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All Roads Lead to Nowhere: Monte Hellman at the Harvard Film Archive

 

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 about Hollywood 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 the screenings.

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.

At the very least, though, this is a tautly constructed, complex riddle that deserves another viewing. Like other landmarks along Hellman's road to nowhere, it's worth a second trip.
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