For this house­bound travel writer, road movies hit the gas.

Tin­sel­town long has taken dra­matic li­cense with the clas­sic com­bi­na­tion of cars and jour­neys of self-dis­cov­ery

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ME­LANIE D.G. KA­PLAN travel@wash­post.com

Last win­ter, a near-stranger rec­om­mended I watch “Paris, Texas,” the 1984 Wim Wen­ders film about Travis Hen­der­son, who mys­te­ri­ously wan­ders out of the desert and finds him­self re­con­nect­ing with fam­ily on two drives through the South­west. We had been dis­cussing one of my fa­vorite top­ics: road trips. I never saw the man again, but I watched the movie and found my­self spell­bound by the big sky, open road and un­com­fort­ably long si­lences. I know this stretch of road, I thought; the si­lence feels fa­mil­iar. I itched to get in the car and go.

It was two months be­fore I drove with my bea­gle from Wash­ing­ton to Cal­i­for­nia to visit my 96-year-old grand­mother, one of sev­eral epic cross-coun­try trips I’ve made in the last decade. But the film stuck with me. I thought about long drives, in­spir­ing land­scapes and chance en­coun­ters, and I re­al­ized that many of my fa­vorite movies fea­tured road trips.

This win­ter, home­bound with writ­ing dead­lines, I de­voured road films — more than 30 of them. I watched “Paris, Texas” again. This time, undis­tracted by the road, I turned my fo­cus to the nar­ra­tive and the char­ac­ters. At the end, I wept.

Some­where dur­ing my road­movie binge, I re­al­ized that — apart from the sim­ple plea­sure of watch­ing great films — the on-screen dra­mas en­hanced my own re­la­tion­ship with the open road. I saw parts of my­self in some of the char­ac­ters. The pic­tures kin­dled my en­thu­si­asm and whet my ap­petite for the next jour­ney. In a way, they re­in­forced my wan­der­lust.

To find out what makes a good road-trip movie, I talked to Leo Brundy, a cul­tural his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He pointed out that the roots of the genre go back to clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture such as “The Odyssey” and “Don Quixote.”

Char­ac­ters are on a quest for some­thing or some­one and what hap­pens, he said, is that they dis­cover them­selves along the way. “The idea of a road trip is to ex­pand your con­scious­ness,” Brundy said. “The road pic­ture is like that — go­ing from place to place, meet­ing all sorts of peo­ple. It’s a cliche, but it’s true — it’s about the jour­ney, not the des­ti­na­tion.”

The movies I watched spanned more than 80 years, start­ing with “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933), a De­pres­sion-era film about two kids who leave their fam­i­lies and bum their way across the coun­try to find work. Next came “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), in which Henry Fonda plays Stein­beck’s Tom Joad, forced out of his Mid­west home and tak­ing his fam­ily to Cal­i­for­nia.

These early films ex­plored west­ward move­ment with a sense of ad­ven­ture we can only imag­ine to­day. What hasn’t changed is the ex­pan­sive­ness of our coun­try and the uni­ver­sal de­sire to ex­plore it.

The 1960s and ’70s gen­er­ated many road clas­sics. “Easy Rider” cap­tured the spirit of Amer­i­can cul­ture in the late ’60s as two doped-out bik­ers rode their chop­pers from Cal­i­for­nia to New Or­leans with a wad of drug money. Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s “The Rain Peo­ple” (1969) brought us an­other searcher rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the chang­ing times — a Long Is­land house­wife who finds out she’s preg­nant, feels trapped, pan­ics about mat­ri­mony and moth­er­hood, and heads west. Wen­ders’s low­bud­get ’70s road trip tril­ogy in­cludes “Alice in the Cities,” “The Wrong Move” and “Kings of the Road,” which thought­fully por­tray three wan­der­ers, all played by the same ac­tor, on the road in the United States and post­war Ger­many.

“Thelma & Louise” (1991), about a girl get­away gone bad, may be the quin­tes­sen­tial road film. What bet­ter il­lus­trates free­dom than Su­san Saran­don and Geena Davis in a 1966 Thun­der­bird con­vert­ible, singing at the top of their lungs, hair blow­ing in the wind? “You said you and me was goin’ to get outta town and for once just re­ally let our hair down,” Thelma tells Louise early in the movie. “Well dar­lin’ look out, cuz my hair is comin’ down.”

These days, road movies are a less prom­i­nent part of our cul­ture, Bundy said, not­ing that bucket lists and heav­ily pro­grammed travel have killed the op­por­tu­nity for spon­tane­ity and dis­cov­ery. Mo­bile phones, dig­i­tal map­ping and in­ters­tate high­ways yield a dif­fer­ent kind of trip. Route 66 is ro­man­tic; I-40, not so much.

Stranger days

On the road, we take risks that we would never con­sider at home. A few years back in Texas, I trav­eled for a short time with a semi-stranger, an Aus­tralian man I had met the pre­vi­ous year rid­ing Metro. We shared a few mo­tel rooms, and at first, I snuck my wal­let and phone into the bath­room when I show­ered. Per­haps I was re­mem­ber­ing the “Thelma & Louise” scene in which a drifter steals the pair’s money from a mo­tel night­stand.

Turns out, the Aussie was trust­wor­thy. And fun. A laugh over din­ner one night re­mains one of the best of my life. But it doesn’t al­ways turn out that way. “Kal­i­for­nia” (1993), in which some­one in the back seat is a se­rial killer, re­minds us what can hap­pen if we don’t care­fully vet our pas­sen­gers.

As for those brushes with the law that so of­ten crop up in the movies, mine came in Texas sev­eral years ago; an off-duty cop gave me his pock­etknife for pro­tec­tion and later taught me to two-step. Hol­ly­wood’s cops are less be­nign. Of course the char­ac­ters are, too. They steal cars, gro­ceries, drugs and corpses, kid­nap po­lice of­fi­cers and kill folks at Pig­gly Wig­glys.

“Alice in the Cities” tells the de­light­ful and charm­ing story of a Ger­man jour­nal­ist who tours the United States and meets a woman who asks him to chap­eron her 9-year-old daugh­ter back to Europe. I haven’t been sur­pris­ingly sad­dled with any­one’s chil­dren on the road, but I have found my­self drawn into other peo­ple’s lives in ways I wouldn’t have cho­sen. In Port­land, Ore., I once helped a pho­tog­ra­pher lift heavy fur­ni­ture onto a dolly and ma­neu­ver it into the freight el­e­va­tor — a back­break­ing task I could have done with­out. But I en­joyed his com­pany, and he needed a hand; we hap­pened to meet the week he was mov­ing out of his stu­dio.

Some­times, the stranger is a fam­ily mem­ber. In “Rain Man” (1988), Char­lie Bab­bitt (Tom Cruise) gets to know his autis­tic sa­vant brother Ray (Dustin Hoff­man) af­ter pick­ing him up from a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion in Ohio. The road trip takes place only be­cause Ray is afraid to board a plane to Cal­i­for­nia. As an adult, I’ve never road-tripped with my fam­ily, but I’m con­sid­er­ing a drive with my fa­ther this spring. I won­der if he still drums the steer­ing wheel to coun­try mu­sic as he did when I was a kid, or if I’ll have more pa­tience for it now. My sis­ter and I would fight in the back seat, and more than once my dad slammed on the brakes and pulled over to the shoul­der, steam­ing.

But what’s a road trip with­out some­one get­ting huffy?

Stop­ping to visit friends and fam­ily along the way is a com­mon theme on the road. Paul Gia­matti’s char­ac­ter makes an oblig­a­tory visit to his mother on a wine coun­try tour in “Side­ways” (2004), and col­lege bud­dies crash at the home of a friend’s grand­par­ents in “Road Trip” (2000). “Ne­braska” (2013) is the story of a man driv­ing his al­co­holic fa­ther, played by Bruce Dern, to col­lect a nonex­is­tent mil­lion-dol­lar prize. It’s a gor­geous black-and-white film; panoramic shots of the pair driv­ing along empty roads look like a Subaru mov­ing across an Ansel Adams pho­to­graph. The dead­pan liv­ing-room scene at the un­cle’s house is among the most mem­o­rable of film fam­ily vis­its.

Eat­ing and run­ning

We love the road be­cause it’s noth­ing like home. Yet we still seek the com­fort of shel­ter and food. Din­ers are the sur­ro­gate kitchen ta­bles, where we fuel up, hold fam­ily meet­ings, set the agenda and re­cap the day.

In “The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries” (2004), a film with stun­ning scenery and a mu­si­cal score to match, a young Che Gue­vara (Gael Gar­cia Ber­nal) and his friend spread maps on a cafe ta­ble to plan their mo­tor­cy­cle ex­pe­di­tion through Patag­o­nia. Gen­er­ally, road-trip food isn’t any­thing to write home about. Un­less that’s your job, like Steve Coogan, who drives through the Bri­tish and Ital­ian coun­try­side with Rob Bry­den, the men din­ing finely and amus­ing them­selves with hi­lar­i­ous im­i­ta­tions and one-night ro­mances in “The Trip” (2010) and “The Trip to Italy” (2014).

We also can’t help con­nect­ing with home, even as we speed away from it. In “Transamer­ica” (2005), Felic­ity Huff­man is driv­ing cross-coun­try with a teenage boy she just met and calls to check on her pend­ing gen­der re­as­sign­ment surgery. In “Carol” (2015), a road movie filled with long si­lences and se­duc­tive cig­a­rette drags, Cate Blanchett (Carol) calls home for news of her con­tentious cus­tody bat­tle.

Watch­ing old films, I longed for the days of pay phones. Dur­ing my binge, I counted a num­ber of no­table phone booth scenes. Re­cur­ring themes: men learn­ing over the phone that their busi­ness or big idea has gone bust; and women call­ing home to cut ties with their men, some­times on an­swer­ing ma­chines. At the be­gin­ning of “The Rain Peo­ple,” Natalie makes a col­lect call to her hus­band from the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike, say­ing she has to get away. “Why didn’t you talk to me? I would have gone with you,” he says.

She replies: “I didn’t want to go away with you. I wanted to get away from you.”

Size mat­ters

A good rule of thumb in road films: The larger the ve­hi­cle, the greater the fo­cus on what goes on in­side it. If the ve­hi­cle is small, the lens is fo­cused largely on the out­side world. In both “Amer­i­can Honey,” An­drea Arnold’s 2016 film about mis­fit teens sell­ing mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tions across the coun­try and “Get on the Bus,” Spike Lee’s 1996 of­fer­ing about a group of Los An­ge­les men bus­ing to the Mil­lion Man March in Wash­ing­ton, the fo­cus is on the in­side. Com­pare that with “Easy Rider.” In that film, Den­nis Hop­per and Pe­ter Fonda’s char­ac­ters are on the small­est of ve­hi­cles, and the scenery plays a star­ring role. Snow-capped peaks dot the hori­zon, and the sun sets be­hind them — the sky turns the color of pink lemon­ade, then blue­ber­ries.

Ar­guably, my road trips would make dull movies. They haven’t ended vi­o­lently or trag­i­cally; at worst, I nearly run out of gas in the mid­dle of Wy­oming or end the trip feel­ing melan­choly. But nowhere do I feel more fully my­self than when I’m on a road ad­ven­ture, and I’ve found the same to be true for many of the char­ac­ters I’ve met this win­ter. Breath­tak­ing beauty, hu­man con­nec­tion and the free­dom to de­tour as one wishes makes a po­tent con­coc­tion — and a ready-made for­mula for Hol­ly­wood.

A dozen road movies re­main in my queue, un­watched. But for now, I bid a fond farewell to film. My com­pass is set to the west. Road-trip sea­son is nearly upon us.

The pic­tures kin­dled my en­thu­si­asm and whet my ap­petite for the next jour­ney. In a way, they jus­ti­fied my wan­der­lust.

Ka­plan is a free­lance writer based in the Dis­trict. Her web­site is melaniedgka­plan.com.

For a closer look at the au­thor’s fa­vorite road movies, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/travel

EN­TER­TAIN­MENT PIC­TURES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

AF ARCHIVE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Geena Davis, left, and Su­san Saran­don, as the epony­mous “Thelma & Louise,” choose a de­cid­edly fi­nal end to their road trip; on a trek through Cal­i­for­nia’s Santa Ynez Val­ley, Paul Gia­matti, left, tries to help Thomas Haden Church get the hang of wine snob­bery in “Side­ways”; Pe­ter Fonda, cen­ter, fer­ries Jack Ni­chol­son while Den­nis Hop­per rides along­side in “Easy Rider” on their way to road-trip doom; Dean Stock­well and Harry Dean Stan­ton walk the rails in “Paris, Texas.”

MERIE W. WAL­LACE/FOX SEARCH­LIGHT PIC­TURES VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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