Bright Lights Film Journal

What Exactly Is the “Road” in the Road Movie? (Fragments on Narrative Endings)

“We’ve long since lost faith in endings; the postmodern project of ‘decentering’ everything has made it irrelevant whether our endings end with conjugal bliss, a predicted death, nothingness, a tree, an empty gaze, or any assorted marginalia.”

The final shot of Miguel Arteta’s Star Maps (1997) was once — and remains — exemplary of New American Cinema’s postromantic identity crisis. Neither committedly comic nor singularly tragic, neither fully naïve nor beholden to cynicism, the film’s ending believes in little more than visuality’s bent for opacity. The young hero, rebelling against a brutish father and a future of forced prostitution, has finally burnt his bridges and suffered every possible betrayal and humiliation Arteta can script. Penultimately, plaintive guitar music infects the soundtrack, and the sanguine appearance of contented ghosts (a comic motif throughout the film) suggests a beyond happier than the film’s seedy Los Angeles milieu of broken families, sunlit sex, and bankrupt dreams of upward mobility. Finally, a frontal tracking shot follows the heartbroken young hero, who now walks from the treacherous illusions of a television studio into the boulevards of an equally bitter reality. As dusk settles, the hero’s tracking shot waxes into slow motion, and the film has little choice but to fade out on him, much like a rock song that, fatigued by its repetitive choruses, dissipates into a silent shrug.

Such is the state of modern tragedy, that which the Germans annihilated, the French rendered absurd, and the Americans more trivialized than democratized. So many of New American Cinema’s bildungsromane have shirked the responsibility of making an actual moral statement, ending not with a confident exclamation point but a pseudo-existentialist rhetorical question. This is unsurprising, of course: didacticism died with the Hays Code, which reduced every willful tragedy to a formula fairytale. As for Star Maps, if every story of maturation is by definition unfinished, the cinematic bildungsroman seems correct to quit on its hero and bittersweetly wish him luck when the credits, ever restless, need to roll. Human dreams, even when undemocratic, are too complex for closure — and yet the unclosed or aporetic ending that was once so much more “progressive” than the censor’s compulsory happiness now seems an amoral cop-out, a screenwriter’s convenience, an aesthetic illiteracy. But we’ve long since lost faith in endings; the postmodern project of “decentering” everything has made it irrelevant whether our endings end with conjugal bliss, a predicted death, nothingness, a tree, an empty gaze, or any assorted marginalia. And a century before, Wilde demolished the contrivance of the fateful ending in The Importance of Being Earnest — every ending after Wilde, an extremist could say, becomes unintentional or de facto parody.

When Goethe wrote Wilhelm Meister, romantic irony was the calling card of the day. By contrast, the ending of Star Maps, or hundreds of other minor millennial tragicomedies, skips over irony and simply augurs dreams predictably deferred. Its wistfully aporetic ending is now generic, not revelatory or revolutionary, probably because the bildungsroman, emblematic of Romantic notions of childhood, was never strong enough to resist the petit bourgeois revolution — the bildungsroman is merely an adaptable mode of expression, not an unassailable genre. Today, the adolescent’s maturation is meaningful only when capitalist duties, conspicuous consumption, and emancipation from the nuclear family conclude his odyssey. Those who persist in extended families, premodern societies, communal groups, Buddhist monasteries, or other alternative arrangements may not require narratives of obligatory awakening or recognize that narratives are binarily “open” or “closed.”

Of course, larger problems inherent in narratology remain, regardless of the closed-ness, orderliness, tidiness, or even irony of a narrative’s final image, sentence, curtain, couplet, or chord.1 Excepting perhaps Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the mechanistic endings of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, or absurdist anti-plays that scoff at narrative altogether, some form of the “journey” has inexorably informed nearly every aesthetic narrative. Even the “pure” symphonies of Brahms, ostensibly nonprogrammatic, imply an odyssey by dint of their division into movements through which listeners must pass. From semiliterate myths carved in cuneiform to the most bourgeois quests of identity-searching suburbanites, the problem at root is humanistic — stories about people are stories about desire, either fulfilled (a closure) or unfulfilled (an aporia2. In the ancient world, human desire was always held in check by godly surveillance, lest humans overreach their humanity and hubristically threaten to enter the pantheon themselves. By modern standards, Gilgamesh and Odysseus were geographical conservatives, succumbing to fated ellipses and boomeranging trajectories. Dialecticism alone could not deliver Socrates, intellectually homeless, from either the religion of the Athenian polis or the Platonic closet drama. So what can we, who are not heroes or theists, do but emptily romanticize our aporetic desires? Oh . . . we could pathologize our condition, christening it a “universal masochism.”

Early cinema, we know, succumbed easily to the pathos of narrative and the calculus of closure, just as the bildungsroman acquiesced to the aesthetics of unfulfillable capitalist striving. The vaudevillianism of primitive film and Gunning’s “cinema of attractions” were too flimsy to resist the long-standing romance of the realist novel or the resolute finalities of stage drama, cordoned off into discrete acts. In microcosm, narrative emerged tentatively in staged, purposeful actions such as Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene (1899). Even Méliès, master of the pagan attraction,3 acquiesced to closed narrative as early as his famous La Manoir du Diable (1896), in which bubbling cauldrons, stringed bats, and cackling skeletons, all manifested with the director’s magic splice, torment a hero who finally makes recourse to a giant, demon-dispelling crucifix. More condensed in narrative form is Méliès’ one-minute The Temptation of St. Anthony (1898), in which white-clad temptresses pop into the frame to harass the wizened saint, here chaste and thoroughly robed. Even Jesus on the cross splices into a frolicking harlot, and the saint’s temptations end only when his prayers conjure an angel who banishes the she-demon and returns Christ to his rightful position. Méliès’ prescient genius was his ability to balance a novel technological fetish with narrative discourse before filmmakers fully knew what cinema actually was; one cannot confidently say that Méliès subordinated technology to narrative, or vice versa, so well does he interlock them. In the era of Michael Bay and unchecked CGI, narrative and dialogue become once again superfluous: the cinema of attractions is reborn for the postliterate, while the blank-faced aporia fails to replace moral standing. Perhaps a practical remedy for the unclosed narrative — which, repeating existential bromides, usually fails to educate — is not the antihumanistic structuralism of a Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow, but Teshigahara’s masterly Antonio Gaudi (1985). Undergirded only by Takemitsu’s oceanic score, Teshigahara’s languageless documentary objectively surveys creative human environments without entertaining the desirous interests of human characters seeking closure.

In assessing our psychological need for series of small endings — a need surely fueled by our inability to confront our singular, biological ends — we cannot overlook American cinema’s great attempt to replace finality with openness outright: the road movie, that agnostic fantasy of cinephiles who believe in perpetually receding landscapes Manifest Destiny failed to prematurely end. The allegory of the road movie — I take Easy Rider (1969) as prototypical — is American in posture but anti-American in principle, positing free-spirited individualists whose peripatetic ethos refuses thrusting nationalism and historical progress. If the cowboy’s voyage ends with the civilizable frontier, the confused automotive nomad now runs from a corrupted civilization and toward a pretended wilderness of federally paved highways on which he can romance his engine and bulldoze Frederick Jackson Turner’s grave. Of course, the road movie hero’s pretended existentialism is doomed to the ninety or so minutes he can act within the frame, according to a screenwriter’s notion of free will, and in the vain hope that his end is not invisible but nonexistent. That Easy Rider ends with casual murder is a cheap statement, stained with sentimentality. Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971), recognizing that the drifter’s problem is one of form, not content, more logically concludes with the cinematic frame itself ripping apart (a move borrowed from Bergman’s Persona), reminding us that the hero battles not merely a conformist society but narrative ends themselves. Extrapolating from this, we might suggest the road movie’s content is comic, while its form is tragic; barring self-destruction, the formally damned road movie thus often meanders into (self-) parodies, of which Albert Brooks’ Lost in America (1985) makes most sense for (infamously) having no ending.

The vagabonding road movie, celebrating narrative’s middle registers and protesting its foredoomed ends, is founded on a philosophy of amateur crime, evinced by the bedraggled vagrant, the Depression-era hobo, the bank-robbing lovers, the opiated motorcyclist, and so on. The hobo, free from the spirals of eternal return, is empowered to make linearity degenerate and raise narrative loose ends to a creed of the crestfallen. To be sure, the road movie today is a dead genre, entirely colonized by bourgeois interests and the adolescent mandate of the auto chase (beginning, let’s say, with Vanishing Point [1971]). Any identity-seeking housewife can now defy existential horizons — but without criminal intent, the gesture is useless, for the criminal adventurer must oppose his own ending.

The modern road movie is born ideally from the squalor of Lazarillo de Tormes, the first picaresque novel, published anonymously in 1544. Lazarillo, an impoverished scoundrel, steals whatever coins and scraps of food he can over the course of sixty pages, while he flees or outwits master after master in the manner of Plautus’ cunning slave. The Spanish picaro, like Richardson’s rogues, knows well he is a scoundrel and expects us to delight in his criminal wit. By the time of Don Quixote, whose first part was published in 1605, the picaro‘s roguery becomes the vehicle for chivalric satire, as Cervantes creates a picaro who, deluded by his library of demonic fictions, believes he is saintly. A rogue who presumptuously crowns himself a noble, Quixote, as Miguel de Unamuno once argued, is thus the greatest of all criminals: resolute in his conquests, wanton in his destruction, unselfconscious in his buffoonery, and ever ready to rationalize his errors with superstition, he signifies every negative consequence of sanctimonious Spanish imperialism. The novel’s great irony is that for hundreds of pages Quixote travels only a few miles from his hometown, circling around the same characters and never recognizing them the second time — not recognizing, in fact, that we remain always tethered to our homes and travel only in our minds.4 Like Jan Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript, Don Quixote is ultimately about the act of narrating narratives; the road movie’s ambition, contrarily, is to narrate oblivion, and in doing so create a perpetual forestalling of tragedy that we accept as proto-comic.

We, only slightly saner than Quixote, are haunted by our fictions, even if we pretend our hauntings must also entrance. Unable to escape our finalities, both natural and fictive, we are doomed to philosophize about them, often according to constricted categories. Among Schopenhauer’s fragments is a perfectly concise and dogmatic summary of the nature of dramatic endings, worth repeating in full:

Drama, in general, as the most perfect reflection of human existence, has three modes of comprehending it. At the first and most frequently encountered stage it remains at what is merely interesting: we are involved with the characters because they pursue their own designs, which are similar to our own; the action goes forward by means of intrigue, the nature of the characters and chance; wit and humor season the whole. At the second stage drama becomes sentimental; pity is aroused for the hero, and through him for ourselves; the action is characterized by pathos, yet at the end it comes back to peace and contentment. At the highest and hardest stage the tragic is aimed at; grievous suffering, the misery of existence is brought before us, and the final outcome is here the vanity of all human striving. We are deeply affected and the sensation of the will’s turning away from life is aroused in us, either directly or as a simultaneously sounding harmony.5

The distinctions among Schopenhauer’s (admittedly insufficient) trinity are easy enough to decode: firstly, he describes the simple narcissism of comedy or adventure for its own sake, “seasoned” with wit; secondly, sentimental drama and festive comedy are linked, in that they both resolve with “peace and contentment”; lastly arises genuine tragedy, whose ending does not revolve narrowly around an individualist hero but encompasses the full failure of humanity — the inability of the will to escape its preordained extinction. We take for granted the Aristotelian vocabulary of suffering and pathos (though Schopenhauer doesn’t mention fear), but at least we can balk at the nineteenth-century confidence with which he claims drama is “the most perfect reflection of human existence.” We know too well what remained a secret to Quixote: drama is the most perfect distortion of human existence.

Schopenhauer’s trademark pessimism and exaltation of tragedy may seem to have little effect on today’s commercial production of narratives. Yet his ghost haunts every corner where tragedy pretends. The ending of James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973), attempting to redress the regionalist chauvinism of Easy Rider, offers a hippie cop climactically gunned down in the desert by van-driving criminals in what is perhaps cinema’s longest slow-motion take, seemingly as eternal as the desert monuments that witness his fall. His uniformed tragedy becomes quintessentially American and unjustified — the inverse of the fate of Kafka’s Joseph K., a callous middle manager already part of the system that sacrifices him to the bureaucratic gods. (Because he is unwittingly and systemically his own victim, K. becomes at once the most underqualified and overqualified of all tragic heroes.) In his 1962 film version of The Trial, Orson Welles portrays K.’s executioners as cowardly buffoons and has K. (Anthony Perkins) maniacally laugh before ineptly tossed sticks of dynamite finally detonate him.6 In Kafka’s original, K. sheepishly succumbs to his silent executioners, who sacrifice him more anciently with a blade. Whether K.’s demise is comic or tragic could well depend on the intervening Holocaust, or whether we can find better things to mourn than the loss of a legalistic humanity.

If I were to make a fiction, I could never end it prematurely with death or pretend that final deaths are tragic — at very best, they are redundant. From the first version of Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) to Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) to a “sentimental tragicomedy” such as Michael Schorr’s Schultze Gets the Blues (2003) — a specimen that falls clumsily in between Schopenhauer’s second and third categories of dramatic endings — cinema nevertheless remains relentless in its deadly ends, muddling tragedy with Freudian thanatos and everyday sadness. Loach’s Kes, ranked by the British Film Institute as the seventh-greatest English film and arguably the ne plus ultra of British new wave despair, is a particularly egregious example. The film, ostentatious in its bleak hyperrealism, centers on an adolescent boy who suffers equally from bullies and a brutal patriarchal household. Despairing, he finds solace in a pet falcon, symbolic of salvation or deliverance or some escape from overwhelming kitchen-sink grimness. The falcon is eventually murdered by the battering father. The boy buries the falcon and the movie ends. Kes‘s pessimism is unwarranted not merely because its harbinger is death, but because its self-congratulatory realism becomes a pretext for a devout gloom posing as the “tragic.” If we believe Schopenhauer (or even Sophocles), there is no tragedy here, as the film focuses exclusively on passive suffering, without the needed complement of vain striving or willed hubris. Even if we discard Schopenhauer, the sufferings of Kes still remind us of the wide span between the active fictions of tragedy and our “universal masochism.”

Oddly enough, the sentimentalist naturalism (not realism) of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) is more instructive. Thankfully, the film’s tragic death toll stops with the drunken father and spares the mother. Had the story executed both parents, pathos would have descended into amoral (not immoral) cruelty, exacted by the gods alone and without any hubristic instigation. William Wellman’s pre-Code Wild Boys of the Road (1933) flirts with a far more unexpected immorality in its tale of wandering teenagers who brave the Depression, become unwitting vagabonds and tent-dwellers (never proud picaros), and sometimes violently scrounge for survival, even beating and throwing from a moving train a man who threatens to rape a female member of their clique. For all we know, the would-be rapist was murdered by the gang of drifters (we never see him again), but the boys are uninterested in unshackled wanderings or Camusian claims to criminality. They want only closure, and the film gives them plenty of it: in an astounding turn of immorality that might not have passed the Hays censor, the judge who climactically listens to their tale takes pity on the boys and grants them new, upwardly mobile lives in foster homes and state dormitories. The boys’ commission of (perhaps attempted) murder is passed over in silence, or has been forgotten by the filmmakers themselves. The ending becomes an unintentional comedy of socialism unique in American film, as criminal freedoms are rewarded not with hails of police bullets but with sympathetic guarantees of social security. In its attempt to sidestep obligatorily deadly ends, Wild Boys of the Road may have stumbled across a Dadaist solution to the problem of endings: instead of ignoring the end and indulging the middle (the road movie’s agenda), we can just ignore the actions of the story and dream up, from whole cloth, improbable, illogical, self-confused ends, totally at odds with the old tragedian’s road map that praises pain and damns contentment.

  1. The endings of musical works present problems not only analogous to cinematic endings but more explicitly problematic when it comes to the issue of tonality. In his later years, Stravinsky regretted ending his tonally ambiguous Symphony in Three Movements with a tidily tonal concluding chord. Contrarily, Leonard Bernstein famously added a fermata (not written in the score) to the final chord of Ives’ Second Symphony, distending the dissonance into a grotesque joke that forces the listener to reexamine the whole of the preceding work. []
  2. Only occasionally and in service to a plot will aporetic endings have no “existential” signification or crisis; for instance, the enigmatic endings of De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and Argento’s Giallo (2009) echo a “Hitchcockian” ambiguity. []
  3. Méliès occasionally might be called master of the naturalist attraction, too, if we consider his one-minute Apres le Bal (1897), in which a homely woman undresses, is bathed by her maidservant, and bares her drooping hindquarters to the audience. []
  4. Cervantes further emphasizes this irony by juxtaposing the uneventfulness of Quixote’s “real history” with the romance and intrigue of the two interpolated, story-within-a story novellas that find their way into the first half of Don Quixote. []
  5. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms. Selected and trans. R. J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 1970, 164. []
  6. Thanks to Jon Marguiles for emphasizing this point to me. []