Emancipations and roads on the screen: history of a rout

The horns of the Lancia Aurelia Rouge punctuated the initiation of a Jean-Louis Trintignant in Il Sorpaso in 1962. from the road a line of flight.

The road was there the excellent emblem of freedom, the element which allowed the characters to escape the grip of the circles to which the racist, capitalist and conservative society, deeply distributing spaces, had assigned them: the poor districts of Los Angeles, riddled with the police gaze in Easy rider, the land properties of Oklahoma in the adaptation made by John Ford of Grapes of Wrath. The road could also convey freedoms in many New Hollywood films of the 1960s. The trails metaphorically opened up an infinite number of possibilities, embodying a new “exportable American counter culture”. Thirty years later Thelma and Louise put an end to these endless perspectives in a mythical image. On the run after having murdered a rapist, the end of their journey inhibited the relentlessness of the police to make them justiciable and guilty. The last edit then presented us with a decisive boost, then the grand canyon, in a final leap towards light and death.

svg%3E - Emancipations and roads on the screen: history of a rout
Credit: Solaris Distribution

More recently on screen, the road strewn with obstacles and encounters is more of a marked, predictable and conquering route. In other words, the road is at the service of feel good movie, which ends less with the emancipation of beings within society than with the provisional satisfaction of the characters within a family home or a group of friends.

In the) Green Book, the alliance of a person of black color and of easy social background and a white proletarian, represents the harmony of two social classes, armed to face together the hostility of a ground secured by the services of the driver. The two characters are enslaved by two different criteria, one social and the other racial. We can think of the famous decolonial title “Black skin with a white mask”, saying all the ambiguity of post-colonial racist oppressions, but also of the way in which we can free ourselves from them. The path followed by the two characters through a racist South resembles that of a conquest, like the first American road movies which mimicked the appropriation and colonization of the West. The automobile embodies individual freedom par excellence since it empowers its passengers, despite the context of a violent and deeply segregated society. The limited space of the automobile thus makes it possible to smooth out the racial relations between the dominant and the dominated. All interactions are possible there, regardless of the functions of each. The road becomes an introductory space, a shifting zone of relations between whites and blacks.

svg%3E - Emancipations and roads on the screen: history of a rout
Credit: eOne Germany

For example, the learning relationships are reversed. The road is an opportunity for the laudable and refined black musician to imitate the gestural coarseness of his driver by making it his own, as when he throws with a graceful hand the bones of his chicken through the window, in the manner of a Gone Girl freed who angrily and majestically sheds her pink and childish feather. The road to Green Book is a time that the characters give to themselves, a time of temporary inversion of norms and sociability, in a space temporarily devoid of any relationship of domination other than that maintained between the musician and his employee. But the invisibilization of dominations continues outside the device of the car, so much so that the film definitively abandons any ambition to portray the deep inequalities between the two camps. However, the history of racial inequalities runs through that of the music of the 1960s, which the film had the ambition to tell through the tour of the black musician. Missed thing.

Green Book is therefore puzzling by its absence of trace of revolts against racial structures, yet so decisive in the preparation and realization of the musical tours of the time. The road movie only portrays the story of a banal encounter between two individuals from two opposing worlds, as if the departure was enough to free oneself from the social determinations of America in the 1960s. The road, in itself, is a means of resolving social and racial conflicts.

In the very recent Roads, if the car remains a bubble, an exceptional space, it only reinforces the threat of external danger, that of the side of the road (police arrest, sexual delinquency). Two migrants confide in it and abandon themselves there, but this horizontal and equitable relationship ceases as soon as the violence from outside resumes. The same goes for the cars used in the films of Jafar Panahi, where the camera very rarely ventures outwards. While Tehran Taxi is a closed-door attempt to capture a scathing and precise portrait of the Iranian capital without even having permission to film it, Three faces also presents the car as the place of all the nonsense of the regime. Without being able to sleep in the same room as women, the driver falls asleep at the wheel; without being able to enter an alley before having proved that he was local by honking three and a half times, the main character is forced to park his car on the side… The road is synonymous with absurdity.

svg%3E - Emancipations and roads on the screen: history of a rout
Credit: Jafar Panahi Film Production

There is therefore an infinite number of possibilities in the road movie, to celebrate freedom as well as to denounce absurdity, which often seems so little exploited. This last image bears witness to this. From the documentary film The Silence of Others, released in February 2019, it shows us a side aisle, invested by the grave of a former Spanish Republican. The roadside is the place of memory of the engagement, from which begins a quest for memories of the anti-Franco struggle across the country, from which the film begins.

svg%3E - Emancipations and roads on the screen: history of a rout
Credit: Semilla Verde Productions Ltd / Almudena Carracedo

Candide Bouakkaz

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