Notes from CPH PIX: Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, cph pix 2011, Uncategorized

Having just waxed lyrical about the joys of seeing unexpected films at any point in time, but perhaps at film festivals in particular, it might sound contrary to now write a blog that in part is about disappointment – although the two feelings go somewhat hand in hand.

Monte Hellman is something of a cult figure, and someone about whom I certainly have read more than I have seen. That is, I have seen Two-Lane Blacktop (USA, 1971), which some feel is perhaps the finest ‘underground’ American film of all time – and I did like it, not least for its pure obsession with cars and engineering and to hell really with plot.

But as far as seeing Hellman’s other output goes, that is it. I have not seen – though I do really want to see – Cockfighter (USA, 1974), for example, if for no other reason than to see the film the (apocryphal) tagline of which is ‘He came into town with his cock in hand, and what he did with it was illegal in 49 states.’

For a career that now spans 50+ years, for which the first feature was Beast from Haunted Cave (USA, 1959), Hellman has not made that much in the way of feature length films. Alongside the few already mentioned, there are some 1960s westerns, including Ride the Whirlwind (USA, 1965) and The Shooting (USA, 1968), and then Iguana (Italy/Spain/Switzerland/USA, 1988), the last feature that he made.

A Roger Corman protégé, Monte Hellman has in fact been relatively unproductive, given that films from Corman and his acolytes was intense, particularly in the late 1960s period (when Hellman was, admittedly, most active, it seems).

Anyway, given that this is his first feature in 22 years, given that I have only seen one of his films before, given that I liked it (though not as much as some people), and given that he has a magnificent reputation, I was expecting great things from Road to Nowhere.

Disappointment is a sensation one can often have at the movies. In fact, since a lot of my research is on digital technology and cinema, I often find myself in front of special effects rubbish that really I ought to have known better than to watch – especially at this stage in life – and which – as is to be expected – was not the film I hoped it would be. If I get the chance to blog about it, perhaps I can elaborate on this feeling with regard to the recent Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, USA/Canada, 2011), which not only disappointed me (though to be expected from Zack Snyder), but in fact also appalled me in certain respects (though perhaps to be expected from Zack Snyder).

Don’t get me wrong: there could be a perverse satisfaction in being disappointed – I am fully prepared to admit it. But whether I go looking for disappointment or not, this does not mean that I do not feel it.

Strangely, disappointment is about the most negative feeling I feel towards any film, or at least I don’t feel much worse about a film for very long. Sucker Punch might have appalled me at moments, but I don’t really hate it; I am just… disappointed. Since I cannot pinpoint with more finesse my feelings, perhaps this feeling is unclear to some. But I suppose it is like wishing the best out of one’s team members, only to find that they are cynical players who either do not care or, worse, will cheat to win.

That said, there are grades of disappointment. Sucker Punch can disappointment because Zack Snyder has not suddenly grown up and decided to use his talents for creating striking images in (what I would deem to be) a mature manner. And Road to Nowhere can disappoint because sometimes one expects so much – too much – from a filmmaker like Hellman, an expectation in part built up out of hype and reputation and not necessarily out of personal experience of the filmmaker’s films – that it is perhaps almost inevitable that the film will not live up to it.

To be honest, I am not sure how – or even if – I was disappointed by Road to Nowhere. Sometimes one is overwhelmed by a film (Zulawski’s Possession, for example). And sometimes one is underwhelmed by a film (Sucker Punch). Sometimes, however, one is simply whelmed – neither over nor under, though there is always a sense that a whelming film is ever so slightly an underwhelming film, but one sticks with whelming to convey the neutrality, or better the indifference, of one’s feelings and thoughts.

There is much to commend Road to Nowhere:

– It is slow – but in a challenging fashion that makes one want to think about the reasons why ’empty’ moments are not in mainstream films more often, or even at all, as opposed simply to finding it a ‘slow’ and boring film. It is also a Hollywood ‘insider’ movie in that it is a film about filmmaking (I’ll give the plot – as best as I can explain it – below).

– It is a film featuring much mise-en-abyme, which is to say that the film is a film about a film, and one never quite knows whether one is watching simply ‘the film’ (after a fashion, one is always only watching ‘the film’), or whether one is watching ‘the film within the film.’

– Furthermore, Hellman, according to a review in Cinema Scope, shot the film on Canon 5D Mark II cameras – that is, cameras that are predominantly used for still images – and this has a very interesting effect on the look of the film. For, while much of the film seems to take place in sunny locations, at every moment there seems to be a quasi-visible filter of darkness between us and the ‘image.’ I don’t know if this was achieved with the Canons, but I’d not seen this sort of view quite so insistently before and so attribute it to the unusual cameras used to make the film. Of course, this strange grain of darkness is not between us and the image; it is in the image, even if the effect is that somehow we cannot quite see clearly what is going on in the film. Interesting, and appropriate for a film that has noir-ish elements like this one.

Okay. So the film starts with a DVD being inserted into a laptop. On the laptop screen a film starts playing and the camera closes in on the laptop screen until it feels the entire cinema screen that we are watching (unless we are watching the film on our own laptops). We never know from this point on whether what we are watching is still the camera recording the screen of a laptop in one single and unbroken take, or whether we are seeing a or the ‘real’ film.

The film that we see on the laptop screen is called Road to Nowhere and it is directed by Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan – cinema’s doppelgänger of Matthew Holtmeier). It tells the story of Velma Duran, a seeming seductress of sorts, or perhaps just the patsy of a corrupt politician, who ran away/was framed for running away – or so we are led to believe – with US$100 million of North Carolina state money. Duran is played by Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), although it transpires that Laurel Graham is in fact a false identity developed by none other than… Velma Duran, in order to cover up the fact that she is not dead. Except that this may not be true – since it may be a pre-arranged identity swap carried out by Laurel Graham with her co-actors.

In short, then, Road to Nowhere is a good old puzzle film in which it is hard – if not impossible – for us to discern ‘truth’ (whatever that is) from ‘fiction.’ There is breaking the fourth wall a-plenty in this film, including in the climactic moments of the film when Haven kills Bruno (Waylon Payne), who has killed Laurel/Velma. Like a crazy film director who can only filter things through the lens of a camera, he starts to film the victims (on his Canon 5D Mark II), before his camera looks directly into ‘our’ camera and we are offered a reverse shot, which shows the entire crew working and watching the scene. Nonetheless, there is no ‘cut’ this time (as there are at other moments in the film) and the cops turn up and arrest him.

We are then perhaps taken back to the beginning of the film and the DVD in the laptop. Haven is in prison being shown the film by Natalie Post (Dominique Swain), a local investigative blogger who had been helpful to Haven in filming his Road to Nowhere movie by giving him insight and facts. The conversation between the two of them ends as a guard takes Post out of the cell – and the film ends.

In other words, and in a manner that for many audiences will be frustrating, the film goes nowhere and, like Two-Lane Blacktop which never reaches its destination, the film challenges the whole myth of teleology, or reaching a fixed goal, as a whole.

This is not the disappointing, or whelming, thing about Road to Nowhere. This, in fact, is perhaps the most pleasing thing about the film. An unresolved conundrum is here very pleasing, and much more so than the ‘ooh, is it still an illusion?’ malarkey that is the end of Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK, 2010).

What is whelming, for me, about Road to Nowhere is that I have been to nowhere so many times now that I feel quite familiar in it. Perhaps this is hubris on my part; but there comes to be something very predictable about the film that has no easy resolution. Perhaps this is in part the point: life is banal and certainly it has not set goal that we can foresee at all – and we, like the film, always end up other than where we expected, in a place that is a strange mix of what we expected (our fantasies) and a contradiction of that (‘reality’). But some films can take you to weird places and still leave you lost.

Hellman’s nowhere just seemed to feel a bit too familiar, then. This I can compare to Andrzej Zulawski’s Szamanka (Poland/France/Switzerland, 1996), which I also saw at CPH PIX, and which is so weird (like Possession about which I blogged yesterday) that I do not know what to make of it at all. For all its ‘faults,’ I am rather just fascinated by its strangeness. And so the familiarity of Nowhere‘s nowhere seemed to let it down.

Road to Nowhere is better than 50, maybe even 100 Sucker Punches. (By how much it is better is a silly thing to quantify. It is just better by virtue of being more interesting, even if Sucker Punch, too, wants to try to get you to think about ‘is it real or not?’) But one wonders whether the illusion/reality question needs to be posed in new ways for something truly startling to come out of it. The question is still a good one – but there are perhaps other, more penetrating questions, lying somewhere in wait.

2 thoughts on “Notes from CPH PIX: Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, USA, 2010)

  1. Fascinating review BUT YOU REALLY NEED TO PUT A SPOILER ALERT on the beginning of this piece. (review etiquette)

    1. Hi Gina

      Thanks for the comment. I am not sure that I agree with you about needing to put in a spoiler alert. There are a number of reasons for this, some general, and some pertaining to this film in particular. I’ll try to my best to explain them but – spoiler alter – I may not succeed in doing this for you in a convincing manner. Although it seems cold, I’ll enumerate these reasons, because some later ones can then refer back to earlier ones without too much confusion.

      1) I recently blogged about the fact that people seem to be obsessed with film as a narrative form. That is, they are not really interested in how film tells its stories, but more simply what those stories are. I am not saying that you, Gina, are like this. You could be, but I don’t know, and I would not presume to know. But the spoiler alert is a sign for me that people are obsessed with stories – without caring about how those stories are told.

      2) People have favourite books and stories, perhaps even favourite films, that they like to re-read, or re-watch, from time to time. Knowing what happens is not really important in these instances. Why not? Because more than anything what attracts people back to the story is the style in which it is told. Knowing that the good guy lives (or dies) is still exciting, regardless of the fact that we know the outcome – because the story is told very well. To be afraid of spoilers, then, is to admit before even having seen a film, that one does not really care for the style. Or rather, if one does care the style, then the film will be exciting, beguiling, confusing or whatever effect the filmmakers are seeking – because that is the way they want it to be. And whether it’s because a blogger told you or because you are watching the film for the nth time, knowing what happens should not change your view of the film.

      3) In part because we have DVDs now, we can and do re-watch films a lot. This has led some people to argue that complex, or puzzle, films are becoming the norm; why have a film that can be worked out in one go, when the film industry in fact makes more money from the ancillary market of home viewing as opposed to theatrical? To sell these luxury items for however much money (sometimes £20 in the UK, even more), bespeaks the fact that this is the ‘real’ film as opposed to the theatrical release. That said, even though the industry itself is making films that defy spoilers and which are made (deliberately complex) for home viewing, that people are obsessed with spoilers suggests that really we only consume a film once. This is fair enough – people can do what they want to; but it also suggests that humans do not really care about films. They are not pieces to be poured over and scrutinised, but consumable one-off experiences that need never be repeated. This goes for those who make them as well as for those who view them. The emphasis on the twist, then, masks the lack of effort put into making the film interesting in other departments.

      4) This is related to the last point. I don’t know why people are so obsessed with endings. Road to Nowhere in particular is, as the title suggests, not really about the destination but about the journey (as are Hellman’s films in general, or at least Two-Lane Blacktop). I like this ethos for its truth to life as much as for its truth to cinema: we do not know where we are going to end up, and for this reason we should enjoy the ride first. Some might view this as meaning: since we don’t know where we’re going to end up, then don’t spoil a film by telling us where it does end up. Part of me sympathises with this view – but another part of me views it thus: do spoil the film in terms of revealing its ending, because otherwise the sense of an ending remains the obsessive fetish item that it has become, and we do indeed forget about the journey. How will life end? We are all going to die – every man, jack, and lost soul among us. Where will some of us end up? In all sorts of different places. We can claim that the rich man will have had a more important life than the poor man. That is, we can ‘spoil’ the end of the story by telling people whether our hero has success or not. But nothing – nothing can replace the experience along the way. This is closer to what I mean by style.

      5) I am tired, so I shall end on a couple of Road to Nowhere-specific points. The first of which is that if you watch the film ‘closely’ (I’ve only seen it once, but if I got this then others must have), then there are no spoilers – everything is plainly in the film from the beginning.

      6) Secondly, the alternative is (oddly, given point 5), that Road to Nowhere has no coherent ending anyway. I did not mention it, but the film in part reminds me of Lost Highway: here is a film so stylish (too stylish – because plot goes out of the window?) that one cannot spoil it, even if one provided a detailed hypothesis of precisely what happened. Road to Nowhere has elements of this: it is ‘unspoilable.’

      7) I do ‘review’ films – but more I am interested in writing about what films do, or what is the nature of the film experience. Since I don’t really consider myself a reviewer, whatever etiquette there is among ‘real’ reviewers – well, I don’t feel obliged to observe it. To feel that spoilers mar either a film or a review, is to be think of film as consumable trash. Refer back to 2).

      Anyway, I am falling asleep and so will leave this. But thanks again for the comment!

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