Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Highways To Hell

Long before Mapquest, Yahoo and Google Maps offered instant gratification for drivers trying to figure out the best way to get from one place to another, planning for a road trip often required some serious attention to a map. Men who were willing to follow directions would frequently contact their local automobile association's travel department, where their membership dues entitled them to trip planning services.

Whether my family was planning a trip to one of the National Science Foundation summer institutes my father had qualified for (try sharing the back seat of a 1949 Plymouth with your older sister and a French horn all the way from Brooklyn to Boulder, Colorado!) or merely traveling to visit relatives in Alexandria, Virginia, the arrival of a Conoco trip planner was a sure sign that we were actually going somewhere outside of New York City.

Ever since automobile travel became a mainstay of American culture, the road trip has come to symbolize an important event. For some, it may simply involve a daily commute. For others, it becomes a rite of passage. For some, it may signify the moment when a teenager leaves home to go to college. For others it might be little more than a casual weekend getaway.

Whether one travels by car, hitches rides with truck drivers, or takes one's own sweet time crossing the country on a lawnmower, the open road offers travelers a chance to think, meet new people, and get out of a rut. Among the more popular "road trip" movies are:
Two new additions to the genre will be screened next month at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival. Each tells a compelling story and has its own quirky appeal.

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Anyone whose parents still treat him like a child (or who has difficulty communicating with his parents) will lose no time falling head over heels in love with Bomber, a brilliant new film written and directed by Paul Cotter. The cast is tiny, the anger huge, and the surprises shocking. Yet this tightly written and beautifully performed film is an astonishing achievement in bringing emotional honesty to the screen.

Bomber starts as Ross (Shane Taylor) is awakened by his alarm watch. Much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Leslie (Sara Kessel) -- who has some severe issues with codependency -- Ross has promised to see his parents off on a trip his father has planned from England to some small town in Germany. At 83, Alistair (Benjamin Whitrow) is a stubborn old coot. Ross's mother, Valerie (Eileen Nicholas), is the archetypal long-suffering wife.

As soon as his parents have gotten into their car and Ross has said goodbye, his father shifts into the wrong gear and drives the car right back into the garage. As a result, Ross (who is an unemployed artist) gets guilt-tripped into driving his parents to their destination for what should be a short, easy trip.

Then again, it's a road trip with his parents. Alistair is using a map that is at least 25 years old and refuses to spend the extra money to drive on toll roads. Instead, he is quite content to use Europe's smaller, slower "B" roads. Even though Ross's parents have carefully discussed the parameters of their trip, Valerie is needling for a stop at a rhododendron park mentioned in her guidebook and would also like to drive to Warsaw to buy a pair of shoes.

As you might have guessed, Alistair and Valerie have precious little talent for communicating with each other. It takes no time at all for their annoying habits and constant nagging (not to mention Leslie's frequent phone calls) to work every one of Ross's hypersensitive nerves.

Ross (Shane Taylor) and his father (Benjamin Whitrow)

If Ross's father would explain the reason for this trip -- which he now feels must be undertaken before he dies -- it might help to defuse the tension. But all Alistair has to guide him is an aerial photo of a small town that he took as a young pilot in the Royal Air Force who accidentally dropped his bombs on the wrong target. The fact that neither Alistair, Valerie, and Ross know little, if any German, does not help them explain their mission to the locals.

Ross (Shane Taylor) vents his frustrations

As tensions mount, and Leslie dumps Ross over the phone (claiming that she deserves better), Valerie starts to wonder if perhaps, she too, deserves better from her relationship with Alistair. Ross's attempts to get his parents to communicate with each other are equally amusing and poignant. The outcome is at once gratifying and horrific.

Bomber is a marvelously satisfying film which (through the eyes of their furious and extremely frustrated son) examines the inability of a long-married couple to be honest with each other. I can't recommend it strongly enough. Here's the trailer:

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Before Oklahoma achieved statehood, it was known as the "Land of the Red People" and described by the Choctaw phrase "Okla Humma." Written and directed by Sterlin Harjo, Barking Water centers on a road trip that involves a deeply personal race against time.

There are no bank robberies in Harjo's movie (this film is nothing like Bonnie and Clyde or Road to Perdition). Nor is anyone trying to reach the proverbial hidden treasure that led to such wild romps as Rat Race and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Instead, Barking Water is all about the challenges faced by Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) as she signs her old boyfriend Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman) out of the hospital against medical advice. Both know that Frankie is dying of cancer and will not last very long. The question is whether Irene can get him back to his estranged family in time for him to hold his grandchild just once before he dies.

Frankie and Irene's on-again, off-again relationship has often suffered from the effects of Frankie's drinking and insecurities. Both are proud Native Americans who are broke. Although they have not been together for quite some time, Irene feels that. at the very least, she owes Frankie the "gift" of bringing him home from the hospital to die.

Using her wits, some old Indian herbal remedies, and any contacts she has along the way who can buy them lunch or put them up for the night, Irene is fully in charge. Even in his weakened state, Frankie can still be an asshole and, at times, he can still push Irene's buttons.

But Frankie knows that Irene is in the driver's seat and will be there to hold his hand when the time comes for him to die. Irene's quiet determination offers Frankie his only hope of seeing his estranged grandchild while he still can. As they head home across the Oklahoma prairie, Frankie and Irene spend time with:
  • Mike (Ryan Red Corn) and Cvpon (Quese iMC), Irene's two idiotic nephews. Both are aspiring gangsta-rappers with no future. Neither has much understanding that Frankie is dying right in front of their eyes. Hilariously clueless, they are at least good for a free meal (even if one of them only wants a huge helping of bacon).
  • Elvis (Aaron Riggs) is a bearded farmer who threatens to shoot when he sees Irene and Frankie lying down on his land. Curious about why Irene is burning cedar chips and trying to get Frankie to inhale the fumes, Elvis suggests they smoke some dope to help mitigate Frankie's pain. As Irene gets ready to drive off, Elvis hands them a baggie filled with marijuana to ease the rest of Frankie's final journey.
  • Roger (Jon Proudstar) is Frankie's nephew who once took them to a very special place to watch a sunset. After sharing one last sunset with them, Roger lets Frankie and Irene stay the night.
Barking Water is not your typical road trip. It documents a melancholy voyage undertaken by two old souls who have seen a lot of change in their lives, weathered a lot of difficulties, and must now find a way for Frankie to die with dignity. While Frederick Schroeder's cinematography adds an especially poignant touch to the flashback sequences, much of the movie's dramatic strength lies in the weathered face and stoic determination of Casey Camp-Horinek's Irene. Her face will continue to haunt you. Here's the trailer:

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