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Predictive Landscapes

K.R. Cor­nett

Abstract | The pop­u­lar­i­ty of the road film in the 1970s is often attrib­uted to its updat­ing of the West­ern film genre, an endur­ing form in Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma. This essay argues that a hier­ar­chi­cal under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between the two gen­res is detri­men­tal to under­stand­ing their effi­ca­cy. Case stud­ies of two minor films pro­duced out­side of the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem reveals the cen­tral­i­ty of land­scape and spa­tial­i­ty to gener­ic evo­lu­tion. While the mythol­o­gy of New Hol­ly­wood Cin­e­ma tout­ed a reflex­ive deploy­ment of gen­res that per­pet­u­at­ed in Hol­ly­wood for most of the stu­dio era, these inde­pen­dent­ly pro­duced films endeav­ored to imag­ine an alter­na­tive to this ide­o­log­i­cal­ly dom­i­nant sys­tem. This arti­cle explores the uneasy bal­ance of sub­ver­sion and cita­tion of genre to gain an under­stand­ing of the com­plex rela­tion­ship between author­ship, pro­duc­tion, and hege­mon­ic prac­tices in this tran­si­tion­al era of Amer­i­can film history.

Résumé | La pop­u­lar­ité du road movie des années 70 est sou­vent attribuée au fait qu’il con­stitue une adap­ta­tion mod­erne du west­ern, genre éter­nel du ciné­ma hol­ly­woo­d­i­en. Cet essai veut mon­tr­er qu’une com­préhen­sio hiérar­chique de la rela­tion entre les deux gen­res de films nuit à l’appréciation de leur effi­cac­ité. Des études de cas de deux films mineurs pro­duits en dehors du sys­tème des stu­dios hol­ly­woo­d­i­ens révèle la cen­tral­ité du paysage et de la spa­cial­ité dans l’évolution du genre. Alors que la mytholo­gie du Nou­veau Ciné­ma Hol­ly­woo­d­i­en éta­lait un développe­ment réflexif des gen­res qui a per­duré à Hol­ly­wood pen­dant la plus grande par­tie de l’ère de dom­i­na­tion des stu­dios, ces films de pro­duc­tion indépen­dante s’efforçaient de con­cevoir une alter­na­tive à ce sys­tème idéologique­ment  dom­i­nant. Cet arti­cle explore l’équilibre pré­caire entre la sub­ver­sion et le respect du genre afin d’acquérir une com­préhen­sion de la rela­tion com­plexe entre l’écriture, la pro­duc­tion et les pra­tiques hégé­moniques dans cette ère de tran­si­tion de l’histoire du ciné­ma américain.

A mag­a­zine adver­tise­ment for the 1963 Ford Galax­ie (fig­ure 1) fore­grounds in both its form and con­tent the neces­si­ty of restora­tive nos­tal­gia for America’s fron­tier past in order to con­tex­tu­al­ize the mod­ern (Har­vey). Three icon­ic images sit in remark­able rela­tion and ten­sion: the land­scape, the cow­boys, and the auto­mo­bile. The rock for­ma­tions invoke the West­ern land­scapes made famous by the film­mak­er John Ford, fur­ther empha­sized by the pres­ence of the cow­boys. The auto­mo­bile sits in the fore­ground as a kind of con­tin­u­um of the his­to­ry of mobil­i­ty, from hors­es to the sedan. The spe­cif­ic lay­out also sug­gests a par­tic­u­lar­ly mod­ernist anx­i­ety about the func­tion of the past and the neces­si­ty for con­ti­nu­ity as a key aspect of Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty and cul­ture even as it came to a set of crises in the post­war era. This par­tic­u­lar anx­i­ety was rec­og­nized in the ear­ly-20th cen­tu­ry by lit­er­ary crit­ic Van Wyck Brooks as the desire for a “usable past,” a lin­eage of Amer­i­can cul­ture that would enable cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion as a con­tin­u­ous prac­tice, part of a domes­tic tra­di­tion that could inform the devel­op­ment of an Amer­i­can ide­al that always held indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty in care­ful simul­tane­ity (Cooney 22). The invo­ca­tion of the fron­tier land­scape and the cow­boys also sug­gests a mobi­liza­tion of the past itself, a way to bring an impor­tant aspect of Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty to bear on the con­struc­tion of its future. This project of his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty, of recon­struct­ing visu­al iconog­ra­phy in the ser­vice of a telos of Amer­i­can progress, is cen­tral to an under­stand­ing of the nos­tal­gic use of land­scape in Hol­ly­wood West­erns dur­ing the Cold War. The func­tion of nos­tal­gia in films of this genre through­out the stu­dio era is strik­ing­ly con­sis­tent and almost always dis­tin­guished by the ways in which land­scape is used to sug­gest the long­ing not for a bygone era, but rather for a notion of “truth” that is bound up with the authen­tic­i­ty of nature.

Figure 1: Advertisement for 1963 Ford Galaxie

Fig­ure 1: Adver­tise­ment for 1963 Ford Galaxie

In the twi­light of the stu­dio era in Hol­ly­wood, a dialec­tic emerged from this simul­ta­ne­ous look­ing for­ward and back: a con­stant con­sid­er­a­tion of not only the use of the past but the way that this very con­sid­er­a­tion changed the func­tion of what had pre­vi­ous­ly been tak­en for grant­ed. This adver­tise­ment deploys the iconog­ra­phy of the land­scape to make the his­to­ry of the fron­tier use­ful as some­thing more than a sta­t­ic, col­lec­tive identity—it becomes a use­ful point of depar­ture, a dynam­ic ori­gin that sug­gests any num­ber of Amer­i­can virtues, from inge­nu­ity to tenac­i­ty. Amer­i­cans pros­pered via their mobil­i­ty on horse­back, pass­ing through dif­fi­cult ter­rain to bend it to the will of civ­i­liza­tion. The adver­tise­ment asserts that in its present of the ear­ly 1960s Amer­i­can indus­try and pros­per­i­ty has allowed Amer­i­cans the leisure and free­dom to trav­el as they please, in a new iter­a­tion of the set­tle­ment and man­i­fest des­tiny of the cow­boys seen in the back­ground. These three exam­i­na­tions of mass culture—the adver­tise­ment, the Pop Art move­ment, and the Hol­ly­wood genre film—operate on this ful­crum of moder­ni­ty. Informed on the one hand by a ten­sion between the promis­cu­ity of image-based cul­ture and a desire to explore the medi­a­tion of mass art, and on the oth­er by a dis­tinct rela­tion­ship to the past, the move­ment of mass art from the mid-1950s to the 1960s pre­dicts the aes­thet­ics of the 1970s in an aston­ish­ing vari­ety of con­texts. While tak­ing up the ques­tion of the sta­tus of Amer­i­can adver­tise­ments and their rela­tion to the Pop Art move­ment is a tempt­ing prospect, the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the three ele­ments pre­sent­ed in the Ford Galax­ie ad present a clear oppor­tu­ni­ty to think through the rela­tion­ship between the West­ern, a genre that seemed to wax and wane in pop­u­lar­i­ty through­out the 1960s, and the road film, a genre often thought of as best posi­tioned to cap­ture the zeit­geist of the Viet­nam Era. At stake here is the way in which the land­scape, rep­re­sent­ed in the ad as a kind of restora­tive nos­tal­gia, becomes the defin­ing aes­thet­ic object of the road film in the 1970s.

A brief delin­eation of terms is in order here, giv­en that the dis­tinc­tion between these descrip­tors is essen­tial in order to dis­cuss the rela­tion­ship between the West­ern and the road film. The con­cepts of space, place, and land­scape are dis­tin­guished through their func­tions, not their deno­ta­tive mean­ings but rather how they cir­cu­late and inter­act with each oth­er. Using the Ford Galax­ie auto­mo­bile ad as an exam­ple, we can define place as the spe­cif­ic set­ting of the image, often con­sid­ered as a back­ground. Notably, the “place” of the ad is self-con­scious­ly non-spe­cif­ic: this is the key ten­sion of the term, the pre­car­i­ous sta­tus of elab­o­ra­tion. Is this Mon­u­ment Val­ley, or some­where geo­graph­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar, or is it mere­ly meant to evoke this spe­cif­ic loca­tion? Place car­ries ambi­gu­i­ty as one of its defin­ing aspects—it can be all of these things or some com­bi­na­tion of them, but it explic­it­ly points to some­thing in par­tic­u­lar. Fol­low­ing from this notion of place, space is a loca­tion that is made dis­tinct by its polit­i­cal or cul­tur­al sta­tus; it is defined by inter­ac­tion and inter­sec­tions of var­i­ous prac­tices. Thus, we can think of the space of the adver­tise­ment in terms of its pre­sen­ta­tion that sug­gests not only par­tic­u­lar modes of engage­ment but also a rela­tion­ship between these modes (the car and the hors­es). To con­tem­plate the spa­tial­i­ty of an image is to dis­cern what Michel de Certeau describes as “vec­tors of direc­tion, veloc­i­ties, and time vari­ables” (117). The space of this ad is strik­ing­ly ori­ent­ed, with the mod­ern car in the fore­ground of cow­boys on horse­back. Per­haps the most use­ful part of this under­stand­ing of space as dis­tinc­tive from place and land­scape is the way in which it forces us to con­tend with the hier­ar­chy of pre­sen­ta­tion in a mise-en-scène. Here, the sharp dimen­sions of the auto­mo­bile help delin­eate it tem­po­ral­ly from the delib­er­ate flat­ness of the cowboys—the sug­gest­ed con­tin­u­um is made explic­it in the con­trast. Both these fig­ures can inhab­it the place sug­gest­ed by the back­ground; an under­stand­ing of the space of the com­po­si­tion gives us a deep­er under­stand­ing of their respec­tive rela­tions to this back­ground, and there­fore to an intend­ed audi­ence. Mobi­liz­ing these con­cep­tions to account for the rhetoric of this visu­al pre­sen­ta­tion allows for a more active under­stand­ing of land­scape, the final term in this tri­ad. Engag­ing with the his­to­ry and mul­ti­plic­i­ty of the term is far beyond the scope of this essay; instead, I want to draw atten­tion to the way in which these def­i­n­i­tions of space and place inner­vate the notion of land­scape. Geo­g­ra­ph­er J.B. Jack­son offers a use­ful con­cep­tion of land­scape as “a com­po­si­tion of man-made or man-mod­i­fied spaces to serve as infra­struc­ture or back­ground for our col­lec­tive exis­tence” (8). The inter­play between these terms focus­es on the func­tion of land­scape, rather than its def­i­n­i­tion. An active under­stand­ing of what land­scape does empha­sizes Jackson’s help­ful sug­ges­tion that land­scape is about col­lec­tive recog­ni­tion of a com­posed space, and the role this space occu­pies in “not only our iden­ti­ty and pres­ence, but our his­to­ry” (Jack­son 8). The sig­nif­i­cance of this adver­tise­ment as an exam­ple does not lie in the rela­tion­ship between dis­parate ele­ments, but rather in dis­cern­ing the telos of the land­scape, which is also a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fi­cul­ty of the West­ern film genre in the post­war era.

This essay engages the ques­tion of the use of land­scape in terms of form, genre, and polit­i­cal pur­chase in the con­text of a par­tic­u­lar­ly fraught era in Amer­i­can his­to­ry as well as the his­to­ry of the Hol­ly­wood film indus­try. Both the West­ern and the road film take loca­tion as the cen­tral iden­ti­fi­er of their genre, as opposed to oth­er gen­res such as the melo­dra­ma, which cen­tres affect, or the block­buster, with its empha­sis on spec­ta­cle. Con­se­quen­tial­ly, both West­erns and road films must in some ways artic­u­late their rela­tion­ship to land­scape, and thus to his­to­ry, and this is the source of their diver­gence. The West­ern posits land­scape as restora­tive. That is, it uses the sig­nif­i­cance of land­scape to per­pet­u­ate an ide­al­ized aes­thet­ic that is to be longed for (this par­tic­u­lar kind of long­ing is, of course, a more gen­er­al under­stand­ing of “nos­tal­gia”). The form of the land­scape is one of recon­struc­tion and ritual—of return­ing home, com­plet­ing the cat­tle dri­ve, and bring­ing jus­tice and order where there is seem­ing­ly none. The endurance of the West­ern is due not mere­ly to the rep­e­ti­tion of these plots, which has also come to define the genre, nor the polit­i­cal­ly advan­ta­geous posi­tion wrought by the estab­lish­ment of law and order as a col­lec­tive good, but instead the way in which it repeats var­i­ous land­scapes that become sym­bol­ic of these qual­i­ties. In con­trast, the road film tends to present its land­scapes as reflec­tive spaces. An empha­sis on trav­el through var­i­ous places, which gain sig­nif­i­cance through estab­lish­ing space, sit­u­ates the road film as far less like­ly to engage in the sta­t­ic aes­thet­ics we tend to asso­ciate with land­scape. Many of these films use land­scape as an aes­theti­ciz­ing of this process of nego­ti­at­ing the dynam­ics of space, place, and landscape.

Monte Hellman’s The Shoot­ing (1966) is an exam­ple of a film that has the iconog­ra­phy of a West­ern but the polit­i­cal and aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty of a road film—a kind of pro­to-road film that acknowl­edges a pre­cise rela­tion­ship between two gen­res while instan­ti­at­ing a rela­tion­ship to land­scape that pre­dicts the aes­thet­ics of the 1970s road film. Hellman’s film is par­tic­u­lar­ly suit­ed to a dis­cus­sion of the emer­gence of a 1970s road film aes­thet­ic because it so read­i­ly and pre­car­i­ous­ly does away with the con­ven­tions of one genre while pre­dict­ing the con­ven­tions of anoth­er. The Shoot­ing occu­pies a rela­tion to both genre and Hol­ly­wood that offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore the effi­ca­cy of both these cat­e­gories in the post-indus­tri­al era. While the West­ern tends to look back towards his­to­ry as a lega­cy to be revered, the road film is about for­ward momen­tum. Rather than deny­ing either of these posi­tions to his­to­ry, The Shoot­ing often elides them both, cre­at­ing an enig­mat­ic expe­ri­ence that artic­u­lates both the lim­its and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of using spa­tial­i­ty to explore a new aesthetic.

Figure 2: The Shooting-title card

Fig­ure 2: The Shoot­ing-title card

Hellman’s film asserts its aes­thet­ic with its unusu­al open­ing shot (fig­ure 2), and ends with an enig­mat­ic series of shots that employ step print­ing. It thus embod­ies the terms of the road film’s rela­tion­ship to mass cul­ture and a con­struc­tion of spa­tial­i­ty that is shaped by sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence and spec­ta­to­r­i­al engage­ment, rather than ide­o­log­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and restora­tive nos­tal­gia for a coher­ent Amer­i­ca. The plot of the film is delib­er­ate­ly dif­fi­cult to fol­low. Ex-boun­ty hunter Wil­let Gashade (War­ren Oates) and his col­league Coley (Will Hutchins) react with mea­sured skep­ti­cism upon the arrival of a char­ac­ter only known as Woman (Mil­lie Perkins). She engages Gashade and Coley as guides across the des­o­late ter­rain, hav­ing already hired the mer­cu­r­ial gun­man Bil­ly Spear (Jack Nichol­son) to help her exact revenge for the killings of her hus­band and son. The mot­ley group trav­els uneasi­ly toward a trag­ic con­clu­sion that finds Gashade’s fugi­tive broth­er and the Woman in a bat­tle of mutu­al­ly assured death.

Shot with a min­i­mal bud­get out­side the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio sys­tem, The Shoot­ing has been referred to as an “exis­ten­tial West­ern,” (Bandy and Stoehr, 228) per­haps because its depic­tion of an increas­ing­ly inhos­pitable envi­ron­ment even­tu­al­ly ren­ders the plot and the actions of the char­ac­ters irrel­e­vant. Their ulti­mate lack of choice empha­sizes absur­di­ty, and the spec­ta­tor is left to con­sid­er man’s place in a uni­verse in which it might be pos­si­ble that a land­scape bears no trace of human exis­tence. The idea of an exis­ten­tial West­ern seems to res­onate in many exam­ples of the genre through­out the 1960s, from the spaghet­ti West­erns of Ser­gio Leone to the spir­it­ed out­laws of Butch Cas­sidy and the Sun­dance Kid (1969) and the extreme vio­lence of The Wild Bunch (1969). These exam­ples arrive pri­mar­i­ly at the end of the 1960s, a con­text that dis­tin­guish­es them from the psy­cho­log­i­cal West­ern cycle that exert­ed its influ­ence ear­li­er in the decade. The sub­genre of psy­cho­log­i­cal West­ern is lim­it­ing in an exam­i­na­tion of spa­tial­i­ty because of its pri­ma­ry con­cern with the inter­ro­ga­tion of the Hol­ly­wood West­ern. The invo­ca­tion of the myth of the genre is cen­tral to the fas­ci­nat­ing ways that these films point to the inad­e­qua­cy of America’s fron­tier his­to­ry, but this kind of inter­ro­ga­tion means that land­scape is large­ly left to its sym­bol­ic ori­gins. From its open­ing sequence, The Shoot­ing solic­its a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship to the land­scape, beyond rev­er­ence but with­out cyn­i­cism. While the so-called exis­ten­tial West­ern is always posi­tioned counter to the aus­tere post­war West­erns of Hol­ly­wood, films such as The Shoot­ing imag­ine an alter­na­tive to the hege­mo­ny of the industry.

In her study of tex­ture in cin­e­ma, Lucy Don­ald­son argues that the open­ing of The Shoot­ing moves “against the grain of a smooth entry into the world, and imme­di­ate­ly trans­mits a sense of rough­ness and even pre­car­i­ous­ness” (Don­ald­son 6). As part of a series of dis­joint­ed cuts, this open­ing frame is either a sub­jec­tive shot from the point of view of the first char­ac­ter shown onscreen, Wil­lett Gashade, or from his horse, or from both of them. This ambi­gu­i­ty fol­lows the delib­er­ate vio­la­tion of con­ti­nu­ity edit­ing in the pre­vi­ous shots of the title sequence and, in the style of Hol­ly­wood films, dic­tates both tone and mood for the rest of the nar­ra­tive. The priv­i­leg­ing of form over con­tent is not ful­ly real­ized here, but is cer­tain­ly sug­gest­ed in the unsteady fram­ing of dirt, rocks, and a scant sug­ges­tion of plant life. This tie to a sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of the world is a moment that express­es tex­ture as “an expres­sion of qual­i­ty and nature” (Don­ald­son 1). The com­bi­na­tion of overt con­struc­tion of the open­ing sequence and the expres­sion of space via tex­ture points to the cen­tral dialec­tic of the film’s form: the sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of the world pre­sent­ed in a style indebt­ed to the reflex­iv­i­ty of the Euro­pean art film, and the acknowl­edg­ment of the Western’s ide­o­log­i­cal use of space. While this self-con­scious approach to form allows for and per­haps even encour­ages a par­tic­u­lar ambi­gu­i­ty, it also prob­lema­tizes the sta­tus of real­ism. The style of Hellman’s film is less con­cerned with the appear­ance of arti­fice than it is with the priv­i­leg­ing of expe­ri­ence. In oth­er words, there is a spe­cif­ic way in which this points to a struc­tur­ing of land­scape that calls the neces­si­ty of main­stream genre films’ adher­ence to a kind of look­ing into ques­tion. The Shoot­ing rec­og­nizes the ver­sa­til­i­ty of land­scape; its val­ue as rep­re­sen­ta­tion sur­pass­es its use as an assumed framework.

Neil Archer claims, “It is not an exag­ger­a­tion to say that, for many, the road movie is syn­ony­mous with Amer­i­ca cin­e­ma” (11). This asser­tion points to the fas­ci­nat­ing way in which Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma maps onto essen­tial desires mobi­lized by the medi­um: the desire for speed, for near­ness and dis­tance, and for a sen­su­al­i­ty that engages both objec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions and sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence. Take Archer’s state­ment along with Andre Bazin’s dec­la­ra­tion that “the West­ern is the only genre whose ori­gins are almost iden­ti­cal with those of the cin­e­ma itself” (Bazin 140), we come to an essen­tial ques­tion: if the West­ern is “cin­e­ma” and the road film is “Amer­i­can cin­e­ma,” where does this nation­al speci­fici­ty come from and why is it inte­gral to the def­i­n­i­tion of the lat­ter genre? This ques­tion seems par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult if we assume that the West­ern is a gener­ic form that is pri­mar­i­ly dis­cussed and per­ceived as hav­ing a deep pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with Amer­i­can struc­tures and ideologies.

The claim that the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the road film is at the expense of the West­ern assumes that both gen­res occu­py a sim­i­lar role in the envi­ron­ment of indus­tri­al Amer­i­can cin­e­ma and mere­ly vary their approach­es to Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism. This per­spec­tive informs the rea­son­ing behind the recep­tion of Easy Rid­er (1969), for exam­ple, as being a kind of mod­ern­ized West­ern. The the­o­ry that ‘they trad­ed hors­es for motor­cy­cles’ (Feeney, 226) in the road film locates the key dif­fer­ence between the two gen­res in their pre­ferred mode of transportation—the iconog­ra­phy of the horse is sim­ply updat­ed to the motor­cy­cle. Elaine Carmichael con­cludes that “Easy Rid­er suc­cess­ful­ly replaces the time-hon­ored cow­boy with two coun­ter­cul­tur­al anti­heroes who resolve the wan­ing impor­tance of men on hors­es dur­ing the late 1960s” (Carmichael 148). Actor Peter Fon­da also referred to it as “a mod­ern West­ern” (Biskind 42), and Jack Nichol­son observed that the mod­ern-day cow­boys are such because they ride motor­cy­cles instead of hors­es (Engelmeier, 104). These facile under­stand­ings of the sig­nif­i­cance of the West­ern threat­en to rel­e­gate the road film to a sub­servient role as the updat­ed ver­sion of a genre that has enjoyed far more crit­i­cal scrutiny.

Films that fea­ture auto­mo­bil­i­ty have been as sig­nif­i­cant to the devel­op­ment of cin­e­ma as the West­ern because the medi­um is con­cerned with not only real­ism but with the process of move­ment through space. Thus, we can appre­ci­ate the ways that the Western’s use of loca­tion shoot­ing encour­aged var­i­ous under­stand­ings of cin­e­mat­ic real­ism in the same way that the road film’s obses­sion with move­ment and speed con­tributes to the cinema’s com­pli­cat­ed and fas­ci­nat­ing rela­tion­ship not only with moder­ni­ty but every­day life. In this sense, the road film can­not replace the West­ern because its rela­tion­ship to tech­nol­o­gy has entire­ly dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties. More­over, the West­ern is not unsus­tain­able giv­en its rela­tion­ship to moder­ni­ty and the mod­ern, and thus can­not be said to be replaced by the road film. In oth­er words, it is not the Western’s anx­i­ety about or inabil­i­ty to rep­re­sent mod­ern life that caus­es it to wax and wane in pop­u­lar­i­ty, as the pletho­ra of psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly com­plex exam­ples of the genre attest.

The road film does not emerge from the wan­ing of West­ern, but rather from the con­stant repo­si­tion­ing and re-artic­u­la­tion of dai­ly life in moder­ni­ty. The polit­i­cal posi­tion­ing of the road film vis-à-vis dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy is its most sig­nif­i­cant dis­tinc­tion from the West­ern, while the rela­tion to the Amer­i­can land­scape is the pri­ma­ry point of con­ver­gence for the gen­res. In one of the few books to engage with the road film, Steven Cohan and Ina Hark fig­ure the basic dialec­tic of the genre as a ten­sion between indi­vid­u­al­ism and pop­ulism, with the spe­cif­ic aim to “imag­ine the nation’s cul­ture” (3) as either coher­ent or dis­junc­tive space. This attempt to rec­on­cile both the polit­i­cal aim and the nature of spa­tial­i­ty in the road film as some­thing dis­tinct from the West­ern is ubiq­ui­tous in schol­ar­ly dis­cus­sions of the genre. The ten­sion between so-called “con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues” and “rebel­lious desires” (3) marks the road film as dis­tinct from the West­ern. David Lader­man fig­ures the afore­men­tioned dialec­tic as “depoliti­cized” (3), while film crit­ic Michael Atkin­son notes, “Road movies are too cool to address seri­ous­ly socio-polit­i­cal ideas” (Atkin­son 16). Yet schol­ars also cite the spaces of the road film and the nature of its approach to nar­ra­tive as evi­dence of its polit­i­cal ten­den­cies; the films either “define the road as a space that dis­avows virtues extolled by the West­ern” or “take over the ide­o­log­i­cal bur­den of its close rela­tion, the West­ern” (Cohan and Hark 12). In oth­er words, the road film per­mits a polit­i­cal posi­tion that is con­trary to the polit­i­cal posi­tion of the West­ern but also grap­ples with sim­i­lar ide­o­log­i­cal ten­sions that, accord­ing to a num­ber of schol­ars, are based both in the com­plex­i­ties of gen­der pol­i­tics and the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of his­tor­i­cal con­text. Indeed, both Tim­o­thy Cor­ri­g­an and Shari Roberts note the cen­tral­i­ty of gen­der to the road film. For Cor­ri­g­an, “the con­tem­po­rary road movie responds specif­i­cal­ly to the recent his­tor­i­cal frac­tur­ing of the male sub­ject” (Cor­ri­g­an 138), as if this cri­sis were an unusu­al symp­tom of a par­tic­u­lar era in film his­to­ry or a con­cern that was some­how exclu­sive to the road film. In an essay about the road film includ­ed in the influ­en­tial The Road Movie Book, Shari Roberts con­tends that the rela­tion­ship between the West­ern and the road film is based in a spe­cif­ic under­stand­ing of an “ide­al of mas­culin­i­ty” (Cohan and Hark 45), fol­low­ing Jane Tomp­kins’ astute obser­va­tion that “the West­ern is about men’s fear of los­ing their mas­tery, and hence their iden­ti­ty” (Tomp­kins 45). While these dis­cus­sions con­tribute help­ful­ly to artic­u­lat­ing com­mon fea­tures of both gen­res, they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly elu­ci­date why this asso­ci­a­tion is help­ful beyond offer­ing a facile the­o­ry for their his­tor­i­cal ebb and flow. The com­bi­na­tion of the fore­ground­ing of moder­ni­ty and its inher­ent social crises with the poten­tial for space to oper­ate as some­thing oth­er than an ide­o­log­i­cal ide­al or nos­tal­gic back­ground is the basis for the appeal of the road film, which is often more self-con­scious about the rela­tion­ship between spa­tial­i­ty and polit­i­cal ideology.

There is also the mat­ter of con­text and gener­ic evo­lu­tion in con­sid­er­ing how the road film is often char­ac­ter­ized as occu­py­ing a space in Amer­i­can film cul­ture that had been reserved for the West­ern. Although the West­ern is notably con­sis­tent in its use of iconog­ra­phy and the deploy­ment of cap­i­tal­ist ide­ol­o­gy through­out the his­to­ry of Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma, it is far from mono­lith­ic. Dis­cussing Stage­coach (1940), Bazin rec­og­nized an emer­gent self-con­scious­ness in the genre that shift­ed the “bal­ance of social myth, his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tion, psy­cho­log­i­cal truth, and the tra­di­tion­al theme of the West­ern mise-en-scène” (149). In this under­stand­ing of the spe­cif­ic con­cerns of the West­ern, the aus­ter­i­ty of the genre through­out the imme­di­ate post­war era took prece­dence over the con­tin­ued explo­ration of some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing con­tra­dic­tions and ide­o­log­i­cal inquiries that are real­ized in films such as High Noon (1952) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). The sig­nif­i­cance of the tele­vised West­ern should nei­ther be under­es­ti­mat­ed nor mis­un­der­stood in mov­ing the dis­cus­sion of the move­ment of the genre out of its pri­ma­ry role as a myth­i­cal stan­dard for Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma. It is not sim­ply that the tele­vised West­ern made movie­go­ers less like­ly to patron­ize their big-screen coun­ter­parts, but rather that this was a symp­tom of a much larg­er change in Amer­i­can life. The post­war years in Amer­i­ca ush­ered in unprece­dent­ed pros­per­i­ty to a grow­ing mid­dle class that began to diver­si­fy its leisure activ­i­ties in new domes­tic spaces that were often sit­u­at­ed far from city spaces. Tele­vised West­erns offered iconog­ra­phy and the­mat­ic con­sis­ten­cy in episod­ic nar­ra­tives that per­pet­u­at­ed the most tra­di­tion­al virtues of Amer­i­ca, from the cen­tral­i­ty of fam­i­ly life to the ulti­mate author­i­ty of the rule of law. Scale and spec­ta­cle were the way for­ward for Hol­ly­wood West­erns, as the star sys­tem promised type­cast cow­boys and the films became increas­ing­ly con­cerned with con­firm­ing their origins.

Figure 3: Shane-title card

Fig­ure 3: Shane-title card

As with most Hol­ly­wood fea­ture films, the open­ing sequence sug­gests a the­sis not only about the ide­olo­gies the nar­ra­tive puts forth, but a spe­cif­ic sub­ject posi­tion as well. The open­ing shot of Shane (1953, fig­ure 3) offers a way to under­stand an impor­tant aes­thet­ic dis­tinc­tion from The Shoot­ing. The land­scape fea­tured in the open­ing shots of Shane is imme­di­ate­ly looked at by a char­ac­ter in the frame, played by Alan Ladd, who paus­es in rev­er­ence, invit­ing the audi­ence to fol­low suit. In con­trast, the shots that occur before the title card of The Shoot­ing fea­ture a medi­um close-up of the pro­file of a horse, who is shown look­ing straight ahead. It is notable that this posi­tion is sep­a­rate from the spec­ta­to­r­i­al posi­tion; this is the most sig­nif­i­cant point of com­par­i­son between two films as dis­parate as Shane and The Shoot­ing. Clas­si­cal Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma often insists on the audience’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the pro­tag­o­nists of the nar­ra­tive and does so by simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pre­sent­ing the look of the cam­era with that of the main char­ac­ters. Giv­en the incred­i­ble con­sis­ten­cy of this sub­ject posi­tion and its con­fla­tion with the posi­tion of the spec­ta­tor, the open­ing of Shane is an impor­tant exam­ple of how the West­ern can use the pic­turesque land­scape to sug­gest not only the pri­ma­cy of Alan Ladd’s gaze but the impli­ca­tion that the spectator’s look is aligned to and affirmed by the mise-en-scène. Of course, this struc­tur­ing of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is not exclu­sive to the West­ern, but the role of land­scape as an ide­o­log­i­cal sym­bol is one of its most gen­er­a­tive features.

What is pre­dic­tive about the open­ing of The Shoot­ing is the way in which it presents the ambi­gu­i­ty of land­scape as its cen­tral aes­thet­ic. The slight jump cuts used to depict Gashade mak­ing his return to the min­ing camp indi­cate a self-con­scious rela­tion­ship not only to spa­tial­i­ty but to tem­po­ral­i­ty as well. This reflex­ive approach bears the ear­ly influ­ence of the Euro­pean art cin­e­ma and traces of author­ship that most Hol­ly­wood stu­dio films would efface. Both Hellman’s nar­ra­tive and aes­thet­ic exper­i­men­ta­tion arrive at a tran­si­tion­al peri­od in the his­to­ry of Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma, when the indus­try under­went pro­found changes as a result of a num­ber of fac­tors, includ­ing the afore­men­tioned shifts in mass cul­ture and leisure activ­i­ties toward dri­ving and auto­mo­bil­i­ty as well as the import of for­eign films that were less inclined to appeal to gen­er­al audi­ences. The land­scapes in The Shoot­ing func­tion sim­i­lar­ly to the land­scapes of a cycle of road films in the 1970s, as a way of work­ing through the unfa­mil­iar­i­ty of what should be famil­iar. If the very notion of land­scape depends on cura­tion and com­po­si­tion, then an alter­na­tive does not have to call this prac­tice into ques­tion so much as it must deter­mine the ulti­mate func­tion of its aes­thet­ic. Many 1970s road films begin with this essen­tial ques­tion: what is there to make of the con­stant imper­fec­tion of an encoun­tered land­scape? From this, we get the terms of the wan­der­lust and deter­mined trav­el of films from Easy Rid­er (1969) to Bon­nie and Clyde (1967), Bad­lands (1973) to Two Lane Black­top (1971). Cen­tral to this ques­tion is the absence of the sta­tus quo, the desire to rebel against the hege­mo­ny that per­haps informed the vec­tors of var­i­ous roads. If we see the char­ac­ters in these films as desirous of a coher­ent sub­ject posi­tion vis-à-vis an inco­her­ent Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty then we would con­clude, as many crit­ics and schol­ars have done, to see them as fail­ures. We can leave this project to the roman­ti­cized New Hol­ly­wood Cin­e­ma, where the likes of Chi­na­town (1974) and Taxi Dri­ver (1976) quote the French New Wave and flaunt their auteur sta­tus in search of a new legit­i­ma­cy. If, how­ev­er, we locate the pri­or­i­ties of the road film in its rela­tion to the dif­fi­cult work of assert­ing an iden­ti­ty and pres­ence to rec­on­cile with his­to­ry, and rec­og­nize that this work hap­pens in the sig­nif­i­cance of land­scape, we can begin to under­stand how an empha­sis on the quo­tid­i­an, the tex­ture of every­day life, becomes a polit­i­cal choice. The Shoot­ing may not take up this project in its entire­ty, but it does imag­ine its pos­si­bil­i­ties. Its small-scale pro­duc­tion, out­side of the stu­dio pro­duc­tion, posi­tions it as a mar­gin­al­ized cul­tur­al object in the same way that the “B” West­ern formed sep­a­rate­ly from Hol­ly­wood Westerns.

If the Hol­ly­wood West­ern can be con­sid­ered a dom­i­nant genre in Amer­i­can cin­e­ma, then an argu­ment can be made that the road film rep­re­sents a minor tra­di­tion of this mode of film­mak­ing. In order to think through the polit­i­cal pur­chase of the road film, I adapt the term “minor” from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s work Kaf­ka: Toward a Minor Lit­er­a­ture. In their con­cep­tion, a “minor lit­er­a­ture” is a work that orig­i­nates from the mar­gins while using the lan­guage of the cen­tre. If we under­stand The Shoot­ing as a pro­to-road film and not mere­ly a sub­ver­sive or exis­ten­tial West­ern, we can acknowl­edge the sig­nif­i­cance of the ways in which it “stut­ters” (to use Deleuze’s term) (Bogue 21) the cen­tred ide­ol­o­gy of the West­ern. The film engen­ders a kind of amoral­i­ty that exists in the road film, for exam­ple, rather than the poten­tial for immoral­i­ty that exists in a West­ern. To dis­cuss a film such as The Shoot­ing pure­ly in terms of its deviance dimin­ish­es the polit­i­cal pres­ence of moral­i­ty, which is pre­cise­ly the mode in which the road film often oper­ates. The idea of the “stut­ter” sup­pos­es a mode of expres­sion that both escapes a dom­i­nant sys­tem and rei­fies its decom­po­si­tion; it is not that the West­ern is obso­lete, but that a new lan­guage can be dis­cerned in its decay. Deleuze and Guat­tari con­struct a way to use the impli­ca­tion of this the­o­ry to con­sid­er not only the dif­fer­ences between minor and major artis­tic prac­tices, but also to sug­gest that there is gen­uine sig­nif­i­cance in the speci­fici­ty of the minor prac­tice. They acknowl­edge the sub­or­di­nate rela­tion­ship of the minor to the major, insist­ing that the process of deploy­ing the con­structs of the major (rather than devel­op­ing a dis­tinct lan­guage) is the defin­ing trait of a minor literature.

Deleuze and Guat­tari out­line three char­ac­ter­is­tics of minor lit­er­a­ture, which are all rel­e­vant to the road film and its sta­tus both in rela­tion to the West­ern and to the con­struct of Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma as a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non. The first char­ac­ter­is­tic is con­cerned with the occa­sion for a minor lit­er­a­ture: for Deleuze and Guat­tari, this is moti­vat­ed by a desire to deter­ri­to­ri­al­ize lan­guage. Var­i­ous impos­si­bil­i­ties chal­lenge this ambi­tion: “the impos­si­bil­i­ty of not writ­ing, the impos­si­bil­i­ty of writ­ing (in an adapt­ed lan­guage), the impos­si­bil­i­ty of writ­ing oth­er­wise” (16). While The Shoot­ing is not a rev­o­lu­tion­ary film, nor one that thor­ough­ly address­es the ram­i­fi­ca­tions set forth by the minor lit­er­a­ture con­cept, there is a tan­gi­ble sense that Hellman’s film con­veys these sen­si­bil­i­ties. Giv­en its iconog­ra­phy and empha­sis on the Amer­i­can land­scape, the film sug­gests a West­ern; as such, it must sit­u­ate itself in a cer­tain con­scious­ness of the genre. Giv­en this aware­ness, it is impos­si­ble in this con­text not to acknowl­edge the col­lec­tive per­cep­tion of the West­ern, despite (or per­haps espe­cial­ly because of) the skep­ti­cism towards the genre as it has been expressed both in Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma and in the psy­cho­log­i­cal West­ern. Dis­tinct from the “A” West­ern, the psy­cho­log­i­cal West­ern is dis­tin­guished by its fatal­is­tic, obses­sive sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and its alien­at­ed pro­tag­o­nists. Where these films are often marked by their dis­il­lu­sion with the dom­i­nant norms and ethics as dic­tat­ed by Hol­ly­wood ide­ol­o­gy, the road film bears some traces of this sen­si­bil­i­ty. The pri­ma­ry ten­sion in the cycle of Amer­i­can road films made between 1969 and 1974 is one of leg­i­bil­i­ty: how to express the desire for an alter­na­tive polit­i­cal posi­tion using lan­guage that exists large­ly to per­pet­u­ate rather than create—thus, this desire is impos­si­ble to artic­u­late. This “stut­ter” occurs in the con­clu­sion of The Shoot­ing. As the char­ac­ters race toward a vague­ly defined fig­ure in the steep ter­rain, the sound of gun­shots echoes over a step-print­ed series of shots. For this brief peri­od, spa­tial­i­ty express­es tem­po­ral­i­ty and con­veys the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the event. These dis­ori­ent­ing cin­e­mat­ic tech­niques imag­ine a spec­ta­to­r­i­al expe­ri­ence in which affect is central.

The sec­ond char­ac­ter­is­tic of a minor lit­er­a­ture con­cerns its posi­tion with­in the dis­posi­tif of Amer­i­can soci­ety and cul­ture. Deleuze and Guat­tari describe minor lit­er­a­ture occu­py­ing a “cramped space” as opposed to the expanse of a “social milieu serv­ing as a mere envi­ron­ment or a back­ground” (17). Indi­vid­ual con­cerns are always the con­cerns of soci­ety at large in major lit­er­a­ture; the sub­ju­ga­tion of the per­son­al to the col­lec­tive is one of the pri­ma­ry ways in which Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma presents rep­e­ti­tion as dif­fer­ence. The cog­ni­tive focus of clas­si­cal cin­e­ma turns on a sys­temic series of rev­e­la­tions of any num­ber of coher­ent, deno­ta­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties. Polit­i­cal­ly, these pos­si­bil­i­ties enhance the illu­sion of indi­vid­ual choice, sug­gest­ing that what char­ac­ters want at the con­clu­sion of a Hol­ly­wood film is ulti­mate­ly what will ben­e­fit soci­ety at large: mar­riage, bring­ing a crim­i­nal to jus­tice, the return to a mutu­al­ly agree­able equi­lib­ri­um, etc. The sense of polit­i­cal scale in a minor cin­e­ma is fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent, pre­sent­ing the “cramped space” of indi­vid­ual con­flict as the inte­gral issue. In The Shoot­ing, the Woman’s desire for revenge is sin­gu­lar and per­son­al. The con­flict between this char­ac­ter and Gashade can­not be under­stood as a sym­bol­ic clash between vig­i­lante jus­tice and the rule of law, where both could be sat­is­fied with the same out­come. Gashade’s oppo­si­tion is per­son­al, not polit­i­cal; it is his broth­er who is being pur­sued, and the fact of guilt or inno­cence is irrel­e­vant. The Woman wants ret­ri­bu­tion not to uphold the rule of law, but to sat­is­fy her own desire for vengeance. Although Will is clear­ly fas­ci­nat­ed with her, she has no roman­tic or phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to any of the char­ac­ters; she does not seek their approval or make any attempts to domes­ti­cate their envi­ron­ment. By the con­clu­sion of the film even the expan­sive beau­ty of the Amer­i­can land­scape seems to be in inar­tic­u­late oppo­si­tion to the inhab­i­tants depict­ed onscreen, nei­ther ide­al vista nor admired wilder­ness. In minor cin­e­ma the per­son­al is polit­i­cal, to bor­row an inte­gral phrase coined in the wake of var­i­ous social move­ments of the late 1960s. The char­ac­ters in The Shoot­ing are not the arche­types often observed in the West­ern, but rather indi­vid­u­als whose con­nec­tion to the polit­i­cal is not nec­es­sar­i­ly pred­i­cat­ed on the norms of Amer­i­can soci­ety. From Gashade to Bil­ly Spear, the Woman to Will, the iso­lat­ed char­ac­ters have lit­tle rela­tion to social and sys­temic issues; if the film had aspi­ra­tions to a major cin­e­ma, each might have a trait or moti­va­tion that func­tioned to rein­force or rep­re­sent a sig­nif­i­cant aspect of the dis­posi­tif. This char­ac­ter­is­tic of minor cin­e­ma is often attrib­uted to a gen­er­al malaise or sense of alien­ation that is one of the defin­ing traits of 1970s Amer­i­can cin­e­ma. The idea that con­flict or char­ac­ter moti­va­tion as expe­ri­enced by an indi­vid­ual char­ac­ter is symp­to­matic of a pathos of fail­ure, as Thomas Elsaess­er claims, is an exam­ple of the neces­si­ty of under­stand­ing inde­pen­dent Amer­i­can cin­e­ma in polit­i­cal terms. The assump­tion that the char­ac­ters rep­re­sent excep­tions to the norms of mass cul­ture also assumes that the polit­i­cal posi­tion of these films to dom­i­nant cul­ture is the same as films made with­in this dis­posi­tif, which lim­its the ways that we can under­stand the polit­i­cal terms of inde­pen­dent Amer­i­can cin­e­ma. Deleuze and Guat­tari quote Kaf­ka in their descrip­tion of this sec­ond char­ac­ter­is­tic of minor lit­er­a­ture: “what is there (in a major lit­er­a­ture) a pass­ing inter­est for a few, here absorbs every­one no less than as a mat­ter of life and death” (Deleuze 17).

The third char­ac­ter­is­tic of minor literature—or cinema—is bound up with ear­li­er dis­cus­sions of the sig­nif­i­cance of ver­nac­u­lar and its rela­tion­ship to the West­ern. The West­ern bifur­cates along indus­tri­al lines, between the event-ori­ent­ed “A” West­ern and the ver­nac­u­lar “B” West­ern. The lat­ter demon­strates a dis­tinct rela­tion­ship with con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar cul­ture that attempts to account for its shift­ing func­tion in Amer­i­can soci­ety, while the Hol­ly­wood West­ern con­tin­ued in its invo­ca­tion of cer­tain gener­ic tropes. The term ver­nac­u­lar sug­gests not only com­mon usage but a par­tic­u­lar deploy­ment in terms of con­tem­po­rary pop­u­lar cul­ture, which is hard­ly sta­t­ic. Giv­en its small­er scale and greater acces­si­bil­i­ty, being shown on tele­vi­sion or as part of a dou­ble fea­ture, the “B” West­ern is in a far greater posi­tion to func­tion col­lec­tive­ly. Deleuze and Guat­tari assert that “because col­lec­tive or nation­al con­scious­ness is often inac­tive in exter­nal life…literature finds itself pos­i­tive­ly charged with the role and func­tion of col­lec­tive, and even rev­o­lu­tion­ary enun­ci­a­tion” (17). The notion of col­lec­tive expres­sion seems in con­tra­dic­tion to the pre­vi­ous tenet of a minor lit­er­a­ture, which places indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tives at the cen­tre of a minor work. It is pre­cise­ly these indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tives, how­ev­er, that emerge as a kind of col­lec­tive voice by virtue of their mass acces­si­bil­i­ty and giv­en the ways in which these nar­ra­tives engage with ‘the people’s con­cern’ (Deleuze 18) rather than a ‘lit­er­a­ture of mas­ters’ (Deleuze 17) . It is no coin­ci­dence that Monte Hellman’s work has ben­e­fit­ted from the enthu­si­asm for auteur the­o­ry, hav­ing arrived at a moment in the his­to­ry of film crit­i­cism that cham­pi­oned the direc­tor as the ulti­mate archi­tect of a film. The auteur the­o­ry is a con­se­quence of a tra­di­tion of spec­ta­tor­ship that finds mean­ing in the excess of cin­e­mat­ic expres­sion; it priv­i­leges the oeu­vre of a film direc­tor over an indi­vid­ual film. In this sense, Hell­man can be described as a kind of mas­ter, giv­en the way in which his work has main­tained its sig­nif­i­cance in no small part through an effort to under­stand his aes­thet­ic con­cerns as they man­i­fest in sev­er­al films. Hellman’s part­ner­ship with Roger Cor­man, one of the most influ­en­tial inde­pen­dent film pro­duc­ers in Amer­i­can cin­e­ma, is key to under­stand­ing the col­lab­o­ra­tive spir­it at the core of The Shoot­ing. The bal­ance between the author­i­ty of the direc­tor, the indus­tri­al ethos of the pro­duc­er, and the ded­i­ca­tion of the cast and crew on these films antic­i­pates the com­plex rela­tion­ship minor films have with spec­ta­tors and the chang­ing audi­ences of the era.

A sin­gu­lar nar­ra­tive can engage with every­day life pre­cise­ly because it places the indi­vid­ual voice at the cen­ter of its expres­sion. Spec­ta­tors can inner­vate their expe­ri­ences with cin­e­mat­ic nar­ra­tives that are more con­cerned with the rela­tion­ship of the indi­vid­ual to a col­lec­tive than with a per­pet­u­a­tion of the sta­tus quo. Thus, our under­stand­ing of The Shoot­ing has less to do with its posi­tion to oth­er West­erns than to what it has inher­it­ed from the genre. The ways in which we might make sense of the nar­ra­tive cor­re­sponds to our rela­tion to the pub­lic sphere rather than the inverse. It is the col­lec­tive under­stand­ing of an indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tive that dri­ves a minor cinema—the road film genre is the prod­uct of this mode of Amer­i­can cin­e­ma. The focus of a minor cin­e­ma is not the known quan­ti­ty of dis­posi­tif but rather the poten­tial of a col­lec­tive that is focused on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of counter-terms of engage­ment. We can under­stand the minor cin­e­ma of the road film as a fur­ther deter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion of the psy­cho­log­i­cal Western’s inter­pre­ta­tion of its dom­i­nant genre. Both gen­res use the lan­guage of the West­ern specif­i­cal­ly (and Hol­ly­wood cin­e­ma more gen­er­al­ly), but their approach­es are dis­tinc­tive. The psy­cho­log­i­cal West­ern often works in a sym­bol­ic reg­is­ter, pre­sent­ing space and land­scape as an expres­sion of the lim­its of the cin­e­mat­ic lan­guage in use. In con­trast, the road film fore­grounds the pover­ty of this lan­guage, abstract­ing the use of space and land­scape, inter­pret­ing nar­ra­tives of trav­el and civil­i­ty in terms that engage both the lim­its of major lan­guage and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of viable alternatives.

By empha­siz­ing both the vast­ness of the land­scape and the diver­si­ty of its fea­tures, The Shoot­ing uses the hap­tic to quite lit­er­al­ly ground its real­ism in the affect of the ter­rain. Gashade’s hands trawl­ing through the dirt in a piv­otal moment: the earthy depic­tion of the Woman’s dis­gust at the accu­mu­la­tion of dust and dirt on her face and the trail of dirt from Coley’s horse as he rides in pur­suit of the hired gun­man who will ulti­mate­ly mur­der him (fig­ure 4). These images con­tribute to the real­ism of the world by the nature of their bod­i­ly inter­ac­tion with the land­scape. This fore­ground­ing of bod­i­ly engage­ment with the nat­ur­al fea­tures of the land­scape is less about the man­i­fes­ta­tion of ide­o­log­i­cal ten­sion and the inter­nal sta­tus of the pro­tag­o­nist than it is an empha­sis of an immer­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of space.

Figure 4: The Shooting-Gashade’s hands

Fig­ure 4: The Shooting-Gashade’s hands

Whether the Hol­ly­wood West­ern uses land­scape as nos­tal­gia or alle­go­ry or both, it still insists on the aurat­ic dis­tance between its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Amer­i­ca and the expe­ri­ence of the space by var­i­ous char­ac­ters. The Shoot­ing chal­lenges this hier­ar­chy of per­cep­tion where the spec­ta­tor is rarely priv­i­leged in two dis­tinct ways: by empha­siz­ing the landscape’s poten­tial to antag­o­nize sen­tient life regard­less of mas­tery or nat­ur­al pre­dis­po­si­tion, and by refus­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the pic­to­r­i­al use of land­scape that is an inte­gral point of depar­ture for the West­ern. Because the land­scape itself is pre­sent­ed as the defin­ing con­flict of the film, these two chal­lenges to the genre negate the cen­tral­i­ty of the law in the West­ern and indi­cate, most impor­tant­ly, that it shares more with the road film than the West­ern. If we under­stand The Shoot­ing as part of a par­tic­u­lar cycle of West­erns that were made and exhib­it­ed dur­ing the 1960s, then the idea of the exis­ten­tial West­ern and its asso­ci­a­tion to the film is sup­port­ed by its rela­tion­ship to the West­ern and its artic­u­la­tion of the fea­tures of the genre. That is, the pres­ence of hors­es, a revenge plot, and the vast expans­es of windswept ter­rain are evi­dence that The Shoot­ing is a West­ern. Yet its posi­tion with respect to law­less­ness, for exam­ple, is not dis­cernible because of its basic uncon­cern with a spe­cif­ic and dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy. Its rela­tion­ship to civ­il soci­ety, whether reluc­tant accep­tance, deep yearn­ing, or a kind of oscil­la­tion between the two, is also sec­ondary. If the West­ern is indeed a cycli­cal genre, if it con­sists not of mem­bers but rather iter­a­tions, the genre is com­pli­cat­ed beyond recog­ni­tion by The Shoot­ing. Even if the West­ern is refined by films that share com­mon fea­tures, it is also dis­tin­guished by the nega­tion and sub­se­quent sub­sti­tu­tion of these same fea­tures in anoth­er genre. Thus, The Shoot­ing may inher­it the desire for ret­ri­bu­tion from the Western’s obses­sion with jus­tice, but it negates the neces­si­ty of law and order with its artic­u­la­tion of indif­fer­ence, which is made man­i­fest both in the jour­ney of the char­ac­ters and the numer­ous shots of humans and hors­es with­er­ing in the unyield­ing environment.

Figure 5: The Shooting-walking across desolate terrain

Fig­ure 5: The Shoot­ing-walk­ing across des­o­late terrain

A com­po­si­tion that occurs late in the film has the last sur­viv­ing hors­es and humans trudg­ing towards a con­clu­sion that is nei­ther pre­dictable nor nec­es­sary (fig­ure 5). Instead, the jour­ney itself is of cru­cial impor­tance; hav­ing lost their way metaphor­i­cal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly, the only option is to strug­gle against iner­tia. This descrip­tion applies to The Shoot­ing and the road film in equal mea­sure. David Lader­man char­ac­ter­izes the road film of the late 1960s and ear­ly 1970s as “focus­ing on exis­ten­tial loss more than social cri­tique. In this more exis­ten­tial focus, the genre’s core con­flict with con­formist soci­ety has been inter­nal­ized” (83). Through­out his dis­cus­sion of the exis­ten­tial road film Lader­man con­flates inter­nal­iza­tion with polit­i­cal apa­thy as if a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with sub­ject posi­tion pre­cludes oth­er socio-polit­i­cal issues. The West­ern often has a sim­i­lar kind of anx­i­ety about the rela­tion­ship between self and soci­ety. While the boun­ty hunter or the venge­ful gun­slinger are deter­mined to assert their iden­ti­ty in rela­tion to soci­ety, they are still bound by social rules and rarely act in oppo­si­tion to the ide­ol­o­gy informed by these rules. The ten­sion between indi­vid­u­al­ism and assim­i­la­tion is often fig­ured by the protagonist’s posi­tion to domes­tic­i­ty (sym­bol­ized by a female char­ac­ter) and resolved in terms of an acqui­es­cence to the rule of law and soci­ety. The pres­ence of soci­ety and its bear­ing on the char­ac­ters in The Shoot­ing is dif­fi­cult if not impos­si­ble to dis­cern; the film is not con­cerned with law and soci­ety, but rather to the pri­ma­cy of the sub­ject and its expe­ri­ence of space. Thus, we can allow that the per­for­mance of self that is essen­tial to the West­ern is per­haps inter­nal­ized while mak­ing an impor­tant obser­va­tion about the road film. Both gen­res can per­haps be said to have a con­flict with what Lader­man calls “con­formist soci­ety,” but it is the sit­u­at­ing of this con­formist soci­ety that The Shoot­ing rep­re­sents in its land­scapes. Invit­ing a look but unable to accom­mo­date spe­cif­ic inter­ven­tion, the pic­to­r­i­al land­scape is the province of the West­ern. The tex­tured land­scape is essen­tial to the road film pre­cise­ly because it encour­ages spe­cif­ic inter­ven­tion. The terms of this inter­ven­tion are shaped by the hap­tic rela­tion­ship to the envi­ron­ment as expe­ri­enced not only by the char­ac­ters in a film like The Shoot­ing but as per­ceived by the spec­ta­tor as trace, as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage with the land­scape image in terms of expe­ri­ence rather than invo­ca­tion. In the mise-en-scène in fig­ure 5, the char­ac­ters and hors­es cross a rugged, sandy expanse at the foot of a large rock for­ma­tion, mov­ing toward an unknown des­ti­na­tion. Their only path is made by their own expe­ri­ence, by their move­ment through the space--a trench of sand cuts through the low­er half of the mise-en-scène, sug­gest­ing a road not tak­en. Trav­el is insis­tent­ly con­tin­gent in road films, the sub­sti­tu­tion for the sta­t­ic pres­ence of law and soci­ety in the West­ern, and thus the two gen­res have fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal func­tions. The cul­tur­al cri­tique of the road film is bound up with the asser­tion that the expe­ri­ence of one’s own move­ment through space is akin to an Amer­i­can ide­al, where the West­ern fea­tures iter­a­tions of move­ment toward the same des­ti­na­tion, the per­pet­u­a­tion of a sta­t­ic Amer­i­can ide­al. Exam­in­ing Wim Wen­ders’ Kings of the Road (1976), Deleuze and Guat­tari describe the rela­tion­ship between two types of voy­ages: “voy­age in place” (phys­i­cal) and interior/subjective voy­age (men­tal) are not dis­tin­guished by quan­tifi­able dis­tance or motion, nor by virtue of a spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive process, but instead by “the mode of spa­tial­i­sa­tion” (532). While the road film can accom­mo­date either of these modes, the descrip­tion of spa­tial­i­ty as a mode is use­ful in under­stand­ing the par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance of land­scape for the road film.

Stan­ley Cavell’s the­o­ry of genre offers a pro­duc­tive way to account for the polit­i­cal dis­crep­an­cy between sub­ver­sive Hol­ly­wood films and ones that posi­tion them­selves alter­na­tive­ly. The com­mon inher­i­tance of mythol­o­gy cen­tral to Cavell’s under­stand­ing of genre-as-medi­um turns on the idea that this shared mythol­o­gy per­mits inter­pre­ta­tion of a myth. The dis­tinc­tion is that genre-as-cycle invokes the myth with­out inter­ro­ga­tion, where­as the notion of genre-as-medi­um relies on a shared inter­pre­ta­tion of a myth. This inter­pre­ta­tion adapts Cavell’s claim that “a per­for­mance of a piece of music is an inter­pre­ta­tion of it” (Poague 33). Like jazz, a musi­cal genre that often impro­vis­es rec­og­niz­able struc­tures, the psy­cho­log­i­cal West­erns offer this pos­si­bil­i­ty through sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and the pre­sen­ta­tion of land­scape as a sym­bol of this sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. The Shoot­ing is an exem­plary film that offers an inter­pre­ta­tion of the Western’s mythol­o­gy in the same way that jazz departs from tra­di­tion­al arrange­ments of pop­u­lar songs. A key com­po­nent of the tra­di­tion­al arrange­ment of land­scape in the myth­ic West­ern is the rela­tion­ship between Amer­i­cans and their land­scape; con­flict is fig­ured in the ten­sion between the awe of nat­ur­al space and the neces­si­ty of its sub­ju­ga­tion so that civ­i­liza­tion can flour­ish. The Shoot­ing inter­prets this con­flict as one that does not require the rule of law (a con­di­tion for a civ­il soci­ety), and instead offers a dialec­tic between man’s insa­tiable desire for dom­i­na­tion and the indif­fer­ence of nature or the near-hos­til­i­ty of the land­scape. This sub­sti­tu­tion moves the film away from the West­ern genre towards the road film, which is obsessed with the threat of ennui rather than the promise of domesticity.

In Octo­ber of 1971, a mil­lion cars were sold in the Unit­ed States. Auto­mo­bil­i­ty was an inte­gral part of life in Amer­i­ca, yet the same kind of pes­simism that informed pop­u­lar cul­ture in the wake of the Viet­nam war seemed to threat­en the role of cars and high­ways in the con­tem­po­rary milieu. The trau­mat­ic effect of the Viet­nam War on the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness arguably found its way into many films in the New Hol­ly­wood canon. Chris­t­ian Keathley’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a cycle of films between 1970 and 1976 as a nego­ti­a­tion of “pow­er­less­ness in the face of a world whose sys­tems of orga­ni­za­tion (both moral and polit­i­cal) have bro­ken down” (293) empha­sizes the war as a cat­a­lyst for this cri­sis. Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), men­tioned in Keathley’s essay, explic­it­ly com­ments on the sta­tus of auto­mo­bil­i­ty, land­scape, and trau­ma in one extra­or­di­nary sequence. Five Easy Pieces is one of any num­ber of inde­pen­dent­ly pro­duced films from the era that attempts to rep­re­sent var­i­ous mytholo­gies at stake in an Amer­i­ca in which choice is rep­re­sent­ed as inef­fec­tu­al. Crit­i­cal work in response to Rafelson’s film con­sid­ers the his­tor­i­cal moment of its release and the var­i­ous ways in which the pro­tag­o­nist presents a spe­cif­ic cri­sis of mas­culin­i­ty in response to the afore­men­tioned polit­i­cal crises occur­ring in var­i­ous capac­i­ties worldwide.

Film­mak­er Hen­ry Jaglom notes of his work with inde­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny BBS in the ear­ly 1970s, “We want­ed to have film reflect on our lives, the anx­i­ety that was going on as a result of the war, the cul­tur­al changes that we were all prod­ucts of” (qtd. in Biskind 77). The aes­thet­ic response to var­i­ous con­tem­po­rary anx­i­eties in the cin­e­matog­ra­phy of Five Easy Pieces is clear­ly man­i­fest in a 15-minute sequence that occurs mid­way through the film. Bob­by Dupea, the drift­ing pro­tag­o­nist of the film, trav­els with his girl­friend Rayette towards his family’s home in the Pacif­ic North­west. Dur­ing the trip they encounter two women fix­ing a car on the side of the road and pick them up as hitch­hik­ers. Ter­ry, the more talk­a­tive of the hitch­hik­ers is por­trayed by Toni Basil, a chore­o­g­ra­ph­er and vet­er­an of avant-garde direc­tor Bruce Connor’s exper­i­men­tal dance film BREAKAWAY (1966). The cam­era shows the four inhab­i­tants of the car from the front of the vehi­cle look­ing through the wind­shield. Bob­by makes small talk with the two women; Ter­ry notes that she is bound for Alas­ka. When he inquires fur­ther about her des­ti­na­tion, her trav­el­ing com­pan­ion replies that Ter­ry wants to live there because “it’s clean­er.” Bobby’s incred­u­lous response (“Clean­er than what?”) is the cat­a­lyst for the edit­ing and plot of the rest of the sequence. The film posits an answer to the rhetor­i­cal ques­tion: the “what” is indica­tive of the sta­tus of Amer­i­can auto­mo­bil­i­ty and land­scape in the ear­ly 1970s—road trav­el has affect­ed the envi­ron­ment to the extent that under­stand­ing the con­ti­nu­ity of these changes is not only impos­si­ble but of lit­tle import. The res­ig­na­tion to a land­scape that is pop­u­lat­ed by infra­struc­ture cre­at­ed for tran­sit fuels both Terry’s active rejec­tion and Bobby’s wan­der­lust, an embod­i­ment of the tran­si­to­ry nature of the landscape.

Dis­con­ti­nu­ity, chance, and incoherence—all devices of frag­men­ta­tion and modernity—are pre­sent­ed in the cri­sis of rep­re­sent­ing the Amer­i­can land­scape in Five Easy Pieces. The sequence is punc­tu­at­ed by edits that estab­lish and empha­size the dis­con­ti­nu­ity of events involv­ing the four char­ac­ters dur­ing their trav­els togeth­er. Terry’s rant about “crap” is not edit­ed in the kind of active, causal chain typ­i­cal of Hol­ly­wood films, but rather it is edit­ed by affect, the emo­tion of the speak­er and the dynam­ic with­in the vehi­cle. Ter­ry states, “Pret­ty soon there won’t be any room for man”; the mise-en-scène point­ed­ly shows a bar­rage of road signs and motel bill­boards. At var­i­ous points in the sequence, each inhab­i­tant of the car is shown in their own frame, per­form­ing an action that por­trays their soli­tude and the tedi­um of the journey—Terry smokes a cig­a­rette, Rayette styles her hair in a mir­ror. Five Easy Pieces fur­ther advances the notion of auto­mo­bil­i­ty as anx­i­ety and oblig­a­tion that is cen­tral to this iter­a­tion of the road film, as if com­pen­sat­ing for the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of road trav­el as free­dom that is absent from the genre in the wake of cul­tur­al, indus­tri­al, and aes­thet­ic changes. The inef­fec­tu­al­i­ty of many pro­tag­o­nists and the the­mat­ic nar­ra­tives of alien­ation are, in the par­tic­u­lar instance of the road film, bound up with the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of land­scape. In road films before this “land­scape” cycle, the ambi­tion to trav­el and the free­dom of mobil­i­ty was often rep­re­sent­ed in terms of scale, for exam­ple, show­ing a lone car speed­ing down a seem­ing­ly unend­ing road, or by the dis­con­ti­nu­ity of phys­i­cal fea­tures of the land: vast deserts, mas­sive rock for­ma­tions, jagged moun­tains. The vague polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al sense that Amer­i­ca should have done bet­ter, how­ev­er, is not an inher­ent fea­ture of land­scape, and it is worth not­ing that the ide­olo­gies inferred by these pre­vi­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tions are not prob­lema­tized by nar­ra­tive or the act of trav­el­ling through the past, but rather inter­ro­gat­ed in terms of the rela­tion­ship between the road and its surroundings.

In oth­er words, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of land­scape nec­es­sar­i­ly changed because of a fig­u­ra­tive shift in the polit­i­cal real­i­ties of life in Amer­i­ca, and it changed mate­ri­al­ly because roads them­selves began to pro­lif­er­ate inde­pen­dent­ly of their sur­round­ings, even­tu­al­ly affect­ing the envi­ron­ment. John Jerome’s The Death of the Auto­mo­bile (1972), one of a num­ber of books pub­lished in the ear­ly 1970s express­ing con­cern with the dom­i­nance of auto­mo­tive trav­el in Amer­i­ca lament­ed that “We stopped build­ing roads to places. We began build­ing roads for auto­mo­biles” (qtd in Lewis and Gold­stein 398). Bob Rafel­son acknowl­edges this resis­tance to vehic­u­lar­i­ty and its effects on the envi­ron­ment in the road trav­el sequences of Five Easy Pieces even as he notes in the director’s com­men­tary for the film that “eco­log­i­cal writ­ing (wasn’t) very fash­ion­able at that point.” Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), an imme­di­ate best­seller, was instru­men­tal in new auto­mo­bile safe­ty laws. Sev­er­al books such as God’s Own Junk­yard (1964) to The Death of the Auto­mo­bile (1972) express a gen­er­al con­cern with the size, speed, and avail­abil­i­ty of cars, rec­og­niz­ing a piv­otal moment in the his­to­ry of the auto­mo­bile in America.

The car-rant sequence in Five Easy Pieces, defined by its excess to the larg­er con­cerns of the film, is remark­able because it endeav­ors to look out­ward in an era that large­ly did the oppo­site. The land­scape becomes a con­se­quence of increased road travel—a sym­bol of an Amer­i­ca that is explic­it­ly defined by cap­i­tal­ist oppor­tu­ni­ty rather than the poten­tial for set­tle­ment, as depict­ed in the West­ern. Ter­ry makes a dis­tinc­tion between dirt and filth, the for­mer being a nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non and the lat­ter a con­se­quence of the encroach­ment of civ­i­liza­tion. Because the kind of look­ing solicit­ed by land­scape is a com­bi­na­tion of expe­ri­ence (col­lec­tive and indi­vid­ual) and dis­course, its deploy­ment in the road trip of Five Easy Pieces, a post-trau­mat­ic film of the 1970s, is inevitably changed by a revi­sion­ist spir­it that is in turn affect­ed by the pri­or­i­ti­za­tion of real­ism in Amer­i­can cin­e­ma in that his­tor­i­cal moment. Land­scape is not threat­ened in these films, giv­en its sta­tus as a for­ma­tion that responds to a need to define and see Amer­i­ca and per­haps despite the desire to rein­ter­pret the implied mythol­o­gy of the land. Cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Lázló Kovacs observed that in Five Easy Pieces Rafel­son “nev­er moved the cam­era on an exte­ri­or (shot),” (Schae­fer and Sal­va­to, 190) pre­fer­ring to use mon­tage to sug­gest move­ment. Regard­less of the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of the expe­ri­ence of land­scape, the desire to por­tray the road as a stead­fast sys­tem of orga­ni­za­tion in the midst of tran­si­to­ry pol­i­tics and shift­ing aes­thet­ics remained. The com­po­si­tion of the land­scape in the road film is anchored by the sys­tem of roads; it is not nos­tal­gia for a dis­ap­peared expe­ri­ence of mobil­i­ty but rather exp­re­ses a wist­ful desire for order.

The estab­lish­ing shot of the enig­mat­ic final sequence of Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Black­top (1971) pro­vides a com­po­si­tion that his ear­li­er film, The Shoot­ing, pre­dicts (fig­ure 6). A low cam­era angle looks out onto a sprawl­ing run­way; the black streaks along the asphalt sug­gest not only pri­or move­ment but also veloc­i­ty. The white divid­ing line splits the mise-en-scène pre­cise­ly, depict­ing the moment of pos­si­bil­i­ty in a space that is defined by such moments. In the same way that The Shoot­ing invites the spec­ta­tor to engage with the tex­ture of soil and dirt, this shot fos­ters a desire to push for­ward, to con­tin­ue that most cin­e­mat­ic imperative—to move. The 1970s road film is per­pet­u­al and ori­ent­ed towards the future. It is not con­cerned with the uncer­tain­ty of “pos­si­ble com­mu­ni­ty,” but instead encour­aged by var­i­ous poten­tials of “col­lec­tive assem­blages of enun­ci­a­tion” (88). This ten­den­cy is often inter­twined with crim­i­nal­i­ty or at least an active resis­tance to soci­etal norms in a vari­ety of road films from the Viet­nam era. Con­ven­tion­al read­ings of films such as Bon­nie and Clyde (1967) insist that “polit­i­cal frus­tra­tion and dis­il­lu­sion­ment get inter­nal­ized by char­ac­ters (and) dra­ma­tized as indi­vid­ual psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tion­al con­flicts” (Lader­man 86) with­out con­sid­er­ing the way in which the film is about the strug­gle to cre­ate rather than com­mu­ni­cate. Under­stand­ing the aes­thet­ic of the road film as a genre that fore­grounds the land­scape is inte­gral to under­stand­ing that the remark­able feat of films from Easy Rid­er to Bad­lands is not their dis­dain for the main­stream but their abil­i­ty to imag­ine an ide­ol­o­gy that has no inter­est in invok­ing this main­stream at all. The space of the road film is charged with this poten­tial, from the iconog­ra­phy of gas sta­tions to the scroll of pave­ment along a seem­ing­ly end­less road. These ver­nac­u­lar spaces, now in a land­scape that invites active par­tic­i­pa­tion rather than sta­t­ic rev­er­ence, have the poten­tial to rep­re­sent lived expe­ri­ence in ways that the col­lec­tive ide­olo­gies of Hol­ly­wood films, sep­a­rat­ed as they are from politi­cized dai­ly life, cannot.

Figure 6: Two Lane Blacktop-Establishing shot, final sequence

Fig­ure 6: Two Lane Black­top-Estab­lish­ing shot, final sequence


Fig­ure 1: Adver­tise­ment for 1963 Ford Galaxie

Fig­ure 2: The Shoot­ing-title card

Fig­ure 3: Shane-title card

Fig­ure 4: The Shoot­ing-Gashade’s hands

Fig­ure 5: The Shoot­ing-walk­ing across des­o­late terrain

Fig­ure 6: Two Lane Black­top-Estab­lish­ing shot, final sequence

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