I have neglected my website for too long. I am currently in the process of rebuilding and adding to the site in order to highlight my freelance work and services. I am doing this in my spare time around other work efforts, and I don’t want to wait until I have it all prepared, so I will be adding to the site in an ad hoc fashion for the time being. Please excuse any elements that appear under construction.
*This essay discusses thematic elements inherent throughout the entirety of the three films (La Strada, Easy Rider, and Alice in the Cities). Watch them.
In our modern American cinema, road films occupy their own genre. And for the average filmgoer, these films—like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Road Trip, and Little Miss Sunshine— fit snugly into the comedy slot on box office weekend. This isn’t and hasn’t always been the case. Each film, though unique in its own way, owes a great debt to films previous. Road films are no different. Persisting throughout various film cultures and movements—from the Neorealists of Italy, to the New Hollywood, and New German Cinema—road films have had their own vibrant and unique trip.
Before embarking on our route towards a better understanding of the road film, we must first work from the same definition of the genre. Most often, the road film genre is described as a film in which the characters embark on a journey. But the word “journey” is very limiting, as it implies a destination. Certain films, like Federico Fellini’s La Strada (a.k.a. The Road) which we will discuss shortly, prominently features characters with no particular destination, at least in terms of a physical location. In order to alleviate any possible confusion, let’s think of the road film as any film, in which a character travels via vehicle on a physical road, which is prominently featured as a visual element in the mise-en-scéne and as a narrative device. For simplicity’s sake in our journey through the genre’s inner-workings, we will also only sample one film from each of the three major movements listed earlier: Neorealism’s La Strada (1954), New Hollywood’s Easy Rider (1969), and New German Cinema’s Alice in the Cities (1974).
As mentioned previously, Federico Fellini’s La Strada does not follow two characters on a simple journey to some particular destination. Rather, their destination is the film’s title, The Road, a path and continuous transition; their livelihood is very literally based in constant movement from one place to another, impermanence as a new locale’s entertainment—uprooted. Gelsomina and Zampanó are brought together by the tough climate of post-war Italy, which is never overtly imaged or referred to, but looms throughout the film’s dark palette and setting on the fringes of the road: a setting that would have been very familiar to the film’s contemporary audience.
The road as metaphor, represents Fellini’s tragic view of that setting. Our introduction to the road in La Strada comes about five minutes into the film. Gelsomina celebrates the fact that she is about to become an artist and will be able to financially support her family. The frame plays in wide shot, as Gelsomina’s younger brothers and sisters gather round her. Suddenly, the sadness of Gelsomina leaving hits her mother, and she cries out for her not to go. Fellini assists her emotional outburst by simultaneously not cutting the shot, but panning with Gelsomina and her family as they rush from their home toward—the shot continues its pan, revealing in deep space and on a slightly elevated road, Zampanó’s motorcyle and wagon. His motorcyle-wagon, a character in its own right, is very clearly the focal point of the mise-en-scéne here. Gelsomina’s home, a bright-white mass, featured prominently in the left of the frame, points towards the deep space at center frame and directly at the motorcyle-wagon and Zampanó, side-by-side, one in the same. The motorcyle-wagon sits, a black mass on the screen, highly contrasted with the rest of the frame’s grays and whites.
In his calculated shot, Fellini is our doomsayer. The music plays ominous in the shot as Gelsomina, hectic, kisses her sobbing family good-bye. Home is the bright light, and this motorcyle-wagon—the road and Zampanó—is darkness. With this, Fellini sets the tone of his film. And with his heavy hand, he helps us understand that we are witnessing a tragedy.
More specifically, we witness the commemoration of a death. Typifying the transition from his first Act to his second, Fellini tosses Gelsomina in the middle of a religious procession. He starts his scene with a wide shot of the parade snaking through the town. Then he forces us in, presenting a close-up of the Crucifix floating above the mass of people—it, superior to them and us, the viewer. A hand-held shot of a priest, forming the symbol of the cross, swoops us into the etherealness of the scene. Tight medium shots of onlookers kneeling in front of the camera signify them inferior. And like Gelsomina, we are pushed forward by the camera and onlookers, sucked into the procession before we even know what it is. She attempts to enter an alley only to be bombarded by a mass of people, running down it. She retreats back towards the camera and finds safety against a wall. In close-up, she rests her head on a poster, connecting her to it; it reads, “Madonna Immaculata”. She stares up. Cut to a close-up-superior shot of the Madonna floating above the crowd. And we realize this isn’t just any religious procession; it is a Dormition: a Crucession—commemorating the death of Mary, the mother of Christ. Fellini drastically submerges us into the scene with his technique. In doing so, he equates Gelsomina, within the scale of the film, to Mary in the scale of spiritual life.
Not only does he connect Gelsomina to the religious tradition, but he also parallels his film with the the spiritual ritual. The scene foreshadows narrative—Gelsomina’s death—of course, but also provides purpose to various other techniques, related specifically to the road. The procession is a movement forward in celebration of spiritual connection to Mary and her continued life in each of us after her death. Throughout the film, diagetic sound prominently features cars passing by, suggesting constant motion even when our main characters have stopped traveling. Fellini, with his dialogue, draws attention to us never knowing Zampanó’s origin, his home. This absence of background highlights for us Zampanó’s constant need to be in transition, his constant movement from town to town. The point is more blatantly made in a small scene; Gelsomina plants tomatoes, but Zampanó forces her to leave before they’d have time to sprout. In fact, many techniques in the film, too many to mention, demonstrate traits similar to the common reading of one of Italian Neorealism’s favorite symbols: the staircase; that is, stairs as transition. Also, the film itself is physically in motion, a change, in transition, while we watch it. For Fellini, the film is a bittersweet celebration of Gelsomina’s death: the very act of motion is life.
In fact, it is only once a character stops moving, that death comes knocking. Toward the beginning of the third and final act, Fellini’s Fool character’s car gets a flat, stopped in the middle of the road. Zampanó beats him with a few punches in retaliation for his foolish actions earlier in the film. The Fool points out to Zampanó and the audience that his watch is now broken: time has stopped moving. And then he dies. Soon following his death, Gelsomina can not find it within herself to continue moving. She cries for days, forcing Zampanó to stay stagnant. When he can’t take it any longer, he leaves Gelsomina. We jump to the future. We never see her again, only hearing that she died several years prior. Fellini uses the road as a visual image of life.
Vittorio De Sica named his 1948 Neorealist film Ladri di Biciclette. When translated literally to English, it means Bicycle Thieves. But due to poor translation, most people in our country know it as The Bicycle Thief. These two title interpretations point to very different perspectives where the film’s focus may lie. Does the film center on one character, Antonio Ricci, who after enduring the gauntlet of daily life in post-war Italy attempts to steal a bicycle? Or, does the film’s core lie in the collective group of various characters we encounter throughout the narrative? These questions supply a provocative distinction, which ironically throughout Bicycle Thieves, De Sica wrestles with. He utilizes his Neorealist aesthetic to explore the contrast and conflict of the group versus the individual. And it is through the help of the bicycle as metaphor that De Sica reaches a greater understanding of this struggle. Considering a few scenes from the film, that understanding becomes clear.
There’s no better place to start than the beginning. The opening scene of Bicycle Thieves features a large group of men in a medium wide shot. The man at the top of the steps calls Ricci’s name. Another man, concerned, begins to physically move through the group, pushing his way through in search of Ricci. De Sica cuts to an extreme wide shot as this man spots Ricci, still off screen. Continuing the complex shot, we follow the man as he rushes across the street to meet Ricci. The shot pans, dollies right, and tilts down to reveal our hero, Antonio Ricci sitting on his side, playing in a puddle as though he were a child. The complicated and dynamic shot draws attention to the distance between Ricci and the group, not just physically, but emotionally. He doesn’t appear driven and desperate, like the other men. The concerned man towers over him and, as though Ricci’s parent, demands, “Are you deaf? Come on! Get a move on.” With this one shot and moment De Sica hints towards a thematic dynamic between Ricci, the individual, and the workers, the group: a parent-child relationship. Ricci seems less developed than the other men.
In the same scene, we realize further the importance of groups for De Sica’s setting. In response to those begging for work, the man at the top of the steps says, “You’re a bricklayer. That’s a different category.” Through this exchange, we grasp the notion that grouping is a major part of this society directly tied to livelihood. More than that, the group here suffers in a way much like Ricci does later. But now, without a group, Ricci gets a job. The conflict of the group succeeding over the individual and vice versa established here, constantly receives a back and forth throughout the film, maintaining a challenging balance. The pressure immediately falls to Ricci; he needs a bicycle in order to get the job, or else someone from the group will get it.
Over the years, there have been many readings of the bicycle’s significance in the film. Because Ricci’s bicycle is called “Fides”, many take the translation, faith, as the significant meaning. And it is significant; however, an alternative translation, trust, proves to be just as interesting. In any close relationship trust is important, especially in a familial one, in which the individual must balance their needs over the needs of the family. We soon learn after his introduction that Ricci pawned his bicycle in order to feed his family; he gave up his trust. And in order to survive, he must get it back. He and Maria, his wife, go to the pawnbroker and using their sheets, their comfort, they buy back into society.
Here, De Sica uses a simple mise-en-scène to communicate on the group/individual dynamic. Maria stands in the pawnbroker’s window opening. All around her in the frame is the opaque window. We can’t see anything through it, though occasionally in the small opening we catch glimpses of a large crowd behind her. She shoves her sheets through: the sacrifice. She and Ricci receive money, and then the camera stays for a moment as they exit. The next customer walks up; he passes a pair of binoculars through the opening. De Sica lingers here, because though we are following Ricci, his situation isn’t individual. De Sica wants us to understand that many are enduring a similar kind of bankruptcy.
If this clever use of mise-en-scène were not enough to make his point, he then provides us with one of the most haunting shots of the film. While Ricci waits for another pawnbroker to return his Fides, he watches as his sheets are stocked. A somber musical score trickles into the scene. De Sica utilizes a POV shot that pans with the stocker as he approaches a warehouse style shelving unit that towers up and out of the wide frame. We hold steady with the stocker as he inspects the sheets. Then the shot slowly tilts up as the stocker climbs the stack of shelves jam-packed with what appears to be thousands of sheets. Because De Sica manages to connect sacrifice with the image of sheets in the earlier scene, there is a heavy sense of awe and loss in the spectacle. De Sica then cuts to a medium high-angle on Ricci as he stares up at the depressing display, reminding us that we are seeing this through Ricci’s eyes. He cuts back to the tilt as the stocker reaches the top of the shelves and slams Ricci’s sheets onto the pile, rendering them completely indistinguishable from those around them. He shows us that Ricci isn’t the only one making sacrifices; he is an individual among many.
koan – [noun] a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. A nonsensical or paradoxical story, dialogue, question, or statement presented by a teacher to a student; the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking, yet it may be accessible by intuition or meditation. See Koan on wikipedia for more info.
Growing up, I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each week, during its seven season run, also the greater part of my adolescence, Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon, brought to life an exciting world that not only entertained, but challenged me to dig deeper into many of the moral questions teenage and young-adult life present. Buffy battled monsters as metaphor for the problems of everyday life. Although Buffy was “created by an avowed atheist” the show attempted to honestly and respectfully portray various religions’ and spiritual practices’ approach to said problems. So much so, that author, Jana Riess, wrote a book entitled, What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. In her book, Riess “argues that [Buffy] abounds in Buddhist parallels”. She says that “Buffy and Angel are like “bodhisattvas”” and that Buddhism:
[D]rives the show’s central themes: consequences (or karma), redemption through one’s own effort, the pervasive nature of suffering, the need for self-sacrifice. It’s even a pastiche of different kinds of Buddhisms. Inwardly, the show is intensely Zen in its determination to privilege experience over teaching (dharma)-on Buffy, personal experience is the best dharma to be found anywhere. But outwardly, the show more closely resembles Tibetan Buddhism, with its elaborate, exotic rituals and pantheon of supernatural beings. The figure of the Slayer herself has echoes in Tibetan Buddhist tradition: the Slayer is a kind of lama, one individual chosen in her generation to lead others. (Riess 97 – 102)
When I read Riess’ book, it soon became clear to me that Riess was most interested in Buffy‘s Tibetan Buddhist influence. But for me, Buffy‘s Zen Buddhist traits arise more fascinating, specifically in an episode from the middle of season four, entitled Hush.
Hush, an Emmy nominated episode, received the highest ratings of the fourth season and a great deal of critical acclaim. It is still remembered by fans as one of the highlights of the Buffyverse: the seven seasons of the Buffy series and the five seasons of Angel, a Buffy spin-off series. This was due in large part to the episode’s provocative concept in which a group of fairy tale monsters, the Gentlemen, steal the voices of everyone in Buffy’s hometown of Sunnydale. Naturally, without their voices, the townspeople are unable to speak, leading to mass confusion and panic. The concept is made even more interesting by the fact that Buffy was known, particularly, for its dialogue. In fact, many critics viewed Whedon and Company’s dialogue as the shows only good quality. So Whedon challenged himself to write an episode in which very little dialogue was used. In the process, he discovered “what the show was about” (Buffy).
In his DVD commentary, Joss Whedon states that “the idea [for the episode was] that when people stop talking, they start communicating” (Buffy). An enigmatic statement in itself, here, Whedon points toward the Zen notion that language is problematic. Or as he puts it, “Language can be annoying”. Designed to point to this very fact—the construction of language—Zen Koans employ the use of negation, surprise, contradiction, and silence. Therefore, its only natural that when conveying a similar idea, Whedon utilizes some of the same strategies, often adapting them to imagistic and filmic technique. Hush unfolds much like a visual Koan.
Hush begins by clearly drawing attention to the difference between communication and language. The show opens with a dream sequence in which Dr. Maggie Walsh, professor and mentor, says:
So this is what it is . . . talking about communication. Talking about language . . . not the same thing. It’s about inspiration . . . Not the idea, but the moment before the idea when its total. When it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything. It’s about the thoughts and experiences that we don’t have a word for. (Buffy)
Through the mouth of the Teacher, Whedon utilizes negation in order to point to something hard to describe: “that we don’t have a word for”, that’s “not the idea”, and “not the same thing [as language]”. He uses language to point around the idea, much like describing the field and everything else surrounding a pole rather than the pole itself. Once the teacher feels she has done her best to point her students in the appropriate direction and language can no longer assist, she calls for “a demonstration” (Buffy). Dr. Walsh asks Buffy, her Student, to lay down on the desk in front of the lecture hall full of other students. Buffy obliges, as her love interest and T.A., Riley, stands over her. They kiss. Though awkward and indecorous (remember this happens in a dream), Dr. Walsh is calling for action. “When it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything” language doesn’t always suffice, and you must act. In Zen, an enlightened person acts appropriately, meaning Right, in the moment. The same idea bounces off the celluloid here, presenting a powerful scene that sets the stage for the fairy tale/koan that follows.
* The following essay works best, if you’ve seen Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Breathless.
“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act,” said the famous playwright, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, in 1889 (Rayfield). Ever since, Chekhov’s gun, as his rule later became known, served as a common maxim throughout various storytelling media: film, in particular. Most Hollywood films adhere dogmatically to this and other rules of narrative economy; however, in the case of Chekhov’s gun, Hollywood may have taken his advice far too literally.
Throughout all eras in Hollywood’s short history, guns are rampant. They are fetishized at the hips of gangsters and heroically brandished in the hands of cops. They even serve as the centerpiece of a film-specific-choreographic-martial art, charmingly referred to as Gun Kata. Guns have such a rich history in Hollywood that the prop’s film relationship and influence bled into other vibrant film cultures, such as the French New Wave. So much so, that director and visionary, Jean Luc-Godard, also a student and critic of Hollywood film, once famously said, “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” (“Movie Maker”).
Godard, known as a uniquely experimental and code-bending filmmaker, follows the cinematic tradition within his first major success, Breathless. In Breathless, Godard introduces the gun very early in the film. The main character, Michel Poiccard, barrels down the street in a stolen car. Literally along for the ride, we are pulled into his world as we watch from the back seat. He passes two female hitchhikers and, being the respectable character that he is, doesn’t pick them up, because as he crassly puts it, “they’re both dogs”. From the back-right seat of the car, we gaze in a slightly skewed-to-profile medium shot over Poiccard’s shoulder as he fiddles with the radio. Cut to a close up of the open glove compartment, and Poiccard notices something. Reaching his hand into the compartment, he pulls from it a gun. He pulls the gun to the steering wheel, as we cut to a slightly closer hand held and medium shot from the back seat. The camera follows the gun as Poiccard points it at the rear view mirror. With his mouth, he mimics the sounds of firing the gun at the mirror: his own image. We follow the gun as he moves it, hovering it over the steering wheel. He points. We wait. A car passes, and again, Poiccard mouths the gun’s sound.
With this gun-following shot, we gain a layered and deeper insight into Poiccard’s character and Godard’s narrative. Poiccard play-shoots the mirror; not only is he a crass criminal, but he is playful. And worse, he is self-destructive. Poiccard play-shoots the car; he is destructive. The moment is the longest we spend with a gun throughout the entire film. Enacting the first premise of Chekhov’s gun rule, Godard lets the shot breath, thereby foreshadowing Poiccard’s end, which the viewer can only know at film’s end or upon a second viewing. And then a jump cut.
Godard cuts into the same shot. Poiccard looks off camera out the passenger window, searching or admiring what we know to be a landscape, and says, “Nothing like sunshine.” He raises the gun and points it at the passenger window. Dropping us into Poiccard’s mind, Godard cuts to Poiccard’s point of view: a rapidly passing by view of a crowded treeline futilely fighting to keep the sun from shining through. The close range sound of gunshots boom against the soundtrack. Further pushing the moment into the surreal, the window doesn’t shatter. The moment isn’t to be taken literally; however, it is jarring, begging contemplation.
Here, Godard offers us a view into Poiccard’s worldview and more foreshadowing. The playful criminal wants only the good things in life: the sunshine. And he is willing to do what he has to do to get it: the mental bullets firing at dark silhouetted trees. Then Godard cuts away to a medium shot behind Poiccard with the gun in his hand replaced by a cigarette, signaling a time change.
Literally seconds later, Poiccard is pursued by two motorcycle cops. He pulls onto an off road. Surrounded by dark trees similar to the ones that he just finished firing mind bullets at, Poiccard is discovered by one of the cops who doubled back. On his bike, the cop approaches in wide shot. We cut back to Poiccard, also in wide shot, as he reaches into the car for something. The equalizing shots set up a battle mentality. Then the cop’s shadow approaches, demonstrating the power he holds over Poiccard. He states, “Hold it right there!” Godard cuts into an already-dollying-down-extreme-close-up profile of Poiccard’s face. The shot drifts down, following the lines of his shoulder. Another cut into an already-moving-extreme-close-up pan along the line of Poiccard’s arm, ending at the gun. He cocks the gun, prompting Godard to cut into yet another already-moving-extreme-close-up pan across the gun, as we see the bullet chamber turn and hear the gun fire. The sequence of shots slows down the action for emphasis, drawing connection between Poiccard and the gun he holds. The cop falls to the ground in wide shot. Music bumps into the following extreme wide shot as Poiccard dashes across an open field well out of the trees. Goddard holds a pan with Poiccard as he runs and then fades to black, signally the end of Poiccard’s introduction.