Sam Mendes, that engages some classic tenants of the genre: protagonists searching for something (in this case, a new home town in which to raise a child), wide open American landscapes (Colorado and Arizona, in particular here), and, as expected, personal growth.

I started to wonder – do road movies always include such traditional character arcs? Do the drivers on the road in the road movie simply have to learn about themselves?

The reliable wikipedia classifies a road movie as a film wherein the plot unfolds during a journey. In an article posted to GreenCine.com, Heather Johnson tells us that “The road movie typically involves one or more people in motion who face one or more challenges, and emerge either with newfound knowledge, a personal awakening, or, in the most tragic cases, death.” In an academic text, The Road Movie Book (Routledge, 1997), editors Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark contend in their introduction that the road movie innately “sets the liberation of the road against the oppression of hegemonic norms,” introducing the notion that protagonists typically experience some sort of alienation. So … outsiders in the car, learning learning learning? Always?

EASY RIDER is arguably the most famous American road movie. The 1969 ad campaign stated “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere….”

In its plotline, protagonists Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) discover the harsh realities of intolerance in America, and ultimately learn their spiritual quest for freedom is a failure. In the aforementioned AWAY WE GO, Burt (John Krasinski) learns to express his inner-anger as well as accept his girlfriend’s rejection of marriage, while Verona (Maya Rudolph) learns to accept her parents’ death. Two films I screened in a class this spring: ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE – Alice (Ellen Burstyn) learns to allow herself to commit to a loving man instead of to more of the jerks she’s been with before; SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS – Hollywood director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) learns that even mindless comic entertainment can have social value. I could go on and on. THELMA AND LOUISE? These women have inner strength they never knew existed. BONNIE AND CLYDE? Crime doesn’t pay. SIDEWAYS? Even if your novel is never going to be published, you can be worthy of a good woman’s love.

So who doesn’t learn from the American road? And can ignorance or ambiguity still fuel a satisfying film? I have to say that lately, American independent cinema is getting annoying with all of the learning underfoot. I’ve found myself in more than one screening, eye-rolling through my Raisinets as characters predictably conquer fears, overcome obstacles and ‘find their way.’

The one example of non-learning I could muster comes from our ever-rule-breaking friend Jim Jarmusch (thank God for Jarmusch!). In BROKEN FLOWERS, the end introduces far more questions than answers. Does Don (Bill Murray) learn anything? Not anything obvious. (Spoiler alert here.) Does he discover the validity of the mysterious letter, that he has a 19 year-old son? No. Does he discover who wrote the letter? No. Is there a strong narrative implication that he sees his real son? No.

What do you think? Can anyone provide other examples of not learning a thing on the road? Two different versions of the BROKEN FLOWERS trailer are below. Note that the trailer promises plot emphasis on the mystery – the who, where, and why of the pink letter. Does this pan out in the film? Well, no. We don’t learn a thing. And that, I think, is a good thing.