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August 30, 2011

Road to Nowhere

road to nowhere 1.jpg

Monte Hellman - 2010
Monterey Home Video Region 1 DVD

In an early scene where the director, Mitchell Haven, and the screenwriter, Steven Gates, meet with a producer, Gates blurts out, "This is the film noir of our dreams". But what Gates is referring to is not the realization of a film that meets, or exceeds, the expectations of genre. Instead, Road to Nowhere, both the film we watch, and the film (or is that films) within the film, can be thought of as dreams as film noir. More specifically, as in a dream, there is a continuity of events that take place, in this case a mystery, or series of mysteries. And as dreams, at least the ones I vaguely remember, go, they don't always make a lot of sense when awake, but I feel like it is a mistake to insist that a dream does make sense.

One of Monte Hellman's dream projects was to make a film version of Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Maison de Rendez-vous. Robbe-Grillet's work in literature and film is often concerned with differing points of view, and memories that may possibly be contradictory. What is of interest here is not a narrative that cleanly progresses from one point to another, but something that shifts around almost at will. What one looks for is not a story in the traditional sense but in literary terms, the pleasure of the text, to borrow a phrase from Roland Bathes, or in film, the pleasure of the succession of images.

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The bulk of Road to Nowhere a film within the film, with a DVD of that title inserted in a player. There are also scenes of Mitchell Haven and his muse, Laurel Graham, watching movies on television, with excerpts from The Lady Eve, Spirit of the Beehive and The Seventh Seal. The excerpts are chosen as commentary on what is to come. Additionally, there are lots of shots involving mirrors and windows, reflecting light and shadows. Rather than making simply a movie about the making of a movie, many of the shots visually refer to those words used to describe movies.

While watching Spirit of the Beehive, Laurel tells Mitchell, "You disappear into your dreams". In a sense, that's what watching a movie is all about. Possibly someone smarter than me could really tell you what Road to Nowhere is really about. Me, I dropped off the film theory train during the time that semiotics was in vogue. Not only could I not recount the multiple stories within Road to Nowhere, I'm not sure if I really care for an explanation, were one available, nor do I think it really matters.

What matters more to me is that first image of Shannyn Sossamon holding one of those hair dryers that looks like a gun, pointing at herself, Dominque Swain in her white underwear, the movement of the shadows on the illuminated fountain while Sossamon and Tygh Runyan sit in the dark, the shocking image of the small airplane diving into the water. Too many films seems to rely on over-explanation. Road to Nowhere is dialogue free for about the first ten minutes, and one of the first sounds heard is a scream in the dark. Imago ipsa loquitur - the image speaks for itself.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 30, 2011 08:43 AM


Peter, I agree, that the images much trump the story - though Hellman is careful to give a story to people who want one (and a convoluted one for the Memento lovers. One thing that was startling to me was how amazing the trailer for this film was. I watched it at a theatre and didn't have a DVD from which to pull screencaps, so I made do with the trailer on YouTube. It's amazing how the images are so beautifully wrought and put together for that trailer; it really defines the pleasure of filmmaking and film-watching, both of which Hellman honors in Road to Nowhere.

Posted by: Marilyn at August 30, 2011 09:57 AM

Since I wrote this, I have been wondering if some of the negative response to the film is related to it being an English language film, as if deliberate ambiguity is primarily allowed for European filmmakers. Also, audiences seem to be conditioned to demand explanations for everything unlike at a time when Antonioni and Resnais made their best known films in the early Sixties.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at August 31, 2011 02:56 PM