There is no shortage of movies about making movies. Plenty of them, from “The Big Knife” to Contempt,” have been damn good. But none of them comes close to “Road to Nowhere,” a movie that goes outside what most people think a movie is supposed to be. Director Monte Hellman is so far into his own dream that he loses, or pretends to lose, the movie. “Road to Nowhere” is all about letting go of the reins and being dragged though the crimson pastures by a movie gone loco.
Take a look at Monte Hellman’s filmography and you’ll find half a dozen masterpieces throughout a half century of film-making. His best pictures were so out of step with what his so-called peers were making that he never got a piece of that “golden era” pie that everyone was saying was so sweet. 1965’s back-to-back westerns “The Shooting” and “Ride in the Whirlwind” weren’t much like westerns at all, yet their existential dread fixed the direction of the “new westerns” that would follow. “Two Lane Blacktop, “ which pitted James Taylor on a cross country drag race against Warren Oates, was about the slowest fast-car movie anyone had ever made, and had the misfortune to be released just four months after the heart-stopping “Vanishing Point.” Then there is “Cockfighter,” with Oates under a vow to keep his mouth shut until he wins the cockfighter of the year award. So we have a movie in which the protagonist doesn’t speak a word until the end, Not only that, but it was released to drive-in theatres under the lame title “Born to Kill”, in the same month that saw the release of Sam Peckinpah’s higher-profile but similarly offbeat “Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” also starring Warren Oates. Then there is “Iguana,” a cautionary fable about a deformed man who crowns himself king of an island and enslaves all those who wash up on his beaches. It was a brilliant film with many fearsome touches but went unseen and unappreciated. Now, twenty-two years later, Hellman returns to prove that when the light is on his side, he is still a damn good movie director.
From the beginning, we can’t be sure if we are in the right theatre. A journalist who has sold her article about some mysterious woman named Velma pops a DVD into her computer. A voice tells us Velma is the entrance into the film, but what do we know of any Velma except such a name was once given to a character in a Raymond Chandler novel? We have come to see a Monte Hellman picture, and the credits tell us we are watching a film by Mitchell Haven.
When a director holds a shot longer than seems necessary, it is usually because there is something in that shot that he is giving the audience time to discover. Not so here. Velma, or the actress playing Velma, possibly before she even knew she was playing Velma, or maybe when she actually was Velma, paints and blow dries her fingernails. The length of the shot seems to be determined by the length of the song (“Help Me make It Through the Night”) that Velma listens to while doing her nails, but the shot doesn’t end with the song. When the song is over, the sound of the blow dryer fills the space, and the shot doesn’t end until Velma finishes drying her nails, and the following shot depicts Velma directing the dryer to her face. The opening sequence, comprised of these two shots, ends in the silence when the blow dryer is turned off. So why did we spend so much time watching a girl with her blow dryer? Because she is the entrance to the dream.
If ninety percent of a director’s job is in the casting, Mitchell Haven comes across as ninety percent of an idiot, having turned down Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson in favor of a has- been leading man gone to seed and an inexperienced girl. In his own words, he is not the kind of director to cast celebrities simply because they will enable his films to make money. But his Laurel Graham is such a bad actress that she is liable to cost him the movie. To emphasis how bad she is, Hellman follows a screening of the abysmal dailies with a scene of Graham and Haven watching “The Lady Eve” in a hotel room. Not only is Graham no match for Barbara Stanwyck, but Haven is certainly no Preston Sturges. And they both fall into that chasm standing between inspiration and capability.
The difference between a dream and a nightmare is that a nightmare has a plot. Dreams are held together by associations so free that the dreamer is always certainly mad. Haven’s scriptwriter tries to hold the movie together, but Haven has already cut it to ninety pages and the film is still running four hours. There is no time for narrative coherence. The actors are losing their lines as the film becomes completely about Velma, and the film crew watches drearily as the shoot goes into the toilet. Or so it seems. It is the syndrome Fellini explored in “8 1/2,” in which the director is the only person who knows what the movie is about and the director doesn’t know what the movie is about. However, if he keeps looking for the movie, at the expense of simply filming the script, the movie has a chance of breaking out of its doldrums and emerging as a real work of art.
Instead, Haven’s picture becomes a dream that trespasses against reality, and ends in a crime scene where the camera-wielding director is ordered by the police to drop his weapon. And what about Hellman’s picture? For one thing, Hellman doesn’t get lost , as does Haven, in Laurel Graham. Instead, he searches for the lost Laurie Bird, who starred in both “Two Lane Blacktop” and “Cockfighter” before shacking up with Art Garfunkle and committing suicide at the age of 25. “Road to Nowhere” is dedicated to Laurie, and she is the real key to the film, just as Warren Oates was the spectre that haunted and informed “Iguana.”
How far into his dreams does the filmmaker dare travel in the attempt to resurrect the dead from the ruins of memory? Hellman goes all the way, knowing that art is his only means of bringing the dead back to life. In the title song, Tom Russell sings, “ Even Lazarus keeps staggering down that eternal road to nowhere.” And so does Hellman. His movie is filled with his love for the movies and all the people who make them, from the anguished scriptwriters who despair at seeing their work reach the screen intact to the actors and actresses whose inner light isn’t always enough to light up the movie screen.
Art cannot be made from stale templates that provide easy access to a mass audience. Hellman has always made genre pictures, but has always subverted the genres and, in so doing, has stretched the possibilities for the genre filmmakers who followed him. It always takes someone who is willing to sacrifice logic for a higher truth to break open a genre and share the goods inside it. “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” would have been impossible without “Ride in the Whirlwind.” “Iguana” would have been impossible without “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” And “Road to Nowhere” would have been impossible without “The Big Sleep.” Where most directors are content to tell a story, the best of them want to break through the story into the dream where it had its inception.
There is a scene about forty minutes into the picture in which Haven talks with Nathalie Post, the blogger who broke the true-crime story upon which his film is based. When Post complains that the motives of the criminals don’t make any sense, Haven replies, “If it all made sense, I wouldn’t be interested.” I am sure this line echoes Hellman’s sentiments exactly.