Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A New Start (Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere)

Title: Road to Nowhere (2011)
Director: Monte Hellman
Studio: Monterey Video
Price: 26.95$
“To begin with a proposition: Monte Hellman and Abel Ferrara are the most important working American directors. And if anything could be said to link these two otherwise very different artists, it is surely their lack of neuroticism, their ability, in a culture dominated by the life-denying obsessions of consumerism, to unblinkingly confront the beast in its lair without being captivated by its insidious charm.” – Brad Stevens (Cahiers du cinema, N.648)

“They called them minor classics of anguish and despair.” – Leo (Stanley’s Girlfriend)

One of the biggest disappointments over the past year in the Toronto film scene is that Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere never received a first-run theatrical release or even a one-off screening. This sucks. He deserves better. It was the one film that I and a few others were most looking forward to seeing on the big screen. It has been fifty-three years since Hellman first started making films with Beast From Haunted Cave in 1959. Since then, he has made only ten films, which range from great to masterpieces including Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), The Shooting (1966), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974), and Iguana (1988). Many of his projects failed to get off of the ground, while others got compromised. This places him in the tradition of people like Orson Welles, who also faced similar difficulties. Hellman has been on hiatus from feature film-making since Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! that came out in 1989, meaning that audiences have been waiting twenty-one years for this new feature. And what came out in theaters instead? A lot of crap. For example, from this year, there is The Trip, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Transformers 3, New Year’s Eve et cetera. Why an ambitious and fascinating movie like Road to Nowhere did not get distributed is beyond me. I heard Entertainment One was going to distribute the film, but that never materialized. Whatever. You can buy the DVD at the Bay Street Video. It will do.

Road to Nowhere is a puzzle film that is full of temporal leaps. It is hard to easily summarize, as you are not always sure whether you are watching events happen for the first time, or if the film crew is preparing a shot, or if the scene is only being acted, or if something is happening alongside all of this. But here goes, Road to Nowhere begins with a young woman Laurel Graham (played with finesse by Shannyn Sosasmon) leaving her partner after they murder a cop. The man then takes a plane and crashes it into a lake. This “true story” is the subject of the film the director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) and his script writer Stephen Gates (Rob Kolar) are going to adapt for their film Road to Nowhere. But, apparently, the rumor is, through the inquiry of a blogger Nathalie Post (Dominique Swain) and an insurance investigator Bruno Brotherton (Waylon Payne), the deaths are assumed to be a set up for insurance fraud.

Road to Nowhere has some great scenes, the acting is good, and the clothes people wear is really seventies. The Balsam Mountain Inn in North Carolina where the film is predominantly set has a quintessentially American feel, just like the desolate highways in Two-Lane. As well the Tom Russell song Road to Nowhere is just as moving, and central to the story, as the Kris Kristopherson song Me and Bobby McGee was to Two-Lane, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Road to Nowhere is also Hellman's ode to the films he loves, just like Scorsese’s Hugo is an ode to the early French silent cinema of Georges Méliès. In Road to Nowhere, in his hotel room Mitchell lies in his bed with Laurel very comfortably and watches movies, including The Lady Eve, Spirit of the Beehive (“A fucking masterpiece!”), and Bergman’s Seventh Seal (“It never so looked so good”). For attentive viewers, sitting on the TV stand is a copy of the Criterion Collection edition of Two-Lane Blacktop. And there is also a Contempt-like director cameo by Hellman as the cameraman while the crew is filming the flying plane. (corection: the cameraman is Josep Civit, not Hellman.)

There is also a focus on the behind the scenes activities that happens during the making of a movie. Like the nights out where people are passionately talking at a bar, the creative difficulties for the directors in orchestrating the crew, or enjoying the other pleasures of being out on the set. When Mitchell discusses his particular approach, it seems like it is coming right from Hellman as elaborated in the most recent interview book on him, Emmanuel Burdeau’s Monte Hellman: Sympathy for the Devil (Capricci). While some of the backstage stories shown of Mitchell filmmaking seems like they derive from Hellman’s own life as described in Brad Stevens’ essential Monte Hellman: His Life and Films (McFarland). This is personal filmmaking. Even to the extent that the residential scene in Los Angeles are even set in Hellman’s actual house – similar to what Cassavetes did in Love Streams. And Hellman’s dog Moxie is in it too!

Road to Nowhere is continuing Hellman’s 2000s work that started with Stanley’s Girlfriend, which was part of the omnibus Trapped Ashes from 2006. Stanley’s Girlfriend is a short fictionalized account of a young Stanley Kubrick and his friendship with Leo, a filmmaker of an exploitation horror flick The Strangler. There is Stanley (Tygh Runyan), a young Leo (Tahmoh Peniket), and an older Leo (John Saxon), with the femme fatale love interest Nina (Amelia Cooke).The references to Kubrick includes the mention of his “brilliant” racetrack movie, Stanley goes to New York to work on a WWI film (Paths of Glory), and there is footage of his work space full of photographs and props of the unrealized Napoleon project.

Though they don't have the typical Hellmanian scenes of people expressing themselves through gestures or people walking against a desolate landscape, what is unique to Stanley’s Girlfriend and Road to Nowhere is the casting of Tygh Runyan as a surrogate for Hellman. Because of his likeability, wit and intelligence Runyan is brilliant in these two films. Through Runyan’s youth, and that he is playing a director who is still early in his career, Hellman is able to directly speak out to the audience about his thoughts on his career, unrealized and dream projects (“I want to make a film that lasts twenty-four hours”), and broach contemporary cinema. It is almost like he is creating a parallel career to his own. When Mitchell is watching Leonardo DiCaprio on television, the shot expresses that Hollywood and Hellman are in two separate worlds.

But where was the turn for all of this? I think the key film in discussing Hellman’s late career is Better Watch Out!, as this direct-to-video horror film seems to anticipate his latest two projects. Especially as both Stanley’s Girlfriend and Road to Nowhere end on a note that owes to the grisly slashers of Sean Cunningham and Tobe Hooper. It is this return to the horror genre that seems important in discussing the late work of the directors that emerged out of the 1970s American New Wave. Which brings to mind the famous Bill Krohn quote, “If our [American] cinephilia is a religion, it’s of sublime terror and of alien worlds.” Similar to Francis Coppola’s Twixt, Wes Craven’s Scream 4, Joe Dante’s The Hole, and George Romero’s Survival of the Dead – it seems like horror is the last escape. When Mitchell snickers, “Well, I don’t believe in God”, the point is that even amidst the surrounding violence, you can still crack a joke and be serious. With all the injustices and corruption going on in the world, some self-lacerating humor can do us all some good. - David Davidson

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