On the Reel Road
Up for a quick trip across the United States? If you can't spare the time and gas money, an alternative might be the "road" movies currently screening as part of the Reel America Film Series at the Wolfsonian-FIU in Miami Beach. The idea behind the minifestival is to "explore travel and the American landscape" through a series of classic road movies, mysteries, neglected documentaries, and shorts -- all involving modes of transportation across this highway-obsessed nation. The films screen on Thursday nights through July 26.
The premise of the series, which began last week, seems a bit thin, and the slate of offerings rather odd indeed, but if you pick through the list, there are several treasures waiting to be discovered. Many films in the series are completely unavailable at video stores, and the few that are rarely appear on the big screen. The lineup is about as eclectic as can be: Along with some old-time Hollywood features, you'll find documentary shorts about railroads, a filmed account of Lindbergh's solo airplane flight across the Atlantic, and Road Scholar (1993), wherein the Romanian writer/commentator Andrei Codrescu hightails it across the country in a red Caddy convertible in search of the American soul.
Several classic films highlight the schedule, including Alfred Hitchcock's diabolical Strangers on a Train (1951), a clever suspenser that features some biting dialogue from master-of-noir-mystery Raymond Chandler. Screening June 14, Stranger follows Robert Walker as an unhappily married man who dreams of murdering his wife. But his wishes turn to anguished reality when his newfound friend and confidante, played by Farley Granger, turns out to be a lot more efficient than the hubby anticipated.
Another little-seen classic is Duel (1971), Steven Spielberg's first feature-length film. Originally produced for television, Duel is a simple tale of a motorist tortured by a huge tractor trailer. Fans have raved about this film, including legendary British director Sir David Lean, whose comments helped jump-start Spielberg's rise to godhood. But there's not much character or complexity to the story, and it may appear to be an overlong episode of The Twilight Zone. The basic appeal here is largely historical; this is where it all began for Spielberg, and it's intriguing to watch a filmmaker at the very beginning of his career. As an added treat, Duel is paired with Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), a three-and-a-half-minute hors d'oeuvre from seminal avant-guardist Kenneth Anger.
The real treasure of this series is the final feature, Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1942), considered by many to be one of the greatest American films ever made and certainly one of the most underappreciated. Sturges, who began as a writer of urbane, witty stage plays, launched his film-directing career by offering to direct one of his sought-after screenplays for the sum of one dollar. The result was a brief, meteoric career that produced screwball comedy hits such as The Palm Beach Story, The Great McGinty, Hail the Conquering Hero, and his comic masterpiece, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.
But it's Sullivan's Travels that remains largely ignored, because it combines comedy and dark social commentary in a startlingly original way. The plot is mostly autobiographical. Ivy League-educated director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) chafes at cranking out fizzy comedies and longs to create a serious film about the social suffering in "real" America. He bolts from Hollywood, disguises himself as a hobo, and roams the streets looking for that reality. Naturally the film studio sees a public-relations coup in this stunt and dispatches guardians and PR agents to tail him in a motor home. But Sullivan gives his keepers the slip and heads out into the heart of America where, in a sudden dark turn of events, he loses his identity and his liberty when he's thrown into a hard-labor prison.
This is a wild, compelling film that matches witty dialogue with some nightmarish drama. The sultry Veronica Lake is along for the ride as a wannabe actress, and many of Sturges's regular company of character actors provide excellent support. There's also an added joke for cinephiles: The serious drama that Sullivan hopes to make is called Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, the title the Coen brothers slyly adopted for their recent jail-break comedy.
This mélange of film genres and formats may or may not make it as a comprehensive presentation of American road culture. Certainly there are many road pictures or highway classics that are notably absent. Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider is an obvious one, as are Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces and Alison Anders's Gas, Food, Lodging. And what about the little scene-noir classic from the Fifties, Detour? And for a little kitsch, how about Smokey and the Bandit? Then there's Patti Rocks, or maybe some episodes of the TV series Route 66, or ... well, the list is long.
What all this conjecture leads to is some thankfulness that quirky programs crop up here in South Florida with regularity. But that feeling leads to a wish -- for an ongoing revival cinema somewhere, anywhere, in the area. For the moment and through July, the Wolfsonian's Reel America series will have to do.
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