Road movies: fresh look at a not-so-bygone tradition

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Francois Truffaut once remarked that some of his favorite films are about traveling. He is often deeply moved by a voyage in a movie, he said, because he knows that the journey on-screen is paralleled by the passage of the film itself through the projector. When both these trips culminate together, the result is enormously satisfying.

Since the beginning of cinema, when the Lumiere Brothers caused a sensation with their film of a train pulling into a station, moviemakers have been fascinated with the processes and appurtenances of travel. Cowboys rode into the sunset, speeding locomotives raced against time, and Chaplin tottered toward the horizon down a dusty highway.

The trend reached a kind of pop epitome with the "road movie" craze that followed "Easy Rider" in the early 1970s. Since then, sharks and spaceships and spooks have inherited top position at the box office, but The Road remains a resonant subject at the movies. Current examples include the brand-new "Carny," with Gary Busey and Robbie Robertson, and the coming "Honky Tonk Freeway," now being filmed by John Schlesinger. Even the "Star Wars" movies are, in part, snappy travelogues on an intergalactic scale.

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Now an enterprising company of film exhibitors -- aptly called Roadmovies Inc. -- has decided to pay a lightearted summer tribute to this worthy genre. Through July 7 the Harold Clurman Theater in Manhattan will come alive with road movies of all shapes and sizes, from the classic and the colossal to the corny and the crazy. To be sure, a road is a road is a road. But a glance at the Roadmovies schedule indicates the tremendous diversity of ways in which filmmakers have been inspired by the idea of moving on.

For example, Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" is prominently on hand, as is Richard C. Sarafian's "Vanishing Point." We're in pop-art country here, surrounded by speed and noise and the pursuit of hipness. Not far away is Monte Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop," which has developed a strong cult reputation, and Paul Bartel's "Death Race 2000," which has been hailed as an example of pop iconography.

Lest one think that road movies and youth movies are identical phenomena, however, we don't have to look far to find Federico Fellini, who used the road of "La Strada" as a metaphor for a profoundly moving psychological journey. Another great Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, used his own road motif in "The Passenger," which also correlated an inner voyage with an outer voyage.

Among American filmmakers, none stand higher than Alfred Hitchcock, whose "North by Northwest" might be the ultimate travelogue -- alternately hilarious and hair-raising, and barely survived by the hapless Cary Grant. John Ford, another Old Master of Hollywood, used Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" as the core of one of his most celebrated films, in which desperate Okie migrations dramatize the passage of America through the great depression. Ford is also represented by "Two Rode Together," one of his last and darkest pictures, with James Stewart as a cynical lawman who penetrates Indian territory while probing the cultural and emotional abyss separating red men and white men on the Western frontier.

In the middle 1970s, it looked like the road movie might give way to the rampage movie, particularly when Terrence Malick's "Badlands" came out, with its immaculately filmed, ice-cold dissection of aberrant American youth. Other road-movie detours during the past few years include the absurdism of Frank Perry's "Rancho Deluxe," the CB- bred camaraderie of Jonathan Demme's "Handle With Care," and the sadistic ugliness of Sam Peckinpah's "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia."

Road movies can accommodate all kinds of characters, from the rural moonshiners of "White Lightning" and Arthur Ripley's "Thunder Road" to the angst-filled musicians of Bob Rafelson's "Five Easy Pieces" and the bitter lawbreakers of Fritz Lang's "You Only Live Once." Major directors have tried road themes early in their careers -- is Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rain People" a precursor of "Apocalypse Now"? -- and major stars have returned to the road whenever the box office beckoned, as witness Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in "Road to Morocco," which closes the festival.

In Hollywood, Anthony Mann made "The Far Country," and later in Germany, a Mann admirer named Wim Wenders made the small but exquisite "Alice in the Cities ," which remains his strongest film. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Godard brought his own Hollywood enthusiasms and European mannerisms to "Pierrot le fou," which expresses all the mingled savagery and lyricism of his extraordinary moviemaking talent.

And don't forget what may be the most introspective road movie of them all: "Sullivan's Travels" by the great Preston sturges. After achieving fame and fortune with his early comedies, Sturges was tempted to emulate Frank Capra, turning to films that strain for "meaning" and "social awareness." Instead, however, Sturges decided to follow the footsteps of Ernst Lubitsch, and help humanity simply by making humanity laugh. "Sullivan's Travels" is the story of a filmmaker who learns (the hard way) that the wisest man is the man with the most humor in his heart. It is an uproarious and touching film. And its refusal to flaunt its "meanings" makes it more meaningful than any "social awareness" movie I've seen.

After the road-movie festival ends, the Clurman Theater will revisit the films of George A. Romero, including the rarely screened "Jack's Wife" and two of Romero's sports documentaries. Then comes a rock'n'roll series, including D. A. Pennebaker's documentaries "Don't Look Back," a revealing look at Bob Dylan, and "Monterey Pop." To coincide with the national presidential conventions, the Clurman will show a group of election-year movies, such as "All the President's Men," "Medium Cool," "The Candidate," Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," Frank Capra's interminable "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and Preston Sturges's rousing "The Great McGinty."

Later, a series of Nicholas Ray films will unspool, including "Party Girl," "Bigger Than Life," and other studies by this most controversial of Hollywood "auteur" directors.

And then Roadmovies Inc. will conclude its first season at the Clurman Theater with an Eastern European week, including six premieres, primarily of Polish and Czech features.

It promises to be a busy time at a busy and eclectic movie house.

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