Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark
The mating of the road and the movies is as enduring as any of Hollywood's famous couples, and seemingly just as inevitable. The road has always been a persistent theme of American culture. Its significance, embedded in both popular mythology and social history, goes back to the nation's frontier ethos, but was transformed by the technological intersection of motion pictures and the automobile in the twentieth century. When Jean Baudrillard equates American culture with “space, speed, cinema, technology” (100) he could just as well be describing the characteristic features of a road movie. Forging a travel narrative out of a particular conjunction of plot and setting that sets the liberation of the road against the oppression of hegemonic norms, road movies project American Western mythology onto the landscape traversed and bound by the nation's highways: “The road defines the space between town and country. It is an empty expanse, a tabula rasa, the last true frontier” (Dargis: 16). The 1969 ad campaign for Easy Rider exclaimed, “A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere, ” and this much-remembered sentiment condenses what is typically taken for granted as the ideological project of a road movie, regardless of what travel narrative it specifically recounts.
The ongoing popularity of the road for motion picture audiences in the United States owes much to its obvious potential for romanticizing alienation as well as for problematizing the uniform identity of the nation's culture:
Road movies are too cool to address seriously socio-political issues. Instead, they express the fury and suffering at the extremities of civilised life, and give their restless protagonists the false hope of a one-way ticket to nowhere . . . road movies are cowled in lurking menace, spontaneous mayhem and dead-end fatalism, never more than few roadstops away from abject lawlessness and haphazard bloodletting . . . road movies have always been songs of the doomed, warnings that once you enter the open hinterlands between cities, you're on your own.