Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Reflexivity of the Road Film

Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Reflexivity of the Road Film

Article excerpt

Genre study can detour film study by forcing a return to arbitrary distinctions--a situation that can lead to getting stuck. The impossibility of rigorously identifying genre-traits and the market's drive toward ever-more-refined niche-genres led Rick Altman to conclude that genre definitions must be continually modified in the light of practice. (1) Controversy also marks discussions of the ideological character of genre. Barbara Klinger questioned the increasing critical practice of contrasting "classical" instances of a genre with revisionist or "progressive" variations on it by emphasizing the industry's capacity--long recognized by the Frankfurt School--to assimilate and neutralize even radical adaptations of generic formulas. (2) In this situation it is useful to recall Derrida's warning in' "The Law of Genre" that texts can never truly "belong" to a genre--not because they are unclassifiable but because a genre sign is never a referent. (3) From the standpoint of deconstruction, defining a genre creates an illusion of referentiality that example films sooner or later expose. Analysis of genre may be necessary but will end in fiction. Still, through their reflexivity films may at least narrate this critical dilemma of becoming bogged down in illusory reference, and it is that allegory that this paper investigates. (4)

The genre "road film" may suffer more than others from these difficulties: some writers doubt its existence, and no one defines it. (5) Commentators concede that the genre is a hybrid: its typical structures have been studied in the western, film noir, and even musicals. (6) The merger of road and gangster genres evident in Gun Crazy (1949) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) spawned the sub-genre of the "outlaw couples" road film exemplified in Badlands (1973) and Natural Born Killers (1994). Road comedies range from Sullivan's Travels (1941) to Lost in America (1985). The film that many consider the genre's starting-point, It Happened One Night (1934), also initiates the separate group Cavell named the Hollywood comedy of remarriage. From these examples it is easy to see the difficulty of sustaining a definition of the road genre: is the primary genre really "road" after all and the "sub-genre" something else? Is the sub-genre really the genre? How much road travel makes a road film?

Taxonomic difficulties are multiplied when the road film is considered an instance of the journey narrative, whose western paradigms are established in Exodus and The Odyssey. (7) Students of Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940) must take account of the former; of the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the latter. Some genre critics find these contextualizations useful, though situating any American road film within such super-genres necessitates new comparisons--with Huckleberry Finn, for example, or The African Queen (1951)--again threatening to balloon the object of study uncontrollably. In keeping with Derrida's warning, a definition of the road film genre and a list of traits that would police its boundaries will not be attempted here; instead, I accept as road films all those that have been so designated, de facto, by critical practice and study what they have in common--the figure of the road--as a reflexive image of continuity and linearity that may suggest, among other meanings, the act of reading. (8)

Most interpreters of the road film begin with history and ideology rather than reflexivity, though their interpretations of ideological shifts vary considerably. (9) For Timothy Corrigan and Bennet Schaber, road films have become regressive: Easy Rider depicts not "the people" but only a nostalgic memory of the people. On the other hand, Shari Roberts claims road films have become progressive by depicting the search for new personal and national identities. Continuing controversy over Easy Rider suggests that such ideological stalemates are common and may be influenced by the choice of where to pinpoint the origin of the genre; (10) competing narratives of genre history may be inherent in the assumption that films make univocal ideological statements. …

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