Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oscar-Winning Road Trips

Watching movies and taking getaway car trips are two of the world's favorite leisure activities, so it’s not surprising that these seemingly unconnected recreations frequently get blended together. The conflation of these two pursuits is especially strong here in America, the land where both cars and movies have reached their peak of influence. America expresses its love for the open road in every aspect of its being, and while there are great roads all over the world, nowhere else does driving around in an automobile evoke the essence of a place more wholeheartedly than it does in the USA.

Hollywood has known this truth since its earliest days, and over the years the movie business has produced so many car-powered plot devices you might think the major studios were co-owned by car companies. From the Depression-era classics like “It Happened One Night” and “Grapes of Wrath”, to more recent hits (think “Rain Man”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Little Miss Sunshine”, even “Borat”), whenever screen writers need a way to add drama or energy to a story, all they have to do is put the characters behind the wheel and get them on the road.

The foreground action of a good number of road trip films (“Easy Rider,” “Natural Born Killers,” “No Country for Old Men,” to name a few), may make you think twice before venturing into the real-life doppelganger of a cinematic land where intense violence lurks around every corner. The background Americana which Hollywood art directors love so much -- vast deserts, stunning granite or redrock monoliths, neon-signed cafes and motels cowering under endless blue skies against ever-distant horizons -- is all there for the driving, but the great thing about hitting the road and seeing America, up close, from behind the wheel, is that the country is a great deal more welcoming than its seems on screen.

The main problem with taking a cine-road-trip is deciding where to go: there are altogether too many great roads on which to stage your own memorable experiences—some 4 million miles of public road crisscrossing the lower 48 states, not counting Alaska (“Into the Wild”) and Hawaii (“Jurassic Park” 1,2 and 3). Just about anywhere you go in the USA, there will be a hefty quantity of movie-related scenes to see, but following the Coen Brothers recent success at the Oscars, top of many go-to lists has to be the lonesome landscapes made unforgettable by “No Country for Old Men.” This ultraviolent “Best Picture” was filmed in and around the West Texas town of Marfa, where by chance the great James Dean movie “Giant” was also filmed. From here our movie-crazed tour inevitable heads west, following the sun through the desiccated wastelands of Big Bend National Park, site of Wim Wenders’ cinematic Paris, Texas. After crossing the Rio Grande into southern New Mexico and Arizona, where the roadside scenery has hardly changed since Geronimo led his Apache warriors in battle against the US Army, stop by Tombstone (atmospheric Wild West home of the OK Corral, Hollywood’s favorite shoot-out site). If you’ve had enough violence and need a change of pace, race past the wildflowers to a desert resort in Tucson or Phoenix (“Raising Arizona”), or head north to gaze down into the Grand Canyon before winding up the trip with a cool cocktail in inimitable Las Vegas ("Leaving Las Vegas," “Oceans” ad nauseam).

Just in case the prospect of driving around the deserts doesn’t make your day, here are a few more classic movie-themed road trips to get you in the mood:

The Departed
Start an American history tour at Boston, site of last year’s Best Picture (and also seen in “Good Will Hunting,” “Mystic River” and “Fever Pitch,” in which Red Sox baseball stands in for Arsenal FC). Then hit the road in the tire tracks of “Roadrunner” Jonathan Richman, whose hometown is on the way to our first stop, the atmospheric fishing port of Gloucester (as seen in “The Perfect Storm”). From the coast, cruise inland along winding country lanes past one picture-perfect New England town after another on the way up to Squam Lake in New Hampshire, site of the Henry Fonda-Katherine Hepburn schmaltz-fest, “On Golden Pond.”

Brokeback Mountain
If you prefer your backdrops bigger than the biggest screen, this will be the trip for you. Start where the backcountry scenes of Brokeback Mountain were filmed, up in the rugged mountains around Banff, Alberta (which, technically speaking, is part of a separate country known locally as “Canada”…). Then cruise south along the splendid Rocky Mountains into glorious Montana (as seen in “Heavens Gate” and “A River Runs Through It”), through Glacier National Park then into western Wyoming (where the movie was set), via the splendid scenery of two more National Parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

Chicago – Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Located midway between the coasts, and sometimes overlooked by foreign tourists, Chicago (namesake of the 2003 musical “Best Picture”) is perhaps the most American city of all, and marks the start of perhaps the greatest American road trip: Route 66 . Illinois (historic heartland of Abraham Lincoln, music’s Blues Brothers, and more recently both Barak and Hillary) is just the first of many rich and rewarding states and scenes. Across the Mississippi River, St. Louis Missouri’s soaring Gateway Arch sets the stage for a neon-signed trip across the all-American heartland of Oklahoma and Texas, before winding west to LA, “2,000 miles all the way.”

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A silent road trip would be about as much fun as a silent movie, so if you like good music, head down to where its heart and soul still lives: along the Mississippi River, between Memphis and New Orleans. Drive past cotton and sugar cane fields, eat barbeque ribs, listen to live Delta blues, pay homage to Elvis then linger along the bayous of Louisiana, birthplace of Cajun, Zydeco, Jazz and so much more. The Coen Brothers Mississippi Odyssey would make a great traveling companion, as would the biopic “Ray.”

PS: This blog was supposed to appear a while ago, but I seem to have pushed the wrong buttons somewhere. Sorry about that. And for what it's worth, a version of this story has been published in the London Observer magazine.

I'll be hitting the road myself through many of these wild Southwest locations in teh next few weeks, so if you have any comments or suggestions of places to go, please share them here or via email to me at roadtripusaAThotmail.com.

Happy travels!


Blogger Tom Martin said...

Love the posts but Squam Lake just isn't in Maine. There are many golden ponds in New England but only one bears the name Squam.

Cheers - Tom

10:49 AM  
Blogger Jamie Jensen said...


My mistake. I'll fix it as soon as I can.

Thanks for pointing this out.

Happy Trails,


9:36 AM  
Blogger Jamie Jensen said...

Me again.

What I was thinking of when I connected "Golden Pond" with Maine were the Belgrade Lakes, the idyllic location (in Maine!) that inspired author Ernest Thompson to write the book On Golden Pond, later made into that weepy Fonda family movie.

-- jamie jensen

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you forgot to mention - I bet a bunch of crazy mother#$@s make pilgrimage to Nevada as a tribute to the hit movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In case you haven't seen the movie, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro take a road trip annnd an acid trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, in their search for the American Dream.

7:34 AM  

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