Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Road Movie (1974, Joseph Strick)

Joseph Strick's Road Movie turns 40 this year, but you're less likely to hear about that than you are some of the others from the Class of '74 such as Chinatown or The Godfather Part II.  But, make no mistake about it: Strick's film is an American New Wave classic, albeit of the "lost" variety.  This is another of those scaled to actual life-size, downbeat, down and dirty, impolite, depressing, sad, and "sad funny" pictures--with a gut punch of an ending--that you've come to expect from the early to mid-'70s.  It's that era that continues to be a gift that keeps on giving, this time offering up Road Movie to me, seemingly out of the blue, to be discovered all these years later.  It's amazing to me that I didn't know about this film until about a month ago.  I've long been fascinated with truckers and their milieu, and, as such, I've tried to see most films set in that environment.  If you read this blog with any regularity, then you know that I'm obsessively drawn to the small, little-remembered films from the late '60s to the early '80s.  

Road Movie was one of the few films produced and distributed by New York-based Grove Press, much better known for its groundbreaking history in book publishing, including Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1961, later adapted by Joseph Strick for his 1970 film version.

Strick's film apparently lasted only a week at the Plaza Theatre on 58th and Madison.  Canby was also taken with Baff's performance and the Columbia University critic also had mostly good things to say about the film, particularly in comparison to Zardoz, which it was up against that week.

Yet, even given all that, I was completely unaware of Road Movie until I saw Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?  What's the connection?  It's a "who": Regina Baff.  "Who?"  I didn't know who she was, either, until I saw her in the earlier film opposite Dustin Hoffman.  I thought her scenes were probably the best in a deeply flawed film, better than those of the Oscar-nominated Barbara Harris.  When I looked her up, I found a short filmography that pretty much ended over thirty years ago.  She was nominated for a Tony Award in 1974, but left acting for a career in psychology in the 1980s.  Which is just as well because if '70s cinema was, in large part, about unconventional-looking people--i.e. "character people," i.e. Regina Baff--becoming leading players and stars, the '80s...wasn't.  So, Regina Baff vanished from the public life of a movie actress, but not before she left an indelible mark as Janice, a truck stop prostitute, who makes a mess of the lives of the two independent truckers--Robert Drivas and Barry Bostwick--who pick her up at the start of the film.  

Bostwick and Drivas, as the independents who will come to regret adding an extra passenger at the Arena Diner in South Kearny.  Drivas' primary impact was on the stage, but film audiences will remember him from Cool Hand Luke and The Illustrated Man.  He died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1986.  Bostwick originated the role of Danny Zuko in Grease on Broadway in 1972, made The Rocky Horror Picture Show a year after Road Movie, made dozens of tv appearances, and starred in Megaforce.
Director Strick spent time as a long haul trucker as a young man and this unique experience gives the film an authenticity and authority that it surely would not have had, had he been a complete outsider. Still, even with that on his resume, Strick took the then-progressive step of hiring a young female writer, Judith Rascoe, to write the script; she was teaching writing at Yale and had no film credits at the time.  Perhaps I make too much of it, but in the heavily masculine world of trucking, and given the trucker film's history as fodder for "exploitation" or grindhouse pictures, a woman writing the screenplay for such a film seems an unconventional and commendable thing.  No doubt, Rascoe provided a needed counterbalance and perspective to a scenario that could otherwise become, or be accused of being, misogynistic.  

Truck stop hooker Janice makes her entrance.  I recognized this spot from my many times driving on Routes 1 & 9 in NJ over the years.  I don't think this diner's been open for business for a long time.   Diner staff look on, entertained by the workers showing their wares in the parking lot.
The opening sequence is pretty remarkable to me for its use of montage--lots of impressive footage of truckers doing what they do on the road--and appropriate use of song (by Joan Armatrading, I think), with bluesy, squealing horns standing in for the undoubtedly loud argument between Baff and the john who throws her out of his car at the start of the film.

Heart of gold or road poison?  Treat her right and she'll do right by you.  Break one of her arms and she'll break both of yours.  
Regina Baff.  A face you won't forget.  She is up to the challenge of playing all the complexities of this role: from "real tough chick" to sad, pitiable creature to vengeful maniac, and everything in between.  She's been on the road so long, she's got no more "neutral," only 1st gear and overdrive.
I don't want to say too much more about the film, so as to avoid spoilers, except that I admire its portrayal of the ugliness and decrepitude of middle American backroads and highways, while resisting the urge to make something beautiful out of this ugliness. It also can't be ignored that Road Movie came decades before the ruins photography movement really took hold, aka "ruin porn," the now-cliche movement to photograph urban and rural decay and blight.  I think of Road Movie as one of those films, books, or LPs that many subsequent filmmakers, writers, or musicians owe a debt to without realizing it.

Some proto-ruin porn.
The movie is surprisingly available on DVD and has been for well over a decade.  It's a non-anamorphic letterboxed presentation, which, unfortunately, does not fully do justice to longtime documentary d.p. Don Lenzer's appropriately gritty cinematography.  It is one of those "best available source" deals, in this case being an actual release print, complete with the expected scratches, dirt, and occasional missing frames or soundtrack hiccups.  The score is by veteran British composer Stanley Myers, whose music for Douglas Hickox's Sitting Target is one of my most prized and loved soundtrack LPs; his music is here is alternately bluesy, jazzy, haunting, and spare, performed by an impressive line-up of English session players.

Other memorable faces to look out for in Road Movie include Barton Heyman, David Bauer, Martin Kove (who later acted in another trucker classic: White Line Fever), and a very, very young Joe Pantoliano.

The film is a good companion piece to Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy, published a year later.
Not unlike the effect used for the Rain People one-sheet.
So, if you're looking for the truly unsung, prototypical "'70s movie" (or, "road movie," take your pick) which almost nobody ever mentions or even knows...Road Movie is your man movie.


Christine Marchand said...

Thank-you for this wonderful tribute to Joseph Strick, a most extraordinary man and filmmaker.

Ned Merrill said...

Thank you for reading and commenting, Christine. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

Judith Rascoe said...

As the screenwriter I'm delighted to hear from somebody who's actually seen this movie - and not only that, has so many good things to say about it. Joe Strick was a great director who loved good actors and he was one of several important actors' directors who spotted Regina Baff. But alas, she wasn't a bankable beauty and quit the game much too soon.
Road Movie was my first script and an incomparable way to learn screenwriting. Joe had an open call for many of the parts and told me to come to every reading: "You don't learn anything from a bad performance, but you can learn everything from a good one."

Ned Merrill said...

Thank you so, so much for visiting, reading, and commenting, Judith! I'm thrilled that this piece has reached some of the main creative people behind ROAD MOVIE. I was really quite taken with this film and hope to "pass it on," as it were, to other cinephiles.

Such great memories you've shared with us about working with Joe Strick and a little bit of his process. I'm sad--but, sadly, not surprised--that Regina wasn't given more of a shot in Hollywood, but thankful that Joe recognized her talent and gave it an outlet in his film.

Incidentally, around the time that I was first seeing ROAD MOVIE, the remake of ENDLESS LOVE was being released and my boss and I were talking about the 1981 screen version of ENDLESS LOVE, WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN, and the respective novels these films (and your scripts) were adapted from.

Thanks again for stopping by and please feel free to share more memories of ROAD MOVIE and the people behind it!