Border Crossings: Representations of North American Culture in Bruce McDonald's Highway 61

Article excerpt

Bruce McDonald's Highway 61, which came out in 1991, is centrally concerned with Canada's America. (1) It is a road movie that explores the North American continent from Thunder Bay to New Orleans, representing United States society and culture from a Canadian perspective. I will argue that far from providing a realist view, it is one that is mediated through literature and music, and that relies upon comedy, caricature, stereotype, and myth.

The images of Canada and America, to which I will be referring, are drawn from a body of literature about the representation of national identity and culture within filmic and literary texts. The film makes an effort to convey ethnic and geographic diversity in its inclusion of French-Canadian, East Indian, Manitoban, and Northern-Ontarian characters. Likewise, its representation of the U.S. includes African-Americans, Southerners, and Mid-Westerners. Thus, while the film's perspectives are largely English-Canadian, they are situated within a pluralistic context. I have resorted to generalizing about things Canadian and American for the sake of convenience, in the knowledge that identities are far more multiple, fluid, and specific than this sort of cross-cultural comparison allows. Should my concepts sound unitary and unifying as a result, I would like to endorse their provisional nature.

Highway 61 begins with Pokey Jones, a trumpet-playing barber from Pickerel Falls, Northern Ontario, finding a man frozen to death in his backyard. Jackie Bangs, a roadie, claims that the dead body belongs to her brother, and that she must take it to New Orleans to be buried, although she is really using the corpse as a suitcase for drugs. Jackie tries unsuccessfully to hitchhike, before Pokey offers to transport the coffin on the roof of his car. Mr Skin, who believes he is Satan, pursues them along the highway, because the dead man had signed a pact with him relinquishing his body upon his death.

Along the way, Pokey pays tribute to various musicians associated with the regions he travels through. For example, he visits the house where Bob Dylan spent his early childhood and is filled with a sense of awe. Pokey makes the Dylan allusion in the title of the film explicit, when he proclaims: "Highway 61's a song. When you travel south on Highway 61 what you're really doing is tracing popular music back to its roots. I lived on the northern tip of this highway and I studied and I read. I've never left home, but I know every inch of this highway." Correspondingly, the soundtrack of the film pays tribute to popular music by playing songs that represent its periods and styles. Beginning in a barber's shop, and hence evoking the barber shop quartet, the film includes heavy metal, folk, rock, pop, country and western, soul, blues, zydeco, and jazz, with song lyrics complementing the spoken narrative.

The road movie format of Highway 61 recalls the journey in Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation novel On The Road (1955), in which two youths criss-cross the United States, hitch-hiking, stealing and destroying cars, in mad pursuit of women, drink, and poetic and religious self-enlightenment. (2) Like Walt Whitman, they seek to embrace the geographic and mythological immensity of their land and they celebrate experience for its own sake. Sal Paradise speaks of "the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent" (67) and he asserts that Dean Moriaty's criminality, which leads him to steal cars, is "a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy," since he steals them for joy rides only (11). This novel celebrates and fetishizes the car itself: Sal swears that Dean's very soul is "wrapped up in a fast car, a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road" (190).

McDonald's film also employs the road journey as a structuring device. There is some similarity between the "cross-country rampage" Jackie embarks on and the journey in Kerouac's book. But Jackie's purpose in making the trip is to smuggle drugs across the border: she is impelled by her "carefree, criminal" nature, rather than by a quest for enlightenment. …