Monday, September 5, 2011

Riding for the feeling: Road to Nowhere

Road to Nowhere begins with an unidentified man pushing a DVD-R—the words “Road to Nowhere” written on its face—into a laptop. “Velma was always my window into the story,” the man says, and as the disc begins to play, we see a woman—Velma?—seated on a bed, blow-drying her nails. The body of the laptop constitutes a “window” all its own, until the camera pushes in and the window falls away, and the woman on the bed is suddenly compelled to blow-dry her face, as though some arctic chill was overtaking her. The image of her doing this holds for a long while, virtually static, but oddly riveting—she’s preparing for something. Soon a man drives up to the woman’s house, and enters; soon we hear a shot; soon after that the woman departs. She drives the man’s car to a lake, where, in another initially serene moment, a Piper Cherokee falls from the sky and crashes into the water.

What’s going on? What sort of movie is this? Neither question is easily answered. Road to Nowhere, written by Steven Gaydos, is a movie about the making of a movie about a blog about a real crime, one involving suicide, murder and money, and whose facts remain elusive. It’s about a filmmaker (Tygh Runyan), teasingly named Mitchell Haven, entranced by an beautiful inexperienced actress (Shannyn Sossamon) who may or may not be connected to the woman she’s been contracted to play. (“I don’t act,” she tells him. “That’s perfect,” he replies.) Drenched in mystery, blurring demarkations between what’s rehearsed, what’s improvised, and what’s genuine, it’s about how illusion overtakes all attempts to capture the real, and contains enough stories-within-stories to make it more Paul Auster than any of Auster’s movies. In some ways it’s also a tribute to actress and photogrpaher Laurie BIrd, who gave such arresting, indelible, troubling performances in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974), who Hellman fell in love with, and who killed herself in 1979 at the age of 25. Road to Nowhere is Hellman’s first movie in over 20 years and, after a single, delightfully baffled viewing, I’m already willing to call it one of his best. It’s now available on DVD and blu-ray from Entertainment One.

Comparisons to Mulholland Drive are inevitable and useful too, given the movie industry milieu, the unresolved enigmas, and the implication that role-playing is both inherently dangerous and quite possibly a wayward route to revelation. But Road to Nowhere, shot in mostly in North Carolina, is more a chamber piece, and also less coy with regards to its knowingness about Hollywood and the spell cast over filmmakers by the work of those who came before them. There’s also a marvelous a cappella performance in a bar from Bonnie Pointer, and a subtextual running commentary about the allure of new digital technology and how it further complicates the ontologies of filmmaking. Road to Nowhere is, in short, very rich, smart, utterly puzzling, hypnotic, and easy on the eyes and ears. I can’t wait to see it again. I don’t know that I’ll be able to make any more sense of its plot afterwards.

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