Not At Any Price: “Art” More Than Art
The name Monte Hellman doesn’t mean much to the vast majority of moviegoers, but Hellman is among the cultiest of American cult directors. He came up the Roger Corman path in the 1960s with Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper (his films from that era include The Shooting and Ride In the Whirlwind), and then in 1971 he directed Two-Lane Blacktop, the cornerstone of his reputation. Months before that film opened, Esquire Magazine published the entire screenplay in a cover story headlined “Our Nomination For The Movie Of the Year.” But even at that moment when cult films were reaching the mainstream, Blacktop was a flop. Revisionist fans blame this on unsympathetic executives at Universal, which (barely) released the film, but the fact is that as a loosely-plotted reverie about cars, isolation, and the American road, Blacktop was likely too esoteric ever to find much of an audience, despite a now-legendary lead performance by Warren Oates. (The 2-DVD set from Criterion, crammed with extras, is well worth a look.)
Since the failure of Two-Lane Blacktop, Hellman hasn’t directed much (movies with titles like Cockfighter, Iguana and China 9, Liberty 37), and his first feature in more than 20 years is the new ROAD TO NOWHERE. A slow, shaggy-dog whatsit-noir, Nowhere harkens back in many ways to an older day of art films. It exists among several parallel timelines and levels of “reality,” like Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad or Muriel; concerns itself with the mechanics of filmmaking as a metaphor for personal disconnection, like Godard’s Contempt; and its portrayal of a film set recalls Fassbinder’s Beware A Holy Whore. Unlike those pictures, in the end Nowhere doesn’t have all that much to say.
It’s difficult to describe the “plot,” because the film (script by Steven Gaydos) intentionally twists itself into a structural pretzel where “reality” is hard to identify. There’s a film crew headed by director Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), making a movie supposedly based on a true incident in which a Southern politician and his mistress stole $100 million in municipal funds and killed themselves. Except maybe they didn’t kill themselves, and maybe they’re taking part in the very making of this film about them. Meanwhile the director is besotted with his star (Shannyn Sossamon), who may or may not be a a professional actress, and there’s a technical advisor (Waylon Payne) on hand, who may or may not be an insurance investigator looking into the original fraud. When it’s all more or less unwound at the end, it seems to be little more than an exceptionally pretentious film noir.
Noirs at least can be fun. Hellman and Road to Nowhere take themselves excruciatingly seriously, with agonizing pacing, lengthy poetry readings, portentous a capella songs, and extended clips from better movies. It’s hard to judge the acting, in the sense that the performers are almost all playing versions of versions of versions, but it’s pretty clear that while Sossamon has a magnetic presence (she’s one of those actresses who’s always seemed one good role away from stardom), many of the other actors are either trying too hard to give stylized performances or just not faring very well. Even though the movie is in English, it has the slightly disembodied feel of a foreign film that had to be postsynched.
Road to Nowhere is the kind of picture where cops yell at someone to “Drop the weapon!” when the person in question is just holding a camera–and they say it 3 times, so we’ll all get the parallel being offered between a movie camera and a gun. Doubtless all the dissertations being written about The Cinema of Monte Hellman will require new chapters to assess the film’s thematic and metaphorical additions to the Hellman canon. But not every cult filmmaker is a Terence Malick.
(ROAD TO NOWHERE – Monterey Media – 122 minutes- R – Director: Monte Hellman – Script: Steven Gaydos – Cast: Tygh Runyon, Shannyn Sossomon, Cliff DeYoung, Waylon Payne – Limited Release)