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Three easy pieces: Road movies

From birth to today

River Phoenix has no choice but to hit the road in My Own Private Idaho. Photo credit: First Line Features

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Three Easy Pieces returns for another month, once again examining a type of pop culture, from its beginning, through its formative years, and landing where it exists now. A recent 10-day tour through Montana and Idaho got me thinking about road movies - those films that capture the dreamy, exhausting, awe-inspiring, frustrating, sometimes quite frightening experience of leaving home for a journey through the unknown. Now, a map of road movies, from birth to today.

BIRTH: Easy Rider

Honorable mention: It Happened One NightRoad to MoroccoPaper MoonFive Easy Pieces

Easy Rider was far from the first road movie, coming many years after films like It Happened One Night and Hope and Crosby's Road to... series began exploring the screwball possibilities of setting stars out on cross-country adventures. What merit's Easy Rider being highlighted in this article is the way in which it set the meandering, episodic tone of decades of road movies to come. Easy Rider's dazed vibe reflected not only the feeling of an aimless road trip, but the loose, naturalistic process of shooting the film.

Directed by Dennis Hopper, and starring Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson, Easy Rider's study of countercultural bikers lost in a country in transition immediately resonated with the audiences of 1969, and helped birth the New Hollywood era of film in the ‘70s. While political and cultural observations live in Easy Rider, the fabric that unites them is the sense of drifting wanderlust that would come to define road movies.

DEVELOPMENT: My Own Private Idaho

Honorable mention: Paris, TexasPlanes, Trains and AutomobilesDumb and DumberSomething Wild

At their core, road movies find their strength in gifting their hero a destination, a goal, a sense of purpose. They're on the road for a reason, whatever that may be. What Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho so boldly did was give us a main character with no compass or control. River Phoenix stars as Mike, a homeless prostitute who suffers from narcolepsy. Every so often, mostly at inopportune moments, he'll suddenly pass out. When he wakes up, he's usually in another state, having been transported by his friend and fellow hustler Scott (Keanu Reeves, in undoubtedly his best performance).

Mike wakes up in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and even sleeps his way to Italy, all the while choosing to go with the flow because it's really the only choice he has. Complications of Mike's unrequited love for Scott, of Mike trying to find his long-lost mother, of Scott's impending inheritance and retirement from the prostitution game - these bits of plot happen on the fringes, like Mike, sleeping on the shoulders of America's highways.

TODAY: Sideways

Honorable mention: Almost FamousY Tu Mamá TambiénZombielandLittle Miss Sunshine

When played straight, road movies can easily embody Joseph Campbell's exhaustively researched theory of story structure: our hero receives the call to adventure, winds up (mythically) in the belly of a whale, and returns home having changed. None of the films I've highlighted so far adhere to this structure, though; one of my favorite movies, on the road or not, comes mighty close.

Sideways concerns failing writer Miles (Paul Giamatti) accompanying his longtime friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) on a bachelor party weekend through picturesque northern California. The movie is more than a gorgeously photographed travelogue of Wine Country, though it is that; Miles wants only to indulge his creeping alcoholism by couching it in snobbish oenophilia, while Jack sees the trip as a time to sew his oats one last time. Both men are delusional, and both men find themselves challenged by women (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) they meet in their travels.

Miles' journey of growing the hell up forms the backbone of a movie that anyone suffering from latent know-it-all-ism will find all too easy to identify with. Leaving the comfort of home, encountering hardships, acknowledging the faults in one's behavior, and returning a slightly better person, follows Campbell's beats so narrowly that Sideways risks being a rote affair, but emerges as a very entertaining and tremendously human study of two characters escaping life by hitting the road.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Zeitgeist-Capturing Music Documentaries

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