Many of the best American directors of the last four decades, including
Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, and Jonathan Demme, took lessons early on from
what Demme and others have termed "the Roger Corman school of filmmaking" - the
B movie mogul's studio New World Pictures. Given tiny budgets and a formula
framework to work with, these auteurs-in-the-making were otherwise free to
exert their creativity, learning in the process how to make the most of limited
resources and how to manipulate generic conventions into personal, poetic films
that also pleased audiences. Monte Hellman was a Corman alumnus who epitomized
those virtues, but unlike many of his fellow students, didn't graduate to the
big time of mainstream moviemaking.
Let's blame the '80s, the downfall of much else that was great
in the late '60s and early '70s. But even in Hellman's earlier films you can spot
traces of the artistic intransigence that would not wear well in an age of
corporate ownership and high concept blockbusters. Whatever the reason, Hellman
today survives as a treat for lucky cinephiles and an influence and inspiration
for many filmmakers. And now he gets some long overdue acknowledgment and
exposure with the Harvard Film Archive retrospective "All Roads Lead to
Nowhere: the Films of Monte Hellman," with Hellman himself on hand for some of
That road begins in earnest with the minimalist Western THE
SHOOTING (1968; August 7 @ 7 pm; Hellman will appear in
person). Shot in true Corman, penny-pinching fashion at the same location and
with much the same cast as the less distinctive, Ox
Bow Incident-like oater, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND
(1965; August 5 @ 9 pm), it's a Western as Samuel Beckett might have conceived.
Gashade (Warren Oates) and Coley (Will Hutchins), two down-on-their
luck gold miners, go off on an ill-considered jaunt at the request of a mystery
woman (Millie Perkins) with a big bankroll. The two miners are already on edge
because one of their number has been shot dead by persons unknown, and another,
Gashade's brother Coin, has run off. Coley, a simpleton with a good heart, tells
Gashade that before taking off Coin told him that while they were drunk in town
they accidentally ran down "a man, and a little person, perhaps a child."
Coley takes a shine to the
woman, who treats both men with contempt as she leads them deeper into the
desert. Gashade, though, is suspicious. When they are joined by a duded-up
gunslinger, Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson, who starred in and wrote the
screenplay for Whirlwind),
the trek takes on an increasingly fatalistic tone. Hellman relates the story in
long takes, employing terrain in a manner similar to John Ford, as a projection
of his characters' inner landscape. The difference being that John Ford's
Monument Valley looms with ruthless grandeur, reflecting souls that could be
good or evil but are always somehow noble, whereas Hellman's desert stretches
out remorselessly, an empty, oppressive stage on which his cast enacts their
primal, cryptic tragedy.
The road is updated but otherwise remains pretty much the same in TWO-LANE
BLACKTOP (1971; August 5 @ 7 pm), in which Hellman does
for the racing car movie what Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper did for the biker
flick with Easy Rider
(1969): reinvent it as parable of modern ennui and existential inertia. Oates
is back again this time as GTO, named after his hot set of wheels, a
supercharged, egg-yolk yellow 1970 Pontiac.
GTO has a life story to tell, several of them, in fact, all of them grandiose
and obviously untrue, which he shares with the various colorful hitchhikers he compulsively
picks up in his travels.
By chance he is challenged by a pair of strangers driving a brutal
looking, graphite grey 1955 Chevy, to race from Arizona to Washington, DC. Unlike
GTO, these guys have no stories. They barely have any dialogue, and no names,
referred to in the credits as The Driver, played by folk balladeer James Taylor, and
the Mechanic, played by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. In the roles, the two music superstars/non-actors do themselves proud: both are stiff-jawed, laconic, glowering, and
have identical haircuts.
And then there is The Girl, played by Laurie Bird, who looks a
little like the topless adolescent on the cover of the 1969 Blind Faith album. A
talented photographer and sometime actress, Bird was for a time Hellman's lover
and finally ended up with Art Garfunkle until she committed suicide in 1979 at
the age of 25. Now, that's a story.
Meanwhile, the Girl joins the Driver and the Mechanic after slipping
out of a hippie van and stowing away in their car while they eat at a roadside diner.
The two tolerate her presence, one even sleeps with her, but they seem to have
other things on their minds. When the Mechanic mutters at one point that he'd
best take a look at the car's rear end, the Girl says, "I wish someone would
look at my rear end!"
But maybe the Girl has more of an impact on these hard-bitten
road warriors, GTO included, than they'll admit, as the road race devolves into
something more like a four-way mating dance. "Are we still racing?" GTO asks at
one point. In the end they still are, though not necessarily with each other.
If only for The
Shooting and Two-Lane
Blacktop, Hellman would be remembered as one of the outstanding artists
from a golden age of directors. He would make other noteworthy, highly
individualistic genre films over the next decade, which unfortunately suffered
diminishing returns at the box office. They include COCKFIGHTER
(1974; screens August 14 @ 7 pm), also for Corman and with Warren Oates in the
title role, and CHINA
9, LIBERTY 37
(1978; screens August 8 @ 7 pm), another idiosyncratic Western and another star
vehicle for Oates. Even the benighted 80s would offer its rewards, such as the
cult favorite IGUANA (1988;
screens August 14 @ 5 pm). But then there was the direct-to-video BETTER
WATCH OUT! (1989; screens August 12 @ 10 pm), the third
entry in the Silent Night,
Deadly Night franchise, after which Hellman did not make another feature
for over 20 years.
That film is ROAD TO NOWHERE (2010;
screens August 6 @ 7 pm; Hellman will be present at the screening), and though
I admire it, I wish I liked it more. Hellman has always had a flair for
reflexivity, with the nudge-nudge title of The Shooting and a burning film
effect at the end of Two-Lane Black Top reminiscent of the beginning of
Begman's Persona. But
here it has coiled into claustrophobic solipsism.
The title recalls that of David Lynch's Lost Highway
and the premise, as others have noted, is similar to Lynch's Mulholland Drive. A filmmaker, Mitchell
Haven (Tygh Runyan), is making a movie also called Road
to Nowhere, a kind of Unsolved
Mysteries true crime episode about a beautiful woman (Shannyn Sossamon, who looks a lot like The Shooting's Millie Perkins)
involved in a complicated plot that includes murder, a $100 million fraud, a
double suicide, exchanged corpses, and a stunning shot of a crashed airplane. As
is characteristic of Hellman's films, Road
is always visually impressive, though in this case shot on the modest Canon 5D
Mark II, a glorified still camera.
That's complicated enough, but then Haven gets obsessed with the
woman he has cast in the lead, who is more, or less than she appears, and a
movie within the movie within the movie starts spinning out, until it all seems
the cinematic equivalent of an M.C. Escher print. And the film doesn't simply
allude to other films and filmmakers, it throws in entire scenes. "What a
masterpiece!" Haven exclaims after he screens a portion of The Lady Eve, The Spirit of the Beehive,
or The Seventh Seal,
for his femme fatale star and lover.